Sunday, November 23, 2008

Baz Luhrmann's Australia

Australia (Baz Luhrmann, Australia, 2008)
I’d like to preface my review of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia with some discussion of the film’s context. I’m generally not a fan of blockbuster films nor epics, and Australia is both. I’m quite selective about the media previews I attend, as time is usually an issue and, unlike a general cinema screening, you can’t select your session. There are a number of reasons that I went out of my way to see Australia.

Luhrmann has been particularly ambitious with Australia. While it’s not a genre of film that usually interests me, the project he has embarked upon has a significance beyond the film itself. Luhrmann is attempting a breakthrough film, something that hasn’t really been attempted. He’s taking on Hollywood on its own terms, playing their game, and attempting to win over both the local audience and ultimately an international audience.

Luhrmann wants Australians to change how they look at local films. People often roll their eyes when it comes to Australian films. I know, I often do it myself. He is unashamedly putting our culture (or a reimagining of it) before us and saying, “let’s be proud of our culture, of our way, of our stories… let’s change the perception that ‘Australian film’ means ‘boring’.” For this, I admire him.

The reimagining of our culture may be a total fantasy, but if the uniqueness of Australian culture is imbued/imbibed, in a way that we can feel good about ourselves, and have a good time, then that’s got to be a something good.

But wait, didn’t this film cost something like $130 million to make? No local film can recoup that kind of serious moolah; Luhrmann has clearly made this film for a global (or at least a US) audience, of which conquering the Australian market is just one step in a larger battle plan. The marketing of the film has been inspired by the Hollywood model. This film was being hyped before filming had even started some two years ago. Even the film’s title is an audacious emulation of American-style movie-marketing, which often proudly proclaims “America-this”, “New York-that” or just plain “Chicago”, “Philadelphia”, etc.

I’ve spoken personally to local directors, as well as questioned others at post-film Q&As. I have concluded that generally, foreign distributors are only interested in Australian films that enable them to market our films with just the type of clichés that Paul Hogan exploited with Crocodile Dundee, for example. I sense that Luhrmann is going for broke with Australia, crafting a film that is designed to appeal to as wide a global audience as possible, and perhaps through its desired success, lead a resurgence of interest in Australian films overseas. Much of the Australian film industry could reap the benefits if this strategy is successful. Again, I laud this attempt. For these reasons, I decided that Australia was a film I wanted to see, regardless of whether I like it or not. So, the verdict?

I like it, a lot. On most (but not all) accounts, Australia beats Hollywood at its own game. It uses over-the-top caricatures like those in Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom to excellent comedic effect, with Spielberg-like family adventure (think Indiana Jones) and blends in indigenous themes used in Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence and the magic and story-telling in Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes. All this with an aesthetic that also recalls epics like Gone With the Wind. The result is a great romp that both reinforces and reimagines Australian mythology.

The film looks absolutely fantastic, with excellent use of the widescreen to frame the landscape and the characters. I’m familiar with the area in which the film was shot, and I’ve often commented on how beautiful it is. For example, it’s great to see boab trees depicted, which are specific to the Kimberleys. The film is a joy to watch.

There is more CGI in use than one can detect. I’m not a big fan of CGI, but I didn’t feel it detracted from the film (like it did in say, Lord of the Rings, which relied on it way too heavily). It doesn't draw attention to itself and is used to support the film, as it should.

Some critics bemoan the clichés. Oh for fucksake, the whole film is one giant cliché and that's an intrinsic part of its appeal. This is fantasy, it's caricature, it's over the top, it's what people expect of a blockbuster. Others have commented on the use of the word “crikey” as if it’s a Steve Irwin rip-off. I find this petty nitpicking. Crikey is a term I grew up with; my mum used it all the time, and its use was much more common in previous times. I think Luhrmann is effectively tapping into that Banjo Patterson sort of Australian mythology, with a kind of cheeky wink at Irwin without resorting to Irwin’s buffoon-like use of the word.

When Nicole Kidman’s character is first introduced, it is with an over-acted performance that I initially cringed at. Kidman-haters will have a field day with this. However, when the same scene is replayed from a different perspective, it then seemed quite in context. From that point on, I had no problems with her acting at all, and am impressed with her ability to do comedy. By the way, that trailer that had Kidman doing that “whoosh” thing really didn’t do the film justice. I had no problems when that scene played out.

I generally don’t like Hugh Jackman as an actor, but he played the part of The Drover with gusto and was perfect for the role. My favourite characters are Nullah (Brandon Walters), the young aboriginal boy from whose perspective the film’s story is told, and King George (David Gulpilil), the boy’s grandfather who plays an almost guardian angel-type role for the boy. Their stories are the most moving and I love what Luhrmann has done with these characters.

There’s an extensive support cast that includes Jack Thompson (in one of his best roles in a long time), Tony Barry (as a dead-ringer for Chips Rafferty), David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Barry Otto, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Barrett, Bill Hunter, John Jarratt, among many others.
“Here I am, this blockbuster-sneering film-snob, getting caught up in the emotions of a highly contrived film. Luhrmann must be doing something right”
The film is unashamedly sentimental. You know where the film is going, you know you’re being manipulated, yet I still couldn’t help shedding a tear at all the right spots. Here I am, this blockbuster-sneering film-snob, getting caught up in the emotions of a highly contrived film. Luhrmann must be doing something right.

I only had four hours sleep last night and was a bit concerned whether I'd stay awake for the 165 minutes. The film captured my attention and I didn't nod off at all, though there was a flat spot mid-way. This was when the film reaches a kind of natural conclusion, the end of a chapter. Then the film’s main flaws kick in. It goes into epic-mode and, in doing so, loses the momentum and coherency of the first half. It also loses some of the comedic edge.

Luhrmann was reportedly working on the editing of the film right up to the night before the film’s premiere. I can guess the parts he was working on, and it didn’t seem as well put together as the first half. It’s probably too late for Australian audiences, but hopefully the studio will allow Luhrmann to tweak the film before it is released overseas. I didn’t find these flaws by any means fatal, but I’m sure it’s what some critics will focus on.

In conclusion, Luhrmann has crafted a film that demands a viewing, and it really needs to be seen on the big screen. It will appeal to a wide audience and I’m sure my 8-year old will enjoy it immensely. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of adventure, good old-fashioned story-telling. It’s contains some nice messages, without being preachy or ramming political correctness down our throats. It succeeds in being unashamedly entertaining, poking fun at Australian mythology while also reinforcing and reimagining it. I enjoyed the film much more than I expected. I’m sure it will do well here, and hopefully it will do well overseas.


streetsweeper said...

Nice review Paul. I like it.

I do grow tired of the assertion that Baz kept making all over the place about "editing until the night before the film ". It's fun, but I want to see the miracle machine that conforms, grades and mixes all the changes then prints them to 35mm neg etc etc etc.

Maybe he was using Sellotape?

Paul Martin said...

Thanks, Streetsweeper. Who knows what Baz got up to. If and when you see the film, you'll see what I mean about the editing, and I understand his concerns. I suppose the studio has its schedule; they want to get the film out there with sufficient time to do good business before the Boxing Day blockbusters are released. No time for editing.

Kamikaze Camel said...

I'm glad you wrote this review, Paul. The critics haven't been incredibly giving towards it, but I think "everyday people" will like it much more because they don't actually seem 400 movies a year and don't get to experience this sort of stuff much (if at all).

And I think if it were another director I'd find certain aspects of the movie bad, but knowing Luhrmann those things - particularly the opening passages, nigh on slapstick - make total sense. There's something in knowing that what's on screen is actually what he wanted.

eyeswiredopen said...

Refreshingly different perspective here Paul - too many of the US film reviewers echoed one another (if I read one more comment about Kidman's forehead...) and some of the Aussie reviews sounded slightly embarrassed and apologetic - neither one thing nor the other.

Paul Martin said...

Glenn, I agree. Baz is an entertainer and the film is a clear crowd-pleaser. I think word-of-mouth will have audiences flocking to it. They might be feeling a bit tentative right now, based on the reviews. I don't think it matters that Luhrmann did or didn't make it. It's a matter of whether it works or not. Most of it does, some of it doesn't. There's quite a few places that are potentially cringe-worthy, but somehow or other, he pulls it off.

Lynden, I think many of the Australian reviewers don't know what to make of it. They don't seem to understand Luhrmann's intent. For example, to criticise it for being clichéd is like going to The Passion of Joan of Arc and complaining about the lack of dialogue! David Stratton sounded very tentative and nervous about it, but then gave it 4 stars. His body language is more telling than the stars.

If I had to give it a star rating - and it's bloody hard to do, because some aspects are absolutely brilliant, and others fall flat - I can't quite give it 4. The second half loses too much of the initial magic (which might have lifted it to 4.5). Yet 3.5 doesn't seem to do it justice. I'd give it that, 3.5.

And yeah, I'm really sick of people focusing on stupid details like Kidman's forehead or even, Luhrmann's ego. If we ignored every film by an arrogant arsehole, we'd not have many films to watch.

poignantPoint said...

Perfect review dude.

I agree with everything you said, though what i most took out of it was that i felt the whole thing was pretty much based around the recognition, and resulting issues, of the stolen generations / reconciliation.

I was seriously pleasantly surprised by this movie, i really really enjoyed it, and i'm proud that it's going to be a representation of our country for the rest of the world to see. I thought it had a really obvious underlying feeling of real progression for Australian culture.

All things considered, i agree that it's a very solid 3.5, and i'll be happily recommending it to my circle of friends/family.

Paul Martin said...

PP, fair comment about the Stolen Generation. I think Luhrmann could have exercised a bit more subtlety with the delivery of a message. Of course, he's not known for subtlety, least of all in this film, but I don't think the film warranted a message as overt as this was.

Nonetheless, I thought it was one of many themes and didn't overpower the film. It was lucky for Luhrmann that Rudd delivered his apology in Parliament, as it added a little feel-good element at the end of the film. It certainly would have been a more contentious issue had The Weasel still been in office.

Kim said...

After two weeks it appears Australia is failing at the US Box Office.

Any thoughts as to why?

Paul Martin said...

Kim, box office is a perspective that holds little interest for me and I rarely analyse it. My favourite films often come and go very quickly, or don't get a release at all. There's a number of sites that speculate and discuss box office, that might give you a better answer.

FWIW, I have little interest in the Oscars and awards in general (though what wins at Cannes, Toronto, etc does).

If it's not doing well in the US, I suppose they're not interested in Australia (the country, not the film) per se. And the reviews have been mixed. I also suspect that they don't get the humour. But then, it seems a lot of Australian don't either.

Kim said...


It surprises me to see you write that "box office is a perspective that holds little interest for me" when you had stated in your initial post:

"Luhrmann has been particularly ambitious with Australia...the project he has embarked upon has a significance beyond the film itself. Luhrmann is attempting a breakthrough film, something that hasn’t really been attempted. He’s taking on Hollywood on its own terms, playing their game, and attempting to win over both the local audience and ultimately an international audience."

If he is taking Hollywood on its own terms and he fails then that failure is worthy of analysis for any other Aussie film maker who wants to go down that road. (I suspect we won't see anything like it again any time soon if ever.)

I agree with you that Americans are not interested in Australia (the country) and calling the movie by that name was a poor choice for the US market. Whether it works better for Asians and Europeans remains to be seen.

Paul Martin said...

Kim, box office receipts is not an element of cinema that I track. Maybe when Australia has run its course, we'll hear some figures that I might notice for a moment or so, but it's not something that captures my attention in any significant way. In fact, I rarely track how well any film has done. The only thing I notice in that regard, is how full a cinema is when I see a film.

In general, any press coverage is good coverage, but this adage doesn't hold true with cinema. Bad press can kill a film. I've seen this over and over again. The degree of venom against Luhrmann is certainly worthy of analysis, and I believe is a significant factor in the film achieving the success it might have otherwise.

FWIW (and in addition to box office, I also don't usually follow film rankings), it's interesting that Metacritic has Australia ranking around 53% from critics and 7.2/10 from others (the public). Rotten Tomatoes' figures are similar: critics 5.8/10, readers 7.1/10. The reviews have kept audiences away, but those who have gone to see it have obviously liked it.

I don't know if the title has had much of an impact on the film's reception. I don't have a problem with it myself, but others have questioned the wisdeom. I think Baz was being audacious, and good on him. I think the name encapsulates part of what he was trying to achieve: projecting the big myths of this big land.

Mari said...

Hi, Paul,

I really enjoyed this review--I agree that lots of ppl don't get what Luhrhmann is trying to do. For me Strictly Ballroom will always be his best film but I enjoyed this.

I'm Emily Bronte on the At the Movies forum.



Paul Martin said...

Thanks for dropping by, Mari. I also loved Strictly Ballroom. I remember buying the soundtrack a few days after seeing the film, getting home and playing it. After a couple of tracks, I pulled out the newspaper to see where it was screening and racing to Chadstone to see it again. I don't often see films twice.

I don't know if it would have the same effect on me today, but I still have affection for the film. The theme of "a life lived in fear is a life half-lived" really connected with me. It gave me some satisfaction to see that saying quoted in a coat-of-arms at the start of Australia.

FWIW, my favourite Luhrmann film is Romeo and Juliet and I was non-plussed by Moulin Rouge.

I don't visit the ATM message board any more, since it was hijacked by mindless posts.