December 28, 2008

the wizard is in Oz



Its true. I saw it. I had no choice really. And its a magical mystery tour.

The Baz Luhrman effect. Whatever he touches, its magical. He makes something new out of something old and dusty and tried and trusted. That has been done a million times before. “Far and Away” comes to mind and wasn´t too bad – similar premise (traveling to an unknown wild place, fighting the odds, people from different social backrounds falling in love) Yet while Ron Howard is a decent craftsman, knows the right buttons to push, I tend to find the final result of most American directors being a bit too perfect, too clinical, like stuck in this superhero syndrome. There are exceptions of course – Francis Ford Coppola. Don´t think we need to discuss the epic-ness of "The Godfather".

Baz Luhrman certainly knows his craft. But on top of the craftmanship, is the ablity to weave a spell, kind of like a sprinkling of fairy dust. (Ok, sometimes, you can´t see the forest for the woods because of all the intoxicating fairy utensils). His characters, his films have flaws, imperfections – let loose in some of the most surreal settings in cinematic history.

Somehow, in the genetic make up of his filmmaking, he can strike sparks. Like Juliette Binoche’s character in “Chocolate”. Even the moral bigotted minority of the town had to love the chocolate inspite of themselves. That phenomenon, that potion is certainly effective in "Australia". Maybe not as overtly as in "Romeo and Juliette" or "Moulin Rouge". Luhrman treads a more conventional trail here.

For me, it´s the Gone With The Wind of the 21st century. And evokes colors, shrouds and clouds of purples and crimsons, inky blues and blacks.

Ok, I am getting carried away.

When I first saw the trailer, I was more than appalled and disappointed that Nicole Kidman was going to be in it. Her puffy pillsbury doughboy lips and Madame Tussaud frozen face was supposed to be the heroine of this sprawling romantic epic? Clearly, the intention of the movie, the raison d'etre, was transporting an amazing, trouble-ridden grand love story on an equally grand scale. Big, bold, passionate with a gentle modesty, and imperfections mixed in. I just couldn´t see Kidman being able to carry that off. And although Jackman wouldn´t have been my first choice either, I resigned myself to a kind of lets give him the benefit of the doubt attitude. “Van Helsing”, “Kate&Leopold”? “The Prestige” allowed for the benefit of the doubt part…

Yet - and here it comes - Kidman wasn´t half bad. I mean, her performance, her existence in the film did not distract nor detract from its hugely wonderous projection of all the mystical palpable floating veils of sentiments it somewhat haphazardly draps over its audience. Now that is a feat. And while I have been a staunch critic (more of a raving lunatic critic) of Ms. Kindling, I didn´t hate her in this.

Needless to say, Huge Action, as a Mark Kermode fan nicknamed him, did not disappoint either. In the most positive way. There was huge action for sure, but underneath his circus act riding skills and horse whisperer qualities, was depth and a truthful portrayal that didn´t crash into soppy or kitsch. There were flaws with natural progression toward awareness, yes, enlightenment, if you will, to what really counts – especially in memorable love stories such as this.

So, yes we have an appealing couple and a mad director. Baz Luhrman took all the cliched ingredients - kangaroos, diggeridoos (sure that’s spellt wrong) , the overuse of the word "crikey", a lone aboriginal magic man, standing on one leg where ever you look, walkabouts, snobbish racist English colonialists, rough&tough "drovers" (I guess the Australian version of cowboys), lots of bar brawls - put them in the blender and somehow managed - with a pretty weak script - to make this into an awesome movie.

I realize that all this may be perceived quite differently by Australians. I mean, its like making a film about Scotland - kilted frenzied bare-bottomed wild-haired clansmen running around the highlands in the freezing cold (wasn´t that Braveheart? ) Giving us the impression all Scotsmen are like that. Of course they aren´t, but yet, its part of their culture, part of what they are even today. And I think that applies to all cliches ie cultural traditions of any country.

The first half of this 2 hour 45 minute epic was, in my opinion, better than the second half, which dragged somewhat. A few lame one-liners, a handful of starched two-dimensional characters, some not so awesome special effects, matte painting, 3D fx, - but still, the film worked. To his credit, he pulled it off. And quite magnificently. And I think that may be part of the magic he conjours up. Massive ambition, heart-bursting passion interspersed with natural failings.

The story itself, or rather, stories - the all-consuming love story, with seemingly insurmountable events surrounding the hero and heroine, overcoming all of the greedy, avaracious bad guys plotting against them, the hugeness of the land itself, the war, and last, but not least, the Aboriginal factor - had one common denominator - a genuine, humble and unshakeable belief that love conquers all.

And that’s were the essential adhesive, the true star of this film comes in – in form of a mixed-race child.

I am assuming most people don´t know that the integration program the Australian government passed in 1869 and continued up until 1970 : "the stolen generation" - that the stealing, kidnapping children of mixed race from their families was legal (and of course, meant for their own good), the purpose being their re-education according to the Christian faith. You know, make them into "better people". The ones who kidnapped you from your mom all in the name of that guy up there, oh yeah, God. He said it was ok.

I did know about this prior to the film. Because my friend told me about it. And only just recently, in fact a few months ago, when the new prime minister of Australia came into office, Kevin Rudd, was a public apology issued to the Aborigines. Its quite incredible really. Why is it that white people - to this day - still feel superior? Why? I don´t understand. Its so beyond any comprehension, I just can´t get my head around it. And if this particular film does nothing else for anyone, at the very least, it brings this horrendous practice to the attention of more people. And while its - unfortunately - not one of the worst atrocities that has befallen indigenous people the world over – ripping children from their families in the name of a benevolent God belongs to one of the most inhumane practices I can imagine.

For some reason I cannot explain, although I will attempt it, I find the Aboriginal fate somehow one of the most tragic fates I´ve encountered. Certainly, the performance of Brandon Walters as the child of mixed race, was so wide-eyed, so honest, so magical (I can´t help using that word again and again - because well, its so fitting) that I think it was he who held this whole film together. And maybe I have more empathy for them because of the way this movie was made. But I do have to stress again - it was an ensemble piece. And despite my initial strong misgivings on the choice of Ms. Kidman (typecasting at its utmostly turgid) it worked. She pulled it off. Her brittle mannerisms, her inner struggle with the straightforward character of "Drover", her hesitant overtures toward the child (theres a very touching scene at the beginning, where she attempts to comfort the child – I was ready to take the braceposition – but really, she pulled it off with dignified self-deprecation) - melted perfectly into the character of Lady Sarah Ashley. As did Hugh Jackman. Their fates were perpetually intertwined throughout the film, and their on-screen chemistry brought out the mystical majesty that is Australia - not only the film, but this wonderous country.

What this film conveyed - apart from the love stories - and made an integral part of the plot - was the country itself.

I think maybe its because Australia - as a continent - was, and still remains - this far far away place. (The ranch in the movie appropriately named Faraway Downs) . A huge island but an island nonetheless. Removed, seperated from any other piece of land. And is so far away from everywhere, that somehow, it seems not part of this earth. This geographical factor has influenced its progress, its transgression, the mentality, the lifestyle of all who live there and eternally will. My parents, who were immigrants to Canada, and eventually the US, said they had once considered going to Australia but then ultimately decided against it. They felt they would never ever come back. Not only because of the distance, but somehow, you have the feeling that you are sailing to the end of the world. Or off the end of the world.

And I think, that once you have been there, that you never do come back. Your spirit will always remain there.

It was a journey I´ll never forget.

I have never been to Australia. And somehow, a part of Australia will always stay with me. But that's a whole other story.

So, yes, I liked this movie.

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