PICKS OF THE WEEK
Australia/U.K.; Baz Luhrmann, 2008, 20th Century Fox
Over-the-top it may be, sport, but Baz (Moulin Rouge!) Luhrmann's visually scrumptious, rousing epic of World War II-era Australia unbound, was one of my favorite movies of 2008.
Now, the title may suggest something like James Michener's centuries-sweeping Hawaii. But Luhrmann's movie follows only a small slice of Aussie history -- lasting from September 1939 to February 1942 -- while managing to whip up and evoke a great deal more. Despite the mixed reviews, it entertained me mightily.
Like Luhrmann's previous films, it's a new-fangled star vehicle for a classic sexy movie romantic couple -- Nicole Kidman as cattle rancher Lady Sarah Ashley and Hugh Jackman as the impudent but cattle-savvy Drover -- and it's a fascinating piece of genre-bending. The first big part is a full-blown transplanted American Western, owing heavy debts to Red River, The Searchers, The Big Country and other post-war epics (including a few other Australian Westerns like Walkabout and Breaker Morant and maybe Harry Watt's 1946 World War II cattle drive adventure The Overlanders)-- as rich and spacious and entertaining enough for any normal movie, all by itself. The next and last part is an explosive World War II invasion movie, re-creating the Japanese air attack on Darwin on Feb. 19, 1942, with sweeping violence, magical artificiality and a little poignant heart-tugging.
Australia drenches us in the kind of elevated-genre romanticism, irony and shameless eye-candy that made Moulin Rouge! such a knockout. The movie is narrated by aborigine boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), and it's his child's-eye view that predominates -- even when he's narrating things that took place when he wasn't there. From his vantage, we see the beauteous Lady Sarah arrive in Australia to assume ownership of her cattle ranch at the lyrically named Faraway Downs. (By the way, I think Australia was hurt by its title, which may have put critics in a portentous, statue-smashing mood. Faraway Downs would have been my choice.)
We then see Lady S. plunged into a beef selling war with national cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown). We see her sparky meeting with the Drover, an expert cattle drive guy who is friends with the Aborigines (his sidekick is the salty, noble Magarri, played by David Ngoombujarra) and who, we immediately figure, will end her corseted aristocratic ways, as Bogie did Kate's on The African Queen.
We meet Sarah's colorful crew, including the mellifluously drunken Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson) and we also meet her enemies, especially the villainous Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), such a bastard that he's dangerous even to other villains, and a jerk who will bedevil Sarah throughout the movie. We meet the mystical Aborigine King George, played by David Gulpilil, that iconic actor who was once the native boy of Walkabout. Cattle will stampede, water holes will be poisoned. But Sarah will make it to Darwin with her herd, just as Red River's Monty Clift made it to Abilene, despite Duke Wayne and other forces of nature.
And the movie will hit what at first seems its natural climax -- only to suddenly flash forward to its World War II section: the Japanese attack and a tearjerker involving orphans (and Nullah) on Mission Island off Darwin and the ultimate indictment of Australia's cruel and racist assimilationist policies.
Australia is a picture for people with a prodigal love for movies. It's what we used to call a movie-movie, a knowingly artificial work like Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, North by Northwest -- or The Wizard of Oz, that immerses us in a world of desire and spectacle usually only available to us on a movie screen. That gloriously magnified and exaggerated domain may be inspired by our world -- and it may replicate some of its historical currents and even its national crimes -- but that's only to make of it all something more visually and dramatically splendid and spine-tingling. Luhrmann's movie is packed with allusions, the most persistent, injected over and over, being to the 1939 Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland's heart-bending showstopper "Over the Rainbow."
Yet it's also a vast, pulse-pounding national epic, laden with so much CGI that it can actually show us Nullah single-handedly stopping a cattle stampede at a mammoth cliff's edge. There's a magical quality to Australia throughout, that links it to Luhrmann's previous, innovative musicals Strictly Ballroom and the great, mad Moulin Rouge! And I don't think it makes a lot of sense to damn the movie, or Luhrmann, for doing on screen what he actually does best. (Ditto for his snazzy musical numbers on the last Oscar show.)
I didn't object at all to the magic, the allusions or the double construction, because Luhrmann and his company so thoroughly compelled and rewarded my attention throughout. It didn't bother me that the movie wasn't realistic, or that those Wizard of Oz bits kept popping up. Luhrmann is one moviemaker to whom you want to give as much license, or even as much rope, as possible -- because it's in almost going too far that his gift lies.
Hell, I suppose Australia does go too far. For some, at least. It's a matter of taste. I say, give Luhrmann his budgets and crew, and give him Nicole Kidman, and let him rip.
Tales of Beatrix Potter (A)
U.K.; Reginald Mills, 1971, Lionsgate
Though relatively little known, this is one of the great ballet films, and one of the great children's movies. And its just damned delightful. I defy you to watch it without smiling: England's Royal Ballet, choreographed by Sir Fredrick Ashton, dances a series of wonderful little tales inspired by the bewitchingly illustrated animal books of Beatrix Potter. Potter's wondrous little creatures are all (or mostly) here, danced by virtuosos and prima ballerinas in brilliantly executed costumes on brilliantly done sets in green, beautiful rural British landscapes: Peter Rabbit (Alexander Ward), Jemima Puddle-Duck (Ann Howard), the ineffable Jeremy Fisher (Michael Colema), Tom Thumb and Squirrel Nutkin (both by Wayne Sleep), Mrs. Pettitoes and Tabitha (Sally Ashby), Fox (Robert Mead), and Mrs. Tittlemouse (Julie Wood). There's even a juicy animal role for Ashton himself, who brings down the house as that marvelously diddly dawdler, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.
The music, which suggests a piquant mix of Delius, Vaughan Williams and Disney, is by John Lanchberry, who also conducts it with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera, and the whole thing is dazzlingly well done. Frustratingly, director Reginald Mills only made this one film; in his career he was primarily a superb editor who worked most frequently with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, on masterpieces like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, and also with Franco Zeffirelli on Romeo and Juliet and Jesus of Nazareth.
But Tales of Beatrix Potter does have another recognizable auteur. Co-writer Christine Edzard, who also served as the film's production designer and costume designer -- fulfilling all three tasks to Potterian perfection -- later went on with her husband, Potter's producer-co-writer Richard Goodwin, to make the great six-hour 1988 Charles Dickens adaptation, Little Dorrit, the 1992 punk Shakespearean As You Like It and several other gems, shot at their own studio. (Mike Leigh made Topsy-Turvy at their digs.) Edzard worked too seldom, and Mills deserved at least one more shot, but this froggy film is a Tiggy-Winkle masterpiece for all concerned. Dance, Jeremy, dance!
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
East of Eden (B)
U.S.; Harvey Hart, 1981, Acorn
Don't even bother comparing this three-disc TV movie miniseries adaptation of John Steinbeck's magnum opus, East of Eden, to the classic 1955 film Elia Kazan and writer Paul Osborn made from it, starring James Dean and Julie Harris. Of course Kazan's feverish psycho-romance is better, more exciting. But director Harvey Hart's and writer Richard Shapiro's East of Eden is not bad, a different kind of achievement.
At six hours long, in three segments, it gives us the whole Trask family saga. And it's quite a yarn. Starting in Connecticut with Civil War con artist Cyrus (Warren Oates), and proceeding cross-country to Salinas, Calif., sweeping us through the stories of feuding brothers Adam (Timothy Bottoms) and Charles (Bruce Boxleitner), and on to the tangled lives of Adam's sons Cal (Sam Bottoms) and Aron (Hart Bochner), this East of Eden may be less emotionally and visually rich than Kazan's, but it's a knockout compared to most other mini-series. (Cal was the James Dean part in Kazan's film; Raymond Massey played the older Adam, and Julie Harris was Aron's girlfriend Abra, played here by Karen Allen of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Paul Newman was just beaten out, by Richard Davalos, for Aron.)
Threading through almost all their lives is the stunningly beautiful and wicked Cathy, a.k.a. Kate (Jane Seymour), a prostitute-by-nature conniver, who nearly wrecks two lives, and releases some of the worst instincts in another. The theme of the saga, with its biblical names and allusions, is the battle between good and evil -- and thanks to Seymour's Cathy, the fight often seems unequal.
Hart, a Canadian who got his best notices for two movies he made at the beginning and end of his career (1965's Bus Riley's Back in Town and the prize-winning 1989 Passion and Paradise, as well as the 1971 Fortune and Men's Eyes) is a good, gutsy director, and he has a tremendous cast playing another memorable Steinbeck gallery -- including Lloyd Bridges (an underrated actor) as the rambunctious Irishman Thomas Hamilton, M. Emmet Walsh (in a role that prefigures his great sleazy private eye part in Blood Simple) as Sheriff Horace Quinn (the Burl Ives role in Kazan's film ), and Soon Tek Oh cranking it up as the philosophical servant Lee. Tim Hutton is sometimes a little arch and narcissistic as Adam, but it's a treat to watch him working with his younger brother Sam as Adam's wayward son Cal.
That munificent cast in excellent roles is one reason to watch the movie, or watch it again. Steinbeck's spellbinding storytelling and character portraiture is another. Steinbeck was underrated by psycho-politico critics right after his death, but they were wrong. Besides, The Grapes of Wrath did more to rally and draw attention to the American underclass than any of his critics could have dreamed of doing.
The third reason to watch this movie is Jane Seymour -- who actually burns down the house as the malevolent Cathy/Kate, the part that won Kazan's Jo Van Fleet a well-deserved Oscar. Seymour, though, gets to play the whole role, all the way from gorgeous young sociopath (Adam's bride, and Cal and Aron's mother) to witchlike bordello madame (Van Fleet only did the last section), and she's an absolute knockout.
Seymour is a very popular TV actress (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) who never quite made it to the front rank in movies, even though she starred in one cult classic, Somewhere in Time, and still pops up again occasionally in a Wedding Crashers or two. She deserved better. In Hart's East of Eden, she has a great role, and she squeezes every drop of venom and desire out of it, scarily, seemingly effortlessly. Compared to Jane Seymour's Cathy, most other movie femme fatales are Mother Teresas. (Extras: Jane Seymour interview; Steinbeck biography.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Beverly Hills Chihuahua (C-)
U.S.; Raja Gosnell, 2008, Walt Disney
This works better than you'd expect. But then what could you possibly, reasonably expect with a movie that sends animated Chihuahuas on a Mexican trek?
Here we go: A snobbish Beverly Hills Chihuahua dish named Chloe (voiced by Drew Barrymore) is taken on a Mexican holiday by owner Aunt Viv's (Jamie Lee Curtis) niece Rachel (Piper Perabo) after spurning the affections of the cute gardener's pup Papi (George Lopez). Karma comes down; Chloe gets lost in Mexico, and she has to find her way home through unimaginable dangers, with the help of the disgraced but stalwart police dog Delgado (Andy Garcia) and operatic Chihuahua Monte (Placido Domingo, no less). Despite the hindrance of some very bad humans and animals -- notably Edward James Olmos as the Amores Perros-style fight-dog Diablo and Cheech Marin as greedy little rat Manuel -- she's got a good shot.
The movie gets going when it hits Mexico, and an incredible amount of production and animation expertise is lavished on the story. It should amuse both 10-years-and-under kids and shopaholics whose idea of heaven is Rodeo Drive, deserted, in the morning. But, at bottom, it's a lapdog of a script, all gussied up. And the Beverly Hills scenes made me want to arf.
Narrow Margin (C-)
U.S.; Peter Hyams, 1990, Lions Gate
Richard Fleischer's terrific 1949 low-budget RKO film noir The Narrow Margin squeezed 70 minutes of nonstop suspense out of tough cop Charles McGraw transporting tough gal Marie Windsor to an L.A. court date on a trainful of hit men. This remake wastes Gene Hackman and Anne Archer doing the same sort of thing, while adding all kinds of spectacular cliffhangers that don't make a lick of sense. It's like remaking 12 Angry Men by staging the jury arguments on top of the Statue of Liberty in the middle of a hurricane. Some metaphor. Some cliffhanger. And please, stay away from Violent Saturday.