Monday, January 26, 2009

'Australia': somewhere over the rainbow

Australia - Official Movie Trailer

It seemed fitting to see Baz Luhrmann’s movie Australia on the Australia Day long weekend. The opening credits tell us that it's about the stolen generations, an aboriginal story set against a backdrop of cattle empires, love and war. It has been promoted as an old style blockbuster and its sheer length and star cast put it in that territory.

It is more adventure and romance than historical epic. A Western in northern Australia. The Man from Snowy River meets Wagon Train with a touch of Gone with the Wind and High Noon. Nicole Kidman (any relation to the real-life cattle baron?) as Lady Sarah Ashley has the icy, priggish edge of Grace Kelly. The bombing of Darwin owes a lot to the burning of Atlanta. Hugh Jackman as Drover combines Henry Fonda's outsider with John Wayne's brawler.

Perhaps it should have been a musical as it relies for much of its thematic development on The Wizard of Oz. Baz isn’t afraid of this pun or many others. We even have Somewhere Over The Rainbow evoking the rainbow serpent of the aboriginal dreaming. The tune is used more often than Waltzing Matilda during the story. Nullah (Brandon Walters) is the film’s own Dorothy. He follows his quest, firstly droving a stock route and finally embarking on a journey to his grandfather’s country for initiation ceremonies. He even watches Judy Garland at an outdoor cinema in Darwin.

If you're looking for a geography lesson, forget it. The country is all over the place. 'Far Away Downs' isn't 'Victoria River Downs'. It is strangely located near the 'Never Never', an unlikely desert in Top End Oz. Nevertheless, the landscapes are extraordinary, featuring the best of the Kimberley and other northern locations. The spectacular views of ancient escarpments and national icons, such as the Mitchell falls and the Bungle Bungle, are themselves worth the ticket price.

If this is an historical romance, forget the history lesson. Darwin is a visual treat with all the splendour of Moulin Rouge. It displays Baz's knack for bold, stylised, over-designed sets.

The bombing of Darwin in February 1942 has little to do with reality. The Hotel Darwin, which survived the bombing only to be demolished in 1999, is nowhere to be seen. There is no reference to the mass desertion by troops and little mention of looting. The Japanese troops on Mission Island are pure fiction.

The indigenous history is politically correct and has only a small number of annoying anomalies and inaccuracies. David Gulpilil as King George represents aboriginal culture before European occupation. He dominates the film as always, though the narration is left to young Brandon. Gulpilil's witch doctor mirrors the Wizard of Oz. The young mixed-race boy Nullah foreshadows the future for many Arnhem Land people, living in two cultures, clinging to their dreaming and identity in a world dominated by white bosses.

Luhrmann or one of his writing team is obviously a fan of Xavier Herbert. Much of the plot and theme draws on his novels. Lady Sarah's horse is Capricornia and the grog is Poor Fella Rum. Poor Fellow My Country is one of the longest novels in the English language so an analysis of similarities would be tiresome. Herbert has a credit.

The cast includes a Who’s-Who of Australian actors. Hugh Jackman is thoroughly PC, a 21st Century Gary Cooper, taking both an aborigine and a woman into the local hotel’s public bar. He breaks traditions that would last till the late 1960s in both cases. Hugh is no Clark Gable and his romance with Nicole lacks the fire or the depth of Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara’s passionate clash.

Jack Thompson’s performance as a good-hearted drunk is mercifully short. David Wenham makes an excellent villain with all the requisite longstanding resentments. Bryan Brown is typecast as the tough, ruthless cattle king with a latent conscience.

Of the other indigenous actors, Ursula Yovich as Nullah's mother Daisy and David Ngoombujarra as Magarri give the strongest performances. Their characters' heroic self-sacrifices are high and low points of the storytelling.

Australia is a story about aboriginal dispossession and forced assimilation. However, this is not a political history. Its “truths” are simple and much disputed by commentators who attack the “black armband” view of history. Usually without any sense of irony!

We enjoyed the film for what it really offers: a sentimental journey. This is Jedda with a happy ending that is never in doubt.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Slumdog: a local Mumbai perspective

For a local Indian perspective on the latest cinema hit and Oscar nominee, visit: Video: Slumdog Millionaire and the Indian Slums

Global Voices introduces Ruchika Muchhala, who writes in the Channel 19 blog and her recent post about Slumdog Millionaire.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: lightweight lifestyle

When passing through Lisbon in 1980 I watched a Woody Allen double feature: Manhattan and Annie Hall. They were English language with Portuguese sub-titles. It was a packed crowd of mainly locals. My frequent loud laughs led the chorus, with the locals following about a second later as they read the jokes. Sometimes Woody's unique humour was lost in translation leaving just a few of us chortling away.

I had a similar experience in Boston later that year during Flying High (Airplane in the USA). A large Saturday night audience didn't respond to some of the jokes poking fun at American culture. I must have been the only Aussie in the theatre. My laughter certainly stood out in the Massachusetts crowd.

The same couldn't have happened with Allen's latest film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It was a very disappointing film for old Woody fans. Lightweight lifestyle. Nevertheless, the three people with me enjoyed it as did a number of the audience judging by some of the belly laughs.

Javier Bardem as the rakish painter, Juan Antonio Gonzalo, just wasn't degenerate enough. His roles since his academy award winning performance in No Country for Old Men have been very soft. Brunette Rebecca Hall was the best of the cast as Vicky, the girl next door with the requisite freckles. Blonde Scarlett Johansson was typecast as the adventurous Cristina. You don't have to guess which one had the playboy figure.

The narration by Christopher Evan Welch seemed completely unnecessary, adding nothing to our understanding of the plot or the issues raised. Perhaps that had a lot to do with the movie's total lack of depth in exploring contemporary society. As social satire it was neither funny, scathing nor challenging.

The music was catchy but used too predictably, very fitting to a romantic comedy.

Loved the exterior scenes of Barcelona and Oviedo. The sharp photography made for a visual pleasure. In contrast Whit Stillman's 1994 Barcelona had that and much more. It is a much better film, being both comic and incisive. Typical is this exchange:
Fred: Maybe you can clarify something for me. Since I've been, you know, waiting for the fleet to show up, I've read a lot, and...
Ted: Really?
Fred: And one of the things that keeps popping up is this about "subtext." Plays, novels, songs - they all have a "subtext," which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that's right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what's above the subtext?
Woody Allen was once the sub-text king. Now we have to settle for the open and obvious. His films have always been better when he starred in them. You could hear his voice repeatedly from the main characters.

IMBd’s memorable quotes might explain the dialogue’s shortcomings:
Juan Antonio: Maria Elena used to say that only unfulfilled love can be romantic.
[repeated line]
Juan Antonio: Speak English!
Cristina: I'll go to your room, but you'll have to seduce me.
Juan Antonio: We are meant for each other and not meant for each other. It's a contradiction.
Maria Elena: You're still searching for me in every woman.
Juan Antonio: That is not true, Maria Elena. I was in Oviedo some weeks ago with a woman who was the antithesis of you. An American, and something beautiful happened with her. So you're mistaken.
Maria Elena: You'll always seek to duplicate what we had. You know it.
Even the sex scenes with the ménage à trois were boring, made-for-television stuff. Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena, the ex-wife with Latin hot-temper, was unconvincing but she had little to work with.

Many cinema goers will enjoy Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It is quality light entertainment but heavily forgettable.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: It is written

The first two thirds of this film are enthralling. The lives of three Muslim Mumbai orphans are both stirring and disturbing. Slumdog Millionaire follows the brothers Jamal and Salim, and their friend Latika, a girl of their age, as they struggle to survive amongst absolute poverty and cruel exploitation.

The violent interrogation of the adult Jamal reveals the key episodes of their story. Echoes of recent torture in Iraq and other places confront us. He tells the police how a tea boy has been able to answer all the questions on the television quiz showWho Wants To be A Millionaire. His seemingly indestructible will is explained as his life experiences unfold. They are survivors of the worst abuses of the slums and the darkest aspects of modern Indian life. Ironically Jamal’s own philosophy reflects the Indian national motto: Truth Alone Triumphs.

The early pace is very racy as befits street kids on the run. Director Danny Boyle mixes pathos and comedy as he creates screen characters who capture the audience completely.

Three actors play each of the key roles, as young children, teenagers and adults. As you might expect the child actors steal the film. Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as the youngest Jamal stands out. Dev Patel as the adult Jamal is a bit too normal and too naïve. Freida Pinto as the adult Latika is simply too beautiful. Madhur Mittal as the adult Salim is too slick.

The male antagonists are impressive if stereotyped. The thin police inspector (Irrfan Khan) and his rotund sergeant (Saurabh Shukla) are physical but fair. Mumbai’s Fagan, Maman (Ankur Vikal),is suitably heartless. The game show host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) mixes charm and sarcasm with ease. Javed (Mahesh Manjrekar) is repulsive as the pathological godfather.

The cimematography creates a slum world that is beautiful and touching in its reality and a top-end-of-town that repels with its shine.

Ultimately this is a romance . Perhaps even a fantasy as the hero follows his quest to free the imprisoned maiden. It’s also a gangster film and it is this element that spoils the latter part to some extent. Add game show and elements of reality television and we have a thoroughly modern fairy tale.

The concluding third of the film is disappointing as it moves towards its predictable Hollywood/Bollywood ending. If the first part strives for the social realism of Boyle’s classic Trainspotting, the climax could be Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Rockn Rolla. Perhaps even In Bruges. Nevertheless, you can’t help but be sucked in as the suspense builds. As one patron quipped as he left the theatre, “That’s the most enjoyable film I’ve seen in years!” I was smiling but felt just a little cheated.

Slumdog Millionaire is a strong contender for best foreign film, especially at the populist end of the voting. I’m still torn between Lemon Tree and Waltz with Bashir.