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Wonderful Movie - remember to check your disbelief at the door.
Having resisted the urge to see Australia for many months, I finally hired the Blu Ray version because my mother in law was staying over for the night. I thought I'd get something suitable for an octogenarian lady who likes "nice" films with pretty people in them.
Well, it turned out she'd seen it, and anyway she and my wife were off to a show at 8pm, so I'd have to watch it all by myself (a one night rental, you see).
We have a home theater set up with high quality HD projection and a large 12 foot screen... perfect for expansive Blu Ray vistas. I thought I'd get at least some Academy Award nominated eye candy out of Australia, if nothing else. Not being a big Kidman or Jackman fan, I was hoping some of the supporting roles would hold my attention.
I was glad I could watch Australia alone, as it made my laughing out loud and the tears rolling down my face (sometimes simultaneously) less embarrassing.
This is a wonderful, sprawling, completely overdone, yet breathtakingly entertaining movie. I'm not interested in where it fits into the Baz Lurhmann body of work. I watched Australia for itself, as a one off experience... and the film delivers a cornucopia of cinema treats.
Be warned: to enjoy Australia you have to suspend disbelief. That is a given. Don't look for a sensitive, subtle, academic treatment of the plight of the Aboriginal Stolen Generations, redolent with citations, statistics and sober commentary. This film presents the situation crystallized around the story of one little boy, as a representative of the thousands who were removed from their mothers and fathers, destined for lives as domestic servants in white homes or as cheap workers on white cattle stations in the Northern Territory.
Likewise, the depiction of the mystical Aboriginal holy man is not meant to be taken literally. To my mind, the director's intent was to bypass stuffy academia and get to the soul of the Aboriginal person's ties to the land, which after all go back tens of thousands of years. There is no more magic in this movie than in any of the Indiana Jones movies, or Star Wars films, where the ability to rip out a beating human heart, magic stones that ensure prosperity, the Arc Of The Covenant as a force that can destroy armies, a mystical chalice which will impart immortality to those who drink from it, or The Force which enables levitation of large spacecraft and the manipulation of minds... all these are accepted by most filmgoers without demur. The same could be said of any of a thousand successful movies: the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, even Ghostbusters. They assume from the start that their viewers will willing to suspend disbelief. This film requires that too.
Once your disbelief is checked at the door, you can sit back and indulge yourself in Australia. It is a film about emotion, not a documentary. It's whether the emotional truth of the film, often melodramatically worn on the director's sleeve, can grab your own heart and allow you to wallow in it unashamadely.
Other reviewers have said here that they were able to watch the whole film with rapt attention from beginning to end. I join those ranks, and proudly. There is hardly a moment when the action - emotional or actual - is not hitting you right between the eyes, be it the stunning vistas or the awful badness of the baddies, the tender first kiss between the Drover and Lady Sarah, or the razor's edge existence of the young "creamie" boy, Nullah, always on the run from the well-meaning but misguided authorities who would "breed the Aboriginal out of him".
Sure, there are some CGI sections that at first seem way over the top, even comic book-like in their execution. But I'm not sure these weren't intentional. I wonder whether they were deliberately done they way they were to reinforce the magical and mystical thrust of the story? Yes, in Australia there are elements and style quotations from scores of previous movies. It pays homage to Indiana Jones (all four of them), Out Of Africa, Star Wars, any of the great westerns, The African Queen, Pearl Harbour (yes, Darwin really was bombed by the Japanese just after Pearl Harbour, with great loss of life), even The Wizard Of Oz. The latter was used as a metaphor for the boy's journey from grim reality to a mystical land full of evil characters, good fairies and magic animals. When he finally gets to see the movie itself, I'll guarantee even the most hardened eye in the audience will be struggling to hold back a tear.
The music was an eclectic collage of emotional cues, from the original score, thru the Hollywood musical and on to Elgar's Variations, with jazz, swing and bobbysoxer dance themes in between. Why not? The visuals and the sound reinforced each other, reaching not for footnotable, citable truth but for emotional truth (which is what all good films have ever done).
This was a great film, completely contrary to my preconceived notions of what it would be like to watch. It receives from me just about the greatest accolade I can offer any move: it's one I know I will watch over and over again, and get more out of with every viewing.
"Neighbours" this is not...
It's funny that the ending of this film has been criticised here as unrealistic and melodramatic. One commenter even said it was of "Neighbours" (soap opera) quality.
In fact the final scene is an exact reconstruction of a parade of members of the 39th battalion before their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Honner at the village of Menari. Every word spoken by William McInnes (playing Honner) in this scene is taken from the official record of the proceedings on that day.
So much for "Neighbours".
The film is good without being great. The budget supplies the reason. What it does convey is the hostile terrain over which the Australian soldiers had to lug all their supplies, including heavy artillery pieces... and then they had to fight the Japanese, who heavily outnumbered them, when they reached the top of the ranges.
These were part-time soldiers, reservists with inferior training and green troops for the most part. Their job was to hold the line until the professional veterans (back from North Africa) arrived to take over. It was a war fought in platoon and section strength, with few pitched battles. Ever since the survivors of the two reserve battalions have been called "The Ragged Bloody Heroes", and deservedly so.
Recently these has been some revisionism among politically biased historians, claiming that Kokoda was a waste of time and effort; that the Japanese had no intention of invading Australia. While they may not have been as serious about Kokoda as they were regarding the developing disaster at Gualalcanal, one thing is certain: if the Japanese had not been held back on the Kokoda Track, taking Port Moresby would have been a prize too easily won to refuse. Taking Moresby, and perhaps then Australia could have changed not only the war in the South West Pacific area, but perhaps the whole course of WW2.
The men of the 39th battalion had no opportunity to speculate from afar, and safety, on the political potential of Kokoda as relevant to 2006 politics. They had to fight and die where they stood. That is why their story is worth telling, a story of small groups of men fighting shadows in a jungle nightmare scenario, without the option of surrender.
A Film To Watch More Than Once
I've often contemplated my large DVD collection and wondered why in the hell I paid good money for some of the titles I have collected. Sometimes it's because I saw the films as a kid in the 1960s and remembered them as good films. Other times I've just been in the "right" place at the "right" time and purchased on a whim. Many I have only watched once, disappointed that they didn't re-meet my expectations (or others', on whose opinions I had relied). Working from the other end of the equation - films I'm glad I've purchased - I've tried to consider what makes a good addition to a film collection, like Blow Up: a film that I want to watch again and again.
In the case of Blow Up, the reason I can watch it often is the atmospherics. The sound of the dismal London breezes in the park where the central pivotal action of the film takes place. The damp greenery that accompanies the breeze. The nihilism of the photographer. Even the photography itself. I spent many a long month trudging through parks in London, Paris and other places making "decisive moment" photographs, just like Thomas (the main character) did. I can appreciate the loneliness of this aspect of his work, as opposed to the studio sessions where he has a large, yet virtually mute cast of robotic assistants who do his bidding without so much as a please or thankyou from him. Peripatetic photography is - by definition - something you have to do alone, and Thomas is alone. One gets the feeling that candid photography is his true love, where he gets closest to the truth, the only part of his craft that he is emotionally excited about.
Thomas is surrounded by others, mostly because they're paid to be with him - models, staff, agents, shopkeepers, the London traffic itself - but he hates his existence and the hangers on in his life. I think that is why he's so disdainful and rude to everybody near him. He resents the space they occupy.
When he finally becomes interested in a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) she enters and exits his life by suddenly appearing and just as suddenly disappearing, as if by magic. Blink twice and she's gone. All he has left are his photographs of her, taken in a "blink", but remaining as permanent images on film. In them he first sees her with her lover and then, enlarging the images, sees something more sinister. Is she really who he thought she was? These revealed truths and questions lead him first to wonder if he really did see what he photographed, and then to ponder what course of action he should take. Real life has come up and head-butted him, and he has to respond in some way. But no-one else seems to care, not his friends or business associates. He is on his own again.
We see him at the end of the film back in the park, accompanied by the same lonely, damp London breeze, revisiting the scene of his photographs taken just 24 hours before. Whether what he saw was real or not we don't know for sure by this stage... and neither does he. Just about every scrap of evidence that he was there such a short time ago is gone: the woman, the man she was with, the photographs. He has only his imagination to rely on. As his painter friend in the first act painted his artworks and only then sought meaning in them, so Thomas found meaning in his photographs only after the act of creation - the opening of the shutter - was over. But by then it is too late. As he picks up an imaginary tennis ball and throws it back to some frolicking mimes playing imaginary tennis he smiles and realises that what he saw (or thinks he saw) in the park the day before is none of his concern. It's as if what happened never happened, as there is no record of it any more. The leaf fell in the forest and there was, for practical purposes, no-one there to witness it and bring back proof that it fell.
An excellent, complex film about a lonely, arrogant man who, for once, wants to care about something, but can't find anyone who believes in him. Full of atmospherics and rich photography. A film that I can definitely watch again and again, each time learning more about the many ways reality can be viewed and, most importantly, interpreted.
West Side Story (1961)
An Uncompromisingly Great film
Although I think I've seen just about every musical there is from the forties to the seventies, I'd never seen West Side Story until last night. An amazing omission on my part, as having seen it, I just think it's simply wonderful.
I bought the DVD "on spec" in a CD/DVD exchange store in Sydney for $10. I've had it in my hand a couple of times before but have always put it back on the shelf. This time I went through with the purchase and am now wondering what could have come over me, not buying it before.
Those here who have said you really need to watch it on the Big Screen are absolutely right. In my case I watched it using a video projector throwing the image, big, bright and beautiful, onto a 12 foot screen. The photography used the wide screen format uncompromisingly. There was no caution here to frame the action for possible television cropping, or even much consideration given to a 2.35:1 "Cinemascope" presentation. Super Panavision's aspect ratio is not as wide as Cinemascope's 2.35:1, and every square inch of screen space was used for one or another important element of composition.
Bernstein's music is a tour de force. Having watched On The Town only a few days back, it was interesting to contrast the two musicals. On The town is, of course, 15 years or so older than West side Story, but a comparison between the two scores is chalk and cheese. You could tell that Bernstein was holding himself back in On The Town. It wasn't his project. The numbers were almost self-censored. But West side Story was his baby, and it shows.
The sheer brilliance of the music, the enchanting daring of it, its raucous atonality coupled with sweetness of melody are awesomely impressive, as show-stopper after show-stopper is thrown onto the screen to continually up the amazement quotient, time after time.
I played West Side Story loud, very loud. The surround sound knocked my socks off from the opening aerial ambiance of Manhattan streets to the orchestrations themselves. I remember Bernstein in the documentary about the concert version of West Side Story saying, aside to the camera, after "Cool, Boy" was recorded, "You know, this is pretty good..." One of the great understatements, even if coming from the music's creator.
See this film. Play it loud. Watch it on a big screen if you can. If you do you may, like I did, sit there thrilled, swinging your head from one side of the Super Panavision screen to the other, trying to take in the overwhelming avalanche coming at your eyes, your ears and your heart. It was an almost perfect transfer from film to DVD: color, sharpness, depth.
It's been a long while since I've watched a film with a silly grin on my face right through, sometimes gasping at the sheer knock-out brilliance of what film-making can be at its best. West Side Story was one of those times.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Brilliant film, pity about the sound
I agree with all the praise above and don't need to add to it.
There are only two "buts" for me:
But #1: I'd love to see a sound re-edit with more realistic gunshot effects inserted over the old-style "bang bang" stuff used here. One the same subject, some of the dialogue recording is awful quality.
But #2: The flashback scene (where Pike's girlfriend is killed) is too blandly lit. It is so different to the rest of the film, it must have been an add-on. No wonder it was deleted from TV releases. I think it actually detracts from the film.
All these criticisms are only because I love this film, and sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.
No-one had mentioned Edmond O'Brien's role of Sykes. Ed O'Brien was once a glamor boy of romantic films: handsome, debonair and manly. In this film he is a filty, tobacco-stained, foul-mouthed, publicly-defecating, grizzly old has-been.. yet it is to his character that the baton of fighting for a free Mexico is passed (along with Robert Ryan's Deke Thornton). O'Brien was almost physically unrecognizable in this film: a tribute to his professionalism and courage in taking the role. A brilliant performance.
And can we remember his famous "They" soliloquoy? (when the Bunch discover that their robbery at the start of the film had yielded 8 bags of steel-washers). Someone says, "They tricked us". "Who's they?" questions someone else..
O'Brien answers it (laughing and wheezing as he spits his reply):
`They'?...... Why they's just plain-n'-fancy `They'. That's who `They' is... Caught ya, didn' they, uh? Tied a tin can to your tail, led'ya in and waltzed'ya right out again!....Oh MY!... whadda Bunch!...Big TOUGH ones, eh?...Here y'a with a handful o'holes, a slug up yer ass and a big grin to pass the time o'day with.
`They'?...Who the HELL is... `They'?
Brilliant, but fix those FX.