Sunday, December 28, 2008

Milk

Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna, James Franco

Running Time: 128 min.

Rating: R


*** (out of ****)

There are few directors working today as unpredictable and inconsistent as Gus Van Sant. Always straddling that line between art house fare (Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park) and the mainstream (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) he’s the rare filmmaker for which you can honestly claim that you haven’t a clue what to expect each time out. With Milk he’s made the most standard, mainstream film of his career, which is kind of ironic considering the subject he’s tackling this time around. Had another less skilled director had made it and it covered another less timely topic I’m not sure it would be garnering the adulation and awards buzz it has. It’s a good film, just not a great one like you’ve been led to believe.

For those who disagree and feel Milk should be among the five films nominated for Best Picture let me just refer you to one scene. In it, Harvey Milk, in one of his three bids to become the first openly gay official elected to public office, receives an anonymous, emotional phone call from a teen who had come out to his parents and is now contemplating suicide. Then the camera pans down to reveal…he’s also in a wheelchair. Supposedly, this event did happen but I’m judging its authenticity on the screen, not in real life. As a stand-alone scene I can forgive it (I’ve seen worse), but what’s troublesome is the nagging feeling that it’s in some way an accurate representation of the film’s motives. It tells you what to feel instead of just letting you feel it and marks off boxes on its historical checklist as it goes along, never fully engaging you emotionally. The result is a film I respected a great deal, but couldn’t rally around like I desperately wanted.

Arguing its greatness solely on the basis that it houses one of Sean Penn’s most dynamic and interesting performances in the title role have a very strong argument because he supplies whatever emotion is lacking elsewhere, and it’s almost enough. He shows a jubilant side of himself here as an actor that we haven’t seen before. In all the roles he’s played I don’t think I’ve ever seen tackle a man who’s actually happy with his life and is doing what he wants to do. It’s thrilling to see him actually smiling for a change after all the morose, tortured protagonists he’s brilliantly portrayed over the years. Harvey Milk may have met a tragic end but he did it doing what he loved and his infectious warmth is in every one of Penn’s words and mannerisms, which is news because I had my doubts as to whether he was an actor even capable of projecting warmth.
It’s a good thing Penn is this strong because Dustin Lance Black’s script doesn’t make him the easiest guy in the world to root for nor does it portray those he was trying to help in the most favorable light. At times during the picture I also questioned the protagonist’s motives in asking everyday citizens to vote for him BECAUSE he’s gay. The movie stacks the deck in that regard, but being gay wasn’t just a political platform for Milk, it was his life.

While the film seems to do him justice it’s more of a “big issue movie” than a biopic. Milk would always open his speeches with “I’m Harvey Milk and I’m going to recruit you,” but that may as well be Van Sant’s motto. He comes off as unnecessarily trying to recruit us for a cause. I consider myself fairly liberal and love the biopic as a genre and even I found he was beating the drum very hard. My thoughts on the film will read as somewhat negative only because given what I’ve heard about its quality I can’t help but feel disappointed. Outside of Penn’s performance there just isn’t a whole lot here, but what is here is done well enough to at least earn a look.

The film begins in the early ‘70’s with Milk (Penn) and his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco) packing their bags and leaving the hustle and bustle in New York for San Francisco where they open a small camera shop on Castro Street. The neighborhood is slowly transforming into a gay hangout, which doesn’t sit well with other storeowners and local politicians. They consider that “lifestyle choice” immoral, and despite depending on them for revenue, refuse to treat them as equals in any way. Out of this Milk emerges as a local activist and hero (eventually elected city supervisor in his third bid) while the debate regarding gay rights reaches a fever pitch on the national level.

The widespread homophobia is powered by pop star/evangelist Anita Bryant and California Senator John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) whom Milk battles in the fight against Proposition 6, which would give schools the right to fire gay teachers. Anointed “The Mayor of Castro Street,” Milk grew a legion of followers including dependable sidekick Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), lesbian campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill) and new boyfriend Jack Lira (Diego Luna in an entertainingly awful performance). All these characters are really just colorful wallpaper though and at moments disappointingly call to attention the worst gay stereotypes.

I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that Milk (along with Mayor George Moscone) is assassinated by fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) in 1978 (that information is dispensed in the first scene). A man who worried that he’d accomplished nothing by the age of 40 ended up accomplishing more in the next 8 years than most could in a lifetime. Ironically, the relationship between Milk and White and the details leading up to and including the assassination I found to be the most fascinating aspect to the film. White isn’t portrayed how you’d expect and if someone had told me halfway through that they actually sympathized with White’s situation (at least before he completely loses his marbles) I could see where they were coming from. That Brolin plays him with such depth and nuance only reinforces that. Because Black’s script is essentially a gay history lesson Penn has to carry everything as the flamboyant and charismatic Milk, and does he ever. His energy and enthusiasm are the beating pulse of the picture and he can comfortably start preparing his Oscar acceptance speech. I wish he had more to work with, but that he’s given this little and turns it into so much proves just how good he is. He literally BECOMES Harvey Milk.

Cinematographer Harris Savides does his usual great work although I’d argue he did one better in interpreting 1970’s San Francisco in last year’s Zodiac. Van Sant’s use of actual archival footage doesn’t really help the film’s cause as it at times makes the endeavor feel like any other cut-and-paste biopic you could catch on The History Channel. Nor does his portrayal of gays as sex maniacs and drug addicts who streak down the street naked. Of course, this is more a reflection of the times and situation than anyone’s sexual preference, but it’s a tall order to expect viewers (especially straight ones) to make that distinction. As I was leaving the theater I overheard someone remark that they felt the film was “too gay.” While those wouldn’t have been my choice of words I kind of understood what he meant.

A curiously under-reported aspect to the film is that there were many sex scenes that would make even the most tolerant, open-minded filmgoer wince. I noticed many in my theater squirming uncomfortably in their seats. If Van Sant put them in to just simply give the most accurate portrayal possible then it’s fine but if he did for shock value or thought it would be a riot to rub uptight audience’s noses in it then it's not. I can’t speak to his intentions but for those who don’t think the latter is possible consider this: How many movies open with two total strangers randomly making out then running home and jumping in the sack? It’ll be interesting to see how the allegedly homophobic Academy reacts to the film considering just a few years ago they wouldn’t even honor Brokeback Mountain, which was essentially a love story that happened to feature two gay characters.
You could say it’s hypocritical of me to point out so many of the film’s flaws yet still recommend it but the truth of the matter is that it’s a well-made, exceptionally acted film that kept me interested, but always at an arms distance away. My duty is to review it as a film not a potential Best Picture contender but when something is this widely overpraised it almost becomes impossible to separate the two. If this were nominated for the big prize (and heaven forbid it actually won) it would be one of the most underwhelming choices in years. In many ways I feel about this film how many have told me they feel about another awards contender this year, Slumdog Millionaire, meaning that it’s good, but all the love needs to be taken down a few notches. I guess since this is based on a true story it’s allowed to be as preachy and uplifting as it wants while Slumdog gets unfairly dragged through the mud and labeled as manipulative.

Harvey Milk’s story is inspiring and this covers a timely topic but the inherent contradiction in it is that gay rights should be a human issue, not a political one. In exploring the life of a political figure, Van Sant has problems reconciling the two and what sometimes results is a film pushing an agenda. Luckily, Penn was there to save him, if just barely. Milk is a reminder that Oscars should be given to great films, not great causes, no matter how important or relevant they may be.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Best (And Worst) Movie Posters of 2008

While many (including myself) have been overheard complaining 2008 was a lackluster year for films, it was an incredible one for movie posters. Last year I couldn't even come up with 10 deserving posters to fill a list of the best, but this time around there was such a plethora of great choices that I had cheat and squeeze even more in there, plus come up with a couple of new special categories. I didn't give much thought to ranking them (not sure if I could) but my favorites are at the top, or rather the bottom. That I own three of the posters on here so far (which is a record for me in a single year) is a testament to just how strong the creative output was.

Even the bad posters were interesting in some way. As usual, "SIMPLE" was the rule of the day. Posters that used a simple, direct image to convey the spirit of the film (while still being visually interesting) fared the best. I've come to notice the ones that rely only on a big star's face (or in most cases their GIANT FLOATING HEAD) to sell the movie are always the worst. More has to be offered than just a big name and face to get attention. There were so many more posters I liked but the cream of the crop is represented below, as well as is the cream of the crap. Poster images provided by www.impawards.com



THE BEST...

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay- NPH. On a unicorn. No more needs to be said. Hysterical. You know a poster's great when you could have left out the title of the film and we'd still know what it is.



College- Say what you want about the movie but they couldn't have possibly come up with a better image than this. For better or worse, we know exactly what we're getting. I love the simplicity and the tag line. It actually looks like something you'd see hanging in a dorm room, which was probably the point.



The Wrestler- When I first saw this poster I didn't like it at all. I thought it was boring and that banner hanging down on the right telling us to "WITNESS THE RESURRECTION OF MICKEY ROURKE" was an unnecessary distraction. But as the Awards season has worn on it's grown on me a little each time I see it, to the point now where I can't think of many posters this year as effective. What I thought was boring is instead elegantly simple, conveying the film's message in a single, striking image. And that quote on the right is something totally different than anything we've seen on a poster. It also uses a color scheme and font design you don't see everyday.



Synecdoche, New York- Charlie Kaufman written films are known for their big, crazy ideas so for his directorial debut it's appropriate the ambitious movie has one of the trippiest, most memorable one-sheets of the year. A life-size replica of New York City inside a warehouse? Huh? What? It got your attention. And no other poster looks like it. Love the blimp. And the critical blurb at the top has to be the longest I've ever seen on a poster. That took guts. It probably took that much space to even come close to explaining the movie. Just don't ask me to pronounce the title.



My Winnipeg- What's that guy doing out on the ledge? Who's the old lady? What's with the arrow pointing at him? Is the movie in black and white? I don't know anything about the film at all but this poster makes me want to find out. No lame photoshopping here. The unusual angle it was shot at is very cool as is what was done to the edges to make it look like an aged photograph. This one is as original as it gets.



Cloverfield- This is the first teaser poster for the film, before we knew anything, like the title who's starring in it, what it's about. And we don't need to. This striking image gives us all we need and want. It probably played a bigger role in the movie's success than many would like to admit.



Hell Ride- So maybe that "simple" rule can be thrown out the window for this one. Actually though, despite being very busy, it is simple. It lets us know simply that we're in for a grindhouse-like experience. Supposedly, it wasn't a very successful one from what I've heard but the poster at least got it right. I'm not sure how long I could look at it on the wall everyday without going blind but taken in a small dose it works exceptionally well.



The Bank Job- Move over Steve McQueen. This throwback design looks like it's right out of the 60's or 70's (which is when the movie's events take place). The off-white color and retro border are cool touches. One of the more underrated and understated posters of the year that also does the movie justice. Simple and effective.



Blindness- Very clever. Whoever thought of this deserves a raise. The eye chart idea is great enough on its own but having Julianne Moore reaching out for it from behind is a creepy effect. Not only the only poster on this list to use the transparent style (I'm sure you know what the other one is) but it's awesome nonetheless and would get someone who knows nothing about the film interested quickly.



Burn After Reading- No one will accuse this retro-throwback poster of being the most original of the year but you can't tell me it isn't slick and eye-catching. It's got that Hitchcock vibe going, which works and perfectly presents the tone of the film. The other character-centric versions weren't nearly as interesting as this.



Gran Torino- Talk about a picture being worth a thousand words. He's Clint Eastwood. He's cranky. He's 75. And he can still kick your ass.



The Dark Knight (Take Your Pick)- The Dark Knight had a wide variety of posters to choose from this year but these were by far the most memorable, and brilliant. I know very few people who don't own AT LEAST one of them. How fitting that a film that was in many ways a victim of its own expectations had them raised to even more unreasonable levels when these teasers came out. I don't think any film could have lived up to them. Speaking of which:



Funny Games- If the actual film were as good as the poster, Michael Haneke would be preparing an Oscar acceptance speech right now. I liked the film a lot but wouldn't blame anyone who walked away from that film expecting more on the basis of this unsettling, terrifying image. On the other hand, you could reasonably argue that the movie was as uncomfortable and polarizing as the image. And look what they did with the credits. Forget about this being the best poster of the year, this should rank among the best of the decade.



THE WORST...

Changeling- Help!!! Angelina's going to eat me!



Seven Pounds- Who cares what its about? Will Smith's in it! I do appreciate that the studio going to great lengths to conceal the plot in trailers and commercials but unfortunately, that tactic doesn't play nearly as well in print. There is such a thing as too much restraint.




Body of Lies- Here's a movie whose poster somehow actually lives up to its lazy, generic direct-to-DVD title. Of all the posters on this list this is one that most make me want to flee any theater showing the film. It's like the designers gave up and said, "Well, the movie's gonna suck anyway." The others featuring Crowe and DiCaprio solo were even worse.



The Women- It takes a lot of work to make a group of reasonably talented and attractive actresses look this foolish and ugly in a poster. This features so much airbrushing it would make Maxim covers look like mug shots. And is that Annette Bening? I swear I couldn't even tell. It's also a cluttered, cut-and-paste mess. If the movie's as bad as this suggests I'm scared to death.



My Best Friend's Girl- You know it's bad when even Dane Cooke himself commented on his blog how embarrassing it is. Less a poster and more an ad for how to abuse Photoshop. Apparently, Kate Hudson now not only stars in bad movies, but bad posters as well. Her almost equally awful Fool's Gold poster just missed the list.



AND THE WEIRDEST...

Frost/Nixon- Homicidal maniac David Frost sets his sights on future Presidential candidate Bob Dole in this taut, psychological horror/thriller from 1985. Okay, not exactly, but can you blame me? I wasn't sure whether this belonged in the "best" or "worst" so I just put it here. If they were looking to recapture the time period during which the events of the film took place (even if they're a decade late) then this might be the most brilliant poster of the year. If not, then it's among the funniest I've ever seen. So either way, it's a win. The photo and style of print makes it look like one of those cheesy VHS covers from the 80's. And how about Langella's C. Montgomery Burns pose? Hopefully this will be the DVD cover art, or better yet, just release it on VHS! But what I really want to see is a film set in the 80's with this poster on someone's wall in the background. I might have to own this, except I worry after looking at it for a week the joke will get old. Taken on its own merits it's just a hilarious misrepresentation of the film but when you consider said film is one of the biggest, most serious Oscar contenders of the year then it suddenly seems a whole lot more ridiculous. Don’t know what they were thinking but I'm glad they did it.




Valkyrie- Ocean's 14...with Nazis!



BEST FAKE POSTERS (These Aren't Real But Should Be)
The Dark Knight Returns- If Nolan decides to go for one more sequel he could do a lot worse than looking to this poster for inspiration. It had me fooled. And better than a few of the best ones above.
(Source: Cinematical)



Wonder Woman- I never seriously entertained the idea that Megan Fox could be a viable candidate for the role...until seeing this. Now THAT'S a good Photoshop job.
(Source: www.wonder-who.com)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Madhur Mittal

Running Time: 121 min.

Rating: R


**** (out of ****)

There’s this guy I know who I tell everyone will have to be my “phone-a-friend” lifeline if I ever appear on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Talking to him it isn’t immediately obvious just how smart he is but listen long enough you realize he knows a little bit about everything and that knowledge comes not from a genius I.Q. but life experience and just simply paying attention. To say a Mensa membership is required to win that million is about as absurd as claiming Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is a movie about a game show.

When the film first started I remember thinking it wasn’t what I expected. Then, about five minutes later it was over. I say five minutes because that’s exactly what it felt like. It went by in almost a blur and when it ended I had a funny feeling. It took a little bit to realize that feeling was my pulse finally slowing down. The movie washed over me as I lost myself in a hyperkinetic story that felt like it was moving a mile a minute. The performances, the cinematography, the music and the engulfing plot structure all come together in perfect harmony to create an experience that isn’t easily forgotten. And at the center of it is a genuine and affecting love story, and one that doesn’t feel as if it were cribbed out of a screenwriting handbook.

I frequently roll my eyes when I hear an “underdog” film has been anointed an awards contender right out of the gate but the fact is that this movie is pretty much airtight and easily the best on Boyle’s directorial résumé. You may think it can’t possibly be better than Trainspotting but that film, while great, benefited mostly from being at the right place at the right time. This is more than that. While it isn’t necessarily groundbreaking it does give us one of the most intriguing premises for a movie in years and something we haven’t seen before. With a concept as promising as this one the film already had a head start, but where Boyle could have easily dropped the ball, he squeezes every last dramatic drop out of it he can.
The film tells the story of Jamal (Dev Patel) an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai who is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Having already racked up 10 million, the show breaks for the night a police inspector (Irfan Khan) arrests him for suspicion of cheating, refusing to believe that an uneducated street peasant could know the answers to all those questions. He tortures him into revealing how he did it as the film flashes back to show how key events in his life provided him with the correct answers. We witness his volatile relationship with hotheaded brother Salim (Madhur Mital) as well as the special bond he develops with the third member of their gang, and the girl he loves, Latika (Freida Pinto).

The flashbacks span years with three different actors playing the characters at various points, tragic circumstances eventually separating them, all leading to the moment when Jamal appears on the show. As we’re given each question we’re also given the accompanying story behind it. Questions range from “Who invented the revolver?” to “Which historical figure is on the $100 bill?” The film constantly astonishes in the way the answers show up in his life. One early question, involving a Bollywood star, has a payoff that’s both touching, disgusting and hysterical all at the same time. We know the ending and it doesn’t matter. What matters is how Jamal gets to it and that’s what kept my mouth open in amazement the entire time.

For all the praise this film has been getting over the past month Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay (based on the novel Q &A by Vikas Swarup) is actually underrated in terms of its depth. It’s smart enough to acknowledge that the questions on the show aren’t difficult and Jamal’s ability to answer them comes from just simply paying attention to what’s going on in his own life. It’s not in the slightest bit unrealistic or manipulative since many people have it in them the capacity to get to the final level of this show. The questions don’t reflect book smarts but rather everyday details we breeze by without ever paying attention to.

It isn’t a screenwriting contrivance that questions baring such a strong connection to key moments in Jamal’s life showed up. All the questions bare a strong connection to all of our lives, except the difference is we never notice or remember it. Jamal did. That’s why the police can’t fathom how he could know all the answers without cheating. They’re stuck in a mind-set that the answers are dependent on intelligence and in doing that they’ve exposed their own limited worldview, strangely confirming the very reason he’s destined to win.
The host of the show (expertly played by Bollywood veteran Anil Kapoor) is Regis Philbin re-imagined as an obnoxious, arrogant sleaze. He’s even more disbelieving of Jamal’s streak of “luck” the police and the script allows us a quiet scene with him that gives us real insight into why. The host also fails to grasp that a situation like this measures guts and resourcefulness more than brains, which is why Jamal never blinks in the face of his intimidation tactics. Compared to what else he’s dealt with in his life, its nothing. It takes a certain kind of person to maintain their composure under those circumstances and the flashbacks do more than tell us how he knew the answers. They tell us how he became that person.

All the characters are given that detailed treatment, specifically Jamal’s brother, Salim, who throughout the story is tough to really get a read on as to where his loyalty lies. At times he acts out in a jealous, violent rage while at others he’ll do anything to protect his brother. He’s rendered in both writing and performance with a wild inconsistency that can only be found in real life, not the movies. When we finally do get a read on him it’s an incredible moment and one that developed organically out of the story. Boyle handles the epic relationship and sometimes cruelly forced estrangement between Jamal and Latika as if it were a fragile keepsake. It’s always on the radar but doesn’t really explode until the film’s final 30 minutes. When it does, you realize just how important those early scenes were.

A lot of movies are released where a variety of actors have to play the same character at different ages, but I don’t think I’ve seen one that’s done it as effectively as this. I really believed those three little kids at the beginning of the film and the adults they grew to become at the end were the same people, which just bolsters its emotional resonance. The cast is comprised of mostly unknowns with the children giving revelatory performances and Patel holding his own against the more seasoned acting vets. He effectively conveys the world-weary blank slate on which the entire story is projected on.

Anyone who calls this a “feel-good movie,” drawing comparisons with Little Miss Sunshine or Juno just because the same studio released them or because this has a “happy ending” is deliberately trying to bury it. I can feel the backlash starting already and it’s sickening that some believe a film shouldn’t be permitted to deliver a life-affirming message while tackling serious issues, no matter how well it's done. Even in these tough times some still insist on suffering at the movies just to say the film ended on a down note. The question should never be whether an ending is happy or sad but rather if it logically follows the 110 minutes that preceded it. I’d challenge anyone to come up with an ending more earned or appropriate given the circumstances.

There’s even been some controversy as to whether the MPAA rated this too harshly with an “R,” with Boyle even publicly stating he was disappointed with the decision. I have no idea why. There’s no way this film should have ever been rated “PG-13” when there are scenes of genocide, a man running down the street on fire and children being tortured. Interestingly, many of the audience members I saw it with just couldn’t take it, either covering their eyes or exiting the theater entirely. It was probably misinformation about the film’s content combined with the context the scenes were presented in that caused those reactions, but the fact remains the same. This got the rating it deserved and it’s a good thing because if it didn’t the detractors would just have more ammunition to unfairly label the film as lightweight. Nothing about it is lightweight.

Boyle truly captures initial excitement we all felt when Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? first debuted in the states in 1999, reminding us that ABC really blew it when they decided to shove it down our throats 7 nights a week because they had no other original programming. They sealed its fate with overexposure, which is a shame because it was the most exciting game show that ever aired in North America. If another program were chosen to build the plot around it wouldn’t have worked. The show’s structure and questions just naturally lends itself to the cinematic story Boyle is conveying.
He also understands that many audiences don’t care for subtitles and finds a way to present them in a unique way that won’t turn us off while cinematographer Dod Mantel’s dazzling, colorful visuals perfectly accompany the energetic rush of the film, showing the slums of India in a light we’re entirely unaccustomed to. The music follows suit, specifically A.R. Rahman’s pulsating score and an unforgettable musical interlude set to M.I.A’s “Paper Planes." If you already loved the song as much as I did, you’ll love it even more after this.

We’ve reached that time of year where critics’ groups from across the country and beyond come out with their lists of 2008’s best films and a variety of cinematic achievement awards are handed it. We complain how they never seem to get it right, but how about those times when they actually do? This is practically a lock to win Best Picture in February and I’m not saying that because I feel it necessarily deserves it (I have to view all the releases this year before making that determination). What I am saying is that the voters are probably drooling all over themselves right now because this film contains all the universal themes they seem to go crazy over. Unfortunate as it is, recent tragic events will just make it all the more relevant. But I do worry massive critical and awards praise will turn people off from the film and prevent them from seeing just how smart and deep it is.

For those who claim Danny Boyle “sold out” by making a film that appeals to the mainstream I’d ask them to take a step back and see that this is the moment he’s been working toward his entire career and just be happy for him. This isn’t a Sam Raimi situation where a filmmaker abandoned the tools that brought him to the dance to court audience favor and a fat paycheck. It’s a case of a director finally finding more universally accessible material that perfectly matches his sensibilities. I always thought Boyle was solid but never considered he had a film like this in him. It takes supreme talent to make a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t succumb to manipulation or theatrics. Slumdog Millionaire is not only every bit as great as you’ve heard, it might even be a little better.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Second Look: The Dark Knight

WARNING! THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS MAJOR PLOT POINTS AND SPOILERS FROM THE DARK KNIGHT

Let’s take a trip back in time to the morning of Friday July 18, 2008 when I arrived at the theater to see The Dark Knight. It just wasn’t my week. Besides being sick, my mind just wasn't into going to the movies. And a film I had been looking forward to for years all of the sudden became a chore for me to go to because I’d been so burnt out by the hype surrounding it. I just wanted to get it out of the way and over with. Fair or not, I said that anything less than the greatest motion picture I’ve ever seen would be considered a huge disappointment. As a result, I was disappointed.

Due to circumstances beyond my control there was only one theater I could see it at and I knew in the back of my mind this venue was bad news. And bad news it was. It was hot, uncomfortable, had poor projection and a few screaming infants thrown for good measure. How much of that contributed to this rather infamous review I’ll never know but I do know that I left the theater that day dejected from a grueling experience. I was definitely more exhausted than enthralled.

That’s not to say I didn’t think The Dark Knight was great. I did, but just didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as everyone else seemed to. I debated whether to even review it because the circumstances surrounding the screening were so awful and I was so rushed that week that there was really no time to let the film sink in. But I did review it, and despite patch areas of massive praise (specifically for Ledger’s performance and the overall ambition of the project) I essentially considered it a letdown, despite awarding it three and a half stars. My problems with the film were as follows:

-I thought Bale’s performance was merely adequate and couldn’t stand his deep, raspy “Batman voice.”
-There was too much story build-up and mob nonsense at the front end of the film.

-The character of Rachel Dawes was once again an underwritten weak link. While I did think Maggie Gylennhaal fared better than Katie Holmes in the role, it was a far narrower victory than I had anticipated.
-The final act (that mostly involved Two-Face) dragged out and could have easily been saved for another installment. Nolan was jamming too much in.
-The movie wasn’t “fun.”


It was time to write this off as yet another case of me seeing a different film than everyone else. It’s happened before (Knocked Up and No Country For Old Men come to mind as obvious examples) but because of my anticipation level this one really stung. If you had told me before I saw it that it would go on to become the second highest grossing film of all-time I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised, but after that first viewing I would have been. I left the theater certain it wouldn’t do as well as expected because it wasn’t your typical mainstream summer popcorn movie and the casual moviegoing public would find it too dark and inaccessible. When it did not only met expectations financially but far surpassed them I was shocked and then even more depressed because in addition to being disappointed by the film, I was wrong as well. It always sucks to be wrong.

So, for the next week or so I just hung my head in frustration as the rest of the country seemingly joined in a giant Dark Knight celebration. Then something strange happened. Over the next couple of weeks all I wanted to talk about with anyone was the film. I’ve joked that the two things I found most interesting to talk about in 2008 were The Dark Knight and John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate- In that order. I found myself talking about the film with strangers and then talking about far longer with people I know.
Whatever my feelings were on it, flaws and all, I couldn’t stop analyzing what I liked and didn’t, examining all the surprising angles Christopher Nolan approached the material with. The most fun I had was speculating with people which franchises could be “Nolanized.” And the more I talked about it the more I started to realize that my opinion of the film about a month after I saw it was substantially different than when I exited the theater on July 18th. With most movies this year it was “one and done.” I’d see it and when it was over I wouldn’t think about it again. But it never left my mind and even when I was attempting to review other films I just wanted to continue reviewing that one. Don’t believe me, just get a load of this:

“Speaking of The Dark Knight, I don’t think it helped that I saw that film before this. While wildly different in tone and approach, both are based on comic characters and a comparison makes this movie look especially ridiculous, almost as if it’s from a bygone era: pre-July '08.” -From my review of Speed Racer (9/20/08)

“The Dark Knight wasn’t without its flaws also but the big difference is that they were so interesting you could analyze them for years.”

-From my review of Iron Man (10/6/08)

“This isn’t There Will Be Blood or The Dark Knight. There are no benefits to hearing in excruciating detail how it was made.”
-Commenting on the DVD’s overabundance of special features in my review of You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (10/13/08)


“I took some heat for giving (The Dark Knight) “only” three and a half stars and saying it didn’t meet expectations. But no film could have met those incredible expectations and in trying it came closer than it had any right to.”
-From my review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (10/20/08)

“Would everyone be praising The Dark Knight as much as they have if it ended with Brandon Routh’s Clark Kent sharing a drink and some laughs with Commissioner Gordon in a bar?” -From my review of The Incredible Hulk (10/4/08)

“It’s also more involving than the two other superhero outings this summer, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (The Dark Knight shouldn't be considered a superhero film).”
-From my review of Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (11/18/08)


“This summer, The Dark Knight proved you can have your cake and eat it too, entertaining the masses while still delivering a story of substance.”
-From my review of Hancock (12/1/08)


“This is The Dark Knight of hot and sour soup.”
-Me, after ordering Chinese takeout a couple of weeks ago.

This had cast a shadow so large in my mind that no other film released during the year could escape from under it. I didn’t realize just how large it was until recently. It was clear that the movie had a bigger impact on me than I had originally thought, which is why I couldn’t wait to watch it a second time to see how much my opinion would differ, if at all. It’s interesting to note that I rushed out to purchase the DVD immediately (how lacking it is in special features is a rant for another time). So did everyone else. Except I rarely buy movies and have an unbelievably wimpy collection for someone who constantly writes and talks about films. I basically never buy and just rent because while there are many movies I love, there are very few I have any interest in watching again. You’d be surprised how few films hold up well on second and third viewings. It’s a tough test.

My second viewing of The Dark Knight was a strange experience, and provided the realization that I retained even less of it in the theater than I had thought. As a result, the second viewing turned into another first one and I had to watch it a third time, which kind of became the second, if that makes any sense at all. The one problem I expected to get worse, or at best just simply not improve, was Bale’s performance, but I was surprised to discover how little his Batman voice bothered me the second time around. It was just there and I didn’t think much of it. I will say that I believed Bale created two separate persona here and actually could see how those close to Bruce Wayne wouldn’t have a clue that he’s Batman. Earlier, I had considered his portrayal of Bruce Wayne to be “arrogant” but was taken aback to find myself rooting for him more than I had before.

I still found the plot a little dense and the Rachel character underdeveloped, but the film didn’t drag out like it did for me before. Just the opposite. That third act, which felt tacked on initially flowed much better and the running time flew by. I was transfixed the entire way through. And it was nice to finally hear in all its glory Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's score which was drowned out by theater noise the first time around. And yes, it's as effective as everyone's said. When it was over all I wanted to do was watch it again. It’s in that third viewing where I was literally jumping up and down with excitement as I watched. The movie playing back in my mind for the past 5 months collided with what was on the screen and I loved every second of it. A plot structure I had thought was messy actually had three very clear and distinct sections that comprised the narrative and contributed to the overall themes:

1.The introduction of chaos and anarchy into Gotham City in the form of the Joker
2.The moral test for the characters that resulted from it
3. The fallout

And looking back, it’s almost unbelievable that Nolan somehow accomplished this:

-A superhero film played completely straight, stripped down to the point where it could be classified as a hyper-realistic crime epic.
-The presentation of the Joker as an anarchist and terrorist who just doesn’t care.
-Batman’s chronic inability to grasp that idea to the point that Alfred needs to explain it to him.
-Lieutenant/ Commissioner Gordon depicted as a hero at a higher level than Batman.
-The portrayal of Harvey Dent as not only as a really likable guy, but a hero who suffers a Shakespearean-level fall from grace.
-Batman’s identity discovered.
-The first successful attempt at having two major villains in a Batman film by brilliantly having Joker be the engine driving Two-Face.
-Rachel Dawes DEAD.
-Two-Face DEAD.
-Joker survives, and WINS.
- The film closing with Batman a fugitive and Gordon destroying the bat signal.

With all the Oscar talk surrounding the film lately, looking at that list above makes me think the nomination it’s most deserving of just might in the screenplay category. Those are just the big points and it doesn’t even scratch the surface. That’s not to mention all the unforgettable scenes and images that stay with you like the bank robbery, Hong Kong, the interrogation, the pencil trick, the ferry, the climactic rooftop discussion, and of course, “Nurse Joker.” No more needs to be said about Ledger’s performance, but consider something: As powerful as it was it never overwhelmed the film or overshadowed anyone else. There was still plenty of breathing room. That’s a real credit to Nolan’s direction, the editing, and how controlled Ledger’s work remained while inhabiting the most uncontrollable of characters.

When I first saw the film Eckhart’s turn as Harvey Dent really stood out for me but the more viewings I have under my belt the more I appreciate what Gary Oldman did with Lieutenant Gordon. Here’s a character who throughout all the previous Batman installments was nothing but a throwaway figurehead. Here, Nolan re-imagines Gordon and Oldman brings him to life as a hero who must make tough moral decisions to protect the city he loves. He isn’t just a supporting player called upon to just throw up the bat signal on cue. You know this script is firing on all cylinders when by the end we not only care what happens to him, but also his family. Oldman’s subtly brilliant work is all but invisible the first time you watch the film but on repeated viewings it comes into clear focus. He’s the heart and soul.

The funny thing is I still think the film has its problems, has been massively overpraised, but that's not its fault. I’m betting a lot more people than are willing to admit had the same initial reaction to the movie I did and it does help to go into it prepared to not see your typical summer superhero film. Similarly, anyone approaching this with the mindset that it should be the greatest film ever made will be sorely disappointed. Nothing should have to live up to that tag. Instead, it slowly reveals itself as the layers are peeled away, which could explain how it’s done such great business through repeated viewings. The Dark Knight really is the rare film that gets better each time you watch it. On my third, I feel as if I've only begun to scratch the surface.

My biggest complaint that the film wasn’t any fun drew a lot of ire but it seems especially ridiculous and irrelevant now since no movie has given me more enjoyment over the past few months. I just never anticipated that the fun would occur AFTER I saw it, which serves as a reminder that the experience of watching a movie should continue long after it’s over, at least with the really good ones. It’s a little something called "STAYING POWER." I wouldn’t take back my initial review because I think in a crazy way it caused me to appreciate the film more in the long run. But there is still one thing I need to change:

**** (out of ****)

There we go, that’s better.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe

Director: Chris Carter
Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner, Mitch Pileggi

Running Time: 104 min.

Rating: PG-13


** (out of ****)

There are two mindsets with which you can approach The X-Files: I Want To Believe. You can go in not expecting much, and that’s pretty much what you’ll end up with. Nothing gained, nothing lost. Or, like me, you can go in thinking that a popular series that’s been off the air for over six years and concluded with one of the worst shark jumps in television history better come up with something really good to get people to show up at theaters.

It’s not so much that film does anything actively wrong, but that it just doesn’t bother doing anything at all. It plays exactly like one of your standard “monster-of the-week” episodes of The X-Files, and a pretty bad one at that. Because of this, those completely unfamiliar with the show will likely be more forgiving, or in the least they won’t actively despise it as much as I did. It steals the worst aspects of Hostel and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, fusing them into a screenplay that wouldn’t even pass muster as one of the lesser CBS crime procedurals. And director/series creator Chris Carter wonders why no one showed up for this film or why he’s having problems re-launching the franchise.

While I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing this film, but I did enter it with an open mind and wanted Carter to prove me wrong and pull this off. He didn't. I never considered The X-Files to ever be one of our greatest shows because even in its best seasons it was frustratingly uneven. Episodes of brilliance would be followed the next week by something so absurd you wouldn’t believe it was even the same series. But the one constant right up until the end was that you'd never get any answers. Now Carter actually has the nerve to continue that maddening tactic here where it’s most important he deliver. Sadly though, it’s almost fitting. If someone asked me what the problems were with the series as a whole I’d tell them to just watch this film and it would save them a lot of time.
Six years after the conclusion of the show Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is a bearded recluse while his former partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) works as a physician at a Catholic hospital. Neither have ties to the F.B.I. anymore and seeing what they were doing now was probably the most interesting part of the film, or at least it would have been if it were a little more inventive. Both are exactly where you’d expect them to at this point and when they first appeared on screen together I was actually taken aback by how little I cared.

When a pedophile priest (is there any other kind in movies these days?) named Father Joe (Billy Connelly) starts having psychic visions of an abducted F.B.I. agent Scully is contacted by Agent Drummy (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner) and Whitney (Amanda Peet) about recruiting Mulder so they can help crack the case. After some initial resistance due to his tumultuous relationship with the bureau, Mulder eventually gives in and the duo dedicate themselves to finding the missing agent with Father’s Joe’s help. It isn’t too long before Mulder and Scully comfortably slide back into their familiar roles of believer and skeptic, respectively. While Scully seems more preoccupied with one of her dying patients, clues start to emerge (i.e. missing limbs) that connect the disappearance to a string of serial murders.

Wait a second…Mulder and Scully came back for THIS? It must be hard to find good help in the F.B.I. these days. I understand Carter not wanting to alienate casual viewers by delving too far into the show’s mythology but he thought putting Mulder and Scully in a “torture porn” plot was the solution? Worse yet, the two barely share any screen time together. Most of the film is spent with Mulder running around in the dark while Scully is at the hospital cutting through administrative red tape for her terminally ill patient. These characters are important and should be treated as such. Bringing them for a run-of-the-mill creepy killer story is like a creative slap in the face of not only the two stars, but the few fans left that still care deeply about the show. If there was ever a time for Carter to deliver a massive, all encompassing conspiracy story it was now. What should be a big event doesn’t even FEEL like one. The least he could do was attempt to fake it.
Carter and co-producer Frank Spotnitz’s script was obviously trying (with all the subtly of a hammer to the head) to depict the contrast between Mulder’s belief in the paranormal and Scully’s dependence on science, a running theme throughout the series’ history. Except the story doesn’t contain the type of depth that would make that approach resonate. Carter throws the die-hard fans a bone every once in a while such as in an unintentionally hilarious scene when Peet’s F.B.I. agent name checks former cases of Mulder’s from classic episodes There are also references to his abducted sister and romantic relationship with Scully, but all of these are just thrown in for posterity and don’t amount to anything. It should have provided the groundwork for the entire film.

Anyone who would go see this were probably knowledgeable fans anyway so part of me thinks Carter would have been better off going off the deep end with mythology than taking this route. The last X-Files film, 1998’s Fight The Future, did that and the results, while not great, were at least considerably better than this. Maybe because the show was at the height of its run Carter had an incentive for it to perform well. He is stuck in somewhat of a bind here but has no one to blame but himself because he wrote the franchise into a trap where it can’t appeal to either the die-hard or casual viewer without alienating the other. It should be a lesson to all the showrunners out there thinking of giving their television series the big screen treatment. This is a blueprint of how not to do it.

With the stakes raised in a feature film presentation, Carter doesn’t technically broaden the scope either. It’s shot no differently than your typical episode of the show. It’s dark, dreary and depressing, not to mention impossible to see what’s going on. The new additions, Peet and Xzibit are wasted and look bored to tears, with neither the least bit believable as an F.B.I. agent while Connolly fares a little better in his hammy, one-dimensional role. You’d figure to fully capitalize on whatever nostalgia is left over from the show we’d be treated to some interesting cameos but we only get one. It’s from Mitch Pileggi as Mulder and Scully’s former superior, Walter Skinner. His all too brief appearance is a scarce highlight of the film and it’s so successful you wonder why Carter didn’t add more familiar faces from the series. Who cares if most of them are dead? He should have gone all out. The topper on this mess is his refusal to even give us a satisfying conclusion for a storyline this slight. The guy clearly has major commitment issues.
You have to feel for Duchovny and Anderson. They’re so great in these roles and the characters are loaded with interest and potential the way they play them, but they’re given absolutely nothing to do. The romantic chemistry between the two is something Carter always struggled with throughout the series’ run but here he finds a new way to screw it up: just flat-out ignoring it. These two have been to hell and back together but you’d never know it given the wimpy context in which their characters are presented here.

In Carter’s defense the timing for this was horrible and the studio grossly miscalculated how many people would be interested in this in an already crowded blockbuster summer movie season. Plus, going up against The Dark Knight wasn’t exactly the wisest counter-programming strategy. Deserved or not, the studio did everything they could to bury this. The movie screamed out for a fall or winter release date where the field would have been much clearer.

Steven Spielberg found out how difficult it was to resurrect a franchise successfully this past year with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and made some similar mistakes to this. But even as silly as that film’s story was it was at least appropriate in scope for the character. It was completely misguided and awful but at least it wasn’t lazy. This is lazy. Maybe my bashing probably speaks more to expectations and disappointment than the actual film but so what? Carter deserves it. Given a major motion picture canvas to paint on he chose to just give us another episode of the show. That’s inexcusable. And being just slightly more than a casual viewer of the show I can’t even imagine what the die-hard fans think. Maybe just seeing Mulder and Scully again is enough for them. That's clearly all Chris Carter was betting on.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Wanted

Director: Timur Bekmambetov Starring: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Common, Thomas Kretschmann, Terence Stamp
Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: R


*** (out of ****)

There are some actors who I love to see stretch and challenge themselves, taking a wide variety of roles that push them out of their comfort zone. Angelina Jolie is NOT one of them. We all know why she's here. There’s no sense hiding it. It wasn’t to save the world or adopt babies. It was for her to expertly handle a firearm as her tattooed body hangs out of a dangerously high speeding vehicle. We want her to kill people and look hot doing it. Lately, she’s done neither, opting instead to star in a string of boring, emotionally draining roles that would cure even the worst cases of insomnia.

There are so few believable female action stars out there today that the loss of Jolie to more serious projects was a major blow, at least from where I sat. That’s why, if nothing else, Wanted should be celebrated as a return to form for her as she once again slips into the kind of bad-ass part she was born to play. If every role she took from here on out was identical to this I wouldn’t complain. She has a gift and should never hesitate using it.
My enthusiasm for her return to the genre that made her is tempered slightly by the fact that her character is underwritten and the film containing her big comeback seems more interested in drowning itself out in a pool of Matrix-like effects. But unlike that overrated piece of ‘90’s cyber-junk this at least has the decency to not pass itself off as anything more than disposable mindless entertainment. If you view it on that level it’ll work, despite its many flaws. The first hour introduces us to easily the whiniest crybaby protagonist of the year but you can't tell me it isn't entertaining. The movie have missed its calling as a workplace comedy in the vain of Office Space because it’s been a while since I laughed as hard during an action film as I did in the opening minutes of this one. What comes after isn’t nearly as clever, recycling a tired plot from other films, but it doesn’t really make a difference because it’s executed fine. Wanted can be sometimes be more annoying than enthralling but the overall result is a satisfying adrenaline rush.

Imagine nearly every social encounter you have being accompanied by a cold sweat, a flushed face and the sound of your heart beating out of your chest at 140 beats per minute. That’s the cubicle dwelling life of anxiety ridden office drone Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) an accounts manager who’s life is so boring that when he "Googles" himself nothing comes up. When not being verbally abused by his tyrant boss (Lorna Scott) he’s arguing with his bitchy girlfriend (Kristen Hager) who’s cheating on him with his best friend Barry (Chris Pratt) during lunch hour. What’s the highlight of Wes' day? Buying Barry condoms.

Everything changes when he encounters the sexy and dangerous Fox (Jolie) who rescues him from a drug store attack from Cross (Thomas Kretschmann) a rogue assassin. He finds out from Fox that his father (David O’ Hara) was really “Mr. X,” a member of a thousand year old group of assassins known as The Fraternity and he was just murdered on a rooftop by Cross. Fox and the organization’s head honcho Sloan (Morgan Freeman) take Wes under their wing with the goal of molding him into a fully-Fraternized killing machine capable of exacting revenge on this traitor who murdered his father.
The first half hour of Wanted is executed just about as perfectly as you could hope for. Thats' due to the hilariously deadpan depiction of Wes' pathetic existence at work and the spot-on narration accompanying it. The tone is just right and that combined with some clever editing makes the character relatable. Sure, it’s a rip-off of Fight Club but if you’re going to crib from a movie you may as well make sure it’s great one, and you better do it well. Then there's up and comer McAvoy, in a role that’s a complete 180 from his work in last year’s Oscar contending period drama Atonement. He plays a wuss so well it’s almost scary and does it with an American accent that rarely falters. Pratt steals nearly every scene he’s in with his smug delivery as the disingenuous “best friend” Barry, a jerk I’m betting many will recognize immediately from their everyday lives. As they will Janice, Wesley’s boss from hell who has an unhealthy obsession with her stapler. These characters are played with such gusto you’d think the actors are having the time of their lives. If not, they sure fooled me.

After being treated to the most entertaining use of a computer keyboard I’ve ever seen the material moves into more problematic territory with the training of Wesley and mythology behind the Fraternity’s “kill one, save a thousand” philosophy ( I’m still not exactly sure how that philosophy comes into play when you’ve just killed a trainload of innocent people). The screenplay is loosely based on Mark Millar’s graphic novel series and just about any other action film you could think of. You don’t go into a movie like this expecting a riveting, complex character study, nor is it one, but I was surprised by a well-placed twist that not only made sense and took the story in a much more interesting direction. It definitely raised the stakes, convincing me that it had more on its mind than I originally thought. It’s still dumb, but definitely not lazy.

Wesley’s training sequences also heavily borrow (steal?) from Fight Club and Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (of Nightwatch and Daywatch fame) can’t seem to get enough of that Matrix “bullet time” technology and heavily relies on many fast forward and slow-motion sequences. It works for this kind of film and Bekmambetov really knows how to shoot exhilarating action scenes but there were times where it felt more annoying than exciting. How many times do we need to see curving bullets or the point of view from one as it finds its (human) target?

McAvoy and Jolie play off each other well and when Wes first meets Fox his dumb founded expressions and over-the-top theatrics sell the whole experience perfectly. Though it occurs seemingly overnight, his transition from pencil pusher to certifiable badass killing machine works, which says a lot about his range of skill as an actor.

As Fox, Jolie has a smaller role than you may expect but she makes the most of it. I wish they did more with her but in this kind of a role just her presence is enough. She looks great (even if she could use a cheeseburger or two) and despite her slight frame she’s STILL incredibly believable with a gun in her hand. At times she looks bored with it but the important thing is that we’re not, a claim that can’t be made about some of her other film work of late.

If you’re an actress with that much screen presence and natural charisma the last thing you want to do is take parts that suppress it, which is why this is exactly what she should be doing. Forget about being taken seriously as an actress. Why bother? She’ll always be known as a celebrity first and this is the kind of part, more than any other, where we can check that distracting information at the door and just have some fun. Morgan Freeman once again plays his old, wise authority figure role but I appreciated that he at least took a little bit of a detour with it this time around.
Make no mistake about it, this is a dumb movie with little to no nutritional value, but it’s also a thrill ride that never lets up. The soundtrack rocks and features an original song by Danny Elfman (“The Little Things”) that would deserve inclusion among this year’s Best Original Song nominees if there isn’t some ridiculous rule disqualifying it (and I'm sure there probably is).

While I watching this I wasn’t even sure what I thought but then after it sunk in I realized it accomplished exactly what it needed to with style and precision, despite the fact there isn’t an original idea to be found. It almost plays like a clumsier version of last year’s superior Shoot ‘Em Up but just seeing Jolie in a role like this again is reason enough to recommend it. Two sequels are planned if for no other than to make a quick buck because this story certainly can’t support them. The fun here was watching the wimpy protagonist indoctrinated into this crazy world so without that I don't know what's left. But in a summer full of big blockbuster disappointments for me Wanted at least manages to hold its ground.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Australia

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Bryan Brown, Brandon Walters, David Wenham

Running Time: 165 minutes

Rating: PG-13


***1/2 (out of ****)


Poor Baz Luhrmann. He had to know even before Australia was released into theaters critics and the mainstream media would have their knives sharpened, ready to attack. But someone has to make a movie like this and I don’t see any other filmmaker with enough guts to try. In 2001 Luhrman reintroduced us to the movie musical with Moulin Rouge! and Hollywood is still riding the wave of its success.Now, seven years later, he’s resurrecting another endangered genre, the old-fashioned studio epic, aiming to recapture the magic of such golden age classics as Gone With The Wind, Giant and The African Queen with their sweeping vistas and gargantuan stories. There’s even a mustache-twirling villain. You have to give him credit. The Oscar season wouldn’t feel complete without a big movie and this is BIG in every sense of the word. From its scope, to its story, to its ambition, and yes, even to its seemingly never-ending running time.

Of course the big question coming out of this is just how "EPIC" it is. The answer to that is a little tricky and it’s there where the one glaring flaw with the film comes into view. In terms of length and scope its definitely epic but there were many points where I felt it was trying very hard to evoke memories of those aforementioned classic films without ever actually becoming the real thing. Baz’s intentions are blatantly obvious, but that’s probably what he wanted and why he’s respected and even adored as a filmmaker by many. He wears his heart on his sleeve and for this to become the real thing he’d have to hold back and we all know this isn’t a director capable of subtlety. To his credit, he knows exactly the kind of movie he’s trying to make, offers no apologies for it and takes it as far over the top as it can possibly go. In the final act he manages to take it even further than that with a series of false endings that may test even the most patient of filmgoers.

As the movie entered its home stretch (one of many) I found almost laughing at the audacity of the picture, but I do mean that in a good way. Not just because the events that occur at the end were hysterically entertaining, but because I simply couldn’t believe he went all out like this. Is it too long? Well, I didn’t remember what year I entered the theater and was pretty sure I didn’t have a full beard when it started. But I was never bored. The whole thing is a sprawling, self-indulgent mess that should win an Oscar for LEAST Editing, yet I kind of loved it and the approach was definitely appropriate for the daunting material.

The year is 1939 and stuck-up English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) has arrived in Australia to take ownership of her late husband’s cattle station, Faraway Downs, where a half-caste Aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters) is hiding out from authorities. He learns the way of the land from his grandfather, King George (David Gulpilil), who looks over him and the events in the film from the sidelines, acting as a sort of a Greek chorus for the viewer. Lady Sarah’s first order of business is dismissing the ranch’s abusive manager Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), unaware she must also soon contend with beef baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) who wants to corner all of the cattle market and add the land to his growing collection.

With the help of a rugged, quick-tempered man known only as the “Drover” (Hugh Jackman), she embarks on a journey to drive the cattle across the land to the town of Darwin where soldiers are stationed. Joining them is Nullah and the ranch’s drunk Teddy Roosevelt look alike, Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson). This adventure comprises the old-school Western portion of the film, arguably the most exciting and visually impressive (especially a scene where they steer the cattle from the edge of a cliff). Despite complaints to the contrary I thought the CGI looked just fine.

From there it moves into romance territory as the class clash between prissy Lady Sarah and the Drover evolves into what we expect it to and the film makes social statements about The Stolen Generation, a shameful period in the country’s history where mixed-race aboriginal children were removed from their families and forcibly placed into white society. If I had to pick a section of the film that could have used some tightening or a trim this probably would have been it. The film then turns into a war epic with the bombing of Dover by Japanese forces and this section is so brief that if you blink you’ll miss it. Don’t blink though because it’s an incredible sequence that's already drawn mostly unfair comparisons to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. There’s a visual similarity but unlike that atrocity this is actually well directed and performed.

The heart and soul of Australia lies in newcomer Brandon Walters' performance as the young Aboriginal boy Nullah. Besides his energetic and engaging narration of the story, Walters just commands attention every time he’s onscreen and basically steals the movie from his more seasoned co-stars. It’s nearly impossible to believe this kid has never acted a day in his life and was just plucked from obscurity. If the film manages to get any nominations outside the obvious and deserving ones for Mandy Walker’s awe inspiring cinematography and Catherine Martin's impressive costume design it will belong to him.

As for Kidman, she might be the only actress working today that when I see her name on a film I’m instantly willing to pay up. I have to wonder how many more great performances she can give before everyone stops giving her a hard time and finally admits she’s one of the best we have. No one takes risks like she does. Ironically though the only Oscar she owns is for her role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, easily one of her least interesting performances. She should have already earned hardware for her daring turns in Dogville and Birth, the latter of which was one of the best performances I’ve seen in a bad movie. Her turn as Lady Sarah does not rank among those mainly because the character isn’t as fully formed and more meant to stand in as a Scarlett O’ Hara type. But boy does she play it well. Naysayers who claim she’s incapable of facial expressions may want to pay attention to the first half hour of this film where she delivers a bunch of hysterical ones.

By casting Kidman as an uptight ice queen Baz cleverly plays on her celebrity reputation and as Lady Sarah’s guard starts to drop her performance loosens, kicking into high gear. Of course, as expected, everyone is blaming the film’s box office performance and critical reception on her as if no one else was involved at all in the making of it. What nonsense. The media was foaming at the mouth, waiting to bash this if only for the reason she was headlining it. You’d think by now the public would have finally gotten over the fact she was married to Tom Cruise, especially since he has a new wife for us to pick on. I think down the line people will eventually see how silly the Kidman hate is and she’ll eventually be remembered as one of the greats. As good as she is, however, it's actually Jackman who carries most of the film, bringing a lot of substance to what could have been a shallow, one-dimensional role. Well, it kind of still is a shallow, one-dimensional role but he manages to hide that really well. The performance is almost invisible in its effectiveness.
The supporting actors also turn in fine work and their characters were treated with more respect than I expected. Bryan Brown is pitch-perfect in an underwritten role as King Carney while David Wenham chews the scenery appropriately as the main stock villain, Fletcher. When his character starts to really fly off the rails in the final act he’s up for it and the results are a lot of fun. I appreciated the attention given to the Drover’s helper Magarri (well played by David Ngoombujarra) and the comedy involving the Thompson’s Kipling. Even Fletcher’s wife (Essie Davis) is brush stroked with a human dimension I found surprising. I could see the argument these characters are broad stereotypes but would that make them all that different from those in the films this is paying homage to? Some will have problems with the ending but when I like and care about the characters the last thing I want is for them to needlessly suffer for the sake of dark realism, especially in a fun Hollywood throwback like this.

It’s easy to understand why critics and audiences haven’t responded that favorably to the film, outside of a preconceived bias against the director and star. When this much time and effort is put into something there’s the tendency to expect a masterpiece and anything less is deemed unacceptable. Baz leaves it all up on the screen and drenches this irony-free outing in pure, unapologetic emotion, something we’re definitely not used to seeing these days.

Under normal circumstances a film as big as this would seem to be a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination, which was probably a primary motivation behind behind making it. It won’t get one though. There are just too many issues with it and politics aren’t on its side, but I’ll admit it would be funny if the Academy just decided to go ahead and nominate it anyway in spite of the poor reviews because it has that "Oscar feel” to it. They did it last year with Atonement and ended up being right.
When the film ended I was more exhausted than elated and still not sure whether it was long because it needed to be or long just for the sake of being long. The Dark Knight was only 15 minutes shorter than this but it sure didn’t feel like it. Outside of that it’s difficult to name many specific things it did wrong. Baz is smart like that. He covered himself. He knows that overindulgence is never a criminal offense and, as a result, he gets away with an awful lot. I left with a feeling that I had seen something of importance and substance, not a frequent event in what’s been a considerably weak movie going year. The more I think back the more I realize how much I liked it, a small miracle considering my general distaste for period films.

An argument will be made that a movie as big as this can only be only be experienced on the big screen and to an extent that’s true but I’d like to offer up a case for DVD viewing. It can be grueling in a theater for that long and I think I would have enjoyed this more if I saw it in the comfort of my own home, but that’s just me. There’s no denying the theater atmosphere does add to the experience though and cinephiles will likely prefer it in that context. It’s definitely a movie for movie lovers. We need big films like this because without them the smaller ones would mean less. And I’m glad someone is out there still trying to make them. There may have been better films than Australia this year, but few had as much guts.