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03.05.09

epic

MY FAVORITE RECORDS right now are the latest by Fleet Foxes and The Black Keys. I'm reading The Secrets Of Rome by Corrado Augias, trying to scratch together enough money to see the Tindersticks this month, and making my way through the pile of magazines I bought and didn't read in the last few months I had a job. I'm trying to write an article/book proposal on Mad Men, and I don't update this site as often as I should. Coming up - reviews of a Samsung handycam, a Fuji digital camera, the DVDs of Milk and Pinocchio, an interview with puppeteer Bob Baker, and another rumination on what's wrong with newspapers. In the meantime...

THANKS TO FILMS AS DIFFERENT AS CLEOPATRA and Heaven's Gate, the epic film has had a bad reputation for many years. Even while David Lean was producing what were probably the last, definitive examples of the genre - films such as Lawrence Of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago - there were audacious, faintly desperate money-losers such as The Fall Of The Roman Empire being made that would forever be associated with Hollywood losing the script during the '60s.

There was a time when Hollywood knew how to do three things well - the musical, the western and the epic adventure. Today, it's almost completely unable to attempt the first, attempts the second only with liberal applications of irony or agenda aforethought, and has diluted the third with too many blaring, CGI-laced blockbusters that mistake production values for grandeur.

Director Baz Luhrmann had a huge and anomalous success with the first (Moulin Rouge,) and has attempted to mix a bit of the second into a lot of the third for Australia, a film whose title alone suggests an ambition that it would be hard to fulfill. A film called America or Great Britain or France would doubtless set a ponderous task for itself, and even a second tier country's whole history might possibly be too much for mere film to encompass. (A film called Canada, in all likelihood, would be shot mostly in a campground, feature a half hour of scrolling titles to explain obscure points of legal and parliamentary history, and end with a further 20 minutes of credits thanking every government agency in all 10 provinces and 3 territories.)

Luhrmann presses on regardless, and begins the film with an apology to Aboriginals who might be offended by seeing a person now dead portrayed onscreen (the film explains this in good time,) followed by a series of title cards that pretty much give away the major plot points to come. The action begins in a billabong - you have no idea how much I adore typing those words - where an Aboriginal elder is teaching a boy to spear fish, before some white men interrupt their idyll, and one of them ends up dead.

The boy clambers onto the dead man's bloodied horse and races along the outback - cue the first of many, many helicopter shots - to the station where he lives, after which the camera takes an even more vertiginous leap from the Antipodes to England, where a rich woman (Nicole Kidman) is speaking in very precise, clipped Rich Englishwoman to a fretting advisor about her absent husband's cattle ranch, and her urgent need to persuade him to sell up and save the family fortune. The scene features such electrifying dialogue as "Oh Ramsden, drink your tea," a belittling retort whose devastating social effect has doubtless gone the way of forelock-tugging.

She boards a plane for the long voyage to the other side of the world and Port Darwin, where she's to be met by The Drover (Hugh Jackman,) her husband's most trusted employee. She finds him in the midst of a barroom brawl, where he uses her matching luggage as weapons, before bundling her into a rickety, overloaded truck for the long trek across back to the station, where she discovers that the dead man in the billabong - trust me, writing this is far more fun than watching it - is her husband.



It has to be noted that Kidman's performance up to this point, all fluttering shrieks and gasps, wide-eyed incredulity and haughty bluster, is probably among the worst she's ever delivered. She's not entirely to blame - Luhrmann's never been a director known for his restraint, and he seems to have mistaken epic sweep for broadness here, and loosened the reins on his actors accordingly.

It takes entirely too long for Kidman to realize that she has to drive her husband's cattle across the outback to Port Darwin, where she'll break the monopoly of King Carney, the local cattle baron played by Bryan Brown. Why, precisely, is never explained - the pressing need for aerial tracking shots has crowded out the space normally set aside for explaining agricultural monopoly - but at least two characters lay out the scenario before the shoe drops for Kidman. The film is full of this sort of redundancy.

There's a running gag about the Drover's dream of breeding a bush horse with an English mare that's also flogged a few times too many before it actually happens, after Kidman and Jackman have marshaled their ragtag station staff into a crack team that beats King Carney to the boats in Darwin harbour. This would be the natural climax of the film, though we're only halfway through, and the host of threats set into motion by Luhrmann - King Carney's evil henchman (David Wenham from 300), the government racists who want to ship the boy to a mission, the Japanese - haven't really done their worst.

The film's pacing is a marvel, alternately lurching and breathless, mostly when it's supposed to be distracting us from plot holes. After the false climax at the end of the cattle drive, we never really know when the thing is really ending, and characters keep searching for each other in darkness, smoke and fog, then rush to embrace against the drag of slow motion. It's a tale told by an absent-minded storyteller, in love with the rush of happy endings but less sure how to satisfyingly get there.

To be fair, Luhrmann never loses sight of the fact that he's making an epic; when the big cattle drive is about to begin, the soundtrack suddenly unleashes a snippet of Morricone-esque twang in homage to Sergio Leone, and the final obstacle the drive has to overcome is a stretch of brutal sand introduced with the same dreadful relish as the Nefud Desert - the "anvil of the sun" - in Lawrence Of Arabia.

Never mind that the whole movie doesn't have a fraction of the tension of the credit sequence in Once Upon A Time In The West, or that the heroes' triumph over the sun and sand is never seen, and rushes by with a head-scratching confusion that suggests a poor edit. Not surprising for an unabashed lover of camp, Luhrmann is willing to ignore the need for the basic, unglamourous machinery of plot in his eagerness to get to his visual showstoppers.

HOW TO DESCRIBE Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic? Well, it's not really animated, since what we're seeing is Dave Gibbons' drawings for Alan Moore's graphic novel digitally enhanced with zooms and swipes and the odd bit of articulated motion to provide the idea - but nothing like the dynamism or visible effort - of real animation.

And it's not an adaptation as much as a straight retelling, frame by frame, of Moore and Gibbons' book - a faithfulness to the source that fans are apparently happy about, while they brace themselves for the inevitable liberalities that Zack Snyder will doubtless take with the most hotly anticipated comic adaptation of the last 25 years.

Besides Gibbons' illustrations, it features Tom Stechschulte - an actor whose resume includes roles on Law & Order and Quincy - reading all of Moore's dialogue and narration, switching from male to female, young to old. It's like having the book read to you by a particularly engaged lector, or as fans have said online, like reading it aloud, provided you're a middle-aged white man. Which makes W:TCMC more like a book on tape, with pictures - something, on the surface, you wouldn't think anyone needs.

Still, Watchmen fans have had nothing but praise for this rather apocryphal-sounding adaptation online. It's been years since I read the book, so watching the 12 episodes on 2 discs was like a refresher, except that it would have taken me far less than the 325 minute running time to do so. I couldn't help but wonder, as I listened to Stechschulte's one man radio play and watched Gibbons' drawings slide around the screen, just how this gloomy relic of '80s leftist paranoia would play with actors and sets. The jury's out until Friday's opening, and the initial rumblings aren't too hopeful.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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