MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Australia, Beatrix Potter, and more… plus, this week’s box set


Australia (Four Stars) (A)
Australia/U.K.; Baz Luhrmann, 2008 (20th Century Fox)

Over the top it may be, sport, but Baz (Moulin Rouge!) Luhrmann’s visually scrumptious, rousing epic of WW2-era Australia unbound, was one of my favorite movies of 2008.Now, the title may suggest something like James Michener’s centuries-sweeping Hawaii. But Luhrmann’s movie follows only a small slice of Aussie history — lasting from September, 1939 to February 1942 — while managing to whip up and evoke a great deal more. Despite the mixed reviews, it entertained me mightily.

Like Luhrmann’s previous films, it’s a new-fangled star vehicle for a classic sexy movie romantic couple — Nicole Kidman as cattle rancher Lady Sarah Ashley and Hugh Jackman as the impudent but cattle-savvy Drover — and it’s a fascinating piece of genre-bending. The first big part is a full-blown transplanted American Western, owing heavy debts to Red River, The Searchers, The Big Country and other post-war epics (including a few other Australian Westerns like Walkabout and Breaker Morant and maybe Harry Watt’s 1946 WW2 cattle drive adventure The Overlanders)– as rich and spacious and entertaining enough for any normal movie, all by itself. The next and last part is an explosive World War 2 invasion movie, recreating the Japanese air attack on Darwin, on Feb. 19, 1942 with sweeping violence, magical artificiality and a little poignant heart-tugging.

Australia drenches us in the kind of elevated-genre romanticism, irony and shameless eye-candy that made Moulin Rouge! such a knockout. The movie is narrated by aborigine boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), and it’s his child‘s eye view that predominates — even when he’s narrating things that took place when he wasn’t there. From his vantage, we see the beauteous Lady Sarah arrive in Australia to assume ownership of her cattle ranch at the lyrically named Faraway Downs. (By the way, I think Australia was hurt by its title, which may have put critics in a portentous, statue-smashing mood. Faraway Downs would have been my choice.)

We then see Lady S. plunged into a beef-selling war with national cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown). We see her sparky meeting with the Drover, an expert cattle drive guy who is friends with the Aborigines (his sidekick is the salty, noble Magarri, played by David Ngoombujarra) and who, we immediately figure, will end her corseted aristocratic ways, as Bogie did Kate‘s on The African Queen.

Australia is a picture for people with a prodigal love for movies. It’s what we used to call a movie-movie, a knowingly artificial work like Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, North by Northwest — or The Wizard of Oz, that immerses us in a world of desire and spectacle usually only available to us on a movie screen. That gloriously magnified and exaggerated domain, may be inspired by our world — and it may replicate some of its historical currents and even its national crimes — but that’s only to make of it all something more visually and dramatically splendid and spine-tingling. Luhrmann’s movie is packed with allusions, the most persistent, injected over and over, being to the 1939 Wizard of Ozand Judy Garland‘s heart-bending showstopper Over the Rainbow.

Yet it’s also a vast, pulse-pounding national epic, laden with so much CGI, that it can actually show us Nullah, single-handedly stopping a cattle stampede at a mammoth cliff’s edge. There‘s a magical quality to Australia throughout, that links it to Luhrmann‘s previous, innovative musicalsStrictly Ballroom and the great, mad Moulin Rouge! And I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to damn the movie, or Luhrmann, for doing on screen what he actually does best. (Ditto for his snazzy musical numbers on the last Oscar show.)

I didn’t object at all to the magic, the allusions or the double construction, because Luhrmann and his company so thoroughly compelled and rewarded my attention throughout. It didn’t bother me that the movie wasn’t realistic, or that those Wizard of Oz bits kept popping up. Luhrmann is one moviemaker whom you want to give as much license, or even as much rope, as possible — because it’s in almost going too far that his gift lies.

Hell, I suppose Australia does go too far. For some, at least. It’s a matter of taste. I say, give Luhrmann his budgets and crew, and give him Nicole Kidman, and let him rip. .



Tales of Beatrix Potter (Four Stars) (A)
U.K.; Reginald Mills, 1971 (Lionsgate)

Though relatively little known, this is one of the great ballet films, and one of the great children‘s movies. And its just damned delightful. I defy you to watch it without smiling: England’s Royal Ballet, choreographed by Sir Fredrick Ashton, dances a series of wonderful little tales inspired by the bewitchingly illustrated animal books of Beatrix Potter. Potter’s wondrous little creatures are all (or mostly) here, danced by virtuosos and prima ballerinas in brilliantly executed costumes on brilliantly done sets in green, beautiful rural British landscapes: Peter Rabbit (Alexander Ward), Jemima Puddle-Duck (Ann Howard), the ineffable Jeremy Fisher (Michael Colema), Tom Thumb and Squirrel Nutkin (both by Wayne Sleep), Mrs. Pettitoes and Tabitha (Sally Ashby), Fox (Robert Mead), and Mrs. Tittlemouse (Julie Wood). There’s even a juicy animal role for Ashton himself, who brings down the house as that marvelously diddly dawdler, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

The music, which suggests a piquant mix of Delius, Vaughn Williams and Disney, is by John Lanchberry, who also conducts it with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera and the whole thing is dazzlingly well done. Frustratingly, director Reginald Mills only made this one film; in his career he was primarily a superb editor who worked most frequently with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, on masterpieces like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, and also with Franco Zeffirelli on Romeo and Juliet and Jesus of Nazareth.

But Tales of Beatrix Potter does have another recognizable auteur. Co-writer Christine Edzard, who also served as the film’s production designer and costume designer — fulfilling all three tasks to Potterian perfection — later went on with her husband, Potter’s producer-co-writer Richard Goodwin, to make the great six hour 1988 Charles Dickens adaptation, Little Dorrit, the 1992 punk Shakespearean As You Like It and several other gems, shot at their own studio. (Mike Leigh made Topsy-Turvy at their digs.) Edzard worked too seldom, and Mills deserved at least one more shot, but this froggy film is a Tiggy-Winkle masterpiece for all concerned. Dance, Jeremy, dance!



East of Eden (Three Discs) (Three Stars) (B)
U.S.; Harvey Hart, 1981 (Acorn)

Don’t even bother comparing this TV movie miniseries adaptation of John Steinbeck‘s magnum opus, East of Eden, to the classic 1955 film Elia Kazan and writer Paul Osborn made from it, starring James Dean and Julie Harris. Of course Kazan’s feverish psycho-romance is better, more exciting. But director Harvey Hart’s and writer Richard Shapiro‘s East of Eden is not bad, a different kind of achievement.

At six hours long, in three segments, it gives us the whole Trask family saga. And it’s quite a yarn. Starting in Connecticut with Civil War con artist Cyrus (Warren Oates), and proceeding cross-country to Salinas, California, sweeping us through the stories of feuding brothers Adam (Timothy Bottoms) and Charles (Bruce Boxleitner), and on to the tangled lives of Adam’s sons Cal (Sam Bottoms) and Aron (Hart Bochner), this East of Eden may be less emotionally and visually rich than Kazan‘s, but it‘s a knockout compared to most other mini-series. (Cal was the James Dean part in Kazan‘s film; Raymond Massey played the older Adam, and Julie Harris was Aron’s girlfriend Abra, , played here by Karen Allen of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Paul Newman was just beaten out, by Richard Davalos, for Aron.)

Threading through almost all their lives is the stunningly beautiful and wicked Cathy aka Kate (Jane Seymour), a prostitute-by-nature, conniver and natural born bitch, who nearly wrecks two lives, and releases some of the worst instincts in another. The theme of the saga, with its biblical names and allusions, is the battle between good and evil –and thanks to Seymour’s Cathy, the fight often seems unequal.

Hart, a Canadian who got his best notices for two movies he made at the beginning and end of his career (1965‘s Bus Riley‘s Back in Town, and the prize-winning 1989 Passion and Paradise, as well as the 1971 Fortune and Men’s Eyes) is a good gutsy director and he has a tremendous cast playing another memorable Steinbeck gallery — including Lloyd Bridges (an underrated actor) as the rambunctious Irishman Thomas Hamilton, M. Emmet Walsh (in a role that prefigures his great sleazy private eye part inBlood Simple) as Sheriff Horace Quinn (the Burl Ives role in Kazan‘s film ), and Soon Tek Oh cranking it up as the philosophical servant Lee. Hutton is sometimes a little arch and narcissistic as Adam, but it’s a treat to watch him working with his younger brother Sam as Adam’s wayward son Cal.

That munificent cast in excellent roles is one reason to watch the movie, or watch it again. Steinbeck’s spellbinding storytelling and character portraiture is another. Steinbeck was underrated by psycho-politico critics right after his death, but they were wrong. Besides The Grapes of Wrath did more to rally and draw attention to the American underclass than any of his critics could have dreamed of doing.

The third reason to watch this movie is Jane Seymour — who actually burns down the house as the malevolent Cathy/Kate, the part that won Kazan’s Jo Van Fleet a well-deserved Oscar. Seymour though gets to play the whole role, all the way from gorgeous young sociopath (Adam’s bride, and Cal and Aron’s mother) to witchlike bordello madame (Van Fleet only did the last section) and she’s an absolute knockout.

Seymour is a very popular TV actress (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) who never quite made it to the front rank in movies, even though she starred in one cult classic, Somewhere in Time, and still pops up again occasionally in aWedding Crashers or two. She deserved better. In Hart‘sEast of Eden, she has a great role, and she squeezes every drop of venom and desire out of it, scarily, seemingly effortlessly. Compared to Jane Seymour‘s Cathy, most other movie femme fatales are Mother Teresas.

Extras: Jane Seymour interview; Steinbeck biography.



Beverly Hills Chihuahua (Two Stars) C-
U.S.; Raja Gosnell, 2008 (Walt Disney)

This works better than you’d expect. But then what could you possibly, reasonably expect with a movie that sends animated Chihuahuas on a Mexican trek?

Here we go: A snobbish Beverly Hills Chihuahua dish named Chloe (voiced by Drew Barrymore) is taken on a Mexican holiday by owner Aunt Viv’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) niece Rachel (Piper Perabo), after spurning the affections of the cute gardener‘s pup Papi (George Lopez). Karma comes down; Chloe gets lost in Mexico, and she has to find her way home through unimaginable dangers, with the help of the disgraced but stalwart police dog Delgado (Andy Garcia) and operatic Chihuahua Monte (Placido Domingo, no less). Despite the hindrance of some very bad humans and animals — notably Edward James Olmos as the Amores Perros-style fight-dog Diablo and Cheech Marin as greedy little rat Manuel — she’s got a good shot.

The movie gets going when it hits Mexico, and an incredible amount of production and animation expertise is lavished on the story. It should amuse both ten-years-and-under kids and shopaholics whose idea of heaven is Rodeo Drive, deserted, in the morning. But, at bottom, it’s a lapdog of a script, all gussied up. And the Beverly Hills scenes made me want to arf.

La Vie en Rose (Extended version) (Three Stars) (B)
France; Olivier Dahan, 2007 (HBO)

A fantastic performance, by Marion Cotillard, as Edith Piaf, (she’s as good as Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles) anchors this Piaf bio: a film often as feverishly colorful, emotional and lyrical as Piaf herself. The movie takes us from Piaf‘s deprived childhood through her glory years to her sad finish, and it never loses its rhythm and pitch. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Featurettes, extended footage.

Narrow Margin (Two Stars) C-
U. S.; Peter Hyams, 1990 (Lions Gate)

Richard Fleischer‘s terrific 1949 low-budget RKO film noir The Narrow Marginsqueezed 70 minutes of nonstop suspense out of tough cop Charles McGraw transporting tough gal Marie Windsor to an L. A. court date on a trainful of hit men. This remake wastes Gene Hackman and Anne Archer doing the same sort of thing, while adding all kinds of spectacular cliffhangers that don’t make a lick of sense. It’s like remaking 12 Angry Men by staging the jury arguments on top of the Statue of Liberty in the middle of a hurricane. Some metaphor. Some cliffhanger. And please, stay away from Violent Saturday.

– Michael Wilmington
March 3, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon