DVD Picks & Passes 03.01.2009

Australia (2008)

The Buccaneer (1938)

New this week on DVD, maverick Australian director Baz Luhrman’s would-be magnum opus Australia is his paean to his homeland — a down under Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz set in 1939, the same year those two films were released.

Starring Aussie luminaries Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, Australia sets out to tell the story of the Japanese bombing of the city of Darwin and the “lost generation” of mixed-race “creamies” (illegitimate children of white fathers and aboriginal women) who were taken from their mothers in the bush and placed in state or church missions. It’s also a sprawling Western, a war-torn romance, and an ode to aboriginal culture and spirituality.

Is that too much for even a 165-minute movie to bite off?

Alas, yes, though Luhrman chews for all he’s worth. Luhrman’s strong suit has always been boldness rather than subtlety; his take-no-prisoners approach worked brilliantly in Strictly Ballroom, but, in my view, he went off the rails with Moulin Rouge! and hasn’t managed to right himself since.

Australia is Luhrman’s most personal, most haphazard picture. Much like Scorsese with Gangs of New York, Luhrman has labored long over a film in which the artist’s love of the material is clear, but the inspiration has been lost and the characters reduced to cartoony types.

While the film treats fairly the Catholic Church’s complicity in the abduction of the stolen-generation children, it also depicts a noble priest placing himself in harm’s way to rescue endangered children from attacking Japanese.

Messy and undisciplined, Australia isn’t without its pleasures. If you love both Gone With the Wind and Moulin Rouge!, you just might enjoy it. But I can’t quite recommend it.

Also new on DVD, The Buccaneer is another historical war/romance melodrama with exotic settings and an over-the-top storyteller — Cecil B. DeMille — at the helm. But DeMille does what Luhrman doesn’t: makes the material serve the movie rather than the other way around.

Set during the War of 1812, The Buccaneer is a decent swashbuckling spectacle with an American flavor. Rather than pitting noble Protestant English privateers against treacherous Spanish Catholic mariners, as in The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, The Buccaneer pits a freedom-loving American pirate of French Catholic stock — New Orleans native Jean Lafitte (Fredric March) — against invading British forces.

Like all movie pirates, Lafitte only plunders those whose politics he doesn’t like. Hiding out in the bayou country of Louisiana, Lafitte leaves American ships unmolested but pillages a German ship, rescuing a pretty Dutch prisoner in the process. When the British threaten New Orleans, Lafitte comes out of hiding to aid Andrew Jackson and the American defenders. Briefly hailed as a hero, the pirate can’t escape his past. It’s colorful, entertaining hokum from a master storyteller.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Australia: Some brawling and moderate wartime violence; some sensuality; nonmarital cohabitation with a brief bedroom scene (nothing explicit); an instance of profanity; some aboriginal mysticism. Teens and up. The Buccaneer: Stylized action violence; romantic complications. Fine family viewing.