AUSTRALIA * * *
Cert 12A 165 mins
Never knowingly understated, Baz Luhrmann’s ambitions for a Down Under-style Gone With The Wind find realisation with a grandiose, overblown, overlong epic which is firmly in heightened thrall to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Even in the opening credits, it announces romance, adventure and a critique of the country’s shameful treatment of Aborigines, especially the half-caste (‘creamy’) children of the Stolen Generations.
Delivered in a style that flirts with camp and references everything from Red River and Rabbit Proof Fence to The Wizard Of Oz and Pearl Harbour, the film opens in 1939 with the arrival of prim Englishwoman Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman in full Julie Andrews mode) to take charge of the family cattle ranch Faraway Downs and deal with her errant husband.
Finding him murdered and that ranch manager Fletcher (David Wenham) has been creaming off the prize stock to rival cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown), she resolves to stand her ground.
With the help of rough diamond and romantic interest Drover (Hugh Jackman) and Nullah (Brandon Walters, who serves as narrator), the half-caste aboriginal boy who stirs her maternal instincts, she intends to drive her 1500 head of cattle across the Northern Territory to sell them as army beef in Darwin, secretly watched over by Nullah’s mystic grandfather (David Gulpilil).
All of this takes up barely half of the running time, ending on an upbeat note as bad guys get their comeuppance and an unconventional ‘family’ is forged. Unfortunately, there’s a third act to go which will see the pair split up, Fletcher’s murderous machinations, Sarah having to protect Nullah from enforced assimilation, and (in some very dodgy CGI) the Japanese attack on Darwin.
Mingling humour, rampant sentimentality, righteous indignation, lavish set pieces and unabashed melodrama, this film is undeniably ambitious.
Knowing just how far to insert tongues in cheeks, Jackman and Kidman are terrific while young Walters proves a scene-stealing natural as the film’s social conscience fulcrum,
It doesn’t bore, but with a screenplay that goes walkabout, too many false endings, stock figures, sudden shifts of tone, unwieldy emotions and far too many tear-jerking Over The Rainbows, artifice ultimately overwhelms emotion, leaving you admiring the canvas rather than the portrait.
BEDTIME STORIES * * *
Cert PG 99 mins
This is no Punch Drunk Love or Reign Over Me, but Adam Sandler’s first film for Disney is still a tolerable relief from his usual crass comedies, pitched firmly at family audiences.
When the late Morty Bronson (Jonathan Pryce) was forced to sell the family motel to a developer, he was promised that his son Marty would be made manager once he’d grown up and proven himself. Years later, the place is a luxury hotel but Skeeter (Sandler) remains the lowly handyman and when owner Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths) announces a new project to be run by future son-in-law Kendall (Guy Pierce in ham villain mode), it seems Skeeter’s management dreams are dead.
However, when sister Wendy (Courtney Cox) has to go for an interview and asks him to mind her two kids (Laura Ann Kesling, Jonathan Morgan Heit), he’s amazed when the bedtime stories he tells them (fantasy adventures that incorporate his own frustrated aspirations) start coming true in life.
Finally given the opportunity to prove himself and compete with Kendall for the new job, Skeeter looks to manoeuvre the stories in directions that will serve his dreams. Unfortunately, it’s the kids who control what happens and he’s already convinced them that there are no happy endings.
With fantasy episodes that involve raining gumballs, Greek chariot races and a cherry red horse, this is an undemanding but amusing feelgood fable about how we’re only held back by our own imaginations. It could have done without the recurring bug-eyed guinea-pig gags, but Sandler is welcomingly restrained, as is Russell Brand as his best friend. This is no classic, but any Sandler film that doesn’t make you want to torch the screen has to be a triumph.
YES MAN * *
Cert 12A 104 mins
A bank loan officer in a funk since his divorce three years earlier, Carl (Jim Carrey) spends his life avoiding social contact, even the engagement party for his best friend Peter (Bradley Cooper).
But then a chance encounter with an old acquaintance leads him to a seminar where self-help guru Terrence (Terence Stamp) preaches the power of saying ‘yes’ to life’s opportunities.
Pressured into forging a covenant, Carl agrees to do that for a year, beginning with giving a lift to a homeless sponger, an act that runs down his phone and empties his wallet and petrol tank.
However, it also instigates romance with Allison (Zooey Deschanel), a free spirit who runs a combination of exercise and photography classes.
Discovering that every time he says ‘yes’, something positive happens while demurring courts disaster, Carl’s soon dispensing bank loans willy nilly, going to cheesy theme parties thrown by nerdy boss Norman (Rhys Darby), doing bungee jumps and even submitting to the oral attentions of his randy old neighbour (Fionnula Flanagan).
On the downside, it also means allowing himself to be taken advantage of by supposed friends. Eventually, however, romance is thrown into a spin when Allison learns what’s been spurring Carl’s affirmative actions.
A fictionalisation of Danny Wallace’s best-selling memoir, somewhere in all this is a Capra-esque fable about the need to reach out to others. Unfortunately, director Peyton Reed’s not interested in finding it, but is content instead to settle for a series of episodic incidents in which the laughter quota depends heavily on your tolerance for Carrey’s tired and over-familiar rubber-face expressions, pratfalls and wild persona.
There’s nice use of Los Angeles landmarks that includes a magical moment at the Hollywood Bowl, Darby’s fun as the well-meaning nebbish while the ever enjoyable Deschanel offers the only character resembling a real human being. But this is resolutely a Carrey vehicle and he drives it into the ground.