Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Tale of Two Continents

Over the past week, I have seen two movies on DVD with the names of continents in their titles, 1984's Out of Africa and 2008's Australia. They couldn't have been more different, despite Australia's attempt to be an epic similar to Out of Africa, and their identical running times of 2:42.

Out of Africa was 1984's Best Picture®. It was a capital D drama and romance, filled with great scenery, although I thought the story was a bit iffy - 1913 Kenya doesn't translate well to 2010 Minnesota. Meryl Streep played real person Isak Dineson, a Danish writer who relocates to Kenya after entering into a loveless marriage to a broke baron. Predictably, she meets her true love, a free-ranging hunter and guide, played by Robert Redford. Even though the story left me a little cold, I always felt I was watching a movie of substance and importance.  I recommend Out of Africa when you're in the mood for an epic.

Australia tried really hard to be Out of Africa but failed miserably. But not completely (keep reading). Nicole Kidman played a - presumably fictional - British dame who traveled to Oz just before the outbreak of World War II to see her family's cattle ranch for the first and hopefully last time. Ranch doesn't do the place justice. It was 7.8 million acres, taking up a huge chunk of the vast Northern Territory.

Kidman's Lady Ashley wants to get in and get out, but - predictably - she meets her true love, literally the day her husband is murdered. The true love, played by an unshaven Hugh Jackman, is a rough & tumble cattle drover, who is so rough & tumbled that he is referred to - even by other drovers - as Mr Drover.

Lady Ashley and Drover have a meet-cute on the main street of Darwin. He gets into a fist fight protecting the honor of his aboriginal friend - so we know he's really noble - and she's overly frustrated because her underthings get scattered all over the street. More slapstick follows on their five-day travel to the ranch. So much zaniness that I was getting sick. Part of the cuteness was the narration by a ten-year-old half-white, half-aboriginal boy. There was also a direct-from-Central-Casting villain who, while not having a mustache to twirl, laughed an evil laugh at the drop of a stetson.

When a minor character - the mother of the ten-year-old narrator - is killed doing something so stupid that no real person would do actually do it, I had to call it a day. I wasn't considering Australia to be a movie of substance and importance, so I hit 'pause' at the 47 minute mark and came back the next day.

On the second day, I boldly set forth to finish the movie. It continued with Lady Ashley essentially adopting the little boy and a cattle drive featuring more insubstantial and vapid dialog and CGI cattle falling off of CGI cliffs. After watching another half hour, I was ready to give up.

Then they got to Darwin. The movie changed completely. The cuteness and silly changed to serious. Lady Ashley's team got the better of the villain and we began to see why people love Australia so much. The movie fast forwarded to 1941, when the little boy was put into a mission for half-blacks (as they called them then) and the Japanese military destroyed Darwin. A bunch more stuff happened and when the movie ended, I caught myself off-guard by saying - out loud, “Well, that was a heckuva of a good movie.”

After having to pause? After considering bailing? After pitying everyone involved in making the movie for making something so trivial? Yes, I thought it was that good. If we could split up the first and second halves of Australia, I would buy the second half. Since it's all or nothing, though, I recommend renting Australia when you're in the mood for a long, visually stunning movie with a triumphant ending. Just try not to get turned off by the first 75 minutes.

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