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First Review of 'Australia'

First Review of 'Australia' | Kate Winslet Brings Sexy Back — And Reading | Kate and Leo Are Titanic in ‘Revolutionary’ War | Jacko’s Nanny in Hiding | Katie in The Closet; End of ‘Days’; ‘Dreamgirls’ Comes Home; The Climates Are Here; Travis’s Ode

First Review of 'Australia'

The first question about Baz Luhrman’s epic nearly three hour blockbuster, Australia is: Is it the disaster movie wags have been praying for, or is it actually good? You can’t believe the number of people who’ve been secretly wishing for another "Ishtar" or "Waterworld."

So the answer is: “Australia” — which is set against the Japanese invasion of Australia during World War II — is very good, and no one who made it has anything to be embarrassed about. Granted, there is a corniness to it, and there’s often an uneven tone that lends it a kind of comic book bigness when it’s striving for seriousness. But that’s Baz Luhrmann, and that may also be a kind of attitude to Australian filmmaking.

There are a couple of ideas going on here. One is “Out of Africa,” but the other is "Moulin Rouge," so you can almost do the math in your head figuring out what would happen if one were added to the other. But there’s no denying that “Australia” the movie is going to be a crowd pleasing smash hit, a commercial piece of art that should reap a dozen or so Oscar nominations and launch another dozen or so parodies.

Of course the main attention is on Nicole Kidman as Lady Ashley, the wife of an English aristocrat who comes to Australia to bring her wayward husband home. Needless to say she doesn’t, and instead inherits his ranch and an overly muscled, Clark Gable type rancher man named The Drover with whom she will undoubtedly fall in love. That’s Hugh Jackman. The two movie stars are just that — really, shot lovingly like old fashioned sirens of the screen with endless close ups, incredible backlighting, and glorious makeup.

Luhrmann wants this to be “Gone with the Wind,” but it’s not no matter how much of a subplot he tries to inject about aborigines. One them is a child played by 13-year-old Brandon Walters, the most simultaneously cloying or ingratiating kid who’s been on the screen since the kid who played Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” You’re either going to love him or hate him, but trust me, it’s no simple thing, he almost steals the whole movie from Kidman and Jackman.

“Australia” is no simple project. There’s a lot of CGI — like, too much, and so much that at different times you get the feeling that the stars are acting against either green screen or rear projection paintings. I guess they’re amazing, and for a generation raised on video games no one will care. But us older folk may actually raise our hands in despair and cry, "Enough! We get it."

And it’s the odd frisson of “Australia” that Luhrmann can combine the grandiose with the intimate and get away with it. I think that has a lot to do with Ronald Harwood’s screenplay, which keeps things simple when they threaten to go overboard. (They do go overboard sometimes, and that’s when you just have to go with it. I mean, what can you do in a movie when Nicole Kidman has to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” among countless references to “The Wizard of Oz”?)

But the intimate moments by and large work, the big speeches are kept to a minimum, and you do relate to the characters. After about two hours the movie comes to a chapter close. If it ended there it would have been okay, a B-plus, and everyone could have gone home. But a second part then begins that’s meant to be the equivalent of the first half hour of “Saving Private Ryan” — just at the end of the film and not the beginning. What then unfolds, again in CGI and in human, is the bombing of Darwin, Australia by the Japanese.

This actually happened on February 19, 1942 and is known as Australia’s Pearl Harbor. Luhrmann doesn’t restrain himself from making it completely spectacular, over the top, to the point where he knew no one had depicted this before so he has the chance to chronicle his country’s history. I think it works like crazy. And while there’s no single shot like the Ferris wheel on the beach in “Atonement,” the bombing of the ironically named Darwin (we should have evolved more than this by then, no?) is profound and memorable.

Jackman, of course, replaced Russell Crowe in this production. He’s People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” and he wants to be taken seriously as an actor. Most of the time, he’s on it, although there are moments when you can feel him straining to go big, maybe break out in a song or crack wise. I give him credit for every time he doesn’t do it. Kidman looks gorgeous, and maybe pulls off her best total performance since winning the Oscar for “The Hours.” The trick for her now is to not let her public persona overwhelm her fictional ones, which is what’s happened to Angelina Jolie. In “Australia,” she reclaims her career.

So throw “Australia” into the mix with the list of movies I’ve told you about this week, with Slumdog Millionaire, Doubt, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, Frost/Nixon, Rachel Getting Married, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, and, most likely, Benjamin Button and Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. Oscar season is on! Let the games begin!

Kate Winslet Brings Sexy Back — And Reading

I spent the better part of yesterday screening the two Kate Winslet films up for Oscar consideration and ready for holiday release: "The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road."

The good news is: they are each excellent. It’s a total win-win situation for Winslet, who shows such an incredible breadth of talent in these two polar opposite films that critics and fans are going to start calling her "Meryl Streep, Jr."

Stephen Daldry’s "The Reader" has a lot going for it, not the least of which is some sexy material. In a dry season "The Reader" benefits not just a little from Winslet’s cougar-esque Hanna’s many naked tanglings with Michael, played by 18-year-old David Kross, a German actor who had to learn English for the movie. (He’s supposed to be 15 on screen.)

The Reader is based on the novel by Bernard Schlink, which was highly praised, a bestseller and a choice of Oprah’s Book Club. The subject is serious, since after Michael’s summer fling with Hanna circa 1964 he discovers that she’s on trial in Berlin as a war criminal. Hanna and several other women are being tried as Nazi guards who caused the particular death of 300 Jewish women.

Winslet and Kross have sizzling chemistry in the film, and Ralph Fiennes — as the adult Michael — could not be better. Daldry is unsparing of Hanna as a villain, and makes no apologies for her participation in the Holocaust. Neither, frankly, does Hanna, and that’s what makes the movie so fascinating. There is no tendency to cliché. Rather, "The Reader" has also the earmarks of a Best Picture nominee, a movie about an intimate relationship set against the backdrop of an Important Issue.

Winslet is a revelation in "The Reader," and quite different than in "Rev Road" (see below). That she could have both movies in one season is really the achievement. In "The Reader" she not only ages drastically, but she manages to convey with depth the emotions of a sexually voracious 40-year-old and an embittered, incarcerated 60-year-old. And, as it turns out, each of these personas also shares one more: a concentration camp guard with no regrets.

"The Reader" has its own strong foundation in a David Hare screenplay, not to mention a vibrant musical score by Alberto Iglesias and a gorgeous palate supplied by cinematographer Chris Menges. The only problem now is convincing Academy voters that Winslet should be considered ‘supporting’ here instead of lead since she’s on screen most of the time. She will go into competition with Penelope Cruz, Viola Davis, Amy Adams, Marisa Tomei and Rosemarie Dewitt — just to name a few.

One thing about "The Reader" — unlike, say, "Valkyrie" and "Defiance," you will not see any swastikas or Nazi uniforms. You will hear much discussion of the Holocaust, however, which makes it itself the opposite of "Valkyrie" in its subject matter and intentions.

P.S. The literati-oriented audience at "The Reader" screening last night loved it. Among the fans: famed book agent Lynn Nesbit, journalist Marie Brenner, and novelist Walter Moseley. Daldry took questions from the small group, not one of which was about Hollywood. Everyone wanted to discuss the Holocaust, the characters’ motivations, and the sublime execution of this landmark film.

Kate and Leo Are Titanic in ‘Revolutionary’ War

It was going to be a grim Christmas in movie theatres what with the Nazis on their way (Valkyrie, Defiance), priests charged with molesting children (Doubt) and now marriage on the rocks with a twist of bitters.

If you loved the romance between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, then "Revolutionary Road" will come as something of a bracing surprise. Based on one of the all time great modern novels by the late Richard Yates, "Rev Road" is a devastating stripping away of domestic life circa 1961.

I really sat on the edge of my chair yesterday during this screening mostly because the book, like all of Yates, matters so much to me. For thirty years I’ve had Frank and April Wheeler, their house, friends, and lives fully imagined in my mind. I "know" where that house is, and what happens in it. It’s almost like I don’t want anyone to show me otherwise.

(This is not comparable to "Twilight" or "Harry Potter" by the way. Read Yates. Stephenie Meyer's, who’s fun, isn’t even writing in the same language.)

Sam Mendes directed "American Beauty" and "The Road to Perdition," comes from the theater world with many awards and accolades and is married to Kate Winslet. The word is that Kate and Leo were looking for something else to do together. Mendes made it happen.

You have to give them credit. "Rev Road" is just about as unlike "Titanic" as it could be. It’s more like "Mad Men" without anti-depressants. In fact, it’s what "Mad Men" would be if it had been written at the time it’s set, and not as a piece of nostalgia — which isn’t to knock "Mad Men" at all. But the verisimilitude really could only come from having lived that period of post-War suburbia. You can only find it in Yates, John Cheever, John O’Hara. Cinematographer Roger Deakins underscores all of that with a great scene in Grand Central Station of men in gray flannel suits and hats cascading down the main staircase.

Mendes, of course, knows how to put together all the right elements. I cannot get over Thomas Newman’s gorgeous, lush, melodically repetitive score. You can mark that down for Oscar nomination now. Ditto the sets, costumes and art and production design. As with "American Beauty," they’ve got it all right.In a timeline of movies from the period, you could drop "Rev Road" down right between Todd Haynes’s "Far From Heaven" and Ang Lee’s "Ice Storm," which comes right before Paul Mazursky’s "An Unmarried Woman," Robert Redford’s "Ordinary People" and then "American Beauty." You’d have a social studies film festival requiring Prozac instead of M&Ms.

But what you want to know: Kate and Leo are superb. Yes, it’s Oscar caliber work. Winslet we expected. But Leo is a revelation. Picking up a thread from "Catch Me If You Can," he really steps into Frank’s angst and makes it real. He feels less and less like he’s "acting" and more like he’s just being. It’s nice to see him away from our beloved Martin Scorsese for a change, too. Mendes has pulled a different rhythm out of him.

The supporting cast mostly comes from the theater. They do a fine job. Look for an uncredited Dylan Baker in a minute role as the Gig Young of Leo’s office. Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of famed director Elia, is a secretary in the same office whom Leo’s Frank mentors and beds. Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour are solid as the Wheelers’ neighbors. Of course, Kathy Bates walks away with her scenes as the local realtor and busy body.

"Rev Road" joins the small group of potential Best Picture nominees. Certainly, for direction it’s a shoo-in. Sometimes the screenplay bothered me, and it does bog down. Certain changes have been made away from the novel, ostensibly to make it less bleak. Don’t worry, it’s still very bleak. There’s just no way around Frank and April’s unhappiness. Some sunshine comes in through their kitchen window occasionally, but there’s very little light at the end of this tunnel.

Also, it’s a personal gripe, but there’s a final, small scene that I thought was superfluous and unnecessary. After what it turned out to be the penultimate moment with Leo, I wanted to yell "cut!" But if that’s the biggest issue in such a gripping drama, you know the filmmakers have done a pretty damn good job.

Next up: I hope Scott Rudin and John Hart make Yates’s "Easter Parade." Another classic novel deserving of a bigger audience…

Jacko’s Nanny in Hiding

Michael Jackson isn’t the only one from his camp trying to avoid testifying in England.

His kids’ nanny, Grace Rwamba, has skipped the U.S. to tour India, friends in Los Angeles say. Grace, to paraphrase John Cusack, is gone.

And I as I reported first here yesterday, Jackson refuses to come to England because he’s claiming sickness. In fact, Jackson has told his lawyer to tell the British court that he has a skin disease that’s preventing him from traveling.

But of course Jackson has always said he has the skin disease Vitiligo, causing him to lose melanin from his pigmentation. He’s always said that’s the reason he’s turned white over the years. It was, however, revealed here a couple of years ago that Jackson uses a whitening cream made with acids and created by the Mickey Fine Pharmacy in Beverly Hills. That came out when he failed to pay his bill there.

Jackson’s "skin disease" hasn’t stopped him in the past two years from traveling all over the Middle East, to Japan, to Las Vegas, and Ireland.

The notion that Jackson is too sick to travel is absolutely laughable at this point.

Katie in the Closet; End of ‘Days’; ‘Dreamgirls’ Comes Home; The Climates Are Here; Travis’s Ode

At Michael’s on Monday: Katie Couric couldn’t find her coat check claim ticket. What did she do? She went right into the closet and fished out her outerwear herself… Hey, she doesn’t have time to waste what with a nightly news show and a webcast after that…

…NBC’s "Days of Our Lives" is owned by Ken Corday, whose late parents, Ted and Betty Corday, helped invent modern soaps. Alas, Ken is a prime example of the inheriting generation destroying the parents’ creation. News has leaked out that he’s "fired" the show’s star, Deidre Hall, who’s played blonde and brainy Dr. Marlena Evans since 1976. Corday has also let go for the second time in a year Dr. Evans’s onscreen husband, played by Drake Hogestyn. (They killed him, then got fan flack and brought him back.) NBC just renewed "Days" for 18 months, but really, the party’s over. "Days" is the only soap left on the network, and Jeff Zucker has said he’d rather get rid of it. Corday is a piece of work. A couple of years ago he tried to fire the entire tenured cast by killing all their characters. Then he had to take that back and say they’d all been kidnapped to a tropical island. Oh well: these were the days of our lives…And Hall? I predict she goes straight to prime time or to CBS’s "Young and the Restless"…

…"Dreamgirls" is coming to the Apollo Theater in one year. The Broadway musical will do the New York leg of its national tour run in Harlem. It’s a great idea. You see, Ken Corday was not involved in it…

…My Memphis pal, Chilly Chisem, is proud to tell us that his album with The Climates, a group of musicians from the original Sun Records, is available for downloading on cdbaby.com. If you like authentic R&B, The Climates are like a slab of smooth barbeque. Take a listen.

Travis — the Scottish band famous for their catchy hit, "Why Does it Always Rain On Me?" — have a new album. "Ode to J. Smith" keeps Travis right on the road between Squeeze and XTC with a dash of ELO. This is Brit pop at its finest. At Travis’s MySpace page check out the whole album including the piano and drum flavored "Chinese Blues" and the haunting "Before You Were Young"…