Friday, March 6, 2009

DVD review: "Australia"

One of last fall's bigger tent-pole releases, "Australia" crashed and burned at the box office. Yet this booming, mammoth-budget epic was an example not where filmmakers fell short or set forth with stingy ambitions, but a case where they overreached and tried to do too much.

"Australia" (PG-13, 165 minutes) is a huge movie -- not just in terms of stars (Jackman and Nicole Kidman) and production values, but thematically and conceptually. It's a romance-adventure set against the backdrop of a looming World War II.

The first two-thirds plays out like a mile-high Western, with Kidman's English lady Sarah Ashley trying to drive her cattle to market with the aid of Jackman's surly-yet-sexy cowboy known only as The Drover, pitted against a power-mad cattle baron (Bryan Brown) and his green-eyed henchman (David Wenham). The last act focuses mostly on Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-caste Aboriginal boy with magical powers.

With its two major stars and director/co-writer Baz Luhrmann all Aussies, "Australia" clearly wants to be the signature film for its namesake country. But the blend of adventure and apologia for the treatment of native tribes is an uncomfortable mix. The result is a sprawling mess overstuffed with subtext and tertiary storylines.

The digital transfer is excellent, as the movie is simply gorgeous to gaze upon. But films of this sort of epic scope tend to suffer when shrunk down for home entertainment, even on a big-screen television.

Extra DVD features are shockingly skimpy -- consisting entirely of two very brief deleted scenes. No commentary, no making-of documentary, zip. That's a shame, because whatever artistic aspirations "Australia" failed to achieve, this noble failure never lacked for ambition.

Grades: movie: C+; extras: D-

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