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Australia (2008) -vs- The Castle (1999)

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

I love Australia. I love their cute marsupials and their adorable accents. I especially love Australian films so you can just imagine how fast I ran down to the nearest multiplex to see Baz Luhrman’s very expensive and very epic “Australia.” For the sake of argument, let’s say you too love Australia. Will you love “Australia?” Or might your next Aussie Movie Night be better spent scouring the movie outback for something more scaled down and intimate? “The Castle,” perhaps the smallest and un-mightiest of all Australian films, loads up its telemovie slingshot against all the CGI battleships and bombers movie money can buy. It’s David against Goliath. Let’s see if history repeats itself.

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The Challenger

“Australia” director Baz Luhrman makes very pretty images. I’ll give him that. And they’re
not making romantic epics much these days. I’ll give him that too. What the heck. I’m in a holiday mood.

It’s almost three hours long. You should know that up front. If you’re still undaunted, I’m not about to throw any spoilers in your way. Suffice it to say that you’re in for a lot of scenery. Costume changes. Cattle drives. Evil cattle baron – the kind of bad guy who actually snarls and wears a black hat. Institutionalized racism. Horses. Campfires. Personalized racism. Hypocrisy. World War II. Class struggle. Noble savages. Greed. Nameless, shirtless heroes. Scrappy unlikely motley crews accomplishing the impossible. Mistaken identity. Slow motion running. Murder. Mayhem. Magic. Harmonicas. Clichés of every description recycled for your viewing pleasure (or annoyance).

So here’s the thing. If you loved “Australia,” stop reading this right now. Skip to the other part about “The Castle.” Actually, if you loved “Australia,” you probably should just skip reading this post altogether. I can’t promise I won’t say something mean that will make you hate me and doubt yourself. Stay pure. Step away from the computer screen. Better yet: Go look at puppies or kittens. Here’s a link I’m pretty sure you’ll like much more than anything I have to say.

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The Defending Champion

“The Castle” follows a laugh-out-loud-funny (and functional) family embroiled in an unlikely legal battle that goes all the way to Australia’s highest court. Unless you’re a tin man whose heart was forgotten at the forge, you’ll fall in movie love with the fictional Kerrigans. Every performance is pitch perfect and memorable, every line of dialogue quotable. The cast is richly populated with Australian television actors, no stars of any real international renown unless you count the barely recognizable, pre-rhinoplasty Eric Bana complete with baby fat.

No vistas. No CGI. No history. No cattle. Just heart and wit. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to recommend this rarely seen little gem. Barely more than a TV movie that somehow escaped over the borders, I’ve watched it more times than I can count, and it still charms me utterly. In the time it takes you to watch Baz Luhrman’s “Australia,” you can watch it twice. And watch it you should.

Darryl Kerrigan is impeccably played by actor Michael Caton, a cartoon of a man who most resembles the living breathing embodiment of (whoa, flashback time) Alvin and the Chipmunks’ second banana Clyde Crashcup. Anne Tenney plays Sal, his adoring wife; their marriage is one of the sweetest and quirkiest ever captured on film and their family the most uniquely endearing.

(A very unexpected sidebar: My Brother The Law Professor uses one particularly hilarious scene from the film to teach his students how not to practice law. You’ll recognize it when you see it. By the vibe.)

The Scorecard

There are moments of true genius in Luhrman’s epic “Australia.” Absolutely brilliant Brandon Walters’ Nullah steals the show right from under the two stars. He’s riveting to watch, the richly drawn creamy center, heartbreakingly beautiful and moving. He performs a feat of drover magic that literally brought tears to my eyes and cows to the very edge of a cliff.  “Walkabout” star David Gulpilil plays King George with a magical moral gravity that makes American movie moral compass go-to guy Morgan Freeman look like Larry Flynt. The natives occupy and own not only the moral high ground but the geographical high ground as well. They’re the very best part of this very big film.

So. Let’s talk about the stars. It’s a romance. It matters that we care if the two stars wind up together. It’s Scarlett and Rhett. Only in “Australia,” it’s Mrs. Boss and Drover. Two less romantic monikers would be hard to find in all cinema’s history, but here’s the sad truth. All that money, all those vistas, all that longing, all those aerial views come to less than the sum of their parts because the two leads aren’t a good movie couple. They generate no heat. No sex.

Maybe it’s the height thing. Maybe it’s the friendship thing. Apparently, Mr. J and Ms. K know each other rather well in real life; this sort of platonic stuff can spill over and spoil the passion.

I don’t even recall now whether there were any real sex-in-a-rumpled-bed scenes, but my memory of their bed time merges awkwardly with memories of Rob and Laura Petrie. Drover and Mrs. Boss may not have slept in two twin beds separated by a nightstand, but it felt that way to me, even when they kissed. Separated by something awkward. All possible heat extinguished. I know the Outback is hot, but they didn’t even generate that kind of hot. Note to filmmakers: It’s never a good thing when the leading man looks better filthy than he does cleaned up in a tux. Their climactic dance was about as romantic as watching a lone ballerina twirl on top of a jewelry box.

Here are some additional and nagging questions “Australia” generated for me: Does size matter? Is bigger better? Is three hours too long to sit in the multiplex? How many movie clichés can a director reference before his epic gets mired in homage? How dare they spoil “Over The Rainbow?” Am I the only audience member who wanted to switch over to watching “The Wizard of Oz” with Nullah? Are ten unconvincing CGI ships spouting CGI smoke in a CGI harbor better than none? What the hell has Nicole Kidman done to her face? What’s a drover anyway and why doesn’t he get a real name? Is Hugh Jackman really the sexiest man of the year?

Bottom line: If you like big vistas and don’t mind simpleminded plots that have to rev up from scratch every hour or two, if you’ve never seen a big movie you didn’t love, “Australia” is the way to spend several hours of your next free day.

There were plenty of other deliciously smackable Australian films I could have praised highly in this space,  and since it’s the holiday season and I’m in a gift-giving mood, here’s a little handful of  Down Under delights that dwell high atop my own personal pantheon. My holiday prezzy for all you Blokes and Sheilas. I reckon they’re all Fair Dinkum rippers. Bloody oath!

If, after three hours awash in LuhrmanLand, you’re still hungry for more of the same or better, here are some suggestions for you. Want more Aboriginal lore and culture? “Walkabout” (1971). More Australian history? “Rabbit Proof Fence” (2002).  More Gorgeous Australian Vistas? “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” (1994). More Quirky Romance? “Love Serenade” (1996) or New Zealand’s “The Price of Milk” (2000). Can’t get enough Nicole Kidman spouting romantic nonsense in great looking costumes on great looking sets? “Moulin Rouge” (2001).

And hey. In case you’re in the mood for more Bad CGI and Big Stars Generating No Romantic Heat in a Cardboard Romances Set Against WWII? You can always rent the 2001 bomb, “Pearl Harbor.”

That film is the celluloid proof that big budgets hardly guarantee greatness on the screen; they only guarantee that significant amounts of money get spent. As often as not, it’s bloat. I’m a writer, and I truly do believe that if it’s not on the page, all the money in the world can’t make a film truly excellent. Let’s just say, as a screenwriter, Baz Luhrman is a terrifically overheated and visual director. Merry Christmas To All And To All Lots Of Good Light.

“The Castle” doesn’t have much going for it in terms of cinematic beauty or technical excellence of any kind. It’s competent filmmaking shot on the cheap. What it does have that all the bloated and disappointing big films rarely have is a terrific script. A simple story amusingly told, recognizable human behavior, original characters…they had me at G’day.

The Decision

Maybe it’s just me. But I’ll take a small smart funny film over a big bloated one just about any day of any week. Still, I respect your right to choose. For some, size matters. For me, it’s “The Castle. style=”background-color: #ffff00; font-family: Trebuchet MS;”>”  Hooroo for now.

About Sherry Coben 77 Articles
A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.

6 Comments on Australia (2008) -vs- The Castle (1999)

  1. I loved The Castle. Australia, on the other hand was pretty hard to take. But Australia, the country, I love. One of the friendliest countries I’ve ever visited and I felt that The Castle captured a lot of “the vibe.” For an Australian to be embarrassed by The Castle is like a Canadian to be embarrassed by Strange Brew. It’s comedy. And pretty darned sweet too.

  2. “The Castle” is one of my favorite movies… it’s just perfect. And your reviews make me laugh about as hard as I do while watching that movie. That’s no small feat.

  3. Sherry… Tonight Jackie and I were the guest “critics” at Sneak Previews with Michael Berlin down in Irvine. I’m not sure why he brought it up, but he was talking about the top five films as voted on BY Australians. The #1 film they like is “The Castle”! Can’t wait to see it now, too…

  4. The more I hear about “Australia” (good or bad) the more I want to see it.

  5. Rodney: Please be assured I meant no offense with my dreadfully inept attempt at over-the-top Australian slang. I don’t rank your country’s films or anyone else’s based on that criteria. I was just trying to be funny. Forgive me.

  6. Hmm. The Castle will constantly divide Australian audiences: those who appreciate the subtle comedy in this Simpson-esque family, and those who despise the Aussie version of the Simpson-esque family. I agree, every line is quotable, and every character memorable in most cases, but if everybody ranks our films based upon “I reckon they’re all fair dinkum rippers” then it’s a sad day for Australian (the country).
    Still, I do agree with your final result. The Castle is a much more personal and intimate film.

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