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Grand movie in grand fashion

Posted: Thursday, December 04, 2008

'Australia'

Twentieth Century-Fox

2 hours, 45 minutes

This weekend, I had one of the better movie experiences of my life, only exceeded by such life-changing cinematic adventures as seeing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" on the big screen when I was 8 years old, or the awe of watching the denizens of "Jurassic Park" tower 70 feet over my head some 12 years later.

No, "Australia," Baz Luhrmann's epic spectacle, isn't quite as good as those iconic films, but it's good enough that, when viewed in one of the coolest movie theatres ever, it makes for a great night out.

I spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Austin, Texas, seeing friends and family, and enjoying the generally milder weather than the Novembers we are used to here on the peninsula. I like Austin, especially one of the city's coolest attributes -- the film scene. Styling itself as a Lone Star Hollywood, Austin boasts a minor movie-making industry, calling itself home to such auteurs as Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater, as well as to stars like Matthew McConaughy and Sandra Bullock. South by Southwest (or SXSW, as it's referred to here) is one of the country's preeminent Independent Film Festivals, only slightly smaller than the higher profile Sundance.

Of lesser notoriety, the city is also home to one of the Internet's largest clearinghouses of geek film trivia, Ain't It Cool News.com. On any given weekend you can see any number of small, hard to find independent films in this town, not to mention the entire gamut of big blockbuster releases. You can also find specialty showings, such as one theatre that was premiering a double-feature of the "The Godfather" and "The Godfather II" or, starting next week, a big-screen presentation of "The Wizard of Oz," accompanied by Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." And in Austin, the place where the mainstream and the bizarre collide, is the Alamo Drafthouse.

Upon entering the lobby of the theatre, I immediately knew this was the place for me. The walls were decked out in old movie memorabilia -- not in the glitzy Planet Hollywood mode, but more out of a love of style and design. Grindhouse features bracketed Italian one-sheets for 60s Godzilla movies and huge, eight-foot banners for 1950s noir. Everywhere were advertisements for upcoming events: Terror Tuesdays, Movie-Theme Sing-A-Longs, and Mystery Science Theatre-style mockeries of failed Holiday Television Specials. In the theatre itself, as you climb upward past the rows of comfortable chairs, you notice that each one includes not just the familiar folding seat with the requisite cupholder, but a long counter with a menu, as well. As you take your seat a waiter comes and takes your order while, on the screen overhead, a mlange of bizarre vintage commercials play out before the trailers begin. They're not actually selling anything -- it's all about the kitsch.

As the waiters spirit in the food and drink, the feature begins and, in this case, the movie was as big and grand and silly fun as the movie theatre itself. As I settled back in the seat next to my wife, with my fish taco in one hand and a cold beer in the other, giant art-deco letters spelling out the name of that fabled "Down Under" over my head, I thought, "This is the life."

"Australia," starring Nicole Kidman as a determined cattle baroness and Hugh Jackman as a hunky cowboy, is the kind of movie that old Hollywood's reputation was built on. Stylistically, it resembles epics of the 1940s and 50s more than movies of this age of dark cynicism. Kidman is Lady Sarah Ashley, a British blueblood who arrives in 1938 Australia, only to find out that her husband's ill-fated cattle concern is on the verge of being wiped out by the greedy King Carney in an attempt to corner the country's beef market. Her only chance is to take her 15,000 head south across hundreds of miles of empty territory to Darwin where she can sell them to the army, thereby saving the ranch and those who live on it.

And who will lead the Lady's ragtag band of cattledrivers? The Drover himself, Jackman's free-wheeling, big-hearted brawler whose liberal passion for the plight of the Aborigines has made him persona-non-grata with the well-to-do of Aussie society. Throw into the mix villainous cowboys, lost children, a mystical wiseman, and an attack by the Japanese airforce, and what you have is a sweeping epic romantic adventure.

Sure it's silly at times, but it's a grand painting on a huge canvas, and succeeds in being the very essence of escapist cinema. Was it the greatest movie ever made? No. But did I love every emotionally manipulative careening rollercoaster minute of it? You better believe it.

A big old-fashioned movie in a cool theatre-pub was one of my favorite parts of my vacation, but you don't have to go all the way to Austin to get something similar. Anchorage has The Bear Tooth, a movie theatre that serves great food and goes out of its way to show unusual or little seen features in addition to the more well-known stuff. They don't have the resources of the Alamo Drafthouse, but with public support, they can only grow. And who knows -- maybe we'll see more of these theatre/restaurant hybrids, specializing in more than just a couple of hours in the dark, but a whole evening out. Not just a movie, but a movie experience; something to combat those humbugs who would rather sit in their living room watching a DVD on their new plasma television than go out and watch a movie as it was meant to be watched. On a big, big screen.

Grade: "Australia," A: Alamo Drafthouse: A+.

"Australia" is rated PG-13 for language, violence, scenes of peril, and a scene of sensuality.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.



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