Our review of Moulin Rouge! (Blu-Ray), published November 3rd, 2010, is also available.
Welcome to a Celebration of Truth, Beauty, Freedom and above all things, Love
Brash. Hyper. Funny. Tragic. These are just a few words that describe Baz Luhrmann's (Romeo + Juliet, Strictly Ballroom) 2001 musical odyssey, Moulin Rouge. This is as lavish a film and fully loaded special edition DVD as anyone is liable to find anywhere. Yet, is it worth all the fuss? Is it a moving cinematic experience that is both cutting edge and incredibly retro all at the same time, or is it hopelessly bloated overkill that quickly wears out its welcome? Moulin Rouge is a film that leaves little room for a middle ground, people are going to either buy into this movie and love it, or push it away and hate it totally. So dear reader, read further and let's see what side of the fence I'm dancing on.
Facts of the Case
The big, old-fashioned Hollywood musical meets MTV in this story of a poet named Christian (Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace) who ends up as a full-fledged member of the Parisian Bohemian underworld. Lead by the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo, Spawn, Summer of Sam), Christian soon finds himself as the writer of the underground's epic play about love, "Spectacular, Spectacular." It is a play that is missing only one thing: money. On the prowl for funding, the group travels across the street to the famous Moulin Rouge. Lead by devilish showman Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent, Topsy-Turvy, Little Voice), the Moulin Rouge is the place where the rich mingle nightly with the darker side of Paris. The Moulin Rouge is also the place that features the charms of Satine (Nicole Kidman, Dead Calm, The Others), singer, dancer, and courtesan supreme. This "sparkling diamond" soon attracts the rapt attention of Christian who, through the arrangements of Toulouse-Lautrec, ends up in Satine's bedroom. Thinking that Christian is actually the Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh, Mission Impossible II), a man Zidler is cultivating to finance his next big project, Satine slips into major seduction mode. Before long she discovers that Christian is indeed a penniless poet, but as is needed in a movie like this, Satine falls in love anyway. Thus, the complications of the plot begin to kick in. Needing the Duke's money, Satine begins to act out a different kind of lie. Making the Duke think that he has her affections, she begins making love to Christian, who, as it turns out, is the playwright for the production the Duke is financing. A production that just happens to parallel the events occurring in real life. Complications escalate, songs are sung, secrets are revealed, characters show their true faces, and the film steamrolls to its tragic climax.
It is rare to find a movie that causes such passionate discussion. People that I have spoken with have either loved Moulin Rouge or totally despised it. Judging objectively, I can see where people would be turned off by it. It features a sense of heightened reality, while most films are content to play things naturalistically. It is in-your-face filmmaking that forces an audience to sit up, join in, and pay attention. It also sings, or at least its characters do. Quite a lot. In songs as diverse as "Like A Virgin" or "The Hills Are Alive." It would be easy to dismiss Moulin Rouge as big screen MTV, but that would be a gross oversimplification. This is moviemaking unlike anything I have ever seen. It is has elements to it that are truly retro, yet it is also surprisingly forward thinking. There is a forward thrust to it that almost reminds me of the Airplane! style of film humor—don't think this is funny? Wait a minute and something different will come along. Moulin Rouge is edited at such a breakneck pace it puts most Michael Bay films to shame. Yet, it is in this speed that a good part of director Baz Luhrmann's directorial aim is shown. In this heightened world, everything needs to be compact and tight. Things happen so quickly to our characters that they don't have time to think; they simply react and feel because above all else, Moulin Rouge is about feeling and the power of love. Most movies are afraid to show real passion, but cut through all the onstage artifice and you will find Moulin Rouge reveling in it. The movie wears everything so clearly on its sleeve that it almost appears as though it is daring audiences not to like it.
Moulin Rouge is a movie of contradictions, but is also crystal clear in the telling of its tale. True, it borrows heavily from such different sources as the MGM musicals of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland to Alexandre Dumas Fils' "La Dame aux Camelias," but it is the blending of these many different kinds of film and literature that allow the sum total of its parts to end up being pretty amazing. There is such flair to every aspect of Moulin Rouge, so many ideas and images thrown at the audience, that it makes the average by-the-numbers Hollywood movie crawl away in embarrassment. The movie has great humor but also intense pathos and real tragedy. It is a movie that rewards repeat viewing as it always holds something new to discover, another layer to roll back.
Everything about Moulin Rouge is a technical achievement, from the every-color-in-the-rainbow cinematography of Donald McAlpine (Breaker Morant, Moscow On The Hudson) to the razor sharp editing of Luhrmann regular Jill Bilcock. Costumes from Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie sparkle with as much detail as does the production design, also from Ms. Martin. Speaking of detail, take the time to wonder at the art direction from Ann-Marie Beauchamp. If this film does not sweep the Oscars come March, well, there is truly something wrong.
Even with the best of the technical world, if the performances are not there to match the whole enterprise of Moulin Rouge would come off as a pretty but sterile experience. Generally, I think the caliber of the acting is more than equal to the challenge. Ewan McGregor once more shows why he is one of the most exciting young actors in the world with his work as Christian. The nights spent learning the ways of the world in and around the Moulin Rouge is truly Christian's tale, and McGregor carries the weight of the movie placed upon him. Christian is the one real character that goes through a definable growth arc and his performance had me buying into every change. While McGregor may not be the greatest singer, he does have the ability to sell every song he is faced with. There is a difference, and his singing works in that regard.
Every time I see Nicole Kidman of late I find myself asking the question: What the hell was Tom Cruise thinking? If there is a more beautiful woman in all of cinema right now, I can't think of her. As the "sparkling diamond" Satine, Kidman simply glows. In many ways, Satine is the most difficult of all the characters written. She has to sing and dance, both as a performer and in real time, but she is also a prostitute who is used to working as many sides as possible. She falls in love with Christian but must pretend to be in love with the Duke and in the end, hurt Christian to save him. She needs to be strong yet also vulnerable. Through it all, she must also look like a dream. I think she scores on almost every count. Like her partner, Kidman's singing is less than ideal, but like McGregor, she knows how to sell a song and make it play. Its very good work from a real movie star.
Supporting work is also very strong with one notable exception. Jim Broadbent is outstanding as Harold Zidler. In a role somewhat similar to that of Joel Grey in Bob Fosse's Cabaret, Broadbent gives a performance that is larger than life but full of little details. His version of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" is one of the movie's highlights and a testament to just how many chances Luhrmann was willing to take. As the film's heavy, Richard Roxburgh turns in a highly nuanced performance as the Duke. His character may be a blind, blithering idiot, but he is a very dangerous idiot with a wicked temper. Roxburgh shadows the darkness in subtle fashion until it all explodes out in an impressive and chilling display. Jacek Koman plays the unconscious Argentinean and he steals every scene he is in. Koman also leads the best musical number in the movie. The tango version of the Police's "Roxanne" is the one number I keep showing my friends. Its great film and a stunning sequence. The only downside for me is John Leguizamo's mannered work as Toulouse-Lautrec. His lisping scene stealing is the only real artificial note in the movie. I understand where he was going, but it just didn't play. It hardly brings the movie down, but it does hold the film back slightly.
On to the disc. When everyone sits down at the end of the year and thinks about the best looking transfer, Moulin Rouge should be at the top of the pack. The THX certified transfer preserves the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is given anamorphic treatment, and it simply is a wonder to behold. It is one of the most film-like transfers I have ever seen. Colors pop off the screen. Skin tones are creamy and natural, while black levels are rock solid. Everything has an almost three-dimensional appearance to it. Edge enhancement is pretty much nonexistent, and I could find little in the way of compression artifacting. No matter what challenge is thrown out, like all the different film stocks and techniques Luhrmann and McAlpine use, this transfer comes shining through. It almost goes without saying that the source material used is of pristine condition, but it is, so there you go.
Only slightly less satisfying are the sound options. Three main choices are given: DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and two-channel Dolby Surround. After going back and forth through the options it was pretty clear DTS is the best choice. All of the mixes may be a little more front loaded than I would have expected, but the DTS has the most subtle use of surrounds and a richer overall feel. Fidelity is strong and there is a healthy dose of sound from the low end, but once more I found the DTS sounded stronger and clearer. With all the songs there was a strong chance for dialogue and effects cues to get lost in the muddle, but this is a soundscape that never feels crowded with everything being given space to breathe. It may not be as reference quality as the video, but it still sounds impressive.
Now onto the goodies. Producer Holly Radcliffe has pulled out the stops for this really special two-disc set. For Disc One there are four options of watching the film. First up is the film proper, then there are two audio commentary tracks. The first has Baz Luhrmann along with his wife and production designer/co-costume designer Catherine Martin and cinematographer Donald McAlpine. Of the two commentary tracks, this is the drier and more technical of the two. There is a lot of information about the physical production side of Moulin Rouge to be heard, but frankly I found it rather boring. The second commentary is a much easier listen. Once more Luhrmann is present, this time along with his childhood friend and co-writer Craig Pearce. It is an easygoing track that flows at a pretty brisk pace and contains a lot of more useful information, at least to me. In one of the cases where I think less would have been more, it's too bad these two tracks have not been edited down to one. The final option with which to watch the movie is called "Behind the Red Curtain" and this is very similar to what New Line does with their InfiniFilm discs. Enable this function and a little green fairy will pop up and lead you to eight or nine different segments that total around 30 minutes of material. It's a pretty sweet function and one of the cool things going on in DVD these days.
Disc Two has so much material that it's almost overwhelming, but here are the highlights. First off is the HBO First Look featurette, "The Making of Moulin Rouge." It runs about 28 minutes and while it is basically fluff, it is entertaining fluff. Going to the rest of the menu, the disc is broken down in different subsections that detail various aspects of the film. These sections are:
• The Stars, which are basic interviews with the movie's principals.
• The Story is About…, which details the writing of Moulin Rouge. This is a very interesting section that features early script reading from the two writers.
• The Dance, another very cool section that shows the unedited versions of many of the musical numbers from the movie. Several of these numbers come with multi-angle options. I spent more time here than on any of the other areas of the bonus material and I'm willing to bet that so will most people.
• The Music, which is another pretty involved section.
• The Design, which I found much more interesting than the commentary track.
• Smoke and Mirrors—special effects and whatnot
• Finally, Marketing, which is another pretty interesting section. This movie would be a tough sell in most any generation, and to see how it was done in this case was fairly enlightening.
The extras also include still galleries, the "Come What May" music video with everything being closed out by several Easter Eggs scattered through out the set. All in all, this is one of the most impressive sets of the year. There are several studios (cough*Paramount*cough) that could learn a thing or two from what Fox is doing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is not a movie for everyone. I'm willing to bet anyone will know in the first minute or two if they are going to buy into Moulin Rouge or not. Its different and not afraid of taking chances. Its loud but caring. I think it is one of the most original films in years but many will probably not agree. Go in with an open mind and I think you will have a great time. Go in expecting the same old thing and you will be bored to tears. It is pretty much as simple as that.
It was a pretty interesting situation to be in. I had just finished writing my review of The Stunt Man when Moulin Rouge arrived in my hands. Now both films could not be more dissimilar in theme, content, and execution, yet they both share something fundamental in common: these two movies celebrate the art of film and what it is capable of. As I stated above, I think Moulin Rouge is a wonderful and original film. It possesses a definite point of view and vision. I think it may just be too out there for a lot of folks. As I've viewed the movie several times, I am pretty sure I'm looking at the first real cult film of this century. It's a movie that is bound to be discussed, enjoyed, and reviled for years to come.
I think most people should give it a try. It's strong rental material and if you get into it as much as I did, well a purchase isn't that hard to imagine.
Kick up your heels and prepare yourself for a romantic assault on the senses. Moulin Rouge manages to look back while also looking forward and being slightly ahead of its time. For these reasons, director Baz Luhrmann is acquitted of all charges. Fox Home Video is also set free for producing the best special edition discs of all the major studios. The bench has nothing else to say except Happy Holidays and case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Baz Luhrmann, Costume Designer Catherine Martin, and Director of Photography Don McAlpine
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