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What's the point of falling in love if you aren't separated from your lover by a wide variety of societal and familial complications? Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet was a literal reinterpretation of the most famous pair of star-crossed lovers, but he's been telling variations on the Shakespearean tale in all his films. Strictly Ballroom is about a ballroom-dance scion and an amateur dancer from a gypsy family. Moulin Rouge! sees Ewan McGregor's naïve young writer falling for Nicole Kidman's cynical, tuberculotic courtesan. Australia pairs Kidman's upper-crust Brit opposite Hugh Jackman's salt-of-the-Outback cowboy. And The Great Gatsby is about another famous pair of troubled lovers.
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Crazy Mash-Up Universes
Luhrmann's films are all set in magically hyper-real worlds, often built out of ambient pop-culture flotsam and jetsam. This is most obvious in Moulin Rouge!, with its famously anachronistic soundtrack and outlandish set design. But that instinct was also evident in Romeo + Juliet, which is set in ''Verona Beach,'' a globalized semi-dystopian multiethnic metropolis shot in Miami and Mexico City that variously recalls Grease and Blade Runner. Australia makes several laborious attempts to graft the tale of The Wizard of Oz onto the film's World War II-era epic narrative. And The Great Gatsby mixes a Jay-Z-produced soundtrack into Fitzgerald's Roaring Twenties tale.
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You love parties. I love parties. But you know who really loves parties? Baz Luhrmann, that's who. A Lurhmann party is an elaborate ode to decadence and debauchery, suggesting a cartoon adaptation of a Fellini movie with glitter and costumes and booze and did we mention glitter? In The Great Gatsby, they're in 3-D. If this whole directing thing hadn't worked out, Lurhmann would've been quite an event planner.
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The Coca-Cola Sign
In Strictly Ballroom, the two leads share a pivotal dance in front of a bright red Coca-Cola sign. Romeo + Juliet quotes that sign, rendered here as ''L'amour'' — perhaps suggesting that love is just another commodity, man, or that Luhrmann really loves the color red. Moulin Rouge! goes yet a step further, with the ''L'amour'' sign rendered as ''L'amour fou.'' Basically, the Coca-Cola sign is to Baz Luhrmann as doves are to John Woo. (He even fit it into his version of La Boheme.)
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Luhrmann's rootss are in theater, and characters in his films are often on stage in one way or another. The climactic dance sequence in Strictly Ballroom set the template; Moulin Rouge! took that to a logical extreme with musical performances mixing together with internal monologues. Gatsby's parties are arguably a form of theater; certainly, the character is quite literally playing the role of ''Jay Gatsby.'' The only one of Luhrmann's films that doesn't feature the theater in one way or another is Australia, about which the less said the better.
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The most common critique of Luhrmann is that the director's tendency toward hyperbole — the too-muchness of his hyperkinetic style — is purposeless eye candy. But when Luhrmann is at his best, he can create visual iconography with a surprising amount of thematic depth — telling a whole deeper story with images in a way that most directors in our age of gritty-realism wouldn't dare. Romeo + Juliet is probably the best example of this: Think of Juliet in her angel wings or of the hilarious neon crosses flanking the young lady's apparent corpse. Full credit to production designer Catherine Martin, who's worked on all of Luhrmann's films — and has been married to him since 1997.
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Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby both feature narrators in dark rooms behind frosted glass telling the tragic stories that form the basis of the movie. And Romeo + Juliet reimagines Shakespeare's bookends as TV news programs.
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The Luhrmannography is rife with soundtracks filled with a diverse assortment of music. Strictly Ballroom mixes ''The Blue Danube'' and ''Time After Time.'' Romeo + Juliet features an essential '90s rock mix: Garbage, Everclear, Butthole Surfers, and Radiohead. Moulin Rouge! features an insane assortment of films plucked from pop music history, with a tie-in single ''Lady Marmalade'' bringing together Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya, and Pink. The Great Gatsby might even one-up Moulin Rouge! for sheer genre diversity, with Jay-Z producing a soundtrack that includes Jack White, Lana Del Rey, Florence + the Machine, and André 3000. Here again, Australia is the exception that proves the rule, with a mostly instrumental score. Seriously, it's terrible.
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Love + Water = Wet Hot Love
Hey, it looks cool!