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Jack Thompson and Ita Buttrose - Jack Thompson and Ita Buttrose Sydney, Australia - The Australian premiere of 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' at the Greater Union Cinema - Arrivals Wednesday 21st May 2008

Jack Thompson and Ita Buttrose
Jack Thompson and Ita Buttrose
Jack Thompson and Ita Buttrose
Jack Thompson
Jack Thompson

The Good German Review


Excellent
Those who will hate The Good German will do so not because of its time-appropriate look and technique (more on that in a moment), but because it wants to be a wartime drama stripped of romance -- those movie stars may be standing in the rain next to a plane with its engines running, but this isn't Casablanca. Paul Attanasio's bruiser of a script (based on Joseph Kanon's novel) has all the hallmarks of a classy WWII drama. World-weary reporter Jake Geismer (George Clooney) shows up in Berlin two months after the collapse of the Reich to cover the Potsdam Peace Conference, at which the three Allied powers will carve up Europe like so much pie. His driver, Cpl. Tully (Tobey Maguire, sublimely sleazy), is a big fixer in the thriving local black market, and just so happens to be shacking up with statuesque Berliner Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett), an ex-girlfriend of Geismer's who's so far out of Tully's league he should need a passport to get within five hundred yards of her. But, it's Berlin 1945, and a German woman with a shady wartime past is going to sleep with who she has to in order to get out. Geismer can sense a story in all of Brandt's meaningful silences -- that, and the moment when Tully shows up dead in Potsdam with 100,000 marks in his pocket.Romance, murder, corruption, the looming mood of great historical events, The Good German has all the hallmarks of a well-meaning, by-the-books Hollywood period drama. But director Steven Soderbergh is after something else. There's that shockingly brutal sex scene between Tully and Brandt, a couple of nasty back-alley fights that leave nobody looking good, and an overall mood of tired cynicism that doesn't leave much room for heroics. This is Berlin, after all, the heart of evil, in ruins. Hitler has been dead a mere two months, and while the Americans are hunting down Nazis for war crimes, it's already obvious they will look the other way when it comes to rocket scientists. The grand crusade has already been corrupted, and the Americans and Russians are just squatting in the ruined city fighting over the spoils while their soldiers deal in whores and whiskey.More unsettling than the script's cynicism is how it's presented. Soderbergh -- who once worried that the disastrous response to Kafka meant he'd never have a chance to work in black and white again -- not only shot The Good German in black and white, but he did so in the style of the time period. The sound is echoey and occasional poor, the acting somewhat stiff in that studio film manner, while the film itself comes close to mimicking the very appearance of work from the time period. Soderbergh went so far as to dig up old 1940s Panavision camera lenses, and even utilized unused footage shot in a still-bombed-out 1948 Berlin by Billy Wilder for A Foreign Affair. It's a stunning creation, one of the most gorgeously-composed films of recent years, and accomplishing the seemingly impossible: showing that Blanchett actually looks more beautiful in monochrome.While the visual verisimilitude is a shocking contrast with the script's modernity (swear words, a lack of staginess), it quickly makes a great deal of sense as we realize this isn't meant to be a romantic drama, a la Casablanca, it's a noir thriller in the manner of The Third Man. While the script's game of "who's the patsy?" spins about, it also plays with some weightier topics, most importantly the guilt of everyday Germans who may not have had an active role in the war but didn't necessarily do anything to stop it. In 1945, could there be such things as a good German? As Brandt says at one point, "It's very easy to blame everything on the war."Thick with hypocrisy and corruption, the world of The Good German is more that of Graham Greene and a wearied Europe than that of the sun-dazed California dream factory who would continue to mine happy fake fantasies out of the war for decades later. For this it will be hated, though wrongly. Noirs this good don't come along every day, or even every year.Good evening, ladies and germs.

The Assassination Of Richard Nixon Review


Good
Richard Nixon does not die in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, but the film's protagonist - a depressed, angry, middle-aged man named Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) - eventually comes to believe that, for the good of himself and his country, the commander-in-chief deserves death. Estranged from his wife, unable to hold down employment, and disgusted by the lies and hypocrisies of a 1974 American society that favors the deceitful rich and powerful over the little man, Bicke is a powder keg waiting for his fuse to be lit. And in Niels Mueller's unsettling debut, that igniting spark comes from a series of final disappointments that Bicke - the type of man who blames his woes on a general, conspiratorial "they" - conveniently pins on the corrupting influence of the tricky U.S. president seen talking about hope and prosperity on his living room TV.

A kindred spirit of Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle ("God's lonely man") with politics, instead of prostitution, on his mind, Bicke fervently believes in honesty, upright morals, and a sense of decency and fairness. Unfortunately, his uncompromising idealism functions as a straightjacket, preventing him from performing the casual deceptions necessitated by his job as a furniture salesman or accepting the fact that his estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts) must don a short miniskirt and tolerate customers' gropes to earn a living as a waitress. He resents the success of his tire salesman brother Julius, longs for the happy stability of living with his wife and three kids (who seem to fear him), sports fanciful dreams of starting his own tire business with an African-American friend (Don Cheadle's Bonny) and longs to join the Black Panthers (who he believes can relate to his supposed persecution). To Bicke, the world has been corrupted, and the only effective response - after sending Leonard Bernstein (a "pure and honest" man) his tape-recorded memoirs - is to orchestrate an attack on the White House via hijacked airplane that will, he imagines, awaken the world to American injustice.

Continue reading: The Assassination Of Richard Nixon Review

Last Dance Review


Weak
Dead Man Walking, meet Walt Disney. Sharon Stone plays it grim -- with the same embittered scowl on her face for the entire film -- and tries to convince us that she's a bona fide Death Row dweller. The plot is lifted, virtually verbatim, from Dead Man Walking, even incorporating the hostile victim's family and the strained flashbacks to "the senseless murder." While the Mouse spares us from the requisite Happy Ending, Last Dance adds nothing to this genre (what there is of a genre), and doesn't merit serious attention.

'Breaker' Morant Review


Excellent
Before there was Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth!" outburst in A Few Good Men, there was the firey Edward Woodward as an Australian soldier during the Boer War (South Africa, 1899 to 1902). Like Jack, Woodward is on trial for murder -- in this case of Boer guerillas, executed possibly under the implicit orders of the Aussie government. Now a scapeoat, Woodward's "Breaker" Morant is asked to defend his actions. His explanation -- "We caught 'em and we shot 'em under rule 303!" -- is one of cinema's most undernoticed and passionate speeches. The camera cuts away to show us exactly what rule 303 is: The caliber of the rifles used by Morant's division.

Heavy stuff, and though most of the based-on-a-play Morant plays out in holding cells and the courtroom, as a court martial determines the guilt of Morant and two of his compatriots (including Brian Brown in an early role), it's still compelling and fascinating stuff. Morant is a genuine bastard, but he's just following orders and trying to win a war. It's the same argument that we'd see in umpteen Nazi films (and understanding the intricacies of the Boer conflict is probably a fool's errand), but Woodward's Morant makes for a troubling and complex anti-hero. He's aided amicably by Jack Thompson, playing the three lieutenants' good-hearted but ultimately ineffective attorney. (Also of note, this film was director Bruce Beresford's big break. He'd come to Hollywood shortly after Morant hit.)

Continue reading: 'Breaker' Morant Review

A Far Off Place Review


Very Good
Disney does the desert, in a very early Reese Witherspoon drama, A Far Off Place. Ethan Embry is unrecognizable as the teen who treks with her and Xhabbo (Sarel Bok) some 1,000 miles across the African desert, on the run from poachers who killed her father. Why they avoid every sign of civilization is a mystery to me, but the yarn is a thrilling one, with the kids facing every obstacle imaginable en route to safety. Fun.

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack Of The Clones Review


Good

Spider-Man's hype and box office may have stolen some of Episode II's thunder, but Attack of the Clones finally arrives, three years after its predecessor, The Phantom Menace, and picking up the story 10 years after that installment let off.

The story is considerably more convoluted this time out. Former Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now a senator in the Republic, and nefarious parties are repeatedly attempting to have her assassinated. Assigned to protect her are Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and a growing-up Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), now Obi-Wan's apprentice. Soon, Jedi bosses Yoda and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) split the two up: Obi-Wan is tasked with tracking down the bounty hunter who tried to kill Amidala (which turns out to be Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), father/clone of young Boba Fett). Anakin is tasked with serving as Amidala's bodyguard.

Obi-Wan scours a "secret" watery planet (there discovering a massing clone army allegedly purchased for the Republic ten years ago), and then tracks Jango to another planet, where he finds the opposition led by (try not to snicker) Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who is amassing a droid army for war against the Republic.

Meanwhile, Amidala and Anakin fall in love (awwwwwwwwwwwww), but since she's a politician and he's a Jedi (bound to supress emotion -- which just ain't takin'), they have to keep their romance a secret (just like in The Bodyguard!).

Side stories galore take characters all over the galaxy far, far away... including the inevitable stop on Tatooine to help Anakin's mother and long spells on Coruscant, the 100%-urban capital planet.

On to the nagging questions: Foremost, Jar-Jar is back, and his part is not insubstantial; the character is as grating as ever. But all eyes are on Christensen, and he fills the shoes of Skywalker admirably, though he has apparently been given the sole direction to act like a really bratty teenager.

The use of CGI is on overload, and while many of the sets (real or digital) are quite successful, many of the backdrops are not -- notably the cheesy oceans on the clone planet and an especially flat cathedral-like hallway Yoda scoots through. When the CGI interacts with real-world elements (like when Anakin rides a fat sheep-like creature), the effect is about as believable as Barney being a real dinosaur.

Also out of place is the movie's silly patriotism, with frequent pontification about loving democracy (and this from a former queen -- albeit an "elected" queen... uh, okay) and the Republic. One speech actually includes the earnestly corny line, "The day we stop believing in democracy is the day we lose it!" I say the day Star Wars becomes nothing more than a political platform is the day we lose it.

At 2 1/2 hours in length, this installment is a bit long-winded and bladder-challenging (compared to 2:13 for Episode I and a little over 2 hours for A New Hope), but the decision to go "epic" at least makes room for lots of action when Amidala and Anakin aren't busy smooching. The action starts right at the beginning, with an impressive skycar chase through Coruscant, and ends with an equally smashing "big battle scene" that easily outdoes the one in Menace. Best of all, though, is the already famous Yoda light-saber battle, which is as funny as it is thrilling. That said, the pod race in Phantom is still probably the best action sequence in the series so far.

Less impressive are the talky parts, which haltingly attempt to create a romance between Amidala and Anakin. The love story just doesn't work and it's very awkward, maybe because George Lucas is simply out of touch with the realities of youthful romance, or maybe because the leads didn't have chemistry. I don't know for sure. I do know, however, that if Anakin Skywalker is going to play the cool outcast he shouldn't act like a baby around his would-be girlfriend. And Amidala's 11th hour confession of love comes completely out of left field, a necessary plot point because we know she has to eventually bear two kids by the guy.

In fact, much of Episode II feels like it's ticking off items to make sure we get to the appropriate state of the galaxy by the end of 2005's Episode III. There's still a long way to go -- Anakin has to turn evil and disfigured; Amidala has to have two kids, split them up, and have one become the princess of a planet still not introduced in the series; Yoda and Obi-Wan have to become hermits; and then there's the matter of the Death Star, which has to be built. Episode III is either going to be a complete disaster or a work of genius.

Altogether, the movie is enjoyable despite its nagging script inadequacies and crummy "down" scenes. The action is fun, the acting is good enough, and the direction is capable, if not inspired. If you're a die-hard Star Wars fan, you will like this better than Episode I (though I grade them roughly equal), but it still won't hold a candle to the earlier films.

But chances are when it's said and done, you aren't going to be talking about Episode II for its good things. An impromptu conversation with another filmcritic.com staffer set us off on a number of incongruities and simply baffling moments that might be pointing to Lucas's senility. For example: When did R2-D2 become able to fly? When did Obi-Wan become afraid of flying (or afraid of anything for that matter)? What's with Jimmy Smits and his Elizabethan collar? Since when does a Jedi Knight have to go to a library to figure out where a planet is? And why didn't Lucas get the hint about Jar-Jar Binks the first time around?

Mysteries of the universe, I tell ya.

The DVD answers few of these mysteries, with eight deleted scenes (see Natalie Portman lose her accent!) and various effects-oriented documentaries. There's even a trailer for a mockumentary about R2-D2. Amusing.

Teddy bears' picnic.

Original Sin Review


Weak
Take one of those soft-focused Zalman King erotica flicks from the 1990s -- "Wild Orchid," for example, or his late-night Showtime series "The Red Shoe Diaries" -- water down the sex a little and subtract 100 years, and you've got the bulk of the formula for "Original Sin."

A by-the-book bodice-ripper set in 1890s Cuba, it's the steamy, sweaty story of a good man (Antonio Banderas) ruined by his love for a bad woman (Angelina Jolie), who takes him for everything he's worth and he still comes crawling back for more.

Jolie plays a Machiavellian seductress who passes herself off as the mail order bride for wealthy coffee baron Banderas, a man who apparently has trouble getting chicks in spite of being loaded, absurdly chivalrous and, well, Antonio Banderas. They marry only hours after she disembarks from the steam liner that brought her to Havana, and Banderas is soon surprised to find himself passionately in love with this sultry, ambrosial woman -- who subsequently absconds with the contents of his bank account after a few seemingly blissful weeks.

The same day a vaguely sleazy gentleman dandy of a private eye (Thomas Jane, "Deep Blue Sea") shows up investigating the disappearance of the real mail order bride. Incensed, Banderas begins a hunt for his wayward wife that has an unexpected result: When he finds her -- seducing another rich man in another Cuban city -- he's once again overwhelmed by desire. She breaks down, spinning a sob story about being forced into a partnership with a crooked man from her past -- hmmm, who could that be? -- and soon they're on the run together from the detective. Or so Banderas thinks. The truth is a fluid thing in "Original Sin."

Continue reading: Original Sin Review

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