Baz Lurhmann’s Australia is a cornball compote of old-fashioned romance, sweeping outdoors-y saga, and WWII drama of epic proportions—think The Thorn Birds down under, or Ryan’s Daughter set in the Australian Outback. What makes it so enjoyable is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything but. It’s far from perfect (unlike, say, Lurhmann’s earlier films Moulin Rouge! and Romeo+Juliet) but that’s also part of the film’s considerable appeal (not to mention length; it clocks in at a little under three hours but you wouldn’t know it unless you’re not having any fun at all, in which case you’ve probably already left). That darling of Aussie exports Nicole Kidman receives top billabong-ing as Lady Sarah Ashley, a right proper lady who moves to the Northern Territories when her husband loses the farm (so to speak). In the months following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Lady Ashley vows to drive her two thousand head of cattle to sell to the armed forces in Darwin, putting a crimp on rancher King Carney’s (Brian Brown) monopoly on Australian beef. With few hired hands to make the trip across then treacherous terrain, Lady Ashley reluctantly recruits the handsome and often shirtless Drover (X-Men‘s Hugh Jackman) and together with Lady Ashley’s adopted “creamy” (half-cast Aborigine, played by the strikingly good-looking Brandon Walters) the loyal band of cowhands heads north. The corn is as high as a kangaroo’s eye, mostly in the form of Lady Ashley’s primness coupled with the down-and-dirty drudgery of life on the open trail (Kidman’s wonderful, of course, and Jackman is spot on as the weary cattle hand; likewise, 12-year-old Walters is captivating as Nullah) and the only real questions in Australia are when will Sarah and Drover start snogging and when will the (boo! hiss!) villainous Carney get his comeuppance.
Poppy (née Pauline) is a colorful, optimistic, North London schoolteacher who sees the good in everything and everyone. She’s bright, spirited, and full of life—a British Amélie but without the underlying subtitles (although those certainly wouldn’t have hurt her cause herein). She’s also rather annoying, too good to be true. She’s too happy-go-lucky, too full of life (maybe even herself). And to some she’s likely more than just rather annoying (the words hellish, freakish, obnoxious, and grating all come tumbling to mind). But I liked her, mostly. I enjoyed her consistency, her inability to say nothing, to let sleeping dogs lie when a pithy retort has already formed itself in her brain and is heading, Mach 1-style, for her lips. Poppy is exhausting in that regard; no quip is left unturned, no sarky comment left unsaid, no rebuttal laid to rest. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism on Poppy’s part. Maybe, maybe not. But it’s there. Always. And you can count on it. Poppy, the character, is a creation of Mike Leigh (who wrote her) and Sally Hawkins (who plays her). Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh’s latest, is a bit of a departure for the director, who’s best known for his working-class dramas—High Hopes, Life is Sweet, Secrets & Lies, etc. Sally Hawkins is new to me, although having said that I do remember seeing her in the Woody Allen film Cassandra’s Dream, in which she played a thinly disguised version of Scarlet Johansson (Hawkins was also in Leigh’s Vera Drake and All or Nothing, apparently). There’s not much plot to the film—Poppy is the plot—but it’s when Poppy takes driving lessons with Scott (Eddie Marsan) that Happy-Go-Lucky really comes alive. The mantra-spouting Scott is the complete opposite of Poppy, uptight and rigid, and their scenes together have a real, uncompromising bite.
Hectic. That, in a word, is the new Bond film—number 22 if you’re counting—from its opening sequence onwards with barely a break for a vodka martini (or a Vesper) thereafter. And even if you’ve never read the books you get the sense watching Quantum of Solace (that title, by the way, is a mouthful and mostly meaningless) that this is probably how Ian Fleming imagined his James Bond: ruthless, efficient, hard as nails—a veritable bullet on the hit parade. In his second go-round as the suave, globetrotting MI6 operative Daniel Craig leaps from balconies, speeding cars, and prostrate women with the alacrity of a Namibian springbok. He’s easy on the eyes (his are a brilliant ice-y blue) and loose-y goose-y with the trigger finger. There’s less cheekiness to his Bond. And speaking of growing into a role Dame Judi continues to arrive as M, acerbic and no-nonsense-y. She’s so good, in fact, that you can’t imagine her wanting to play another role (although she’s done more than 75 to date). Director Marc Forster (The Kite Runner) choreographs the whole thing as if his tenure with the franchise depended on it (although not since 1989’s License to Kill has the same director helmed back-to-back Bonds). Ukranian supermodel Olga Kurylenko plays “Bond Girl” Camille, Roman Polanski lookalike Mathieu Amalric is the baddie, and Giancarlo Giannini returns as Mathis. Gone are Q and Moneypenny but David Arnold’s serviceable music evokes the classic Bond scores of old. A novel twist in Quantum‘ is how it picks up where the last one left off—Bond is bent on avenging the love of his life, Vesper Lind, even though M clearly tells him not to make it into a personal vendetta 007. ‘Solace isn’t as assured as Casino Royale but it’s an exciting—and noisy—diversion nonetheless.
The last time Angelina Jolie did a stint in the loony bin she wound up winning an Oscar for her pains (Best Supporting Actress for Girl, Interrupted) and I daresay that realization wasn’t far from her mind when she opted to star in Clint Eastwood’s latest film Changeling, a period drama about a single mom who’s unceremoniously institutionalized by the L.A.P.D. when her 9-year-old son goes missing, shows up five months later, and is denounced by Christine Collins (Jolie) as not being her son. This happens after Collins takes “Walter” home, for a “trial period,” while the flashbulbs burst and the Police Department, who supposedly found the boy in Dekalb, Ill., spat and polished up their tarnished reputation. The story (by J. Michael Straczynski) is an earnest one, leading to one of the most despicable crimes in the annals of American history (serial killer Gordon Stewart Northcott figures in the latter going) but the film is an odd mix of genres that never quite settles into the one we want to watch. Jolie is suitably distraught and outraged in equal amounts and her experience in ‘Interrupted has stood her in good stead to play the bughouse scenes with conviction. But the film is undone by a surprising laziness on Clint’s part, who telegraphs too much too often and constantly gussies Jolie up no matter what her situation (those famous lips are never anything but bright cherry red and you wonder why her character feels the need to look mahvelous so much of the time). Although inspired by true events (the Wineville Chicken Murders), the central conceit in the film—that a doppelganger could dupe an individual’s teachers, doctors, and peers—make Changeling a pretty preposterous pill to swallow (one administered forcefully, at the hands of brutal, one-dimensional prison guards).