vin

Burning Rubber One More Time

The tagline of “Fast & Furious” promises “New Model. Original Parts.” Well, yes and no. “Parts” is a remarkably apt way to describe the people of the movie, a crew of affectless hard bodies reunited from the 2001 B-movie sensation The Fast And The Furious.

Led by Vin Diesel, an inexpressive chunk of man whose actorly range is largely restricted to the occasional furrowing of a brow, the cast is slotted into a narrative involving revenge against a Mexican drug cartel, outlandish vehicular mayhem, flaunting of custom bodywork (both automotive and anatomical) and settings that encourage people to wear tank tops.

As for the newness of the model, the script (by Chris Morgan) is primitive at best, while the direction (by Justin Lin) is more or less functional. Less, in fact, would have been more: “Fast & Furious” could stand to lose 20 minutes to suit its truncated title.

This inoffensive if uninspired example of presummer pop diversion will be best appreciated by future audiences flabbergasted by its unabashed revelry in fossil-fuel consumption.

“Fast & Furious” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for outrageous moving violations and tough-guy talk.

FAST & FURIOUS

Directed by Justin Linn; written by Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson; director of photography, Amir Mokri; edited by Christian Wagner and Fred Raskin; music by Brian Tyler; production designer,Ida Random; produced by Neal H. Moritz, Michael Fottrell and Vin Diesel; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

WITH: Vin Diesel (Dominic Toretto), Paul Walker (Brian O’Conner), Michelle Rodriguez (Letty), Jordana Brewster (Mia Toretto), John Ortiz (Campos) and Laz Alonso (Fenix).

evenxlarge “Seven Pounds,” which reunites Will Smith with Gabriele Muccino (who directed him in “The Pursuit of Happyness ), begins with a series of riddling, chronologically scrambled scenes. A man calls 911 to report his own suicide. He badgers a blind call-center employee — whom we suspect will be a significant character, since he’s played by Woody Harrelson — with complaints and insults. He embraces a lovely woman in an even lovelier beach house. He visits a nursing home where he terrorizes an administrator and comforts a resident.

For a while it is pleasant enough to contemplate these loose ends, and to tease from them the possible contours of a story. It is never unpleasant to watch Mr. Smith, who likes to play peekaboo with his charm, hiding it now and then behind fleeting shadows of anguish or malice. The music (Angelo Milli’s score and a handful of emotive pop songs) combines with the deep colors of Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography to summon up intensities of sentiment not yet arrived at by the narrative, creating an interesting frisson of suspense. After a while, though, as the pieces of the puzzle snap together, curiosity gives way to incredulity.

Near the end of “Seven Pounds” a carefully laminated piece of paper appears, on which someone has written, “DO NOT TOUCH THE JELLYFISH.” I wouldn’t dream of it, and I’ll take the message as a warning not to divulge the astonishing things that happen, not all of them involving aquatic creatures.

Frankly, though, I don’t see how any review could really spoil what may be among the most transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made. I would tell you to go out and see it for yourself, but you might take that as a recommendation rather than a plea for corroboration. Did I really see what I thought I saw?

And I wish I could spell out just what that was, but you wouldn’t believe me, and the people at Sony might not invite me to any more screenings. So instead of spelling out what happens in “Seven Pounds,” I’ll just pluck a few key words and phrases from my notes, and arrange them in the kind of artful disorder Mr. Muccino seems to favor (feel free to start crying any time):

Eggplant parmesan. Printing press. Lung. Bone marrow. Eye transplant. Rosario Dawson. Great Dane. Banana peel. Jellyfish (but you knew that already). Car accident. Congestive heart failure.

Huh? What the … ? Hang on. What’s he doing? Why? Who does he think he is? Jesus! That last, by the way, is not an exclamation of shock but rather an answer to the preceding question, posed with reference to Mr. Smith. Lately he has taken so eagerly to roles predicated on heroism and world-saving self-sacrifice — see “I Am Legend” and “Hancock” — that you may wonder if he has a messiah clause in his contract. Which is not to say that he doesn’t show range in these films, in which he credibly plays a research scientist, a dissolute superhero and, in this latest one, an I.R.S. agent.

An I.R.S. agent who wants only to help people. This is a nice, small joke that provides a few grace notes of levity in what is otherwise a lugubrious exercise in spiritual bushwa. For all its pious, earnest air, “Seven Pounds” cries out to be remade as an Asian horror movie, so that the deep, creepy grotesqueness of its governing premise might be allowed to flourish, rather than to fester beneath the surface.

As it is, the movie is basically an inverted, twisted tale of revenge. Ben Thomas, Mr. Smith’s character, is in essence a benevolent vigilante, harassing, stalking and spying on unsuspecting citizens for their own good, and also to punish himself. Why such misery should also be inflicted on an innocent, affirmation-hungry audience — and also on the marvelous Ms. Dawson, who plays one of Ben’s victim-beneficiaries — is another matter entirely.

But maybe I’m approaching this in the wrong way. Maybe “Seven Pounds” isn’t a spiritual parable about redemption or forgiveness or salvation or whatever, but rather a collection of practical lessons. Don’t drive while using a BlackBerry. Fertilize your rose bushes with banana peels — sorry, that was a spoiler. But please, whatever you do, don’t touch the jellyfish.

I’m serious. Don’t.

“Seven Pounds” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Swearing. Soulful sex by candlelight. Car accident. Eggplant parmesan.

SEVEN POUNDS

Directed by Gabriele Muccino; written by Grant Nieporte; director of photography, Philippe Le Sourd; edited by Hughes Winborne; music by Angelo Milli; production designer, J. Michael Riva; produced by Todd Black, James Lassiter, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch and Will Smith; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes.

WITH: Will Smith (Ben Thomas),  Rosario Dawson(Emily Posa),Woody Harrelson (Ezra), Barry Pepper (Dan) and Michael Ealy (Ben’s Brother).

rab-ne-ban-di-jodiThere hasn’t been such a soothing title in Bollywood for ages. Aditya Chopra has made a movie with his “ghar ka beta” Shahrukh. You do not need reasons to watch a Shahrukh movie. I didn’t waste time searching for one…I was present at the first show….

PLOT and CAST:

A common man who knows the value of love but has his own ways of expressing it tries to win the heart of his better half. No! It’s not old wine in a new bottle. Shahrukh excels as Surinder Sahni. A common man working for Punjab Power Ltd, who longs for love from his better half, and even enjoys love in the lunch box she packs for his work.

The new comer Anushka is promising. She is quite a treat to the eyes to be honest (both her looks and performance). She was on par with the Bollywood King. Be it the initial aversions or the later intimacies. She dances quite well and emotes perfectly.

Vinay Pathak does his job fantastically as a fellow pal of Surinder. The comedy element hits the bulls eye when they both share the screen. He plays quite a vital role in helping Suri to do things to win Taani’s love…..

BRILLIANCES:

Writer-Director – Aditya perfectly blends sentiments and bubbly sequences. I wonder how this guy’s story telling ability is still the same even after a gap of 9 years. (Mohabbatein was his last). Honestly, I never felt bored at any part of the movie, which is the most difficult part in today’s film making. Neither the star cast over-acted nor the story lacked pace. Kudos to the director.

Music….To me, something that really goes well with the movie and perfectly highlights the happy and sad moments is good music….It is superlative in that sense for this movie…Best…..Haule Haule is the pick of the lot and comes at a perfect timing….True for any Yash movie, this serves the BGM for the first half….”Tuj me Rab diktha hai” is the next best that serves the purpose during second half….All the other songs are not speed breakers but catalysts for the pace of the movie….

Cinematography…Its none other than Ravi K Chandran…..perfectly shoots the Amritsar Golden Temple sequences and the nuances of a middle class household. The top angle shots and rotating sequences are trade marks of the director….The cameraman has done a splendid job and given what the director wanted….

NEGATIVES:

Only negative I see in this movie is the obvious plot. So what?? Love is still love after so many decades of romantic films….”And they lived happily ever after” is the ending of 99 percent of the movies….If you start guessing what’s going to happen in a thriller then you lose the total adrenaline shakes….Similarly in a Shahrukh movie you if you start moaning about the repetitive BGM’s and cheesy dialogues then you should stay away from it. It’s always watchable if its done by Shahrukh….That’s the thumb rule for Bollywood…

275840

Film star Angelina Jolie commands the biggest salary for Hollywood actresses, according to an annual list published by the Hollywood Reporter.

Jolie can expect to make $15m (£10.2m) a film, ahead of Julia Roberts and 2007 list winner Reese Witherspoon.

Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Halle Berry are no longer able to make $10m (£6.8m), says the industry publication.

But male stars are outstripping their female counterparts, with Will Smith able to make $25m (£17m) for a movie.

Waning salaries

Jolie’s partner Brad Pitt is able to make up to $20m (£13.6m) for each star vehicle.

Jolie, 33, currently starring in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, made $15m for Wanted and could increase her pay-out to $20m for a sequel, said the Hollywood Reporter.

The actress finished in second spot in last year’s ratings.

Other actresses in the top flight are Cameron Diaz, Katherine Heigl, Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway and former Friends star Jennifer Aniston, who made $8 (£5.44m) for comedy Marley and Me, due to open on Christmas Day in the US.

The publication added that salaries of key actresses are on the wane and are still lagging Hollywood’s leading men.

It also published its annual list of the most powerful women in US entertainment, in which talk show host Oprah Winfrey came out on top.

The TV star and media mogul was credited for her “immense cultural influence”.

balloonxlWould you be able to cope? That is the unspoken challenge laid down by “The Black Balloon,” a harrowing, unsentimental portrait of a middle-class Australian family whose oldest son has severe autism compounded by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Would you find in yourself the seemingly infinite reserves of love and patience possessed by the Mollisons, the movie’s itinerant, highly stressed army family who have just moved to the suburbs of Sydney? Maybe not.

“The Black Balloon,” directed by Elissa Down, was inspired by her experiences growing up in a household with two autistic brothers, the younger of whom served as the model for Charlie (Luke Ford), a mute who communicates in sign language and heaving, wheezing grunts. When calm, Charlie is adorably playful and cuddlesome, but when agitated, which is often, he makes noises that assume a feral intensity.

At his most intimidating, during uncontrollable tantrums, he becomes a desperate wild animal, flailing and spitting and biting. Mr. Ford, who was seen earlier this year as the hero’s rambunctious son in “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” makes Charlie a character whose complexity transcends his disability; you can almost decipher the words he is unable to speak.

Ms. Down’s sympathetic alter ego is Charlie’s slightly younger brother, Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), a shy 15-year-old whose love for Charlie is increasingly compromised by his embarrassment. As the new kid at his school, Thomas is something of a fish out of water himself; barely able to swim, he struggles to stay afloat during lifesaving classes. He is so ashamed of Charlie, who attends a school for the disabled, that when Jackie (Gemma Ward), a sweet, attractive girl his own age, comes calling, he futilely tries to keep him out of sight.

“The Black Balloon” offers a wrenching portrait of the Mollison household. The boys’ exhausted mother, Maggie (Toni Collette), only days away from giving birth to a third child, refuses the bed rest ordered by her doctors. When she goes to the hospital to give birth, her husband, Simon (Erik Thomson), a gruff, good-hearted army officer, mistakenly imagines that the house can run smoothly while she is away. No sooner has she left than Charlie begins wreaking havoc.

The scenes of Charlie running amok are agonizing. One afternoon he flees in his underwear and, with Thomas in frantic pursuit, dashes through the neighborhood and into a strange house to use the bathroom. In a supermarket checkout line he flops onto the floor and begins bellowing when Simon asks him to return some items to the shelves; eventually he has to be dragged out of the store screaming. At one point an angry neighbor summons child services to the Mollisons’ home.

In the most repellent scene, Charlie is discovered in his room smearing his feces on the carpet and over his body. Thomas is expected to clean up the mess. His growing sense of being trapped by his brother’s disability is evoked in moments when he anxiously listens to Charlie’s noises and to the squall of the newborn through the door of his room.

The blooming puppy love between Thomas and Jackie lends “The Black Balloon” a welcome strain of tenderness. Mr. Wakefield and Ms. Ward project the innocence of shy, sensitive young people for whom a tentative shared kiss is a very big deal.

But Ms. Collette’s Maggie is the film’s prime mover. This wonderful Australian actress, who hasn’t a shred of vanity, virtually disappears into the complicated characters she plays, and Maggie is one of the strongest. With every forceful gesture and glaring look, Ms. Collette portrays Maggie as an indefatigable woman of heart and sinew who, through sheer determination, holds off chaos.

THE BLACK BALLOON

Directed by Elissa Down; written by Ms. Down and Jimmy Jack (a k a Jimmy the Exploder); director of photography, Denson Baker; edited by Veronica Jenet; music by Michael Yezerski; production designer, Nicholas McCallum; produced by Tristram Miall; released by NeoClassics Films Ltd. In Manhattan at the AMC Empire 25, 234 West 42nd Street. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Rhys Wakefield (Thomas), Luke Ford (Charlie), Gemma Ward (Jackie), Erik Thomson (Simon) and Toni Collette(Maggie).

rightxlargeThe title of the spectrally beautiful Swedish vampire movie “Let the Right One In”  comes from a song by Morrissey, a romantic fatalist who would surely appreciate this darkly perverse love story. “Let the right one in,” he sings in “Let the Right One Slip In.” I’d say you were within your rights to bite/The right one and say, ‘What kept you so long?’ ” These may sound like words to live by, though in the case of a film about a boy and the girl next door who may just be a vampire, they could easily turn out to be words to die for.

I’m not sure if the director Tomas Alfredson is a Morrissey fan, even if, like the singer, his movie smoothly and seemingly without effort works through a canny amalgamation of cool and hot, diffidence and passion. (John Ajvide Lindqvist, who adapted the screenplay from his horror novel, openly borrowed the title from Morrissey, a favorite.) The film’s cool is largely expressed in visual terms, in the enveloping snow, the wintry light and the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s meticulously and steadily framed compositions. There is a remarkable stillness to many of the film’s most indelible images, particularly the exteriors, which are so carefully photographed, and without the usual tiresome camera jiggling, as to look almost frozen. It’s no wonder that pale, pale little Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) looks so cold.

Pale and strange: with his light blond hair and alabaster skin, the 12-year-old Oskar appears not quite of this world, an alienation of body and spirit that causes him enormous pain but proves his salvation. The seemingly friendless only son of divorced, emotionally remote parents, he is also an outcast at school. The other children taunt him, particularly a pint-size sadist who grows crueler the more Oskar retreats into himself. But there are few other places he can go, which is how he ends up alone at night outside his apartment building thrusting a knife into a tree as if stabbing his tormentor. It’s an uneasy revenge fantasy that attracts the notice of a girl even paler than he is, Eli (Lina Leandersson), an outcast of a deadlier kind.

The bedraggled Eli drops into Oskar’s life like a blessing, though initially she seems more like a curse. Mr. Alfredson has an elevated sense of visual beauty, but he knows how to deliver the splattery goods. One of the earliest scenes features Eli’s guardian or slave (it’s never clear which), a defeated-looking middle-aged man named Hakan (Per Ragnar), headed into the night with a little black kit, the contents of which — a knife, a plastic container, a funnel (ick) — are soon put to deadly use on a strung-up victim. The ensuing stream of red is all the more gruesome for being so matter-of-fact, though the sudden and comical appearance of an inquisitive poodle quickly eased at least one violently churning stomach.

There are other interested animals in this story, and many more unsettling excuses to laugh. Yet while Mr. Alfredson takes a darkly amused attitude toward the little world he has fashioned with such care, he also takes the morbid unhappiness of his young characters seriously. Both are achingly alone, and it is the ordinary fact of their loneliness rather than their extraordinary circumstances that makes the film more than the sum of its chills and estimable technique. Eli seizes on Oskar immediately, slipping her hand under his, writing him notes, becoming his protector, baring her fangs. “Are you a vampire?” he asks tremulously at one point. Her answer may surprise you, but it’s another of his questions — “Will you be my girlfriend?” — that will floor you.

“Let the Right One In” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Dripping and gushing blood, as well as some knife work.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

Directed by Tomas Alfredson; written (in Swedish, with English subtitles) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his novel of the same name; director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema; edited by Dino Jonsater and Mr. Alfredson; music by Johan Soderqvist; production designer, Eva Noren; produced by John Nordling and Carl Molinder; released by Magnet Releasing. In Manhattan at the Angelika Film Center, Mercer and Houston Streets, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes.

WITH: Kare Hedebrant (Oskar), Lina Leandersson (Eli), Per Ragnar (Hakan), Henrik Dahl (Erik), Karin Bergquist (Yvonne) and Peter Carlberg (Lacke).

26chri600Every holiday season, either out of respect for tradition or sheer spite, at least one Hollywood studio is sure to release a drippily sentimental, gratingly cheerful “comedy,” indigestible as a fruitcake and disposable as wrapping paper. All appearances to the contrary, “Four Christmases” is not this year’s version. Yes, it follows a charming, mismatched couple on a sentimental journey involving presents, family and the sharing of food and feelings, but the picture, briskly directed by Seth Gordon from a snappy, many-authored script, is refreshingly tart and lean, forgoing the usual schmaltz and syrup.

Don’t get the wrong idea. “Four Christmases” isn’t anything astonishing, but at 86 minutes, divided into four farcical set pieces, plus necessary exposition, denouement and interstitial drive time, it’s an efficient and stress-free entertainment package. For the audience, that is. The main characters seem pretty miserable most of the time, which is as it should be.

To an unusual and welcome degree, “Four Christmases” makes merry with an impressive range of modern American social awfulness. In its view of the discomfort that persists between parents and their grown-up children, it flirts with the misanthropy encapsulated in Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse,” which begins with an unprintable axiom and concludes with the advice to “get out as early as you can/and don’t have any kids yourself.”

This is the counsel Kate (Reese Witherspoon) and Brad (Vince Vaughn) seem to have followed. An unmarried, fun-loving San Francisco couple, they have tactfully estranged themselves from parents, stepparents and siblings. Each Christmas Kate and Brad invent an exotic charity project as cover for a hedonistic jaunt that takes them far from the claims of kin. This year, though, their planned escape is foiled, and they must run a grueling (and surprisingly brutal) gantlet through the homes of four divorced parents, enduring awkwardness, humiliation and sexual ickiness.

“I swear I never had sexual feelings for your mom until I was 30,” Brad’s childhood best friend tells him. It’s much funnier, as well as more appalling, in context.

Mr. Vaughn is supposed to be the offspring of Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek, a curious casting choice unless the editors left out a flashback in which the infant Brad fell into a vat of human growth hormone. Kate’s parents are played by Mary Steenburgen and, all too briefly, Jon Voight, and her undermining, aggressively fertile sister by Kristin Chenoweth.

Brad’s feral brothers, a pair of semi-professional extreme cage fighters, are Tim McGraw and Jon Favreau, and the generally high caliber of the supporting performances — Dwight Yoakam as Pastor Phil, Kate’s mom’s latest boyfriend, also deserves mention — goes a long way toward making “Four Christmases” palatable.

And Ms. Witherspoon serves as a game comic sidekick to the irrepressible Mr. Vaughn, who basically does what he always does, which is to stammer, bluster and wheedle his way through a performance that scrambles the distinction between brute and wimp. He has a tendency, slyly mocked in a church pageant scene, to upstage whomever he’s paired with, and Ms. Witherspoon, though a fine comedian in her own right, is perhaps a bit too decorous and obliging.

The difference in size between them presents an interesting visual challenge, as they fit into the frame like Gandalf and Frodo, or Marmaduke and a Hummel figurine. There are other reasons not to believe them as a couple, one being that no sane woman could endure more than 90 minutes of Brad’s company. But since you don’t even have to endure that much, it really isn’t your problem.

“Four Christmases” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has profanity and sexual situations and references.

FOUR CHRISTMASES

Directed by Seth Gordon; written by Matt R. Allen, Caleb Wilson, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, based on a story by Mr. Allen and Mr. Wilson; director of photography, Jeffrey L. Kimball; edited by Mark Helfrich and Melissa Kent; music by Alex Wurman; production designer, Shepherd Frankel; produced by Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber and Jonathan Glickman; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes.

WITH: Vince Vaughn (Brad), Reese Witherspoon (Kate), Robert Duvall (Howard), Jon Favreau (Denver), Mary Steenburgen (Marilyn), Dwight Yoakam (Pastor Phil), Tim McGraw (Dallas), Kristin Chenoweth (Courtney), Jon Voight (Creighton) and Sissy Spacek (Paula).

26austBaz Luhrmann’s continent-size epic, “Australia,” isn’t the greatest story ever — it’s several dozen of the greatest stories ever told, “The African Queen,” “Gone With the Wind” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” included. A pastiche of genres and references wrapped up — though, more often than not, whipped up — into one demented and generally diverting horse-galloping, cattle-stampeding, camera-swooping, music-swelling, mood-altering widescreen package, this creation story about modern Australia is a testament to movie love at its most devout, cinematic spectacle at its most extreme, and kitsch as an act of aesthetic communion.

Mr. Luhrmann’s use of culturally degraded forms both here and in earlier films like “Moulin Rouge” doesn’t register as either a conceptual strategy or a cynical commercial ploy or some combination of the two, as it can with art world jesters like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, who have appropriated kitsch as a (more or less) legitimate postmodern strategy. Instead it feels — feeling being paramount in all of Mr. Luhrmann’s films — like a sincere cry from the swelling, throbbing heart, a true expression of self. And while that self and its gaudy work may be stitched together from the bits and pieces of pop culture — the son of a movie-theater owner, Mr. Luhrmann grew up worshiping at the altar of Hollywood — they are also wholly sincere.

Sincere, if also sometimes confused and confusing: though there is no denying the scope and towering ambition of “Australia,” which was largely shot on location in the outback, it can be difficult to gauge Mr. Luhrmann’s intentions, or rather his level of self-awareness. The film begins with some text that scrolls importantly across the screen, immediately setting the uncertain tone with some (serious?) twaddle about Australia as a land of “adventure and romance.” Before you have a chance to harrumph indignantly about the oppression of the Aborigines (or sneer at the country’s early imported criminal population), the text has skipped to the topic of “the stolen generations,” the children of indigenous peoples who, from the 19th century well into the 20th, were forcibly separated from their cultures by white Australians in the name of God and civilization.

But no worries! Though “Australia” is narrated by a young boy of mixed race, Nullah (the newcomer Brandon Walters), the illegitimate son of an Aboriginal mother and a white father, who is trying to escape the authorities, and while it opens in 1939, shortly before World War II blasted Australian shores, the film isn’t a bummer. Like every other weighty or would-be weighty moment that passes through Mr. Luhrmann’s soft-filtering lens — a man being trampled to death by rampaging cattle or a city being annihilated by bombing Japanese warplanes — the calamities of history are merely colorful grist for his main interest, the romance between a wilted English rose, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), and an itinerant Australian cattleman, the Drover (Hugh Jackman).

The lady and the tramp meet soon after she lands in Australia to track down her cattleman husband, whose early murder sets all the narrative pieces in place. Initially intent on selling her property, including 1,500 head of cattle, Sarah soon transforms into a frontierswoman, seduced by Nullah’s smile and the majestic valleys and peaks of both the land and of the Drover’s musculature. Although Ms. Kidman and Mr. Jackman are initially riffing on Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart’s prickly courtship in “The African Queen” — later, as they heat up, they slip into a sexier Scarlett-and-Rhett dynamic — only Ms. Kidman really embraces the more comic and potentially embarrassing aspects of her role, giving herself over to Mr. Luhrmann and his occasionally cruel camera with a pronounced lack of vanity.

Though looking bad (or at least less than perfect) on camera is a particular form of vanity for actors, Ms. Kidman has in recent years generally erred on the side of physical perfection, sometimes to the detriment of her performances. But she’s wonderfully and fully expressive here, from wince-worthy start to heartbreaking finish, whether she’s wrinkling her nose in mock disgust or rushing across a dusty field, her arms pumping so wildly that it’s a wonder well water doesn’t spring from her mouth. It’s a ludicrous role — not long after priming her pump, the barren widow turns into a veritable fertility goddess — but she rides Sarah’s and the story’s ups and downs with ease. Mr. Jackman gives the movie oomph; Ms. Kidman gives it a performance.

More than anything else in the film, Nullah included, Ms. Kidman tethers “Australia” to the world of human feeling and brings Mr. Luhrmann’s outrageous flights of fancy down to earth. That may not be where he prefers to make movies, but it’s a necessary place for even a fantasist to visit. Although many of his Western contemporaries like to root around in down-and-dirty realism, Mr. Luhrmann maintains a full-throttle commitment to cinematic illusion and what he characterizes as the “heightened artifice” of his so-called Red Curtain trilogy, “Strictly Ballroom,” “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge.” You may not always see the people for the production design in these, but when you do — as in “Romeo + Juliet” and sometimes here — they spring forth from their fantastical milieus like fists.

A maximalist, Mr. Luhrmann doesn’t simply want to rouse your laughter and tears: he wants to rouse you out of a sensory-overloaded stupor with jolts of passion and fabulous visions. That may make him sound a wee bit Brechtian, but he’s really just an old-fashioned movie man, the kind who never lets good taste get in the way of rip-roaring entertainment. The usual line about kitsch is that it’s an affront, a cheapening of the culture, a danger. “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession,” Milan Kundera wrote. “The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”

True, but it doesn’t make the second tear any less wet.

“Australia” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Some bloody violence, many stampeding hooves.

AUSTRALIA

Directed by Baz Luhrmann; written by Mr. Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Richard Flanagan; director of photography, Mandy Walker; edited by Dody Dorn and Michael McCusker; music by David Hirschfelder; production designer, Catherine Martin; produced by Mr. Luhrmann, G. Mac Brown and Catherine Knapman; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.

WITH: Nicole Kidman (Lady Sarah Ashley), Hugh Jackman (the Drover), David Wenham (Neil Fletcher), Bryan Brown (King Carney), Jack Thompson (Kipling Flynn), David Gulpilil (King George) and Brandon Walters (Nullah).

26milkOne of the first scenes in “Milk” is of a pick-up in a New York subway station. It’s 1970, and an insurance executive in a suit and tie catches sight of a beautiful, scruffy younger man — the phrase “angel-headed hipster” comes to mind — and banters with him on the stairs. The mood of the moment, which ends up with the two men eating birthday cake in bed, is casual and sexy, and its flirtatious playfulness is somewhat disarming, given our expectation of a serious and important movie grounded in historical events. “Milk,” directed by Gus Van Sant from a script by Dustin Lance Black, is certainly such a film, but it manages to evade many of the traps and compromises of the period biopic with a grace and tenacity worthy of its title character.

That would be Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn), a neighborhood activist elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and murdered, along with the city’s mayor, George Moscone (Victor Garber), by a former supervisor named Dan White (Josh Brolin) the next year. Notwithstanding the modesty of his office and the tragic foreshortening of his tenure, Milk, among the first openly gay elected officials in the country, had a profound impact on national politics, and his rich afterlife in American culture has affirmed his status as pioneer and martyr. His brief career has inspired an opera by Stewart Wallace, an excellent documentary film (“The Times of Harvey Milk,” by Rob Epstein, from 1984) and now “Milk,” which is the best live-action mainstream American movie that I have seen this year. This is not faint praise, by the way, even though 2008 has been a middling year for Hollywood. “Milk” is accessible and instructive, an astute chronicle of big-city politics and the portrait of a warrior whose passion was equaled by his generosity and good humor. Mr. Penn, an actor of unmatched emotional intensity and physical discipline, outdoes himself here, playing a character different from any he has portrayed before.

This is less a matter of sexuality — there is no longer much novelty in a straight actor’s “playing gay” — than of temperament. Unlike, say, Jimmy Markum, Mr. Penn’s brooding ex-convict in Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” Harvey Milk is an extrovert and an ironist, a man whose expansive, sometimes sloppy self-presentation camouflages an incisive mind and a ferociously stubborn will. All of this Mr. Penn captures effortlessly through voice and gesture, but what is most arresting is the sense he conveys of Milk’s fundamental kindness, a personal virtue that also functions as a political principle.

Which is not to say that “Milk” is an easy, sunny, feel-good movie, or that its hero is a shiny liberal saint. There is righteous anger in this movie, and also an arresting, moody lyricism. Mr. Van Sant has frequently practiced a kind of detached romanticism, letting his stories unfold matter-of-factly while infusing them with touches of melancholy beauty. (He is helped here by Danny Elfman’s elegant score and by the expressive cinematography of Harris Savides, whose touch when it comes to framing and focus could more aptly be called a caress.)

In the years since the earnest and commercial “Finding Forrester” (2000), Mr. Van Sant has devoted himself to smaller-scale projects, some of them (like the Palme d’Or-winning provocation “Elephant”) employing nonprofessional actors, and none of them much concerned with soliciting the approval of the mass audience. “Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days” and “Paranoid Park” are linked by a spirit of formal exploration — elements of Mr. Van Sant’s experimental style include long tracking shots; oblique, fractured narratives; and a way of composing scenes that emphasizes visual and aural texture over conventional dramatic exposition — and also by a preoccupation with death.

Like “Elephant” (suggested by the Columbine High shootings) and “Last Days” (by the suicide of Kurt Cobain), “Milk” is the chronicle of a death foretold. Before that subway station encounter, we have already seen real-life news video of the aftermath of Milk’s assassination, as well as grainy photographs of gay men being rounded up by the police. These images don’t spoil the intimacy between Harvey the buttoned-up businessman and Scott Smith (James Franco), the hippie who becomes his live-in lover and first campaign manager. Rather, the constant risk of harassment, humiliation and violence is the defining context of that intimacy.

And his refusal to accept this as a fact of life, his insistence on being who he is without secrecy or shame, is what turns Milk from a bohemian camera store owner (after his flight from New York and the insurance business) into a political leader.

“My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you.” That was an opening line that the real Milk often used in his speeches to break the tension with straight audiences, but the film shows him deploying it with mostly gay crowds as well, with a slightly different inflection. He wants to recruit them into the politics of democracy, to persuade them that the stigma and discrimination they are used to enduring quietly and even guiltily can be addressed by voting, by demonstrating, by claiming the share of power that is every citizen’s birthright and responsibility.

The strength of Mr. Black’s script is that it grasps both the radicalism of Milk’s political ambition and the pragmatism of his methods. “Milk” understands that modern politics thrive at the messy, sometimes glorious intersection of grubby interests and noble ideals. Shortly after moving with Scott from New York to the Castro section of San Francisco, Milk begins organizing the gay residents of that neighborhood, seeking out allies among businessmen, labor unions and other groups.

The city’s gay elite, discomfited by his confrontational tactics, keeps Milk at a distance, leaving him to build a movement from the ground up with the help of a young rabble-rouser and ex-hustler named Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch).

For more than two lively, eventful hours, “Milk” conforms to many of the conventions of biographical filmmaking, if not always to the precise details of the hero’s biography. Milk’s inexhaustible political commitment takes its toll on his relationships, first with Scott and then with Jack Lira, an impulsive, unstable young man played by Diego Luna with an operatic verve that stops just short of camp.

Meanwhile, local San Francisco issues are overshadowed by a statewide anti-gay-rights referendum and the national crusade, led by the orange-juice spokesmodel Anita Bryant, to repeal municipal antidiscrimination laws. The culture war is unfolding, and Milk is in the middle of it. (And so, 30 years later, in the wake of Proposition 8, is “Milk.”)

“Milk” is a fascinating, multi-layered history lesson. In its scale and visual variety it feels almost like a calmed-down Oliver Stone movie, stripped of hyperbole and Oedipal melodrama. But it is also a film that like Mr. Van Sant’s other recent work — and also, curiously, like David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” another San Francisco-based tale of the 1970s — respects the limits of psychological and sociological explanation.

Dan White, Milk’s erstwhile colleague and eventual assassin, haunts the edges of the movie, representing both the banality and the enigma of evil. Mr. Brolin makes him seem at once pitiable and scary without making him look like a monster or a clown. Motives for White’s crime are suggested in the film, but too neat an accounting of them would distort the awful truth of the story and undermine the power of the movie.

That power lies in its uncanny balancing of nuance and scale, its ability to be about nearly everything — love, death, politics, sex, modernity — without losing sight of the intimate particulars of its story. Harvey Milk was an intriguing, inspiring figure. “Milk” is a marvel.

“Milk” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has some profanity, brief violence and a few discreet sex scenes.

MILK

Directed by Gus Van Sant; written by Dustin Lance Black; director of photography, Harris Savides; edited by Elliot Graham; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Bill Groom; produced by Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen; released by Focus Features. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes.

WITH: Sean Penn (Harvey Milk), Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones), Josh Brolin (Dan White), Diego Luna (Jack Lira), Alison Pill (Anne Kronenberg), Victor Garber (Mayor George Moscone), Denis O’Hare (John Briggs), Joseph Cross (Dick Pabich), Stephen Spinella (Rick Stokes), Lucas Grabeel (Danny Nicoletta), Brandon Boyce (Jim Rivaldo), Zvi Howard Rosenman (David Goodstein), Kelvin Yu (Michael Wong) and James Franco (Scott Smith).

26tran600To chart the differences between “Transporter 3” and its two predecessors is as pointless as trying to parse its flimsy plot. As in this B-movie franchise’s previous installments — the streamlined “The Transporter” and the somewhat bulked-up “Transporter 2” — that pretty bit of rough, Jason Statham, stars as Frank Martin, a taciturn hard-body for hire who, when not lolling around his swank Mediterranean bachelor pad or palling around with his police buddy (François Berléand), racks up kilometers ferrying valuables across borders and genre imperatives in his sleek ride.

This time there’s a new director (Olivier Megaton) and some different nubile flesh (Natalya Rudakova), but much remains the same, just with a longer running time.

As usual, the marital-arts choreographer Cory Yuen, who also directed the first movie, cooks up some lively fist-to-face brawls, several of which make amusing use of Frank’s natty tailoring and body sculpting. Most men just wear their suits and some suits wear the men, but Mr. Statham actually turns his industrial-strength threads into a lasso, a weapon, a shield.

Though the car chases have grown more banal as the franchise has started to run on fumes, the smackdowns have retained their zing, partly because of Mr. Yuen and partly because Mr. Statham never looks better than when he’s taking aim at a group of men with his bullet head and a suit that ensures he’s dressed to kill.

“Transporter 3” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for fight violence.

TRANSPORTER 3

Directed by Olivier Megaton; written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, based on characters created by Mr. Besson and Mr. Kamen; director of photography, Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci; edited by Camille Delamarre and Carlo Rizzo; music by Alexandre Azaria; production designer, Patrick Durand; produced by Mr. Besson and Steven Chasman; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.

WITH: Jason Statham (Frank Martin), Natalya Rudakova (Valentina), François Berléand (Tarconi) and Robert Knepper (Johnson).