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Stormbreaker

It has all the right Bondian elements, including a handsome hero (Alex Pettyfer), a droll spy chief (Bill Nighy), a couple of nasty villains (Mickey Rourke, Damian Lewis), a fussy gadget master (Stephen Fry) and an assortment of pretty women and daring stuntmen.

Some of them work reasonably well, especially Nighy as the head of MI6 and Fry as the boffin, both of whom could be auditioning for the equivalent roles played by Judi Dench and John Cleese in the 007 films.

As the schoolboy secret agent, Pettyfer, who won attention in TV's "Tom Brown's Schooldays," is handsome, athletic and blond, but his features are a bit too bland to suggest a rugged hero in bloom.

He gets into the fray right after an opening sequence in which his action-man uncle Ian (Ewan McGregor) is seen coming off worst in a swift-moving motorcycle and car chase that doesn't really get the adrenaline pumping.

Quickly dragooned into Her Majesty's Secret Service, young Alex shows himself adept at dealing with groups of thugs and the usual array of unpleasant underlings employed by megalomaniacs. Rourke is the chief adversary, but he has an underwritten role that clearly bored the actor, and the result is that the film lacks any kind of suspense or sense of peril for either the hero or the usual victims, passersby.

Devoid of the surrealistic magic and goofball frights that enliven the "Harry Potter" films, Alex Rider appears unlikely to be rewarded with a license to kill at the boxoffice.

Been Rich All My Life

The film presents an affectionate portrait of five performers -- Berte Lou Wood, Cleo Hayes, Marion Coles, Fay Ray and Elaine Ellis -- who began their careers in the 1930s during the golden age of Harlem. As their reminiscences and film clips detail, they worked with the cream of the crop, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, among many others.

More importantly, they led the way for their fellow chorines by leading the first strike by black performers, when they walked out of the Apollo Theatre in a dispute over wages. Their actions helped lead to the formation of the American Guild of Variety Artists, the first integrated performers' union.

Aged 84-96 at the time of filming, they still are performing. Reunited in 1985 and dubbed the Silver Belles, they do their act at venues ranging from old age homes to Carnegie Hall. Filmed segments of various performances provide ample evidence of the winning nature of their routines.

The film is not entirely a feel-good experience, however, as tragedy comes in the form of debilitating injuries and the death of one of the performers. Their eagerness to go on in spite of this is only further evidence of the dancers' spirit and heart.

The Cult of the Suicide Bomber

Baer, who also co-wrote the film, proves a resourceful and highly insightful journalist in the course of the film. Easily mixing among Palestinians, Iranians and Israelis, among others, his knowledge, experience and language skills give his observations a significant weight.

Although more informational than analytical, the film effectively tracks the modern history of the insidious trend, making the case that the first modern suicide bombing occurred at the instigation of the Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iran-Iraq war. The bomber was a 13-year-old boy, serving in the army, who blew up a tank and became a national icon as a result of his action.

Augmenting Baer's interviews with various figures embroiled in the Middle East struggle, including members of Hamas and the Hezbollah, is chilling footage of actual attacks, much of it emanating from the terrorists themselves. The film also is current enough to include commentary on last summer's devastating subway bombing in London.

Excellent Cadavers

Author Stile serves as a sort of narrative guide for the docu, which follows him around the city of Palermo as he revisits the scenes of some its more notorious episodes as well as interviewing important figures in the story. The journalist/Columbia University professor is accompanied on these travels by photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, whose grisly photographs, generous samples of which are included here, documented the carnage that was occurring at one point on nearly a daily basis.

The central focus of the film is the courageous efforts of crusading prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, whose efforts led to the so-called Maxi-Trials, in which hundreds of Mafia figures were tried amid unprecedented security measures in a concrete bunker courtroom. The two were subsequently assassinated in separate incidents just weeks apart in 1992.

Besides providing historical context regarding the Mafia's rise to power in Italy, the film also makes a strong case about its continued involvement in Italian political affairs, even going so far as to provocatively allege complicity on the part of the Silvio Berlusconi administration.

Despite its lapses into melodrama via Stile's sometimes overheated narration and Andra Pandolofo's strings-laden musical score, "Excellent Cadavers" is a generally sober and powerful portrait of a country held hostage by lawlessness.

Jindabyne

The same organic characterizations that marked Lawrence's acclaimed 2001 film "Lantana" will attract fans of strong adult drama, and the film is boosted by a new preoccupation with landscape that leads to haunting visuals reminiscent of Peter Weir's "Picnic at Hanging Rock."

A pivotal moral dilemma with universal resonance, along with spiky performances from Hollywood imports Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne in the lead roles, should widen the appeal of this powerful Australian production beyond the local market. The film was well-received in Cannes and is included in the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival.

"Jindabyne" relocates Raymond Carver's short story "So Much Water So Close to Home" to the high bush country of Australia's Snowy Mountains in a rather radical adaptation by scriptwriter Beatrix Christian. The Carver narrative, also featured as a piece in the mosaic of Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," has been expanded to embrace a raft of new characters, a racial subtext and a mystical element tied to the heritage of the eponymous town and surrounds.

Lawrence tautens the mood immediately with an opening sequence involving a cat-and-mouse car chase on a lonely back road. But this is no murder mystery; we know from the outset that it is a local tradesman (Chris Haywood) who is responsible for killing the 19-year-old Aboriginal girl (Tatea Reilly) whose near-naked body will wind up floating face down in the river.

The drama comes from the ripple effect of a single decision made by four men -- a practical choice that only becomes a question of morals when their actions are exposed to the fierce glare of a community's outrage.

On a much-anticipated weekend fishing trip, Stewart (Byrne), the owner of a local gas station, and his pals Carl (John Howard), Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis) and Billy "the Kid" (Simon Stone) stumble upon the murdered girl, but because the sun is shining, the fish are biting and it's a long scramble back to civilization, they put off reporting the find. They tether the girl's ankle to a tree with a length of fishing line and carry on with another day's fishing.

Upon their return, Stewart's wife, Claire (Linney), recoils in horror at the callousness of the act and is forced to sugarcoat the story for the benefit of their young son Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss) by telling him that his father wrapped the girl in a sleeping bag to keep her warm. The incident puts pressure on imperfectly mended fractures in the couple's marriage -- there are oblique references to Claire suffering an 18-month bout of severe postnatal depression -- and the gap in understanding between the genders is echoed in the other men's relationships with their wives and girlfriends.

Blame and guilt splinter the community, with the tension compounded by the fact that the victim was Aboriginal, as is Rocco's girlfriend, Carmel (Leah Purcell).

Lawrence expertly layers on small scenes of disquiet, hinting at emotions buried deep beneath the surface. Such is the legitimacy of the interplay between the characters that when tempers flare or composure short-circuits -- as in an itchy confrontation in a restaurant between Claire and her mother-in-law (Betty Lucas) -- the drama feels uncomfortably close.

Linney's remarkable talent for folding strength and vulnerability into a single character makes Claire hugely sympathetic, even as she mulishly blunders about trying to make things right with the family of the dead girl. And Deborra-Lee Furness is outstanding in a supporting role as a matriarch bringing up the morbid child (Eva Lazzaro) of her dead daughter.

The socio-political argument eventually begins to weigh down the film, as does the soundtrack's over-reliance on the wordless vocals of Aussie troubadour Paul Kelly. Mood aplenty is conjured up by the watchful nature of the untamed terrain and far horizons, handsomely photographed by longtime Lawrence collaborator David Williamson, and by the director's measured pacing.

Director: Ray Lawrence
Screenwriter: Beatrix Christian
Based on the short story "So Much Water So Close to Home" by: Raymond Carver
Producer: Catherine Jarman
Executive producers: Philippa Bateman, Garry Charny
Director of photography: David Williamson
Production designer: Margot Wilson
Music: Paul Kelly, Dan Luscombe, Soteria Bell
Costume designers: Margot Wilson
Editor: Karl Sodersten
Cast:
 Claire: Laura Linney
 Stewart: Gabriel Byrne
 Jude: Deborra-lee Furness
 Carl: John Howard
 Carmel: Leah Purcell
 Rocco: Stelios Yiakmis
 Elissa: Alice Garner
 Billy: Simon Stone
 Vanessa: Betty Lucas
 Gregory: Chris Haywood
 Caylin-Calandria: Eva Lazzaro
 Tom: Sean Rees-Wemyss
 Susan: Tatea Reilly

Agnes and His Brothers

The titular character, played by Martin Weiss, is a lonely transsexual nightclub performer looking for love in all the wrong places. His brothers aren't faring much better: Hans-Jorg (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a lonely, sex-addicted librarian with a penchant for gratifying himself while spying on beautiful women in a public bathroom, while Werner (Herbert Knaup) is a rising politician whose beautiful wife seems more interested in their teenage son (Tom Schilling) than in fulfilling her marriage vows. Clearly, all three siblings have been emotionally damaged by childhood scars inflicted by their eccentric father (Vadim Glowna).

The episodic story line details the numerous transgressions of the various characters, including the teenager's penchant for video spying on his father, who at one point is seen using his office floor as a toilet.

The film's outrageousness would be more palatable if leavened with more wit, or if the characterizations possessed more nuances. But despite the strong efforts of a cast that includes several of Germany's more prominent performers, "Agnes" is less successful as a satire of family dysfunction than as yet another illustration that, in the wrong hands, shock value can be more tedious than bracing.

Lower City

Deco and Naldinho (Lazaro Ramos, Wagner Moura), two shady young co-owners of a boat in the depressed waterfront city of Salvador, are the sort of close-knit friends who, as an early scene demonstrates, will literally take a knife for each other. That bond is sorely tested by the arrival of Karinna (Braga), a sexy young blond stripper and hooker who trades them her sexual favors in return for a ride.

Needless to say, what starts out as a sexual lark -- the two men draw straws to see which one of them will be serviced first -- takes on darker overtones as they begin to compete for the fleeting affections of their new acquaintance.

From its actual and figurative scenes of *****fighting to its copious use of throbbing Brazilian music, there's little here that rises above the level of formula. But director Machado displays a sure touch in his ability to convey the sultry atmosphere of his exotic setting, and he has elicited admirably naturalistic performances from his highly attractive, youthful performers. Braga, in particular, displays the sort of sexual and powerful screen presence that should guarantee her a significant international career.

Stagedoor

Located in New York's legendary Catskill Mountains, the Stagedoor Manor boasts many famous alumni, as the press notes (if not the film itself) proudly attests. These include Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Felicity Huffman, Robert Downey Jr. and, of course, Graff, who transformed his experiences into his affectionate cinematic tribute.

Here, Shiva tracks the progress of various teenage camp attendees, including one, Robert Wright, who already had appeared on Broadway, as Simba in "The Lion King." Unfortunately, the 15-year-old got an early taste of the cruelties of show business as he was forced to depart the production when his voice changed.

"Stagedoor" lurches from scene to scene in haphazard fashion, rarely providing the depth or context that would make its cinema verite portrait illuminating or memorable. While these theater-centric youngsters who worship at the altar of Stephen Sondheim are an undeniably offbeat and entertaining group, their experiences at the camp, ranging from classroom exercises to a student production of "Mame," seem more suitable for the subject for a "60 Minutes" segment than a feature-length film.

Guernsey

The simple plot revolves around a young wife and mother, Anna (Maria Kraakman), who periodically travels from her Dutch home to work as an irrigation specialist in such far-flung locales as Egypt. Anna's home life seems idyllic, as evidenced by the repeated scenes of lovemaking with her husband Sebastian (Fedja van Huet) and bathing with her infant son.

But that carefully ordered life enters a state of disarray when she discovers the body of a female co-worker who has hanged herself. The dead woman's husband claims to have no explanation for his wife's suicide, insisting that their marriage was a happy one.

Soon, Anna begins questioning the underlying state of her own existence, even beginning to follow her husband around looking for evidence of an affair. Fueling her paranoia is the fact that before they were married, he was the lover of her older sister.

Director-screenwriter Nanouk Leopold is much more interested in mood and visual style than on a coherent narrative, with the result that her effort often has the feel of the European art films of the early 1960s. But while "Guernsey" lacks the intellectual rigor and stylistic imagination of its inspirations, it does possess a certain minimalist power, with its elegant widescreen compositions and bare-bones dialogue infusing the proceedings with an ominously chilly atmosphere.

Coastlines

Timothy Olyphant plays the central character of Sonny, who has returned to his small Florida village after serving several years in jail for drug smuggling. He's now looking to receive the $200,000 in compensation he was promised by the local crime boss (William Forsythe) and his nephew (Josh Lucas), who are more than a little reluctant to pay up.

Instead, they blow to smithereens the small shack in which Sonny is staying, killing his oyster farmer father (Scott Wilson) in the process. Sonny goes to stay with his best friend (Josh Brolin), now the town sheriff, and is soon involved in a torrid affair with his wife (Sarah Wynter).

Despite the various melodramatic plot elements, "Coastlines" never achieves any dramatic tension, due in no small part to the filmmaker's unhurried style and penchant for stressing subtle atmospherics over plot. Unfortunately, none of the characters on display here are particularly interesting, and we never come to care about their contrived fates.

Lacking the suspense that the overheated narrative would seem to promise, "Coastlines" rolls along in a plodding fashion, as if overcome by the oppressive humid heat of its setting.
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