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Curse of the Golden Flower
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Reviewed by Matt Prigge
Opens Fri., Dec. 22

Giving the forthcoming adaptation of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer a run for the title of Most Insane High-Profile Movie in Ages, Zhang Yimou's latest is at least secure in winning one unusual honor: art direction so out-there even Vincente Minnelli would've found it a bit much.

Set within the hermetic Imperial Palace of the Later Tang Dynasty, Curse of the Golden Flower features costumes with the single-color stylization that's par for the course with Zhang. (Guess which color gets special preference.) But the characters, among them Gong Li's slowly dying empress and Chow Yun-Fat's goateed emperor, walk around in courts, bedrooms and translucent hallways decked out in psychedelic rainbow colors.

Frankly, it all seems like a bit of a joke. As with Hero, it's possible Zhang--who spent his early career fighting Chinese censors over deeply critical period pieces like Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern--has simply switched his method from critique to sarcasm. Certainly that would explain just what in the hell is up with Flower. Mixing early and recent Zhang, the film's first half feels fairly standard, even with incest, drawn-out poisonings and Gong trembling in her usual silent-film star fashion. But once Zhang's newfound Zen for wuxia pops up, in a stunningly silly coup d'etat featuring a black-robed army wielding rope hooks and curved swords, Flower takes a turn for the operatic and never lets up.

Granted, much of what it conjures up is pure cheeky nonsense: The slo-mo shot of Chow roaring as he throws off his cape is among the hammiest things on celluloid, while one abruptly back-stabbing character who thunders, "Why does no one care about me?" would have a bit more impact if we'd actually seen him before.

Flower is all about surface, but even that has its satirical powers. Here's a film where the Dynasty engages in impenetrably self-cannibalizing tomfoolery, all while legions of faceless servants aid in pointless traditions and scores of color-coded armies battle each other for reasons never made clear. As with The Queen, the message is obvious: those fucking royals.

Directed by Bill Condon
Reviewed by Sean Burns
Opens Mon., Dec. 25

As he proved with his screenplay for Chicago, Bill Condon makes musicals for people who hate musicals. Adapting his way around all that bursting-into-song business that makes this genre so tricky and transporting, Condon keeps everything boringly locked into a performance context, hedging his bets and guaranteeing the final project might sing and dance, but it will certainly never soar.

Better than Chicago, Condon's adaptation of the beloved Broadway smash Dreamgirls is still a lot of razzle-dazzle with very little soul. Breathlessly paced, with a maximum of montage sequences, this muckraking alternate history of Motown frantically flings itself from one show-stopping number to another, never settling down long enough for us to become emotionally invested in anything.

Beyonc� Knowles stars as a Diana Ross-ish diva bumped to the forefront of a supreme girl group by one Machiavellian Berry Gordy clone (Jamie Foxx, surprisingly inert here). Pushed aside for image reasons, former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson belts out the show's signature song "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" with a truly earth-shattering set of pipes. But her performance is also awkward and amateurish; Hudson goes dead blank in between her lines, as if nobody bothered to take the time teach this poor girl that the most important part of acting is reacting. (Sometimes she looks like C-3PO, after Han Solo hit the "off" button on the back of his head.)

Condon is so hell-bent on shuffling everybody on and off the stage and hurtling through the decades at lightning speed, this largely novice cast lacks the necessary force of personality to breathe life into these underwritten stock figures. The lone exception is Eddie Murphy, at long last rediscovering his larger-than-life movie-star magnetism and lighting up the screen as James "Thunder" Early, a tragic, self-destructive skirt-chaser with a big heart and an even bigger mouth. Part James Brown, part Marvin Gaye and all charisma, Murphy brings the few dramatic moments that stick with you when the songs are over.

Dreamgirls is an empty, shiny bauble, but it's great to have Eddie back.

The Good German
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Reviewed by Sean Burns
Opens Fri., Dec. 22

Every time he's threatening to become a little too commercially or critically successful, you can always count on Steven Soderbergh to panic and go underground in one of his patented experimental phases, amusing himself and few others with a series of audience-unfriendly wanks.

Hot on the heels of Bubble, his glum, downbeat murder/mystery set in a doll factory, Soderbergh brings us The Good German, a glum, downbeat murder/mystery set in post-WWII Berlin. But the trick here isn't just that the picture is set in 1945--it's that Soderbergh actually set about making it as if this were indeed still 1945.

Utilizing black-and-white film stock, antique fixed-focal length lenses, primitive sound recording, high-contrast noir lighting, rear-projection special effects and every other retro gimmick in the book, The Good German is a visual thrill for classic movie buffs. Every lovingly misprinted optical dissolve and abrupt cut to stock footage left me squealing with delight.

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