Dead Man Running (R)
Say what one will about the work Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson does in the music arena, in a fairly short amount of time he's shown a refreshing amount of both seriousness and adventurousness in his film endeavors. For his starring debut Get Rich or Die Tryin', he enlisted no less than Academy Award nominee Jim Sheridan to direct, and since then he's taken supporting roles surrounded by seasoned (to put it mildly) acting talent: Samuel L. Jackson in the Gulf War drama Home of the Brave, and Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in Righteous Kill. Following a nicely done co-starring turn as a cop with a crisis of conscience and loyalty in the post-Katrina New Orleans crime drama Streets of Blood, Jackson now turns up in his most unexpected film project yet, this scrappy independent crime caper out of the UK.
But, as that list of titles indicates, eclecticism is one thing, and quality is quite another, and Dead Man Running falls a little short of the mark. This is not at all Jackson's fault, however, who is cannily cast here as a gangster out to collect a debt from a small-time ex-con (Tamer Hassan). While it's hardly a change-of-pace role for Jackson, what is impressively new for him is his manner of portrayal: as the character name "Mr. Thigo" suggests, this is not a typically thuggish boss man, but someone more cultivated and calm--and hence all the more intimidating for it. If only the rest of Alex De Rakoff's (working from a story by John Luton) film were as distinctive or memorable as Jackson's work, for as Hassan and sidekick Danny Dyer go through all sorts of desperate measures to raise £100,000 by a 24-hour deadline, the film travels where many others (namely, the oeuvre of Guy Ritchie) have gone before, and with a lot more style, personality, and genuine surprises to boot. It's hardly an unpleasant ride to take, for Hassan and Dyer do make a likable duo, and ever-dependable Brenda Blethyn has some choice, quirky moments as Hassan's wheelchair-bound mum, but this is ultimately the epitome of disposable entertainment.
My Name Is Khan (PG-13)
With three of the biggest worldwide Hindi film successes in recent memory--1998's Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Is Happening) and 2001's Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... (Sometimes Happiness Sometimes Sorrow...), both of which he wrote and directed; and 2003's Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come), which he wrote and produced--to his credit, Karan Johar could have easily rested on his considerable laurels spent the rest of his career making tearjerking masala melodramas such as those. But Johar's efforts since KHNH (which is, for me, the final, definitive word on the quintessential Bollywood laugh-and-cry, sing-and-dance masala formula) have found him branching out beyond his comfort zone. His 2006 return to the director's chair, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye), tackled no less of a touchy issue than adultery, but the film was ultimately not nearly as bold as its subject matter would suggest or require; and now My Name Is Khan, backed by no less than Fox Searchlight, is even more ambitious: an exploration of post-9/11 racial/religious attitudes in America told via an autistic protagonist--and without the traditional dance numbers, no less. While the rather intense trailers fall in line with these grandiose-sounding notions, make no mistake: while Johar's film does offer some extra food for thought within the conventional confines of an Indian commercial entertainment, it is, above all else, a love story--and a rather moving one at that.
And how could it not be, when the central couple is played by two of global cinema's most appealing stars and one of its most legendary screen pairings--Shahrukh Khan and, in her first reteaming with her leading man and director since K3G, Kajol? Nearly ten years after that film, their rapport is as natural and effortless as ever, easily selling a romance that is by definition difficult: that between Mandira, a divorced mother in San Francisco and the "Khan" of the title, Riswan Khan, a technical savant living with Asperger's Syndrome. It's a careful task to not make such a love story feel forced or patronizing, and Johar is smart enough to let the characters' relationship evolve patiently after their initial meet-cute, allowing his stars to work their considerable magic as Riswan and Mandira's connection develops and deepens. So vividly do Khan and Kajol--and Johar and scripter Shibani Bathija--paint each phase of falling that one does not question that Riswan and Mandira are indeed soulmates.
That is not an insignificant accomplishment, for their love, in particular Riswan's for Mandira, is the driving force for all else that follows in My Name Is Khan. The happy life Riswan finds with Mandira is first shaken by 9/11 and then completely upended by an even more intimate tragedy, which in turn sends him on a cross-country mission that brings him face-to-face with the prevailing post-9/11 prejudices against Muslims. Not surprisingly, the lead pair shift gears to weightier subject matter with considerable ease. The man affectionately known as King Khan again shows that on top of being one of the most naturally magnetic film stars around, he also is an actor whose true versatility is often unheralded. It certainly does jar somewhat at first to see him play someone so far from his usual charming rogue persona, but his innate likability goes a long way in convincingly conveying Riswan's completely relatable goodness and innocence under the initially alienating tics. Kajol's role is far less of a departure, but the remarkable elasticity of her talent still impresses anew: luminously gorgeous and playfully humorous in the first half, then piercing and absolutely heartbreaking in the second. The main variable in the mix is Johar, who by his own admission has never been the most subtle of filmmakers, and indeed the serious subject matter does sometimes lead him into the trap of overstatement, such as throwing in extraneous, redundant moments of other Muslim characters completely unrelated to the main cast also experiencing racial and religious profiling. But that familiar, romantically sincere sense of sweep that Johar is so adept at crafting is a critical ingredient here, as it never makes one lose sight of the core of Riswan's motivation and the heart of the story as a whole--to not only earn Mandira's love but prove to himself that he deserves it--even when the script takes some off-the-map turns.
The most notable digression is when Riswan makes a post-intermission stop through the African-American community of Wilhelmina, Georgia, where he forms a strong, family-like bond with the townsfolk. If the sunny depiction of downtrodden people of color is an initially uncomfortable throwback to more simpleminded racial depictions from Hollywood over a half-century ago, it is ultimately forgivable as it is all filtered through the genuinely innocent perspective of the purehearted Riswan; all of his adventures on the road are framed within the context of a letter he is writing to Mandira. The most intriguing aspect of this thread, whether intentional or rather fortuitously inadvertent by Johar, is how it clearly underscores in cinematic terms the close kinship I've always maintained as existing between Bollywood film and the African-American gospel play genre. This passage--including the character of Riswan and his general situation--would fit just as easily in a Tyler Perry film as it does here in a mainstream Indian film, from the blending of broad humor with earnest emotional sentiment to certain character archetypes to the spirituality-affirming message. The latter point is rather cannily driven home in how earlier, brief instances of Riswan and Mandira singing "We Shall Overcome" in Hindi reaches their natural culmination when Riswan and the local church congregation join their voices in a bilingual rendition that serves as a universal and transcendent call to arms.
That's the only moment in the film that comes close to being a traditional burst-into-song number, with the original songs composed by frequent Johar collaborators Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy used as background score, and quite effectively as evocative musical atmosphere and, most importantly in the classic Indian film tradition, lyrical reflections of the characters' thoughts and feelings. Even if the songs aren't either lipsynched nor danced to in this film, the film is rather unthinkable without them, and one can't quite imagine the story being as effectively told without the musical voice. Furthermore, one can't quite imagine My Name Is Khan being quite as distinctive and effective without the very characteristically Bollywood excesses the film takes in its final stretch. The difference between being a good person and a bad one is another major concern of the film, and the fairly epic lengths to which Johar goes to further confirm what type of person Riswan is reinforces the story's outsize Capra-via-India flavor. On a related note, speaking of epic lengths (in a more literal sense), the film's concluding payoff goes a number of minutes and a few steps beyond what would be its expected and more natural and realistic end, but given the ordeals endured by such a terribly lovable pair to reach that point, over-the-top feels just about right--and is an appropriate capper to the hyper-emotional, quintessentially Hindi film journey of My Name Is Khan.
Dear John (PG-13)
Unlike a box of chocolates, with a film version of a Nicholas Sparks novel, you know exactly what you're gonna get: an earnestly sentimental romantic drama of the tearjerking variety, and Lasse Hallström's film about a young soldier (Channing Tatum) and a college student (Amanda Seyfried) who keep their love alive beyond their first two weeks together via letters hits the expected swoony, sappy notes. What is a little surprising, however, is the manner in which those notes are hit. Hallström's consistent tone of understatement lends Sparks's natural inclination for melodrama and histrionics some convincing naturalism, aided by the gentle, unforced chemistry between Tatum and Seyfried. Seyfried is especially excellent here, beautiful and affecting in tracing her character's arc from young, idealistic dreamer to, as the years pass, a mature woman of realistic resignation. (Kudos to Hallström for also finding a way for Seyfried to once again show off her glorious singing voice--a decision I imagine was prompted by the considerable justice she did to his old ABBA buddies' catalog in the film version of Mamma Mia!) Tatum still isn't the most expressive nor dynamic of actors, but he clearly steps up (bad pun intended) his game alongside his leading lady, showing some skill lurking behind the heartthrob exterior. Add in some unexpected wrinkles to the usual Sparks formula (there are what seem to be obvious set-ups for manipulative turns that are shockingly never taken), and the final product achieves its modest, unpretentious goals in an agreeable, likable fashion.
From Paris with Love (R)
Ever since he first trotted out the kooky goofball badass act in 1996's Broken Arrow, John Travolta has been accused of repeating the same performance in every single action film he's done since, and one would be hard-pressed to argue against that assertion. However, for my money's worth, that persona is still a hell of a lot of fun to watch nearly 15 years later, and that manic energy is very well-suited for this very entertaining popcorn shoot-'em-up thrill ride. In what is a departure from the Travolta action norm, he does his familiar thing here as a good guy for once: a loose cannon American operative partnered with a green and (of course) straight arrow type (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a decent foil to Travolta) to take care of some dastardly scheme in Paris. The specifics of the actual plot naturally take a back seat to the action sequences, and director Pierre Morel more than ups the ante from what he pulled off last year in Taken, satisfying any craving for gleefully over-the-top mayhem, whether in the form of heavy duty shootouts (where Travolta's John Woo experience really comes in handy), brutal brawls, bomb blasts, or highway chases... with big ass bazookas thrown in for good measure. By the end of From Paris with Love, action fans are likely to be as giddy as the perma-grinning Travolta.
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (PG)
Based on Rick Riordan's apparently popular young adult fantasy book series, Chris Columbus's screen adaptation may try a bit too hard to be a "hipper," Americanized variation on Harry Potter, but all things considered this would-be film franchise launch is certainly watchable and diverting, especially for the young target audience. Helping the interest factor are the roots in Greek mythology, for the title character (Logan Lerman, unfortunately saddled with a shaggy Zac Efron hair-don't) is the son of Poseidon, who finds that he is but one of hordes of mortal "half-blood" spawn left on earth by the pantheon of Greek deities. With a pair of Ron-and-Hermione-esque sidekicks (a satyr played by Brandon T. Jackson; a daughter of Athena, played by Alexandra Daddario), Percy goes on a cross-country quest to rescue his kidnapped mother (Catherine Keener) from the underworld and find the lightning thief of the title. There are some painful one-liners delivered by Jackson and some cutesily coy, wink-wink, nudge-nudge innuendo about what horndogs the gods are, but Columbus (unlike in his two Harry Potter films) keeps the pace quick in both the exposition and action scenes, and Lerman, as he displayed in 3:10 to Yuma and last year's underseen My One and Only, is a capable and likable young actor. Nothing here will make anyone forget about the British teen wizard, but of all the would-be Potter projects that have hit the screen over the years, this is one of more polished and enjoyable ones.
Valentine's Day (PG-13)
With its vast smorgasbord of name stars, veteran and pup, Oscar winners and MTV Award winners, and just about every last point in between, the latest mega-ensemble rom-com in the tradition of the UK's Love Actually, India's Salaam-e-Ishq, and last year's He's Just Not That Into You seems to want to be the all-star fluffy comedy to end all all-star fluffy comedies--and the overstuffed, uninspiring results would definitely be enough to put an end to this curious sub-genre. The amount and star power of the names--for a start, Ashton Kutcher, Jennifer Garner, Julia Roberts, Emma Roberts, Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah, Anne Hathaway, Topher Grace, George Lopez, Shirley MacLaine, Hector Elizondo, Kathy Bates, Bradley Cooper, Patrick Dempsey, Jessicas Alba and Biel, Taylors Swift and Lautner--mean nothing if you give nearly all of them just about nothing to do, and that's exactly what happens under director Garry Marshall's rather negligent watch here. Despite the insanely large canvas, there are maybe only two or three threads that qualify as actual plot lines in Katherine Fugate's script, chiefly one centering on best friends played by Dude, Where's My Car? alumni pair Kutcher and Garner. One doesn't really have to say any more than that for anyone to accurately predict how that storyline develops, which says everything about the level of writing, which barely skims surface, let alone go any deeper than it. Shockingly, the one person leaving any borderline notable impression is Swift, getting the biggest laughs, if not exactly doing anything challenging, as a typical teen ditz--which is actually a lot more to work with than a lot of the cast, such as Bates, who's basically a glorified extra. As a slightly two-hour-plus (!) timepass for couples on the love holiday, this will likely go down harmlessly enough for that purpose, but given all the big name talent involved, that shouldn't be the best compliment one can muster for the end product.
The Wolfman (R)
Universal's update of one its iconic monster properties, like most of director Joe Johnston's work, solidly gets the job done as a brisk, bloody entertainment. The plot remains fairly close to the 1941 classic--man (Benicio Del Toro) returns to the family home and his dad (Anthony Hopkins) after his brother's disappearance, gets bitten by a mysterious beast, and all hell breaks loose--but if this film perhaps strongly recalls another, it's Tim Burton's 1999 take on Sleepy Hollow, what with its touches of macabre humor and giddy torrents of bloodshed. (The Sleepy Hollow similarities aren't exactly coincidental, what with Danny Elfman composing the score and Andrew Kevin Walker having a hand in the writing for both.) For all the gore, though, this doesn't quite qualify as horror, for the film is never really scary and maybe fleetingly creepy, but then atmosphere has never really been Johnston's strong suit; what has always been, however, is staging exciting set pieces, and the action sequences deliver. As the title character, Del Toro is surprisingly subdued, which is fine when Hopkins and Hugo Weaving (as a detective on the case) are on hand to amusingly ham it up; Emily Blunt doesn't have a whole lot to do here, not to mention doesn't strike much in the way of romantic sparks with Del Toro, as the female lead. But the performances don't need to be too much more than functional in a film that is ultimately about bloody good wolfen chasing, slashing, feeding, and killing, and Johnston and company pass that more important test.