The Movie Report
February 2012
Volume 1

#655 - 656
February 3, 2012 - February 10, 2012

all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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#656 February 10, 2012 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Return poster Return ***
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"Return" is what a soldier (Linda Cardellini) does in physical form to her husband (Michael Shannon, playing a nice, normal--if understandably frustrated--guy for once) and young daughter after serving a tour of duty in Iraq, but in mind, heart, and spirit she remains elsewhere as she tries in vain to return to routine and life at once familiar yet now entirely foreign to her. The common movie trajectory would have Cardellini find her way back after falling astray, but writer-director Liza Johnson takes a more honest approach, complexly confronting the question of if such a redemptive, reinvigorating journey is even at all possible. That internal quandary is brought to intimate life with Cardellini's lovely performance, so vividly expressive in its soulful, anguished stillness. The film may progress slowly and requires patience, but such befits the simmering sensation of uncertainty and solitude, which lingers after the film is over.

Safe House poster Safe House (R) ***
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The safe house of the title is a secure facility in Cape Town, South Africa, where a low level CIA agent (Ryan Reynolds) must hold a rogue veteran agent (Denzel Washington) until pick-up by the higher-ups. Make that "secure" in quotes, for as the film's tagline states in big, bold block letters, "no one is safe," and soon a surprise attack leaves the two on the run as shady types working for persons unknown hunt them down as Washington works to escapes Reynolds's custody. Opposite one of the all-time greats and a cast that also includes the serious thespian likes of Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson (as two of said higher-ups), Reynolds is clearly the acting lightweight of the group, but he is well cast in the part of someone of questionable qualifications in way over his head. Even more ideally cast is Washington, whose unmistakable blend of dramatic gravitas and beatdown badassery is especially a terrific fit for a mysterious, "legendary" operative of murky, maybe malevolent, motivation. The motives of director Daniel Espinosa and writer David Guggenheim, on the other hand, are clear as day, however: to create a gritty, tough, pulpy, down-and-dirty action thriller. If there are some bumps on both of their ends (the many fight scenes sometimes suffer from Paul Greengrass-esque hypercutting bordering on incoherence; key mysteries in the plot are easily, obviously solved), they overall do deliver the requisite thrills for the briskly paced two hours, and the presence of someone like Washington at the center keeps the film consistently compelling between the action beats.

#655 February 3, 2012 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Agneepath poster Agneepath (Path of Fire) *** 1/2
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Much like how many a fact-based film is merely "inspired" by actual events, one could argue that Karan Malhotra's 2012 version of Agneepath is simply inspired by, not a remake of, the cult favorite 1990 Amitabh Bachchan starrer. The set-up and destination remain the same: small village boy Vijay witnesses his upstanding, virtuous father's demise set up by a drug lord out to control the town; many years later, the boy, grown up into a hard criminal himself, enacts his plan for revenge and reclaiming his childhood home. But the points in between have been radically restructured if not reinvented completely; where the original's time jump found the adult Vijay already at the top of his game, this version is truly more about (to translate the film's title) the path of fire traveled by Vijay (here played in adult form by Hrithik Roshan) as he schemes and moves his way up the underworld ladder under an established crime boss (Rishi Kapoor) on a collision course with his ultimate target (here played by Sanjay Dutt). Mirroring Vijay's at-all-costs commitment to his mission, Malhotra's streamlined focus, including the loss of any hint of comic relief (completely gone--thankfully--is the wacky sidekick character played by Mithun Chakraborty in the first), makes for a film completely relentless both in its often grim grittiness and uncompromising artistic vision. From the dark tone to the visual design (the bold, vibrant colors of festival celebrations; the stark, grey landscape of Vijay's old village; the warmly vivacious, torch-lit golden browns of a sexy item dance by a cameoing Katrina Kaif; the jolting crimson of blood that continually threatens to--and often does--appear), Malhotra has left his distinct imprimatur on every frame, and also especially key to this are the performances. Kapoor and Dutt are suitably intimidating and imposing villains (in the case of the latter, his striking look--shaved head, earring, and monk-like garb--adds to the menace), and the intense Roshan, who in recent years seems to be on a mission himself to continually surprise viewers with newly uncovered dimensions to his talent, makes for a simultaneously empathetic and sometimes frightening antihero of a protagonist. Sadly given short shrift for most of the film is Priyanka Chopra as the obligatory love interest, but when she finally gets her showcase moment in the late going, she again shows what a heart-piercing dramatic actress she can be. After this most auspicious debut, one wonders just what even a greater filmmaker Malhotra will grow to be. (Special thanks to Eros Entertainment and Naz8 Cinemas)

Big Miracle poster Big Miracle (PG) ***
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Fuzzy fact-based feel-good family film about the rescue of a family of whales trapped under ice in Alaska? It doesn't exactly sound like the most promising entertainment prospect for outside of a very specific target demographic, but similar to how he made a girly-girl-only sounding movie into one of the most rewarding films, period, of its release year (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, in 2005), director Ken Kwapis gives what could potentially be terminally treacly some all ages appeal. As in that earlier film, his major weapon is his cast, and the committed work of the affable ensemble led by Drew Barrymore (as a Greenpeace activist), John Krasinski (as a local TV reporter), and Kristen Bell (as an L.A. reporter covering the story) go a long way toward building audience investment beyond the inherent cuddliness of its critters that an ill-advised Barrymore-Krasinski romantic angle need not have been included. The resulting film may not be a miracle, let alone a big one, but it is a genuine delight.

Chronicle poster Chronicle (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Just when one is ready to be done with the mock documentary/faux "found footage" genre (take The Devil Inside... please), newcomers director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis (yes, son of John) have come up with the most satisfying example in recent memory. Key to the film's success is that even if it were in a more traditionally shot format, the story and characters would still very much work: three teens (Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan) find themselves with ever-developing telekinetic abilities after coming in contact with a mysterious rock-like object they find undeground. The exact nature of what the object is never explained at all, which honestly doesn't matter, for Trank and Landis are less interested in the whys of the powers and more in the hows of their personal reactions and uses of their newfound abilities. Given their age, at first it's all fun and games--"boys will be boys" indeed, as the poster tag line goes--but just as reflective of their youth is how the abilities come to grow into an extension of their attendant adolescent insecurities and angst as they increase in power, most especially with DeHaan's outcast loner character. While all of this appropriately leads to an epic-scale, city-destroying battle for the climax, Trank and Landis's canniest move is how the big effects work organically grows out of the character-driven tension that intensifies through the course of the run time. That this is told through a variety of first-person video sources such as handheld (and, ultimately, telekinetically held) home video cameras, cell phones, surveillance cameras, and so forth is more of an incidental way to work around budget limitations than any sort of storytelling crutch or gimmick; with or without it, it's an intriguing, character-driven genre story well told.

Crazy Horse poster Crazy Horse *** 1/2
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As if we needed further proof that the skin-ematic likes of Showgirls, Striptease, and Burlesque were incredibly lame, Frederick Wiseman's captivating documentary portrait of the titular (bad pun somewhat intended) Paris erotic cabaret shows that both genuine smarts and seductive sexiness need not be mutually exclusive. Zeroing in specifically on the stress and drama centering around the mounting (again, bad pun somewhat intended) of a lavish new production called Désir, Wiseman's fly-on-the-wall camera--ever-present not only through auditions, rehearsals, back room pow-wows between the creative team and business execs--makes one truly appreciate the hard work and genuine artistry that goes into the making of what can be dismissed sight unseen as just a nudie show. The key term there is "sight unseen," for the generous excerpts from the show interspersed throughout the film show why the Crazy Horse has been such an enduring entertainment staple in Paris, attended and revered by men and women, young and old, alike. Not only are the numbers terrifically designed from costumes, sets, and props to lighting, music choices, and choreography, in concept and performance they are just effortlessly, innately sensual and sexy. The women may be in terrific shape in every sense (and they have to be, to do the routines any sort of justice in terms of athletic and visual requirements), but they are not at all crass nor aggressive in showing off their assets; like any good seduction, they simply just are, moving and revealing in organic, fluid tandem with the music to cast a hypnotic spell--and Wiseman's entertaining, entrancing film operates in much the same way.

Declaration of War poster Declaration of War (La Guerre Est Déclarée) ***
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The basic summary of Valérie Donzelli's film--a young couple (Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm) has their relationship and lives tested when their young child is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor--makes it sound like another Disease of the Week film, but the film's confrontational title gives one an indication of how aggressively, unusually stylized Donzelli's approach is here. The echoes of the French New Wave echo loud and strong in the round robin of anonymous, omniscient voiceover narrators and romantic music montages (even a dash of Jacques Demy in one full-blown, sung number), and if sometimes the style gives a gloss of artificiality (the lead characters are named no less than Romeo and Juliette), then it also gives the sincere, heartfelt, harrowing content that much more of a surprising wallop. Based on one-time real-life couple Donzelli and Elkaïm's trying experience with their own child, their chemistry and history shines through in the unforced authenticity of their screen rapport and emotional portrayals--not only of the parental ordeal but in the toll it takes on their coupledom. In the latter respect, some crucial late developments are a bit too glossed over for satisfaction, but in the end the core power and truth of the scenario resonates in the mind and heart.

Dysfunctional Friends poster Dysfunctional Friends ***
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The dysfunctional friends of the title are those of a wealthy thrillseeker (Keith Robinson), whose sudden, untimely demise brings them back together after many years apart since graduating from university. If this sounds like The Big Chill, it should, for the official synopsis references it directly, but beyond the idea of a death-spurred group reunion, tonally the vibe could not be more different, and writer/director Corey Grant's film is all the better for it. If the circumstances as to why this group has to hole up together in the same house for a few days after the funeral are contrived--as a condition of his will, the whole group must stay together for a few days or no one gets anything--what does go on during the time spent does bear a ring of truth both in its humor and dramatic conflict. In movie tradition, the canvas of players is varied and occupy certain types: a sports writer (Datari Turner); his paralegal ex (Stacey Dash), now engaged to a journeyman pro baller (Terrell Owens, in a respectable acting debut); a has-been rapper (Hosea Chanchez) and actress (Persia White); a vain male model (Christian Keyes); a porn director (Jason Weaver) with higher artistic aims; a would-be author but mostly groupie (Stacy Keibler); a well-off ad exec (Wesley Jonathan); and a busybody hairdresser (Reagan Gomez)--and accordingly the balance leans somewhat more toward "dysfunction" rather than "friend," as it more realistically would after not only a lot of time apart, but also after going in wildly divergent paths during that span. The chemistry between the cast members reflects this; while there is certainly a collective camaraderie and naturally some are closer than others, there's also an overall cautious, careful, self-preserving distance couched in surface politeness, and the film truly comes to life in both laughs and involvement when those surface veneers start being broken by brutal honesty. Before that point, though, the film is carried by the geniality of the cast, to whom, considering its size, Grant is remarkably generous, giving nearly all of them juicy roles as a writer and, as a director, the space to run with them. There are exceptions: Meagan Good's two hilarious scenes as an icy, above-it-all attorney are too few; Tatyana Ali is a bit wasted as Jonathan's neglected wife; and Robinson (whose own songs make up the bulk of the film's soundtrack, rather creatively evoking the constant presence of his spirit) is only seen in still photos. While flashbacks with the latter, especially in terms of his character's discussed romantic past with White's, would have been welcome, the absence works in leaving the exact nature of his relationship with each of the "friends" to the imagination and further casting into question whether anyone at this point deserves any sort of inheritance. That supports what appears to be Grant's ultimate message, as there is a certain surprising closing note of wistful recognition of and resignation to the inevitability of time and distance breaking bonds that in the moment appear indestructible--and so one should savor the earned reward that is that very moment as it occurs. In a somewhat similar vein, Dysfunctional Friends is by nature a light, disposable popcorn entertainer, but certainly one that is effortlessly likable and enjoyable to experience as it unspools in the moment.

The Grey poster The Grey (R) *** 1/2
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An early year release and the presence of Liam Neeson suggests something along the kick-ass lines of Taken and Unknown but with wolves, but Joe Carnahan's film is something far moodier, darker, deeper than either those films or his last collaboration with Neeson, the feature film version of The A-Team. The film is every bit the man versus nature tale it appears to be as Neeson and his oil drilling crew are left to fend for themselves after their plane crashes in the snowy Alaskan wilds, but beyond the more traditional meaning as they all have to brave the elements, the rugged terrain, and the threat of ravenous wolves, the more prominent and pressing concern of Carnahan reveals itself to be that of man against his own nature--that is, to safely retreat in the absence of any hope, or to instead rise above oneself to find the fortitude to fight to the finish. That headier interest may ultimately paint the film as a massive disappointment for those seeking a conventional action-driven payoff, but to be let down by the film's rather poetic conclusion to miss the true, introspective intent of the film entirely--not to mention to dismiss the solid dramatic work by the cast, which in addition to Neeson's also includes strong performances by Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie, and, in a standout turn, Frank Grillo.

Nanban poster Nanban (Friend) ***
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Director Shankar's last film, 2010's global science fiction blockbuster Enthiran: The Robot, was a work of such exhaustive--and, to his and the film's great credit, often exhausting--imagination, that it is more than understandable that he would want to take it a little easy for his follow-up. But to just what exact extent he coasts with Nanban is a bit of a surprise, even bearing in mind that the film is a Tamil language remake of 2009's Hindi language crossover smash 3 Idiots. Shankar more or less translates Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijat Joshi's screenplay scene for scene and almost entirely verbatim, with only slight alterations here and there to make it more specific to the South India region. Considering the strength of the refreshingly character-driven story of three engineering students' establishment-challenging, life-changing friendship in university and beyond, this is not necessarily a bad thing, and stars Vijay, Srikanth, and Jeeva carve out a believable camaraderie and are fine stand-ins for Aamir Khan, R. Madhavan, and Sharman Joshi, respectively. That said, it is disappointing to witness a filmmaker of such imagination to not even break much of a sweat in the one area where he deviates entirely from Hirani's original film: the musical numbers (even adding an additional song). Harris Jarayaj's beat-driven score is far more toe-tappingly adventurous than Shantanu Moitra's less inspired tunes in the original, and while the choreography is far more intricate (Vijay is a more nimble hoofer than the very able Khan, and needless to say Ileana, replacing the hapless hack that is Kareena Kapoor, easily trumps her Hindi counterpart in every, much less the dance, department), Shankar's picturizations are a bit on the safe side, the most creative being a love song that cheekily runs the gamut of clichéd romantic film song scenarios and settings. But such is the overly reverent trap, I suppose, of adapting such a beloved recent hit, and Shankar and his cast and crew definitely preserve the irresistible core appeal of 3 Idiots--even if a stronger helping of his unique, unmistakable filmmaking spice would have been more than welcome.

One for the Money poster One for the Money (PG-13) * 1/2
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One doesn't need to have any familiarity with Janet Evanovich's popular Stephanie Plum novel series to immediately hear and see what an ill fit Katherine Heigl is for the role of the bounty hunter heroine: her opening voiceover lands with a jarring clang, thanks to a remarkably forced attempt at a New Jersey accent; then once we see her in action, it becomes a challenge to determine which is more unnatural, that affected voice or this famously (and, to be fair, rather appealingly) lightweight star's stab at a tough cookie persona. One then hopes that Heigl at least strikes rom-com sparks with Jason O'Mara, who plays Stephanie's main quarry, a cop--and ex-lover--now on the run from a murder charge, but no such rapport ever materializes with her equally poorly cast leading man. The last hope is that director Julie Anne Robinson and screenwriters Stacy Sherman, Karen Ray, and Liz Brixus would then tell an interesting mystery yarn peppered with some decent laughs, but it's a rough and not a terribly engaging ride, not helped by some painful groaners of would-be witty one-liners and banter en route to a predictable twist. The few moments of amusement come from Sherri Shepherd as a prostitute Stephanie befriends and Daniel Sunjata as no-nonsense bounty hunting veteran (with both of whom Heigl shares a much more comfortable rapport than with O'Mara), but they never stick around long enough to lend this limp film any lasting life.

Underworld: Awakening poster Underworld: Awakening (R) ** 1/2
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After taking a sabbatical from the franchise with the last film, 2009 wheel-spinning prequel Rise of the Lycans, Kate Beckinsale returns as badass vampire heroine Selene, who awakens from a 12-year-long cryogenic captivity to find her world changed: in the intervening dozen years, humans have discovered the existence of both the bloodsuckers and their mortal enemies, the lycan werewolf race, and after a mass genocide, the lycans are believed to be extinct and vampires are very nearly so. But once Selene and mysterious and incredibly powerful young female "Subject 2" (India Eisley) escape their prison and go on the lam, it's back to the familiar, under-blue-light-filters routine of vamps going guns blazing--this time against humans in addition to the not-so-exterminated lycans. The directing team of Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein (credited on screen simply as "Mårlind & Stein") handle all the action and effects ably; and a refreshed Beckinsale and series newcomers Eisley, Michael Ealy (as a human cop who joins forces with Selene), Stephen Rea (as a shady scientist), Theo James, and Charles Dance (the latter two as vampires) all deliver decent work, but what begins as a promising reset for its first half-hour ultimately settles into a too much of a retread, however watchable it may be.

The Woman in Black poster The Innkeepers poster The Woman in Black (PG-13) ***
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The Innkeepers (R) ** 1/2
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In his first big post-Harry Potter test, Daniel Radcliffe makes a likable lead as a young lawyer whose latest case deals with a creaky old estate and the otherworldly title character, the apparent ghost of a scorned mother who now preys on children. Director James Watkins wisely keeps the scares old school to go with the period setting and simple premise; no elaborate CGI or the like here. If he is guilty of indulging in a few easy jump scares, Watkins creates a suitably chilling atmosphere that hangs across the entire picture, and paired with Radcliffe's emotional authenticity leads up to the haunting, oddly beautiful conclusion.

Similarly simple and modest in its execution is Ti West's modern day chiller, where the lone staffers (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) of an old hotel contend with various bumps in the night and some mysterious guests during the inn's final weekend of business. West spends an inordinate amount of time in his build-up, reveling in Paxton and Healy's boredom-alleviating banter; while this does make for amusing listening and the two actors play it to the hilt, ultimately it's not hard to be bored along with them, for their comical words don't exactly aid much in the creation of tension. When the film finally delves into the horror goods, one wonders why West waited so long, as he definitely knows how to create and shoot effectively creepy sequences; unfortunately, though, by that point comes, the movie's almost finished, making for a barely-there payoff.


Mausam DVD Mausam (Seasons of Love)
Movie: **
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Pankaj Kapur's self-proclaimed "timeless story of love" doesn't skimp on the would-be epic trappings: two lovers (Shahid Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor) from wildly different backgrounds; a decades-spanning time frame across a nearly three-hour run time; picturesque locales spread across multiple continents; real-life historical event backdrops such as the 1999 Kargil War. But grandiose dressing is just that, dressing, if that pair at the center doesn't connect, and Shahid and Sonam fail to convincingly do so with each other and, in turn, the audience. Beyond a question of chemistry, though, individually the characters simply aren't all that interesting, he a happy-go-lucky youth turned committed pilot in the Indian Air Force, she a well-meaning Kashmiri girl whose family is too often touched by tragedy. While one cannot exactly say that one doesn't want these two to find happiness together after being united and separated ad nauseum throughout the film, one cannot exactly say one is truly invested in or rooting for any outcome, favorable or otherwise.

Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; Hindi 5.1 Surround; Hindi Dolby Surround; English and Arabic subtitles. (Eros Entertainment)


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