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The Movie Report
April 2012

#663 - 666
April 6, 2012 - April 27, 2012

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

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#666 April 27, 2012 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Elles poster Elles (NC-17) **
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With a provocative premise and a famously fearless lead actress, Juliette Binoche, who has never been shy to explore eroticism and (perhaps more notably) the darker corners of it, director/co-writer Malgorzata Szumowska's French language drama about a journalist (Binoche) doing a story on a pair of female university students (Ana´s Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) who willingly turn to prostitution has the potential to be a smart and insightful study of female sexuality. Alas, Szumowska and co-writer Tyne Byrckel don't venture far beyond the patently obvious in both story (overworked wife and mother Binoche finds liberation in the two young women's stories, which also predictably contrast in perspectives: Kulig is a bit more matter-of-fact; Demoustier a little more demure) and style, with the explicit NC-17 sex scenes only being momentarily engaging before becoming as dull and one-note as all the talking. Binoche, as usual, gives her all, communicating a character complexity and believable anguish that the rather thin and routine material never quite deserve.

Safe poster Safe (R) ** 1/2
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Boaz Yakin's film begins as a slight departure for star Jason Statham, who plays a bit of a sad sack character, a down-on-his-luck former cop and fighter who runs afoul of Russian mobsters; when he loses his wife and livelihood and is forced to living on the streets and in shelters, Statham gets a chance to show his oft-post-stardom-neglected solid dramatic chops, making his character's anguish real and quietly affecting. But the audiences that made Statham a bona fide box office star ten years ago buy a ticket to see Statham kick ass, and once a chance encounter leads him to take a pre-teen math whiz (Catherine Chan) under his wing and protect her from the Triads who kidnapped her into work--plus those Russian mobsters and various other shady types--it isn't long before he cleans up and reverts to the Statham we all know and love. Writer-director Yakin and his team of action choreographers eventually give Statham ample opportunity to do his down and dirty thing, beating, shooting, and basically wiping the floor with emma effas while barely breaking a sweat in a nicely tailored suit, but the energy peters out when rote plot mechanics about barely hidden corruption in not-so-surprising corners gain prominence, leading to a letdown anticlimax of a finale.

#665 April 20, 2012 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Chimpanzee poster To the Arctic poster Chimpanzee (G) ***
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To the Arctic (G) ***
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The annual DisneyNature feature documentary release timed to Earth Day, Chimpanzee, picks up the more narrative-driven model set forth by last year's entry, African Cats, following a young chimp as he learns the ways of the jungle, first under his mother and then a more unlikely parental/mentor figure. The trailer sadly gives away the entire story arc of the film, but that doesn't diminish the fascination of witnessing this chimpanzee community's day to day routine, hunting and searching for food while evading a rival clan trying to encroach on their territory. The trailer also hides one of the main problems of the film, which is Tim Allen's narration; granted, he is a comedian, but there is certainly a way to showcase such talent without having him resort to occasionally adopt obnoxious character voices for the chimps. That and a much less stunning visual scheme (there isn't the scope of Earth nor Oceans, and the more confined greens of the jungle can't match the majesty of African Cats's expansive desert landscapes) easily makes this the least of the four theatrical DisneyNature films thus far, but it still is a pleasant family entertainer sure to stimulate young minds into learning more about the world's wildlife.

More memorable and effective on every level is the annual IMAX 3D science documentary To the Arctic. If this entry bears an element of preachy activism (and it is a product of the One World, One Ocean campaign to build awareness of and help curb climate change), it makes a most compelling and persuasive argument for preserving the rapidly diminishing Arctic ice with the incredibly touching story of its central character, a polar bear mother's fierce commitment to protecting her two cubs. While other animals, such as caribou and walruses, do get some screen time, and Meryl Streep provides narration that strings those those segments and the mammothly majestic Arctic scenery veteran IMAX director Greg MacGillivray wisely lets the polar bear mother tell her story herself, the unusually intimate footage of her caring for them and, most memorable of all, shielding them from predatory male bears presented unadorned by gratuitous would-be enhancements--made all the more powerful captured in stunning large format IMAX clarity. If only we humans can show as much care for her and her young, not to mention the planet as a whole.

The Lucky One poster The Lucky One (PG-13) *
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The title most certainly does not refer to anyone buying a ticket for the latest adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks romance novel. To its credit, Scott Hicks's film is the first where Zac Efron is fairly convincing as a full-fledged adult, he a Marine who tracks down the young woman (Taylor Schilling) in a photo he randomly found in the war front--a photo he credits with giving him the hope and drive to fight and survive. Of course, love blossoms, but in the face of the incredibly problematic obstacle that is... the fact said photo apparently belonged to Schilling's beloved, deceased soldier brother. Clearly, weepie king Sparks is scraping for angsty love story scenarios, as that Big Dramatic Problem barely qualifies as one even in a melodramatic movie world sense, and the stakes are remarkably low; even the trademark Sparks Tragic Development is toothless, neither sad nor amusingly arbitrary (as in the reigning champion of Sparks Random Tragedies, Nights in Rodanthe). Factor in the complete dearth of chemistry between Efron and Schilling (who looks considerably older than him), and this is one massive stroke of bad movie luck.

Surviving Progress poster Surviving Progress ***
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There's been a wave of documentary features centering around either the economic or environmental crises that it was inevitable that there would come one that addressed both simultaneously, but far from coming off as a bit of zeitgeist opportunism, Harold Crooks and Mathieu Roy's film inspired by Ronald Wright's book A Short History of Progress shows how the two issues are inextricably linked, with the attendant arrogance of mankind's evolution leading to a "progress trap" where technological advancements inevitably outpace and overwhelm not only what the ecosystem can handle, but mankind's very physiology. Neither Crooks, Roy, nor any of the experts and analysts are arrogant enough themselves to declare possible plans of action as definitive solutions, nor are they despairingly pessimistic; rather, they remain largely balanced in the issues and ideas presented, from the fairly unrealistic one of immediate, drastic cuts in consumption to the possibly even more destructive arrogance that genetic engineering could spur. If the pattern of talking head interviews interspersed with often familiar stock footage makes the film somewhat nondescript visually, the immense food for thought presented in a smart, admirably unsentimentalized and largely unmanipulative manner more than compensates.

#664 April 13, 2012 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Cabin in the Woods poster The Cabin in the Woods (R) *** 1/2
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One look at the title, and one could understandably write it off instantly as another campy (pun intended) and cheesy horror slasher. But with this film coming from the pen of writer/producer Joss Whedon, who co-wrote with director Drew Goddard, one would be terribly wrong for doing so. As he has famously done on television with series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cabin finds Whedon simultaneously satirizing, upending, and deepening genre conventions, and to get the full effect of what he and Goddard have rather ambitiously aimed for--and largely hit--it's best to know little beyond the familar set-up of a quintet of college kids (Kristen Connolly, Jesse Williams, Fran Kranz, Anna Hutchison, and a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth) going to said cabin in the woods for a vacation that quickly turns deadly. So far, so OK, but the extra layers that Goddard and Whedon add beyond that familiar scenario are where the real fun lies--that is, for those who "get" and are willing to go with (for lack of a better word) the joke, for if the film has a major deficiency it's the absence of any true scares, and its ultimately very biting cynicism will leave those wishing for any sort of traditional catharsis cold. But as a smart, often very funny deconstruction and commentary on horror tropes with more than its fair share of, though not frights, excitement--the gory, gonzo climax is free-for-all filmic insanity in the best way--Goddard and Whedon clearly achieve exactly what they set out to do, even if it is just as clearly not in line with the mass audience's expectations.

Lockout poster Lockout (PG-13) ***
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Guy Pearce is one of those respected veteran actors who, while consistently delivering solid work over the years, is definitely recognizable but hasn't exactly broken out to superstardom--and the latest popcorn thriller from producer Luc Besson's factory shows that he certainly has what it takes to be a mainstream action star, glibly tossing off one-liners while crawling through vents à la Bruce Willis while serving a Snake Plissken-esque futuristic sci-fi plot: the First Daughter (Maggie Grace) is being held hostage by the inmates of a prison facility orbiting the earth, and Pearce's rogue ex-Fed is sent into space for the big rescue mission. With just about every element on the derivative side, clearly co-writer/producer Luc Besson and the directing team of Saint and Mather aren't going for more here than a formula timepass programmer, and despite some obvious trimming to get a PG-13 (after all, when a key villain is stabbed, how could the actual contact not be shown at all?), it entertains, with the action beats, while decently handled, actually lingering shorter in the memory than the force of Pearce's surprisingly light and lively personality.

The Three Stooges poster The Three Stooges (PG) ***
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After languishing in development hell for well over decade, the Farrelly Brothers' update of the yesteryear comedy stalwarts finally arrives on screens with little in the way of A-List stars, hype or, to be frank, expectation--and the end result turns out to be far more effective than anyone could have ever anticipated, and that's mainly because there are no big names slapping each other silly. Without the distraction or baggage that comes with easily recognizable faces, it is all the more easy to accept this incarnation of Moe, Larry, and Curly as Moe, Larry, and Curly, not to mention easily swallow the shamelessly, affectionately throwback style, from the slapstick silliness replete with the trademark sound effects to the episodic format complete with title cards and the original theme music. But the Farrellys' motions would be empty without the right trio enacting them, and they struck gold twofold, with the spot-on young actors playing the Stooges as kids to the adult (speaking only in terms of literal, chronological maturity, of course) of Sean Hayes (as Larry), Will Sasso (as Curly), and Chris Diamantopoulos (as Moe), who completely disappear into and perfectly inhabit their iconic roles; the least familiar of the three, Diamantopoulos, emerges as a true find, deftly walking that fine line between brutal bully and befuddled buffoon. So well do the Farrellys nail the retro style and sensibility that the film's main issues come when the contemporary setting is pushed too hard, such as an initially amusing gag with the overexposed Jersey Shore famewhores that outstays its welcome. While there are amusing supporting turns by Jane Lynch, Larry David (as nuns at the Stooges' home orphanage--yes, including David), and Sofia Vergara (as--shocker--a vivacious vixen), some players aren't as effectively utilized, namely Jennifer Hudson, getting little else to do other than put her hand on her hip and--of course--belt out a bar or two as the designated Sassy Nun. But what counts is not the story (in short, the three get caught in a murder scheme while searching for various ways to save the orphanage from closure) but the big physical comedy set pieces, and the Farrellys and their game lead trio dive all in and deliver agreeably, innocently zany antics that truly are fun for the whole family.

#663 April 6, 2012 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

American Reunion poster American Reunion (R) ***
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If there's anything that would appear to be more old and desperate than a turn-of-the-millennium-era franchise on the comeback trail, it's a turn-of-the-millennium-era teen sex comedy franchise on the comeback trail. Thankfully, this fact is not lost on the makers of the American Pie series, for the belated fourth installment admirably acknowledges this fact in its rather refreshing change of tone, with the entire original cast returning to East Great Falls for their 13-year high school reunion older, a bit world wearier, and not necessarily wiser--the latter most certainly in the case of the boorish Stifler (Seann William Scott), who rather expectedly is stalled in a state of adolescence. But he's the only one of the gang that way, pointing up the main theme of the passage of time, changing roles, and roads not taken as Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle's (Alyson Hannigan) more sexually adventurous union has hit a wall with parenthood; Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), now a bit of a househusband, contemplating the life that got away with the one that got away, Vicky (Tara Reid); Oz (Chris Klein), now a famous sportscaster, pining for a something simpler with estranged high school sweetheart Heather (Mena Suvari); and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), reinvented as a worldly thrillseeker, strikes a spark with (never-before-seen) old classmate Selena (Dania Ramirez). As comfortably nostalgic as it is to catch up with the old high school gang, the most refreshing and rather touching shift comes in the dynamic between Jim and his now-widowed father (Eugene Levy), who, while still doling out his words of advice, now can use some from his son about the single life. All this fuzzy talk isn't to say there isn't any of the series' trademark raunch and humiliating gags, but in an era of the Project X's of the world, writers/directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg are smart enough not to try to compete or attempt shock value, dialing it down a notch and confining the more outrageous bits to new teen characters--which, again, reinforces the theme of passing youth. Similarly, I think the time for this series to further flourish has passed, but as a postscript to the arc of the first three films, it's a fittiingly funny and surprisingly sweet coda.

Damsels in Distress poster Damsels in Distress (PG-13) ***
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No less than 14 years may have passed since Whit Stillman's last film, The Last Days of Disco, but once his characters open their mouths out flow torrents of his unmistakably verbose yet rapid-fire dialogue, it's like he never left. Unlike Disco and his other two films, Metropolitan and Barcelona, this is a completely original tale and not one based (however loosely) on his own experiences, thus leaving Stillman to dive completely into the surreal, alternate universe vibe he has just barely skirted with that arch (and, some would say, overwritten) dialogue style. And so this college-set story takes place in no university bearing any resemblance to the real world, all whimsical candy colors as the damsels of the title, a seemingly collected college clique (Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Carrie MacLemore) take a seemingly lost new student (Analeigh Tipton) under their wing in their ongoing mission to save their peers and the world at large from depression and distress of any kind. Once you let go and just go with the oddball flow, many delights await, not only in that distinctive Stillman voice and accordingly idiosyncratic characterization but the terrific performances, chiefly among them Gerwig's turn as the group's self-satisfied ringleader who suddenly finds herself in (to use her preferred term) "a tailspin" due to dramas stemming from the various romantic and social entanglements with and around around her. Beyond coming with the gargantuan task of spouting the lion's share of Stillman's wordy wordplay, her character, with her paradoxically affable air of condescension and equally contradictory know-it-all obliviousness, takes a veritable tightrope walk to make the slightest bit endearing, but that Gerwig somehow manages to make her strangely lovable sums up how truly wonderful her work is.

3 poster 3 ** blog article on the soundtrack
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3 unexpectedly--and rather inadvertently--became one of the more anticipated releases from the Tamil language film industry in recent memory when one of the songs from the soundtrack, "Why This Kolaveri Di?", was leaked onto the Internet and became a most unlikely viral global sensation. Now that Aishwarya R. Dhanush's film proper has finally hit screens, it's safe to say that had it not been for that song's surprising pre-release popularity, this messy thriller would've barely been a blip outside of the Kollywood/South Indian film fan base. The director's real life husband, the single-named Dhanush, plays the lead character Ram, the aftermath of whose mysterious death opens the film before flashing back to his character's school days courtship with Janani (Shruti Haasan). Their romance plays out in familiar Kollywood fashion, with Ram smitten at first sight and more or less stalking Janani into submission, as it were, but Dhanush has real charm and a palpably warm rapport with Haasan, whose Janani has a bit more headstrong spunk than most South Indian screen heroines--that is, at least, until the interval.

After a solid first half, Haasan is more or less relegated to the sidelines for the rest of the film, and it's no exaggeration to say her post-interval role is basically nonstop crying, in line with the anticipated act two tonal change. Post-intermission, Aishwarya then turns her attention to the circumstances that lead to strain in Ram and Janani's once-blissful marriage and his eventual, untimely demise. While Dhanush is more than up to the considerable dramatic challenges presented his wife's script, making Ram's emotional and psychological anguish frightening and heartbreaking, she herself is not quite up to the task of the difficult, delicate subject matter she chooses to tackle. I will not reveal what it is, for the film plays it as a plot twist--which right there reflects how trite the execution it ultimately plays; while she clearly is trying to make a sincere and serious statement about a very real affliction (the film even closes with a somber text card directing viewers to seek further information and/or help), the issue is also bent in ways to serve mass entertainer demands, such as fuel for a would-be rousing fight scene that is forced at best, unsettling at worst. The one directorial choice Aishwarya notably gets right, however, is the picturization of that breakout smash single, just one of a memorable slate of tunes composed by Anirudh Ravichander and featuring lyrics by Dhanush himself. "Kolaveri" is very much the drunken situational number it was always meant to be, not re-shot and re-conceived as something more elaborate just to capitalize on the song's popularity. But that is just about the only lucid move in the film's rather ruinous second half, which proves to be as muddled as its tragic hero's mindset. (special thanks to Tamil Padam and Naz 8 Cinemas)


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