The Movie Report
May 2012

#667 - 670
May 4, 2012 - May 25, 2012

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

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#670 May 25, 2012 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Hysteria poster Hysteria (R) ***
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It seems odd to call a film whose central hook is the invention of the vibrator "cute," but director Tanya Wexler has pulled off that seemingly impossible feat in this Victorian-era comedy. Of course, there is a fair amount of bawdy humor in Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer's screenplay, most especially as a young doctor (Hugh Dancy) manually administers "treatment" to his female patients for the commonly diagnosed ailment of the title. But before Dancy comes (bad pun intended) to a more convenient, mechanically-powered remedy, Wexler wryly gives context to its invention, namely the perception and status of women in 1880s England, mainly through the words of Maggie Gyllenhaal's character, the outspoken and social activist daughter of Dancy's boss (Jonathan Pryce). Gyllenhaal is saddled with the weaker elements of the script, namely a heavy handed subplot about helping the poor, but she and Dancy are electric together, enlivening a rote romantic triangle element between the two of them and her more proper sister (Felicity Jones). The sweetness blends with the naughtier bits (yes, bad pun again intended), which are certainly saucy but never crude and sleazy--in a sly sense reflecting the film's argument that female pleasure is perfectly healthy and natural.

The Intouchables poster The Intouchables (R) ***
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Cranky, rich, old quadriplegic Philippe (François Cluzet) and his unlikely new caretaker, young Senegalese street tough Idriss (Omar Sy), form an even more unlikely perspective- and life-changing friendship. Based on that line, it would be easy to write off this French blockbuster--the second biggest box office hit of all time in its native country--as saccharine TV movie-level mush, or even worse still, one of those patronizing "Magical Negro" tales. That it never quite crosses over into either of those is a credit to the writing-directing duo of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano (working from, yes, a true story), who take great time and care in establishing the two characters and having their relationship develop and strengthen in a very naturalistic way. Not just about how Idriss loosens up Philippe, this is very much the story of how both learn and grow from the other, and the changes occur gradually, organically, and fairly subtly, not in manufactured, maudlin, melodramatic epiphanies. Even so, that's not exactly the most original arc, but the main reason why the film works, though, is the lead pair. Cluzet strikes the right, believable balance between outer bitter prickliness and a warm, vulnerable core; but the big story here is Sy, who didn't win this year's César for Best Actor over a certain Jean Dujardin for nothing. While more than up for the heavier beats of the material, overall he gives Idriss such an affable, infectious presence and energy that even manages to sell some of the film's dodgier moments (such as a cliched bit where he loosens up a stuffy party by getting everyone to dance to "Boogie Wonderland"). Such bonafide star quality is truly "intouchable."

Men in Black 3 poster Men in Black 3 (PG-13) ** 1/2
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The much-belated third installment for the Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones sci-fi series begins with a personal pet peeve when it comes to film series: inconsistency in numeric style; the second MiB film 10 years ago used a Roman numeral while this one while this one uses the standard digit. That may be a nitpick, but such lack of attention to detail unfortunately carries throughout the film--not exactly a small problem when dealing with a time travel-driven storyline. Returning director Barry Sonnenfeld obviously was hoping the famous Smith/Jones chemistry as the duo of alien policing agents as well as Smith's equally strong rapport with Josh Brolin as the circa 1969 incarnation of Jones's Agent K would prevent viewers from noticing that basic numbers here don't add up, particularly as far as ages go (case in point, if the new character of Agent O is a 20something played by Alice Eve in '69, then that would make the present day version played by Emma Thompson pushing 70). It would be easier to turn a blind eye to such minutiae if the story held any interest, but the basic idea of time travel--or, to be specific, the idea of Smith's J going back in time to prevent K from getting killed in the past--is as inspired as Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen (and a number of other uncredited scribes) get. While Rick Baker's alien creature effects remain creative and appropriately slimy, the main extraterrestrial adversary played by Jemaine Clement doesn't have much personality outside of his design, where he has a symbiosis of sorts with another, smaller alien in his hand that shoots projectile teeth. As with his (in)famous take on George W. Bush, Brolin proves a gifted mimic in physicality and more importantly in spirit, nailing Jones's voice, speech rhythms, and mannerisms (or, in the case of the ever-stoic K, lack thereof), but the thin story feels built around the general concept of having a younger K rather than being an organic outgrowth of a sturdy plot. That generally doesn't matter a whole lot for a summer entertainer, but even in terms of blockbuster bread and butter, this threequel falls short. The best, most exciting action sequence (a shootout in an alien-run restaurant) comes very early on; and clever gags are also in short supply, coasting mainly on mild chuckles, not to mention the promising casting of Thompson as the new MiB chief amounts to nothing, her considerable and generally underutilized comic chops completely neglected here. Ironically enough, despite having such a franchise-ready concept, it's becoming all the more clear that 1997's original MiB is a perfectly self-contained action comedy with nicely completed character arcs that needn't have been sequelized.

Moonrise Kingdom poster Moonrise Kingdom (PG-13) ****
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In recent years and with recent films, director Wes Anderson has been accused, and not entirely inaccurately, of paying more attention to his unmistakable, incredibly detailed (and, some would say, self-indulgent) sense of offbeat visual design--from sets and costumes down to the rigidly symmetrical framing--than anything more substantive script wise. Thankfully, Moonrise Kingdom finds Anderson back in live action form, his aesthetic and sense of humor as quirky as ever but married to a genuine, relatable humanity that has characterized his best work. At the core this '60s-set tale is a very charming story of pre-teen first love, with Anderson coaxing terrific work from newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as the besotted pair who run away together from their homes, perfectly capturing the innocence, awkwardness, and earnest idealism of young romance and youth itself. A number of recognizable stars fill out the supporting cast, most prominently Bill Murray, Frances McDormand (as Hayward's parents), Edward Norton (as Gilman's scout leader), Tilda Swinton (as a social worker), and Bruce Willis (as the small New England town's sheriff), but they completely disappear into their roles, their starpower never getting in the way of the true leads of Gilman and Hayward nor Anderson's beautiful vision, which is at once funny and melancholic, whimsical and poignantly true.

#669 May 18, 2012 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Battleship poster Battleship (PG-13) *
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From the moment a feature film based on Hasbro's classic pegs-and-grid game was announced, the project has been mocked mercilessly. One does want to give benefit of the doubt going in to see the film proper, but almost immediately that proves to be impossible, with the opening Meet (Would-Be) Cute scene of our romantic leads Taylor Kitsch and Brooklyn Decker: he goes to ridiculous, criminal lengths to... satisfy her craving for a chicken burrito. So goes Peter Berg's film, which while clearly not making any bones about being a check-your-brain-at-the-door summer blockbuster, goes about its thought-free blow-shit-up business in such a bizarre and absurd manner that to simply dismiss it as laughably awful is to shortchange how oddly captivating its off-the-charts "what-the-fuck?" quality often is. With the U.S. Navy destroyer vessels facing down alien battleships, one would fully expect this to be based on the game in name only. But no--in a move both inspired and insane, Berg and writers Jon and Erich Hoeberg make blatant callbacks to the original source, from the peg-shaped alien bombs to--yes--one extended sequence where our heroes track and aim fire at alien ships using a grid layout on a screen, barking out alphanumeric coordinates. That the latter sequence of the cast quite literally playing a fairly quiet game of Battleship is one of the more memorable action moments in the film points up how otherwise wasteful much of the film feels. Whatever big, spectacular destruction the aliens cause both on sea and in cities around the world, it all blends together into a loud, forgettable blur, not helped by the fact we've seen so many scenes of this type of CG'ed mass destruction mayhem in much better movies. What could have lent the cacophonous chaos some interest are the actors, but the likes of Kitsch (as a gifted but unmotivated Naval officer), Decker (as his girlfriend, a physical therapist), Alexander Skarsgård (as Kitsch's more responsible superior officer brother--guess what his fate could be?), Rihanna (actually giving one of the film's better performances as a tough gunner), and a slumming Liam Neeson (as Decker's no-nonsense admiral father) are saddled with uninteresting, one-note characters and even worse dialogue ("Who do I call to teach you humility? I don't have that phone number."). Perhaps the biggest WTF of them is all is the realization that the filmmakers clearly, seriously meant this to be a sincere tribute to the heroics of those in the Naval forces, especially elderly veterans and (in one particularly hamfisted subplot involving one of Decker's patients) physically disabled--or, rather, handicapable--soldiers. No doubt it's a nice and worthy sentiment, but one that gets more than a little obscured by all the flying silver spinning wheel things that destroy cities and armor-suited alien creatures with Terminator-esque threat assessment vision.

The Dictator poster The Dictator (R) ***
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Sacha Baron Cohen's sketch comedy roots shine through, for better or worse in the big showcase for his latest outrageous alter ego: General Aladeen, ruthless ruler of the (fictitious) Republic of Wadiya. Like Borat and Brüno before him, Aladeen is basically a vessel for Baron Cohen to say and do many a politically incorrect--if not downright potentially offensive--line and gag, all rooted in this specific character's fascist egomania, anti-American politics, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and general misanthropy. Unlike those previous two films, though, Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles don't adopt a loose, heavily improvisational approach that plants the character in real world situations with unsuspecting real people; instead, this is a more traditionally scripted, story-driven comedy, with Aladeen finding himself in the midst of an overthrow plot while visiting the States. Standard film writing is not Baron Cohen and Charles's strong suit, for the arcs are dismayingly conventional (such as Aladeen's possibly life- and lifestyle-changing relationship with a hippie health food store owner, played by a largely underused Anna Faris) and move in fits and starts between the more raucous isolated sketch-like comic set pieces, which are clearly where the film's energy and pair's clear interest obviously lie. But the shortcomings are ultimately forgivable, for Baron Cohen is as always never less than fully immersed into his character, and Aladeen's antics are often quite hilarious, most brashly and crudely so.

Mansome poster Mansome (PG-13) ** 1/2
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Morgan Spurlock's documentary exploration of male grooming habits is an expectedly breezy, cheeky affair, organized into specific chapters zeroing in on the areas of moustaches, beards, beauty products, body hair, hair on the head, and face, peppered with wry comments and observations by stylists, fashion experts, and celebrities such as Isaiah Mustafa, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, and Judd Apatow. Within each specific section Spurlock goes off into an amusing tangent, from eccentric territory such as beard competitions and the marketing of a self-explanatory new grooming product named--yes--Fresh Balls; to more matter-of-fact but no less fascinating concerns such as a genuinely insightful look at the body hair maintenance regimen of a pro wrestler and the rather rigorous and downright obsessive routine of a self-professed metrosexual male. As is the norm with nearly all of his films, the director himself plays a part, the rather historic shaving of his trademark moustache being one of the film's asides, but a couple of other key crew members actually have a larger on-camera role: celebrity executive producers Will Arnett and Jason Bateman, whose spa day excursion is followed throughout the film. Such a conceit is not nearly as entertaining as they probably think it is, their segments coming off less witty than simply self-indulgent--and not ironically so. This is reflective of the ultimately ruinous issue with the film: it could have used fewer famous faces dishing snark and more substantive input from actual style and grooming professionals. Spurlock's light touch has always been one of his greatest strengths and his distinct appeal, and but just because the film's subject is surfaces doesn't mean it only warrants a slight, surface treatment.

What to Expect When You're Expecting poster What to Expect When You're Expecting (PG-13) **
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This all-star comedy named after Heidi Murkoff's pregnancy perennial has the huge misfortune of coming out so soon after Think Like a Man, for unlike that film, this is an example of how one shouldn't sloppily slap together a narrative feature based on a self-help bestseller. I should say "inspired by," since aside from the idea of pregnancy and a brief shot of one of the characters reading the book, Kirk Jones's film has nothing to do with it, following a cross section of women who are all in some state of expectant motherhood: Cameron Diaz as a TV fitness guru; Elizabeth Banks as an "expert" pregnancy author only now expecting her first; Brooklyn Decker as a chipper trophy wife enjoying an unusually pleasant pregnancy; Anna Kendrick as a young woman who has a fateful one-night stand; and Jennifer Lopez as a wife unable to conceive but eager to adopt. The nature of such an ensemble beast is that some storylines are more interesting than others, but there's only one here that truly engages, and that's Banks's, with her and Rebel Wilson (as her trusty right-hand woman) providing the film's only substantial laughs. The blatant overtures to give this chick flick more male appeal also aren't entirely successful; a dad's group headed by Chris Rock initially amuses but gradually loses its novelty, and a father-son rivalry subplot between Dennis Quaid (as Decker's husband) and Ben Falcone (as Banks's husband) is a painfully unfunny time waster that could have been jettisoned--as well as , sadly, the thread centering around Kendrick, her talents squandered in a storyline that ultimately doesn't feel like it has much to do with anything else. That all won't much matter with the target audience, who will likely eat up all of the cuddly middle-of-the-road inoffensiveness, but that's exactly why the whole film feels like it was made on autopilot.


Metal Tornado DVD Metal Tornado (PG)
Movie: *
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One has a pretty clear idea what one's getting into when about to watch a disaster movie, and even clearer still when said disaster movie is a SyFy Channel premiere. So while the issue of quality becomes a moot point, that doesn't necessarily mean enjoyability doesn't. For a little while, director Gordon Yang appears to deliver the deliciously schlocky goods, setting the proceedings off at a rapid pase as a revolutionary technology to harness solar flares as an energy source goes horribly awry, creating a powerful roving electromagnetic field--the "metal tornado" of the title. Some choice chuckles are to be had when all manner of flying metallic objects--from pitchforks and chainsaws to garden hose nozzles and canned goods--threaten the lives of rural Pennsylvania residents as the vortex plows through their area, with one of the townsfolk even delivering the immortal line "It's like a mass possession of inanimate objects!" Alas, as the tornado grows bigger and more deadly, so does the camp enjoyment; the ridiculously chintzy digital effects lose their novelty as they futilely attempt to depict elaborate destruction and the actors, including Lou Diamond Phillips and Nicole de Boer, strive to sell non-existent dramatic stakes and character relationships. By the end, the film commits the ultimate sin: not incompetence, but boredom.

The DVD's sole extra is a trailer for the film.

DVD specifications: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English closed captioning. (Arc Entertainment)

#668 May 11, 2012 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Dark Shadows poster Dangerous Ishhq poster Dark Shadows (PG-13) *
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Dangerous Ishhq (Dangerous Love) **
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While I haven't seen much of the cult favorite original 1966-1971 supernatural soap, as a kid I was a huge fan of the short-lived, criminally undervalued 1991 prime time revival/remake of Dark Shadows, which in a sense was series creator Dan Curtis's refined second draft of the show, retelling and streamlining a number of the original gothic horror/romance plotlines while armed with the budget, effects, and general production values his first go-'round most infamously did not have. That latter fact, paired with an inevitably now-dated air, has given original show a reputation for camp and cheese--"Mic Shadows," as it is sometimes called with equal parts affection and derision. But there is a reason why the property retains such a devout following today, one that continued to shine through in my beloved early '90s version: at the very core, Curtis's creation was simply involving melodrama with indelible characters--such as vampire antihero Barnabas Collins and his tormentor, spurned ex-lover/witch Angelique--and its fantasy-rooted mythology added that much more unpredictability and creativity to the already free-for-all world of soap, as not only various ghosts and ghouls ran rampant in the creaky, creepy estate of Collinwood and surrounding town of Collinsport, it was not uncommon to travel through time, whether backwards, forwards, or sideways into parallel realities.

Sounds like a perfect fit for the sensibilities of frequent collaborators Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton, no? Alas, their rather dire big screen version of the show is a classic case of "taking away the wrong lesson." Never mind a Depp/Burton in more of a sober (by their standards) and somber Sweeney Todd mode, with a dollop of Edward Scissorhands romanticism and a dash of freewheeling Sleepy Hollow action horror, could have made a film that would have felt like the next organic step in the evolution of the late Curtis's vision of supernatural spookiness, gothic romance, and dark humor in Burton's highly atmospheric and imaginative visual storytelling style. Unfortunately, all Burton has apparently embraced from the show is its campy reputation. While Depp plays Barnabas, returning to Collinwood after being buried for 200 years to find his fellow members of the Collins clan and the house's other residents in various states of dysfunction, and Angelique (here played by Eva Green) is still up to her witchy (in every sense) ways, the prevailing tone is silly and jokey, rather indulgently and smugly so. While the idea of a satirical take on the material is a perfectly valid one, the level of comedy here is hardly sharp, mostly consisting of lazy and lame twofold time period gags: Barnabas as a two-centuries-removed fish-out-of-water buffoon; and Burton has set the film in 1972 for no discernible reason other than to wallow in the kitsch of the era's fashion, music, and pop culture. Burton even botches the time-tested hooks of Curtis's material: the emotional core of Barnabas's longing for lost love Josette treated as an afterthought most of the time, with her doppelganger, new Collins governess Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote, never getting a chance to develop much chemistry with Depp), disappears for long stretches--as does just about any other non-Barnabas character. Beyond squandering talents like Michelle Pfeiffer (as Collins matriarch Elizabeth), Jonny Lee Miller (as her brother Roger), Chloë Grace Moretz (as Elizabeth's daughter Carolyn), Helena Bonham Carter (as shrink Dr. Julia Hoffman), and Jackie Earle Haley (as Collins servant Willie), the star-centered approach goes against the basic appeal of soap/ensemble canvas drama, which is balance between a variety of stories and characters. The final stretch finds Burton oddly striving for some kind of resonance, but it's much too little much too late after playing just about everything as a mockery getting there, and it just ultimately makes the film that much more frustrating, for it reinforces that he, armed with this exact same cast and technical crew, could have made a worthy modern big screen treatment. As it stands, it barely rates as a shadow of the franchise's previous lives.

The Indian thriller Dangerous Ishhq (Dangerous Love) has a premise not unlike something one would find in yesteryear Dark Shadows: a supermodel's (Karisma Kapoor) wealthy fiancé is kidnapped for ransom, and she comes to realize that the key to finding the culprit lies not only in one or two but three of her past lives. Vikram Bhatt's film marks '90s-early '00s superstar Kapoor's return to the Bollywood screen after an absence of six years, and one can see the appeal as a comeback vehicle: an unusual and ambitious centuries-spanning storyline that gives her the chance to essay four different roles--or, rather, four roles that are different aspects of the same character. Kapoor, showing her skills have not diminished during her extended leave from the spotlight, understands that latter point, playing her quartet of characters as distinct yet with certain underlying consistencies in their actions and emotional temperament. Unfortunately, the most compelling of these roles is the one introduced last (well into the post-intermission half), and for most of the run time the audience is stuck with the modern day character, who often annoyingly speaks and behaves in line with the airhead stereotype one associates with models--which points up why the film ultimately fails: the writing. It seems that Bhatt and writer Amin Hajee gave up and rested on their meager laurels once arriving at the time-jumping reincarnation conceit, for the dialogue is often hamfisted and laughably overwrought (even by melodramatic Hindi film standards), and the purported surprise twists are easily to call. Kapoor clearly still has the goods to carry a film (though Bhatt never gives her a chance to show off her solid dancing skills, which would have gone a long way toward making Himesh Reshammiya's rather uninspired song score somewhat memorable), but there's only so much she can do when she's about the only redeeming quality of the entire film. (Special thanks to Naz8 Cinemas)

Tonight You're Mine poster Tonight You're Mine (R) * 1/2
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David Mackenzie follows up his rather ambitious (and rather haunting) science fiction drama Perfect Sense with a bit of a lark, a romantic comedy about two bickering rockers (Luke Treadaway and Natalia Tena) who somehow manage to fall in love over the course of 24 hectic hours at a music festival in Glasgow. Such a familiar formula premise is by its nature in constant danger of coming off as artificial, yet writer Thomas Leveritt makes it even more contrived by forcing in the plot device of having the two of them--through circumstances too random to bother explaining--handcuffed to each other during said time period. As these two bicker while trying to find a way out of their unusual predicament in time for their respective on-stage performances, clearly Mackenzie was hoping the loose, somewhat improvisational filmmaking style would if not bridge at least smooth over the believability gap for the viewer. But the lack of structure makes the already thin material feel even more so, and even at a very brief 80-minute running time, the film drags, with barely thought out subplots with negligible supporting characters making for aggravating padding. Treadaway and Tena are likable actors with genuine musical talent, and I look forward to seeing them in a proper showcase--which this most certainly is not.

#667 May 4, 2012 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel poster The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly & Beautiful (PG-13) ***
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After detouring into grittier fare with last summer's spy drama The Debt, director John Madden returns to his more genteel wheelhouse with this adaptation of Deborah Moggach's novel These Foolish Things, following a varied group of British seniors "outsourcing" their retirement at the title resort--that last word used quite loosely, for the reality is decidedly more run down, to put it mildly. If this sounds like nice, sweet middle of the road hokum about redemption and rejuvenation in the twilight years (with the hotel itself serving as a not so subtle metaphor for its patrons), it is. However, tthis is a classic case where all of the talent involved elevates familiar, predictable beats into something genuinely involving and moving, most especially the cast full of UK acting greats: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, and Maggie Smith. More notable, and more likely to ignored, is just how perfectly Madden modulates the entire affair; there are a number of moments that could have expectedly, lazily (d)evolved into shouty, crying confrontation, but those notes are surprisingly restrained and all the more effective for it; even the Bollywood-ready "forbidden love" subplot involving the hotel's young manager (Dev Patel) is not milked for its melodramatic worth and then some. That gentler touch is the true icing on this light confection; a trifle, yes, but one that is irresistibly cute, charming, and genuinely heartwarming.

A Little Bit of Heaven poster A Little Bit of Heaven (PG-13) *
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I suppose it must've sounded like a good idea at the time: cast Kate Hudson in one of the rom-com roles that made her a box office draw but with a bit more dramatic gravitas so as to showcase the chops that earned her a pre-superstardom Academy Award nomination for Almost Famous. But it takes a delicate hand, not to mention a sturdy script, to pull off the seriocomic tale of relentlessly chipper, blithely promiscuous Marley (Hudson) who suddenly gets diagnosed with an especially aggressive case of colon cancer, and neither are in evidence in here. Gren Wells's script begins too extreme in the lighter side of things, with Marley's perky quirkiness more grating than charming (not to mention not as funny as it's obviously meant to be: e.g., her ongoing vision of God as Whoopi Goldberg), making it hard to give a damn by the time the love story between Marley and her doctor (Gael Garcia Bernal) kicks in halfway through, much less when saccharine disease-of-the-week schmaltz takes over in the final third. Director Nicole Kassell (a long way from her dark, gritty debut The Woodsman) is completely out of her element here in the comedy, romance, and sentimentality, all three coming off as forced, and she lets a solid supporting cast including Kathy Bates, Romany Malco, Treat Williams, and Lucy Punch largely go to waste.

The Avengers poster Marvel's The Avengers (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Finally assembling on screen Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk along with Black Widow and Hawkeye to form the team of Earth's Mightiest Heroes after five films of build-up, Marvel's The Avengers would reasonably be expected to be the superhero movie to end all superhero movies, a big blowout extravaganza to set the blockbuster bar for the summer season. Yet while the film does boast its share of catastrophic destruction and mayhem, oddly enough elaborate spectacle is not the film's strong suit--and, ironically enough, that's why Joss Whedon's film is one of the more satisfying entries in the wave of superhero cinema.

With hordes of aliens wreaking havoc in New York City, dare I say its big climax is, on isolated face value, a bit on the routine side, regardless of just how large scale the explosions and property damage are. That all said, what elevates that big finish and the film as a whole is the one area co-writer/director Whedon completely, unquestionably nails: characterization. In such a gigantic ensemble piece of such iconic figures--especially for their first assembly--this is a critical element easy to undervalue, and had it been handled the slightest bit incorrectly, would have been more disastrous to the film than any problems with the action. Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn are careful to keep the kaleidoscope of personalities consistent and recognizable: from glib, cocky shellhead (Robert Downey Jr.); square in both jaw and virtue Cap (Chris Evans); and the high and mighty Asgardian god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth); to the no-nonsense figure bringing them together, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson); the ever-crafty Big Bad they unite to bring down, god of mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston); and even down the line to the SHIELD agent that's skulked around the fringes in most of these films, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). But beyond reinforcing the more clearly established figures, Whedon and Penn are allowed room to add some needed heft to superspy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, now much more comfortably settled in the role) and heretofore barely seen archer extraordinaire Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)--though in the latter case, he still comes off as a bit of a placeholder. Whedon's biggest triumph comes with the Hulk, whose third big screen incarnation proves to be the charm, with he and Mark Ruffalo striking the right balance between the dark humor and genuine angst of Dr. Bruce Banner's unique situation, not to mention the smashing (bad wordplay intended) badassery of his gigantic green alter ego. The individual players so carefully and efficiently drawn, Whedon then has fun playing around with them as they all at various junctures butt heads literally and figuratively--and his clear fanboy glee is irresistibly contagious to the audience, whether the heroes and villains go at it with fisticuffs or sharp, witty dialogue.

So by the time the climax hits, it hardly matters that the big otherworldly threat is unmemorably anonymous nor that it is the umpteenth action movie finale centered around a metropolis being reduced to rubble every which way. A bravura single shot where Whedon pans from beloved character to beloved character as they individually do their part in putting up a united front against the literally Earth-shattering invaders sums up both why the viewer does actually care, which then makes this long-aborning screen assembly such an exhilarating blast of entertainment.

The Raven poster The Raven (R) **
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A thriller centering around writer Edgar Allan Poe's "lost" week right before his death is an intriguing idea, but director James McTeigue and writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare seem to have gone out of their way to make such an idea as mundane as possible. Take away the period production value and the fact that Poe is the name of one of the lead characters, and the film is a ho-hum standard issue mystery yarn about a serial killer whose murders are based on a famous author's writings--in this case, Poe's. As Poe, John Cusack manages to somehow both phone in it in and be over the top, basically resorting to clichéd broad, eccentric artist tics and loud line delivery as the core of his performance; everyone else in the cast, including Alice Eve as the love interest and Luke Evans as the lead detective, get to do little more than wear the handsome period costumes well. The only real imagination in the whole film comes late--in the rather terrifically designed end titles.

D V D / B L U - R A Y

Being Elmo DVD Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (PG) full movie review
Movie: ***; DVD: *** 1/2
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Documentary features are generally a tough commercial sell in theatres, and even something with as wide appeal a hook as the feel-good story of Kevin Clash, the man behind the iconic little red furry staple of Sesame Street known as Elmo, got a bit lost in the specialty cinema shuffle last fall even with a high profile Muppets feature playing at the same time. The home entertainment market should be a lot kinder for this truly inspiring story about someone who defied the odds and the norm to pursue his passion for puppetry from a very young age and not only achieve his dream but use his position to give spread positivity as best as he can through his art. Constance Marks's heartwarming film is sure to serve as an inspiration to children and adults alike--much like how the joy of Jim Henson's creations knows no age restrictions.

Docurama's DVD edition does not include a commentary track, but Marks, producer/cinematographer James Miller, producer Corinne LaPook, editor/writer Justin Weinstein, and co-director/editor/writer Philip Shane offer choice insights about the origin of the project, its production, and tidbits that were lost in the succinct but no less informative 14-minute "Some Thoughts from the Filmmakers." The disc also offers three touching postscripts to the feature proper with the self-explanatory "Sundance Premiere Q&A with Kevin and the Filmmakers"; the four-minute "Tau performs in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade," in which Clash's pre-teen protégé as shown in the film gets his big break; and John Tartaglia, creator of the Tony-winning adults-only Sesame riff Avenue Q, relates his own love of puppetry and how Clash took him under his wing at a young age in a funny and sweet four-minute interview. Further background on Marks and her work is given in an on-screen text biography.

DVD specifications: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen; English Dolby Surround; English closed captions. (Docurama Films/New Video)

Haywire Blu-ray Haywire (R) full movie review
Movie: ***; Blu-ray: ***
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In the Q&A after the film's first public showing at AFI Fest last fall, Steven Soderbergh said, "If someone decided to put Steven Seagal in a movie when he hadn't done anything before, why not [Gina Carano]?" Why not her indeed, for the Oscar-winning director's decision to build a feature starring vehicle around the mixed martial arts fighter proves what a fresh and effortlessly commanding screen presence she has, and not necessarily only when engaged in physical confrontation; as a black ops contractor on the hunt for those responsible for a deadly double cross, she more than holds her own against the seasoned likes of Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, and Michael Douglas. But that's just gravy for the real reason why this film exists, and that's to see Carano to do her ass-whooping thing in a big screen context, and Soderbergh and his The Limey screenwriter have crafted a reasonably complex and smart framework for the big brawls, which deliver all the brutal, bone-cracking action would expect and hope for--made all the more impactful by Soderbergh's incredibly wise decision to have every single one play out without any musical score. That's just one of the nifty and unusual stylistic touches Soderbergh gives the pulpy material, such as having the only audio heard during a major gunfight sequence be David Holmes's funky, cool jazz score, and he and Dobbs tell their story in a non-linear fashion like their previous collaboration (though not nearly as fragmented). Such idiosyncracies befit such an unusually appealing leading lady, who strikes the right balance of steely, intimidating toughness while maintaining an equally believable feminine allure and relatability. While it remains to be seen where Carano goes from here in her film career, she certainly makes a memorable and quality first impression.

The special features selection on Lionsgate's Blu-ray is on the slim side, but there is worthwhile material packed in the two behind-the-scenes featurettes produced expressly for the home entertainment release. The 16-minute "Gina Carano in Training" fairly comprehensively covers both Carano's MMA background and the various showcase fight sequences in the film, including comments by not only Carano but also World Extreme Fighting founder Jamie Levine plus Soderbergh, Fassbender, and McGregor, the latter three taken from the aforementioned AFI Fest Q&A. Less enlightening is the five-minute "The Men of Haywire," which rather perfunctorily strings together EPK-derived talking head segments with Fassbender, McGregor, Tatum, and Banderas (curiously, Douglas's picture is featured on the segment's title card, but he is not included in this segment); considering how all the male characters in the film are most decidedly secondary to the force of nature that is Carano, that they're given an almost token treatment in even the extras segment of the disc feels appropriate.

Blu-ray specifications: MPEG4 AVC, 1080p; 16:9 widescreen; English 5.1 DTS-HD; English amd Spanish subtitles. (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)


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