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The Movie Report
September 2011

#644 - 645
September 9, 2011 - September 23, 2011

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


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#645 September 23, 2011

In Brief

Abduction poster Abduction (PG-13) ** 1/2
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It's understandable, if not completely natural, to approach Abduction with a substantial amount of skepticism, for not merely is it the first major starring vehicle for teenage Twilight heartthrob Taylor Lautner, it also attempts to fashion him as big action star. If he proves here to not exactly be the most expressive of actors, like Keanu Reeves before him, the blank stoicism works for the steely demeanor of a hero, which serves Lautner well in this chase film where his character finds himself on the run from both government and criminal types when he discovers his parents are actually not. Director John Singleton wisely, effectively keeps the pace moving so as to not make one linger on the par-for-the-genre lapses in logic and, more importantly, keeps Lautner in motion, relying heavily on his unexpectedly effective physicality (he did most of his stunt work) to carry the weight rather than heavy acting chops (which aren't a huge requirement here). Thankfully, the necessary gravitas is reliably provided by veteran supporting players such as Alfred Molina (as a government agent) and Sigourney Weaver (as Lautner's therapist), leaving Lautner and Lily Collins (as the wrong place, wrong time classmate/neighbor/potential love interest who goes on the run with him) to offer a likable center, which they do (despite contrived romantic plot "complications"). As a popcorn timepass, it isn't exactly innovative, but it's engaging enough; similarly, the jury's still out on Lautner's leading man future, but this first time out, he certainly passes muster and far from embarrasses himself unlike some peers (*cough*RobertPattinson*cough*).

Dolphin Tale poster Dolphin Tale (PG) **
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Dolphin has its tail amputated after suffering a major accident. Against all odds, dolphin learns to swim without one. When tail-less swimming proves to have potentially harmful consequences, dolphin must get a prosthetic tail. Through all this, never leaving dolphin's side is a young boy (Nathan Gamble) who finds new direction and purpose in life. Charles Martin Smith's fact-based film is the very definition of a safe, family-friendly entertainment, and while it is nice to see Ashley Judd (as Gamble's mom) and Morgan Freeman (as the designer of the tail) reunite on screen with the former not in damsel-in-distress jeopardy for once, the middle-of-the-road milquetoast likely won't make much of a lasting impression for many beyond the pre-teen set.

I Don't Know How She Does It poster I Don't Know How She Does It (PG-13)
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The title could easily apply to star Sarah Jessica Parker, for how such a charmless actor has maintained such career longevity and popularity is a marvel. The bafflement continues with this chick flick where she plays a married mom juggling her hectic career with her domestic duties. It's hard to not file Douglas McGrath's film into the Tales of Privileged White Folk folder, for however busy and stressed out Parker gets, precious little feels at stake. She's not exactly wanting either financially or emotionally: her bustling career in finance has no doubt left her a nice nest egg, considering how fairly modestly she lives; her husband (Greg Kinnear) is a business owner whose purported struggles are resolved about 15 minutes in, and above all else is a loving, caring, supportive, understanding, devoted husband and father who naturally gets frustrated from time to time when his wife's job has her leave home so often. So what if snooty high society moms may actually think she can't bake a pie? Horrors! This would all go down a bit more easily if there were some wit or laughs, but there isn't much in that department, especially once Olivia Munn's amusingly icy workaholic assistant character gets defanged by a predictable plot twist; and a more likable lead would create some sense of investment, but Parker is hardly sympathetic, making developments such as the improbable romantic feelings developed by a high-powered businessman (Pierce Brosnan) with whom she works closely all the more contrived and indulgent. I don't know how she does it, and frankly I didn't care to find out.

Killer Elite poster Killer Elite (R) ** 1/2
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Jason Statham, Clive Owen, and Robert De Niro together in an action drama holds a lot of promise, and kicking off the film is a (pun somewhat intended) killer opening sequence where a mission by team of mercenaries, headed by Statham and De Niro, goes bloodily awry, prompting the former to retire from the biz; a year later, he's forced back into action when the latter is kidnapped. Inspired by actual events, Gary McKendry's film aims to deliver both the thrills one would expect from a Statham vehicle in a story of greater substance, something this rather underrated actor can pull off well (see: The Bank Job); alas, while Statham and his co-stars are game (De Niro clearly relishes the opportunity to kick ass), McKendry doesn't pull off either the action nor the drama to any satisfaction. The plot, which comes to involve rival mercenary Owen, is complicated without being particularly complex or intriguing; and despite the opening scene one standout mid-film showdown between Statham and Owen, the action is fairly routine and unmemorable, and the two lackluster elements dovetail into an appropriately anticlimactic finale.

Machine Gun Preacher poster Machine Gun Preacher (R) **
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Marc Forster's fact-based drama tells the story of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), an ex-con/addict who finds religion and then his ultimate purpose building an orphanage in war-torn Sudan. Yes, this is another Great White Hope movie, but there is dramatic potential here in the arc from criminal to crusader--which somehow Forster and writer Jason Keller decide to gloss over, to put it mildly; it's no exaggeration to say he changes literally overnight in the film, and said change occurs a mere 30 minutes in at most. The ensuing exploration of the ongoing situation in the Sudan is, like Childers's mission, admirable, but as executed here not exactly compelling nor coming across as terribly authentic, not helped by the one-note macho man characterization of Childers, who despite the admirable intent comes off as a bit boorishly self-righteous. Butler's equally single-dimension performance and Forster's overblown direction further cloud the very serious real world issue addressed; scenes depicting Childers's "fight machine gun fire with machine gun fire" methodology are less inspiring and rousing than they are almost comical in how they seem to have wandered in from a big dumb Hollywood action film. Closing credit footage of the real Childers in Africa does again prove there is an interesting story to be told here--one crying out for a documentary treatment that would do far better justice to both Childers and his cause.

Moneyball poster Moneyball (PG-13) ** 1/2
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Although set in the world of baseball, Moneyball holds surprising resonance for non-fans such as myself in its lead character of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). A promising baseball prospect out of high school, the greatness that seemed certain when making the direct leap to the big leagues painfully never came to pass; those dreams long dashed and now in the head office of a struggling franchise with nothing left to lose in just about every aspect of life, he sets out to change the very rules of the game as they have long been defined and practiced both in business and on the field. What cuts closely and deeply is the question of not if success finally be achieved but if any such success on that altered path would truly satisfy and mean something, anything. It's a question far more universal and therefore affecting than one would expect from the literally "inside baseball" specifics of the film's basic concern, that of Oakland A's general manager Beane and a young genius number cruncher's (Jonah Hill) strategy to rebuild the gutted, cash-starved team with an unconventional, wholly statistics-based strategy. Even when delving deep into stats talk, one doesn't need to be at all interested in baseball, much less sports geek minutiae, to be hooked in by the razor sharp verbal byplay written by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian (adapting Michael Lewis's book, which makes all the nebulous numbers and behind-the-bases wheeling and dealing not only understandable but fun and exciting--which director Bennett Miller and especially his top-of-their-game cast then elevate even further. While the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Wright turn up in small roles, this is essentially a two-man show. Hill is, as can be expected, quite funny but in a more unexpectedly understated manner, making for an effectively grounded foil for Pitt, who I think has a legitimate shot at major awards glory for his work here. Effortlessly magnetic in befitting his usual persona while allowing for a generous amount of leeway to comfortably stretch both comedically and dramatically, Pitt's energetic and emotionally engaging Beane recalls similar "classic movie star showcase roles with added heft" roles that won awards legitimacy in recent years for the fellow superstar likes of Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock. Whatever may come to pass, Pitt is having a rather banner year between this and his even more indelible work in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

Restless poster Restless (PG-13) **
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While boasting hipster cred in director Gus Van Sant and stars Henry Hopper (son of Dennis) and It Girl Mia Wasikowska as well as bearing the arthouse label of Sony Pictures Classics, the greater imprimatur is left by the logo that immediately follows--that of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment. Wasikowska is a winsome waif stricken with cancer; Hopper is the broody loner with a Tragic Past who comes to fall for her, and while the pair do have a nice screen rapport, it isn't enough bolster what is ultimately a slight tale whose self-conscious indie quirks (e.g. Hopper's character has an imaginary--or is he?--best friend in the ghost of a WWII-era Japanese fighter pilot) fail to lift it beyond familiar Disease of the Week formula.

Straw Dogs poster Straw Dogs (R) **
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Even with Hollywood's (un)natural urge to remake films with any sort of solid reputation, Sam Peckinpah's 1971 thriller is a bit of curious choice, notwithstanding its reputation as a classic--it is very much a product of its time, both in terms of the socio-historical context (especially in terms of its protagonist's pacifist ideals) and in filmmaking: instantly notorious for its violent content, it still shocks though 40 years of brutal revenge thrillers, to say nothing of the last few years of torture porn, has desensitized audiences to bloody carnage. But, of course, a compelling new spin on any existing material is welcome; unfortunately, Rod Lurie's film isn't it. Even in translating the location from a small village in England to the American Deep South, Lurie does stick fairly closely to Peckinpah's film, as story beats are by and large the same (not to mention certain lines lifted verbatim) as a weak, nebbishy type (here, James Marsden) and his hot wife (Kate Bosworth) return to her childhood home for some peace and quiet for him to work, only to immediately, if inadvertently, cause tension with the locals. Events gradually then quickly escalate and breaking points are reached, leading to a dramatic final confrontation; in this version, though, the shock is gone, in its place a formulaic inevitability--not just in terms of plot and character turns, but in the graphic nature of the violence. It just goes to show, considering how close the film is to the original, that the direction makes all the difference, rendering what was and still could be taken as subversive and challenging material into something rather rote. Not helping matters in the latter regard is the casting of Marsden. It's fitting that he and Bosworth were previously seen together in a Superman film, for he comes off too much like a Clark Kent--that is, he obviously tries hard to come off as a weakling when we all know he can and will change into someone stronger; the mousy persona never quite convinces as his initial true identity (changing the character's occupation from a mathematician to a Hollywood screenwriter also makes the arc of a man supposedly of mind to one of primal action not so much dramatic and chilling than inevitable). Bosworth is better, as is Alexander Skårsgard as her creepy old high school flame, but talented actors such as James Woods, Laz Alonso, and Dominic Purcell don't have much to work with in more thankless parts. Ultimately the film proper comes off like its poster: a copycat that superficially looks the same but lacks in inspiration.

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#644 September 9, 2011

In Brief

Contagion poster Contagion (PG-13) ***
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The dominant name in this thriller is not director Steven Soderbergh nor the multitude of award-winning and -nominated stars whose names litter the poster; it's that of Participant Media, whose apparent credo for their productions has always been with little exception (read: The Crazies) inform first, entertain later. And that certainly holds true to a degree for this film about a mysterious, deadly viral pandemic, which, while following a wide canvas of characters across the globe, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns seems more concerned with the mechanics involved when such a threat arises: not just how the infection (both of the disease and of paranoid gossip) spreads, but also how the various government agencies around the world react and enact a plan of action; that said agencies are given prominent thanks in the closing credits shows how well and credibly researched Burns's work is--and how dryly this material is in constant danger of playing. That it never does is a testament to Soderbergh and his impressive cast. He hits the ground running from frame one, as the events progress as rapidly and plainly as the contagion's outbreak, and he rather efficiently and surprisingly cuts narrative corners by skipping past obvious scenes, particularly of a melodramatic nature, that most films would not resist indulging (e.g., deathbed scenes for major characters). That would appear symptomatic of the clinical remove Soderbergh usually operates with (and is rather apropos here, given the subject matter), but the detachment actually creates an effective air of understatement when working in tandem with the contrasting warmth and commitment of his cast. It's a cliché, but the affecting work by the likes of Matt Damon, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Sanaa Lathan, and Kate Winslet indeed put a human face on the plague.

A Good Old Fashioned Orgy poster A Good Old Fashioned Orgy (R) ***
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Any comedy named A Good Old Fashioned Orgy could serve up the crudeness and raunch but not follow through with the actual title. So for their boldness in keeping their promise alone, writers-directors Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck deserve credit. But they deserve most of their credit for making a consistently funny comedy that goes beyond the mere prospect of the title event. As a group of longtime friends about to lose their weekend getaway home plan for their final hurrah a big bang, the lead-up and its expected individual dramas, insecurities supply a lot of witty and true character-driven laughs amid the group. The core unit may be populated by recognizable stock types (the party guy, the shy girl, the psychoanalyst, the nerd, the boorish one, etc.), but each are played with aplomb by the ensemble, which shares a great collective chemistry and sense of timing; a nice romantic rapport also develops between Jason Sudeikis (as the ringleader of the group) and Leslie Bibb (as the realtor trying to sell the house)--making for a film that is equally convincing at selling some heart as well as outrageous raunch.

Laugh at My Pain poster Laugh at My Pain (R) ***
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Thankfully, Laugh at My Pain lives up to only half of its title: it is certainly all about the laughs in the film document of Kevin Hart's latest best selling stand-up comedy tour act though upon first glance there looks to be some potential pain--in the form of padding. The routine itself lasts around an hour, the usual length of his previous popular TV/DVD specials, so Hart and director Leslie Small first bring the film closer to a standard feature length with an opening documentary segment that follows Hart on a cheeky trip to his native Philadelphia, where his visits to places such as his childhood home and old high school are interspersed with talking head interview bites with friends, family, and Hart himself on how he got his start. But what could be taken as fluffy filler only of interest to existing fans actually rather cannily informs the main material that follows; one sage bit of advice recounted in the introductory section was for his jokes to have some seed of truth, and Hart's routine proper shows that in action. While Hart's energy, timing, and delivery of course play a large part in generating the many laughs to be had once he takes the mic, the material connects all the more due to its basis in Hart's real life experiences--and, as suggested by the title, not always from the most pleasant of circumstances and situations, and the biggest, most biting laughs come from childhood recollections of the antics of his drug-addicted father. Less fluidly incorporated into the film to boost the run time is a closing scripted heist comedy short that, while featuring some choice moments and a memorable cameo turn by Taraji P. Henson (someone give her a comedy starring vehicle now!), is somewhat of a comedown from hilarious high Hart leaves from the live stage--but that high lingers long after the entire film has ended.

Shark Night 3D poster Shark Night 3D (PG-13) **
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With the director of Snakes on a Plane and the title Shark Night 3D (yes, "3D" is part of the actual on-screen title), one expects a major campfest--both intentionally and otherwise--so it's a bit of a shock how soberly director David R. Ellis plays most of this thriller. This isn't merely a tale of college co-eds on a remote vacation getaway that gets crashed by great whites on the bloodthirsty prowl; the film also deigns to make a statement on insta-fortune via shock online notoriety while serving up young bodies as shark bait. With a more capable-than-the-genre-norm cast led by Sara Paxton, Ellis is able to make this work better than it would sound, but then it still never completely works--for all the seriousness he treats the shark threat, never mind that the film is never scary, it also is never much fun, and the 3D, which would seem tailor-made for such material, is employed with restraint--not exactly something one wants when buying a ticket for something with the name Shark Night 3D. The only memorable and purely fun moment comes after the end credits, where a rather funny behind-the-scenes rap spoof video written and directed by co-star Dustin Milligan and performed by the entire cast is tacked on; the film proper could have used that sense of go-for-broke abandon.

Warrior poster Warrior (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Cynics can easily write off this mixed martial arts drama as a formula inspirational sports flick--but anyone who would so flippantly dismiss the film would reveal how little attention they paid to just how skillfully Gavin O'Connor constructs and executes this piece from top to bottom. It indeed all starts from the page, and he and co-writers Cliff Dorfman and Anthony Tambakis build a solid foundation of story and most especially character before any genre conventions come into play. At the film's core is a relatable and compelling trio: a family man/schoolteacher (Joel Edgerton) at the end of his financial rope; his estranged younger brother (Tom Hardy), a Marine who suddenly resurfaces in town under mysterious circumstances; and their father (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic barely hanging onto sobriety. The one thread that has always united, and will come to reunite, this frayed family unit is competitive fighting, and a big MMA tournament with a generous cash prize brings the promise of a new start for former fighter Edgerton and his family; the fulfillment of a promise Hardy made in the military; and redemption for the man who trained them from youth, Nolte. Familiar fight movie tropes are followed, from the training montages to the progression through various rounds to an inevitable climactic showdown, but the dramatic stakes that O'Connor lends the proceedings give them uncommon involvement and an even rarer sense of suspense: both believably, painfully flawed brothers have equally righteous motivations, so there is genuine rooting interest in both with no conveniently easy choice between them (and, to O'Connor's added credit, he doesn't cop out in deciding a winner). But O'Connor also delivers in terms of the visceral goods, with the numerous fight sequences being genuinely exciting cinematically (and coherently shot and edited!) and brutally authentic to the sport. Edgerton and Hardy commit body, soul, and heart to their work here, more than capably handling the intense physical demands along with the subtler emotional ones, and Nolte is uncharacteristically and effectively understated for most of the run time.

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