The Movie Report
October 2011

#646 - 647
October 7, 2011 - October 21, 2011

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

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#647 October 21, 2011 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Footloose poster Footloose (PG-13) ***
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Remaking Footloose is a dicey proposition, and that's not just because the 1984 film is such a beloved multimedia pop culture phenomenon but also that even its most ardent fans would concede it's as inseparably associated with '80s kitsch as it is with star Kevin Bacon. However, from the opening sequence it's clear director Craig Brewer has figured out a way for his film to be the best of all worlds. Not only does he convincingly transplant Dean Pitchford's original story and concept to a contemporary context while being respectfully faithful to the original film, as well as streamlining certain narrative elements and beefing up characterizations in a most respectful and unobtrusive way, he also finds ways to pay fun, affectionately cheeky--but never campy--homage to indelible signposts of the original: scenes, lines, and of course the music and '80s era itself. Close-ups of dancing feet move to the original Kenny Loggins theme song indeed accompany the opening credits (in the same font!), but Brewer, in an inspired bit of narrative economy, puts those feet in the practical dramatic context of a raucous teen party--which leads to the tragedy that leads the small town of Bomont to outlaw public dancing by minors. Showing the tragedy on screen in this version amps up the drama and reality in Brewer's take, which has that specific, authentic air of its Deep South milieu much like in his previous films. The sense of grit and groundedness is perhaps his biggest departure, for the community and the relationships--be it between fresh-in-town city transplant Ren (Kenny Wormald) and rebellious preacher's kid Ariel (Julianne Hough), Ariel's with her dad (Dennis Quaid), or Ren and Ariel's with their respective best friends Willard (Miles Teller) and Rusty (Ziah Colon)--here ring more raw and real, in laughs and pain.

That said, Brewer, while bolstering the drama, still has plenty of fun, after all, this is a music-driven film about an outsider fighting an anti-dancing law, and there a number of memorable sequences that do pay close homage to the original (hello, Angry Dance!) but are given their own unique personality by the fresh choreography and spirited performers. Wormald and Hough both come primarily from the dance world, so needless to say their hoofing is on point, but they prove to be capable and effortlessly likable actors as well. Of the pair, Hough is the clear standout, and not just because she has the fortune to not have to follow up a rather iconic performance. Brewer has significantly added more edge and heft to Ariel, and Hough, in a rather revelatory turn, proves she can act with the stars every bit as well as she can dance with them, holding her dramatic own against the veteran likes of Quaid and Andie MacDowell (as her mother). But all the young actors--her, Wormald, Colon, and the scene-stealing Teller--make striking impressions, and I can easily imagine this Footloose being looked back on down the road as the film that launched these names much like how the '84 film is reflected on in terms of Bacon.

Paranormal Activity 3 poster Paranormal Activity 3 (R) ***
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Going into its third installment, the Paranormal Activity series has a pretty basic structure set up, one this latest film doesn't stray from: the faux videotaped "found footage" format; odd noises and happenings in the home leading to round-the-clock surveillance taping, lots of often fast-forwarded footage of sleeping, labeled "Night #1," et al.; said noises and happenings leading to more violently physical manifestations, etc. After the second film followed the untold prequel story of Katie's (Katie Featherston, back again for only a quick cameo) younger sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden, also only cameoing this time), this film goes back further in time to when Katie and Kristi were little girls, living with their mom (Lauren Bittner) and stepdad (Chris Smith). The time frame is different (and directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have a keen eye for 1980s minutiae, from the fashions to a prominently featured Teddy Ruxpin), but the stream of events stemming from Kristi's imaginary friend "Toby" do follow that expected pattern. They also expectedly, thankfully so, deliver the clean, simple jolts and scares the series is known for--even if, per the unwritten sequel proviso, the climax is a bit more "big" and elaborate while keeping any effects strictly, refreshingly low-tech. The film does exactly what it's supposed to do, but there's reason for concern for the inevitable fourth film (and based on how this film plays to a crowd, there is certain to be one same time next year) and beyond, for by this film's end all the prequelling/retconning is making for an increasingly convoluted backstory mythology that is coming dangerously close to unwieldy late-Saw sequel levels. But for now, though, the simple stimulus-response thrills are still there, and enjoy them before they become overwhelmed by "clever" overplotting.

The Skin I Live In poster The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) (R) **
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Leave it to Pedro Almodóvar to figure a uniquely twisted way to unsettle with what is essentially his take on a horror thriller. Antonio Banderas, reteaming with the director after many years, oozes suave, cool menace as a doctor who has come up with a revolutionary new artificial skin that he's been testing on a patient (Elena Anaya) he's locked away in the basement of his remote estate. The mystery of the test subject is one that jolts beyond a mere gotcha revelation; not only does each answer pose an intriguing new set of questions, they also find new, unforeseen ways to burrow further under the (bad pun intended) skin and disturb. Banderas hasn't had such interesting material to work with in a while, and delving into the dark side suits him well; and the complex layers and scope of Anaya's equally strong performance only become clear, much like her character, as the film goes along. The trademark Almodóvar kinkiness here is certainly what most will talk about on the way out, but the real reason why they'll be talking is the skill and craft with which he deploys those kinks in an effective genre thriller context.

The Thing poster The Thing (R) ** 1/2
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One must give director Matthijs van Heijningen and the makers of the 2011 The Thing credit for their cleverness in finding a way to remake John Carpenter's 1982 creature feature without "officially" doing so. Technically a prequel that tells the untold tale of the devastated Norwegian camp discovered in by Kurt Russell and company back way back when, the approach gives the filmmakers license to retrace the story beats--alien savagely kills and mimics human hosts; distrust and paranoia spread within an isolated group in a snowy locale once they figure out what they are dealing with--without that "remake" stigma. And, van Heijningen have crafted a clearly affectionate and, perhaps more importantly, consistent homage to Carpenter's film, keeping things in line with 1982 without pushing the period too hard (an early gratuitous use of Men at Work's "Who Can It Be Now?" notwithstanding) and any digital advancements largely used to duplicate the memorably gruesome "rip from within" FX from the earlier film. But if this take is perfectly passable, from the gore to the atmosphere to the performances (the leads here are Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton, neither playing Norwegians), it also is distinctly forgettable, with even an amped-up climax ironically making it more cookie cutter contemporary creature feature.

#646 October 7, 2011 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

50/50 poster 50/50 (R)
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50/50 takes its title from the survival odds given to its young protagonist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) when he's diagnosed with a rare form of cancer; it also rather well-describes the balancing act that writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine achieve. The film is hardly the stern, lachrymose drama the premise implies, but one that balances the seriousness of its central issue with laughs not only from the designated Wisecracking Best Friend (here, Seth Rogen) but also a sharply observant wit. By not beating one over the head with the potential tragedy of the situation, when sentimentality does take over, the tears are earned, no small thanks to the touching performances given by Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick (as his psychotherapist); the supporting work by Rogen, Bryce Dallas Howard (continuing a shrewish streak from The Help), and Anjelica Huston also add to the distinctive flavor of what couldve been another Disease of the Week piece.

Margaret poster Margaret (R) **
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Never has a troubled film project's off-screen drama played out so clearly in the release product as it does in Kenneth Lonergan's long-delayed follow-up to his much-lauded 2000 debut You Can Count on Me, shot in 2005 but only now reaching cinemas after years of battles both in the editing room and on the legal front. Reports say that Lonergan struggled to find his film in the editing room, and the version seeing the light of day, clocking in at 149 minutes and bearing a 2008 copyright, indeed plays very much like a work-in-progress whose individual pieces have yet to be focused and formed into a cohesive whole--which is all the more frustrating when so many of those parts can be so good in isolation. The one unifying element that does come through is Anna Paquin's rather go-for-broke performance as Lisa, a spoiled, bratty New York high schooler (which shows just how long this film languished in limbo) whose life and world views upended when she partially causes a fatal bus accident. If that sounds like a typical set-up, Lonergan's follow-through is far from it, for instead of going through typical paces of Lisa softening and wising up, she acts and lashes out even more violently, stubbornly, selfishly than ever before. This doesn't make for too likable, if at all, a lead character, but she certainly is a fascinating one, and Paquin rather bravely doesn't soften Lisa's rough edges at all while still conveying a sense of the psychological pain and confusion--not only due to the accident but of simple immature adolescence--that informs her every word and action.

If only Lonergan were wise to zero in on Lisa in the editing room, however, for he rather ambitiously and wrongheadedly uses her situation as a springboard to other subplots and peripheral characters whose barely-there payoffs ultimately to not be worth the time and effort spent (such as Lisa's stage actress mother's new romance) or, even worse, are simply suddenly, completely abandoned before ever getting a chance to even reach a dead end. This is all the more frustrating when, perhaps owing to his playwright roots, Lonergan has crafted many terrific isolated scenes whose crackling dialogue organically build to memorably charged (whether dramatically or comedically, sometimes both) climaxes, but often said scenes, as good as they are on their own, exist in a vacuum divorced from the bigger picture (case in a point, a highly amusing but completely tangential classroom debate between a student and a teacher). And the cast--in addition to Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron (as the mom), Mark Ruffalo, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Broderick (as said teacher) and a very young looking Matt Damon--all bring their A-game to a script that reads well from line to line and scene by scene but hardly hangs together as a whole. The abstract title--taken from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "Spring and Fall", obliquely related to the film's themes, read by Broderick in one scene; there is no character here named "Margaret"--pretty much sums up how pretentious and ultimately unfocused this work is.

Take Shelter poster Take Shelter (R) *** 1/2
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Michael Shannon has carved out a bit of a screen niche as a crazy guy, and his role here does indeed qualify as such a character: a man whose visions of an impending apocalypse not only gradually unravels his sanity but the lives of all those around him, most especially his wife (Jessica Chastain, continuing her virtuoso banner year in another different, distinctive role) and their young hearing-impaired daughter. Writer-director Jeff Nichols's film requires patience, for its ominous tension builds slowly but steadily, but keeping the proceedings absorbing are the rather impressive effects work for the visions (especially for a no-budget indie) and, above all else, the riveting performances by Chastain and especially Shannon, which turn what on paper is a fairly simple climax into quite the emotional wallop.

What's Your Number? poster What's Your Number? (R) ** 1/2
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Anna Faris is such a fearless comic live wire that the idea of channelling that spontaneous energy into the context of a romantic comedy appears to be what a notoriously formulaic genre needs for an injection of freshness. But while Faris is her usual, lovably offbeat self, she ultimately fights a losing battle against formula as a young woman who tracks down her 19 ex-lovers, believing she has already passed up The One, with the investigative help of her slacker lothario neighbor (Chris Evans). It's highly obvious where this is going, and while Faris and Evans do have chemistry, she never gets a real chance to cut loose in the hilarious way one knows too well that she can; she more or less is simply called on to go through rom-com heroine paces, which she dutifully hits well enough but is a waste of the unique skill and personality she brings to the screen.


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