Movie DopeMovies

Movie Dope

• ACT OF VALOR (R) At times, Act of Valor betrays its humble origins as a military recruiting tool (think of the National Guard/Three Doors Down video for “Citizen Soldier†expanded to feature length), but at its high-octane best, this action experiment rivals its bigger-budgeted, star-laden competitors. What really sets Act of Valor apart from its action brethren is its non-professional acting troupe, an elite team of active duty Navy SEALs playing an elite team of Navy SEALs. Understanding the soldiers’ dramatic limitations, the movie tends to focus on the military tasks at which they excel, and it is rare for an action movie to feel as real. The plot feels like excised hours from one of Jack Bauer’s day-long terrorist battles on “24,†but separating the truth from the fiction becomes difficult once the fighting starts. What could have just been Call of Duty: Modern Warfare—The Movie exhibits technical prowess and a singular, successful gimmick that elevates the military flick above today’s stock action movie. Act of Valor cannot deliver the emotional payoff of The Hurt Locker, but it does not dishonor our fighting men and women.

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (PG) Herge’s Belgian globetrotter, Tintin, and Captain Haddock are in search of sunken ship in this MoCap’d CGI adventure. The directing of Steven Spielberg and producing of Peter Jackson (who has signed on to direct a sequel) is nearly as exciting as a script by Stephen Moffat (“Doctor Whoâ€), Edgar Wright and hot newcomer Joe Cornish, whose Attack the Block was one of my favorite surprises of 2011.

AELITA: THE QUEEN OF MARS (NR) 1924. This silent Russian film claims to be the first full-length feature about space travel. A Russian engineer builds a rocket and travels to Mars where he falls in love with the Martian queen. Yakov Protazanov directs this adaptation of a story by Aleksei Tolstoy, Leo’s distant kin. The screening will be introduced by Charles Byrd, a lecturer in the Russian, Germanic and Slavic studies department at UGA and is sponsored by GMOA and UGA Parents and Families.

ALBERT NOBBS (R) Glenn Close earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for her portrayal of a woman passing as a man to work and survive in 19th-century Ireland. The only thing holding her back might be her television veteran director, Rodrigo Garcia, who has some feature film experience, though his last film, Mother and Child, did not make much of a stir.

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED (G) Come on, Fox! If you’re going to keep releasing new Chipmunks entries each holiday season, the least you can do is make a Christmas-themed movie featuring the furry trio’s classic holiday tunes. Instead, Alvin, Simon, Theodore, the Chipettes and Dave (poor, paycheck-cashing Jason Lee) start out on a cruise ship and wind up on a deserted island. Judging by the boffo box office of the previous two features plus the young audience’s reaction to the new pic’s trailer, Chipwrecked should provide its studio with some holiday cheer.

AMERICAN TEACHER (NR) Filmmakers Vanessa Roth and Brian McGinn tackle the modern educational system and the 3.2 million teachers that keep it running by intercutting the lives of four teachers with interviews with policy experts. This film holds a particular professional interest for me and would make an intriguing companion piece to Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman, which was most certainly not very kind to the American teacher. The doc is based on a book cowritten by Dave Eggers and narrated by Matt Damon. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion.

THE ARTIST (PG-13) Films today do not come as precious or charming as Michel Hazanavicius’ Best Picture winner. A silent film that is all about talking, The Artist of title refers to matinee idol George Valentin (Academy Award winner Jean Dujardin, who absolutely must be a silent film star Hazanivicius recently thawed from ice), who finds it difficult to transition from silent films to talkies, unlike rising star Peppy Miller (Academy Award nominee Bérénice Bejo). But Miller has a crush on Valentin that predates her stardom and will do everything she can to help the despondent, one-time star. Like an unearthed gem, a long-lost silent relic, The Artist is at once wholly familiar yet completely foreign. Who knew a trifling eccentricity would wind up 2011’s most daring film?

CHRONICLE (PG-13) An out of nowhere genre success, Chronicle should find easy entry into the cult classic pantheon. Three high schoolers (Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and “Friday Night Lightsâ€â€™ Michael B. Jordan) stumble upon a mysterious cave and wind up with telekinetic powers. But, as Spider-Man teaches, “with great power comes great responsibility,†and not everyone can handle it. As the teenagers’ powers grow, one becomes increasingly dangerous. What seems to be heading toward Carrie horror territory winds up being more of a supervillain origin story, and it’s brilliant. Chronicle watches like a fantastic comic book miniseries (think something from the Millarverse), telling a fresh origin story via intelligent filmmaking tricks. First time feature director Josh Trank does some fun cinematic tricks with the overdone found footage gambit, and Max “Son of John†Landis provides a crackerjack script that never gets too clever with its high concept. Genre surprises, especially ones released in the dead of winter, are getting rarer. I can’t wait to see what Trank and Landis do for a follow-up.

CONTRABAND (R) How much cooler would this flick have been had it recounted the tale of Bill and Lance, two lonely, shirtless soldiers blasting their way to the Alien’s lair to the sounds of Cinemechanica? Much, much cooler. Alas, Contraband is merely a standard, occasionally thrilling heist flick starring the “always reliable for this sort of action” Mark Wahlberg. As Chris Farraday, a former master smuggler gone legit, Wahlberg calmly muscles his way from New Orleans to Panama in order to get his brother-in-law (X-Men: First Class’s Caleb Landry Jones) out of trouble with a small time crook (Giovanni Ribisi). If Chris fails, his pretty wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two little boys may pay the price. Director Baltasar Kormakur knows the territory; he should, seeing as he starred in the Icelandic original, Reykjavik-Rotterdam. The pace of this smuggling master class rarely flags, but the plot’s machinations are fueled by too much stupidity for good escapist fun. Frankly, these people are too depressing to be much fun. I still like Ben Foster, who excels as Chris’ best bud; here’s hoping he doesn’t get stuck as Jason Statham or Marky Mark’s action sidekick.

DEATH BY ALCOHOL: THE SAM SPADY STORY (NR) This documentary sheds light on the dangers of alcohol poisoning, a topic about which every young college student should be aware. Nineteen-year-old Samantha Spady was a popular student at Colorado State University whose life was cut tragically short on Sept. 5, 2004, due to alcohol poisoning from too many shots of vanilla vodka. The film and subsequent discussion with a panel that includes UGA head football coach Mark Richt can prevent other young people from repeating Sam’s fatal mistake.

THE DESCENDANTS (R) Is The Descendants the best film of last year? If not, the bittersweet dramedy starring Academy Award nominee George Clooney is among the top two or three. Filmmaker Alexander Payne sure took his time following up his 2004 Oscar winning smash, but the delay was worth it. After a tragic accident leaves his wife in a coma, lawyer and owner of the last parcel of virgin land in Hawaii, Matt King (Clooney), struggles to raise his two daughters, come to peace with revelations about his dying wife and decide what to do with his important land. Clooney is this generation’s Paul Newman, a cool cat who can pull off anything he’s asked to do on screen. Here, in his tucked-in Hawaiian shirts, he epitomizes the suburban dad. Still, he drops comic gems and dramatic bombs with ease, often punctuated by his terrific reaction shots, Payne again proves himself a master of tone, perfectly balancing the humor of an incredibly bleak, emotionally complex situation.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (PG-13) Now when you first read/hear a description of Diving Bell, your initial inclination will be to stay far, far away from it, but director Julian Schnabel has made two hours trapped in someone else’s paralyzed body heartbreakingly painless. Most of Diving Bell is narrated from the perspective of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle who wrote his memoir by blinking his left eye, the only body part left unparalyzed by a stroke. Schnabel employs overused stylistic flourishes: POV, voiceover and subjective sound–to transcend the pedestrian sentimentality associated with inspirational true stories about physically challenged protagonists who accomplish some phenomenal task you and I would take for granted.

DR. SEUSS’ THE LORAX (PG) To win the affections of the girl of his dreams, a young boy must seek the story of the world’s grumpy, charming protector, the Lorax. The voice cast is high-profile (Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, Betty White and Ed Helms), and judging from the trailers, Danny DeVito is the perfect Lorax. The Lorax’s filmmakers knocked it out of the park with their previous animated feature, Despicable Me. Is it safe to assume they can do the same with Seuss?

THE EDUCATION OF SHELBY KNOX—SEX, LIES AND EDUCATION (NR) 2005. A teenager growing up in a conservative small town fights for sex education and gay rights. Shelby Knox transforms from a 15-year-old Southern Baptist to a liberal crusader in her hometown of Lubbock, Texas. This screening is part of the Women’s History Month Film Festival sponsored by the Institute for Women’s Studies at UGA.

GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE (PG-13) Marvel’s Neveldine/Taylor experiment might have gone better had the company had the guts to release another R-rated flick a la their two Punisher flops. The Crank duo brings their frenetic, non-stop visual style, but those wicked paeans to hedonism had a narrative need to never slow down (its lead character would die). Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance must pump the brakes occasionally to let the “story†catch up, and Neveldine/Taylor never seem as comfortable when the movie’s not rocketing along at 100 miles an hour. They also don’t keep a tight enough rein on their star; Nic Cage is allowed to unleash every one of his worst acting instincts as Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, tasked with saving a young boy from the Devil (Ciaran Hinds). A handful of my favorite actors (Hinds, Idris Elba, Anthony Head) cannot save this merrily daft movie. Not even the Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert, who makes the most of his pitifully small screen time, is a match for the movie’s voracious, unhinged lead. Nonetheless, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a step up from its tremendously awful predecessor (Neveldine/Taylor > Mark Steven Johnson).

• GOOD DEEDS (PG-13) Good Deeds is another average melodrama from the entertainment juggernaut that is Atlanta’s Tyler Perry. Perry stars as Wesley Deeds, the uptight CEO of a software company who befriends a struggling widowed mother, Lindsey Wakefield (Thandie Newton), on the virtual eve of his wedding. Naturally, his relationship with Lindsey and her cute daughter, Ariel, awaken the spark of life that’s been lying dormant in Deeds for the bulk of his adult life, a course charted by his domineering mother (Phylicia Rashad). Perry has two tonal modes: the headspinning comic/dramatic combo of his Madea movies and the grindingly humorless melodrama of his non-Madea flicks. (Why Did I Get Married? remains his best movie, as it retained a sense of humor and drama without Perry donning a dress.) Good Deeds is planted squarely in the latter camp. Lighter moments are so hard to come by you will yearn for Madea to drop in to say “hur-lo.†Supporting characters, such as Wesley’s fiancee, Natalie (Gabrielle Union), and his brother, Walter (Brian White), are infuriatingly one-dimensional. Good Deeds is duller than most of the 11 movies directed by Perry since 2006 (!); it’s also superior to the bulk of them.

• GONE (PG-13) Gone, a serial killer thriller starring large-eyed beauty Amanda Seyfried, is not even bad enough to be fun. Seyfried stars as Jill Conway, who was abducted and placed in a hole in the woods surrounding Portland, Oregon. (Note: Portland’s tourism bureau needs to step it up; television, books and movies imply the city is ground zero for serial killing.) Somehow, she escapes, but a year later, her sister, Molly, disappears. Jill suspects her abductor is behind her sister’s disappearance, but the cops (including cold-eyed Wes Bentley, who just screams red herring at this point in his career) don’t believe her, due to her stint in a mental hospital following her alleged abduction. Don’t be fooled by my description; it’s much more entertaining than the actual movie. Seyfried is not strong enough to support a weak movie with nary another star; “Dexterâ€â€™s Jennifer Carpenter doesn’t count (her role serves virtually no narrative point), though it is exciting to see Nick Searcy of “Justified†pop by for a scene. Were only Gone as awfully satisfying as the Al Pacino stinker, 88 Minutes. Now that flick teaches a master’s course in how to make bad serial killer chillers.

THE GREY (R) February is ending; it must be time for another Liam Neeson actioner. The formerly acclaimed actor has almost completed his transformation into an English Denzel Washington, whose filmography is filling up with inconsequential paychecks jobs. At least Joe Carnahan (Narc, The A-Team) is writing and directing this tale of an Alaskan drilling team struggling to defeat a pack of wolves hunting them after their plane crashes in the wilderness. With Dermot Mulroney and James Badge Dale (“The Pacificâ€).

HUGO (PG) Oh, to be an orphan living in an early-20th-century clock! Despite its near perfection, this 3D family film—Martin Scorsese’s first—may be the loveliest wide release to struggle to find its audience this year. Yet it’s no wonder Scorsese, himself a film historian as well as a film lover, decided to adapt Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, whose central mystery revolves around an early cinematic master. Parisian orphan Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who lives inside the clocktower of the train station, seeks the answer to a mysterious automaton, left unsolved by his late father and clockmaker (Jude Law), with the help of a toymaker named Georges (Ben Kingsley) and his charge, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Knowledgeable cinephiles will be enthralled by Selznick’s story, wonderfully adapted by Oscar-nominated scribe John Logan, which I refuse to spoil, and enchanted by the legendary filmmaker’s gorgeous imagery, which conjures memories of Amelie and was awarded with Oscars for cinematography, visual effects and more.

JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (PG) Journey 2: The Mysterious Island’s biggest problem might be time. Many of the young people who enjoyed its 2008 forebear, Journey to the Center of the Earth, might have outgrown the Brendan Fraser/Dwayne “The Rock†Johnson brand of family adventure movie. Sean (Josh Hutcherson, soon to be Peeta in The Hunger Games) and his future stepdad, Hank (the always appealing Johnson), travel to the mysterious island to find Sean’s granddad (Michael Caine). Along for the ride are a goofy helicopter pilot (Luis Guzman, being as Guzman-y as ever) and his gorgeous daughter (Vanessa Hudgens). The island’s giant, 3D-tastic flora and fauna make for a movie that’s fun to look at for an hour and a half, especially on the big screen, but does not create the sort of lasting impression needed to survive in today’s oversaturated entertainment market.

PROJECT X (R) The Hangover director Todd Phillips is in producer mode for this look into youth today. Three high school seniors document their name-making party as it goes off the track. Director Nima Nourizadeh makes the leap from commercials to features. I genuinely hope this flick is better than 2010’s repellant The Virginity Hit. The cast of mostly unknowns and newcomers includes Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole), Thomas Mann (It’s Kind of a Funny Story), Oliver Cooper and Jonathan Daniel Brown.

SAFE HOUSE (R) For Safe House’s target fans of Denzel Washington, whizzing bullets and car chases, the action flick is critically bulletproof; for me, it was competently boring. Former CIA operative turned rogue asset, Tobin Frost (Washington), goes on the run with green agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, in the thankless role anyone could have filled) hot on his heels. Washington remains the laziest talent in Hollywood. What draws him to waste his chops on these action-filled scripts with such obvious plot trajectories? You can tell which CIA bigwig (the suspects being Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson) Weston shouldn’t trust from the trailers, and try as they might to imply otherwise, one can easily presume Washington’s Frost hasn’t gone rogue for sheer psychopathic thrills or mere greed. The predictable action is delivered with the workmanlike craftsmanship (quick edits, handheld camerawork, etc.) one expects from a production that is clearly influenced by Washington’s work with Tony Scott, but lacks his more artful eye. Safe House should make enough money to keep Washington’s rep as a box office draw undiminished, but won’t make much of an impression in his increasingly inconsequential filmography.

THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY (G) In an era when most animated features are brash, loud commercials for action figures with fast food tie-ins, Studio Ghibli releases a quiet, thoughtful, humorous cartoon adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. A young boy, Shawn (v. David Henrie), is sent to recuperate in the solitude of his aunt’s home. There he meets a tiny family of “Borrowersâ€â€”father Pod (v. Will Arnett, who does surprisingly well in a non-comedic role), mother Homily (v. Amy Poehler) and Arrietty (v. Bridgit Mendler)—and protects them from the nosy housekeeper, Hara (v. Carol Burnett). How refreshing it was to hear the few children in the theater laugh at an animated film that did not feature jokes about bodily functions, silly voices (I’m looking at you, Mater) or cute, talking animals! The Secret World of Arrietty may not have been directed by Hayao Miyazaki (he is credited as writer and executive producer), yet it retains the creative and artistic hallmarks of his greatest works. The attention to detail paid to Arrietty’s miniature world simply stuns. The ill-chosen musical interludes are the film’s single misstep.

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (PG-13) Much like its 2009 predecessor, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a perfectly forgettable crowdpleaser. Robert Downey, Jr. revisits his hyper-bordering-on-manic, streetfighting master sleuth, this time tasked with defeating his literary arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (the appropriate Jared Harris of AMC’s “Mad Menâ€). Assisted as always by Dr. John Watson (Jude Law, again a game companion to Downey), Holmes is also joined by his brother, Mycroft (Stephen Fry), Watson’s new wife (Kelly Reilly) and a gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace, best known as the original Lisbeth Salander). Director Guy Ritchie coats everything in his usual super-stylish action sheen, lending the movie a surfeit of style, minus that pesky substance that might give the flick the little literary weight that could make this a classic reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation. No ticket buyers should leave disappointed, unless they expect an entertainment satiation more enduring than the original.

THE SITTER (R) Jonah Hill’s Noah Griffith is a lot nicer of a dude than he or the trailer let on, and that likability saves the movie from descending into the Danny McBride-ian depths of comic self-loathing and asshole-ishness. Tasked with babysitting three miserable kids—anxiety-ridden Slater (Max Records of Where the Wild Things Are), makeup-drenched, celeb-worshipper Blithe (Landry Bender) and Salvadoran foster kid Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez)—this irresponsible slacker goes on a big-city adventure just to get laid. Director David Gordon Green, Hill, the kids and the rock-solid Sam Rockwell, keep the concept and gags, most of which expired in 1990, fresh for the flick’s 80 brief minutes, while the quirky references (Gymkata, Alyssa Milano’s workout video, etc.) and sweet electronic score evoke the ’80s action vibe that The Sitter’s target audience grew up on. Still, Green needs to make another critical darling before he blows through his entire stash of goodwill.

STAR WARS: EPISODE I—THE PHANTOM MENACE 3D (PG) At nearly 13 years old, George Lucas’ return to that galaxy far, far away has not gotten better with age. Adding more dimensions has not helped either. The bad far outweighs the good as the prequels begin amid a trade dispute between the greedy Trade Federation and the tiny planet of Naboo. I dozed off just typing that synopsis. Enter Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). The film starts slowly, introducing new characters like the hated Jar Jar Binks and the misguided Padme (Natalie Portman). The only new creation to spark any interest, the horned, red-faced Darth Maul, is wasted. The sharp instincts that helped Lucas create this fantastical universe have grown fat and lazy from hero worship and disuse (Episode I is his first feature directing credit since the 1977 original). The 3D post-conversion is barely noticeable. Skip Episodes I and II, and wait two to three years for the good films in the series to be released. It’s time fanboys stopped playing apologists. Outside of visual effects (which already look dated) and sound (at which the Star Wars films always excel), The Phantom Menace is just not a very good movie.

THIS MEANS WAR (PG-13) They might as well have ponied up for the “Spy vs. Spy†license and made a truly misguided adaptation of the old “Mad†comic strip. Two of the CIA’s top agents/besties, FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy), wind up dating the same girl, Lauren Scott (Reese Witherspoon). You know the drill. FDR and Tuck’s friendship is tested, as both fall for Lauren, but it’s more important that the player of the duo falls in love than the already sensitive one with a kid. Poorly edited early on—not much makes sense in what should be a pretty straightforward first act—This Means War never really finds a groove. This action romcom hybrid has a few fleeting moments, thanks to the bromantic chemistry between beefcake stars Pine and Hardy. Unfortunately, neither man shares that same spark with third lead, Witherspoon. Director McG, whose career hasn’t really gone anywhere since the first Charlie’s Angels (his entry in the Terminator franchise has blissfully been forgotten), gets the unnecessary action right; the required rom and com could use some work. This Means War would be an early pick for worst of 2012, but no one will remember it come year’s end.

THE VOW (PG-13) Nicholas Sparks has to be kicking himself for not coming up with this plot first. A young couple, Paige and Leo Collins (Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum), struggle to fall in love again after a car accident erases all of Paige’s memories of Leo and their marriage. As these plots are wont to do, Paige’s rich parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) and her ex-lover (Scott Speedman) use her tabula rasa to rewrite their past wrongs, while Leo must cope with the realization that his wife might never remember him. The Vow climbs out of the romantic drama pits mostly due to its two charming leads, McAdams and Tatum, who must overcome some spotty dialogue, obvious plot developments and weak supporting players (not a lot of recognizable faces outside of those five already mentioned). Director Michael Sucsy, who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Grey Gardens, transitions to the big screen with surprising success considering the tear-soaked tissue of a true story with which he had to work. The Vow won’t make romance fans forget The Notebook, but it is better than most of the fake (and genuine) Sparks Hollywood’s been peddling.

• WANDERLUST (R) Easily 2012’s funniest movie to date, Wanderlust smartly plays to its stars’ comedic strengths. George and Linda (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) must trade New York City for Georgia after George loses his job in high finance, but working for his douchebag brother, expertly played by cowriter Ken Marino (if you don’t know him, you should), is not the solution. Having mistakenly wound up on an “intentional community†their first night in the state, George and Linda choose to become permanent residents of Elysium. But Linda takes more to the company, especially that of lead hippie Seth (Justin Theroux), than George does. Wanderlust may not be groundbreaking comedy, but its riff-filled script, written by Marino and director David Wain, two alums of MTV’s much beloved “The State,†perfectly matches its assembled comedic ensemble. Much like Elysium itself, this comedy succeeds based on the very funny actors (Rudd, Aniston and Theroux are assisted by Alan Alda, Malin Ackerman, Kathryn Hahn, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Lauren Ambrose, the Stella trio and more) that populate it. Beware; this R-rated gem from Apatow Productions has a deliciously dirty mouth and a great deal of penises, all in the name of good, not-so-clean fun, of course.

WE BOUGHT A ZOO (PG) This movie just generates some odd feelings. A movie directed by Cameron Crowe and starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Thomas Haden Church sounds like a serious winner, but then there’s the title. A dad (Damon) moves his family to Southern California to renovate a struggling zoo. The Devil Wears Prada scripter Aline Brosh McKenna and Crowe relocate Benjamin Mee’s memoir from England to SoCal. Some say a similar move didn’t affect High Fidelity; I’m not one of those folks.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (PG-13) Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, returns to the big screen for his first role since the epic story of the famed Boy Who Lived ended. Sporting tremendously manicured sideburns (the tiny fellow resembles a young Wolverine), Radcliffe stars as lawyer Arthur Kipps, a widower struggling to raise his young son. To save his job, Kipps must travel to a small, isolated village and tidy up the affairs at an abandoned old house. Like something out of Lovecraft, the locals aren’t very welcoming to this strange newcomer. Director James Watkins chills his old-fashioned ‘aunted ‘ouse with creepy dolls, dead children and the titular black-clad woman. February horror films typically don’t have as many successful scares as this film contains in its nearly dialogue-free middle act. Due to smart hiring (Watkins, whose Eden Lake deserves a wider audience) and casting (Radcliffe works hard to prove he can be more than just Harry; Ciaran Hinds is always welcome), England’s hallowed Hammer Films proves they’ve still got it after all these years.