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Mongol among capsule film reviews

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MONGOL It wouldn't exactly be accurate to tag this historical drama I Was a Teenage Conqueror, but this Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film (Kazakhstan's first nod in that category) spends next to no time on the Genghis Khan who would become legendary for invading and occupying much of Asia during the first quarter of the 13th century. Instead, Mongol is reminiscent of movies like Young Mr. Lincoln, The Motorcycle Diaries, Young Winston, and, uh, Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd in that they all focus on the early years that helped shape and define their protagonists. In this case, we witness the brutal conditions which Temudjin (his real name) had to endure as he fought his way to his lofty place in the world. After his father is poisoned, 9-year-old Temudjin (played as a child by Odnyam Odsuren and later as an adult by Tadanobu Asano) finds much of the next two decades spent either chased, caged or forced into slave labor by ruthless Mongolians. He receives help along the way from strangers who soon become friends (and, in one instance, who then becomes a sworn enemy), but he draws most of his strength from his wife Borte (Khulan Chuluun), with whom he's shared a special bond ever since they first met as children. It goes without saying that Asano makes a more credible Genghis Khan than John Wayne, who essayed the role in 1956's The Conqueror (yes, unbelievable, but look it up). Yet the real star here is director and co-writer Sergei Bodrov, who largely turns his back on CGI effects and creates stirring battle scenes the old-fashioned way, by orchestrating actors and animals across open landscapes. Somewhere, David Lean is smiling.  ***

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THE FOOT FIST WAY Certainly, we here at CL want to promote and celebrate regional filmmaking whenever possible, but not at the expense of credibility. To be sure, somebody appreciated this low-budget comedy co-written by buddies Jody Hill (who also directed), Danny McBride and Ben Best (all products of the North Carolina School of the Arts), and that somebody would be Will Ferrell, who loved this film so much that his production company picked it up and he was able to secure a limited national release for it. The star's interest is hardly surprising, since The Foot Fist Way basically plays like a Will Ferrell vehicle without Will Ferrell. Here, the central man-child is Fred Simmons (McBride), a doltish Tae Kwon Do instructor who runs his own martial arts school in a Concord, N.C., strip mall. Fred is married to a slatternly wife (Mary Jane Bostic) prone to copying her bare boobs and butt on the office Xerox machine (and who gets off the script's funniest line: "I was really drunk; like Myrtle Beach drunk"), and his misplaced self-esteem crumbles after she admits to giving her boss a hand job. Fred takes his aggression out on his students (most of whom are kids), and even his moment of triumph – getting a Tae Kwon Do champ-turned-B-movie-actor (Best) to visit his school – ends badly. Audience members satisfied with a comedy that offers a handful of ever-so-mild smiles will enjoy this, but anyone on the prowl for sharp satire or even a belly laugh or two will be sorely disappointed by a film whose smugness is never justified by its frat-house humor. *1/2

THE HAPPENING The Happening starts off well before steadily traipsing downhill, and in that respect, it perfectly mirrors writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's career in this spooky vein. The Sixth Sense may have been a smash, but each subsequent film was less satisfying than the one which preceded it, leading all the way to his disastrous last film, Lady In the Water. The Happening at least represents a step up from that debacle. Opening in NYC, the first scenes show countless people suddenly become zombie-like before proceeding to take their own lives. It's soon revealed that this phenomenon is spreading to all major cities throughout the northeast chamber of the country; this includes Philadelphia, where a high school science teacher (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) elect to leave town before the plague hits. Or is it a plague? No one has a definitive answer, and for a while, Shyamalan steadfastly refuses to give us any hints. It's during these early passages, when we're as baffled as the characters, that the film is at its strongest. But the self-appointed master of the last-minute twist here elects to reveal the mystery somewhere around the halfway mark. It's such a threadbare revelation – and a rather silly one, to boot – that the movie then ambles forward with nothing else left to say. As for Shyamalan's usual on-screen appearance, it proves to be the most clever aspect of the movie. I don't dare ruin the surprise, but if you don't figure it out while watching the flick, be sure to carefully check the cast list in the end credits. Unfortunately, when a movie's best bit arrives during the closing credits, we're all in trouble. **

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