Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Feb. 15 | Film Clips | Creative Loafing Charlotte

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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Feb. 15

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THE GREY After presenting Mexico City as the ultimate hellhole on Earth, Tony Scott's 2004 Man on Fire ended with a credit stating that the city was actually "a very special place." Sydney Pollack's 1993 The Firm assures us that Cayman Island officials look down on the sort of money laundering occurring in the film. And best of all, Irwin Allen's 1978 The Swarm gave a shout-out to our buzzing buddies by adding a credit which noted that "the African killer bee portrayed in this film bears absolutely no relationship to the industrious, hard-working American honey bee to which we are indebted for pollinating vital crops that feed our nation." Unfortunately, no PSA announcement accompanies The Grey, which presents the often misunderstood wolf in such a vicious and uncompromising light that I expect Sarah Palin will see this film at least a dozen times. Of course, all two- and four-legged creatures are fair game when it comes to presenting them as movie villains — even bunny rabbits and a slobbery St. Bernard had to play the heavies in Night of the Lepus and Cujo, respectively — and the wolves on display here are indeed intimidating. Granted, they often look like animatronic animals on steroids, but they certainly put the fear of God in the human protagonists. The prey in The Grey is a group of oil-rig workers whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilds. The no-nonsense Ottway (Liam Neeson), whom we first meet as he's sticking his gun in his own mouth (a wolf's howl distracts him from pulling the trigger), appoints himself leader and attempts to lead the other six survivors out of the wilderness — no small task given not only the punishing elements but also the savage wolf pack that's picking them off one by one. To its credit, The Grey tries to add a little substance to its terror-tale premise, but Ottway's soft-gaze flashbacks to his long-gone wife and the religious chats among the men (complete with a scene where Ottway yells at the heavens above) only skim the surface of any true existential analysis. And while there are a couple of good sequences focused on the brutal landscape, the man-on-wolf action is both fleeting and feeble — anemic enough that even Twilight haters might join Team Jacob rather than watch this shaggy undertaking. **

HAYWIRE Appeasing everyone from your grandmother to your little sister, director Steven Soderbergh has populated Haywire with hunks of every age, starting with 67-year-old Michael Douglas and running through 51-year-old Antonio Banderas, 40-year-old Ewan McGregor, 34-year-old Michael Fassbender and 31-year-old Channing Tatum before bottoming out with 24-year-old Michael Angarano. I suppose we should thank scripter Lem Dobbs for not fashioning a role for 19-year-old Taylor Lautner to complete the spectrum. Despite that dreamboat-heavy cast, this isn't a big-screen episode of Spartacus or a sequel to Gladiator, although its leading player is best known for TV's American Gladiators. That would be Gina Carano, the mixed martial arts fighter who made her mark in the arena usually under the moniker "Crush." As he did with Kentucky Fried Chicken manager Debbie Doebereiner in Bubble and porn star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh has again taken someone who hails from outside the realm of mainstream Hollywood and built a movie around her. In Carano's case, the limitations of the film aren't her fault: Admittedly, her emoting borders on the wooden side, but she does have charisma and a natural screen presence, neither of which should ever be underestimated. The plot of Haywire is nothing special: A government operative who has just successfully completed a mission gets betrayed by one (or more) of her colleagues and finds herself on the run. Carano displays some deft moves, Soderbergh directs in a cooly detached style (it's like A Dangerous Method for action junkies), and poor Channing Tatum is humbled as he emerges as the only one who's outacted by the MMA screen newbie. **1/2

HUGO Movie mavens startled by the fact that Martin Scorsese has elected to direct a family film when he's exalted for his string of hardcore crime flicks clearly know little about either the man or his achievements. Scorsese has hopscotched between genres far more often than he's given credit for — the costume drama The Age of Innocence, the religious epic The Last Temptation of Christ and the black comedy After Hours represent just a sampling — and when he's not helming motion pictures, he's often championing the cause of film preservation. Scorsese has always been a student of film as much as a teacher and practitioner — how I love to hear him passionately discuss classics of cinema! — and with Hugo, he manages to incorporate all facets of his persona. Even more so than The Aviator, this adaptation of Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a product steeped in cinema lore, drunk on the fumes of a bygone era yet canny enough to channel its nostalgia through modern innovations. Set in a Parisian train station in the 1930s, the story concerns itself with young Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a parentless child who tends to the building's giant clock while constantly avoiding the grasp of an inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) hellbent on sending him off to an orphanage. Connected to his late father (Jude Law in a small role) by an automaton that needs repairing, Hugo steals the parts needed from an elderly man named Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who runs a toy store in the station. Eventually caught by the ill-tempered gent, Hugo becomes drawn into his life, befriending his ward Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, of Kick-Ass/Hit Girl fame), learning about his past as a film pioneer, and discovering the key — literally — that binds past and present together. Despite registering as a glorious celebration of Méliès, Scorsese hasn't merely made an ode to cineasts; rather, his picture is a moving exploration of the manner in which individuals seek out love and companionship in an effort to form their own version of a nuclear family (every character, even Cohen's bumbling inspector, wages a war against loneliness). The 125-minute running time, leisurely pace and lack of Muppets will probably cause many tots and grown-ups alike to grow fidgety before long, but for the rest of us, we'll always have Paris — and the enchanting movie set therein. ***1/2


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