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last update 11.Mar.12
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Act of Valor
dir-prd Mouse McCoy, Scott Waugh
scr Kurt Johnstad
with Rorke, Dave, Van O, Michael, Ajay, Sonny, Ray, Weimy, Duncan Smith, Roselyn Sanchez, Alex Veadov, Jason Cottle, Nestor Serrano, Ailsa Marshall, Dimiter Marinov, Gonzalo Menendez
marshall and rorke release US 24.Feb.12,
UK 23.Mar.12
12/US 1h40
Act of Valor A simplistic script nearly undoes this energetic doc-style thriller, which stars US Navy Seals as, well, US Navy Seals on an ambitious mission to stop a cataclysmic terrorist attack. Despite some exciting action, the plotting and dialog are just too corny.

Long-time friends and colleagues Rorke and Dave assemble their team of experts to rescue an undercover agent (Sanchez) who's been kidnapped by a Central American gang. After decimating the baddies and rescuing the hostage, it becomes clear that the gang is linked to a vicious Chechen terrorist (Cottle) who's working with a notorious arms dealer Christo (Veadov) to attack America in a way that makes "9/11 seem like a walk in the park". While the clock ticks, the Seals travel the world and deploy all kinds of whizzy military gadgetry to stop the nefarious plan.

The film is shot with hand-held urgency that really captures the precarious nature of each action set-piece, often with exhilarating results. Watching these efficient soldiers get where they need to be and then get out again really gets our pulses racing, and since these are real operatives, the scenes have an usually visceral resonance. But this only makes the dramatic scenes feel all the more ridiculous by comparison.

Not only does screenwriter Johnstad ham-fistedly pack every conceivable international threat into one story, he fills the down-time with silly melodrama, such as the fact that Rorke's wife (Marshall) is newly pregnant. These scenes are earnest that the non-actor cast doesn't have a chance. Rorke and Dave only get through it due to their inner charisma, while Van O adds an impressively bristly edge to an interrogation scene. But mostly if someone's talking we wish they were speaking with their guns.

Although the action isn't without problems. The film's slick urgency can't make up for a dubious premise in which self-proclaimed good guys are justified in shooting anyone who moves (except unarmed women of course). It certainly doesn't help when the filmmakers say they used live ammunition on set, or that the project started as a recruitment film, which explains why macho camaraderie is laid on with a trowel. And the assumption that America's holy war is more honourable than anyone else's might be too much for international audiences to swallow.

15 themes, language, strong violence
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dir Loni Price
scr Stephen Sondheim, George Furth
prd Matt Cowart, Lonny Price
with Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, Christina Hendricks, Jon Cryer, Martha Plimpton, Stephen Colbert, Katie Finneran, Craig Bierko, Anika Noni Rose, Aaron Lazar, Jill Paice, Jim Walton, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Chryssie Whitehead
harris and hendricks release US 15.Jun.11,
UK 15.Mar.12
11/US 2h26
Company Filmed live at Lincoln Center with an all-star cast, Sondheim's musical-comedy about the company we keep explores marriage and friendship in ways that are hilarious, sexy, scabrous and sometimes surprisingly emotional.

On his 35th birthday, Robert (Harris) is given a surprise party by his friends, but the fact that they're all couples makes him wonder about his own single status. And they do too, as they continually try to set him up with girls. The men (Cryer, Colbert, Bierko, Walton, Lazar) are jealous of his free life, while the women (LuPone, Plimpton, Finneran, Paice, Thompson) see him as forbidden fruit. And none of his three girlfriends (Hendricks, Rose, Whitehead) feels quite right.

These special cinematic presentations recreate the theatre experience with the communal experience of watching a performance. The close-ups and perfectly mixed sound help make up for the fact that it's not actually live (although we still feel like applauding), and for odd-angled camerawork that shoots everything either from the side or in long-focus from the back (so as not to annoy the actual live audience). But of course the main benefit is seeing a terrific performance we couldn't see otherwise.

And this one's pretty amazing. The 35-piece New York Philharmonic Orchestra is on-stage behind the actors, while the sets are a series of rolling sofas and chairs. So our focus is on the cast, as the thoroughly engaging Harris propels us through the show with puppy-dog charm and elastic physicality. The excellent actors around him each get a stand-out scene along the way. Highlights include an impatient seduction between Harris and Hendricks, and a bit of karate with Plimpton and Colbert that spirals quickly out of control.

Meanwhile, the songs are simply fabulous, with LuPone's drunken rant The Ladies Who Lunch as the show-stopper. Finneran's rapid-fire Getting Married Today is another high spot, while the huge ensemble number Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You is buoyant. But what made this musical-comedy so ground-breaking in 1970 was its startlingly serious exploration of relationships. And this feels fresh even now, as Sondheim's songs and Furth's book embrace the contradictions in ways that challenge both our hearts and minds.

12 themes, language
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Leave It on the Floor
dir Sheldon Larry
scr Glenn Gaylord
prd Gabriel Blanco, Glenn Gaylord, Sheldon Larry
with Ephraim Sykes, Andre Myers, Phillip Evelyn II, Miss Barbie-Q, Cameron Koa, James Alsop, Metra Dee, Demarkes Dogan, Roxy Wood, Lady Red Couture, Fatha Julz, Hailie Weaver
Evelyn and Myers release US Jun.11 laff,
UK 24.Sep.12
11/US 1h49

london l&g film fest
Leave It on the Floor This attitude-fuelled musical is a celebration of youthful expressions of gender and sexuality that fall outside the mainstream. What the film lacks in subtlety and finesse it makes up with sparky characters and meaty songs.

Brad (Sykes) is thrown out of his home by his mother (Dee), who can't bear the thought that he might be gay. Scrounging for a living on the streets of inner-city L.A., he discovers a voguing competition and joins the House of Eminence when reigning diva Queef Latina (Barbie-Q) reluctantly lets him stay. Rival drama-queen house-members Princess and Carter (Evelyn and Myers) take him under their wings, but romantic feelings complicate things.

In proper movie musical style, the characters frequently break into song to express their inner feelings, usually frustration at how difficult life is on the wrong side of the tracks. The internalised tone of the film is surprisingly involving, even if the songs feel a bit repetitive. Although some stand out wonderfully, including a sassy full-on number in a bowling alley. And the story is also punctuated by fabulously over-the-top club scenes in which muscle men fiercely strut their stuff on the catwalk in high heels and epic wigs.

The striking cast sing, dance and give strong performances as people struggling to get through their lives as best they can. At the centre, Sykes is a likeable young man who's unsure what he wants but doesn't want to miss out on what life has to offer. Director Larry and writer Gaylord are clearly having fun with the characters and situations, never taking anything too seriously while drawing out the story's realistically dark elements. And Larry's camera knows exactly how to capture the natural sexuality of these beautiful black men.

Despite some rather edgy language and violence, the film has a timid approach to any physical connection between the characters, only hinting at sex even as it's clearly on everyone's mind. Indeed, the central point of the film is that African-American men find it especially difficult to express their non-mainstream artistic and romantic feelings. But the climactic ballad about "black love" is genuinely telling, and the film tackles some social and cultural issues head-on.

15 themes, language, violence
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Madam Butterfly 3D
dir Julian Napier
scr Giacomo Puccini
prd Phil Streather
with Liping Zhang, James Valenti, Robin Leggate, Helene Schneiderman, Anthony Michaels Moore, Daniel Grice, Jonathan Coad, Eileen Hamilton, Jeremy White, Zhou Zheng-zhong, Rachael Lloyd, Mungo Reoch
valenti and zhang
release UK 5.Mar.12
11/UK RealD 2h20
Madam Butterfly 3D Shot at the Royal Opera House, this 3D production vividly captures Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's staging of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. It doesn't so much take us into the theatre as put us right on-stage with the performers, with visceral, wrenching results.

On a hillside above Nagasaki, American soldier Pinkerton (Valenti) rents a house for him and his bride Cio-cio (Zhang), Japanese for "Butterfly". Even though he sees this marriage as temporary, the Consul (Michaels Moore) warns him that Cio-cio takes it very seriously. Indeed, when the 15-year-old arrives, she confesses that she has converted from Shinto to Christianity. When her family finds out, they disown her. And Cio-cio's bliss fades further when Pinkerton leaves her for three years. But she refuses to give up hope that he'll return.

Being so close to the performers, we feel the gut-punch of every plot twist. Zhang's performance is so emotionally raw that, like her faithful handmaiden Suzuki (superbly played by Schneiderman), we begin to worry for her sanity once she accepts the fact that Pinkerton won't be back. What it will take for her to understand that is another story. Meanwhile, Pinkerton has no idea that he has a son (Reoch)

The music is sumptuously performed and recorded, with (nicely subtitled) lyrics that include both badly needed humour and a moving sense of irony. And all of this takes place on a deceptively simple set that's packed with visual surprises. To capture this, director Napier glides his cameras around the stage, revealing the striking visual set-design as well as the performers' emotive faces. Valenti has the chiseled looks of a hunky Yank, and plays Pinkerton with both arrogance and self-doubt. While Zhang quickly overcomes the age issue, capturing Cio-cio's youthful physicality and idealism, plus a powerful depth of emotion.

Even those of us who aren't opera aficionados can easily feel the story's undercurrents. And following the dialog through subtitles makes it feel like a particularly emotive foreign film in which the actors just happen to be singing in Italian. With such a high-quality stage production and an inventively shot and edited film, this is a great way for non-fans to dip a toe into this rarified theatrical artform.

PG themes, violence
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© 2012 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall