Raleigh News & Observer

“Bring It On: The Musical,” at the Durham Performing Arts Center through Sunday, is a high-energy stage spectacle with good songs and thrilling gymnastic dance numbers. Also: two dozen hard-body young dancers in tight cheerleading uniforms, and it’s always hard to argue with that.

Based on the franchise of popular teen comedy films, “Bring In On” is a featherweight morality tale set in the treacherous world of competitive high school cheerleading squads.

It goes like this: Truman High School cheerleader Campbell, surely the peppiest teenager since Reese Witherspoon went legally blonde, is entering her senior year as captain of the school’s perennial powerhouse cheerleading squad.

But things go sideways when Campbell is suddenly transferred to crosstown rival Jackson High, a poorer, grittier school with a predictably multiethnic student body. Jackson High doesn’t field a cheerleading squad, but it does have a top-flight hip-hop dance crew led by the formidable dancing queen Danielle.

Will Campbell and Danielle overcome their differences through a love of dance? Will a common enemy emerge to unite them? Will the show end in a spectacular dance-off between Truman High and Jackson High? “Bring It On” is a completely successful evening of professional-grade musical theater. Sure, the story is predictable, but the songs are catchy, the lyrics are clever, the dialogue is snappy and the performances are impressive.

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Film Review: The Raid

May 19, 2012

Raleigh News & Observer

A technically good movie that’s nevertheless hard to recommend, “The Raid: Redemption” takes martial arts ultraviolence to thrilling new heights – or unsettling new depths, depending on your point of view.

It goes like this: Deep in the urban jungle of Jakarta’s darkest slums, Indonesian crime lord Tama Riyandi runs a kind of time-share condo building for the city’s worst criminals. Twenty stories high, Riyandi’s fortress is staffed by extremely hard men with extremely efficient weapons.

After sensibly avoiding the place for years, the police finally organize a raid led by rookie officer Rama, played by Indonesian martial arts star Iko Uwais. His 20-man squad must break into the criminal stronghold and work their way up, floor by bloody floor.

Following the initial exposition, “The Raid” delivers 80 minutes of relentless and brutal violence featuring, but not limited to: gunfights, fistfights, knife fights, machete fights, torture sequences, exploding heads, exploding refrigerators (don’t ask), stabbings, slashings, bludgeonings, plummetings, suffocations, lacerations, decapitations and a creatively lethal use of fluorescent light tubes.

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Raleigh News & Observer

The 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is already in full swing, bringing more than 100 films, discussions and panels to downtown Durham. The festival, now in its 15th year, kicked off last night with various Opening Night events, including the World Premiere of “Jesse Owens,” directed by Laurens Grant and co-produced by 2012 Full Frame Tribute honoree Stanley Nelson.

The festival runs through Sunday, and you can still get tickets to individual events if you’re willing to brave a line or two. Full Frame typically reserves 10 percent of tickets for purchase (cash only) in the Last Minute Line set up at each screening. For more details, visit www.fullframefest.org.

Among this year’s dozens of screenings, Full Frame is hosting the special “Family Affairs” Thematic Program, curated by filmmaker and North Carolina native Ross McElwee. The program features 10 films that “explore the delicate terrain along the fault line of family.” McElwee’s own films, including the award-winning 1987 classic “Sherman’s March,” are largely autobiographical and often deal with family matters.

Speaking from his adopted home in New England, McElwee discussed Full Frame, the hazards of social media and the importance of Southern hospitality.

Q: The series you’re curating, “Family Affairs,” deals with filmmakers who document their own families. In the program materials, you write that you have experience with this approach and that it tends to “complicate things considerably.”

(Laughs) Yes, that’s an understatement. The main complexity, with a truly autobiographical film that concerns one’s family, is suddenly there is another character in play – the person behind the camera. You get this sense of a very intimate connection between the person doing the filming and the people who are being filmed. It lends a whole other facet that has to be taken into consideration if you’re an audience member.

It’s good that not all nonfiction films are done this way, but I’m glad some of them are, and I’ve tried to collect a few of the more interesting ones for the program.

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Video Game Picks: SSX

May 19, 2012

Raleigh News & Observer

True story: My 18-year-old nephew, a college freshman and avid snowboarder, recently tore his ACL on the first day of a planned weeklong ski trip and had to return home. (His fraternity was sharing a lodge with three sororities – this seems relevant.)

As consolation, I sent him a copy of the very excellent “SSX” (PS3, X360; rated E; $59.99), figuring he could at least do some armchair snowboarding in the dorm room. He has since reported back that he’s totally addicted.

A reboot of EA’s popular extreme sports franchise, “SSX” (it stands for Snowboard Super Cross) hits that sweet spot of effective game design – easy to learn, hard to master. The control scheme supports hundreds of direction-and-button combos for insane tricks, but if you’d rather just shoot straight down the mountain, you can do that too. In fact, my eight-year-old son prefers to do exactly that, and it’s a testament to the game that he’s just as hooked as his cousin.

SSX features state-of-the-art visual and sound design, and a playful adaptive soundtrack that responds to your actions. Sequence enough tricks in a row, and Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky” gets seamlessly mixed into the beat-heavy rock/hip-hop/techno score. Level-wise, the individual courses feature multiple viable runs down the mountain, with an astounding array of environmental effects and a visceral sense of velocity. SSX literally makes me dizzy, and that’s a good thing.

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Raleigh News & Observer

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Thriller; rated R for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity and language; available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital download

The Gist: A tenacious journalist and a punk rock computer hacker team up to solve a series of murders and disappearances that go back 40 years.

The Lowdown: Director David Fincher’s adaptation of the blockbuster Swedish crime novel is a dark vision indeed, with some of the most violently disturbing scenes ever put into a mainstream film. The brutality is there for a reason, though, as Fincher (“Se7en”) expands on the book’s themes of societal corruption and violence against women.

It’s also a ripping good crime thriller, with great characters and terrific lead performances from Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara as the iconic Lisbeth Salander. And the cinematography is astounding, with characters and settings all visually draped in a cerebral, icy chill.

The Extras: The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack includes a commentary track from Fincher plus more than four hours of behind-the-scenes material on the book and the production specifics.

The Bottom Line: A fierce and utterly engaging crime thriller in a generous home video package.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: “Dragon Tattoo” also has one of the coolest opening credits sequence ever, a menacing swirl of disturbing abstract imagery with music by Trent Reznor, Karen O and Led Zeppelin.

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Raleigh News & Observer

Written and researched with evident care, “No Way Out” is a fine example of contemporary war reporting that reveals much about the war in Afghanistan by focusing on one particular battle.

Operation Commando Wrath – or the Battle of Shok Valley – took place April 6, 2008, in the Nuristan Province of Afghanistan. A joint operation between Afghan army commandos and U.S. Special Forces, many of whom were based out of Fort Bragg, the objective was to kill or capture a notorious insurgent commander whose career dates back to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

Everything went wrong, though, as the joint attack team was almost instantly ambushed in the treacherous Shok Valley, terrain so perilous that historical invaders like Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great are said to have avoided it. Pinned down on a small rock ledge by machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire from hundreds of enemy combatants, the soldiers fought for more than seven hours before making a narrow escape.

“No Way Out” begins by profiling nine U.S. soldiers in the hours before the mission. These beginning chapters acquaint us with these soldiers as individuals and offer a terrible sense of foreboding. The team leaders, we discover, had deep reservations about the planning of the mission and the quality of the intelligence used to justify it.

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Raleigh News & Observer

On a recent bitterly cold night in Durham, 100 or so fans of experimental film and music braved the elements to pack into a vacated, hastily repurposed retail space downtown.

As Greensboro’s visiting musical collective Invisible set up a menagerie of equipment, local film curators Jim Haverkamp and Joyce Ventimiglia powered up the projector for the night’s opening feature – a special sneak preview of this year’s Strange Beauty Film Festival.

A three-day exhibition of short films featuring “the strangely beautiful and the beautifully strange,” the festival is returning for its third season at Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater tonight through Saturday. Festival organizers will screen 48 short films in four programming blocks – at 8:15 each evening, and a matinee screening Saturday afternoon.

The preview event provided an intriguing sampling of this year’s lineup, and the downtown art crowd responded with enthusiasm. As one onlooker observed, in an era when everyone has his own portable digital screen, it’s nice to attend a communal cinema event that doesn’t involve $9.75 popcorn buckets.

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