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Capsules reviews of new releases

The Associated Press, Wednesday, February 15, 2012, 12:15pm (PST)

"Bullhead" — This Academy Award-nominated foreign-language film from Belgium is a dark, haunting and wholly original exploration of what it means to be a man. Writer-director Michael R. Roskam's auspicious film debut looks like a crime thriller, full of shady figures making secret deals, with a tension and a seamy, muted color palette reminiscent of David Fincher. But eventually it reveals itself to be a character drama about the way the past shapes us and our inability to escape it, no matter how convincingly we believe we've transformed ourselves. Matthias Schoenaerts gives a fierce and frightening turn as Jacky, a steroid-addicted cattle rancher who works out an arrangement with some meat-trading mobsters, only to try and back out when an investigating federal agent is gunned down. This sequence of events forces him to revisit a horrific incident from his childhood 20 years ago, as well as the people who were crucial to that pivotal moment. Schoenaerts turns Jacky into a hulking beast given to volatile fits of rage, but he also makes you feel his character's loneliness, awkwardness and a desperate need to be loved. R for some strong violence, language and sexual content. In Dutch and French with subtitles. 126 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

— Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

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"The Secret World of Arrietty" — Considering the eccentric, almost psychedelic fantasy worlds created in Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki's tales, a story of tiny people living beneath the floorboards of a house seems almost normal. This latest from Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli also is a pleasant antidote to the siege mentality of so many Hollywood cartoons, whose makers aim to occupy every instant of the audience's attention with an assault of noise and images. Slow, stately, gentle and meditative, the film is a marvel of image and color, its old-fashioned pen-and-ink frames vividly bringing to life the world of children's author Mary Norton's "The Borrowers." Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, with sound designer Gary Rydstrom directing a Hollywood voice cast for the English-language version, the film follows the adventures of tiny teen Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) and her parents (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett), who live off things scavenged from the oversized human world above. Befriended by a sickly human youth (David Henrie) and menaced by a busybody housekeeper (Carol Burnett), Arrietty stands at the center of a sweet, chaste, sort-of first love story told with warm simplicity and grandly fluid visuals. G. 94 minutes. Three stars out of four.

— David Germain, AP Movie Writer

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"This Means War" — Having great-looking actors who actually can act makes this noisy romp more tolerable than it ought to be. It's essentially a love-triangle version of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" rendered even more bombastic in the hands of "Charlie's Angels" director McG. So you've got your sport utility vehicles tumbling in slow motion, your gravity-defying shootouts and your obligatory explosions galore. Naturally, the premise is the most high-concept contrived confection: Two CIA agents (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) who happen to be best friends also happen to fall in love with the same woman (Reese Witherspoon). Screwball and high-tech, it aims to provide laughs and thrills at the same time, and only intermittently achieves its goals. Still, the sight of Pine and Hardy one-upping each other for this woman's affections through ridiculously elaborate dates and outright stalking (with the help of government resources) has its amusing moments. And McG unsurprisingly keeps the action humming at a nearly nonstop pace. All in all, it's not an entirely insufferable distraction. Chelsea Handler shows up as Witherspoon's wisecracking, married best friend living vicariously through her dating adventures, which is even more implausible than the film's outsized stunts. PG-13 for sexual content including references, some violence and action and for language. 97 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

— Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

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"Undefeated" — It seems impossibly feel-good, this tale of sacrifice and redemption, tragedy and triumph. It may also sound like the kind of uplifting football drama you've seen countless times before — and comparisons to both "Friday Night Lights" and "The Blind Side" will be inevitable. Still, this Oscar-nominated documentary knocks you over with a power all its own; told in intimate, unadorned fashion, it comes from a pure place that's irresistible. It isn't trying too hard to inspire us — and that's precisely why it does. Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, who directed, shot and edited the film, know well enough to get out of the way and let the story and the characters work their magic. Their focus is the 2009 football team at Manassas High School in North Memphis, a predominantly black school in a blighted part of town that hadn't won a playoff game in its 110-year history. Volunteer Coach Bill Courtney hopes that by working with these kids and developing their strengths on the field, they'll recognize the importance of being strong men off the field. "Undefeated" follows three players fighting to overcome their circumstances, but the larger-than-life Courtney is the film's de facto star. Bring tissues. You've been warned. PG-13 for some language. 113 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

— Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

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