August 26, 2015

movie rev

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a popular television series which enjoyed a four-year run on NBC from 1964 to 1968. Trading on the success of the James Bond film franchise, the show featured another dashing character created by Ian Fleming, author of the 007 novels.

This movie adaptation stars Henry Cavill in the title role as Napoleon Solo, a suave sophisticated spy employed by U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement), a top secret, international espionage agency. While the TV Solo was a college graduate and honorably-discharged Korean War veteran, the movie’s Napoleon Solo is a convicted art thief who reluctantly agrees to work for the CIA in return for a reduced prison sentence.

The picture is directed by Guy Ritchie who is known for action adventures like Snatch (2000) and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). The movie co-stars Armie Hammer as Solo’s partner, KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin. However, where the original Ilya was a mild-mannered sleuth, in  the film he’s a hot head who loses his temper at the drop of a hat.

The movie unfolds in East Berlin in 1963, where we find Solo and Kuryakin initially squaring off as adversaries. The former has been dispatched behind the Iron Curtain to recruit Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a missing nuclear scientist who may have fallen into the clutches of a crime syndicate seeking to acquire the bomb. After Ilya, supposedly a KGB agent, helps Solo in the recruitment of Gaby, he is introduced to Napoleon as his new partner.

Soon, together with Gaby, they’re embroiled in a race against time to foil a plot hatched by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), the brains behind an Italian terrorist organization that was suspected of kidnapping Gaby’s father. Unfortunately, the deliberately paced cat-and-mouse caper which ensues is too low-key to generate much edge-of-the-seat tension.

Good (**). Rated PG-13 for violence, suggestive material, and partial nudity. In English, German, Russian, and Italian with subtitles. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

August 19, 2015

QUIET ON THE SET — READY, SET, ACTION: William F. Buckley (left) and Gore Vidal begin their series of legendary debates that were aired by ABC-TV during the national conventions of the Democrats and Republicans in 1968. The debates ushered in a new era of political broadcasting.

Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. were among the most brilliant and articulate minds in America of their generation. The pair were also political polar opposites which made the idea of hiring them to appear in a series of televised debates a stroke of genius.

This was ABC-TV’s idea in 1968, at a time when the network’s news department shows lagged far behind CBS and NBC in the ratings. They planned to have the liberal Vidal and conservative Buckley square-off during ABC’s coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions that were taking place that summer in Chicago and Miami Beach, respectively.

Arranging the showdown proved to be easier said than done, since the men not only hated each other politically, but personally as well. Buckley saw himself as the defender of the status quo in the face of the 60s counter-cultural revolution that was demanding equal rights for blacks, gays, women, and other oppressed groups.

As expected, sparks flew during the spirited exchanges marked as much by Buckley’s arcane syntax as by firebrand Vidal’s iconoclastic comments. However, because neither participant wanted to lose, what began as sophisticated intellectual analysis degenerated into an exchange of insults.

When Vidal referred to Buckley as a “crypto-Nazi,” he lost his composure and called Vidal a “queer.” A defamation lawsuit and counter-suit ensued, and the litigation dragged on for years.

Co-directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, Best of Enemies is a fascinating documentary which revisits a seminal moment in the history of television. The Vidal-Buckley arguments over topics that ranged from religion to sexuality served to usher in a new era of discourse in the public media.

Besides archival footage of the debates, the conventions, and the anti-war demonstrations that were raging outside the conventions, the film features commentary by luminaries Frank Rich, John McWhorter, and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Excellent (****). Rated  R for sexuality, nudity, and profanity. Running time: 88 minutes. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures/Magnet Releasing.

August 12, 2015

movie  revMarvel Comics first brought the Fantastic Four to the big screen a decade ago and followed it up with a sequel a few years later. Since neither generated much in the way of audience enthusiasm, 20th Century Fox has decided to relaunch the series instead of releasing a third installment.

The movie was directed by Josh Trank, who was chosen on the strength of his impressive debut with the science fiction thriller Chronicle. The movie stars Michael B. Jordan and Kate Mara as the siblings Johnny and Sue Storm, and Jamie Bell and Miles Teller as their childhood friends Ben Grimm and Reed Richards.

Fantastic Four opens by developing a humanizing back story about each member of the title quartet and describing the freak accident that gave them their superpowers. The movie then begins its march to the exciting finale that features a spectacular special effects battle. The point of departure is Oyster Bay, New York in 2007, which is where we find Reed informing his skeptical 5th grade teacher of his plans to teleport himself some day.

By the time he’s a senior in high school, Reed has built a prototype with the help of Ben. And even though his Cymatic Matter Shuttle is disqualified from the science fair, the gifted youth is recruited by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), who is the director of the Baxter Foundation, a research institute for science and technology prodigies.

There, he’s befriended by Johnny and Sue. Along with Ben, the foursome eventually attempt an unsanctioned trip to another dimension through the Quantum Gate that was discovered by Dr. Storm’s protege, Victor (Toby Kebbell). However, something goes horribly wrong, and they inadvertently rip a hole in the time/space continuum.

The calamity enables Reed (aka Mr. Fantastic) to stretch and contort his body, Johnny to fly and shoot fireballs, Sue to be invisible and create force fields, and badly disfigured Ben (aka The Thing) to exhibit invincibility and extraordinary strength. However, Victor has developed telekinetic abilities and morphed into the diabolical Dr. Doom, a villain more powerful than any one of the Fantastic Four individually, but not the four of them collectively.

That leaves them little choice but to join forces in defense of the planet. The showdown that takes forever to arrive is riveting, although it’s almost an afterthought, since it serves as a setup for the obligatory sequel.

Very Good (**½). Rated PG-13 for action, violence, and profanity.

In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

July 22, 2015

movie revBilly Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) surmounted incredible odds on his way to becoming the World Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Since he’d been abandoned by his mother at birth, he’d had to overcome many obstacles on his way to success.

However, he was fortunate enough to meet Maureen (Rachel McAdams) in the orphanage in which they were growing up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. The two fell madly in love and she would serve as the rock who kept him out of trouble, especially after he’s had a couple of brief stints behind bars.

As Billy worked his way up through the boxing ranks, the childhood sweethearts married and had a daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). Maureen repeatedly inspired her husband to climb into the ring to channel his aggression positively, rather than entertain any ideas of blowing off steam in a self-destructive fashion.

By the time his record reached 43-0, Billy and his family were living beyond their means in a gaudy house where they conspicuously displayed the trappings of their new found wealth: flashy cars, gaudy jewelry, champagne, and so forth. However, with his parasitic entourage and a shady money manager, Jordan Mains (50 Cent), it was clear that he’d have to keep on winning in order to maintain his extravagant lifestyle.

Sure enough, after a terrible personal tragedy, Billy lost the title belt and found himself broke and back on the streets he’d worked so hard to escape. Abandoned by his hangers-on and by his manager, he ends up at a gym in Harlem run by an irascible trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker). The salty veteran, who is on the verge of retirement, reluctantly agrees to take on Billy on the condition that he would be willing to make some changes to his boxing skills.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the film features another excellent performance by Jake Gyllenhaal who deserved Academy Award nominations for Nightcrawler (2014) and Prisoners (2013). In this movie he is nothing short of mesmerizing in his role as a desperate, disgraced champion on a mission to reclaim his title and his fortune.

Excellent (****) Rated R for violence and profanity. Running time: 123 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

July 15, 2015

movie revIn 1993, a student accidentally died onstage during the opening night performance of The Gallows, a macabre play that was staged at Beatrice High. The unfortunate understudy, a last-minute replacement for the suddenly indisposed star, was hanged when the noose around his neck actually killed him when the trapdoor under his feet was opened.

Some 20 years later we find the school’s theater club planning to put on the same production in order to pay homage to the actor who lost his life. Drama teacher Mr. Schwendiman (Travis Cluff) is now overseeing the project with the help of a student stage manager (Price T. Morgan).

In the cast, Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown) has been picked to play the female lead opposite Reese (Resse Mishler) who will be reprising the role of the ill-fated protagonist. Other critical persons of interest include football team captain Ryan (Ryan Shoos) and his cheerleader girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford).

Ryan is an amateur filmmaker who has obsessive-compulsive disorder. So, he constantly keeps his hand-held camera on “record.” That annoying habit might prove valuable should anything tragic transpire, even if the shaky images are dizzying to watch. more

July 8, 2015
LOOK AT THIS PICTURE OF OUR DADS IN VIETNAM: One of the two sons, whose fathers were close buddies during the Vietnam war, holds up a picture of their parents in full battle gear during the war. Edward Adams (Scott Whyte, right) poses for the camera with Steven George (Sean McGowan). In spite of their differences in religious beliefs, the two formed a close bond during the war.

LOOK AT THIS PICTURE OF OUR DADS IN VIETNAM: One of the two sons, whose fathers were close buddies during the Vietnam war, holds up a picture of their parents in full battle gear during the war. Edward Adams (Scott Whyte, right) poses for the camera with Steven George (Sean McGowan). In spite of their differences in religious beliefs, the two formed a close bond during the war.

While serving behind enemy lines in Vietnam, GIs Steven George (Sean McGowan) and Edward Adams (Scott Whyte), became best friends even though the former was a devout Christian while the latter was a Doubting Thomas. Sadly, they both perished in battle in 1969, and each left behind a child that neither ever got to know.

Fast-forward 25 years and we discover that the soldiers’ children have followed in their fathers’ footsteps. Steven’s offspring John (Kevin Downes) is also a devout Christian like his late father, and Edward’s son Wayne (David A.R. White) inherited his father’s disdain for organized religion.

John has grown up to be stable and successful and is planning to marry his fiancée, Cynthia (Candace Cameron Bure). In contrast, Wayne has grown up to be an underachiever who has had more than his share of run-ins with the law.

Since John lives in California and Wayne is in Mississippi, the two have never met. However, John informs his fiancée that, before he marries her, he wants to learn everything he can about his late father. That quest leads him to Wayne, who has saved the letters that his father mailed home during the war in Vietnam.

The two decide to read the letters en route to Washington, D.C. where they plan to visit the Vietnam War Memorial. What ensues is an eventful road trip in which Christ and the Devil do battle for Wayne’s soul. Using flashbacks, the film alternates between the sons’ arguments over faith during their trip and portrayals of their fathers’ discussions about Christianity during their fateful tour of duty overseas.

This is the basis of Faith of Our Fathers, a modern parable directed and co-written by Corey Scott (Hidden Secrets). While the movie does feature wholesome family fare, it’s occasional proselytizing (“Know that Jesus loves you and that you can trust Him.”) is distracting, but not so overpowering that it spoils the movie.

Look for Born Again Stephen Baldwin in a scene-stealing performance as Sergeant Mansfield, the only character to appear both in the flashbacks and the present-day scenes. In 1969, we find him chastising Steven for preparing the men in his unit to die. But, he’s singing a different tune 25 years later when he conveniently intervenes in a critical moment in the picture.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for brief violence. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Pure Flix Entertainment.

July 1, 2015

 

FRIENDS: Best Friends Forever (from left) Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) and Earl Johnson (RJ Cyler) switch from filming clownish parodies to make a serious documentary about cancer victim (far left) Rachel (Olivia Cooke) in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon from the young adult novel by Jesse Andrews. © 2015 Fox and its Related Entities

FRIENDS: Best Friends Forever (from left) Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) and Earl Johnson (RJ Cyler) switch from filming clownish parodies to make a serious documentary about cancer victim (far left) Rachel (Olivia Cooke) in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon from the young adult novel by Jesse Andrews.
© 2015 Fox and its Related Entities

High school seniors Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) and Earl Johnson (RJ Cyler) are not only best friends, they’re each other’s only friend, unless an empathetic history teacher counts. Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal) has taken pity on the pair, letting them eat their lunch in his office to spare them the humiliation of being teased in the cafeteria on a daily basis.

Terminally-insecure Greg rationalizes their “carefully-cultivated invisibility” with the insight that, “Hot girls destroy your life.” So, instead of looking for love, the ostracized social zeros spend most of their free time shooting clownish parodies of memorable screen classics. But the 42 spoofs, sporting titles like “Eyes Wide Butt,” “A Sockwork Orange,” “Brew Velvet,” “A Box of Lips… Wow!” and “2:48 PM Cowboy,” suffer from such low-production values, that the amateur filmmakers are too embarrassed to share them with anybody.

At the start of the semester, we find Greg being pressured by his mother (Connie Britton) to visit the suddenly cancer-stricken daughter of one of her girlfriends (Molly Shannon). He agrees to do so rather reluctantly because he barely knows Rachel (Olivia Cooke), even though, until recently, she also attended Schenley High.

However, the two soon hit it off, since they’re both artsy types given to an ingratiating combination of introspection and gallows humor. Greg returns to her house again and again, doing his best to prop up her spirits during a valiant battle with leukemia in which she loses her strength and her hair as a consequence of chemotherapy.

Eventually, he enlists the assistance of his BFF in making their first documentary, a biopic dedicated to the now bed-ridden Rachel. Throwing himself into the project with an admirable zeal, he marks the production with meaningful touches like get well wishes from the patient’s family and friends, including his own repeated assurances that she’s going to beat the disease.

The only problem is that the attention paid to Rachel leaves little time for academics; and Greg’s plummeting grades have a negative effect on his college prospects.

Adapted from the Jesse Andrews young adult novel of the same name, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a bittersweet coming-of-age adventure directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (The Town That Dreaded Sundown). The film was very warmly received at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year where it landed both the Audience and Grand Jury Awards.

A refreshingly exhilarating, emotional and ultimately uplifting examination of youngsters forging an unbreakable bond in the face of a malignant force far beyond their control.

Excellent (****). Rated  PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, drug use and mature themes. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

June 24, 2015
I’VE GOT JOY, JOY, JOY, JOY -  DOWN IN MY HEART: Eleven-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias, not shown) conjures up five figures that represent her emotions that are struggling to control her adjustment to being suddenly uprooted from her home in Minnesota to move to San Francisco with her parents. Joy (Amy Poehler), shown here, is constantly having a dialogue with the other four emotion avatars Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust to help Riley adjust to her new life on the west coast.(© 2015-Disney/Pixar)

I’VE GOT JOY, JOY, JOY, JOY – DOWN IN MY HEART: Eleven-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias, not shown) conjures up five figures that represent her emotions that are struggling to control her adjustment to being suddenly uprooted from her home in Minnesota to move to San Francisco with her parents. Joy (Amy Poehler), shown here, is constantly having a dialogue with the other four emotion avatars Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust to help Riley adjust to her new life on the west coast. (© 2015-Disney/Pixar)

Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) was distraught when her mother (Diane Lane) and father (Kyle MacLachlan) suddenly told her that the family was relocating from Minnesota to San Francisco. After all, she was leaving behind her home, her hockey team, and all her friends.

So, it’s no surprise that the uprooted 11-year-old feels lonely after moving to the Bay Area. And, as a consequence she does a lot of soul searching as she attempts to sort out her emotions — literally and figuratively.

With her active imagination, her feelings aren’t merely metaphysical experiences, but five actual little entities that live inside her brain. This anthropomorphic quintet, named Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), are constantly contending for control of Riley’s moods as she struggles to adjust to her new house, city, and school.

That internal conflict is the subject of Inside Out, the best animated film from Pixar since the balloon adventure film Up (2009). Don’t allow the premise about a melancholy child who’s having emotional problems adjusting to her new surroundings keep you from seeing this movie, because the material is handled delicately enough to be appropriate for a child of any age.

The picture is a touching tale that shows how a dramatic change in somebody’s life might temporarily affect a person’s psyche.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for action and mature themes. Running time: 94 minutes. Distributor: Pixar Animation/Walt Disney Studios.

June 17, 2015
HEY, THIS PLACE IS REALLY NEAT!: Brothers Zach (Nick Robinson, left) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) are enjoying their ride around the dinosaur theme park in a “geo-sphere” made of bullet proof glass surrounded by harmless dinosuars until they encounter the hybrid dinosaur that was created by the park’s scientists. The monster dinosaur goes out of control and starts attacking everyone in sight, causing mayhem in the park.(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick-© 2015, Universal Pictures)

HEY, THIS PLACE IS REALLY NEAT!: Brothers Zach (Nick Robinson, left) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) are enjoying their ride around the dinosaur theme park in a “geo-sphere” made of bullet proof glass surrounded by harmless dinosuars until they encounter the hybrid dinosaur that was created by the park’s scientists. The monster dinosaur goes out of control and starts attacking everyone in sight, causing mayhem in the park. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick-© 2015, Universal Pictures)

How do you revive an expiring film series that fell out of favor 12 years ago after audiences became jaded with visual effects that they no longer found spellbinding? In the case of Jurassic World, the writers created a sequel that is laced with allusions to earlier episodes and that even point out how dinosaurs don’t capture people’s imaginations to the degree that they once used to.

This is the fourth film in the science fiction series that is based on novels by the late Michael Crichton. Jurassics 1 and 2 were directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted from Crichton’s bestsellers (Jurassic Park and The Lost World). Jurassic 4’s creative team includes director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) and four writers who wrote a screenplay that remains faithful to the feeling of the source material.

The story is about two siblings — Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) — whose Christmas vacation goes bad off the coast of Costa Rica. As the film unfolds, the pair bid their parents a fond farewell, but not before their prophetic mother (Judy Greer) gives them an ominous piece of parental advice — “Remember, if something chases you, run!”

They are going to Isla Nublar, the same tropical resort where, in Jurassic 1, raptors ran amok during the christening of a dinosaur populated amusement park. The place has been renamed “Jurassic World” and is set to reopen under a greedy and inept management team.

Karen Mitchell isn’t all that worried about her sons’ welfare since she is sure that they’ll be under the watchful eye of her sister (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is the theme park’s operations manager. However, upon their arrival, instead of spending time with her nephews — whom she hasn’t seen in seven years — Claire issues them a VIP all-access pass and tells them to have a good time.

They roam around the park in a gyro-sphere made of bulletproof glass and run into the escaped Indominus Rex, a prehistoric hybrid dinosaur that was bred in a test tube. Unfortunately, no one in a position of authority — that is (BD Wong), who created the hybrid; the war profiteer (Vincent D’Onofrio), who has secret plans to sell it to the military; and Jurassic World’s owner (Irrfan Khan) — wants to destroy the creature until it finally goes on a rampage and starts attacking the park’s visitors.

As a result, thousands of tourists run for their lives, and Aunt Claire searches for her nephews with the help of her boyfriend (Chris Pratt). Overall, the movie is a riveting roller coaster ride with eye-popping effects and a satisfying resolution.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for peril and intense violence. Running time: 124 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

June 10, 2015
NOW HOLD MY HANDS WHILE I TRY TO CONTACT QUINN’S MOTHER: Elise (Lin Shaye, center) begins a séance in an effort to help Quinn (Stefanie Scott, left) communicate with her dead mother while her father (Dermot Mulroney) looks on. When Quinn’s attempts to contact her mother  on her own stirred up a host of frightening paranormal events, Elise agreed to come out of retirement to help Quinn communicate with her mother.(Photo by Matt Kennedy)

NOW HOLD MY HANDS WHILE I TRY TO CONTACT QUINN’S MOTHER: Elise (Lin Shaye, center) begins a séance in an effort to help Quinn (Stefanie Scott, left) communicate with her dead mother while her father (Dermot Mulroney) looks on. When Quinn’s attempts to contact her mother on her own stirred up a host of frightening paranormal events, Elise agreed to come out of retirement to help Quinn communicate with her mother. (Photo by Matt Kennedy)

The good news about Insidious 3 is that you don’t have to know what happened in the first two episodes in order to follow this movie’s plotline. This prequel does not involve the Lambert family that was haunted by ghosts in the series’ previous two films.

The best news is that, despite being rated PG-13, this harrowing adventure was so scary that I screamed louder than my wife! Guaranteed to have you jumping out of your skin, Insidious 3 evokes an earlier era when horror movie filmmakers subtly sowed the seeds of suspense instead of simply splattering the screen with gruesome scenes.

The movie is Australian Leigh Whannell’s directorial debut. She wrote and acted in Insidious 1 and 2. This film features Lin Shaye (There’s Something about Mary) as Elise Rainier, the gifted psychic who can commune with the afterlife.

As the film unfolds, we find Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) trying to hire the clairvoyant to help her contact the spirit of her late mother (Ele Keats). Elise declines the offer, explaining that she’s retired, but gives the grieving teen an ominous piece of advice, — “Don’t try to contact your mom on your own.”

Quinn returns home to the mythical town of Leland Park where she lives in an apartment with her father (Dermot Mulroney) and little brother, Alex (Tate Berney). Of course, she disregards Elise’s warning, and next thing you know paranormal activities begin; a waving apparition, here, a disembodied voice there, an unexplained crack in the ceiling, bloody footprints on the floor, and so on.

Quinn’s distracted dad does not give her much help in dealing with these phenomena, however, the boy next-door (Ashton Moio) is concerned about her welfare. Finally, the ghostly activities escalate to the point where Elise agrees to get involved and stage a séance.

Although the storyline reads like stock fright fare, trust me, Insidious 3 is an expertly edited horror movie that repeatedly shocks you when you least expect it. Again and again it makes you jump from your seat, then lulls you back into a false sense of security only to deliver another jolt.

The movie is a chilling spine-tingler that will generate lots of bloodcurdling screams.

Excellent (****). Rated  PG-13 for violence, profanity, frightening images, and mature themes. Running time: 97 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features

June 3, 2015
THANK GOD YOU WERE ABLE TO FIND ME: Ray (Dwayne Johnson, left) is embraced by his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) after he came to rescue her from atop a skyscraper in San Francisco that was on the verge of collapsing when the shift in the San Andreas fault triggered a massive earthquake that was felt all over California. (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture-©-2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC—U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda)

THANK GOD YOU WERE ABLE TO FIND ME: Ray (Dwayne Johnson, left) is embraced by his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) after he came to rescue her from atop a skyscraper in San Francisco that was on the verge of collapsing when the shift in the San Andreas fault triggered a massive earthquake that was felt all over California.
(Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture-©-2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC—U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda)

If you were afraid to swim in the ocean after watching Jaws, you might be reluctant to visit San Francisco after seeing this spectacular disaster movie. Directed by Brad Peyton (Journey 2), San Andreas features a plot that is accompanied by riveting special-effects scenes.

The film stars Dwayne Johnson as Ray Gaines, a decorated helicopter pilot who has led more than 600 rescue missions. At the point of departure, we find the Los Angeles Fire Department chief risking his life to pluck an accident victim (Stephanie Johnston) from a car that is dangling precipitously over a deep canyon. For you or me, such a dangerous maneuver would be unthinkable, but to Ray, it’s business as usual.

Meanwhile, Professor Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) is delivering a lecture at the California Institute of Technology in which he discusses the incredible power of earthquakes. When his colleague (Will Yun Lee) detects some unusual seismic activity in the vicinity of the Hoover Dam, the two scientists rush off to observe the event firsthand.

They arrive in time to witness the considerable damage caused by an earthquake that registered 7.1 on the Richter scale. Worse, their instrumentation indicates that this event is a precursor to an impending earthquake of much greater magnitude.

The ensuing shift in the San Andreas fault wreaks havoc all across California. Chief Gaines jumps into action, plucking his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), from the roof of a teetering skyscraper and then flying to the quake’s epicenter in San Francisco.

They flew there because their terrified daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) had called them for help. Fortunately she was being helped by two young British friends (Art Parkinson and Hugo Johstone-Burt).

While searching for their daughter, the desperate parents run a perilous gauntlet — via air sea and land — to the Bay Area, and encounter turbulence, tsunamis, and landslides along the way.

San Andreas has a cast of readily identifiable archetypes; the musclebound hero, the effete coward, the damsel in distress, the nerdy professor, each of whom are played perfectly by the talented cast.

Nonetheless, the best reason to see this summer blockbuster is to experience the eye-popping panoramas in 3D.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense action, mayhem, and brief profanity. Running time: 114 minutes. Studio: Warner Brothers Pictures.

May 27, 2015
WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF A BAD SITUATION: Daniella (Sofia Vergara, left) is thrown together with policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) when Daniella and her husband were ambushed as the authorities were arranging to put them into the witness protection program. Unfortunately, the transfer into the program was interrupted when a collusion of mobsters and crooked cops murdered Daniella’s husband. However, she and Cooper managed to escape and thus began their perilous, yet hilarious trip to safety in Dallas.(Photo by Sam Emerson-© 2015-Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Inc.)

WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF A BAD SITUATION: Daniella (Sofia Vergara, left) is thrown together with policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) when Daniella and her husband were ambushed as the authorities were arranging to put them into the witness protection program. Unfortunately, the transfer into the program was interrupted when a collusion of mobsters and crooked cops murdered Daniella’s husband. However, she and Cooper managed to escape and thus began their perilous, yet hilarious trip to safety in Dallas. (Photo by Sam Emerson-© 2015-Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Inc.)

As the notorious kingpin of a drug cartel that is terrorizing Texas, Vincente Cortez (Joaquin Cosio) has orchestrated over a hundred murders. However, he’s never been convicted because the witnesses mysteriously disappear before they can testify against him.

Therefore, the authorities decide to take special precautions with the Rivas couple, the Cortez confederates who agreed to become state’s witnesses in the latest case against him. When the police escort arrives to place them in the witness protection program, the husband is killed in an ambush but his wife Daniella (Sofia Vergara) and policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) barely escape in a hail of bullets.

As they drive away in the Rivas’s Cadillac convertible, they realize that they’ve been targeted by mobsters and crooked cops. So, with no one but each other to lean on, the police officer and outlaw grudgingly join forces during their trip to a safe sanctuary in Dallas.

Of course, cooperating is easier said than done, because they’re polar opposites in almost every way. Daniella is a striking, statuesque chatterbox as oppposed to Cooper’s plain, diminutive, straitlaced personality. Nevertheless, the pair gradually bond during their road trip in which they have a close brush with death every five miles or so.

Directed by Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), Hot Pursuit is a mindless diversion full of the staples of the unlikely buddies genre, such as car chases and accidental drug use. Although the movie fails to break cinematic ground, it provides enough laughs to for this critic to recommend it.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, profanity, violence, and drug use. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

May 20, 2015
GOSH, I HOPE HE LIKES MY SONG: Beca (Anna Kendrick) has secretly taken an internship with an award winning record producer in hopes that he will like the songs that she has written.(Photo by Richard Cartwright-© Universal Pictures)

GOSH, I HOPE HE LIKES MY SONG: Beca (Anna Kendrick) has secretly taken an internship with an award winning record producer in hopes that he will like the songs that she has written. (Photo by Richard Cartwright-© Universal Pictures)

The Bellas are back and badder than before! In case you’re unfamiliar with the sassy, all-girl singing group, they’re students at Barden University, a fictional college located in Atlanta, Georgia. In the original movie, the students overcame a number of frustrating setbacks on the road to victory at the national a cappella competition.

Now the crew, led by senior Chloe (Brittany Snow), have their sights set on the world championship in Copenhagen. However, they get off to a horrible start, because of an embarrassing onstage wardrobe malfunction experienced by Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) during a command performance for President Obama and the First Lady.

The audience lets out a collective gasp when her leotard splits down the middle. As consequence of this unfortunate incident, the Barden Bellas are temporarily suspended from participating in competitions by the college’s board of governors.

During this break from performing, the movie develops the lives of several members of the group. Bumper (Adam DeVine) admires Amy but will she let him see her sensitive side? Meanwhile, Beca (Anna Kendrick) secretly takes an internship with a Grammy-winning record producer (Keegan-Michael Key), hoping that he will listen to the songs she’s composed.

There’s also suspense about an angry black lesbian (Ester Dean), a freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) who has low self-esteem; and an undocumented alien (Chrissie Fit) who is afraid she will be deported. The banter frequently borders on the politically incorrect, but it somehow works, perhaps because it’s never too mean-spirited.

As the assorted controversies are gradually resolved, the story focuses on the big competition against The Sound Machine, the German group that is the defending world champion. Paradoxically, even though the groups are supposed to be singing a cappella renditions of classic hits and show tunes, all the vocalists are accompanied by musical instruments.

Will the Bellas win? Sit back and enjoy the ride. As Bobby McFerrin would sing, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity and sexual innuendo. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

May 13, 2015
WHAT A WAY TO GET AROUND IN THE POST-APOCALYPTIC YEAR 2060: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) directs the driver of his Rube Goldberg means of transportation. He will soon meet up with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, not shown) and help her in her quest to rescue a group of sex slaves from their captor Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, not shown).(Photo by Jasin Boland—© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

WHAT A WAY TO GET AROUND IN THE POST-APOCALYPTIC YEAR 2060: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) directs the driver of his Rube Goldberg means of transportation. He will soon meet up with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, not shown) and help her in her quest to rescue a group of sex slaves from their captor Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, not shown). (Photo by Jasin Boland—© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Fury Road restarts the legendary Mad Max series which has been dormant for several decades. This fourth movie was again produced, written, and directed by Oscar-winner George Miller (Happy Feet) who chose Tom Hardy to replace Mel Gibson in the title role of Max Rockatansky — the former highway patrol officer who has become an intrepid road warrior who dispenses grisly vigilante justice.

Set in 2060 A.D., this post-apocalyptic adventure unfolds in the grim dystopia that is left after a series of global calamities that led to a breakdown of civilization. At the point of departure, we find Max haunted by his tragic past and hunted by desperate scavengers as he drifts around the vast wasteland in a rusty, rattling, off-road car.

The stoic gunslinger’s resolve to go it alone changes when he crosses paths with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a fearless female fleeing across the desert with a group of sex slaves hidden in her big rig. She’s just freed them from Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a ruthless tyrant who wants his breeders back, especially Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), since she’s pregnant and may be carrying his first male heir.

The enraged warlord has dispatched a caravan of bloodthirsty goons who will stop at nothing to retrieve his so-called “wives.”

Fortunately, Max agrees to join forces with Furiosa when he learns of their plight. They plan to drive across the desert to “The Green Place,” a Shangri-La rumored to be teeming with water, vegetation, and other scarce natural resources. But to get there our hero and heroine must negotiate a gauntlet of evil adversaries driving dune buggies that are fitted with a variety of deadly military hardware.

An edge-of-your-seat high body-count movie that is riveting from start to finish despite the lack of any plot development.

Excellent (****). Rated R for disturbing images and relentless, intense violence. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

May 6, 2015
FAIRY TALES CAN COME TRUE, IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU: When she wins the lottery, Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) a woman with bipolar disorder suddenly finds herself with enough money to make her dream of hosting a TV show like Oprah’s come true.(Photo by Suzanne Hanover

FAIRY TALES CAN COME TRUE, IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU: When she wins the lottery, Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) a woman with bipolar disorder suddenly finds herself with enough money to make her dream of hosting a TV show like Oprah’s come true. (Photo by Suzanne Hanover)

Let’s say you’re a diehard Oprah fan who has always wanted to have your own television series just like Oprah. What would you do if you won the lottery and suddenly had enough money to turn that dream into a reality?

That’s what happened to Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) when she won $86 million in the California Stacks Sweepstakes. The trouble is that she suffers from bipolar disorder and deludes herself into believing that now that she’s rich she no longer needs drugs.

So, she informs her psychiatrist (Tim Robbins) that she’s going off her medications and then offers him a bribe to give her a clean bill of health. Next, she approaches Rich, the general manager (James Marsden) of a TV station that specializes in infomercials, about buying air time for the talk show about herself that she wants to host.

Concerned about his struggling network’s bottom line, Rich gives his okay as soon as Alice gives him the $15 million needed to underwrite the project. His brother and business partner (Wes Bentley) is less enthusiastic about taking advantage of Alice until she proceeds to seduce him.

Since she’s the topic of every episode, Alice appropriately names the program “Welcome to Me.” The themes for the programs range from titles like “Jordana Spangler – a Liar,” “Matching Colors to Emotions,” “Lucky Foods,” “I Can Still Smell You,” and “Regulating Your Moods with a High-Protein Diet.” The only thing they have in common is that they focus on some aspect of the narcissistic emcee’s life.

The emotional exhibitionism proves compelling enough to improve ratings and Alice proceeds to self-destruct in front of her audience who can’t get enough of her no matter what she’s discussing. But at $150,000 per episode, it’s obvious that she’s eventually going to have a crash-landing .

Directed by Shira Piven, Welcome to Me is a droll dramatic comedy that is made for the comedic style of Kristen Wiig. Alternately vulnerable and bizarre, but always endearing, this movie is the Saturday Night Live (SNL) alumna’s best since Bridesmaids.

Kudos to Kristen for baring herself, literally and figuratively, and for delivering a performance that could easily have degenerated into the sort of slapstick she did on SNL.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, profanity, graphic nudity, and brief drug use. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Alchemy.

April 29, 2015
WELCOME TO PARADISE: Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, left) is greeted by the CEO and owner of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After winning a company wide lottery, Caleb was rewarded with a visit to Nathan’s mountain retreat. As it turns out, Nathan had an ulterior motive. He wants Caleb to evaluate his latest fembot to see if she can pass the Turing test, which means that she can pass as being a human instead of a cyborg.(Photo © 2015 — Universal Pictures International)

WELCOME TO PARADISE: Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, left) is greeted by the CEO and owner of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After winning a company wide lottery, Caleb was rewarded with a visit to Nathan’s mountain retreat. As it turns out, Nathan had an ulterior motive. He wants Caleb to evaluate his latest fembot to see if she can pass the Turing test, which means that she can pass as being a human instead of a cyborg. (Photo © 2015 — Universal Pictures International)

Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson) is a computer programmer for Blue Book, the most popular internet search engine in the world. When he wins a staff lottery, he is summoned to the hilltop retreat of the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).

After being brought there by corporate helicopter, he discovers that his billionaire boss has a hidden agenda. As it turns out, the place is really a high-tech facility that is conducting research in artificial intelligence.

In order to stay, Caleb is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement in which he promises to keep secret what he’s about to witness. Nathan next explains that an android has been invented, and he wants to see if it will pass the Turing test — which means that the software will be examined for signs that reveal the android is not human.

He then introduces Caleb to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful fembot that he wants Caleb to study for a week. Caleb is surprised by her level of sophistication, since her brain is complex enough to discern the meaning of idioms like “breaking the ice.” He’s even more impressed by her non-deterministic nature, as she appears to have been successfully programmed to have free will.

The plot thickens several days into the project when Ava senses Caleb has developed feelings for her. At that point, the attractive automaton quietly confides her fears about being expendable. She claims that Nathan wouldn’t have a second thought about wiping her memory banks clean once she’s no longer considered to be state-of-the-art. She points out that that’s what he’s done to each of her predecessors in his quest to build a better cyborg.

Where does Caleb’s loyalty lie? With the callous employer whom he suddenly sees as a heartless tinkerer? Or with the flesh-covered machine that exhibits a full range of emotions, including a seductive vulnerability? That is the dilemma confronting the anguished protagonist in Ex Machina, an intriguing science fiction adventure that is the directorial debut of Alex Garland. Best known as the scriptwriter of 28 Days Later, Garland proves he is a capable filmmaker here, with a thought provoking thriller that is guaranteed to keep you enthralled.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, violence, sexual references, and graphic nudity. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: A24.

April 22, 2015
TAKE YOUR CHOICE OF SITES TO VISIT: The computer screen automatically presents a list of choices as the user starts to type in the name of Laura Barns who committed suicide after being mercilessly hounded by cyberbullies. Her spirit takes revenge on her torturers a year later by terrorizing them online.

TAKE YOUR CHOICE OF SITES TO VISIT: The computer screen automatically presents a list of choices as the user starts to type in the name of Laura Barns who committed suicide after being mercilessly hounded by cyberbullies. Her spirit takes revenge on her torturers a year later by terrorizing them online.

On April 9, 2013, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) drank too much at a high school classmate’s unsupervised keg party and passed out and soiled herself. In the past, such immature behavior would have been forgiven as youthful indiscretion and quietly swept under the rug the next morning.

However, in the unforgiving digital age the slightest faux pas can easily come back to haunt you forever. That’s precisely what happened to Laura, thanks to a mean-spirited guest who, instead of helping her, whipped out his cell phone and recorded an embarrassing video of her sprawled on the ground.

This invasion of privacy escalated to cyber bullying when the video was posted online followed by a thread of cruel comments. After several days of merciless teasing, Laura took her life with a gun.

Now, exactly one year later, we find Laura’s former best friend Blaire (Shelley Hennig) flirting with Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) on Skype. Their exchange comes to an abrupt end when they are joined in the chatroom by a trio of friends, Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), and Ken (Jacob Wysocki).

Next, an anonymous intruder claiming to be Laura appears and starts divulging deep secrets about each of them. The spooked quintet assumes that the uninvited guest is their prankster pal, Val (Courtney Halverson), until she pops up on a separate screen. Then, when “Laura” starts knocking them off one-by-one, it becomes clear that they are dealing with a disembodied spirit bent on vengeance.

Directed by Levan Gabriadze, Unfriended is a found footage horror film designed for millennials. This novel movie unfolds on a computer screen from its beginning to its terrifying end. Although some people over 30 are apt to find the film disconcerting, the younger generation — that is addicted to electronic stimuli — 24/7, may feel right at home.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, sexuality, teen drug and alcohol abuse, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 82 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

April 15, 2015

 

THE PACK HAS REFORMED AND IS ON THE PROWL: In order to avenge the assassination of his brother, Deckard Shaw has convinced the gang to get together and help him track down his brother’s killers. They are shown here driving their cars on their way to making Shaw’s vow for revenge come true.(Photo by Scott Garfield - © 2015 - Universal Pictures)

THE PACK HAS REFORMED AND IS ON THE PROWL: In order to avenge the assassination of his brother, Deckard Shaw has convinced the gang to get together and help him track down his brother’s killers. They are shown here driving their cars on their way to making Shaw’s vow for revenge come true. (Photo by Scott Garfield – © 2015 – Universal Pictures)

The late Paul Walker (1973-2013) was best known for playing Brian O’Conner, a charismatic lead character of the Fast and Furious series. During a break in the filming of this seventh film, he perished in a fiery crash while being driven in a Porsche by his friend and financial advisor, Roger Rodas.

Director James Wan (The Conjuring) put the production on hold and consulted with Walker’s family before deciding to complete the project. After revising the script, he resumed shooting, using Paul’s younger brothers, Caleb and Cody, as body doubles.

As a result of the delays and complications from the changes in the movie, its budget ballooned to over a quarter-billion dollars. Nevertheless, the rewrite was worth the effort, since Furious 7 is easily the best movie in the series because it convincingly combines sentiment with its trademark swagger and spectacular action sequences.

The movie is still mainly a muscle car demolition derby featuring an array of sensational stunts that destroy 230 automobiles. But it’s also a touching tribute to Paul Walker.

At the point of departure, we’re reintroduced to Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a trained assassin who is hell-bent on avenging the death of his brother, the diabolical villain who was killed during the climax of the previous episode. Deckard’s already killed Han (Sung Kang), so gang leader Dom (Vin Diesel) encourages his wife (Michelle Rodriguez) and the rest of his ragtag crew of mercenaries to regroup in order to avoid the risk of getting picked off one-by-one, since there’s strength in numbers.

However, coaxing brother-in-law Brian out of retirement isn’t easy because he has settled down in suburbia and started a family with Mia (Jordana Brewster). However, the playboys Roman (Tyrese) and Tej (Ludacris) are game for another round of bombastic vehicular warfare, as they compete for the affections of the computer hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) who has just joined the gang.

The plot plunges the mercenaries headlong into a familiar concatenation of fisticuffs and gravity-defying car chases.

The movie is a captivating combination of camaraderie and action scenes tempered by enough nostalgia to tug at your heartstrings.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for pervasive violence and mayhem, suggestive content, and brief profanity. Running time: 137 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

April 2, 2015
Get Hard Movie

DRESSED FOR SUCCESS: James King (Will Ferrell) is at the top of his game and seems to be going even higher. Having just been made partner in his hedge fund company and about to marry his boss’s daughter, the future looks bright. However, he is brought down by a securities fraud conviction and is about to spend ten years in prison. (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

 

Thanks to a successful career as a hedge fund manager, James King (Will Ferrell) is living in the lap of luxury in a sprawling Bel Air mansion. Furthermore, his good fortune seems about to skyrocket because he has been promoted to partner and is going to marry the boss’s (Craig T. Nelson) daughter, Alissa (Alison Brie).

In contrast, working man Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart) lives on the other side of the tracks in South Central Los Angeles where he worries daily about the welfare of his wife (Edwina Findley) and young daughter (Ariana Neal). He’s eager to move his famiy out of the area but needs $30,000 to secure the mortgage on their dream house.

As a regular patron of a valet car washing service, James regularly interacts with Darnell. Nevertheless, he thinks that Darnell is a mugger one day when the black man approaches him in the office parking lot.

To add insult to injury, instead of apologizing for his mistake, James insensitively claims ”I would’ve reacted the same, if you were white.” Then, he rubs salt in Darnell’s wounds by suggesting that, “I got to where I am by hard work,” and smugly adds, “Success is a mindset.”

However, their roles are reversed when James is convicted of securities fraud and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin. A month before he has to report to prison, he asks Darnell to prepare him for life behind bars, based on the unfounded assumption that Darnell is an ex-convict.

Darnell agrees and charges James the $30,000 he needs as a down payment for his ticket out of the ghetto. However, the joke is on James, since the supposed “incarceration expert” he’s just hired has never even seen the inside of a jail.

Get Hard is a comedy co-starring Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell. The movie marks the directorial debut of Etan Cohen, whose successful mix of slapstick comedy and subtle social satire yields a cinematic experience that is silly but also thought-provoking.

So, one moment, we see goofy nudity from Ferrell who prances around in his birthday suit. Then we hear the musings of a spoiled rich kid boasting about how he built his company with his own two hands, before admitting that he had actually relied upon an 8 million dollar loan from his father as seed money.

If you are ready for politically incorrect fare that is racist, misogynistic, and homophobic, you probably will enjoy the inspired pairing of Ferrell and Hart who are at the top of their games.

Very Good (***). Rated R for nudity, drug use, ethnic slurs, profanity, sexuality, and crude humor.

Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

March 25, 2015
THE NON-CONFORMIST DIVERGENTS ARE FLEEING FOR THEIR LIVES: Tris (Shailene Woodley, left), her boyfriend Four (Theo James, center), and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are being hunted down by Jeanine (Kate Winslet, not shown) who is seizing control of the city, but has not succeeded in controlling the handful of Divergents who pose a threat to her dictatorship.(Photo by Andrew Cooper, © 2014, Lionsgate)

THE NON-CONFORMIST DIVERGENTS ARE FLEEING FOR THEIR LIVES: Tris (Shailene Woodley, left), her boyfriend Four (Theo James, center), and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are being hunted down by Jeanine (Kate Winslet, not shown) who is seizing control of the city, but has not succeeded in controlling the handful of Divergents who pose a threat to her dictatorship. (Photo by Andrew Cooper, © 2014, Lionsgate)

Insurgent is the second in the series of screen adaptations that are based on Veronica Roth’s blockbuster Divergent trilogy. This movie is a rarity for a cinematic sequel because it’s actually better than the first episode.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the series’ basic premise, the post-apocalyptic science fiction story is set amidst the crumbling ruins of a walled-in Chicago where what’s left of humanity has been divided into five factions based on their personality types: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the intelligent).

Our heroine, Tris (Shailene Woodley) was deemed a threat to society after testing positive for several of the aforementioned qualities, since that makes her a Divergent, one of the handful of nonconformists whose minds the government cannot control. Consequently at the end of the original movie, the headstrong rebel ends up orphaned and roaming the streets with her fellow non-conforming outcasts.

Insurgent picks up where Divergent left off, but with more intensity and more visually captivating special effects. At the point of departure, we find Tris on the run with her boyfriend Four (Theo James), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and Peter Hayes (Miles Teller). The fugitives are being sought by Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the maniacal Erudite leader who has seized control of the city by commandeering the Dauntless warrior class.

The despot has declared martial law until all threats to her power have been neutralized. Meanwhile, Tris and her compatriots continue to elude apprehension while simultaneously searching for a sacred talisman that was hidden by Tris’s late mother (Ashley Judd).

The ancient artifact is rumored to contain an important message from Chicago’s founding fathers. However, the box can only be accessed by a Divergent who succeeds in surviving an ordeal that tests for all five of the commonwealth’s designated virtues. Although it’s obvious that Tris is bright, fearless, and altruistic; she could perish while trying to prove herself a pacifist and truthful.

Fans of the source material will undoubtedly be surprised by this complicated challenge that wasn’t in the book. Nevertheless, the seamlessly interwoven plot device works in terms of ratcheting up the tension.

The film features a supporting cast that includes Oscar winners Kate Winslet and Octavia Spencer, and nominee Naomi Watts; along with effective performances from Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Zoe Kravitz, and Miles Teller. However, Insurgent is a Shailene Woodley movie from beginning to end.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sensuality, pervasive violence, intense action, mature themes, and brief profanity. Running time: 119 minutes. Distributor: Lions Gate Films.

March 18, 2015
BUT MY SON HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT: Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson, left) desperately tries to convince his long time friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) that Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) had nothing to do with the shooting of Shawn’s son when a drug deal involving two Albanian dealers went bad. Shawn was convinced that Mike, who happened to be the driver of the limousine hired by the dealers, was involved with the dealers and so had to be killed to avenge the death of Shawn’s son.(Photo by MYLES ARONOWITZ, © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

BUT MY SON HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT: Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson, left) desperately tries to convince his long time friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) that Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) had nothing to do with the shooting of Shawn’s son when a drug deal involving two Albanian dealers went bad. Shawn was convinced that Mike, who happened to be the driver of the limousine hired by the dealers, was involved with the dealers and so had to be killed to avenge the death of Shawn’s son. (Photo by MYLES ARONOWITZ, © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Hit man Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) and mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) have been friends for decades. So much so that the blood brothers from Brooklyn routinely recite their loyalty oath, “Wherever we’re going, we’re going together” as a reminder of their enduring alliance.

However, that unbreakable bond is shattered after Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) is gunned down during a drug deal with a couple of Albanian heroine dealers that went bad. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman), who is making an honest living as a chauffeur with a limousine company, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It turns out that he had no idea what was up when he was hired to serve as the Albanians’ getaway driver.

Nevertheless, revenge minded Shawn decides that his best friend’s son has to pay with his life. So, he tells Jimmy that he’s sending his assassins after Mike to even the score.

Of course Jimmy warns his son — who then calls the cops — ignoring his father’s advice to avoid the local police since they’re likely in cahoots with the Maguire crime family. When that turns out to be true, father and son end up on the run from both the authorities and the assassins.

Run All Night, features Liam Neeson, who’s cast in a role that he’s become associated with after his phenomenal performance as an overprotective parent in Taken. This picture’s premise puts a slight twist on the familiar theme because Jimmy’s not an empathetic protagonist given his career as a feared enforcer known as “The Gravedigger.”

Still, Jimmy wants to be redeemed in the eyes of his estranged son who rejected the notion of following in his father’s footsteps. Instead, Mike tried to be a boxer, and when that didn’t work out he took a legitimate job as a limousine driver.

Run All Night was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra who previously worked with Liam Neeson on Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014). Three times is definitely the charm as this adventure is their best collaboration yet. The film also features an excellent supporting cast which includes Nick Nolte, 2015 Oscar-winner Common (for the Best Song “Glory”), and veteran character actors Vincent D’Onofrio and Bruce McGill.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexual references, graphic violence, and drug use. In English and Albanian with subtitles. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

March 11, 2015
ISN’T THIS PLACE JUST PERFECT!: In his usual irrepressible manner, Sonny, (Dev Patel, center) accompanied by Muriel (Maggie Smith), raves enthusiastically about the potential of the building that they hope to turn into the second best exotic Marigold Hotel, provided they can find investors to finance their dream.(Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2014Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

ISN’T THIS PLACE JUST PERFECT!: In his usual irrepressible manner, Sonny, (Dev Patel, center) accompanied by Muriel (Maggie Smith), raves enthusiastically about the potential of the building that they hope to turn into the second best exotic Marigold Hotel, provided they can find investors to finance their dream. (Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2014Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

When we last saw Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) who, in spite of the objections of his meddling mother (Lillete Dubey), he had proposed to his girlfriend Sunaina (Tina Desai). The ambitious young entrepreneur had also managed to raise enough money to renovate the ramshackle hotel with the help of Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), one of the residents of the retirement community.

In this sequel, we find Sonny and Mrs. Donnelly en route to San Diego where they hope to persuade an executive (David Strathairn) of the Evergreen Corporation to invest in a second old folks home he hopes to open. After all, the first is now flourishing and almost filled to capacity.

Meanwhile, back in India, Sunaina is focused on their impending engagement ceremony, known as a Sagai. In the groom-to-be’s absence, she’s asked Kush (Shazad Latif), a friend of the family, to fill in as a dance partner so she can practice the elaborate dance routine that she will perform with Sonny at the ceremony. It is subtly hinted that Kush might pose a threat to the impending marriage because Sonny became so preoccupied with business matters the minute he returned to India.

That is only one of several storylines in a sequel which unfolds more like a daytime soap opera than a feature film. Scene after scene is a setup for another transparent love triangle.

For example, as she checks into the hotel, Lavinia Beach (Tamsin Grieg) becomes interested in another new guest, Guy (Richard Gere), but he is interested in Sonny’s widowed mother. Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie), a pretty British pensioner, can’t decide between the two wealthy Indian suitors she’s dating. And Doug (Bill Nighy) has grown fond of Evelyn (Judi Dench) even though he hasn’t yet divorced his wife (Penelope Wilton). And so forth.

The irrepressible Sonny serves as the master of ceremonies and ties all these loose strands together. Unfortunately, because he’s more of a clown in this film, the movie is a joke-to-joke farce that cannot be taken seriously.

Very Good (**½). Rated PG for mild epithets and suggestive material. In English and Hindi with subtitles. Running time: 122 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

March 4, 2015
WE’D BETTER HURRY OR WE’LL BE LATE TO SCHOOL: Three potential candidates for Coach Jim White’s newly formed cross-country track team race to school from the fields where they were picking fruits or vegetables from first light until school started. Because the farm workers received such low wages, their families needed the extra income their children earned in this manner. As it turns out, their daily sprint to school made them excellent candidates for the track team.(© 2014-Disney Enterprises, Inc)

WE’D BETTER HURRY OR WE’LL BE LATE TO SCHOOL: Three potential candidates for Coach Jim White’s newly formed cross-country track team race to school from the fields where they were picking fruits or vegetables from first light until school started. Because the farm workers received such low wages, their families needed the extra income their children earned in this manner. As it turns out, their daily sprint to school made them excellent candidates for the track team. (© 2014-Disney Enterprises, Inc)

In the fall of 1987, Jim White (Kevin Costner) was fired as head football coach of a high school team in Boise, Idaho after he lost his temper and hit one of his players in the face. With his wife (Maria Bello) and two young daughters (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher) to support, White found himself in urgent need of another job.

So, he accepted a demotion to assistant football coach at a public high school in the predominantly Latino, working-class town, of McFarland, California. However, once it became clear that being the second-in-command football coach wasn’t working out, White came up with the idea of creating a cross-country track team instead.

Though skeptical, Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez) grudgingly agreed, and White immediately started looking around the school for prospects. As it turned out, many of McFarland High’s Chicano students were excellent candidates, since they were used to running the long distance from the crop fields to the classroom after picking fruit and vegetables alongside their parents in the hours of light before school started.

When he found seven promising protégés, Coach White had to figure out how the runners’ families could afford to let their children train instead of working in the fields in the early hours of the morning. After all, the boys were being offered an opportunity to expand their horizons, and a standout runner could possibly receive an athletic college scholarship.

Directed by New Zealand’s Niki Caro (Whale Rider), McFarland, USA is more than the typical overcoming-the-odds sports story. True, it’s a classic case of a disgraced coach redeeming himself with the help of a crew of undiscovered underdogs. Nevertheless, this true story is touching because it simultaneously sheds light on the plight on of an invisible sector of society — the Chicano immigrants who harvest our produce for low wages.

Kevin Costner has never been more endearing than in this film where he portrays a devoted mentor and family man. And he’s supported by a talented cast of actors. When the closing credits roll we see photos of the real-life people portrayed in the film, plus updates about their present lives that validate all the sacrifices that were made.

Heartwarming!

Excellent (****) Rated PG for violence, mild epithets, and mature themes. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

February 25, 2015
CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE PROVEN TO BE AN EXCELLENT STUDENT: Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith, left) celebrates Jess Barrett’s (Margot Robbie) on being such a quick learner. Nicky took her on as his student after she botched an attempt to rob him by having her “husband” discovering them together in her hotel room.(© 2015-Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE PROVEN TO BE AN EXCELLENT STUDENT: Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith, left) celebrates Jess Barrett’s (Margot Robbie) on being such a quick learner. Nicky took her on as his student after she botched an attempt to rob him by having her “husband” discovering them together in her hotel room. (© 2015-Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) is an aspiring con artist who picked the worst guy to steal a wallet from when she chose Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith). She had no way of knowing that he was a third generation flimflam man whose grandfather once ran a crooked poker game in Harlem.

Nicky, after sharing drinks with Jess at a bar in midtown Manhattan, was curious to see what would happen when he accepted her invitation to come to her hotel room. So, he was ready when her accomplice (Griff Furst), posing as her angry husband, burst in brandishing a fake gun.

Instead of handing over his wallet, Nicky laughed and pointed out the flaws in their little shakedown, such as not waiting until he was naked to try to rob him. Jess is so impressed that she begs him to take her on as a protégé and tells him a hard luck story about having been a dyslexic foster child.

Nicky agrees to show her the ropes and even invites her to join his team of hustlers who are on their way to New Orleans where they plan to pickpocket unsuspecting tourists. They also devise an elaborate plan to fleece a wealthy compulsive gambler (BD Wong) of over a million dollars.

Jess proves to be a fast learner and the plot is executed without a hitch, however, after they become romantically involved, Nicky is reluctant to include her in his next operation. Instead, he moves on alone to Argentina, where he plans to bilk a racing car mogul Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro).

The plot thickens when Nicky finds Jess on the arm of the playboy billionaire when he arrives in Buenos Aires. Is she in love with Garriga or simply staging her own swindle? Will she expose Nicky as a fraud or will she be willing to join forces with her former mentor?

Co-directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love), Focus is an overplotted story that apparently takes its ideas from the House of Games (1987). But whereas that multi-layered mystery was perfectly plausible, this film goes from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Nonetheless, co-stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie generate enough chemistry to make the farfetched romantic romp worth seeing.

Good (**). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and brief violence. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

February 18, 2015
I’VE COME TO GIVE YOU SOME GOOD NEWS: Caine Wise (Channing Tatum, left) has arrived from a planet in a distant galaxy to inform Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) that she is not a poor housekeeper living from hand to mouth, but in reality is the rightful ruler of the planet Earth and is a member of a royal family.(Photo © 2015 - Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc)

I’VE COME TO GIVE YOU SOME GOOD NEWS: Caine Wise (Channing Tatum, left) has arrived from a planet in a distant galaxy to inform Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) that she is not a poor housekeeper living from hand to mouth, but in reality is the rightful ruler of the planet Earth and is a member of a royal family. (Photo © 2015 – Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc)

In 1999, Andy and Lana Wachowski wowed the world with a spectacular mind-bender called The Matrix. But that was ages ago — another millennium — in fact, and their fans have been patiently awaiting for another ground breaking science fiction series.

Their patience may have been answered by Jupiter Ascending, a futuristic adventure featuring Mila Kunis in the title role of Jupiter Jones. The film is probably the first installment in a series about the fate of humanity.

The picture opens in Chicago, which is where we meet Jupiter, a humble housekeeper — born without a country, a home, or a father. She hates her life of cleaning other people’s houses and her never-ending string of tough luck. However. she has an astrological chart marked by Jupiter rising at 23 degrees ascendant which supposedly means that she’s a woman who has a great destiny.

In truth, she’s not a maid, but is an alien with royal blood. It turns out that Jupiter is destined to inherit Earth, and she is informed of that by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), an emissary from a distant galaxy.

The epic unfolds by introducing a plethora of characters and filling in their back stories. For instance, we learn about Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton), three aliens, each of whom is vying for control of their family’s food business in the wake of the death of their mother.

That gruesome business involves the seeding of countless planets with life forms that will be consumed on the trio’s home planet. And, since Earth is now overflowing with people, they are ready to harvest humanity.

The only thing standing in the way is Jupiter, whose royal genetic signature has established her to be an Abrasax and the rightful heir to Earth. For that reason, there’s a price on her head. And Jupiter and humanity’s survival rests on the shoulders of her proverbial knight in shining armor, Caine.

Once this creepy Soylent Green (1973) subplot is revealed, the pace of Jupiter Ascending ramps up. At that point, Jupiter is taken on a visually captivating journey which careens around the universe at breakneck speed, and finally deposits her back home where she happily finds herself surrounded by familiar faces.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence, science fiction action, partial nudity, and some suggestive content. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.