April 19, 2017

Created by the Belgian cartoonist Peyo, the Smurfs started out as a comic strip in 1958. Over the years, the popular series about a clan of small blue humanoids moved to television and the movies, and in 2011 and 2013 two live-action films were released.

Smurfs: The Lost Village is an animated tale of female empowerment co-written by Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon. Pamela Ribon’s previous screenplay was for the movie Moana. In this film, the heroine also has many of the same characteristics as the heroine of Moana.

The Lost Village is about Smurfette (Demi Lovato), until now, the only female Smurf. In fact, she’s not actually a Smurf, but a facsimile fabricated from a lump of clay by the evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson).

As the film opens, we find Smurfette frolicking with her best friends Brainy (Danny Pudi), Hefty (Joe Manganiello), and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer). The narrator and patriarch Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin) points out that all the other smurfs’ names describe their dominant traits, such as Grouchy (Jake Johnson), Jokey (Gabriel Iglesias), and Nosey (Kelly Asbury), while Smurfette’s name does not give any hints about her character.

The plot thickens when Smurfette, with the help of an inverted leaf, hang-glides over the wall that separates the Smurf compound from the Forbidden Forest. Her three worried friends follow her, and the quartet finds a mysterious map with directions leading to the Lost Village. The village turns out to be an all-girl enclave of Amazonian Smurfs who are led by Smurfwillow (Julia Roberts).

The four Smurfs find themselves in a race with Gargamel to reach the Lost Village. He’s hatched a diabolical plot to kidnap all the Smurfs and then become the most powerful wizard in the world by ingesting their essence after boiling them in his lab.

Fortunately, there’s a two-fisted shero (she-hero) who proves that a girl can grow up to be anything she wants to be.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mild action and rude humor. Running time: 90 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

April 12, 2017

Released in 1979, the original Going in Style was about three retirees who broke the monotony of their dreary lives by robbing a bank. That critically-acclaimed comedy co-starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg.

Ordinarily, one would think twice before remaking a classic. However, despite the challenge, Zach Braff (Garden State), decided to try.

He had Oscar nominee Theodore Melfi (screenplay for Hidden Figures) write a terrific script that was loosely based on the original movie. He retained the main characters’ names and the basic “bank heist” premise and updated the dialogue and plot to yield a rollicking adventure.

Zach also convinced Academy Award-winners Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin to play the leads. Although they are 79, 84, and 83 years old, respectively, they generate an endearing camaraderie, and deliver every punchline with perfect timing.

At the point of departure, we find Joe (Caine) in the midst of complaining to an unsympathetic loan officer (Josh Pais) about Williamsburg Savings Bank’s impending foreclosure on his home when the bank is held-up by a gang of masked men. Later, while talking with his former co-workers Willie (Freeman) and Al (Arkin), Joe realizes that they’ve all fallen prey to the bank’s shady practices that included the bankrupting of the pension fund that they were all dependent upon.

The victims decide to take the law into their own hands and conspire to retrieve precisely the amount of money that was “stolen” from them by the bank. Of course, the hold-up proves easier to plan than execute.

Fortunately, the threesome are not to be deterred, even after a disastrous dry run attempt at shoplifting at a local supermarket. However, what’s bad for them is great for the audience, and the laughs just keep coming, even through the closing credits.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, drug use, and suggestive material. Running time: 97 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

April 5, 2017

In 1928, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) became the director of the Warsaw Zoo. For the next ten years, he ran it with the help of his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain). With their help, the zoo flourished until the outbreak of the Second World War in September of 1939 after Hitler invaded Poland.

The zoo was closed to the public after being repeatedly bombed by the Luftwaffe during the siege of the city. However, the Zabinskis continued to live on the grounds with their young son (Timothy Radford) and tended to the animals that managed to survive the bombings.

After Warsaw was occupied by the Nazis, the couple was ordered to report directly to Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the Third Reich’s chief zoologist. Despite being married, Heck was attracted to Antonina, and he shamelessly forced himself on her as they were attending to the animals in the zoo.

Knowing that resistance was futile and might cost his wife her life, Jan told her to submit to the unwelcome advances. Understandably, he felt utterly emasculated because he was unable to prevent Antonina from being ravished by Heck.

However, the Zabinskis did find a way to work against the Nazis through the Polish resistance movement. Joining the underground, they secretly helped smuggle Jews destined for the concentration camps out of the Warsaw ghetto. They also hid the escapees on the grounds of the zoo even though death was the punishment for assisting a Jew.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a fact-based dramatic documentary adapted from Diane Ackerman’s bestseller of the same name. Ackerman’s book is based on an unpublished memoir written by Antonina Zabinski.

Directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), the picture stars Jessica Chastain as the title character. The two-time Academy Award-nominee (The Help and Zero Dark Thirty) delivers an excellent performance.

Excellent (****) Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, mature themes, smoking, sexuality, and brief nudity. Running time: 126 minutes. Studio: Scion Films. Distributor: Focus Features.

March 29, 2017

Recently Hollywood has been making some outer space adventures, such as The Martian (2015) and The Space between Us (2017), in which the Red Planet is a benign environment that is free of hostile creatures. In contrast, Life is a horror film about a terrifying alien force from Mars that comes to an international space station.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), the thriller co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds as Dr. David Jordan and Roy Adams, respectively, the space ship Pilgrim 7’s flight engineer and chief medical officer. The rest of the six-person crew members are Center for Disease Control quarantine specialist Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), systems engineer Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), eco-biologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), and the spaceship’s captain, Katerina Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya).

As the film opens, we learn that their mission is to receive a single-cell organism that will be arriving via a space probe from the surface of Mars and deliver it to Earth. It all sounds easy as the disarming plotline initially devotes itself to developing the characters’ back stories, such as David’s service in the Iraq War. When the capsule arrives, they celebrate the discovery of the first incontrovertible proof of life beyond Earth. Sho’s daughter even gives the apparently innocuous substance a cute name, unaware of the danger that is lurking.

The plot thickens when “Calvin” begins reproducing via mitosis, and every cell of its luminescent ectoplasmic mass contains a mix of brains and muscles. By the 25th day, the sentient creature develops proto-appendages and becomes strong enough to breach its container.

Initially, it nibbles on Hugh’s finger, who somehow discerns that “Calvin doesn’t hate us, but he’s got to kill us to survive.” What ensues is a desperate race against time to return to Earth before the mushrooming monster devours them one at a time.

Reminiscent of science fiction classics such as Alien (1979) and Species (1995), Life is a worthy addition to the extraterrestrial threat genre. Substantial credit goes to Jake Gyllenhaal who gives an impressive performance. Prepare yourself for a screamfest that will keep you squirming in your seat.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, terror, and profanity. In English, Japanese, and Chinese, with subtitles. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

March 22, 2017

Every couple of years or so, this reviewer is approached by a friend or acquaintance who is excited about some great new product that they’ve just quit their job to sell. Curiously, instead of trying to make me a customer, they’re always more interested in offering me an opportunity to share in their good fortune by becoming a distributor.

That’s a red flag that the business isn’t legitimate, but a pyramid scheme. Such an operation is easy to identify, because its participants profit primarily by recruitment rather than by the sale of goods or services to consumers.

Directed by Ted Braun (Darfur Now), Betting on Zero chronicles hedge fund manager Bill Ackman’s campaign to expose the health food corporation Herbalife as being a multi-level marketing Ponzi scheme. What makes the movie intriguing is that Ackman may not have been acting altruistically, since he had also shorted Herbalife by placing a billion-dollar bet that the company’s stock price would plummet.

Nevertheless, Ackman was considered a Robin Hood in working-class circles, because he promised to distribute any profits he might make — when the stock’s value plummeted — to the unsophisticated minorities who had lost their life savings that they had invested in the company. The millions of victims were predominantly undocumented immigrants who were afraid to report how they’d been fleeced to the authorities because they were afraid of being deported.

To prove his case, Ackman first needed to convince the Federal Trade Commission that Herbalife was indeed a criminal enterprise. That would not be easy, considering all the prominent individuals who were lobbying on behalf of the firm, such as CNBC investment adviser Jim Kramer, Donald Trump’s crony Carl Icahn, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and ex-Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa.

For instance, billionaire Carl Icahn not only propped up Herbalife’s stock by taking a huge stake in the company but even went on television to refute Ackman’s pledge to give his financial gains from short selling the stock to charity. Ultimately, the controversial case is resolved in one side’s favor, though it would be unfair for me to spoil the ending.

Is Herbalife a con game being run by shady snake oil salesmen, or a benign operation affording average people a realistic shot at the elusive American Dream? You be the judge.

Excellent (****). Unrated. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Zipper Bros. Films.

March 15, 2017

The original King Kong (1933), starring Fay Wray, was about an expedition to an uncharted island in the Indian Ocean that was inhabited by prehistoric creatures. The explorers captured and caged a gigantic ape and put it on exhibition in New York as the 8th Wonder of the World.

Kong escapes and wreaks havoc in the city before scaling the face of the Empire State Building during one of the most iconic climaxes in the annals of cinema. A spin-off, Son of Kong, was released later that year, and launched a series of sequels and remakes.

Kong: Skull Island is a refreshing remake of the original and co-stars Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, and Tom Hiddleston. The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts who made his debut in 2013 with the comedy The Kings of Summer.

The special effects adventure unfolds in the 1970s, near the end of the Vietnam conflict. As the film opens, we find Bill Randa (Goodman) pressuring a U.S. senator (Richard Jenkins) to underwrite an expedition to a Pacific island that is constantly surrounded by treacherous storms that have caused the mysterious disappearance of countless boats and airplanes.

Once the expedition is approved, Randa assembles a crew composed of a photographer (Larson), a geologist (Corey Hawkins), a biologist (Jing Tian), and a bureaucrat (John Ortiz). The team is escorted to the island by a squadron of Vietnam veterans led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson).

It’s man versus monsters in a struggle to survive in a hellhole that time forgot. Stay until the end of the credits and you’ll see an extended postscript previewing Godzilla vs. Kong, a sequel slated for release in the spring of 2020.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for action, intense violence, and brief profanity. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

March 8, 2017

Samantha “Sam” Kingston (Zoey Deutch) was a spoiled brat who was killed on the night February 12th in a tragic car crash. She and her younger sister Izzy (Erica Tremblay) grew up in the lap of luxury as they were raised by their loving parents (Jennifer Beals and Nicholas Lea).

Also, the unfortunate 17-year-old was leaving behind a handsome boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley) and an ardent admirer — Kent (Logan Miller), a platonic friend whom she had taken for granted since grade school. Sam was also popular at her High School where she was part of an exclusive clique that also included her three best friends, Liz (Halston Sage), Elody (Medalion Rahimi), and Ally (Cynthy Wu).

The quartet delighted in teasing classmates like the lesbian Anna (Liv Hewson) and a reclusive outcast Juliet (Elena Kampouri). Sam would think nothing was wrong with dumping drinks on Juliet while calling her a “psycho bitch.”

However, after the accident, she was given the unusual opportunity to reconsider her cruel behavior when, instead of dying, her spirit miraculously reentered her body. When she awoke, she realized that it was again dawn on February 12th, and that she was about to relive the day.

In fact, Sam experiences February 12th over and over, learning valuable lessons in tolerance each go-round. Thus unfolds Before I Fall, a bittersweet tale of redemption based on Lauren Oliver’s novel of the same name.

Of course the picture’s premise is reminiscent of the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day (1993). The movie was directed by Ry Russo-Young (Nobody Walks), who puts a fresh spin on the theme so that you forget Groundhog Day after the first 15 minutes.

Zoey Deutch is incredibly convincing as Sam in a demanding role which calls for a considerable acting range over the course of the story. Her supporting cast delivers stellar work in portraying an escapist fantasy that might easily have fallen apart.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes, bullying, sexuality, violent images, profanity, and underage drinking. Running time: 99 minutes. Distributor: Open Road Films.

March 1, 2017

After the untimely death of his father, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) was crowned the King of Bechuanaland when he was only four-years-old. Therefore, his Uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene) assumed the reins of power until Seretse completed his education.

While studying law in Great Britain, he fell in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) who was a clerk at Lloyd’s of London. Their romance ignited an international firestorm of controversy because of their color, not their class, differences.

He was black and she was white, and this was 1946, when there was strict racial segregation. So, the couple’s scandalous liaison was met with resistance in England and in Africa.

Although they were the target of racial slurs like “slut” and “savage” while out on dates, the hostility served to intensify their feelings for one another. Additionally, Seretse was threatened with the loss of his throne, since Bechuanaland was a protectorate of neighboring South Africa, a white supremacist nation. Nevertheless, he proposed to Ruth and they were married a year after they had met.

Unfortunately, major impediments were placed between the exiled young monarch and the governing of his country, and that struggle is the subject of A United Kingdom. Directed by Amma Asante (Belle), the film was shot on location in Botswana, which is now the country’s name after it gained independence in 1966.

Because the movie focuses on Ruth and Seretse’s relationship, its success or failure depends on the performances of the co-stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. Fortunately, they’re both very talented actors who generate the chemistry that is necessary to make their characters’ relationship convincing.

The movie is based on the book Colour Bar. Unfortunately, the film’s only flaw is that it feels rushed, as if director Asante had a long list of items — taken from the 432-page book — that she wanted to include in the movie. Nonetheless, the final product is a praiseworthy production.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sensuality, profanity, and ethnic slurs. Running time: 111 minutes. Studio: Harbinger Pictures. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

February 22, 2017

When novelist/social critic James Baldwin passed away in 1987, he left behind an unfinished work titled Remember This House. The 30-page manuscript assessed the plight of African Americans in the United States and specifically discussed the assassinations of three civil rights icons: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck (Lumumba), cinematically fleshes out Baldwin’s musings into a searing indictment of the United States as an unapologetically racist nation. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the movie has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category.

The focus of the film never strays far from Baldwin, alternating between archival footage of him challenging the status quo and Jackson’s readings from Remember This House and Baldwin’s other writings. Again and again, he questions the depth of the country’s commitment toward reversing the damage inflicted upon the black community by generations of slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow segregation.

For example, he asserts that most Caucasians are perfectly comfortable relegating African Americans to a second-class status. He even goes so far as to refer to them as morally blind monsters who see blacks as sub-human. Until that attitude is eradicated, whites will never recognize that “I am flesh of their flesh.”

Baldwin concludes that “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.” Therefore, with black and white fates inextricably linked, “It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro. The real question is what is going to happen to this country.”

Given today’s precarious state of race relations, the late visionary’s insights prove timely now.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, violent images, and brief nudity. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

February 15, 2017

When we first met John Wick (Keanu Reeves), he had gone on a bloody killing spree after losing the love of his life (Bridget Moynahan). And at the end of that film we saw the wounded assassin walk into the sunset with a puppy that he had rescued from the dog pound.

John Wick Chapter 2 opens with Wick vowing to retire after he retrieves his stolen Mustang from a Russian gang. However, before he can retire, he is recruited by mafioso Santonio D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) to perform one last hit.

The mobster wants his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) assassinated so that he can take the reins of the powerful Mafia family that were left to her by their late father. Wick grudgingly agrees to kill her only because Santonio is holding his marker, that ironically turns out to be a blood oath in which he promises to leave his grisly line of work.

Next, Wick goes to Rome to track down Gianna, who commits suicide when she realizes the reason for his visit. Unfortunately, her death doesn’t sit well with her gang of guards, especially her personal bodyguard, Cassian (Common).

So, Wick kills wave after wave of Gianna’s bodyguards while running through the catacombs. After a miraculous escape, things are no better back in America where the senseless slaughter continues.

That is the sum and substance of John Wick: Chapter 2. Keanu Reeves seems to excel when he is called upon to dispatch dozens, if not hundreds, of adversaries in a variety of creative ways.

The picture reunites Reeves with Laurence Fishburne, who was his co-star in The Matrix trilogy. Laurence has a minor role, however, but Common is a standout who proves to be Wick’s worthy adversary in a protracted hand-to-hand showdown.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, brief nudity, and pervasive violence. In English, italian, Hebrew, and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 122 minutes. Distributor: Summit Entertainment.

February 8, 2017

Not since the campy TV-sitcom in the 60s has Batman been so successfully lampooned. In this movie, the superhero is the perfect material for parody in this madcap animated adventure.

More concerned with jokes than plot development, this spoof is relentless in its rush to find the next punch line. Fortunately, the picture never disappoints, whether the laughs are generated by clever quips, silly sight gags, or allusions to earlier versions of the Batman franchise.

For example, right before confronting a couple of villains, Batman (Will Arnett) tells Robin (Michael Cera) that, “We’re going to punch these guys so hard that words are going to magically appear out of thin air.” That, of course is a reference to the cartoon bubbles (such as “Crack!” and “Pow!”) that appeared on the screen during fist fights in the 60s television series.

And it’s not just the TV Batman that gets knocked off a pedestal, every other version of The Caped Crusader is fair game. In this film, Chris McKay makes a remarkable directorial debut with this frenetically-paced farce.

The picture does have a plot that is really just another stock Batman storyline. At the point of departure, The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is planning to level Gotham City with the help of a host of super-villains. In turn, Batman enlists the assistance of Robin (Michael Cera), Batgirl (Rosario Dawson), and his loyal butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes).

However, before the action begins between these archenemies, the Joker demands that Batman actually say “I hate you” to his face. When that phrase isn’t forthcoming, the Clown Prince of Crime vindictively responds with “I’m done — and on my way out, I’m going to blow up Gotham City.”

The ensuing mix of mirth and mayhem is mesmerizing, and it’s easy to forget that you’re watching LEGO figures.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for action and rude humor. Running time: 90 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

February 1, 2017

20th Century Women, written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners), is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. The nostalgic drama is about the efforts of a neurotic single mother to raise her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who desperately needs a role model.

The picture’s protagonist is Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a middle-aged chain-smoker who owns the rooming house where the story is set. She recruits two considerably younger females, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning), to help her raise Jamie and, for some reason, ignores her handyman, William (Billy Crudup), who is actually a pleasant father figure.

Abbie tries to reach the impressionable teenager by having him read popular feminist manifestos such as Sisterhood Is Powerful. On the other hand, Julie, 17, establishes a Platonic relationship with him because they’ve known each other since they were little.

The engaging drama uses flashbacks to develop each of the lead characters’ back stories. For example, we hear Jamie thinking about life with his mother — who is fretting about her inability to understand him less and less every day. We also learn about Abbie’s concern about her cervical cancer scare, and Julie’s resentment of her therapist mother who is forcing her into group therapy sessions.

20th Century Women transports the audience back to the late 70s. The movie resurrects the era’s fashions and decor and the action unfolds against familiar backdrops of the period. In addition, the film’s score features a mix of musical artists such as Rudy Vallee, Louie Armstrong, David Bowie, and The Talking Heads.

Excellent (***½). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, and brief drug use. Running time: 119 minutes. Distributor: A24 Films.

January 25, 2017

When it was released in 2002, xXx grossed over $250 billion dollars worldwide in theaters alone. The espionage adventure, that starred Vin Diesel, was reminiscent of a James Bond film, but with a handsomer hero and more spectacular stunts and special effects.

It’s taken 15 years for Diesel to reprise the role he originated. The picture is filled with the death-defying feats that made the first xXx such a hit. That means plenty of action sequences in which the protagonist is impervious to bullets and the law of gravity. Directed by D.J. Caruso (Disturbia), xXx: Return of Xander Cage also acknowledges earlier episodes by showing cameos of Samuel L. Jackson and Ice Cube.

At the point of departure, we find Xander living under the radar in exile in Latin America. He’s an extreme sports enthusiast, and just for fun, skis across the treetops of a verdant rain forest and then switches to a skateboard in a breathtaking ride down a winding mountainside highway.

However, he is coaxed out of retirement by a CIA chief (Toni Collette) in order to keep the world safe. His mission involves retrieving a devastating weapon of mass destruction code-named “Pandora’s Box” that’s fallen into the hands of a gang led by a diabolical trio (Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, and Deepika Padukone) who are bent on world domination.

Refusing the aid of a U.S. military support team, Xander recruits a crew of renegades. Can that rag-tag posse, composed of a crack sniper (Ruby Rose), a fearless getaway driver (Rory McCann), a state-of-the-art gadget wizard (Nina Dobrev), and an affable DJ/ jack-of-all-trades (Kris Wu), rise to the occasion?  Anything is possible, with cartoon physics on your side!

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, profanity, and pervasive violence. Running time: 107 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

January 18, 2017

Saroo (Dev Patel) was born into poverty in India’s Khandwa district. He lived there with his single mother, Kamla (Priyanka Bose), his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), and his younger sister, Shekila (Khushi Solanki).

His illiterate mother eked out a living by carrying rocks from a local quarry, and she could barely afford to keep a roof over their heads. So, when Guddu found a night job hauling bales of hay, Saroo begged to go with him to help, even though he was really too small for the job.

Saroo fell asleep after the long ride sitting on his brother’s bike’s handlebars to the worksite. “It’s my fault, for bringing him here,” Guddu lamented, before leaving Saroo alone for the night on a train station bench.

Unfortunately, when Guddu was nowhere to be seen when he woke up, the five-year-old forgot his brother’s instruction to stay put and went looking for him. While searching for food on a decommissioned train, the train’s doors locked and it started moving. After several days, Saroo ended up in Bengal, a city 1,600 miles away. When he got off the train, Saroo couldn’t get any help from the busy passers-by, because he did not speak the language spoken there, and he mispronounced the name of his hometown, “Ganestalay.”

He ended up struggling to survive on the streets, until he was taken in by a local orphanage. After some time Saroo, who didn’t know his last name, his mother’s name, or where he was from, was sent to Australia where Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham), were eager to adopt him.

For the next 25 years, he grew up going to school, playing cricket, swimming in a cove off the ocean, and then falling in love with Lucy (Rooney Mara), an Australian. Then one fateful evening a childhood memory was triggered during a dinner of Indian food.

Compulsively curious about his roots, Saroo used his computer to search for his birthplace in India. Finally he realized that he had been mispronouncing the name of the area where he was born and found it on the computer. When he flew to India, he had a joyous reunion with his mother and younger sister, but sadly his brother Guddu had died.

Adapted from Saroo Brierley’s autobiography, A Long Way Home, Lion is a heartbreaking biopic with an emotional punch, thanks to powerful performances by Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel as the young and adult Saroo, respectively. The supporting cast, led by Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman, portrayed the women who had played pivotal roles in Saroo’s life.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes and some sensuality. In English, Hindi, and Bengali with subtitles. Running time: 118 minutes.

Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

January 11, 2017

Paterson (Adam Driver), who happens to live in Paterson, New Jersey, is stuck in a rut. By day, the municipal bus driver drives his bus on a boring route in Paterson. After work, he hangs out at a dingy, neighborhood bar where he limits himself to one beer. Then, he heads home to be with his loving wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and his bulldog, Marvin.

Writing is his only escape from the mind-numbing monotony. Whenever he has some free time, he scribbles poetry into a secret notebook that he always carries with him. Laura wants him to make a copy of the journal in case it gets lost or is accidentally destroyed.

By comparison, Laura is ambitious. Despite her foreign accent and a lack of musical training, she dreams of becoming a country western singer. So, she wants to purchase a guitar and take lessons that they can’t really afford. Fortunately for her, her husband is too blasé to object to her plans.

Resigned to his lot in life, the unassuming blue-collar hero takes everything in stride, whether dealing with passengers, unwinding with his wife, or schmoozing with the colorful regulars at the local saloon. Thus unfolds Paterson, the latest film from the legendary Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise).

The movie relies upon the dialogue of the script that has become a Jarmusch trademark. The movie is more concerned with character development than with cinematic effects. In the film, Adam Driver successfully tones down his usual over-the-top act in order to play the title role of an undistinguished Average Joe.

The picture’s charm rests in the gifted director’s ability to elevate a humble “Everyman” into a personality worthy of a movie audience’s attention.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity. Running time: 118 minutes. Studio: Amazon. Distributor: Bleecker Street Media.

January 4, 2017

All of the astronauts who were chosen by NASA to participate in its first manned space programs — Mercury and Gemini — were white males. However, behind the scenes, there was a dedicated team of female African American mathematicians who played a pivotal role in ensuring that the missions launched and returned safely to Earth.

Equipped with pencils and slide-rules, these “human computers” were among the best and the brightest minds recruited by NASA and performed the critical calculations that were necessary to control the launches and returns of the missions. Author Margot Lee Shetterly describes the lives of these unsung heroines in Hidden Figures, a bestseller that credits their contributions to the space race.

In addition to chronicling their accomplishments, the book also recounts the indignities these brilliant black women suffered while living in Virginia during the days of Jim Crow. Back then, African American’s employed by NASA were automatically assigned to work in the segregated West Computing Group.

Directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), the story is an uplifting documentary drama. The movie recounts the trials and tribulations of three members of the unit: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).

The film shows how, without complaining, Katherine had to run to a distant “colored” ladies room despite the presence of one for whites that was nearby. On another occasion, we see Mary’s frustration in furthering her education because blacks weren’t allowed to enroll in the local college that was offering the courses she needed.

By the film’s end, both the bathroom and school were integrated after an emotional intervention by NASA administrator Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). The movie is a dramatic documentary that corrects a shameful chapter in American history.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mature themes and mild epithets. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

December 28, 2016

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) was having a hard time hanging on to his job as a janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts, when he received word from a family friend (C.J. Wilson) that his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), had just suffered a heart attack after he fell on his fishing boat. Lee immediately rushed to the hospital to learn that his sibling had just passed away.

Joe had been raising his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) by himself, because his wife (Gretchen Mol) had a serious substance abuse problem. Lee not only has to tell Patrick about the tragedy, but he has to tell him that, in accordance with his brother’s last wishes, he is now his guardian.

Reluctantly, Lee moves back to his hometown, Manchester by the Sea, a place where he’d already had more than his share of misfortune in the past. While trying to raise a headstrong 16-year-old, he is also forced to confront his personal problems, especially when he crosses paths with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams).

Thus unfolds Manchester by the Sea, a drama written and directed by two time Oscar nominee Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me and Gangs of New York). Another Academy Award nomination is likely for this heartrending portrait of a working-class hero.

Lee is not your typical protagonist. He’s an underachiever with a checkered past. Yet, by the same token, it is clear that he is determined to do his best for Lucas. Unfortunately, Lee is a man of few words who finds it difficult to communicate with his teenage nephew.

Nonetheless, Lonergan manages to explore Lee’s psyche in a novel way that not only makes him accessible, but likable. Credit must go to Casey Affleck, too, for his performance in a role where he was often forced to resort to non-verbal communication in situations where words escaped Lee.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality and pervasive profanity. Running time: 137 minutes. Distributor: Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions.

December 21, 2016

In 1987, Fences won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. The August Wilson classic, set in Pittsburgh in the 50s, described the day-to-day struggles of a blue-collar African-American family. The production was brought back to Broadway in 2010 and it received Tony awards for Best Revival — and for Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as the Best Actor and Best Actress.

Directed by Washington, the movie reunites Denzel with Viola and most of of the principal stage cast, including Mykelti Williamson, Stephen Henderson, and Russell Hornsby. The faithful adaptation of the Wilson masterpiece doesn’t attempt to amplify the original beyond a few tweaks that were made for the filmed version.

The story is about the trials and tribulations of Troy (Washington), a 53-year-old garbage man who aspires to being promoted to the position of truck driver. Unfortunately, he’s “colored,” and that position has, to date, been filled by whites. So, Troy and his co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson) have to settle for grumbling about the racism that has kept them from advancing in their jobs.

Troy didn’t always have such modest dreams. In his youth, he’d exhibited promise as a baseball player. However, his hope of becoming a pro disappeared when he was convicted for committing a murder. He did try out for the major leagues when he was paroled at 40, but that proved to be an exercise in futility.

As a result, Troy takes to whiskey, that he drinks straight from the bottle. Rose (Davis), his long-suffering wife, is understandably worried that he will drink himself to death. The picture’s other pivotal characters include the couple’s teenage son (Jovan Adepo), Troy’s adult son (Hornsby) from his first marriage, and Troy’s mentally challenged brother, Gabe (Williamson), a wounded World War II veteran who has a metal plate in his head.

The plot thickens when Troy informs Rose that he has a mistress who is pregnant. Will this be the last straw that breaks the back of their shaky relationship?

Denzel and Viola deliver emotionally-provocative performances that will probably get them Academy Award nominations. The movie paints a plausible picture of black life in the inner city in the 50s.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, ethnic slurs, mature themes, and sexual references. Running time: 138 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

December 14, 2016

How did Jackie Kennedy feel after her husband’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963? That is the question explored in Jackie, a movie that paints a portrait of Camelot’s First Lady by speculating about her mental state during the days immediately following the assassination of JFK (Caspar Phillipson).

Directed by Pablo Larrain (Neruda), Jackie stars Academy Award winner Natalie Portman (Black Swan) in the title role. Portman is likely to receive another Oscar nomination for her convincing impersonation of the legendary First Lady. She manages to replicate the Jackie Kennedy iconography, such as the whispery voice and the pillbox hats, and plumbs the depths of her soul.

As a result, we get a sense of her internal angst in a variety of situations, such as when she had to break the news of their father’s death to Caroline (Sunnie Pelant) and John-John (Aiden and Brody Weinberg). Or when she was rushed out of the White House by incoming Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant), who was already thinking about replacing the drapes before JFK had been buried.

Fortunately, Jackie did have someone to depend upon on in her hour of need. It was not her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) who thought of her as a “silly, little debutante,” but the Catholic priest (John Hurt) who was her confidant and confessor. He helped Jackie summon the strength and courage to accompany her husband’s casket on foot in the funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue, despite fears of a copycat assassin.

Her faith faltering, Jackie admitted that, “I think God is cruel.” She even wondered aloud whether she might have been better off marrying “an ordinary, lazy, ugly man.” And while Jackie desperately grasps at straws to make sense of her unspeakable nightmare, the only comforting words her supportive cleric can find are “There are no answers in man’s search for meaning.”

The movie is a bittersweet documentary drama that echoes the lyrics from the classic show tune Jackie identified as JFK’s favorite: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and brief graphic violence. Running time: 99 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

December 7, 2016

If you only see one movie this year, La La Land is the picture to catch. This nostalgic homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood is a panoramic masterpiece that makes effective use of every inch of the big screen.

Written and directed by Oscar nominee Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), the picture was shot in CinemaScope, an obsolete technology that fell out of favor with filmmakers in the late 60s. Chazelle resurrects the wide-angled lens to produce an old-fashioned musical that unfolds against a breathtaking array of Los Angeles backdrops. La La Land also features an enchanting original score composed by Justin Hurwitz, who has also collaborated before with his college classmate Damien on the movies Whiplash and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.

This romantic film is about Sebastian Wilder and Mia Dolan, struggling artists who are played to perfection by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone respectively. Their supporting cast includes J.K. Simmons, John Legend, and Rosemarie DeWitt.

After a show-stopping opening staged on a gridlocked freeway where stuck motorists suddenly break into song and dance, we’re introduced to the lead actors. We learn that jazz pianist Sebastian is a purist who plays for tips in dingy dives while trying to save enough cash to open his own nightclub. Mia is an aspiring actress who divides her time between auditions and a job as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot.

Sebastian and Mia are strangers who initially annoy each other whenever their paths cross. Eventually, however, sparks do fly which inspires them to sing mellifluous and melancholy tunes. They also fall in love and encourage each other to pursue their dreams.

Since it would be unfair to spoil any of the ensuing plot developments, suffice it to say that Gosling and Stone are delightful, whether singing or generating screen chemistry. The movie is a charming pleaser that deserves all the superlatives it’s about to receive in the upcoming awards season.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity. Running time: 128 minutes. Distributor: Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate Films.

November 30, 2016

movie-revIt’s late November in Grundy, Virginia, a small town whose economy depends heavily on Peyton Automotive, a family business inherited by Matthew Peyton (Ryan O’Quinn) from his late grandfather. Unfortunately, the company has fallen on hard times and Matthew is considering cancelling the annual Christmas pageant that the company has sponsored since the 70s.

In addition, Matthew is being pressured by his financial advisor, Albert Bagley (Kevin Sizemore) to either lay off or lower the salaries of his 115 employees. Needless to say, the prospect of cutbacks doesn’t sit well with union rep Bob Alexander (James C. Burns) who decides to call for a strike.

Matthew testifies before Grundy’s City Council that he can no longer afford to stage the holiday festival because the funds in the trust set up for the event have been exhausted. However, his grandfather specifically stipulated in his will that Peyton Automotive must continue the tradition.

Nonetheless, Matthew asserts that the business has been losing money for several years and that, given the situation, he has no choice but to shut it down. However, the mayor (Lance E. Nichols) warns him that if, “You keep going in this direction, you will get crucified.”

Sure enough, Matthew becomes the victim of escalating violence. First his car is egged, has a tire slashed, and then is set on fire. Then, he’s beaten to within an inch of his life and left for dead by a gang of union goons.

Fortunately, a most unlikely hero comes to his rescue in the form of a precocious homeless child named CJ Joseph (Issac Ryan Brown). CJ and his mother Sharon (Danielle Nicolet) nurse Matthew back to health and also give him a lesson about what really matters most in life.

In spite of their homelessness and poverty, the Josephs fervently believe that better days are coming. “I wish I had that kind of faith,” Matthew admits. When he recovers, a grateful Matthew informs Sharon and CJ that “You took care of me, now I’ll take care of you.”

That is the point of departure of Believe, a morality play that is the directorial debut of Billy Dickson. Although the picture is aimed at the Christian demographic, it’s storyline — including a love triangle and intriguing plot twists — will appeal to the general public.

Very Good (***). Rated PG for violence, mature themes, and mild epithets. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Power of 3.

November 23, 2016

movie-rev-11-23-16We are introduced to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he disembarks from a steamship from England that has just arrived in the New York harbor in 1926. The young wizard has to resort to some sleight-of-hand illusions in order to slip through customs, because his suitcase is filled to bursting with a unique type of contraband.

It turns out that Newt is hiding a menagerie of mythical creatures with unusual names like obscurials, bowtruckles, and dougals. Thanks to the unreliable latch on his tattered leather satchel, it doesn’t take long for a mischievous niffler to escape. The odd-looking creature soon manages to break into a nearby bank vault where it proceeds to indulge its insatiable appetite for gold by stuffing coins into its pouch.

Newt, however, must get the money back to the vault before its disappearance arouses the suspicions of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton). She’s the leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a group of no-majs, (aka muggles — meaning ordinary human beings), that is dedicated to the extermination of wizards and witches.

Unfortunately, Newt whips out his wand in order to recapture the naughty niffler in the presence of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an affable Everyman who is applying for a loan to open his own bakery. Unfortunately, since Jacob has just observed the use of magic, wizardry protocol requires that the Everyman’s memory must be wiped clean on the spot.

However, Jacob manages to flee before being “obliviated,” and he inadvertently takes Newt’s bag of creatures with him. As luck would have it, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) — a comely witch who is a member of the Magical Congress of the United States of America — comes to Newt’s rescue.

Thus unfolds Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a visually captivating adaptation of the J.K. Rowling bestseller of the same name. Even though the book was alluded to in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, you don’t need to be familiar with the Harry Potter books or films in order to appreciate this delightful fantasy, that apparently will have five episodes.

Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) delivers a fresh and endearing vulnerability as the picture’s bashful protagonist. And he is ably assisted by a stellar supporting cast composed of A-list actors and an array of endearing computer-generated creatures.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for fantasy action and violence. Running time: 132 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

November 16, 2016

MCDINFE EC060Dan Brown is the author of four bestselling mysteries that feature Harvard Professor Robert Langdon as the protagonist. The popular novels have sold over 100 million copies, and the fifth one is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2017.

Screen versions of the first two Robert Langdon books, The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009), earned over a billion dollars at the box office. So, it’s no surprise that an adaptation of another novel has been made.

Inferno reunites director Ron Howard with Tom Hanks. Hanks reprises his lead role as the genius who has an uncanny knack for deciphering ancient symbols and religious iconography. Howard chose a stellar support cast that includes Ben Foster, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, and Omar Sy.

Inferno is easily the most successful of the three movies, because it eliminates Langdon’s use of inscrutable jargon. In this film, the intellectual badinage has been minimized, thereby leaving room for a series of visually captivating action sequences.

Another plus is the easy to follow plotline. The point of departure is in a hospital in Florence, Italy where Langdon is suffering from amnesia. He is lucky to be alive because the bullet that brought on the amnesia only grazed his scalp.

However, an assassin (Ana Ularu) soon arrives to finish the job. Fortunately, Langdon’s doctor, Sienna Brooks (Jones), not only helps him escape the assassin, but she also abandons her medical practice in order to help her traumatized patient escape from his enemies.

Of course the hit woman was part of a much larger conspiracy. She was following the orders of Bertrand Zobrist (Foster), an evil billionaire who is about to unleash a diabolical solution to the world’s overpopulation problem. The madman plans to release a lethal virus that is designed to kill half the people on the planet in less than a week.

That sets off Langdon and Sienna’s dizzying race against time to foil the diabolical Zobrist’s scheme. That, in a nutshell is the essence of Inferno, except for a humdinger of a twist that is unfair to spoil.

This movie is easily the most accessible, engaging, and entertaining cinematic adaptation of a Dan Brown thriller to date.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for action, violence, profanity, disturbing images, mature themes, and brief sensuality. In English, French, and Italian with subtitles. Running time: 126 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

November 9, 2016

movie-rev-11-9-16Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) committed a crime when they were young and fell in love in 1958. That’s because she was black and he was white, and they were living in Virginia, one of many southern states that had anti-miscegnation laws that forbade cohabitation, marriage, procreation, and sexual relations across racial lines.

Nevertheless, Richard was in love and he asked Mildred to marry him. When Mildred said yes, he purchased a vacant plot of land where he promised to build their dream home. However, in order to become married, they had to go to Washington, D.C., where they could obtain a marriage license.

When they returned to their hometown of Central Point, they were promptly arrested in a nighttime raid by policemen who were tipped off about the couple’s recent wedding. They were charged with violating section 20-58 of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, a felony that was punishable with up to five years in prison.

The Lovings were convicted, but they fled to the District of Columbia in order to avoid going to jail, especially since Mildred was expecting their first child. It was a tragedy for them to be fugitives and forced to start their family in a strange city, since they already had a place to live, albeit in a state that sanctioned racial intolerance.

Five years later, their plight came to the attention of Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirshkop (Jon Bass) who were attorneys working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The lawyers persuaded Mildred and Richard to become plaintiffs in a suit that challenged the constitutionality of Virginia’s statute that prohibited interracial marriage.

The couple agreed to pursue the case, and the appellate process worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Tell the judge I love my wife,” Richard implored the ACLU legal team as they were preparing their oral argument before the court.

On June 12, 1967, the Court announced its unanimous decision that was written by Chief Justice Earl Warren. It declared that the state of Virginia had violated the Loving family’s rights to equal protection and due process that were guaranteed in the 14th amendment to the constitution.

Directed by Jeff Nichols (Mud), Loving chronicles the life and times of an unassuming couple whose landmark legal case thrust them into the national limelight. The production features excellent performances by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, who generate a quietly convincing screen chemistry while portraying Mildred and Richard as a modest working-class family.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes and ethnic slurs. Running time: 123 minutes. Studio: Big Beach Films. Distributor: Focus Features.

November 2, 2016

movie-rev-11-2-16Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains where he was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist. Devoutly religious, he followed his faith’s literal interpretation of the Ten Commandments, including the Fifth one’s dictate that “Thou shalt not kill.” So, when he rushed to enlist in the Army right after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, he did so as a conscientious objector.

However, because he was unwilling to touch, let alone carry a weapon, Desmond was teased mercilessly by other members of his platoon. In fact, he was not only beaten by a bully (Luke Bracey), but was also court-martialed for failing to complete the weapons part of basic training.

However, the military tribunal ruled in Desmond’s favor after his World War I veteran father (Hugo Weaving) testified on his behalf. Still, his fellow G.I.s were reluctant to accept a comrade whom they thought was a coward, since they had just been taught by their Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) that a unit was no stronger than its weakest link.

Nevertheless, Desmond was commissioned as a medic with the 307th Infantry with whom he would more than prove his mettle on the island of Okinawa in the bloodiest battle of World War II. He exhibited extraordinary courage during a month spent dodging bullets and bombs in order to attend to the wounded during the siege of Hacksaw Ridge.

Desmond would save the lives of 75 soldiers and his selfless exploits were ultimately appreciated by both his fellow unit members and the Pentagon. The heroic medic eventually became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

All of the above is recounted in riveting fashion in Hacksaw Ridge, a biopic directed by Mel Gibson. Fair warning: the film features graphic battlefield scenes similar to the gory D-Day reenactments seen in Saving Private Ryan (1998).

In addition to the gruesome war scenes, the film has flashbacks that describe Desmond’s formative years, including his romance with Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), the pretty nurse he fell in love with and married shortly before shipping out for the Pacific Theater.

The film closes with archival newsreels and stills of the real-life Desmond and Dorothy. The movie is a moving portrait of a war hero who made a significant contribution to the war effort without ever using a weapon.

Excellent (****). Rated R for graphic violence, gruesome images, and ethnic slurs. Running time: 131 minutes. Distributor: Summit Entertainment.