February 3, 2016

movie revThe Catholic Church has a checkered past in the way it has handled the molestation of children by the clergy. Unfortunately, Pope Francis recently issued a plenary pardon to pedophile priests who were willing to confess their sins.

This means that the Church is likely to remain a safe haven for these perpetrators. Meanwhile, their victims continue to be frustrated in their quests for justice.

Directed by Oscar-nominee Tom McCarthy (Up), Spotlight focuses on one of those rare occasions where the truth came to light. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the editor of the Boston Globe, was willing to look into the widespread rumors of a Catholic cover-up of molestation that had been occurring for decades. As a Jew who was new to town, he wasn’t as awed as the locals by the powerful Boston Archdiocese that was being run with an iron fist by Cardinal Bernard Francis Law (Len Cariou).

The editor gave his approval to the reporters who were responsible for writing the Spotlight section of the paper. The crack team, comprised of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) researched the story for several years.

On January 6, 2002, they began publishing their findings in a series of damning articles that exposed Cardinal Law as an enabler offering protection for priests he knew to be guilty of molesting children. The inquiry unearthed evidence that the archdiocese was aware of about 100 children who’d been assaulted by many different men of the cloth.

However, Church attorneys had repeatedly run interference for the perpetrators by settling claims out of court while requiring the plaintiffs to sign non-disclosure agreements. Consequently, the repeat offenders were free to move around from parish-to-parish, destroying additional youngsters’ lives in the process.

Spotlight is a scathing indictment of the Catholic Church. Though not exactly a feel-good movie, the film nevertheless comes highly recommended for several reasons.

First, it is an important reminder about the importance of investigative reporting. Second, the compelling screenplay unfolds in a gripping fashion that doesn’t resort to describing salacious details. And third, the cast members turn in dynamic performances, especially Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexual references, and mature themes. Running time: 128 minutes. Distributor: Open Road Films.

January 27, 2016

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On February 18, 1952, one of the worst nor’easters in history hit New England. The seas off Cape Cod were so severe that two oil tankers, caught in the storm, split in two.

While the SS Fort Mercer was able to issue an urgent S.O.S., the SS Pendleton’s fore section was swallowed too quickly by the ocean for the ship to broadcast a distress call. Their captain went down with the front part of the ship, leaving 34 sailors in the stern with no idea whether the world was even aware of their plight.

Fortunately, a tow truck driver (Matthew Maher) spotted a light from the Pendleton as she was listing off the coast of Chatham, and knew that he had to report it to the authorities immediately. Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), the officer in charge of the local Coast Guard station, didn’t hesitate to order a rescue attempt despite the blizzard’s frigid temperatures and gale force winds.

He called upon Bosun’s Mate Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) who hastily assembled a crew composed of Seamen Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Ervin Maske (John Magaro), and Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner). The team left the harbor aboard a small motorized lifeboat that only seated a dozen people and offered scant protection against the elements.

It would take a yeoman’s effort to reach the sinking Pendleton because the tiny Coast Guard lifeboat encountered waves as high as 70 feet when they reached the open seas. Moreover, Webber had lost his compass when they were swamped by one of the waves.

Meanwhile, the remaining sailors on the Pendleton were doing their best to keep what was left of the ship afloat. With the skipper and his other officers lost in the front half of the tanker, a new leader emerged in Engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), who had nerves of steel and a wealth of naval knowledge.

The veteran sailor took command of the crew, and realized that survival depended upon keeping the electric pumps functioning long enough for them to ground the vessel on a sandbar. Back in Chatham the worried families of the brave Coast Guardsmen, including Bernie’s fiancee Miriam (Holliday Grainger), were waiting to hear news about their loved ones.

Directed by Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm), The Finest Hours is a gripping seafaring adventure reminiscent of The Perfect Storm (2000). It is based on a bestseller that recounts the real-life exploits of unsung heroes who rose to the occasion in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

A visually-captivating and moving depiction of what, to this day, remains the most daring Coast Guard rescue on record.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense peril. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

January 20, 2016

movie rev 1-20-16For six seasons Dame Maggie Smith has been delighting television viewers as dowager Violet Crawley in the Downton Abbey shows. Younger fans might be unaware that she’s won Oscars twice (for California Suite and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and has had an illustrious career prior to appearing in the hit PBS series.

In The Lady in the Van, she’s been cast as a character who is the opposite of the imperious aristocrat of Downton Abbey. In the film, Margaret Shepherd is a down-and-out homeless woman living in a van that she parks on the street in the Camden Town section of North London.

At the point of departure in the early 70s, we learn that Margaret’s plight is one of her own making. She’s been on the run for five years after leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run car accident.

Although the devout Catholic has confessed the sin to her priest, she could never bring herself to surrender to the authorities. Consequently, she’s forever looking over her shoulder, fearful that her arrest might be imminent.

The plot thickens when she can’t afford to fix her jalopy that is sorely in need of a tune-up. Most of the residents in the upscale neighborhood where the van is sitting would like to see the eyesore towed away.

However, Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) feels compassion for the overwhelmed octagenarian, perhaps because his own mother is about the same age as Margaret. So, against his better judgment, the famous Tony Award winning playwright allows “Miss Shepherd” to park her disabled car in the driveway on the express understanding that the arrangement is temporary.

However, to his dismay, Margaret ends up squatting on his property for the next 15 years. Can the odd pair coexist peacefully?

That is the question at the heart of The Lady in the Van, a heartwarming dramatic comedy inspired by actual events. The film was adapted from Bennett’s 1999 theatrical production of the same name which also starred Maggie Smith.

Smith looks relaxed onscreen in the role she originated onstage, whether cadging for alms or exhibiting pangs of remorse about the accident that caused her problems. Just as effective is Alex Jennings’s interpretation of Bennett as a conflicted soul who is constantly carrying on an inner dialogue with himself.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.

January 13, 2016
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(Photo by Kimberley French – © Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved)

Hugh Glass (1780-1833) was a legendary frontiersman who explored the American West in the early 19th century. His life has been previously portrayed in films by Richard Harris in Man in the Wilderness (1971) and Dewitt Lee in Apache Blood (1975).

Glass’s life story has also been the subject of several books, most recently The Revenant, a story of survival published by Michael Punke in 2002. The bestselling book has been adapted by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who won three Academy Awards for writing, directing, and producing Birdman, 2015’s Best Picture of the Year.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio who might finally land the Oscar that has eluded his grasp five times. The movie features him in virtually every scene, and his acting never disappoints. He delivers a compelling performance that keeps you on the edge of your seat as you pull for his character from beginning to end.

At the point of departure we are introduced to Hugh (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who are guiding a hunting party of fur trappers across the Rockies. Along the way, the expedition is tested at every turn by “Injun” ambushes, animal attacks, frigid weather, and the challenging terrain.

Unfortunately John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a member of the party, is a racist who murders Hawk and leaves his badly wounded father behind to die in the forest. However, instead of perishing, Hugh wills himself to survive, in order to track down his son’s killer.

What ensues is a visually captivating movie portraying Hugh’s determination to exact revenge for the murder of his son. Despite the hurdles he encounters, Hugh remains resolute as he stalks Fitzgerald across the Wyoming wilderness. Credit co-star Tom Hardy for portraying the villain Fitzgerald in a manner that the audience loves to see get his due.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, graphic violence, gory images, ethnic slurs, brief nudity, and a rape. In English, French, and Native American dialects with subtitles. Running time: 156 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

January 6, 2016

movie rev 1-6-16The Force Awakens is a splendid sequel to Return of the Jedi, the 1983 finale of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Episode VII, marks the launch of another trilogy and might be the best of the Star Wars films yet. This is no surprise because it was directed by Spielberg’s protege J.J. Abrams (Super 8), who’d proved himself with his prior successes with the Star Trek and Mission Impossible franchises.

The Force Awakens is an ingenious mix of the old and the new and features the familiar faces of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill, as well as fresh ones; John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver. The same can be said of the adventure’s robotic cast members, with the anthropomorphic android BB-8 joining forces with R2-D2 and C-3PO.

An engaging plot interweaves the old and the new in a way that never feels forced. Credit goes to Abrams for collaborating with three-time Academy Award-nominee Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist and Grand Canyon) and Oscar-winner Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) in writing an engaging script. Amongst the hi-tech battles between good and evil, the story exploits breaks in the action to serve up nostalgia and sentimentality.

It all unfolds a few decades after the events in Return of the Jedi, and opens with the trademark “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” followed by an explanation of what’s transpired since the last movie. At the point of departure, we learn that the New Republic is joining forces with the Resistance to fight the Stormtroopers of the First Order, an intergalactic dictatorship led by the diabolical Snoke (Andy Serkis).

Soon thereafter the protagonists: rebel fighter pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), renegade Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), orphaned scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), and Admiral Han Solo (Ford) are introduced. The good guys have an inexhaustible army of adversaries to vanquish en route to making the universe safe again for freedom and democracy.

The hostilities build to a spectacular light saber battle best appreciated in 3-D and on an IMAX screen. Nevertheless, the movie’s most inspired moments are the scenes like the touching reunion of Solo and Princess Leia (Fisher).

Excellent (****).Rated PG-13 for violence. Running time: 135 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

December 23, 2015

movie rev 12-23-15In 2002, Will Smith received his first Academy Award nomination for his role in Ali, a riveting biopic about Muhammad Ali directed by Michael Mann. Smith managed to disappear into the role of Muhammad Ali and delivered a brilliant performance as “The Greatest” boxer of all time.

Despite Ali’s being able to “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” the sport subsequently exacted a devastating toll on the champ. Ali developed a host of neurological disorders as a consequence of taking so many hits to the head.

While fans call it being “punch drunk,” the clinical term for the condition is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Ironically, Will Smith may receive another Oscar nomination for Concussion, a picture in which he plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian born physician who discovered the link between football and brain damage when he was a forensic pathologist in Pennsylvania.

Omalu first recognized something was amiss while performing an autopsy on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ former center Mike Webster (David Morse), who died at 50 while suffering from a combination of amnesia, depression, and dementia. Dr. Omalu was shocked to observe that, as a result of CTE, the Hall of Famer had the brain of a

very old man, so he decided to posthumously examine the brains of other National Football League veterans who had also died prematurely.

Lo and behold, the research revealed that they all had suffered from CTE, presumably as a result of the pounding their skulls had received on the field. Unfortunately, when Omalu tried to go public with his findings, he was threatened and discredited by an army of lawyers and doctors hired by Commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) to protect the NFL’s image.

 Concussion is reminiscent of The Insider (1999), an exposé recounting the ordeal of the whistleblower who took on the tobacco industry when it was denying any link between smoking and cancer.

The movie was directed by Peter Landesman (Parkland). He adapted it to the screen with the help of investigative journalist Jeanne Marie Laksas from an article titled “Game Brain” that she had written about the attempted cover-up in the October 2009 issue of GQ magazine.

Landesman surrounded Smith with a talented cast, starting with the gifted Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Omalu’s feisty wife Prema. The cast also includes Oscar nominees Alec Baldwin (The Cooler) and Albert Brooks (Broadcast News); and Hill Harper, Richard T. Jones, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Eddie Marsan.

 Concussion is a marvelous Will Smith vehicle, one that he just may drive all the way to the Oscars on Sunday, February 28th.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, and disturbing images. Running time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures

December 16, 2015

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THIS IS OUR BIG CHANCE TO REALLY CLEAN UP: Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is discussing, with his three fellow investors, the results of his analysis of the stock market that is predicting the upcoming burst of the real estate bubble and is strategizing ways that they can make money when the bubble bursts. (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk – © 2015 Paramount Pictures)

Michael Lewis’s The Big Short was an eye-opening best seller describing the actions of four Wall Street analysts (played by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt) who correctly foresaw the global financial crisis of 2008. They made a lot of money by investing in Credit Default Swaps (CDS) in anticipation of the collapse of the market in Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO).

In layman’s terms, they bet that the real estate bubble would burst because of the easy money that was being lent to unqualified borrowers via subprime mortgages. The banks didn’t mind making the so-called NINJA loans (No Income/No Job) since they would quickly sell the worthless mortgages to unsuspecting investors as soon as the deals were completed.

Despite many decent performances from the cast members, the screen version of The Big Short fails to do justice to the source material. The movie is Adam McKay’s first time directing a dramatic film. The veteran writer/director has a successful career in films that are comedies, with movies that include Anchorman (2004), Talladega Nights (2006), Step Brothers (2008) and The Other Guys (2010), The Campaign (2012), Anchorman 2 (2013) and Get Hard (2015).

The film suffers from a few glaring flaws. The first is that the names of all the key players have been changed. Since this is based on a true story, resorting to fictional characters lessens the intensity of a story that could’ve been more compelling.

The movie is further trivialized by a failure to commit fully to the dramatic importance of the serious subject matter. After all, since no one has been held responsible for the crash, many people are still angry about the billion dollar bailout of Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.

Equally annoying are several celebrity cameos by chef Anthony Bourdain, Australian actress Margot Robbie, and pop diva Selena Gomez. During distracting, fourth-wall breaking appearances, they face the camera to explain the meaning of derivatives and other arcane financial instruments. Apparently, McKay included these interludes to make his script more accessible.

The movie is a disappointingly dry lecture in finance that squanders the services of an A-list cast that has Academy Award-winners Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, and Christian Bale, and nominees Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell.

Fair (*½). Rated R for nudity, sexuality, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 130 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures

December 9, 2015

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SHOULD I OR SHOULDN’T I?: While vacationing in the Swiss Alps, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, left) ponders his decision with his best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Fred has been offered a knighthood in exchange for conducting his most popular composition at a birthday party for Prince Phillip. However, Fred wants to refuse the offer in order to reflect on his mortality and mend his relationship with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz, not shown). (Photo by Gianni Fiorito© 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) has chosen to withdraw from the limelight after a successful career as a celebrated composer and conductor. He’s presently staying at a scenic spa in the Swiss Alps where he’s vacationing with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and his his best friend, filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel).

Well into their 70s, Mick is working on the script for his next movie with the help of five young collaborators. It turns out that Mick’ss son Julian (Ed Stoppard) is married to Lena, who has just been dumped by him in favor of a British pop singer (Paloma Faith, who plays herself).

While reminiscing with Boyle and soothing his daughter’s fragile psyche, Fred gets a surprising request to come out of retirement by an emissary (Alex Macqueen) from the Royal Family. Queen Elizabeth II is offering Fred a knighthood in exchange for conducting his most popular piece, Simple Songs, at Prince Philip’s impending birthday concert.

However, Fred decides to decline the command performance that comes with the honorary title. He has shed any desire to perform in public and instead prefers to meditate on his mortality and devote his time to give Lena the attention he denied her as a child. We learn that she still hasn’t forgiven him for focusing so selfishly on classical music during her formative years.

Thus unfolds Youth, a surreal mix of heartfelt introspection and escapist fantasy reminiscent of Federico Fellini. The movie was written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) who juxtaposes a variety of jarring images in the movie that are certain to leave a lasting impression, even if you’re not quite sure what to make of the visually captivating scenes.

Caine and Keitel are at their best, albeit in an inscrutable adventure that deliberately does its best to defy definition.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and graphic nudity. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

December 2, 2015

movie revWhen most people think of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), what automatically comes to mind is the image of a gutsy underdog who holds his own in the boxing ring against a variety of imposing adversaries. Each installment of the series has been about the buildup leading to a riveting championship bout between the underdog and a world champion.

Directed by Ryan Coogler, Creed is a spin-off that pays homage to that tried-and-true formula but also departs from the series’ successful formula. The change is that this film devotes attention to character development in addition to ratcheting up the tension leading to the showdown bout.

The picture reunites Coogler with Michael B. Jordan, who starred in his directorial debut, the critically acclaimed Frutivale Station. In Creed, Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, a juvenile delinquent who’s had several scrapes with the law because of his quick temper and a tendency to settle arguments with his powerful fists.

Just past the point of departure, the hot-headed Adonis is informed by Apollo Creed’s (Carl Weathers) widow (Phylicia Rashad) that he is the illegitimate son of Rocky’s original opponent.

Fast-forward a few years, where we learn that Adonis has learned to channel his anger and explosive might by becoming a boxer. Over the objections of his adoptive mother (Mrs. Creed) he decides to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He moves to Philadelphia to find Rocky who is now running a restaurant called Adrian’s. Adonis prevails upon the ex-champ to serve as his trainer. Rocky agrees on condition that he change his surname to Creed. Soon Adonis rises in the ranks to become the number 1 contender and lands a title fight with Pretty Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellow).

In addition, Adonis falls in love with his next-door neighbor, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring hip-hop artist who is on the verge of success. Away from the gym, he also spends time with Rocky, and even gives him some heartfelt advice that just might save his aging mentor’s life.

This engaging seventh episode can rightfully claim to be a highly recommended spin-off of the legendary series.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, and sensuality. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

November 25, 2015

move rev 11-25-15Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) and Rose Lacey (Fiona Glascott) have stayed in their family’s home because their widowed mother (Jane Brennan) is still grieving the loss of their late father. The devoted daughters have had to put their dreams on hold, since job prospects aren’t great for young women without higher education in tiny Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland.

Although Eilis has exhibited an affinity for math, she settles for a part time job as a clerk at a grocery store where she works under the thumb of a vindictive shrew (Brid Brennan). The time is the early 50s, when an ambitious local young woman might set her sights on America, the land of opportunity with hopefully a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Salvation arrives when Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), a Catholic priest, is willing to sponsor Eilis’s emigration to the United States. She reluctantly agrees because she knows that the entire burden of caring for their mother will now fall on her sister’s shoulders. However, after an exchange of tearful goodbyes, she boards the New York-bound steamship and goes to her bunk in steerage for a seasick plagued voyage to America.

Eilis finds a room in Brooklyn in a female-only boardinghouse run by an eagle-eyed landlady (Julie Walters) who is obsessed with protecting the reputations of the young Irish immigrants under her supervision. Eilis gets a job at a department store and tuition money to study bookkeeping at college.

While grateful for all this generous help, Eilis still misses her mother and sister terribly. So much so that she seriously considers going back to Ireland, although Father Flood assures her that the homesickness will eventually pass.

Everything changes the night she meets handsome Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) at a dance. The two fall in love and embark on a romance that enables Eilis to make the adjustment to life in the States.

However, just when she’s ready to decide to stay in America, fate intervenes when a tragedy occurs that demands her immediate return to Ireland. Of course, when she is back in Enniscorthy, Eilis is pursued by a wealthy bachelor (Domnhall Gleason).

Which suitor will she choose? The answer to that question arrives at a moment of truth in Brooklyn, a touching historical drama directed by John Crowley (Closed Circuit). Based on Colm Toibin’s best seller of the same name, the film features an elegantly understated performance by Saoirse Ronan that is likely to land the 21-year-old ingenue her second Oscar nomination.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for brief profanity and a sex scene. Running time: 111 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

November 11, 2015

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In 2002, Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada, a candidate for the presidency of Bolivia, was floundering in the polls with just a few months to go to election day. Since the desperate multimillionaire had been raised in the United States, he knew how a political consulting firm could influence the outcome of an election.

So, he retained the services of James Carville, who had successfully orchestrated Bill Clinton’s presidential bid in 1992, and Carville came to Bolivia with a team of media-savvy strategists.

Still, repositioning Goni would be difficult, since he was an unpopular ex-president who had been exposed as a pro-American, pro-globalization puppet controlled by powerful corporate interests. Carville and company’s only hope rested in employing smear tactics against the other two favorites in the race: a socialist and a capitalist.

Ultimately, the carpetbaggers prevailed, and that incredible feat was chronicled by Our Brand Is Crisis (2005), a documentary that showed how easy it was for money to corrupt the democratic process with the help of a team from Madison Avenue. The picture also questioned the wisdom of fixing foreign elections in this fashion, since bloody civil unrest subsequently arose in Bolivia, which forced Goni to flee the country for asylum in the U.S. a year later.

Directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), Our Brand Is Crisis 2.0 is a sanitized version of the above described events. Names have been changed and characters have been conflated and added to make the intervention almost appear benign.

Here, courtesy of revisionist history, the socialist (Louis Arcella) and capitalist (Joaquim de Almeida) candidates both rely on assistance from two American PR firms led by Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock), respectively. The entertaining adventure pits a flirtatious and crafty mercenary against an idealistic ex-alcoholic in a battle of wits marked by deception and dirty tricks.

Instead of making a pure political thriller, director Green has cut the tension with moments of levity and sexual innuendo. As a result, the movie works very well as formulaic Hollywood fare.

The movie is a light-hearted primer in how to mount a smear campaign that manipulates a banana republic to vote against its own self-interest.

Very Good (***). Rated  R for profanity and sexual references. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

November 4, 2015

movie revNowadays, most women take for granted the fact that they can vote. Nevertheless, they owe a big debt of gratitude to the mostly unsung suffragettes who made great sacrifices for decades before securing that hard-fought right.

In the United States, women got the vote in 1919 when the 19th amendment to the constitution was adopted. The year before, England granted the franchise to females over 30 who were either landowners, college graduates, or married to a politician. However, a decade later, it was extended to all British citizens over 21 on an equal basis.

Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane), Suffragette is a moving documentary drama set in London during the critical period leading up to the Parliament’s passage of the Representation of the People Act of 1918. The film is a substantially fictionalized version of events, since only two of the characters here were real life heroines, namely, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913), portrayed by Meryl Streep and Natalie Press, respectively.

Streep merely makes a cameo appearance as Pankhurst, a pioneer who plays an inspirational role in the movement. Still, she may earn her 20th Oscar nomination because she delivers yet another sterling performance. The picture’s other historical figure, Davison, was a fiery activist who was periodically imprisoned for advocating arson, stone throwing, and other violent tactics in her zealous pursuit of the right to vote.

The movie is about Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a protagonist who is a creation of scriptwriter Abi Morgan’s (The Iron Lady) imagination. Initially, she’s portrayed as a fed up steam laundry employee who desires to improve women’s lot in the workplace in the areas of wages, sexual harassment, and safe working conditions.

In many respects, Maud’s persona is reminiscent of Norma Rae (1979), the feisty union organizer played by Sally Field. Suffragette is a poignant reminder of just how far women have come over the past century. Oh, and yes, the very capable Carey Mulligan is likely to be remembered come awards season, too.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence, mature themes, brief profanity, and partial nudity. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

October 28, 2015

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Launched by Robert Lawrence Stine in 1992, Goosebumps is a popular series of spooky stories that are carefully crafted to scare 7- to 12-year-olds. The so-called Stephen King of kiddie literature has published hundreds of titles over the years and has sold about a half-billion books worldwide.

Directed by Rob Letterman, the film stars Jack Black as R. L. Stine, (the author he’s portraying makes a cameo appearance during a mob scene). Letterman and Black also collaborated in 2010 on a poorly received remake of Gulliver’s Travels.

At the point of departure, we find teenager Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) and his recently widowed mother (Amy Ryan) grieving their loss and in need of a change of scenery, so they move to Madison, Delaware. Their next-door neighbor, Mr. Stine (Black), is a reclusive grouch who warns the boy to keep off his property and stay away from his home-schooled daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush). However,  it’s love at first sight for Zach, who is instantly attracted to her.

On his first day of classes at Madison High, Zach becomes friends with a loner named Champ (Ryan Lee). After school, the pair’s curiosity gets the better of them, and they decide to see what’s happening at the Stine’s house.

After entering the house, they rummage through the author’s mysterious manuscripts that are hidden in the basement, but they don’t realize that they have just unleashed an army of monsters. They’re all characters from Mr. Stine’s fertile imagination: a giant praying mantis, the abominable snowman, the werewolf, lawn gnomes, zombies, venus fly traps, the invisible boy, and so on.

What’s more, the zombies are controlled by a diabolical dummy who wants to wreak mayhem in Madison, and possibly go on to rule the world. Can the creatures be corralled and safely redeposited between the covers of the author’s journal? Can Zach win the heart of Hannah in spite of the objections of her overprotective father? The movie is a family-friendly adventure that provides a perfect blend of light hearted humor and spine tingling fright that will scare and delight children of all ages.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for scary images, intense action, and rude humor. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

October 21, 2015

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Twenty-nine-year-old Ravi Patel’s parents, Champa and Vasant, are Indian immigrants living in America who have begun pressuring Ravi to find a wife in accordance with their traditional courting customs. That means that they would initiate a process that would only consider a woman from the same caste as theirs, and preferably someone who already shares the family’s surname.

However, Ravi, who was born and raised in the United States, had little interest in choosing a mate in such a limited fashion, especially since he’s been secretly dating Audrey (who is not from India) for the past few years and he has fallen in love with her. Nevertheless, he decided to allow his parents to play matchmakers, but also arranged for his big sister Geeta to film the family’s comical attempts to find Ms. Right through a series of carefully arranged introductions.

Can an American college graduate agree to an arranged marriage when it’s time to settle down? That is the question posed by Meet the Patels, a delightful documentary that is co-directed by Ravi and Geeta.

The picture is hilarious, thanks to Champa and Vasant’s well-intentioned but overbearing style of parenting. It is clear that they want the best for their son, even if their concerns reflect values that Ravi believes in.

They escort Ravi to India to attend a Patel matrimonial convention where he speed-dates a number of eligible women. When he fails to make a connection with any of them, the family returns to California where there is a much smaller pool of appropriate potential wives to choose from.

“We’re paying the price, culturally, for moving to the U.S.,” his mother moans when her son rejects an overweight engineer she found for him at an online website. Meanwhile, comments from relatives like, “I need a marriage this year; I might die soon,” only serve to ratchet up the tension. Meanwhile, Audrey is patiently waiting in the wings and reminds Ravi that, “I have an interest in being your partner.”

Ravi’s difficult decision ultimately rests on whether ethnicity matters more to him than compatibility in the selection of a mate.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mature themes, suggestive images, and smoking. In English and Gurjarati with subtitles. Running time: 88 minutes. Distributor: Alchemy.

October 14, 2015

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MacGyver was a TV series about a character who was famous for using his scientific knowledge to use everyday household items in order to survive in a variety of life-and-death situations. The Martian is an outer space adventure in which a stranded astronaut, with an uncanny knack for improvisation, uses a similar approach to survive on Mars.

The picture stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a wounded botanist who was mistakenly presumed dead and left behind by his fellow crew members in the wake of a dangerous dust storm on Mars. However, he is actually very much alive, but doesn’t have enough oxygen, water, food, equipment, and other resources necessary to last the four years it will take for NASA to rescue him.

Undaunted, resourceful Mark proceeds, among many other things, to perform surgery on himself and grow potatoes in a makeshift garden that is fertilized using his own waste products. And, like an intergalactic variation on Tom Hanks’s role in Cast Away, Matt Damon appears alone on the screen for most of the movie.

The great news is that Damon is captivating, and the 141 minutes running time flies by in a flash. Besides captivating us with his ingenious inventions, Matt repeatedly makes us laugh with his many humorous asides.

Directed by three-time Oscar-nominee Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down), The Martian has all the tension of the movie Gravity. In addition, its visual effects are the equal of Interstellar.

Excellent (****). Rated  PG-13 for profanity, injury images, and brief profanity. Running time: 141 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

October 7, 2015

movie rev

Malala Yousafzai was named after a girl who spoke out and was killed for doing it. The folk hero was a teenager who perished in 1880 while rallying fellow Pashtun resistance fighters to a victory over British invaders in a pivotal battle of the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

After choosing this significant name for his daughter, Malala’s father inscribed it into his family tree which was unusual because, until then,  no females had been mentioned in his genealogy that stretches back several centuries. Furthermore, her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, resolved to raise his daughter in such a way that she would see herself as the equal of any boy.

While such an approach might be unremarkable in the West, it was heretical in the Swat District of Pakistan, which was a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism in the late 20th century. During Malala’s formative years much of the country was terrorized by the Taliban, which was blowing up any schools that admitted girls.

In defiance of their mullah’s absolute mandate against education for females, Mr. Yousafzai not only allowed his daughter to matriculate, but also spurred her to speak out online as an equal rights advocate blogger. This only infuriated Mullah Fazlullah who issued a fatwa (religious decree) against her over the radio. This led to an assassination attempt on her by one of the mullah’s followers as she was riding on a school bus.

Fortunately, Malala, who was just 15 at the time, managed to survive the bullet wound to her brain. As she lay in the hospital, her parents had no idea whether their daughter would ever even be able to walk or talk again.

She did eventually emerge from the coma, although she was deaf in one ear and needed months and months of rehabilitation. Initially, she blamed her father for her plight, since he was the one who had encouraged her activist streak. “I am a child,” she said, “You are my father. You should have stopped me. What happened to me is because of you.”

Eventually her health was substantially restored, and she became a stoic and serene symbol of resistance to radical Islam. With continued death threats hanging over their heads, the Yousafzai family (including Malalal’s mother and two younger brothers) resettled in England where she would become a champion of oppressed females everywhere.

Directed by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim.(An Inconvenient Truth), He Named Me Malala is an engaging biopic that describes the close father-daughter relationship which enabled Malala to flourish in the midst of intolerance. Their tender interplay is enhanced by animated interludes which further intensify the sincere sentiments that are displayed on screen.

The picture shows Malala’s emergence as an international icon, that culminates with her becoming the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The movie is a powerful portrait that illustrates the indomitability of the human spirit and is easily the best film of 2015 thus far!

Excellent (****). Rated  PG-13 for death threats, mature themes, and disturbing images. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures. He Named Me Malala opened in select theaters on October 2nd and will be shown in over 2,000 theaters starting October 9th.

September 30, 2015

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On March 11, 2005, Brian Nichols (David Oyelowo) was being escorted from jail to the Fulton county courthouse where he was scheduled to go on trial for assault, kidnapping, and rape. At the courthouse, however, he overpowered a sheriff’s deputy (Diva Tyler), took her gun, and embarked on a bloody killing spree in which he killed the judge, a court reporter, a police sergeant, and a federal agent.

Nichols then hijacked several vehicles and went from Atlanta, Georgia to its suburb Duluth. There, he accosted Ashley Smith (Kate Mara) on the street and, at gunpoint, forced her to take him home with her.

Once in the apartment, Ashley smashed her head against the wall in frustration even though she was doing her best to comply with Brian’s demands. She was well aware that he was armed, extremely dangerous, and was the subject of the biggest manhunt in Georgia history. Ashley, who was a single mother, didn’t want to do anything stupid that might jeopardize her chances of ever seeing her daughter Paige (Elle Graham) again, especially since, as a recovering meth addict, she had already been forced to surrender custody of her daughter to an Aunt (Mimi Rogers).

Meanwhile, the police were closing in. Since Brian had left his cell phone on, they were able to narrow his location to within a three-mile radius of the cell tower that was sending out his signal. They even spoke to him and suggested that he give himself up, which he refused to do.

A seven hour ordeal ensued during which Ashley and Brian not only bonded, but also experienced a life transforming catharsis. Thanks to Ashley’s Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, she had a copy at home of The Purpose-Driven Life, the inspirational bestseller by Pastor Rick Warren.

In response to Brian’s admission that “I’ve got a demon in me,” Ashley asked him if she could share some of the insights that were in the popular self-help guide such as: “The greatest tragedy is not death, but life without purpose,” and, “When life has meaning, you can bear almost anything.”

Warren’s inspirational messages resonated with Brian and he surrendered soon afterwards. Thus unfolds Captive, a tale of redemption directed by Jerry Jameson.

The movie is a riveting psychological thriller about a nationally publicized standoff that is told from the perspective of two troubled souls who were barricaded in a home surrounded by a SWAT team.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for mature themes involving violence and substance abuse. Running time: 97 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

September 16, 2015

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IT’S A MIRACLE — HE’S STILL ALIVE: After the first responders could not find a pulse, they declared Pastor Piper (Hayden Christensen) as dead and left the scene after calling for a crew to deal with the disposal of the body and the wreckage. An hour or so later, a passing minister stopped to pray for the dead occupant, and to his surprise found that the Pastor was alive. Firemen were immediately summoned and, using the jaws of life, he was extracted from the wreckage and rushed to a hospital where he subsequently recovered.

Traveling Pastor Don Piper was thinking about having his own congregation on his way home from a Christian convention when fate intervened. His car was crushed so badly by a tractor trailer that he was declared dead on the spot by first responders who couldn’t find a pulse.

Since there was no hurry to extract him from the twisted wreckage, he was still lying there over an hour later when a minister (Michael Harding), who was passing by the accident scene, decided to stop and pray for the repose of his soul. But upon approaching the auto, instead of a corpse, he found the supposedly deceased pastor to be very much alive.

In fact, despite his considerable loss of blood, Pastor Piper was faintly singing a Gospel spiritual. A rescue team with the jaws of life was immediately summoned and he was soon extracted and rushed to the hospital.

Although he fought to survive for the sake of his wife (Kate Bosworth) and their three children (Hudson Meek, Bobby Batson, and  Elizabeth Hunter), Don was actually undecided about whether he wanted to live or die. It seems that during his near-death experience on the side of the road, he’d briefly entered heaven.

There, he not only experienced an unparalleled feeling of unending bliss, but also had reunions with a number of dead loved ones, including his great-grandmother (Sallye McDougald Hooks) and two childhood friends (Matthew Bauman and Trevor Allen Martin). By comparison, being back on Earth was relatively painful, given the 34 operations he needed to undergo over the next several months to fix torn muscles, disfigurement, broken bones, and shattered disks.

Thanks to the power of prayer, Pastor Piper ultimately recovered. But rather than open his own church, he wrote a memoir that became a bestseller that describes his entrance into Heaven as well as his subsequent resurrection. Directed by Michael Polish (The Astronaut Farmer) 90 Minutes in Heaven is a modern parable even though the title gives away the ending.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for an intense car accident and graphic images. Running time: 121 minutes. Studio: Giving Films. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films.

September 9, 2015

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LET’S GET OUT OF HERE BEFORE WE GET KILLED: The Dwyer family led by Jack (Owen Wilson, left) who is holding his daughter Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and his wife Annie (Lake Bell), who is carrying Beeze (Claire Geare) flee to the roof of their hotel as the beginning of their perilous flight to a safe sanctuary at the American embassy. (Photo by Roland Neveu- © 2015 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved)

After the company he works for files for bankruptcy, Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) accepts a position overseas with Cardiff, a transnational water bottling corporation. Dwyer regrets that his new job will uproot his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), and their young daughters, Beeze (Claire Geare) and Lucy (Sterling Jerins). During the long flight to Southeast Asia, we find the girls fretting about whether they’ll like their new home and if their dad’s new company will go bankrupt.

Luckily, Beeze strikes up a conversation with a fellow passenger (Pierce Brosnan) about his assortment of curious face and body scars. Fortunately for them, the mysterious stranger, Mr. Hammond, happens to be quite familiar with the family’s destination point.

Upon landing at the airport, he helps them avoid the shady street hustlers lurking around the terminal. Instead, he directs them to an honest cabbie (Sahajak Boonthanakit) who takes them to what they expect to be comfortable accommodations.

However, shock sets in when the Dwyers’ check into the Imperial Lotus hotel where nothing in their suite seems to work: their cell phones, the land line, the TV, not even the lights. Still, those inconveniences pale in comparison to the threat to their very existence as a result of the coup d’etat in which the country’s prime minister (Vuthichard Photphurin) is assassinated.

In the wake of the murder, gangs of rebels start roaming around the country looking for Westerners whom they lynch on the spot. To the Dwyer family’s horror, the marauders are going door-to-door right inside their hotel.

As a stranger in a strange land with no links to the outside world, Jack realizes that he has to rely on his wits to save his family.

He decides to seek sanctuary at the American embassy, which is easier said than done because the streets are crawling with Yankee-hating insurgents. Nonetheless, with the gangs closing in, he leads Annie and the girls to the roof of their building to begin their perilous journey to the embassy.

Directed by John Erik Dowdle (As Above, So Below), No Escape is a high-octane action thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat because of the Dwyers’ close brushes with death at every turn. There are convincing performances from Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Claire Geare, and Sterling Jerins as the terrified family, along with Pierce Brosnan.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, graphic violence, and rape. Running time: 101 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

September 2, 2015

movie rev

IT DOESN’T GET MUCH BETTER THAN THIS: As they stretch out on the hood of their car, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg, left) and his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) enjoy an evening under the stars. The pair are content to get together and get high after work each day. However, their easy-going life is about to be turned upside down when assassins try to kill Mike. (Photo © 2015 – Lionsgate)

When you meet him, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) appears to be a prototypical slacker with not much of a future. The small town stoner is content to fritter away his life behind the counter of the local convenience store as long as he can go home every day and get high with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).

It’s hard to figure out why she puts up with this loser who has no ambition and has a crippling fear of flying that prevents him from travelling very far from Lymon, West Virginia. After all, Phoebe is attractive and has a decent career as a bail bondsman. Nevertheless, she sticks with him, even after he has a panic attack in the airport and aborts their plans for a perfect Hawaiian getaway. Mike was as upset as Phoebe when he failed to board the plane, because he had purchased a diamond ring and was going to pop the question during their vacation.

Phoebe has no idea that her beau is a sleeper agent who has been trained to be a deadly assassin by a U.S. government spy agency. Mike is also unaware of it too, since a part of his brain was turned off when the program was put in mothballs.

However, the couple is in for the shock of their lives soon after Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) decides to have Mike put to death. The callous bureaucrat dispatches killers to Lymon to prevent the remote chance that the dormant asset might somehow be activated and go rogue.

Mike surprises himself when the hit men arrive to kill him. He unexpectedly displays an array of prodigious fighting and survival skills that have been implanted deep in his subconscious and almost effortlessly slays his attackers. Yates nevertheless remains determined to complete the mission, gradually upping the ante as Mike manages to vanquish each escalating wave of adversaries.

Thus unfolds American Ultra, an entertaining action comedy directed by Nima Nourizadeh (Project X). This novel adventure alternates effortlessly between lighthearted and graphic scenes.

The movie also generates a palpable chemistry between Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, which ensures that we care about their fate when the plot thickens. Alternately sophisticated and silly, but ever unpredictable thanks to a few cleverly concealed twists, American Ultra is a delightful summer sleeper that is not to be missed.

Excellent (****). Rated R for graphic violence, pervasive profanity, ethnic slurs, drug use, and some sexuality. Running time: 96 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

August 26, 2015

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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.

These clues are all the police have to go on to decipher what happened in The Gallows, a found-footage movie co-written and co-directed by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing. The movie is a worthy addition to the low-budget horror sub-genre that was started by The Blair Witch Project in 1999.

As in Blair Witch, the characters use their real names in order to blur the line between fact and fiction and thereby suggest that what you’re watching is a documentary. However, that pretense is undermined by the presence of Cassidy Gifford in the movie, since it’s hard to believe that the daughter of Frank and Kathy Lee Gifford was raised in rural Nebraska. Nonetheless, she delivers a decent performance as a terrified coed.

Very Good (***). Rated R for terror and disturbing violence. Running time: 81 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.