August 16, 2017

Karla (Halle Berry) is a stressed single-mom who is working as a waitress in a diner. Of course she’d rather be spending her time with her young son, Frankie (Sage Correa). Fortunately, he’s patiently waiting right there in the restaurant for her overtime shift to end.

After she finally gets off work, the two drive to an amusement park for what they expect will be a fun-filled afternoon. We also learn that Karla’s in the midst of bitter custody battle for Frankie with her vindictive ex-husband (Jason George).

That explains why she moves a few feet away from Frankie for a little privacy when she gets a call from her divorce attorney.

Unfortunately, her attention from her son is distracted enough to afford a lurking kidnapper (Chris McGinn) an opportunity to pounce. Next thing you know, Frankie is being dragged to a waiting getaway car.

Karla frantically rushes after them into the parking lot, and in her distress, she drops her cell phone before she spots a suspicious Mustang GT with tinted windows and no license plates rushing out of the parking lot. Karla frantically decides to chase the car.

What ensues is an extended chase scene that lasts the rest of the movie. So unfolds Kidnap, a low-budget movie directed by Luis Prieto (Pusher). Although the plot has comical holes big enough for Karla to drive her car through, the picture nevertheless is compelling thanks to a combination of heart-pounding action scenes and the protagonists’ convincing portrayal of their desperation to be reunited.

Very Good (***). Rated R for violence, profanity, and scenes of peril. Running time: 95 minutes. Production Studio: Well Go USA Entertainment / Gold Star / 606 Films / Lotus Entertainment. Distributor: Aviron Pictures.

August 9, 2017

When Hitler ordered an all-out assault on the Western Front in the spring of 1940, the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line proved to be no match for the German blitzkrieg. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France all fell to the Nazis in a matter of weeks.

By May 26th, about 400,000 British, French, Polish, Belgian, and Dutch troops had been forced to retreat to Dunkirk, a port located along the northern coast of France. The soldiers were stranded on the beach because there weren’t enough military naval vessels to evacuate all of the forces.

The logistical nightmare left most of the battle-weary men in need of a miracle because they were sitting ducks for the Nazi artillery fire and Luftwaffe bombs. At 7 p.m. that evening, Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, issued an urgent appeal to private boat owners to help in the rescue effort.

By dawn, over 800 hundred vessels had been pressed into service. The flotilla included everything from speed boats and yachts, tugboats and fishing trawlers, and ferries and ocean liners.

For the next nine days, they sailed back and forth across the U-Boat infested waters of the English Channel. About a third of the ships were sunk by the enemy, but the altruistic patriots managed to save 338,226 troops.

Afterwards, Winston Churchill put a positive spin on the devastating military defeat. that had claimed the lives of 68,000 British soldiers and left the country vulnerable to an imminent invasion. On June 4th, he took to the floor of the House of Commons and delivered his famous speech that assured the country that there was no doubt that Great Britain would ultimately prevail.

“Whatever the cost may be,” he said in a stirring summation, “We shall fight on the beaches …. We shall fight on the landing grounds …. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets …. We shall fight in the hills ….” concluding, “We shall never surrender!”

All of the above has been portrayed in Dunkirk, a visually captivating World War II epic directed by Christopher Nolan. Mr. Nolan, who is the best British director besides Alfred Hitchcock who has not yet won an Oscar, has made many memorable movies that include Memento, Inception, Interstellar, and the Batman trilogy, among others.

In Dunkirk, he’s found a novel way to recreate the historic evacuation. Instead of having the documentary drama describe a single protagonist or military unit, he has deftly interwoven several discrete storylines that highlight the different perspectives of a number of unsung heroes. Whether on land, by sea, or in the air, many among those patriotic saviors survived, but some did make the ultimate sacrifice in the valiant stand against the evil that was spreading across Europe. Shot with 70mm film, Dunkirk is an instant classic worth seeing on an IMAX screen.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense battle scenes and some profanity. Running time: 106 minutes. In English, French, and German with subtitles.

Production Studio: Syncopy. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

August 2, 2017

If you’re familiar with the surreal cinematic stylings of Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, then you have an idea of of the treat in store for you in the film Lost in Paris. The talented husband and wife team wrote, directed, and co-starred in their latest foray into the theater of the absurd.

The movie is best described as a cross between Wes Anderson and Charlie Chaplin, because it is an unconventional visually captivating movie with not much dialogue from the leading actors. The rubber-faced duo entertain far more with their movements and expressions than with words.

The film opens in Canada about 50 years ago, where we find Fiona (Gordon) saying farewell to her beloved Aunt Martha (recently-deceased Emmanuelle Riva) who is moving to Paris. Fast-forward to the present when Fiona, now a librarian, receives an urgent appeal for assistance from her 88-year-old aunt.

In the letter, Martha explains that they’re trying to move her into an assisted living facility for old folks. But the feisty aunt will have none of it.

Fiona accepts her aunt’s call for help and the next thing you know Fiona is in France with a large bright orange backpack decorated with a Canadian flag. Her troubles start right off the bat, when she gets stuck in a subway turnstile because of her oversized backpack.

The slapstick escalates further when the weight of the knapsack causes her to topple into the Seine while posing for a photo on a bridge. In order to keep from drowning, she has to free herself from the backpack, and ends up losing all her possessions, including her passport, cell phone, cash, and clothes.

Fortunately Fiona had just met Dom (Abel), a hobo living in a tent pitched along the banks of the river, who just happens to fall in love with her. So, Fiona finds herself having to fend off the advances of her ardent admirer while frantically searching for her missing aunt.

The ensuing search is charming, sublime, hilarious, and implausible. An endearing homage to the silent film era!

Excellent (****). Unrated. In French and English with subtitles. Running time: 83 minutes. Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories.

July 26, 2017

Believe it or not, over a dozen different attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler (Udo Schenk) were made until he took his own life in April of 1945. In 1944, Hitler only suffered minor injuries in the bombing that was the focus of Valkyrie (2008), a documentary drama that stars Tom Cruise.

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), 13 Minutes describes this first attempt to assassinate Hitler just after he had taken control of Germany. The incident occurred in Munich on November 8, 1939 in a hall where the Führer was scheduled to deliver an address.

Unfortunately, Georg Elser’s (Christian Friedel) homemade time bomb went off too late, because Hitler had already completed his remarks and left the building 13 minutes earlier accompanied by the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, and the architect of the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen).

Later that same day, Georg was apprehended when he was trying to cross into Switzerland. Border guards took him into custody after they discovered him with incriminating evidence that led them to believe that he was connected to the explosion.

He was taken to Germany’s Chief of Police Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klauszner) and Gestapo Chief Heinrich Muller (Johann von Bulow) for interrogation, but Georg refused to answer any questions until they threatened to arrest his girlfriend Elsa (Katharina Schuttler). Georg then confessed to protect her, but they still didn’t believe that a simple carpenter could have possibly acted alone to produce a powerful explosive device that claimed eight lives and wounded 62.

So, they resorted to torture to extract the identities of his suspected accomplices who only existed in their imaginations. But Georg had nothing further to share, other than an explanation of how he’d secretly amassed enough gunpowder to construct the bomb.

13 Minutes has an unorthodox story structure, because it opens with the failed assassination attempt, and is followed by a series of Georg’s flashbacks. While behind bars, he reminisces about everything from his disgust with the Nazis to his relationship with Elsa.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality and disturbing violence. In German with subtitles. Running time: 114 minutes. Production Studio: Lucky Bird Pictures. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.

July 19, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes is the ninth movie in the film series that began almost 50 years ago with Planet of the Apes. The original groundbreaking science-fiction adventure was based on the novel of the same name by Pierre Boulle, who also wrote The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

That book was adapted to the movie by two scriptwriters: Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) and Oscar-winner Michael Wilson (The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Place in the Sun). So, it’s no surprise that that movie’s thought-provoking social commentary resonated with critics and audiences.

In that movie, the apes’ masks were so skillfully made that the Motion Picture Academy awarded the movie’s makeup artist, John Chambers, an honorary Oscar. However, it wasn’t until the ’80s that Best Makeup became an official Academy Award category.

War for the Planet of the Apes is the finale in a trilogy that recreated the series in 2011, starting with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and followed a few years later by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Fortunately you don’t need to recall, or even have seen, the earlier pictures to fully appreciate this movie.

Additionally, the use of the latest computer graphic image technology has been so skillfully applied that you never once doubt that you’re watching real apes interacting with humans. The best news is that the movie is a morality play of Shakespearean proportions that explores many universal themes on the way to the showdown that settles the fate of both species once and for all.

The apes are again led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), who matches wits with a ruthless army colonel (Woody Harrelson). Between the sophisticated storytelling and the state-of-the-art special effects, War for the Planet of the Apes is a touching finale for the series.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for action, violence, mature themes, and disturbing images. Running time: 140 minutes. Production Studio: Chernin Entertainment. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

July 12, 2017

All you really need to know about Baby Driver is that so far it’s simply the best film of the year. The picture was written and directed by Edgar Wright, who is best known for three British comedies that starred Simon Pegg: Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World’s End (2013).

Mr. Wright shot this movie in Atlanta and it is a labor of love that took several decades to complete. The movie has its beginnings in “Bellbottoms,” a discordant punk anthem that he visualized as “a song in search of a car chase” from the moment he first heard it in 1995.

That cult classic isn’t the only obscure tune in Baby Driver’s eclectic soundtrack that features rarities ranging from T. Rex’s “Debora,” to Blur’s “Intermission,” to The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat.” However, the blockbuster also has its share of recognizable hits too, such as the Commodores’ “Easy,” Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run,” and “Hocus Pocus” by Focus.

The film has an A-list cast that includes Oscar-winners Jamie Foxx (Ray) and Kevin Spacey (American Beauty and The Usual Suspects), Emmy-winner Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and two-time, Screen Actors Guild Award-winner Lily James (Downton Abbey). However, the film is carried by the up-and-coming actor Ansel Elgort.

He plays Baby, a deaf getaway driver who is extraordinarily adept at eluding the authorities. He is reluctantly controlled by the mob because of a debt that he owes to Doc (Kevin Spacey) the manipulative crime boss. Baby wants to be free of the mob so he can start a new life with Deborah (James), the waitress he fell in love with in an empty diner.

Of course Doc insists that he first serve as wheelman for the “last big heist” that is being staged by Bats (Foxx), Buddy (Hamm), and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). When the robbery goes wrong, Baby’s survival instincts kick-in in a primal urge for self-preservation.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence and pervasive profanity. Running time: 113 minutes. Production Studio: Working Title Films. Distributor: TriStar Pictures.

July 5, 2017

The Beguiled is a Civil War story based on the bestseller of the same name by the late novelist/playwright Thomas Cullinan (1919-1995). The book was first adapted to the screen in 1971 as a melodramatic film that starred Clint Eastwood. This year’s remake was directed by Sofia Coppola whose effort was rewarded at Cannes when she became the second woman in the history of the festival to be chosen Best Director.

The story is set in 1864 at a Virginia boarding school for girls run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) with the help of Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst). They have five students under their care, ranging from preteens to the late teens.

As the movie opens, the sounds of battle are heard in the distance. The fighting is in sharp contrast to the serenity of the campus where we see Amy (Oona Laurence) foraging in the forest for wild mushrooms.  more

June 28, 2017

Jessica (Scarlett Johansson) and Peter (Paul W. Downs) are about to get married. However, before the ceremony, they’ve agreed to simultaneously throw themselves bachelor’s and bachelorette’s parties. Jessica flies down to Miami for a wild party with four of her closest college classmates, while Peter plans a modest evening of wine tasting with a few of his buddies.

It turns out that Jessica is in the middle of a campaign for the state senate, so she doesn’t want their party to get out of control and generate negative publicity that would hurt her candidacy. However, she’s unaware that decorum is the last thing on the mind of Alice (Jillian Bell), the girlfriend whom Jessica asked to plan their get together.

Alice sees the reunion as an opportunity for the foursome to indulge one last time in the sort of parties they had on campus ten years ago, when they would get drunk while playing beer pong on a weekend night. So, she’s planned a wild weekend that includes everything from cocaine to a male stripper.

The other three members of the party are Pippa (Kate McKinnon), a clown who is up for anything, as is Blair (Zoe Kravitz), who is recovering from an ugly custody battle. However, Frankie (Ilana Glazer), who is a lesbian, has a history of run-ins with the law and is afraid about violating the “Three Strikes” law that would automatically give her a life sentence in jail.

The party starts in the airport terminal when Alice uncorks a bottle of champagne that unwittingly triggers a stampede by passengers who mistake the pop of the cork for a gunshot. Next, when they arrive at their beachfront rental house, they are invited by the next-door couple Lea (Demi Moore) and Pietro (Ty Burrell) to participate in an orgy.

Things quickly go from bad to worse when the exotic dancer, whom Alice hired, arrives. During his striptease act, he accidentally hits his head and kills himself. Jessica and her friends decide to dump the body in the ocean rather than call the cops and what ensues is a hilariously escalating comedy of errors.

Rough Night is reminiscent of The Hangover (2009), although it also has moments that recall scenes from Bridesmaids (2011) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989). The movie is the directorial debut of Lucia Aniello, the first woman to direct an R-rated comedy since Tamra Davis made Half Baked in 1998.

Excellent (****). Rated R for crude sexuality, drug use, coarse humor, brief bloody images, and profanity. Running time: 101 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

June 21, 2017

A bar mitzvah is nearing its climax in an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem when the balcony reserved for women suddenly collapses. When the dust settles, the members discover that the collapse has left the wife of their rabbi in a coma, and also that her husband, Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar) is in denial about the condition of his wife and is no condition to lead his synagogue’s members.

It becomes clear that neither Rabbi Menashe nor the Mussayof Synagogue will be back to normal anytime soon. With the building closed because it is unsafe, the congregation finds a temporary home in a nearby school. However, its location makes it difficult to assemble a minyan, the quorum of 10, that is required for religious services.

A savior arrives when they ask David (Avraham Aviv Alush), a young rabbi who happened to be passing by, to join them to make their minyan complete. Not only is he willing to join their services, but in the next few weeks he takes over the position of the congregation’s rabbi and their plans to repair their damaged synagogue. However, it turns out that he advocates an ultra-orthodox form of Judaism, and he attempts to convince the congregation that they should embrace his more restrictive interpretation of the laws of the Bible.

For example, he tries to persuade the women to dress more modestly by always covering their heads with a scarf. Next, he announces that instead of using the money that the congregant’s women have collected to repair the balcony, he is going to use the money to commission the writing of a new Torah scroll for the new congregation.

None of this news sits well with the women of the original Mussayof congregation who decide to fight against their new rabbi. As in Aristophanes’ classic play, Lysistrata, and Spike Lee’s latest “joint,” Chi-Raq, they agree to withhold sex until their husbands come to their senses.

All of the above plays out in hilarious fashion in The Women’s Balcony, a delightful tale of female empowerment directed by Emil Ben-Shiron. The movie was a hit in Israel where it won five of that country’s equivalent of the Academy Award nominations. Kudos, too, to Menemsha Films’ Neil Friedman, who has produced several charming sleepers that include Dough, The Rape of Europa, Beauty in Trouble, and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

Excellent (****). Unrated. In Hebrew with subtitles. Running time: 96 minutes. Production Studio: Pie Films. Distributor: Menemsha Films.

June 14, 2017

Five years ago, Mike Dowling published Sergeant Rex, a memoir about the bond he’d forged with a bomb-sniffing dog while serving in over 35 missions in Iraq. Now, Marine Corporal Megan Leavey, is the subject of a documentary drama — based on a true story — that portrays her relationship with the same German shepherd dog.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film stars Kate Mara as the title character, with Edie Falco and Will Patton in support roles.

At the point of departure, we find Megan enlisting in the Marines. After completing basic training on Parris Island, she finds her true calling in the Corps when she is assigned to the K-9 unit. Rex, who has become uncontrollable, is on the verge of being declared unfit for active duty by the base’s veterinarian, Dr. Turbeville (Geraldine James). Fortunately a dog lover begs that someone be given an opportunity to soothe and tame Rex.

Drill Sergeant Martin (Common) intervenes on Megan and Rex’s behalf and gives her the chance to work with the dog. With the patience of Job, Megan shows that she has the touch necessary to tame Rex. The two become inseparable and they’re shipped overseas to search for IEDs buried in the dangerous desert sands of Iraq’s Anbar province.

The deployment is uneventful, until Megan and Rex are injured in an explosion and shipped back to the States for rehabilitation at facilities far apart from each other. However, Megan’s attachment to Rex drives her to find a way to obtain possession of Rex. The remainder of the movie depicts her cutting through bureaucratic red tape until she finally succeeds in achieving ownership of Rex.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, mature themes, and suggestive material. Running time: 116 minutes. Production Studio: LD Entertainment. Distributor: Bleeker Street Media.

June 7, 2017

Paul (Joel Edgerton) managed to find a safe refuge for his family that was far from the rest of humanity in order to escape the deadly plague that has been decimating the Earth’s population. At least that’s what he thought, until his wife Sarah’s (Carmen Ejogo) father somehow caught the disease.

After she and their son (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) said their goodbyes while wearing germ-proof respirators, Paul shot his father-in-law and cremated the body in order to prevent it from infecting them. As the body was being cremated, Travis the 17-year-old grandson, comforted himself by telling his pet dog Stanley “Don’t worry, I’m going to take care of you.” Unfortunately, Stanley is the next to die in It Comes at Night, a suspense thriller that is set inside a darkened cabin in the woods. more

May 31, 2017

KIDNAPPING IS NOTHING TO JOKE ABOUT: Rodrick (Charlie Wright, center) and his wimpy brother Greg (Jason Drucker, right) are being dressed down by the police officer who saw the “kidnapped” sign that Rodrick had pasted in the rear window of their car to protest the way his mother was treating him.    (Photo by Daniel McFadden 20th Century Fox, © TM and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved)

Series’s Fourth Episode Features New Cast Up to Old Tricks

According to Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul provides an example of that saying. The comedy describes the escalating misfortunes that plague the Heffley family during their summer road trip.
The film is the fourth in the series that is based on Jeff Kinney’s illustrated children’s novels. It was directed by David Bowers who also made Wimpy Kid 2 and 3.
The movie features an entirely new cast, starting with Jason Drucker as the title character, wimpy Greg Heffley; Alicia Silverstone and Tom Everett Scott are his parents, Susan and Frank; and Charlie Wright and Dylan Walters are Greg’s older and younger brothers, Rodrick and Manny, respectively.
Wimpy Kid 4 is about a family’s cross-country outing to attend their grandma’s 90th birthday party. The mother Susan sees the drive as an opportunity for the family to bond together, so she collects everybody’s cell phones before departing.
This frustrates her children, who find it boring without their electronic devices. Rodrick calls her “the worst mom ever” and sticks a “kidnapped” sign in the rear window that leads to their being pulled over by the police.
Other eventful stops range from an overnight stay in a motel with rats in the pool and a visit to a country fair where Manny wins a live piglet as a prize. The humor flowing from the escalating insanity is mostly of the bodily function variety.
Every skit is designed to keep the target audience of young children in stitches, with only occasional asides for adults, such as the inspired homage to Psycho’s legendary shower scene.
Very Good (HHH). Rated PG for rude humor. Running time: 91 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

May 24, 2017

It’s Maddy Whittier’s (Amandla Stenburg) 18th birthday, but she won’t be celebrating the occasion at a party or restaurant. In fact, she won’t be leaving the house or even have friends over anytime soon.

That’s because she has SCID, a rare genetic disorder that makes her allergic to everything.

Consequently, she’s been living inside a hermetically-sealed house after she was diagnosed with the illness at the age of 3, shortly after her father and brother’s untimely deaths in a terrible car crash.

Fortunately, Maddy’s mother, Pauline (Anika Noni Rose), is a physician who can afford to raise her in a sterile environment, free of the agents that could compromise her immune system. Maddy grew up curious about the outside world, but she learned to explore it by using the internet, together with the help of online courses and a support group for children with her disorder.

Then, Maddy receives the best birthday gift she could ever imagine when new neighbors move in right next-door. The family’s son, Olly (Nick Robinson), is a boy about Maddy’s age, and after seeing her from his window, he falls head-over-heels in love with her.

Olly uses sign language to ask Maddy for her phone number, and then types “U R beautiful” in his first text to her. After he learns about her rare disorder, he asks if there’s any way he could be decontaminated to come over for a visit.

However, that’s against Maddy’s doctor’s orders, so the couple is forced to communicate with each other from afar. Needless to say, Maddy quickly becomes discontented with her sheltered existence in her antiseptic gilded cage.

Will she recklessly abandon her protective bubble to rush into the arms of a neighbor she barely knows? That is the burning question at the heart of Everything, Everything, a bittersweet movie based on the young adult novel by Nicola Yoon. The picture was directed by Stella Meghie who successfully adapted the book into a movie that is certain to satisfy fans of the book.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes and brief sensuality. Running time: 96 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

May 17, 2017

Emily Middleton (Amy Schumer) is having one of those days. First, she’s fired from her sales job in a boutique because she was ignoring customers and instead trying on outfits for herself. Also, her boyfriend (Randall Park) callously dumps her on the eve of their planned romantic getaway to Ecuador.

Emily cries on the shoulder of her mother Linda (Goldie Hawn), but she rubs salt in Emily’s wounds by saying, “Michael was the best you’ll ever do.” Still, against her better judgment, Emily invites Linda to come on the trip with her because the pre-paid vacation package is non-refundable.

However, Linda is also a worrier who rarely leaves her house, let alone the country. And she’ll be worrying about Emily the whole time, and probably prevent her from meeting a new guy. In the end, Linda grudgingly agrees to go, and packs for what looks like an uneventful stay at an exclusive resort in Ecuador.

Snatched is a screwball comedy far more entertaining than it might appear. Although the script does unfold like a generic “Vacation From Hell” story, it’s actually far above average, thanks to a stellar cast that is led by four consummate comediennes.

The picture co-stars Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn as the mother and daughter at the center of the story. It also features two veteran scene stealers, Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack, who make the most of their supporting roles.

The plot thickens when Linda and Emily land in Ecuador. First, Emily’s swept off her feet by a tall, dark, handsome stranger (Tom Bateman) whom she meets in a bar. The next morning, he talks them into a seemingly innocuous drive in the countryside.

Unfortunately, the Middletons are kidnapped by a ruthless gang led by Morgado (Oscar Jaenada) who is demanding a $100,000 ransom for the pair. But the U.S. State Department refuses to help, and Emily’s brother Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz) is also unable to rescue them.

Left to their own devices, the squabbling mother and daughter put aside their differences and rely on their wits to survive. Schumer, Hawn, Sykes, and Cusack, are all at the top of their game.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, brief nudity, pervasive profanity, and crude humor. Running time: 91 minutes. Production Studio: Chernin Entertainment. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

May 10, 2017

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) had less than a dozen of her 1,800 poems published while she was still alive. Since her work was appreciated posthumously, it makes sense that a movie about her life would be about something other than her literary work, which was unrecognized by her contemporaries.

Writer/director Terrence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea) resisted the temptation to examine Dickinson’s poems, but instead examined her tortured soul. As a result, A Quiet Passion is an exquisite costume drama that presents the protagonist as an iconoclastic visionary and a retiring recluse.

The socially-conscious production suggests that the agnostic, feminist abolitionist was ahead of her time, and that she withdrew from the world in response to being raised in an era when evangelism, slavery, and male chauvinism were the order of the day. The movie focuses on her fragile psyche that was further crippled by her cloistered existence.

As the film unfolds, we find Emily (played in her teens by Emma Bell and later as an adult by Cynthia Nixon) finishing a frustrating freshman year at Mount Holyoke. She decides to drop out in order to avoid having to conform to the pious practices that were dictated by the Christian revival movement. That pressure was being exerted on her by the school’s president, Mary Lyon (Sara Vertongen). Dickinson refused to conform because she saw her relationship with God as a private and personal matter, not one that demanded public displays of devotion in a church service.

So she returns to Amherst, Massachusetts, and lives on the Dickinson family estate with her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon), brother (Duncan Duff), and sister (Jennifer Ehle). Unfortunately, Emily is unable to bite her tongue when visitors like the local pastor (Miles Richardson) or even a potential suitor (Stefan Menaul) make social calls.

Even though she has trusted confidantes in her sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May) and Mabel Loomis Todd (Noemie Schellens), Dickinson’s first preference is to remain in her upstairs bedroom where she can write her poems in secret. Cynthia Nixon convincingly conveys the emotional fires that simmer just beneath the surface of Emily Dickinson’s stoic countenance.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes, disturbing images, and suggestive material. Production Studio: Hurricane Films. Running time: 126 minutes. Distributor: Music Box Films.

May 3, 2017

A few action films have opening scenes, that by themselves, are worth the price of admission. Taken (2008), District B-13 (2004), Super 8 (2011), and Dawn of the Dead (2004) are four that come to mind. I can now add The Fate of the Furious to this list of movies that grab your attention from the very beginning.

The film opens in Cuba, where newlyweds Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are spending their honeymoon. However, their vacation is interrupted when Dom tries to stop a man who is threatening to repossess Dom’s cousin’s car.

Dom talks him out of towing the car away and instead challenges him to a drag race to settle their differences. What ensues is a heart-stopping race through the colorful streets of Havana that ends in a photo finish at the ocean shore.

Next, we find the bride and groom back at the hotel, where Letty brings up the idea of starting a family. Dom goes for a walk to consider Letty’s suggestion and stops to help a woman (Charlize Theron) who is having trouble with her car.

However, the woman is Cipher, a cyber-terrorist who is bent on world domination by acquiring a device that will shut down electrical grids. She blackmails Dom into joining her by showing him something very incriminating on her cell phone.

That sets the stage for a high-octane battle of brawn, muscle cars, and wits that has Dom fighting against his wife and a reassembled gang composed of Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Tej (Ludacris), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel). Roman (Tyrese), their new team leader Frank (Kurt Russell), his assistant Eric (Scott Eastwood), and Deckard (Jason Statham).

Forget about trying to follow the plot. It’s messy and there are too many characters to keep track of. Just sit back and enjoy the spectacular stunts, the playful badinage between Hobbs and Deckard, and Roman’s comic relief.

In this critic’s opinion, this is the year’s first summer blockbuster.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, suggestive content, and prolonged sequences of violence and destruction. Running time: 136 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

April 26, 2017

In Eastern Turkey in 1914, druggist Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is working and living in his half-Armenian/half-Turkish village where Christians and Muslims are living together in peace. However, the ambitious apothecary would rather be a doctor, so he courts and marries a neighbor (Angela Sarafyan), whose family is relatively wealthy, in order to get the dowry.

With the money, he is able to afford medical school. However, while studying in Constantinople, he falls in love with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow Armenian who has recently returned from France. Mikael is taken with her beauty and urbane sophistication that she acquired while rowing up in Paris. Unfortunately, Ana has returned accompanied by her lover, Chris Meyers (Christian Bale), an American photojournalist who was assigned by the Associated Press to find evidence of ethnic cleansing.

When World War I erupts, Mikael is forced to flee the Turkish army’s roundup of Armenian civilians and he returns to his hometown to help rescue his relatives and friends. Ana is in a similar struggle to survive and her lover Chris Meyers does his best to take photos that document the slaughter of Armenians that is rumored to be occurring.

The Promise is a riveting documentary drama directed and co-written by Oscar winner Terry George (The Short). The movie bears a strong resemblance to Hotel Rwanda, which George also directed and co-wrote.

Both of his films depict extraordinary heroism in the face of a complete collapse of civilization. If this picture has a flaw, it’s that it appears to trivialize the ethnic cleansing of one and a half million Armenians by making that genocide a backdrop to the love story that is at the center of the movie.

Excellent (***½). Rated PG-13 for mature themes, sexuality, violence, disturbing images, and war atrocities. Running time: 134 minutes. Production Studio: Survival Pictures. Distributor: Open Road Films.

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.