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

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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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 1, 2015

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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