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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 11, 2015
GOOD MEETS EVIL: Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, right) the evil tech mogul who is planning to take over the world, is introduced to Eggsy (Taron Egerton, left), who has just been recruited into the elite group of spies called the Kingsman by Harry Hart (Colin Firth). Valentine is planning to take over the world by devising a  plan to surreptitiously download an app, that he can control, into every cell phone in the planet.(Photo by Jaap Buitendijk©TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

GOOD MEETS EVIL: Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, right) the evil tech mogul who is planning to take over the world, is introduced to Eggsy (Taron Egerton, left), who has just been recruited into the elite group of spies called the Kingsman by Harry Hart (Colin Firth). Valentine is planning to take over the world by devising a plan to surreptitiously download an app, that he can control, into every cell phone in the planet. (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk©TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is so unassuming and buttoned-downed that no one would suspect him to be a highly skilled secret agent capable of killing at the drop of a derby. However, as a Kingsman, he belongs to an exclusive fraternity of nattily attired spies who abide by the motto “Manners Maketh Man.” Members of this covert organization consider themselves to be modern day knights, and they consider their suits to be their body armor.

Despite his distinguished service record, Harry still regrets the mistake he made during a 1997 operation in the Middle East that cost a colleague his life. Today, Harry hopes to make it up to his dead partner by taking his orphaned son, Eggsy (Taron Egerton), into the service.

This will be easier said than done since, aside from completing the requisite Navy SEAL-like training program, the young apprentice has a lot of rough edges that need smoothing, including a grating cockney accent. Since he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, Eggsy needs some lessons in etiquette.

Meanwhile, a matter of more pressing concern comes to Harry’s attention. There is a plot being hatched by Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is an evil tech mogul who is bent on world domination. He is giving away billions of free SIM cards that will give free phone calls and internet access to everyone. People are lining up for the freebies all around the planet, not realizing that they’re about to download an apocalyptic app into their cell phones.

Adapted from the comic book series The Secret Service, Kingsman is a satire of the espionage genre which will have you recalling the early James Bond adventures starring Sean Connery. The picture was directed by Matthew Vaughn who co-wrote the script with Jane Goldman.

Colin Firth is delightfully debonair, here, whether turning on the charm or dispatching bad guys. Samuel L. Jackson is just as amusing and is cast as an adversary who has a flamboyant persona complete with a lisp.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and graphic violence. In English and Swedish with subtitles. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

February 4, 2015
LET ME HELP YOU WITH YOUR HOMEWORK: Wealthy attorney Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner, right) coaches his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell). Due to an unfortunate accident, Elliot’s wife is killed in a car accident which leaves Elliot to raise Eloise as a single parent. Eloise’s father is a convicted drug addict, who also happens to be black. A bitter custody battle ensues when the child’s black grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer, not shown) sues for custody of her granddaughter.

LET ME HELP YOU WITH YOUR HOMEWORK: Wealthy attorney Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner, right) coaches his granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell). Due to an unfortunate accident, Elliot’s wife is killed in a car accident which leaves Elliot to raise Eloise as a single parent. Eloise’s father is a convicted drug addict, who also happens to be black. A bitter custody battle ensues when the child’s black grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer, not shown) sues for custody of her granddaughter.

When Elliot Anderson’s (Kevin Costner) wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle) perishes in a tragic car accident, he is left with the task of raising his 7-year-old granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) alone. The couple had originally assumed custody for her when their daughter had died giving birth to the little girl, since the baby’s drug addicted father Reggie (Andre Holland) was behind bars and totally unfit to be a parent.

Today, however, Elliot has a drinking problem which escalates out of control in the wake of his spouse’s untimely death. His situation comes to the attention of Eloise’s fraternal grandmother, Rowena “Wee-Wee” Davis (Octavia Spencer).

She approaches Elliot about setting up visitation rights, in spite of her son’s substance abuse problems, since Eloise has a lot of other relatives on her father’s side of the family who are eager to see her. However, Elliot, a white wealthy lawyer, balks at the request, presumably because they’re black and from the ‘hood, and Elliot wants to shield his granddaughter from the ghetto and its host of woes.

Wee-Wee asks her attorney brother, Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), to file suit. The parties end up slinging mud at one another in an ugly custody battle where Reggie is accused of being a crack head with a criminal record and Elliot is labeled a racist and an alcoholic. Additionally, the Judge Margaret Cummings (Paula Newsome), who is an African American female, might be biased in favor of the plaintiff Rowena.

All this leads to a courtroom showdown in Black or White, a cross-cultural melodrama written and directed by Mike Binder (Reign over Me). Inspired by true events, the picture pits Elliot and Wee-Wee against each other and are capably played by Oscar winners Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves) and Octavia Spencer (The Help).

Thanks to the media, everyone knows that a lawyer never asks a question on cross-examination that he or she doesn’t already know the answer to. Nonetheless, Jeremiah violates that cardinal rule by asking Elliot, “Do you dislike all black people?” This affords the grandfather an opportunity to rehabilitate his tarnished image in a scintillating soliloquy reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” monologue in the movie A Few Good Men.

Unfortunately, the rest of this drama doesn’t match the intensity of that climactic moment. Nonetheless, the film is worth seeing because of Costner’s performance and for the way in which the script dares to tackle some tough social questions in a realistic, if perhaps politically incorrect, fashion.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity, fighting, ethnic slurs, and mature themes involving drugs and alcohol. Running time: 121 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

January 28, 2015
EUREKA, WE’VE DONE IT: The team at Bletchley Park, led by Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, seated center) has successfully broken the encrypted radio transmissions of the Nazi military. Unbeknownst to the Germans, the team possessed one of the Enigma machines, which the Germans were using to encrypt their radio messages. Turing, a brilliant mathematician, was able to lead the team shown surrounding him to devise an electric powered machine that was able to decipher the code. They are shown here entering their machine’s results into the Enigma machine and receiving the unencrypted output.

EUREKA, WE’VE DONE IT: The team at Bletchley Park, led by Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, seated center) has successfully broken the encrypted radio transmissions of the Nazi military. Unbeknownst to the Germans, the team possessed one of the Enigma machines, which the Germans were using to encrypt their radio messages. Turing, a brilliant mathematician, was able to lead the team shown surrounding him to devise an electric powered machine that was able to decipher the code. They are shown here entering their machine’s results into the Enigma machine and receiving the unencrypted output.

At the outset of World War II, the Nazis gained an early advantage with the help of its Enigma, the encrypting machine which enabled the German military to communicate without having to worry about their radio messages being understood. In response, Winston Churchill authorized the eccentric math genius Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) to work with a team whose mission was to unscramble the Enigma’s encrypted codes.

Operating on the campus of a cypher school located in Buckinghamshire’s Bletchley Park, Turing’s team embarked upon a race against time to break the Enigma’s code that was equally as important as the fighting on the battlefield. And when they did manage to decipher the German communications, they understood that it was just as important to keep that fact a secret.

They realized that their information gave the Allies on the front lines an advantage that would be lost overnight if the Nazis changed the settings on their Enigma  machine. Fortunately, they were able to keep their secret safe from the enemy.

The British government credited Turing’s team with saving millions of lives and shortening the conflict in the European theater by a couple years. That important achievement is the subject of The Imitation Game, a bittersweet biopic directed by Norwegian Morten Tyldum (Headhunters).

Nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor (Cumberbatch), and Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley), the film is based on Alan Turing: The Enigma, Andrew Hodges’s biography of the unsung hero. Unfortunately, because of the secrecy of their work, and despite the pivotal role he had played, Turing contributions were never really recognized by the public. Instead, after the war he was arrested, convicted, and chemically castrated because he was gay (which was illegal in Britain at the time), which caused him to commit suicide.

The movie is a well crafted character study that just might earn Benedict Cumberbatch an Oscar.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sexual references, mature themes, and smoking. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

January 20, 2015
YOU’RE NOT BUYING A NEW FRIEND, YOU’RE HIRING A BEST MAN: Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart, left) warns Doug Harris (Josh Gad) about expecting too much from their developing friendship because, after all, Doug is hiring Jimmy to be his best man at his wedding. But in spite of Jimmy’s warning, the two do become friends.(Photo by Matt Kennedy - © 2014 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

YOU’RE NOT BUYING A NEW FRIEND, YOU’RE HIRING A BEST MAN: Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart, left) warns Doug Harris (Josh Gad) about expecting too much from their developing friendship because, after all, Doug is hiring Jimmy to be his best man at his wedding. But in spite of Jimmy’s warning, the two do become friends. (Photo by Matt Kennedy – © 2014 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Doug Harris (Josh Gad) and Gretchen Palmer (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) are putting the finishing touches on their impending wedding festivities. However, the groom has yet to find a best man, even though he’s going to be married in ten days.

Doug has been rejected by every acquaintance he’s approached, receiving rude responses ranging from “I thought you died” to “I didn’t even invite you to my wedding.” So, since he’s too embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t have any friends, Doug decides to hide his predicament from his fiancée.

Instead, he hires a professional best man, Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart) — along with seven other strangers — to serve as his groomsmen. Can they get to know Doug well enough in a week and convince Gretchen and members of the wedding party that they’re long-lost friends?

That is the point of departure of The Wedding Ringer, a comedy that is the directorial debut of Jeremy Garelick. If you are not offended by the farfetched setup, and are willing to suspend disbelief, you’ll enjoy the hilarious hijinks that ensue.

Most of the laughs emanate from the attempts by the assortment of unsavory characters to impersonate refined white-collar stereotypes such as a podiatrist, a principal, a lawyer, and a professor. The so called best man adopts the alias “Bic Mitchum” and poses as a priest.

And although Jimmy proves convincing at faking his friendship with Doug, he warns Doug that “You’re not buying a new friend. You’re hiring a best man.” But despite this strictly business understanding, coldhearted Jimmy gradually warms to Doug and the two somehow bond.

That unexpected development is what ultimately redeems The Wedding Ringer’s otherwise ridiculous premise. After all, how much hope could there really be for a marriage if the groom stages such an elaborate scheme rather than simply explain the situation to his bride-to-be?

Check your credulity at the box office and the talented cast of seasoned comedians will keep you in stitches in this lowbrow politically incorrect movie.

Very Good (***). Rated R for crude humor, pervasive profanity, coarse sexuality, and brief nudity. Running time: 101 minutes. Distributor: Screen Gems.

January 14, 2015
DIDN’T I TELL YOU THAT I WOULD BE ALRIGHT?: Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is hugged by his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) when he returns home from his fourth and final deployment as a sniper in Iraq.(Photo by Keith Bernstein-© (c) 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC-U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda(c)

DIDN’T I TELL YOU THAT I WOULD BE ALRIGHT?: Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is hugged by his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) when he returns home from his fourth and final deployment as a sniper in Iraq. (Photo by Keith Bernstein-© (c) 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC-U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda(c)

Navy Seal Chris Kyle served four tours as a sniper in Iraq between 2003 and 2008. Over the course of his dangerous deployments to Ramadi, Sadr City, Fallujah, and other hot spots, he became the most lethal sniper in the history of the U.S. military. Directed by Clint Eastwood, American Sniper is a biopic that chronicles the sharpshooter’s exploits.

The film is based on Kyle’s autobiography of the same name, and stars Bradley Cooper in the title role. Besides highlighting battlefield heroics, the movie mixes in poignant flashbacks from Kyle’s formative years.

For instance, in those early childhood scenes we see Kyle’s father (Ben Reed) teaching him how to shoot; a scene where he protects his little brother Jeff (Luke Sunshine) from a playground bully (Brandon Salgado Telis); and another time where he brings along his dog-eared copy of the Bible when he attends a church service. These scenes are clearly designed to show us how his character and skills influenced his future duties as a Seal.

Another focus of the picture is Kyle’s relationship with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller). While she’s raising their children in the States, she often finds her phone calls with Kyle interrupted by everything from IED explosions to enemy fire. However, Kyle always calms her fears with reassurances that he will survive the ordeal.

This depiction of Kyle as a tenderhearted family man is what sets American Sniper apart from other recent war films like Lone Survivor and The Hurt Locker. As a result, we really care whether he will ultimately return home safe and sound.

Kudos to Clint Eastwood for fashioning such a moving and well-deserved tribute to a true American hero.

Excellent (****). Rated R for graphic violence, sexual references, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 132 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

January 7, 2015
LUCK BE A LADY TONIGHT: Professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) compulsively returns to the casino in the vain hope of winning more money than he loses. Unfortunately he finds himself falling deeper and deeper in debt. Finally, the casino owner, who is a mobster gives him a deadline to repay the debt, or else.(Photo by Claire Folger — © 2014 Paramount Pictures, All Rights Reserved)

LUCK BE A LADY TONIGHT: Professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) compulsively returns to the casino in the vain hope of winning more money than he loses. Unfortunately he finds himself falling deeper and deeper in debt. Finally, the casino owner, who is a mobster gives him a deadline to repay the debt, or else. (Photo by Claire Folger — © 2014 Paramount Pictures, All Rights Reserved)

By day, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is an English literature professor whose questionable teaching method involves berating his students by suggesting that none of them will ever amount to anything. He reserves all his praise for the only person in the class who exhibits any promise of being a writer — the brilliant, beautiful, but modest, Amy Phillips (Brie Larson).

Amy also works part-time at a gambling casino that her teacher frequents. Sadly, Jim is a high roller in need of Gambler’s Anonymous who has forgotten that the odds are in favor of the house, so that the more you play, the more you lose.

Compulsively, Professor Bennett pushes his luck at Black Jack and Roulette and loses more than he could ever afford to repay. He eventually finds himself $250,000 in debt to Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), the casino owner who has extended a long line of credit to Bennett.

After being told that he had seven days to pay off the I.O.U. before having his kneecaps broken by Lee’s goons, Jim approaches everyone from his mother (Jessica Lange) to a loan shark (Michael Kenneth Williams) and to a mobster (John Goodman) for an emergency loan. Unfortunately, rather than paying off his debt with the cash he’s borrowed, Jim heads right back to the casino tables.

The Gambler is a remake loosely based on the 1974 movie that starred James Caan. Mark Wahlberg deftly handles the title role in this witty overhaul of the original thanks to a well crafted screenplay by Oscar winner William Monahan (The Departed).

The movie describes the gradual slide into depravity of an unrepentant loser in denial. Along the way, Jim is helped by several of his students, including Amy, basketball All-American Lamar (Anthony Kelley), and tennis prodigy Dexter (Emory Cohen). The only question is whether Bennett will be able to pull out of the downward spiral before crashing and burning.

The film unfolds against a variety of Los Angeles locales ranging from the seamy to the posh, and is helped by an appropriate soundtrack. Director Rupert Wyatt’s (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) was helped by the supporting cast featuring Oscar winners George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke) and Jessica Lange (Tootsie and Blue Sky), as well as John Goodman, Leland Orser, and Michael Kenneth Williams.

Very Good (***). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 101 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

December 30, 2014
WE SHALL OVERCOME: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo, right) meets with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and convinces him that the civil rights of African Americans are being abused. As a result, the president and Congress enact legislation that significantly improves the civil rights of Americans.(Photo by Atsushi Nishijima-© 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved)

WE SHALL OVERCOME: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (David Oyelowo, right) meets with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and convinces him that the civil rights of African Americans are being abused. As a result, the president and Congress enact legislation that significantly improves the civil rights of Americans. (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima-© 2014 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved)

I was born in the early 50s, which means the civil rights movement unfolded during my formative years. And, like the average black kid growing up in that tumultuous era, I can recall having a visceral reaction to the nightly news coverage, since I had a personal stake in the outcome of the events.

One of my most consequential memories was when three voting rights marches were staged in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Launched by locals with the help of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the first demonstration came to be known as Bloody Sunday because of the way the police viciously attacked the 500 plus participants with tear gas and billy clubs at the direction of the racist sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston).

Fallout from the media coverage attracted the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) who agreed to get involved. And after an aborted second attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the controversy blossomed into a nationwide cause as 25,000 people, who were willing to risk their personal safety, descended upon Selma — including Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Joan Baez, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Peter, Paul and Mary.

The third march went off without a hitch, although participant Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs), a mother of five from Detroit, was murdered by four Ku Klux Klansmen just a few hours later. A couple of other martyrs also made the ultimate sacrifice in Selma; Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) and Reverend James Reeb (Jeremy Strong). However, they did not die in vain because, in August, President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) signed historic voting rights legislation into law.

All of the above has been evocatively reenacted in Selma, a civil rights story directed by Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere). The picture’s release is timely in light of the resurgence of political activism all across the U.S. after grand juries did not indict the police officers responsible for the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Believe it or not, this biopic is the first full-length feature made about Dr. Martin Luther King. It is significant that the film will be released nation wide right before Dr. King’s birthday and the awards season.

The movie is an overdue tribute to a revered icon and to the unsung foot soldiers who played a critical role in the African American struggle for freedom and equality.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, and brief profanity. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

December 24, 2014
NOBODY EVER MADE A VALENTINE CARD JUST FOR ME BEFORE: Billionaire mobile phone magnate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx, right) is bowled over by the Valentine’s Day card Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) has made just for him to show her appreciation for rescuing her from the orphanage in Harlem.(Photo by Photo by Barry Wetcher-© 2014 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

NOBODY EVER MADE A VALENTINE CARD JUST FOR ME BEFORE: Billionaire mobile phone magnate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx, right) is bowled over by the Valentine’s Day card Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) has made just for him to show her appreciation for rescuing her from the orphanage in Harlem. (Photo by Photo by Barry Wetcher-© 2014 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

Little Orphan Annie was a syndicated comic strip created by Harold Gray (1894-1968) which debuted in the New York Daily News on August 5, 1924. The cartoon described the adventures of an adorable 11-year-old girl with curly red hair who’d exclaim “Leapin’ lizards!” whenever she got excited.

The original strip also featured Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, the millionaire who rescued her from an orphanage; Punjab, his loyal manservant; and Sandy, her adopted stray dog. The popular serial was first brought to the big screen in 1932, and was adapted to the stage in 1977 as a Broadway musical.

Directed by Will Gluck (Easy A), this fifth film version is loosely based on that production. However, the story unfolds in the present at a foster home in Harlem instead of during the Depression at an orphanage located in lower Manhattan. And a few names have been changed, but the roles and motivations essentially remain the same.

At the point of departure, we find Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her fellow wards of the state caught in the clutches of cruel Colleen Hannigan, (Cameron Diaz), an abusive alcoholic with a mean streak who takes delight in exploiting the little girls entrusted to her care. This predicament inspires the mistreated waifs to sing about how “It’s the Hard Knock Life” for them.

Every chance she has, Annie sits in front of the restaurant where she was abandoned long ago, praying for the return of the parents who had abandoned her, singing the sun’ll come out “Tomorrow.” However, hope arrives when she crosses paths with mobile phone magnate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), who invites the grimy orphan to move into his posh penthouse.

But did the billionaire make the generous overture merely for a photo opportunity to improve his image as a mayoral candidate? Will the cute kid be callously kicked back to the curb once the campaign’s over?

The outcome won’t be much of a mystery to the average adult, though it will probably keep youngsters and maybe even ’tweens glued to the edges of their seats for the full two hours. As for the lead performance, Quvenzhane Wallis is quite endearing as the latest incarnation of Annie, right from the opening scene where she takes the baton from a freckle-faced redhead (Taylor Richardson).

However, the film has a glaring weakness — a mediocre soundtrack. Jamie Foxx has the best singing voice here, by far. The rest of the cast members give it their all, but simply fail to deliver any show-stopping renditions of the familiar or the new tunes.

Good (**). Rated PG for mild epithets and rude humor. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

December 17, 2014
A WIZARD HAS MANY RESOURCES AT HIS COMMAND: While travelling on a path through the inside of a mountain, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) finds a map engraved in the stone walls of the cave which provides him with the information he needs to complete his journey. Fortunately, Gandalf’s staff has a magic light the wizard can use to read the map.(Photo by Mark Pokory - © (c) 2011 New Line Productions, Inc.)

A WIZARD HAS MANY RESOURCES AT HIS COMMAND: While travelling on a path through the inside of a mountain, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) finds a map engraved in the stone walls of the cave which provides him with the information he needs to complete his journey. Fortunately, Gandalf’s staff has a magic light the wizard can use to read the map. (Photo by Mark Pokory – © (c) 2011 New Line Productions, Inc.)

The Battle of the Five Armies is the third and final chapter in The Hobbit series and is based on the fantasy novel of the same name by J.R.R. Tolkien. The film is also the finale in the six Tolkien adaptations, directed by Peter Jackson, that include The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Picking up from where the cliffhanger of the last episode left off, the movie opens with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and the dwarfs that are traveling with him, fretting over having unwittingly awakened Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). As a result, the ferocious fire-breathing dragon has left his mountain lair and begun venting his wrath upon the helpless citizens of Laketown.

Fortunately, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), a skilled archer arrives and takes aim at the chink in Smaug’s protective scales. However, piercing the tiny bare patch of skin on the dragon’s belly opens the question of who gets the gold and priceless baubles that are inside Smaug’s lair in the Lonely Mountain.

As word spreads of the dragon’s death, assorted groups of individuals descend upon the area to stake a claim on the vast treasure. However, the arrival of a horde of evil orcs who are controlled by the Dark Lord, Sauron the Necromancer (also Benedict Cumberbatch), causes the groups to end their hostilities and join forces against their common enemy.

At 144 minutes, The Battle of the Five Armies is not only the shortest, but also the most entertaining of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations. Between an engrossing plotline and many combat scenes, the movie is the perfect way to complete the series of fantasy films.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence and frightening images. Running time: 144 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

December 10, 2014
SETTING OUT ON THE PACIFIC COAST TRAIL: Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) sets out on an 1,100 mile trek from the Mojave Desert in California to the border between Oregon and Washington state. Along the way, she is able to come to snap out of the depression that overcame her when her mother died unexpectedly and that pushed her into becoming a heroin addict.(Photo by Anne Marie Fox © 2014-Fox Searchlight)

SETTING OUT ON THE PACIFIC COAST TRAIL: Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) sets out on an 1,100 mile trek from the Mojave Desert in California to the border between Oregon and Washington state. Along the way, she is able to come to snap out of the depression that overcame her when her mother died unexpectedly and that pushed her into becoming a heroin addict. (Photo by Anne Marie Fox © 2014-Fox Searchlight)

Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) life went into a tailspin after the untimely death of her mother (Laura Dern). The grief stricken 22-year-old became emotionally estranged from the people closest to her, including her husband Paul (Thomas Sadowski), and her brother Leif (Keene McRae).

Several years later, when she had reached bottom, she found herself all alone and addicted to heroin. However, she summoned up the strength to set out on what would prove to be a transformational solo trek along the Pacific Coast Trail, which runs from the Mojave Desert in California all the way north to the border between Washington and Oregon.

The perilous 1,100 mile journey proved to be Cheryl’s salvation because it gave her the opportunity to purge her demons as she conquered the elements. That metamorphosis became the subject of her bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Trail, an Oprah Book Club selection.

The story has been adapted to the screen by Academy Award nominated scriptwriter Nick Hornby (An Education) that features Reese Witherspoon. The picture was directed by another Oscar nominee, Jean-Marc Vallee, whose Dallas Buyers Club won Oscars for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

Unfortunately, this film fails to generate the same sort of gravitas which made Dallas so effectively gripping. The movie unfolds more like Eat Pray Love (2010), a relatively lighthearted story about a woman who is finding herself.

Wild is an uneven movie that includes intermittent interludes of comic relief, such as when Cheryl’s overstuffed backpack repeatedly causes her to topple over. Hence, rather than ratcheting up the tension of her harrowing ordeal, the film simply recounts the assorted highs and lows of a poorly planned camping trip.

Nevertheless, Reese Witherspoon’s performance elevates an otherwise mediocre adventure to an entertaining movie worth recommending.

Very Good (***). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, and drug use. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

 

December 3, 2014
THIS PLAY HAS GOT TO SUCCEED: Underneath the Broadway marquee that is advertising the short story he has adapted to the theater, Riggan (Michael Keaton, left) discusses his plans for promoting the show with Mike (Edward Norton) one of the actors in the production. Riggan has sunk all of his savings into the venture.(Photo by Alison Rosa - © 2014 - Fox Searchlight)

THIS PLAY HAS GOT TO SUCCEED: Underneath the Broadway marquee that is advertising the short story he has adapted to the theater, Riggan (Michael Keaton, left) discusses his plans for promoting the show with Mike (Edward Norton) one of the actors in the production. Riggan has sunk all of his savings into the venture. (Photo by Alison Rosa – © 2014 – Fox Searchlight)

A couple of decades ago actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was on top of the showbiz food chain. However, the former box office star’s stock has been declining after playing the popular superhero “Birdman” character in three films. However, today he’s so closely associated with the iconic character that nobody wants to hire him.

With his career fading and no roles on the horizon, Riggan decides to orchestrate his own comeback. He decides to mount a Broadway production — with what’s left of his savings — of the Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”.

He adapts the story to the stage and plans to not only star in, but also direct the production. He also enlists the assistance of his skeptical attorney/agent Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and his drug-addicted daughter Sam (Emma Stone), and rounds out the cast with his girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), fellow actress Lesley (Naomi Watts), and her matinee idol beau, Mike (Edward Norton).

Will the washed-up actor manage to make himself over with the help of this cast? Unfortunately, Riggan is a troubled soul with more on his mind than the intimidating challenge of putting on the play.

Unfortunately, he is haunted by a discouraging voice in his head that tells him he’s going to fail.

Written and directed by Oscar-nominee Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel), Birdman is a bittersweet portrait of a Hollywood has-been who is desperate to remake his career. The sublimely scripted dramatic comedy paints a plausible picture of life on the Great White Way.

The movie has several praiseworthy performances, starting with Michael Keaton (Batman) who will likely earn an Oscar nomination in a thinly-veiled case of art imitating life. Also impressive are Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, brief violence, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 119 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

November 26, 2014
movie rev

WHAT’S HAPPENING TO PEETA?: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been pressed into service to help quell the insurrection in Panem. Nonetheless, she worries about the fate of her friend Peeta, who is under the control of Panem’s president Coriolanus. (Photo by Murray Close – © 2014 – Lionsgate)

 

In recent years movie studios have split their adaptations of finales from young adult book series — most notably, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Twilight: Breaking Dawn — into two movies. The ploy is apparently an attempt to milk the last dollar out of the end of movies about the series of books.

The Hunger Games is no exception as it divides in half Mockingjay, the last book in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling science fiction trilogy. Unfortunately, the movie treads water while it is setting the stage for the dramatic conclusion that will occur in the final film.

Directed by Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), the movie again stars Jennifer Lawrence (as protagonist Katniss Everdeen) with a support cast featuring Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee.

At the point of departure, we find the country of Panem in chaos and on the brink of revolution. Hunger Games victor Katniss reluctantly allows herself to be recruited by the leader of the rebellion, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), to appear in propaganda videos that are designed to foment insurrection.

However, except for Katniss fretting about the mental state of her pal Peeta, who is in the clutches of Panem’s ruthless president, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), not a lot transpires in this anticlimactic film. And — we will have to wait another year for the denouement.

Fair (H). Rated PG-13 for intense violence, disturbing images, and mature themes. Running time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

November 19, 2014
PLEASE DON’T GO DADDY: Coop (Matthew McConaughery, right) sits with his 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) on his lap while he explains that NASA is offering him the position of captain of the spaceship Endurance. Murph is distraught because her mother is dead and now her father is going off into space on a perilous quest, and there is a good chance he may not return.(Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon-© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved)

PLEASE DON’T GO DADDY: Coop (Matthew McConaughery, right) sits with his 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) on his lap while he explains that NASA is offering him the position of captain of the spaceship Endurance. Murph is distraught because her mother is dead and now her father is going off into space on a perilous quest, and there is a good chance he may not return. (Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon-© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved)

Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite directors, and four of his pictures have made my annual Top Ten List; including Memento, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, and Insomnia. However, I had a hard time understanding exactly what was going on in Inception, an inscrutable mindbender that I found to be a little too hip.

In this critic’s opinion, the same could be said about Interstellar, an over-plotted science fiction film with too many layers. Clocking in at 169 minutes, the movie had me recalling 7-time Oscar-winner Gravity, a similar outer space adventure which resolved its loose ends in about half the time.

At the point of departure, we find the Earth devastated by drought and dust storms that have brought it to the brink of famine. With the planet almost uninhabitable, NASA decides that the last hope for humanity rests in finding another planet that is capable of supporting life.

The agency mounts a mission, code named Lazarus, to search for a world with a compatible environment for humans. The person chosen to lead the mission, Coop (Matthew McConaughey), is understandably reluctant about being brought out of retirement to captain the spaceship Endurance.

However, the veteran test pilot is eager to accept the offer, since he never got a chance to go into space during his career. On the other hand, as a widower and single parent, he hates the thought of leaving, and possibly orphaning, his two children.

In particular, his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is only 10 and is unhappy when he informs her of his plans. Her reaction is reasonable, given the blight on Earth and the possibility of never seeing her father again.

But, with his father-in-law’s (John Lithgow) blessing, Coop opts to accept the assignment, which affords him an opportunity to realize his lifelong dream. Joining him is a crew comprised of scientist Brand (Anne Hathaway), astrophysicist Romilly (David Gyasi), and intergalactic cartographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), all of who are assisted by two sophisticated robots (Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart).

After blastoff, they head for a distant wormhole near Saturn that is supposed to provide a portal into a parallel universe. At this juncture, the picture relies upon pseudoscientific dialogue to explain such phenomena as black holes, unusual gravitational pulls, and time slowing down. Eventually, Endurance connects with a NASA space station that is stranded on a remote planet where they rouse the sole survivor from a cryogenic sleep and discover that it’s Matt Damon.

This critic is not too proud to admit that I couldn’t follow the convoluted storyline from about this point forward. However, the panoramic visuals are breathtaking.

Good (**). Rated PG-13 for intense action and brief profanity. Running time: 169 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

 

November 12, 2014
IS THIS THE WAY TO CARNEGIE HALL?: Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) burns the midnight oil in hopes of pleasing his cruel professor, Terence Fletcher (not shown). Andrew drives himself mercilessly and practices so much that he breaks up with his girl friend and wrestles with bouts of depression.(Photo by Daniel McFadden - © 2013

IS THIS THE WAY TO CARNEGIE HALL?: Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) burns the midnight oil in hopes of pleasing his cruel professor, Terence Fletcher (not shown). Andrew drives himself mercilessly and practices so much that he breaks up with his girl friend and wrestles with bouts of depression. (Photo by Daniel McFadden – © 2013

Nineteen-year-old Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) got more than he bargained for when he entered mythical Shaffer Conservatory. The prodigy had expected that the best music school in the country would be the ideal place to pursue his ambition of becoming a celebrated jazz drummer.

However, he ends up under the thumb of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an impatient perfectionist who has a twisted teaching method. The Machiavellian professor’s approach involves not only belittling his students, but pitting them against one another by making them compete for spots in the school’s elite performance band.

In Andrew’s case, he has to compete for the drummer’s chair against an upperclassman (Nate Lang) and a fellow newcomer (Austin Stowell). Meanwhile, Andrew finds himself ducking chairs thrown at him while being called everything from a “retard” to a “tonal catastrophe” by Fletcher. The professor is a taskmaster who rationalizes the abuse of his students by invoking the tough love theory that his job is “to push people beyond what is expected of them.”

As a result, Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) and surrenders any semblance of a social life in order to “practice! practice! practice!” for the sake of his coach. However, such a narrow, self-negating path takes a toll on his body and soul, as evidenced by his bloody calloused hands and bouts of depression.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), Whiplash is an electrifying drama that might be thought of as a variation on the protégé-mentor theme typified by movies like The Emperor’s Club, Dead Poets Society, and Mr. Holland’s Opus. As a result of universal critical and popular acclaim, the movie has generated considerable Academy Award buzz. Look for J.K. Simmons to land a nomination, and don’t be surprised if his co-star Teller, and director Chazelle are invited to Oscar night too.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and some sexual references. Running time: 107 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.

 

November 5, 2014
THIS ONE LOOKS LIKE IT COULD BE A WINNER: Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) gave up stealing stolen scrap metal and selling it to junkyard owners in favor of making videos of accidents or crime scenes that had grisly images of injured people. He realized that selling the videos to the local network news programs, besides being legal, was also much more lucrative.(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick)

THIS ONE LOOKS LIKE IT COULD BE A WINNER: Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) gave up stealing stolen scrap metal and selling it to junkyard owners in favor of making videos of accidents or crime scenes that had grisly images of injured people. He realized that selling the videos to the local network news programs, besides being legal, was also much more lucrative. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick)

Petty thief Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) was eking out a living selling stolen scrap metal to junkyards until the day he stumbled upon a legitimate line of work when he assisted a driver who was trapped in a fiery car crash. He was surprised to find that freelance journalists were flocking to the scene in hopes of shooting graphic video footage that they could sell to the network television stations.

He quietly observed them in action and then asked a reporter some probing questions about what the job entailed. After listening intently, Lou — a quick learner — visited a pawn shop and purchased a camcorder and police scanner; the only tools, besides the car he already had, that were essential to enter the business.

The next thing you know, he’s roaming the streets of Los Angeles and joining the cutthroat competition to be the first to arrive in the aftermath of a gruesome murder or highway pileup. Understanding the TV news credo, “If it bleeds, it leads,” he starts picking which emergency calls to pursue based on their potential for providing the sort of captivating pictures that would be popular with viewers.

After some early successes, he hires a homeless person (Rick Garcia) as his navigator. He also develops a mutually beneficial relationship with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the veteran news director at Channel 6, the local station that also has the lowest ratings. Lou’s uncanny ability to get grisly shots coincides with Nina and KWLA’s desperate need to attract a wider audience.

Thus unfolds Nightcrawler, a riveting thriller marking the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy. Jake Gyllenhaal is better than ever here in the title role, eclipsing both his outing last year in Prisoners as well as his Oscar nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain.

As the film unfolds, the plot thickens when Lou decides to make news rather than merely cover it. The potential financial rewards become so tempting that he begins to orchestrate events for the sake of the almighty dollar. Conveniently, Nina looks the other way even though there is mounting evidence that her star stringer is crossing an ethical line.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, profanity, and graphic images. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Open Road Films.

 

October 29, 2014
DON’T MAKE WAVES: Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) is not interested in furthering the cause of black students at Winchester University. She just wants to get along with everybody and also get a part in the reality TV show that is conducting auditions on campus.(© 2014 Roadside Attractions)

DON’T MAKE WAVES: Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) is not interested in furthering the cause of black students at Winchester University. She just wants to get along with everybody and also get a part in the reality TV show that is conducting auditions on campus. (© 2014 Roadside Attractions)

The academics are tough enough at Winchester University, a mythical Ivy League institution. It’s too bad that black students there also have to worry about making themselves comfortable socially.

That’s the predicament we find four African American undergrads facing in Dear White People, a social satire that is the directorial and scriptwriting debut of Justin Simien. Earlier this year, the thought provoking dramatic comedy won the Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at the Sundance Film Festival.

The picture’s protagonists are as different from each other as night and day. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is gay and uncomfortable around his own people because blacks teased him the most about his sexuality back in high school. He lives in a predominately white dorm where he is still teased by his dorm mates.

Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) is a legacy admission to Winchester thanks to his  his father (Dennis Haysbert), who is an alumnus and the current dean of students. Troy is dating a white woman, Sofia Fletcher (Brittany Curran), who is the daughter of the school’s president (Peter Syvertsen).

Political activist Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is at the other extreme — she is a militant woman who lives in the all-black dorm that serves as a refuge for the “hopelessly Afro-centric.” She also hosts the talk show “Dear White People” on the college’s radio station, where she indicts Caucasians about everything from their racism to their sense of entitlement.

Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) wants to assimilate into mainstream American culture. She is more concerned with whether she might make the cut for the reality TV show that is conducting auditions on campus than she is with challenging the status quo.

It is clear that the four lead characters have little in common besides their skin color. However, the plot thickens when Pastiche, a student-run humor publication, decides to throw a Halloween party with an “unleash your inner-Negro” theme.

Now, at the party, the black students are stereotyped by their white classmates who are cavorting in blackface and are dressed as pimps and gangstas or as icons like Barack Obama and Aunt Jemima.

In the course of the story, director Simien pulls a couple of rabbits out of his hat to help the plot along, laces the dialogue with pithy lines (“Learn to modulate your blackness up or down depending on the crowd and what you want from them”), and touches on hot button issues ranging from affirmative action to Tyler Perry.

A delightful dissection of the Ivy League that stirs the pot in the way most folks mean when they a call for a national discussion of race.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, ethnic and sexual preference slurs, sexuality, and drug use. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Roadside Attractions.

 

October 22, 2014
MAYBE WE WERE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER: Former high school sweethearts, Dawson Cole (James Marsden, right) and Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan) find themselves attracted to each other again when they reunite at an old friends funeral in their hometown. Will Dawson and Amanda get together as adults, or is this attraction for each other only a passing fancy. To find out, see the movie.(Photo by Peter Iovino - © 2014 Best of Me Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved)

MAYBE WE WERE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER: Former high school sweethearts, Dawson Cole (James Marsden, right) and Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan) find themselves attracted to each other again when they reunite at an old friends funeral in their hometown. Will Dawson and Amanda get together as adults, or is this attraction for each other only a passing fancy. To find out, see the movie. (Photo by Peter Iovino – © 2014 Best of Me Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved)

The true test of a good tearjerker movie is whether or not it moves you to tears. And this movie managed to make me cry in spite of myself.

As this film unfolded, I found myself criticizing its considerable structural flaws; the questionable casting, the farfetched storyline, and one humdinger of a reveal. Nevertheless, as the closing credits rolled, I found myself wiping my eyes, a sure sign that this melodrama had achieved its goal.

Directed by Michael Hoffman (The Last Station), the picture is loosely based on the Nicholas Sparks best seller of the same name published in 2011. Sparks is the author of 18 romance novels, and half of them have been adapted to the big screen, most notably Message in a Bottle and The Notebook, with more in the works.

Set in Oriental, North Carolina, The Best of Me stars James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan as Dawson Cole and Amanda Collier, former high school sweethearts who haven’t seen each other in a couple decades. Strangely, the teenage versions of the same characters are played in a series of flashbacks by Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, who don’t look at all like their older versions.

The point of departure is the present, where we learn that Dawson, who never married or attended college, is employed on an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana. He barely survives a deepwater explosion that blows him off a hundred-foot high platform and turns the Gulf of Mexico into a sea of fire. Meanwhile Amanda, who is unhappily married, is living in Baton Rouge where she has stuck it out for 18 years with her abusive alcoholic husband (Sebastian Arcelus) for the sake of their son (Ian Nelson).

Fate brings the two back to their tiny hometown for the funeral of Tuck (Gerald McRaney), a mutual friend who had a posthumous agenda. He named them both in his will with the hope of arranging a reunion of the high school lovers — whom he thought were meant for each other. Sure enough, sparks fly, but will they share more than a brief dalliance?

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, brief profanity, and some drug use. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

October 15, 2014
CIRCUMSTANCES SOMETIMES BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER AGAIN: Judge Robert Palmer (Robert Duvall, right) is being defended by his estranged son Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.), who is a successful criminal defense attorney in Chicago. The judge has been arrested for allegedly being involved in a hit and run killing and Hank, who left home several years ago after managing to alienate himself from his father and brother, agrees to defend his father.(© 2014 - Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures)

CIRCUMSTANCES SOMETIMES BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER AGAIN: Judge Robert Palmer (Robert Duvall, right) is being defended by his estranged son Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.), who is a successful criminal defense attorney in Chicago. The judge has been arrested for allegedly being involved in a hit and run killing and Hank, who left home several years ago after managing to alienate himself from his father and brother, agrees to defend his father. (© 2014 – Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures)

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a successful criminal defense attorney with a good reason to hide his humble roots. It seems he was a rebellious child who frequently landed in trouble with the law while growing up in Carlinville, Indiana.

His juvenile delinquency alienated him from his father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), who happened to be the town’s only judge. In addition, Hank managed to permanently estrange himself from his older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio). Unfortunately, their other sibling, Dale (Jeremy Palmer), was mentally handicapped, As a result, Hank hadn’t been back home in ages until he received word that his mother (Catherine Cummings) had died.

He had planned to make a perfunctory appearance at the funeral and quickly return to Chicago where he had his hands full. In addition to his busy law practice, he was involved in a custody battle with his estranged wife (Sarah Lancaster) over their young daughter (Emma Tremblay). However, everything changed for Hank when his father, Judge Palmer, was arrested in the hit-and-run killing of a convict (Mark Kiely) whom he had publicly castigated in court before releasing him from police custody.

This shocking development forces Hank to represent his father, and simultaneously allows him to mend a few fences at home. In addition, Hank seduces a woman he meets in a bar (Leighton Meester), who turns out to be the daughter of his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga), and who might be his own love child.

Thus unfolds The Judge, a drama which is half whodunit, half soap opera that pulls a rabbit out of the hat every five minutes or so. Thanks to Robert Duvall, who plays the Palmer family patriarch with a sobering, stone cold gravitas, the film remains rather well grounded.

Also, Robert Downey, Jr. and Billy Bob Thornton turn in inspired performances as the opposing attorneys matching wits in a classic courtroom showdown. Excellent (***½). Rated R for profanity and sexual references. Running time: 141 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

October 8, 2014
DOTTING THE T’S AND CROSSING THE I’S: Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) carefully checks his facts during the course of gathering information to be used in his inflammatory esposé of the Central Intelligence Agency’s dealings with the Nicaraguan Contras. Webb’s story “Dark Alliance” was published in the San Jose Mercury News, in a series of articles in 1996. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, © 2013, Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved)

DOTTING THE T’S AND CROSSING THE I’S: Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) carefully checks his facts during the course of gathering information to be used in his inflammatory esposé of the Central Intelligence Agency’s dealings with the Nicaraguan Contras. Webb’s story “Dark Alliance” was published in the San Jose Mercury News, in a series of articles in 1996.
(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, © 2013, Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved)

In August of 1996, the San Jose Mercury News published an exposé detailing how the Central Intelligence Agency had orchestrated the importation of crack cocaine from Nicaragua and its distribution in the black community of South Central Los Angeles. Entitled “Dark Alliance,” the series of stories were written by Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), an investigative journalist who had risked life and limb to obtain and release the incendiary information.

For example, while conducting his research, he had been asked by a CIA operative who was trying to intimidate him “Do you have a family?” The spy agency was determined to suppress any facts that might shed light on its covert dealings with the Contras, the rebels who were attempting to topple the government of Nicaragua.

But Webb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, would not be intimidated and he completed the piece. And even though he had supported his allegations with declassified documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, the CIA secretly enlisted the assistance of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times to discredit him.

These prominent papers discredited the notion that the CIA was behind the dissemination of crack in the inner-city. Nevertheless, Dark Alliance became the biggest story of the year, especially among African-Americans, many of whom surfed the internet in order to read the damning report.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters (Dem-Calif.) took to the House floor warning that “Somebody’s going to have to pay for what they have done to my people.” Yet, the revelations seemed to take the greatest toll on Gary Webb, who lost his good name, his job, his career, his home, and even his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt).

This shameful chapter in American history is the subject of Kill the Messenger, a sobering biopic directed by Michael Cuesta and starring Jeremy Renner. The film features a cast that includes Ray Liotta, Barry Pepper, Tim Blake Nelson, Andy Garcia, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Robert Patrick, and Paz Vega.

However, this riveting thriller is Renner’s movie, and the two time Academy Award-nominee (The Hurt Locker and The Town) delivers another Oscar-quality performance as a family man and respected writer who slowly becomes a paranoid soul haunted by demons and hunted by Machiavellian mercenaries.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and drug use. Running time: 112 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

October 1, 2014
GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Mild mannered, seemingly innocuous Robert McCall (left) is intrigued by the prostitute Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) whom he comes to know during his late night visits to the diner whenever he has bouts of insomnia. Teri frequents the diner during breaks between her clients, and McCall befriends her. When Teri comes in one night with a black eye, McCall, who is a retired spy, takes it upon himself to punish the person who beat up Teri.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Mild mannered, seemingly innocuous Robert McCall (left) is intrigued by the prostitute Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) whom he comes to know during his late night visits to the diner whenever he has bouts of insomnia. Teri frequents the diner during breaks between her clients, and McCall befriends her. When Teri comes in one night with a black eye, McCall, who is a retired spy, takes it upon himself to punish the person who beat up Teri.

On the surface, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is a pleasant hail fellow well met person. By day, the affable widower works as a sales associate at a hardware superstore where he jokes with co-workers who call him “Pops.” Evenings, he retires to a modest apartment in a working class Boston community, although bouts of insomnia often have him going to a nearby diner to read a book into the wee hours of the morning.

The dingy joint looks a lot like the diner depicted by Edward Hopper in the classic painting Nighthawks. Among the seedy haunt’s habitués is Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teen age prostitute who hangs out there between clients.

Robert takes a personal interest in the troubled teen who is a recent immigrant whose real name is Alina. He soon learns that she’d rather be pursuing a musical career than sleeping with stranger after stranger. Trouble is she’s under the thumb of Slavi (David Meunier), a sadistic pimp who’ll stop at nothing to keep her in check.

A critical moment arrives the night she arrives in the restaurant and hands Robert her new demo tape while trying to hide a black-eye. But he becomes less interested in the CD than in the whereabouts of the person who gave her the shiner.

What neither Teri, nor anybody else knows, is that Robert is a retired spy who has a set of deadly skills that he learned as part of his past job. At this juncture, the mild mannered retiree reluctantly morphs into an anonymous vigilante who doles out street justice on behalf of Teri and other vulnerable crime victims who have no other recourse for justice.

Thus unfolds The Equalizer, a riveting, gruesome adaptation of the popular 1980s TV series. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, this version is actually more reminiscent of Death Wish (1974), because the film’s protagonist behaves more like the brutal avenging angel portrayed on the big screen by Charles Bronson than the television show’s British gentleman.

Considerable credit goes to Oscar winner Mauro Fiore’s (Avatar) captivating cinematography that shows Boston in a way which is somehow both stylish and haunting. Nevertheless, the panoramas only serve as a backdrop for Denzel who is even better here than in his Oscar winning collaboration with Fuqua in Training Day.

Excellent (****). Rated R for graphic violence, sexual references, and pervasive profanity. In English and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 131 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

September 24, 2014
THE BEGINNING OF HECTOR’S QUEST FOR HAPPINESS: At last Anjali (Veronica Ferres, back to camera), one of Hector’s (Simon Pegg) patients summons up the courage to tell him that he is not helping her at all. (Photo by Ed Araquel,  © 2014 Egoli Tossell Film/ Co-Produktionsgesellschaft “Hector 1” GmbH & Co. KG/ Happiness Productions Inc./ Wild Bunch Germany)

THE BEGINNING OF HECTOR’S QUEST FOR HAPPINESS: At last Anjali (Veronica Ferres, back to camera), one of Hector’s (Simon Pegg) patients summons up the courage to tell him that he is not helping her at all.
(Photo by Ed Araquel, © 2014 Egoli Tossell Film/ Co-Produktionsgesellschaft “Hector 1” GmbH & Co. KG/ Happiness Productions Inc./ Wild Bunch Germany)

Hector (Simon Pegg) is a funny duck. The eccentric neat freak is lucky to have a girlfriend like Clara (Rosamund Pike) who’s willing to put up with his odd requests, such as arranging everything in perfect order, from his socks to his sandwiches. He’s even more fortunate to have a thriving psychiatric practice, in spite of the barely contained contempt he feels for his patients.

A moment of truth arrives the day one of them (Veronica Ferres) finally tells him to his face that he’s transparent, inauthentic, and just going through the motions. Conceding that he’s become so jaded and unhappy that he isn’t helping his patients anymore, Hector decides to embark on a globe spanning spiritual quest for the fulfillment and happiness that has escaped him.

After all, how could he not be happy, when he is surrounded by all the trappings of success? Hector’s plans have Clara concerned about whether their relationship is on shaky ground, because she’s been reluctant to start a family and she’s also aware that he has a former girl friend (Toni Collette) whom he still cares about.

Hector and the Search for Happiness is an introspective travelogue played mostly for laughs. Simon Pegg exhibits an endearing naïvete as the peripatetic protagonist, whether misreading the flirtations of a prostitute (Ming Zhao) in China or not realizing that his cab has been car-jacked by the underlings of an African crime boss (Akin Omotoso).

Such perils notwithstanding, our hero persists in asking his pressing question “What is happiness?” at each stop as he circumnavigates the globe. Taking copious notes on a writing pad, he records the answers he receives, like “Being loved for who you are,” “Answering your calling,” and “Feeling completely alive.”

Eventually, Hector experiences the epiphany he’s been searching for, and revitalized, rushes home to Clara, his career, and his clients, who might not be so annoying after all.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and brief nudity. In English, French, and German with subtitles. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

September 17, 2014
BUT THIS WAS YOUR FATHER’S DYING WISH: Mort Altman’s (Will Swenson, not shown) dying wish was that his family observe shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning period of seven days, in spite of the fact that he was not an observant Jew, and in fact was an atheist. During this period of mourning, the problems of each of the children, from left Judd (Justin Bateman), Paul (Corey Stoll), Wendy (Tina Fey), and Phillip (Adam Driver) are revealed in this dramatic comedy.

BUT THIS WAS YOUR FATHER’S DYING WISH: Mort Altman’s (Will Swenson, not shown) dying wish was that his family observe shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning period of seven days, in spite of the fact that he was not an observant Jew, and in fact was an atheist. During this period of mourning, the problems of each of the children, from left Judd (Justin Bateman), Paul (Corey Stoll), Wendy (Tina Fey), and Phillip (Adam Driver) are revealed in this dramatic comedy.

When Mort Altman (Will Swenson) passed away, his children returned home expecting to remain in town for a day or two. After all, despite being raised as Jews, they had no reason to expect to sit shiva (the traditional seven day mourning period), since their father was an avowed atheist and their psychologist mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) is a gentile.

However, after the funeral, their mother informs the children of their father’s dying wish that they mourn him for a week in accordance with religious tradition. And then she announces that they’re all grounded for seven days.

This development doesn’t sit well with any of them, since they don’t get along with each other and this is the first time in years that they’ve all been sleeping under the same roof. Furthermore, their father’s death couldn’t have come at a more inopportune moment, since each of them is in the midst of a midlife crisis.

Judd (Jason Bateman) has just learned that his wife (Abigail Spencer) is having an affair with his boss (Dax Shepard). Meanwhile, brother Paul’s (Corey Stoll) marriage is in jeopardy because his wife (Kathryn Hahn), whose biological clock is ticking, has been unable to become pregnant.

Then there’s the playboy baby brother, Philip (Adam Driver), a narcissist with unresolved oedipal issues, and is dating a psychologist (Connie Britton) who is old enough to be his mother. However, he’s such a womanizer that he doesn’t think twice about shamelessly flirting with an old flame (Carly Brooke Pearlstein) right in front of his mortified girlfriend.

Finally, although their sister Wendy (Tina Fey) seems to be the most stable of the four, who is a mother of two with a devoted, but emotionally distant, husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) who is also a great provider. However, Barry’s obsession with his career on Wall Street has come at the cost of losing the passion and intimacy in their relationship. So, the last thing Wendy needs now is the temptation of an affair with Horry (Timothy Olyphant), her high school sweetheart who is still single, still in shape, and still living right across the street, even if he’s brain-damaged and lives with his mother (Debra Monk).

All of these situations serve as fodder for sophisticated humor in This Is Where I Leave You, a droll dramatic comedy directed by Shawn Levy (Date Night). Adapted to the screen by Jonathan Tropper, author of the best seller of the same name, this witty film features funny repartee as it explores themes ranging from religion, mortality, love, and betrayal.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and drug use. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

September 10, 2014
IS THIS RYAN OR HIS TWIN BROTHER DREXEL?: Elvis impersonator Blake Ryan portrays the identical twin babies Ryan and Drexel, one of whom grows up to become the King of Rock and Roll. The twins were separated shortly after being born and Drexel grew up to become a national singing sensation, but Ryan’s fate is less certain.

IS THIS RYAN OR HIS TWIN BROTHER DREXEL?: Elvis impersonator Blake Ryan portrays the identical twin babies Ryan and Drexel, one of whom grows up to become the King of Rock and Roll. The twins were separated shortly after being born and Drexel grew up to become a national singing sensation, but Ryan’s fate is less certain.

What if Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin had survived his mother’s pregnancy instead of dying during the twins birth in January, 1935? That is the alternate reality presented in The Identical, a musical that is the directorial debut of Dustin Marcellino.

Unfortunately, Dustin chose an Elvis impersonator to star in his revisionist version of events, a dubious decision that becomes obvious when Blake Rayne isn’t singing and shaking his hips on-stage. The first-time actor plays both Ryan Hemsley and his identical sibling, Drexel (Elvis), in this fictionalized account of the life of the King of Rock and Roll.

The movie’s point of departure is in Decatur, Georgia during the Depression, which is where we find poverty stricken sharecroppers Helen (Amanda Crew) and William Hemsley (Brian Geraghty) trying to figure out how they’re going to provide for their newborn twins. The answer arrives at a revival meeting that is being held under a big tent by Reverend Reece Wade (Ray Liotta), who is a Pentecostal preacher with a soul full of hope and a barren wife (Ashley Judd).

The Wades desire to start a family dovetails with the Hemsleys having one more baby than they can afford. So, with God as their witness, Reece and Louise secretly agree to adopt Ryan before going back to Tennessee. Meanwhile, Helen and William announce the missing boy’s death to friends and relatives, and stage a faux funeral, complete with an empty casket.

Reece proceeds to raise Ryan in the church with a career in the ministry in mind although, because of his singing talent, he is more comfortable in the choir than the pulpit. He finally rebels in his teens and enlists in the military, leaving his domineering father and a sweetheart (Erin Cottrell) behind. By contrast, Drexel, who was also blessed with a great voice, is allowed by the Hemsleys to pursue his passion, and blossoms into a singing sensation.

Will the twins ever learn of each other’s existence? If so, will they be able to forgive their parents for separating them at birth? And will Ryan ever get his own shot at fame and fortune?

These questions are posed by a production so flawed in terms of plot, dialogue, and acting that it is unintentionally funny. Regrettably, The Identical lacks plausibility, such as its farcical reimagining of race relations in the Jim Crow South and its silly staging of car chases that are straight out of The Dukes of Hazzard.

Fair (*). Rated PG for smoking and mature themes. Running time: 107 minutes. Distributor: Freestyle Releasing.

 

September 3, 2014
HOW CAN YOU KILL THIS INNOCENT BABY: Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) desperately clutches the baby, with whom he has become attached. The infant will be euthanized solely because he was born with a birth defect, and therefore cannot be allowed to become a member of  the society in which everybody is perfect.

HOW CAN YOU KILL THIS INNOCENT BABY: Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) desperately clutches the baby, with whom he has become attached. The infant will be euthanized solely because he was born with a birth defect, and therefore cannot be allowed to become a member of the society in which everybody is perfect.

Despite being born in the same year and having overlapping careers, Oscar winners Meryl Streep (Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, and The Iron Lady) and Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) never made a movie together until now. However, the collaboration is well worth the wait in this haunting science fiction adventure set in a dystopia that masquerades as being heaven on Earth.

The film is based on Lois Lowry’s bestseller of the same name which won the Newbery Award as America’s best children’s book of 1994. The adaptation, approved by the author, was directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) who chose Brenton Thwaites to portray the young hero, Jonas.

The picture’s point of departure is the young protagonist’s graduation day, when he participates in a coming-of-age ritual in which 18-year-olds are assigned an occupation by the elders of their community. Jonas’s best friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) learn that they’ll be trained as a drone pilot and a nurturer, respectively.

Jonas, however, who has been recognized as being special because of his ability to see things differently, is designated as the “Receiver of Memories,” and becomes the protégé of the “Giver” (Bridges). In that capacity, he soon realizes that the whole society is a charade which shields its citizens from the fact that there is suffering in the world by injecting them once a day with a drug which keeps them naïve, obedient, and blissfully content.

However in truth, evil does exist in their midst, although it is veiled; such as how the sick and the old are “released” in a way that gives no hint that they’re actually being euthanized. As a result of his revelation, Jonas experiences a crisis of conscience and must decide whether to obediently follow in the Giver’s footsteps or to upset the society by revealing how everybody’s minds are being controlled.

Among the factors influencing his decision is the unexpected pleasure he feels from the “stirrings,” the formerly suppressed sexual awakening he suddenly feels for Fiona. Another involves the impending euthanization of a baby who was born with a birth defect (Alexander Jillings), and with whom Jonas has formed a strong bond.

Besides the historic pairing of Streep and Bridges, the film features excellent performances by the three actors playing the leads, as well as Katie Holmes and Taylor Swift, who have supporting roles. The film is a thought provoking look at mind control and gives a valuable lesson about the virtue of challenging any totalitarian authority.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for action, violence, and mature themes. Running time: 94 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.