July 30, 2014
IT WENT THATAWAY:  Director James DeMonaco pointing something out to Frank Grillo, who plays Leo Barnes in “The Purge:Anarchy,” a sequel to “The Purge” (2013), which starred Lena Headey from “Game of Thrones” and Princeton’s Ethan Hawke. “The Purge” grossed $89,328,627, and was turned into a “scare zone” for 2013’s annual Halloween Horror Nights

IT WENT THATAWAY: Director James DeMonaco pointing something out to Frank Grillo, who plays Leo Barnes in “The Purge:Anarchy,” a sequel to “The Purge” (2013), which starred Lena Headey from “Game of Thrones” and Princeton’s Ethan Hawke. “The Purge” grossed $89,328,627, and was turned into a “scare zone” for 2013’s annual Halloween Horror Nights

Dateline: America, 2023. It’s now nine years since the country voted the New Founders of America into power. High on that elitist political party’s agenda was designating March 21st as the Purge, a day on which all law is suspended, meaning anything goes, rape, robbery, even murder.

Most citizens opt to stay inside for the duration of the annual ordeal, battening down the hatches with a Bible or a weapon in hand, since they can’t call upon the cops to come to their assistance in the event of an emergency. Yet, many turn vigilante to rid the streets of the dregs of humanity, others seize on the opportunity to even the score with someone they have a grievance against.

A couple of hours before the “fun” starts, we find Eva (Carmen Ejogo) rushing home from her job at a diner to be with her teen daughter, Cali (Zoe Soul). In the process, the attractive waitress ignores the crude passes of both a co-worker (Nicholas Gonzalez) and her apartment building’s custodian (Noel Gugliemi).

Elsewhere, Liz (Kiele Sanchez) and Shane (Zach Gilford) are driving to his sister’s while debating about whether to inform her that their marriage is on the rocks. But the two soon land in desperate straits when their car conks out on the highway only minutes before the siren sounds signaling the beginning of the Purge.

That moment can’t come soon enough for revenge-minded Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) who’s itching to get even with the drunk driver (Brandon Keener) that not only killed his son, but got off scot-free on a legal technicality. However, soon after the Purge starts, the police sergeant reflexively comes to the assistance of Eva, Cali, Liz and Shane, all of whom are on the run from a bloodthirsty death squad.

So, he puts his plan on the backburner temporarily to protect the frightened foursome. That endeavor proves easier said than done in The Purge: Anarchy, a stereotypical horror sequel in that it ups the ante in terms of violence, body count, pyrotechnics and gratuitous gore.

Unfortunately, the film pales in comparison to the original, which was a thought-provoking thriller raising questions about poverty and privilege. This relatively-simplistic installment pays lip service to that intriguing theme in almost insulting fashion, envisioning instead a nihilistic U.S. which has merely degenerated into a decadent dystopia where blood-thirsty rich snobs relish slaying the poor purely for sport.

It is, thus, no surprise to witness the rise of an African-American guerilla leader (Michael K. Williams) who’s exhorting the masses to revolt by indicting the Purge as racist. An entertaining enough, if incoherent, splatterfest which unapologetically lifts familiar elements from such apocalyptic classics as The Hunger Games (2012), V for Vendetta (2006), The Warriors (1979), Escape from New York (1981) and Hard Target (1993).

A perhaps prophetic satire celebrating senseless slaughter as a natural national holiday in such a gun-loving country!

Good (**). Rated R for profanity and graphic violence. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

 

July 23, 2014
THIS HOMESCHOOLING GIG HAS SOME BENEFITS: Aidan (Zach Braff, center) finds that he enjoys reconnecting with his children Grace (Joey King, right) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) when circumstances force him to give up his quest for becoming a Hollywood movie star and homeschool his children instead.

THIS HOMESCHOOLING GIG HAS SOME BENEFITS: Aidan (Zach Braff, center) finds that he enjoys reconnecting with his children Grace (Joey King, right) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) when circumstances force him to give up his quest for becoming a Hollywood movie star and homeschool his children instead.

As an actor, Zach Braff is most closely associated with the character J.D. from Scrubs, the Emmy-winning sitcom which ran for nine years on network television. As a director, he’s best known for Garden State, the quirky, semi-autobiographical feature film where he played a struggling actor who returned to his hometown in Jersey for his mother’s funeral.

Wish I Was Here is more akin to the latter, and is a delightful family drama/comedy which Zach directed and stars in. He also co-wrote it with his brother, Adam, and the movie derives much of its mirth from Jewish culture in a manner evocative of Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man (2009).

The point of departure is suburban Los Angeles, where we find 35-year-old Aidan Bloom (Braff) in the midst of a midlife crisis. The struggling actor is on anti-depressants and is in denial about his dwindling career prospects, conveniently forgetting that his last role was ages ago in a dandruff commercial.

What makes the situation difficult is that he fritters away his time auditioning, oblivious to his wife’s (Kate Hudson) resentment. She hates being stuck in a stultifying government job where she’s sexually harassed on a daily basis by the co-worker (Michael Weston) who shares her cubicle.

However, she can’t quit her job because their children, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), won’t have food on the table or a roof over their heads. As it is, they’ve already been forced to sacrifice some luxuries such as the built-in pool that sits empty in their backyard.

A change is forced when Aidan’s father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) suddenly announces that his cancer has returned and he can no longer afford to subsidize his grandchildren’s expensive private education. Not wanting to subject them to the substandard local public schools, Aidan grudgingly agrees to abandon his dream of Hollywood stardom in order to homeschool his children.

This turn of events provides him with an opportunity to not only have quality time with his offspring, but also to orchestrate an overdue reconciliation between his brother (Josh Gad) and their rapidly-declining father. Soon, adolescent Grace develops the confidence to blossom from a repressed wallflower into a show-off who is unafraid to wear a metallic purple wig, and 6-year-old Tucker finds fulfillment toasting marshmallows in the desert with his father.

By the film’s end, expect to be moved to tears by this poignant picture’s bittersweet resolution and its message about the importance of family.

Excellent (****). Rated R. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

July 16, 2014
LET’S PLAY THE WHAT IF? GAME: What if the Minutemen, shown here from a scene in the film, had not succeeded in repulsing the English Red Coats and England had won the Revolutionay War. That is the hypothetical question posed in the beginning of the documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her.” The film, directed and narrated by Dinesh D’Souza makes the case that the U.S. is on the brink of becoming a socialist society.

LET’S PLAY THE WHAT IF? GAME: What if the Minutemen, shown here from a scene in the film, had not succeeded in repulsing the English Red Coats and England had won the Revolutionay War. That is the hypothetical question posed in the beginning of the documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her.” The film, directed and narrated by Dinesh D’Souza makes the case that the U.S. is on the brink of becoming a socialist society.

What would the United States look like today if the Minutemen had lost the Revolutionary War and England had prevailed? That query is in the beginning of America: Imagine the World without Her, a right-wing documentary written, directed, and narrated by Dinesh D’Souza.

D’Souza, a political pundit who immigrated here as a teenager in the 70s, proudly wears his patriotism on his sleeve, announcing at the outset, “I love America! I chose this country!” before launching into an attack on controversial left-leaning leaders and public intellectuals like Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Ward Churchill, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Eric Dyson, Bill Ayers, Howard Zinn, Saul Alinsky, and Hillary Clinton.

But he levels his most caustic remarks at Barack Obama whom he indicts as a liar by showing a number of film clips that show Obama saying “If you want to keep your doctor, you can keep your doctor” and “Nobody is listening to your phone calls.” D’Souza goes on to explain that the president’s behavior is part of a socialist conspiracy that is bent on destroying the capitalist system.

The movie is an attempt to prove that the United States is a great nation with no reason to be ashamed of its past, as suggested by detractors like Reverend Wright who is heard again in his most notorious sound bite, “No! No! No! Not God bless America… God damn America!” D’Souza brushes aside shameful chapters in our history like slavery and the slaughter of the Indians by arguing that there were just as many black slave owners as white ones, and that Native Americans had fought with each other for millennia prior to the arrival of European settlers.

His goal is to inspire the masses to rise up and save the country before it’s too late. I suspect that the movie will serve as red meat to conservatives already inclined to dismiss Obama and other progressives as communists in liberals’ clothing. Unfortunately, it won’t do much to encourage civil discourse or bridge the intractable stalemate between Democratic and Republicans sitting on opposite sides of the aisle in Congress. Fair (*½). Rated PG-13 for violent images. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

July 9, 2014
TRYING TO TRAVEL INCOGNITO: Tammy (Melissa McCarthy, right) and her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon), set out on a road trip to Niagara Falls after Tammy’s life falls apart when she loses her car, job, and catches her husband sleeping with the next door neighbor. Since Tammy has no money and car, Pearl agrees to pay for the trip so she can escape from her retirement community, which she feels is like a prison for senior citizens.

TRYING TO TRAVEL INCOGNITO: Tammy (Melissa McCarthy, right) and her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon), set out on a road trip to Niagara Falls after Tammy’s life falls apart when she loses her car, job, and catches her husband sleeping with the next door neighbor. Since Tammy has no money and car, Pearl agrees to pay for the trip so she can escape from her retirement community, which she feels is like a prison for senior citizens.

After winning an Emmy for her TV sitcom Mike & Molly in 2011 and receiving an Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids in 2012, Melissa McCarthy apparently was able to write her own ticket when negotiating with the studios. She used that leverage to create a production where she would not only portray the title character, Tammy, but also make her screenplay debut.

Keeping it all in the family, Melissa had the studio hire her husband, Ben Falcone, to direct and co-write the film, which might not have been a problem if it weren’t his first time attempting either of those tasks. The upshot is that their ill-advised collaboration has produced a road comedy that has precious few laughs.

And in the process, the picture squandered the talents of an impressive cast that included Academy Award winners Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) and Kathy Bates (Misery); Oscar nominees Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense) and Dan Aykroyd (Driving Miss Daisy); and veteran actors Allison Janney, Sandrah Oh, and Gary Cole. Unfortunately, the talented cast was given a cringe-inducing script that is more crass than funny.

As the film unfolds, we find Tammy having one of those days. First, when a deer darts in front of her car, she totals her Toyota Corolla on her way to a thankless job at a fast-food restaurant. Then, she’s fired by her exasperated boss (Falcone) for arriving late for the umpteenth time. On her way out the door, she launches into an expletive-laced tirade during which she trashes the premises in front of the mortified staff and customers.

Things go from bad to worse when Tammy arrives home earlier than usual and catches her husband (Nat Faxon) in bed with their next-door-neighbor (Toni Collette). Shocked and brokenhearted, she decides to take a break from her mess of a life, only to realize she can’t even afford to leave town because she has no cash and no car.

Her grandmother, Pearl (Sarandon), agrees to subsidize Tammy’s vacation provided she can tag along for the ride, since her retirement community feels like a prison for old people. The two set out for Niagara Falls and raise a ruckus at every port-of-call along the way, whether jet skiing, over-imbibing, trading insults, picking up strangers at bars and diners, triggering pyrotechnic displays, landing in jail, or crashing an all-lesbian barbecue on the 4th of July.

If only some of their sophomoric antics were witty or amusing. The film is a depraved escapade that will disappoint even diehard Melissa McCarthy fans.

Fair (*). Rated R for profanity and sexual references. Running time: 96 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

July 2, 2014
LET’S SEE IF WE CAN FIGURE OUT WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR PHONES: When all of their cell phones went crazy and “barfed” simultaneously, Tuck (Astro, right), Munch (Reese Hartwig, center), and Alex (Teo Halm) decide to find the cause of the disturbance. Their quest leads them to a remote site in the Nevada desert where they find Echo, an alien from another planet, who desperately wants to go back home.

LET’S SEE IF WE CAN FIGURE OUT WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR PHONES: When all of their cell phones went crazy and “barfed” simultaneously, Tuck (Astro, right), Munch (Reese Hartwig, center), and Alex (Teo Halm) decide to find the cause of the disturbance. Their quest leads them to a remote site in the Nevada desert where they find Echo, an alien from another planet, who desperately wants to go back home.

Most people know that E.T. is about several kids who befriend an alien that has been stranded on Earth and who is eager to return home before suspicious adults can do him any harm. That classic film won four Academy Awards in 1983, and was even voted the best science fiction movie of all time in a recent survey by the web site Rotten Tomatoes.

However, if you’re too young to remember Steven Spielberg’s heartwarming adventure — or if it’s been so long since you saw it that the story is a little fuzzy — have I got a movie for you. Much about Earth to Echo screams remake, starting with the picture’s vaguely familiar poster that features a human hand reaching out to touch an extra-terrestrial.

Still, this remake refreshes the original by incorporating current cultural changes such as texting shorthand and the use of social media. So, when the protagonists communicate with each other, they often rely on inscrutable slang that may befuddle folks who are unfamiliar with the slang employed by today’s average adolescent.

As the film opens, we find the narrator Tuck (Astro) lamenting the impending separation from his BFFs Alex (Teo Halm) and Munch (Reese Hartwig) because their Nevada neighborhood will be razed in a week to make way for a turnpike. The plot thickens when all their cell phones inexplicably “barf” simultaneously, and they decide to try to find the source of the mysterious malfunction.

Equipped with a camcorder and state-of-the-art spyglasses, the youngsters ride their bikes into the desert in the middle of the night, accompanied by a rebel (Ella Wahlestedt) who is running away from home. Their GPS device sends them to a site in the desert where they find Echo, a cuddly visitor from another galaxy who, like E.T., is anxious to return home

The kids, of course, go into high gear to help Echo, keeping just a step ahead of the untrustworthy authorities. Their efforts lead to a satisfying resolution every bit as syrupy as Spielberg’s in E.T.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for action, peril, and mild epithets. Running time: 92 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

June 25, 2014
I CAN MAKE YOU INTO A STAR: Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo, left) is trying to convince Greta (Keira Knightley) that he can make her into a super star. However, Greta, who just broke up with her boyfriend, has had enough of dreams of stardom and just wants to go back home to England.

I CAN MAKE YOU INTO A STAR: Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo, left) is trying to convince Greta (Keira Knightley) that he can make her into a super star. However, Greta, who just broke up with her boyfriend, has had enough of dreams of stardom and just wants to go back home to England.

Greta (Keira Knightley) followed her college sweetheart (Adam Levine) to Manhattan when he signed a lucrative record deal with a major music label. However, the overnight fame went to his head and he soon started to stray. This resulted in not only the end of their romantic relationship but also the demise of their promising partnership as songwriters.

Nevertheless, Greta is still very talented in her own right, which she readily proves when pushed by a pal to perform at a Greenwich Village club on an open microphone night. The haunting strains of “A Step You Can’t Take Back” catch the ear of Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), a legendary talent scout who happens to be in the audience.

Dan imagines how much better Greta would sound if she were accompanied by a full band instead of simply her acoustic guitar. So, right after she steps offstage, he offers to help turn her into the next singing sensation.

But Greta is initially reluctant for a couple of reasons. First of all, she had just decided to abandon her dream of becoming a superstar and was on brink of moving back to England. Secondly, the solicitous stranger standing in front of her reeked of alcohol and looked nothing like a veteran music executive.

Truth be told, Dan was recently fired from Distress Records by his Harvard classmate (Mos Def), with whom he had co-founded the company. Furthermore, he misses his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) ever since he was kicked out of their house a year ago.

In fact, he was actually contemplating suicide until Greta’s voice gave him a new reason to live. Will he be able to revive his career and launch Great’s simultaneously, or will the ambitious endeavor fail miserably? And, will the two fall in love, despite the age difference, or maybe they’ll return to their respective exes? Those are the potential plot twists presented in Begin Again, an absorbing musical drama written and directed by John Carney.

The movie is reminiscent of Carney’s earlier movie Once, which won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Song (“Falling Slowly”) and then went to the Broadway stage where it swept the Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Begin Again is also about a pair of losers down on their luck whose close collaboration yields a cornucopia of songs.

Who knew that Keira Knightley could sing so well? Or that she was capable of generating palpable screen chemistry? Kudos are also in order for the top flight supporting cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Mos Def, James Corden, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, and CeeLo Green.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

June 18, 2014
WE FINALLY HIT THE BIG TIME: The quartet The Four Seasons (from left Michael Lomenda as Nick Mazzi, Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, and Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito) are shown here performing in a television studio. The group quickly rose to superstardom thanks to Frankie’s unique falsetto voice.

WE FINALLY HIT THE BIG TIME: The quartet The Four Seasons (from left Michael Lomenda as Nick Mazzi, Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, and Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito) are shown here performing in a television studio. The group quickly rose to superstardom thanks to Frankie’s unique falsetto voice.

Francesco Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) was born on the wrong side of the tracks of Newark, New Jersey where he was raised in a public housing project that was controlled by the mob. As a rebellious adolescent he started hanging out with the hoodlums in his Italian neighborhood in spite of his mother’s (Kathrine Narducci) objections. She was afraid that her son was either going to wind up dead or in jail.

Even though Castellucion was eventually arrested for burglary, he managed to evade imprisonment at age 16 when a lenient judge let him off with a stern warning. His saving grace would turn out to be that distinctive falsetto that in 1962 catapulted him to the heights of superstardom as Frankie Valli, the front man of The Four Seasons.

His meteoric rise, self-destruction, and resurrection are the subject of Jersey Boys, a scintillating spectacular with a jukebox soundtrack featuring all of the group’s hits. Directed by Academy Award-winner Clint Eastwood (for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby), the entertaining biopic is based on the play of the same name which won four Tonys in 2006, including Best Musical.

The picture stars Tony winner John Lloyd Young (for Best Actor in a Musical) who originated the role of Frankie Valli on Broadway. The rest of The Four Seasons are played by Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, and Michael Lomenda as Nick Mazzi.

Other pivotal cast members include Renee Marino as Frankie’s long-suffering wife, Freya Tingley as his neglected daughter, and Joey Russo as his childhood pal Joe Pesce. Oscar winner Christopher Walken (for The Deer Hunter) steals every scene he’s in. He plays Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo, the mafia don who ran the Genovese crime family’s loan sharking operations back in the 60s.

However, the real appeal of the movie is in the tunes, whose derivations are often implied or expressly explained. For example, Bob was presumably inspired to compose “Big Girls Don’t Cry” after watching Kirk Douglas slap Jan Sterling in the face in the film, Ace in the Hole.

The cast performs all of the songs themselves, from “Sherry” to “Dawn” to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” to “Rag Doll” to “Who Loves You?” to “Working My Way Back to You” to “Walk Like a Man” to “Oh, What a Night!” and beyond. Who knew The Four Seasons had so many hits?

Excellent (****). Rated R for pervasive profanity. Running time: 134 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

June 11, 2014
MAYBE THIS TIME WE WILL PREVAIL: William Cage (Tom Cruise, right) and Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) reconnoiter the landscape while trying to devise a strategy that will enable their army’s forces defeat the alien Mimics, who are trying to take over planet Earth. Fortunately, the pair have all the time they need, because each time William is killed, he immediately comes back to life and, together with Rita, the pair are given another chance to defeat the enemy.

MAYBE THIS TIME WE WILL PREVAIL: William Cage (Tom Cruise, right) and Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) reconnoiter the landscape while trying to devise a strategy that will enable their army’s forces defeat the alien Mimics, who are trying to take over planet Earth. Fortunately, the pair have all the time they need, because each time William is killed, he immediately comes back to life and, together with Rita, the pair are given another chance to defeat the enemy.

William Cage (Tom Cruise) has risen to the rank of Major in the U.S. Army without ever seeing any combat, which is fortunate since he can’t stand the sight of blood, not even from a paper cut. So, you can imagine his surprise the day that he’s informed by his superior (Brendan Gleeson) that he’ll be shipping out soon to England to lead a D-Day style invasion of France. The aim of the mission is to take back Western Europe from an army of intelligent alien invaders called Mimics who have an uncanny ability to stage sophisticated counterattacks.

When Cage tries to decline the dangerous assignment, General Brigham explains that he’s just been given an order, not an offer. And when he still proves reluctant to obey, he is summarily demoted and forced to join a unit of troublemakers known as the J Squad, whose members operate under the command of a no-nonsense sergeant (Bill Paxton) who keeps the squad’s soldiers in line.

Shortly thereafter, they ship out aboard a plane as part of an international squadron of troops and are parachuted onto a beach that looks like a slaughterhouse. The allies are easily overmatched by the enemy, and it isn’t long before Cage receives a fatal shot to the chest.

However, he is dead only briefly and finds himself transported back in time to the moment he met Sergeant Farrell a few hours before, when he was roused out of a stupor by the Southerner’s thick drawl of “On your feet, maggot!” Somehow, Cage has been given a reprieve and a second chance to exhibit expertise and heroics on the battlefield. In fact, he is killed again and again and, like your typical computer game, has umpteen opportunities to start over and improve his strategy against the seemingly invincible Mimics.

Cage is assisted by Special Forces soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the only other person who is aware of his ability to reincarnate. Therefore, it falls upon the pair to save the planet from the alien scourge that is bent on world domination.

Thus unfolds Edge of Tomorrow, a science fiction movie based on All You Need Is Kill, a graphic novel originally published By Hiroshi Sakurazaka in Japan in 2004. Directed by Doug Liman (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), the movie uses the same plot device that was explored in both Groundhog Day (1993) and Source Code (2011).

Nevertheless, Liman has put a refreshing spin on the time machine genre, and keeps you enthralled as he keeps you guessing about the series of thoroughly unpredictable developments that transpire.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, intense violence, and brief sensuality. Running time: 113 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

June 4, 2014
HOW CAN NOT KILLING THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE SENTINELS SAVE THE FUTURE?: In the past, the superhero Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, not shown) was assigned by the X-Men to murder Trask (Peter Dinklage) the inventor of the Sentinel robots, shown here in the process of creating the robots in the past. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, not shown) was sent back from the future to prevent Mystique from accomplishing her mission.

HOW CAN NOT KILLING THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE SENTINELS SAVE THE FUTURE?: In the past, the superhero Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, not shown) was assigned by the X-Men to murder Trask (Peter Dinklage) the inventor of the Sentinel robots, shown here in the process of creating the robots in the past. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, not shown) was sent back from the future to prevent Mystique from accomplishing her mission.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is the 7th episode in the series, and is the third one directed by Bryan Singer, who also directed X-Men 1 and 2. This film is loosely based on the 1981 Marvel Comics (issues #141-142) of the same name, a convoluted tale in which a superhero is sent back in time to prevent an impending disaster that is threatening their present.

The story unfolds in a dystopian future where we find robots, called Sentinels, slaying mutants and subjugating humanity. X-Men founder, leader, and the brains behind the group — Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) — summons the surviving members to a meeting in a monastery in China to hatch a plan to preserve the planet.

With the help of “phasing” Shadowcat’s (Ellen Page) quantum tunneling ability, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) slips through a portal to a parallel universe in 1973. His mission there is to stop fellow mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering Trask (Peter Dinklage), the diabolical genius who invented the Sentinels.

Why would you want a vanquished villain to be reincarnated? Don’t ask. After all, that’s one of the easier leaps of faith this film’s plot expects you to make. If you need a plausible plot, then you might be too close-minded for this imaginative science fiction.

But I digress. Fortunately, you will be richly rewarded for taking flights of fancy — provided you suspend your disbelief. Don’t try to make sense, for instance, about how you go back in time, reverse a long-deceased person’s demise, and yet not simultaneously unravel myriad aspects of reality which have already transpired.

Instead, simply sit back and enjoy a sophisticated movie unfolding against a nostalgic backdrop littered with staples of the 70s, ranging from lava lamps to waterbeds. This adventure even brings out a number of characters we haven’t seen for awhile, such as Storm (Halle Berry), Rogue (Anna Paquin), Cyclops (James Marsden), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore).

Don’t forget to sit through all of the credits for a teaser about the next X-Men: Apocalypse, coming in May of 2016.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for nudity, profanity, suggestive material, and intense violence. In English, French, and Vietnamese with subtitles. Running time: 131 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox

 

May 28, 2014
THIS COULD BE THE START OF SOMETHING BIG: Jim (Adam Sandler, right) and Lauren (Drew Barrymore) meet online and arrange to meet for dinner at a Hooter’s restaurant. That choice of venue appears to be fatal to the continued development of their relationship because Jim pays more attention to the waitresses and the big game on TV than he does to Lauren. Nonetheless, the pair and their children are thrown together after a series of improbable coincidences and love is given another chance to bloom between the pair.

THIS COULD BE THE START OF SOMETHING BIG: Jim (Adam Sandler, right) and Lauren (Drew Barrymore) meet online and arrange to meet for dinner at a Hooter’s restaurant. That choice of venue appears to be fatal to the continued development of their relationship because Jim pays more attention to the waitresses and the big game on TV than he does to Lauren. Nonetheless, the pair and their children are thrown together after a series of improbable coincidences and love is given another chance to bloom between the pair.

Jim Friedman (Adam Sandler) is a widower who’s raising three daughters on his own. Since he is clueless about raising girls, he’s been slowly turning them into tomboys by giving them Prince Valiant haircuts and referring to them by masculine nicknames Larry (Bella Thorne), Lou (Alyvia Alyn Lind), and ESPN (Emma Fuhrmann).

By contrast, Lauren Reynolds’ (Drew Barrymore) plight is just the opposite. The frazzled, very feminine divorcée is being driven crazy by her pubescent son Brendan (Braxton Beckham) and hyperactive Tyler (Kyle Red Silverstein). Brendan is exploring his burgeoning sexuality while Tyler’s pyromania has his mother seriously considering starting him on Ritalin.

Neither Jim nor Lauren had been on a date in ages until they made each other’s acquaintance online. They agreed to meet for drinks, and the prospects looked promising, given how her sons’ need for a father figure conveniently dovetailed with his daughters’ for maternal guidance.

Unfortunately, rendezvousing at Hooters turned out to be a bad idea, because Jim paid more attention to the waitresses and the basketball game on TV than he did to Lauren. So the two went their separate way, never expecting to see each other ever again.

However, through an improbable series of coincidences, both of their families end-up booked on the same flight to South Africa for an all expenses-paid vacation where they’ll have to share a hotel suite at a luxury resort. Will Jim take advantage of this second chance to make a better impression on Lauren?

That is the quandary established at the outset of Blended, the third romantic romp about an Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore collaboration (The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates). Before the audience finds out the answer, the pair and their progeny indulge in the sort of comedy that has made Sandler famous.

The movie proceeds to throw anything up on the screen for a laugh (especially scene-stealer Terry Crews as the irrepressible local entertainer), regardless of whether or not the skit fits into the plot or furthers the storyline. As dumb as the jokes were (and they are often very dumb), I have to admit that I frequently found myself laughing in spite of myself.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, and crude humor. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

 

May 21, 2014
HERE IT COMES TO SAVE THE DAY: The monster Godzilla rises from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to help San Francisco defend itself against the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) who are attacking the city.

HERE IT COMES TO SAVE THE DAY: The monster Godzilla rises from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to help San Francisco defend itself against the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) who are attacking the city.

Godzilla made its debut in 1954 when the mythical man eating monster, accidentally created by an atomic blast, emerged from the Pacific Ocean to carve a path of death and destruction across Japan, which the country’s overmatched military was unable to stop. A couple of years later, Raymond Burr narrated a documentary-style, English language remake which was a dubbed version of the original with his lines spliced in.

Despite relying for decades on stilted scripts and a guy in a rubber suit towering over a scale model of a toy-sized Tokyo, the B-movie series has remained popular enough to spawn at least 30 sequels. This remake of the series, however, abandons campy dialogue and cheesy trick photography in favor of an emotionally engaging plot as well as state-of-the-art special effects.

In the 2014 edition, Godzilla still looks like a fire-breathing mutant iguana, however, it behaves more like an anthropomorphic ally of humanity instead of its evil adversary. The villains, here, are nuclear waste ingesting MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) that are not only threatening to level San Francisco but are poised to unleash a litter of their hostile offspring.

In case you’re wondering, there’s plenty of precedents for Godzilla’s squaring off against fellow behemoths. Consider such classic showdowns as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), to name a few.

This film’s finale is well worth the wait, even though it takes some time getting around to the spectacular battle royale. In fact, we don’t even see Godzilla during the film’s first hour, which is devoted to developing characters and filling in the back story.

The picture was directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters) who assembled a sophisticated cast for an action packed summer blockbuster. The cast includes Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), and nominees David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai).

The adventure is about the Brody family. The widowed patriarch Joe (Cranston) is trying to learn the truth behind the catastrophe at a Japanese nuclear power plant that claimed his wife’s (Binoche) life 15 years earlier. Their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy explosives disposal expert, leaves his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) behind in San Francisco, in order to accompany his father to the Orient.

Of course, all hell eventually breaks loose back home when Godzilla selflessly rises to the occasion to defend San Francisco. Will the MUTOs meet their match? Will the separated Brodys manage to survive the apocalyptic mayhem for a tearful reunion?

The picture is surprisingly haunting and panoramic, and explores universal themes like loss and yearning, but has all the fixings for first-rate action entertainment.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence and scenes of destruction. Running time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

May 14, 2014
AT LAST, A NIGHT JUST FOR US GIRLS: The three best friends Sondra (Patricia Heaton), Allyson (Sarah Drew) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) are on their way to a well deserved night away from their children, whom they left in the care of their spouses. However, when one child disappears, the threesome give up their planned night of bowling and dinner at a fancy restaurant, in order to search for the missing child.

AT LAST, A NIGHT JUST FOR US GIRLS: The three best friends Sondra (Patricia Heaton), Allyson (Sarah Drew) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) are on their way to a well deserved night away from their children, whom they left in the care of their spouses. However, when one child disappears, the threesome give up their planned night of bowling and dinner at a fancy restaurant, in order to search for the missing child.

Allyson Field (Sarah Drew) really can’t complain. After all, her life is the epitome of the American Dream: she has a handsome husband who adores her and is an excellent provider; a beautiful home in suburbia; and her own minivan for shopping and shuttling around their children, Beck (Zion Spargo), Bailey (Shiloh Nelson), and Brandon (Michael Leone).

However, she’s still overwhelmed by her domestic duties, especially when Sean’s (Sean Astin) work takes him out of town. Consider Mother’s Day, for example, which Ally spent cleaning up messes rather than being appreciated as a mother.

Not alone in feeling frazzled, Ally hatches a plan with her best friends, Sondra (Patricia Heaton) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) to treat themselves to an evening of bowling and fine dining in a fancy restaurant, while their husbands take care of the children for a few hours. However, a comedy of errors soon ensues after Sean and the other spouses (Alex Kendrick and Robert Amaya) run into a problem.

When a baby is discovered to be missing, the three mothers are recruited to join the frantic search party. With the help of a biker with a heart of gold (Trace Adkins) and an impatient cabbie (David Hunt), the girls put their night out on hold as they join the search for the missing child.

Co-directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin, Moms’ Night Out is a wholesome PG-rated comedy that’s fun for the whole family.

At the madcap movie’s happy resolution, sanity and safety are satisfactorily restored. The wives are no longer taken for granted, but instead are elevated to the lofty status envisioned by William Ross Wallace when he proclaimed that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”

Very Good (***). Rated PG for mild action and mature themes. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

May 7, 2014
I HOPE THAT COP IN THE CAR DOESN’T GIVE ME A TICKET FOR HITCHHIKING: Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) hitches a ride on a police van in one of his crime fighting episodes.

I HOPE THAT COP IN THE CAR DOESN’T GIVE ME A TICKET FOR HITCHHIKING: Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) hitches a ride on a police van in one of his crime fighting episodes.

If the idea behind a sequel to a summer blockbuster is to up the ante in terms of bombast and intensity, then The Amazing Spider-Man 2 certainly fits the bill. This movie is bigger, better, louder, longer, and features more villains, the next generation of special effects, more captivating action sequences, and a romance between Spidey’s alter ego Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).

The picture opens with a flashback that fills in the back story about how Peter became an orphan. We learn that his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) died aboard a doomed private plane that was hijacked by an assassin (Bill Heck). However, Peter’s scientist father managed to email an explanatory message and critical computer file.

Fast-forward to Peter and Gwen’s high school graduation day. Gwen is anxiously searching the audience for her boyfriend as she is delivering her valedictory speech.

It turns out that Peter has been delayed in Manhattan where, as Spider-Man, he’s trying to retrieve a shipment of plutonium that was stolen from a Russian mobster named Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti). During the course of the chase, he also saves the life of Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an engineer at Oscorp, the company that supplies the city with electricity.

After securing the plutonium and turning the perpetrator over to the police, Peter rushes off to his commencement ceremony and arrives just in time to receive his diploma. However, he has no idea that he hasn’t seen the last of Aleksei and Max who are fated to return later in the adventure after a combat suit of armor and a freak accident enable them to morph into the villainous Rhino and Electro, respectively.

After the graduation ceremonies, Peter reluctantly ends his relationship with Gwen in deference to her father (Denis Leary), who doesn’t want his daughter dating a trouble-seeking vigilante. Next, Peter is summoned to the offices of his childhood pal Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who has just inherited Oscorp Industries. It turns out that Harry is suffering from the same hereditary disease that killed his recently-deceased father (Chris Cooper).

Harry futilely asks Peter’s help in locating Spider-Man, hoping that a blood transfusion from him might cure his affliction. However, Peter convinces him to settle for an injection of the venom of genetically-altered spiders, which then transforms him into the Green Goblin, another diabolical nemesis.

That makes three adversaries for the webslinging superhero to deal with before the movie ends. If you’re patient enough to sit through the closing credits after 2½ hours, you’ll see a teaser for X-Men: Days of Future Past, that will open later this month.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for action and science-fiction violence. Running time: 142 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

April 30, 2014
BEST FRIENDS FOR LIFE: Two orphaned cousins, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, left) and Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) were taken in by their wealthy aunt and uncle to be raised on their estate in England. The cousins, who were close in age and were adopted when they were eight-years-old, soon became fast friends for life. As they were growing up, Belle’s African lineage brought her into contact with racism and slavery issues that were being debated in England at the time.

BEST FRIENDS FOR LIFE: Two orphaned cousins, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, left) and Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) were taken in by their wealthy aunt and uncle to be raised on their estate in England. The cousins, who were close in age and were adopted when they were eight-years-old, soon became fast friends for life. As they were growing up, Belle’s African lineage brought her into contact with racism and slavery issues that were being debated in England at the time.

Born in the West Indies in 1761, Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was the daughter of Mary Belle, an African slave, and John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a British ship captain. After Mary died, the widower brought his 8-year-old daughter to England to see whether his wealthy aunt and uncle would be willing to raise her.

Lady (Emily Watson) and Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) had just adopted another niece whose mother had passed away. Also, because Dido and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) were about the same age, the orphaned girls could keep each other company.

Captain Lindsay claimed that his daughter was entitled to live on the family estate because of her noble birthright. This prompted a skeptical Lady Mansfield to speculate about whether skin color ranked above or below a person’s bloodline in English society.

Ultimately, she agreed to raise Dido, and the two young cousins forged a close friendship that lasted for life. Proof of their close bond has been preserved for posterity in a striking portrait of the pair that was commissioned in 1779.

That famous painting apparently served as the inspiration for Belle, a mesmerizing biopic based on a script by Misan Sagay. Directed by Amma Assante, the riveting historical drama is another movie in the recent series of pictures — such as Django Unchained, The Retrieval, and Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave — that reexamine race from the black perspective.

The film focuses primarily on Dido and Elizabeth’s coming-of-age against the backdrop of a country that is becoming increasingly uneasy about its involvement in the slave trade. After being protected during their childhood, racism becomes an issue when the young women become involved with suitors whom they meet outside the safe confines of the family estate.

Meanwhile, tension also builds around a legal decision that was about to be made by their uncle Judge Mansfield, who was the Chief Justice of England’s Supreme Court. The case was about a trading company that was seeking compensation from its insurance company for the loss of over a hundred Africans who had been deliberately drowned.

The question Judge Mansfield was being asked to resolve was whether or not slaves should be considered to be human beings or merely cargo that could be thrown overboard for financial gain at the whim of the owner. The longer he agonized over the ruling, the more he felt pressured to issue a landmark opinion that was likely to be the death knell of an odious institution.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for smoking, mature themes, and ethnic insensitivity. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

—Kam Williams

 

April 23, 2014
AAAUGH!!!, THAT’S THE MOST HORRIFYING THING I’VE EVER SEEN: Miguel (Gabriel Iglesias, left) and Malcolm (Marlon Wayans) are looking at yet another demonic disturbance that Malcolm’s jealous dead wife Kisha (not shown) perpetrates in an attempt to break up Malcom’s marriage to Megan (not shown).

AAAUGH!!!, THAT’S THE MOST HORRIFYING THING I’VE EVER SEEN: Miguel (Gabriel Iglesias, left) and Malcolm (Marlon Wayans) are looking at yet another demonic disturbance that Malcolm’s jealous dead wife Kisha (not shown) perpetrates in an attempt to break up Malcom’s marriage to Megan (not shown).

A Haunted House, an irreverent spoof of Paranormal Activity, co-starred Marlon Wayans and Essence Atkins as Malcolm and Kisha, a couple whose home was invaded by demonic forces. Kisha became possessed by the devil and turned on her man, despite the best efforts of an exasperated exorcist (Cedric the Entertainer). All of the above are back for A Haunted House 2, a jaw-dropping sequel with even more gratuitous gore, sexuality, nudity, profanity, and use of the N-word than the original. Nevertheless, the movie may appeal to the same folks who made the first film such a runaway hit. At the point of departure, Kisha perishes in a car accident while Malcolm and his cousin Ray-Ray (Affion Crockett) survive. A year later, Malcolm has married Megan (Jaime Pressly) and they are moving into a new home, along with her kids, Becky (Ashley Rickards) and Wyatt (Steele Stebbins), and Malcolm’s dog, Shiloh. The shopworn cliché of a safe literally falling from the sky and flattening the pet is the first sign that something suspicious might be afoot on the premises. The mysterious goings-on escalate after an inconsolable Malcolm tries to join his dearly departed pet in the grave. It seems that Kisha’s ghost is jealous of Megan and is determined to break up the newlyweds’ relationship. The exorcist is called in and his spells provide the convenient cover for disgusting skits that fail to exorcise the demon. Eventually, the exorcist priest is summoned again and the finale sets the audience for yet another sequel.

Fair (*).

Rated R for violence, graphic sexuality, frontal nudity, drug use, ethnic slurs, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Open Road Films. 

 

April 16, 2014
WHY WON’T YOU BELIEVE ME?: Eric Lomax (Colin Firth, right) has been accused of plotting to sabotage the railroad that he was being forced to build by his Japanese captors during World War II. His interrogator Nagase Takeshi (Hiroyuki Sanada) refuses to believe Eric’s explanation that he has always been fascinated by railroads and even as youngster would make sketches of railroads in his hometown of Edinburgh.

WHY WON’T YOU BELIEVE ME?: Eric Lomax (Colin Firth, right) has been accused of plotting to sabotage the railroad that he was being forced to build by his Japanese captors during World War II. His interrogator Nagase Takeshi (Hiroyuki Sanada) refuses to believe Eric’s explanation that he has always been fascinated by railroads and even as youngster would make sketches of railroads in his hometown of Edinburgh.

Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) served as a signals officer in the British Army during World War II. His unit was dispatched to the Pacific theater where it was captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in 1942.

The members of the unit soon became part of the 60,000+ prisoners of war who were forced to build the Burma Railway that stretched from Bangkok to Rangoon. The Allies came to call the 258-mile construction the Death Railway, because so many soldiers perished along the way, including 6,318 of Lomax’s fellow Britains who were pressed into slave labor by their barbaric captors.

Their grueling ordeal has been made into the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Academy Award winning classic that starred Sir Alec Guinness and that swept the Oscars in 1958. The fictional adventure  movie was about the daring exploits of some heroic saboteurs in the face of overwhelming odds.

In contrast, The Railway Man is an introspective movie. This poignant character study is based on Lomax’s moving memoir of the same name. And although he survived the war, he remained mentally scarred many long years after his physical wounds had healed.

Lomax had been subjected to unspeakable torture that ranged from brutal beatings to waterboarding, most of which was at the direction of one particularly sadistic interrogator, Nagase Takeshi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Eric had aroused the suspicion of the Japanese when he was caught with detailed drawings of sections of the railroad on which he was working.

Eric had always been fascinated by trains while growing up in Edinburgh and had sketched such maps throughout his childhood. Nonetheless the suspicious Nagase suspected Eric of making plans to sabotage the railroad and so the punishment escalated.

When the war ended, Lomax returned home a broken man who was unable to readjust to civilian life. Although he could commiserate with former platoon mates at the veterans club, nonetheless the memories of Burma continued to haunt him.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (Better than Sex), The Railway Man is a heartrending, flashback film set both during World War II and in 1980 which is when Lomax’s wife, Patti (Nicole Kidman), urged him to track down Nagase. She hoped that a meeting might help her traumatized husband exorcise his demons and hopefully recover from his severe psychological afflictions.

Eric’s ensuing search for his torturer inexorably leads to a confrontation with the tormentor, whose face he’d never been able to erase from his mind. However, the question is whether he’ll choose revenge or reconciliation.

Excellent (****). Rated R for disturbing violence. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

April 9, 2014
IT RAINED FOR 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS: Noah (Russell Crowe) prays to God for guidance and help in meeting the problems that he anticipates he will encounter after the deluge is over.

IT RAINED FOR 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS: Noah (Russell Crowe) prays to God for guidance and help in meeting the problems that he anticipates he will encounter after the deluge is over.

Anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible is familiar with the story of Noah and the ark. That scriptural passage, found in Genesis, is about a righteous patriarch recruited by God to build an ark before the arrival of the flood that was a divine punishment for mankind’s wicked ways. 

Heeding the word of the Lord, he proceeded to construct a mammoth vessel and then herded two of each species of animal into the hold. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights and the water covered the entire Earth’s surface, thereby drowning all creatures living on the surface except for Noah’s family and the animals on the ark.

Oscar nominated director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) has come up with a novel and intriguing reinterpretation of the Biblical story by portraying Noah as a complicated soul who is wrestling with inner demons during his quest to do the Lord’s bidding. The movie also has an ecological message and some computer-generated monsters that presumably were designed to hold the children’s interest. The film stars Academy Award-winner Russell Crowe (Gladiator) in the title role, and features a supporting cast which includes fellow Oscar-winners Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs), three-time nominee Nick Nolte (Warrior, Affliction, and The Prince of Tides), as well as Emma Watson and Ray Winstone.

The picture opens with a refresher course about the creation of Adam (Adam Griffith) and Eve (Ariane Rinehart) who begat three sons: Cain, Abel, and Seth. The evil Cain slew his sibling Abel, and the children descending from Cain continued to do the devil’s work by exploiting the planet’s natural resources.

Noah, by contrast, as a son of Seth, learned how to live in harmony with nature. He and his wife (Connelly) raised their sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and Ham (Logan Lerman) with the same eco-friendly philosophy.

Eventually, of course, Noah receives a message from God, and the plot thickens when the steady drizzle develops into a never ending downpour. Suddenly, his neighbors no longer see the ark as such a nutty idea, and it takes an army of animatronic angels to keep the desperate hordes from climbing aboard.

Meanwhile, a visibly-anguished Noah agonizes over what’s about to transpire and consults his wise grandfather Methuselah (Hopkins) for advice, and prays to God for help.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, suggestive content, and disturbing images. Running time: 138 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

 

April 2, 2014
LEARNING FROM THE MASTER: The so called “Lobby Boy” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, right) is learning the tricks of the hotel trade from Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Grand Hotel Budapest.

LEARNING FROM THE MASTER: The so called “Lobby Boy” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, right) is learning the tricks of the hotel trade from Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Grand Hotel Budapest.

Wes Anderson’s films are one of a kind, as easy to identify as, say a Thelonious Monk piano solo or a Frank Sinatra vocal. You can spot one of his works by just watching a snippet of the film. 

Anderson’s latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has his signature vibrant visuals and is true to his tongue-in-cheek narrative style. The movie is right up there with his best films, which include Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Darjeeling Limited, which was this critic’s pick as the no. 1 film of 2007.

Ralph Fiennes is perfectly cast to play the picture’s protagonist, and he is ably assisted by a cast comprised of many alumni of Anderson’s films: including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Waris Ahluwalia, and Scott Rudin.

The droll drama is set in 1932 in the fictional eastern European nation of Zubrowka which is where we find the unctuous concierge Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes) plying his trade at the hotel. We soon find that he lavishes his attention and affections on vulnerable ladies, provided they’re rich, blonde, elderly, and needy. Narrating his escapades is Gustave’s protégé, Zero (Tony Revolori), a lowly, loyal, “Lobby Boy,” who is learning the tricks of the trade.

Just past the point of departure, we learn that one of the hotel’s guests, Madame D. (Swinton), has died mysteriously. A swarm of relatives, close and distant, show up for the reading of the wealthy widow’s will by her attorney (Brody), each hoping for a sizable chunk of the estate.

However, it turns out that she left the only valuable painting in her entire art collection, titled “Boy with Apple,” to the gigolo Gustave. Consequently, when an autopsy reveals that she was poisoned with strychnine, Gustave is arrested and charged with murder.

It’s not long before he hatches an elaborate jailbreak with the help of Zero, and soon the chase is on, with the heirs, authorities, a hired assassin (Dafoe), and even Nazis in hot pursuit, as Gustave desperately attempts to clear his besmirched name so he can hold onto the priceless portrait.

A sublime whodunit designed for sophisticated cinephiles.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and violence. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

 

March 26, 2014
WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF THE SITUATION WE’RE IN: Four single mothers are waiting for the fifth member of their group to show up. From left May (Nia Long), Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Esperanza (Zulay Henao), and Lytia (Cocoa Brown) are expecting Hillary (Amy Smart, not shown) to join them for one of their weekly night out get togethers where they try to figure out how to solve their problems with their children and deal with the men in their lives.

WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF THE SITUATION WE’RE IN: Four single mothers are waiting for the fifth member of their group to show up. From left May (Nia Long), Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Esperanza (Zulay Henao), and Lytia (Cocoa Brown) are expecting Hillary (Amy Smart, not shown) to join them for one of their weekly night out get togethers where they try to figure out how to solve their problems with their children and deal with the men in their lives.

Fast food waitress Lytia (Cocoa Brown) lives from paycheck to paycheck and has to rely on public transportation in order to get around. By contrast, Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey) is an ambitious executive at a prominent publishing company who can afford many amenities and drives a luxury car. 

May (Nia Long) is unemployed but dreams of a career in journalism. Hillary (Amy Smart) is a recent divorcée who’s a bit overwhelmed because she is raising her kids alone in suburbia. And, Esperanza (Zulay Henao) cowers and hides from her abusive ex-husband (Eddie Cibrian) who continues to threaten her long after their separation.

At first blush, it sounds like these five women would have little in common, let alone a reason to cross paths. But they do when they’re all summoned to the principal’s office at West Merryville Prep where they each have a child who has just been put on probation after they were caught smoking and spray painting graffiti.

At the meeting, Principal Walters (Carrie L. Walrond) leaves the parents no choice but to co-chair the school’s annual fundraising dance. They grudgingly agree to organize the affair, but can these black, white, and Latino women get past their considerable class and cultural differences? That is the question raised at the outset of The Single Moms Club, a humorous story of female empowerment.

Written, produced, directed, and co-starring Tyler Perry, the picture first pits the protagonists against one another and then has them gradually see their similarities as overburdened sole providers. At that point, they create an informal association which functions as a babysitting support group and provides them with a weekly girls’ night out where they decompress by singing karaoke and trading relationship advice about their experiences with men.

Perry tones down the sermonizing in this movie in favor of more humor. Of course, before the closing credits roll, he makes sure his heroines bond into a tightly knit band whose lovers and children are all behaving.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality and mature themes. Running time: 111 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

March 19, 2014
REVENGE IS A DISH BEST SERVED COLD: Artemisia (Eva Green, center) was a Greek child who was sold into slavery by her countrymen after they slaughtered her family in front of her eyes. She was freed by her Persian owners and is now leading a formidable armada of over 1000 Persian warships to battle the Greeks.

REVENGE IS A DISH BEST SERVED COLD: Artemisia (Eva Green, center) was a Greek child who was sold into slavery by her countrymen after they slaughtered her family in front of her eyes. She was freed by her Persian owners and is now leading a formidable armada of over 1000 Persian warships to battle the Greeks.

The epic movie 300 (2007) chronicled the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. when an outnumbered band of 300 soldiers were sent on a suicide mission to defend Sparta against a horde of more than 100,000 Persian invaders. Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, that minimalist, monochromatic adventure was shot almost entirely against blue screens on assorted soundstages. 

300: Rise of an Empire is a rare sequel that actually is better than the original movie. This film has sweeping seascapes and panoramic mob scenes. By exploiting the visual appeal of Eva Green the film also increases the sequel’s sensuality.

At the point of departure, we find triumphant King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) plotting to lead the Persian army against forces led by the Greek General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). The play-by-play action is narrated by Sparta’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) who devotes considerable time to a detailed explanation of ancient history in order to set the table for the ensuing story.

We learn that the commander of the Persian 1,000 ship armada is the warrior Artemisia (Green), a Greek traitor who turned against her own people for good reason. In her youth, she’d been brutally raped and sold into slavery after being forced to witness the murder of her entire family.

The orphan was freed and raised as a warrior by Xerxes’ late father, Darius (Yigal Naor). In the film, she has matured into a ravishing fighting machine who is as likely to subdue an adversary with her womanly wiles as with her sword. In perhaps the movie’s most memorable moment, she decapitates a foe and then plants a kiss on the skull’s lips.

Such gruesome displays are the norm for the movie, as scene after scene shows either sensuality or stomach-churning depictions of torture and gore.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, and violence. Running time: 102 minutes Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

 

 

March 12, 2014
IT’S GOOD TO BE A DETECTIVE AGAIN: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, right) goes over some material with her ex boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring). Logan is the principal suspect in the murder of Bonnie De Ville, however, Veronica, who is now living in New York City, is convinced that he is innocent, so she drops everything and returns to Neptune, California to help Logan prove his innocence.

IT’S GOOD TO BE A DETECTIVE AGAIN: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, right) goes over some material with her ex boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring). Logan is the principal suspect in the murder of Bonnie De Ville, however, Veronica, who is now living in New York City, is convinced that he is innocent, so she drops everything and returns to Neptune, California to help Logan prove his innocence.

Veronica Mars was a critically acclaimed TV series that ran from 2004 to 2007. Kristen Bell starred in the title role as a teen age detective who solved crimes committed in her mythical hometown of Neptune, California. 

Fans of the series will be delighted to learn that Kristen and eight other principal cast members have returned for the movie version of the program. Written and directed by the show’s creator, Rob Thomas, this faithful reincarnation was substantially funded by a Kickstarter funding campaign.

At the point of departure, we find Veronica happily living in New York City, where she’s preparing for the bar exam, having recently graduated from Columbia Law School. She’s also now in a long term relationship with Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell) and expects to be offered a job with a prestigious Manhattan firm.

However, fate intervenes when pop singer Bonnie De Ville’s (Andrea Estrella), body is found in her bathtub and Veronica’s ex-boyfriend, Logan (Jason Dohring), is the prime suspect. So, Veronica returns to Neptune to help him find a good attorney, since she’s convinced that he’s innocent.

Not surprisingly, her detective instincts kick-in and, just like old times, she’s uncovering clues with the help of her father (Enrico Colantoni), who is a private investigator. Veronica’s arrival back in town conveniently coincides with her 10th high school reunion.

The gathering proves to be the best place to interrogate persons of interest in the unsolved murder. It turns out that Bonnie had attended Neptune High, and several alumni seem to have had reasons to want her silenced. That’s as far as it’s fair to go without spoiling this nostalgic whodunit that is laced with surprising plot twists.

Consider this movie compelling enough to even hold the attention of folks who are unfamiliar with the original TV show.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, profanity, and drug use. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

March 5, 2014
IF THIS IS SOMEONE’S IDEA OF A JOKE, IT ISN’T VERY FUNNY: Anonymous air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) receives a text message in a flight en route to London, in which the texter threatens to kill someone every 20 minutes unless a huge sum of money is deposited into an offshore bank account. Initally, Bill dismisses the text as a prank being played by his fellow air marshal, however, when the first body turns up, he realizes that the threat is very real.(Photo by Myles Aronowitz, © 2014, Universal Pictures)

IF THIS IS SOMEONE’S IDEA OF A JOKE, IT ISN’T VERY FUNNY: Anonymous air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) receives a text message in a flight en route to London, in which the texter threatens to kill someone every 20 minutes unless a huge sum of money is deposited into an offshore bank account. Initally, Bill dismisses the text as a prank being played by his fellow air marshal, however, when the first body turns up, he realizes that the threat is very real. (Photo by Myles Aronowitz, © 2014, Universal Pictures)

Police officer Bill Marks’ (Liam Neeson) life went into a tailspin after his young daughter lost her battle with childhood leukemia. He looked for solace in a bottle of alcohol, an addiction which cost him his marriage and career. 

The ex-cop was lucky to be employed as an air marshal, a job he decided to take despite a terrible fear of takeoffs. On this particular evening, he’s been assigned to protect a packed transatlantic flight from New York to London.

The trip starts out uneventfully with Bill hiding his identity while making the acquaintance of the attractive passenger (Julianne Moore) sitting next to him. However, a crisis arises soon after he receives a text from an anonymous caller who claims to be in the cabin and is threatening to murder a passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is deposited into an offshore bank account.

Initially, Bill dismisses the message as a prank on the part of his colleague (Anson Mount), who is also aboard the plane, since a breach of the supposedly-impenetrable federal network is almost impossible. However, once the first victim is found, Bill realizes he has an emergency on his hands.

Who might the hijacker be? The Muslim (Omar Metwally) sporting a skullcap? The black teenager (Corey Hawkins) who is reluctant to surrender his cell phone? Somebody else? Of course, the actual perpetrator won’t be easy to pinpoint in this deadly game of cat and mouse.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Non-Stop features Liam Neeson. The surprising success of Taken, has turned the rugged Irishman into an action star, as can be seen in subsequent similar movies such as The A-Team, Taken 2, Unknown, and the upcoming Run All Night.

In this film, Neeson stays close to the Taken formula, with his character portraying a broken soul who is in need of redemption. Again, he rises to the occasion in a tough, two-fisted fashion, while also exhibiting a vulnerability that will move you to tears during the closing credits.

Besides an engaging premise and a satisfying resolution, Non-Stop has an inscrutable plot which delicately ratchets up the tension as it winds its way towards the unpredictable denouement.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sensuality, profanity, intense violence, and drug use. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

 

February 26, 2014
I’M OFF TO WORK HONEY, DON’T KNOW WHEN I’LL BE HOME FOR DINNER: Successful author and psychologist Dr. Thomas Carter (Anthony Mackie, right) blithely bids his wife (Sanaa Lathan) farewell, little realizing that he would soon be imprisoned in hia patient’s basement where he would be sadistically tortured.(Photo by Patti Perret

I’M OFF TO WORK HONEY, DON’T KNOW WHEN I’LL BE HOME FOR DINNER: Successful author and psychologist Dr. Thomas Carter (Anthony Mackie, right) blithely bids his wife (Sanaa Lathan) farewell, little realizing that he would soon be imprisoned in hia patient’s basement where he would be sadistically tortured. (Photo by Patti Perret)

Therapist Dr. Thomas Carter (Anthony Mackie) has just published a popular self-help book that is about the near death experience that helped him turn his life around. He is proud of the fact that, after almost perishing in a horrible car crash in his teens, he went on to earn graduate degrees in world religion and clinical psychology and also find and wed his soulmate, Maggie (Sanaa Lathan). 

Tommy has a happy marriage and a flourishing practice that is founded on a spiritual philosophy that combines faith and positive thinking. However, his successes are the opposite of his wayward brother Ben’s (Mike Epps) life, who was just released from prison.

After Ben was paroled, he was barely back on the streets when news of a $12,000 bounty on him spread around their native New Orleans. So, when Ben asks his brother for money to keep the bounty hunters at bay, Tommy decides to raise the money by extending the publicity tour for his best selling book.

At a local book signing, he is approached for an autograph by a reader, Angel Sanchez (Forest Whitaker), who is urgently in need of counseling. Against his better judgment, Tommy agrees to see Angel as a patient, because the $300/session fee definitely will help pay brother Ben’s debt.

Unfortunately, Carter decides to meet Angel, who is devastated by the death of his mother (Adella Gautier), in Angel’s home, Unfortunately, Carter doesn’t realize that Angel is at the end of his emotional rope because, in addition to his problem with his mother, his wife and daughter have become estranged from him.

The plot thickens when Angel takes Tommy hostage, and ties him up in his basement and then proceeds to torture him.

Directed by Philippe Caland (Ripple Effect), Repentance is a psychological thriller that establishes a compelling premise but then morphs into an otherworldly horror film. Over the course of this rudderless adventure, Forest Whitaker ultimately finds himself abandoned by an implausible script.

Fair (*½). Rated R for profanity, violence, and torture. Running time: 90 minutes Studio: Code Black Films. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

February 19, 2014
IS IT TRUE LOVE OR JUST CHEMISTRY: Bernie (Kevin Hart, left) and Joan (Regina Hall) are involved in a very passionate love affair. However, neither of them seem to be interested in forging a more permanent relationship that is not based solely on their passion for each other.

IS IT TRUE LOVE OR JUST CHEMISTRY: Bernie (Kevin Hart, left) and Joan (Regina Hall) are involved in a very passionate love affair. However, neither of them seem to be interested in forging a more permanent relationship that is not based solely on their passion for each other.

Released in 1986, About Last Night was about two Chicago yuppies (played by Rob Lowe and Demi Moore) who tried to forge a solid relationship that began with a casual one-night stand. The movie was adapted from Sexual Perversity in Chicago, a drama by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross).

Loosely based on the original, this remake is a romantic comedy that serves as a vehicle for the popular comic-turned-actor Kevin Hart. His character, Bernie, was the sidekick in the original film, and is now the leading man. Furthermore, the setting has been shifted to Los Angeles, and the principal cast members are now black.

Directed by Steven Pink (Hot Tub Time Machine), the picture co-stars Regina Hall opposite Hart as Joan, his love interest. Rounding out the principal cast are Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant as Danny and Debbie, the aforementioned couple who are deciding to give serious commitment a go.

At the point of departure we are introduced to Bernie and Danny, best friends and co-workers at a restaurant supply company. Bernie recounts an escapade he had with Joan before he introduced Danny to Joan’s roommate. Danny is immediately smitten with Debbie, and the cinematic table is set.

Bernie and Joan can’t keep their hands off each other. By contrast, Danny and Debbie move in together, buy furniture, adopt a pet, and map out a future for themselves.

The plot thickens when Danny loses his job and ends up tending bar at Casey’s, a saloon frequented by his ex-girlfriend (Paula Patton). Bernie helps the plot along by pressuring his suddenly domesticated pal to go back to playing the field.

However, the resulting relationship tensions take a back seat to the lighthearted banter in this superficial adventure. Look for cameos by NFL great Terrell Owens as well as ones of Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, via a clip from the original film.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, nudity, and brief drug use. Running time: 110 minutes. Distributor: Screen Gems

 

February 12, 2014
SHALL WE DANCE: Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) dances the night away with Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). The two met when Peter broke into Beverly’s room one night and unexpectedly encountered her. The pair fell hopelessly in love and, because she was dying from tuberculosis, began a whirlwind romance to make the most of their short time together.

SHALL WE DANCE: Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) dances the night away with Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). The two met when Peter broke into Beverly’s room one night and unexpectedly encountered her. The pair fell hopelessly in love and, because she was dying from tuberculosis, began a whirlwind romance to make the most of their short time together.

Peter Lake’s (Colin Farrell) parents had hoped to immigrate to the U.S. but were turned away at Ellis Island upon their arrival early in the 20th century. Although they weren’t allowed into America, the Russian couple decided to leave their baby behind, and set him adrift in a tiny model of a ship called the “City of Justice.”

The infant was carried to the shores of Bayonne, New Jersey where he was found and raised by compassionate clam-diggers. Upon coming of age, he moved to Manhattan and became a mechanic until he was pressured into joining a gang of thieves led by Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe).

Peter learned how to be a thief under Pearly’s tutelage, but the two became enemies after Peter tired of taking orders from him. However, after severing his ties to the gang, Peter was fearful that Soames would avenge his defection from the group.

A moment of truth occurs when Peter is surrounded by his former colleagues but is somehow spirited away by a winged white stallion. Another turning point in his life happens the night he breaks into a mansion through a second floor window.

When he breaks into the room Peter encounters Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a sickly young heiress who is dying from tuberculosis. Despite her illness, he falls hopelessly in love with the frail philosophical free-spirited woman. Over the objections of her skeptical father (William Hurt), the lovers begin an otherworldly romance.

Thus unfolds Winter’s Tale, a delightful flight of fancy that is the directorial debut of Akiva Goldsman, who won an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of A Beautiful Mind. Akiva also wrote the script for this film which is based on Mark Helprin’s best-seller of the same name.

Does this movie measure up to the source material? Can’t say, since I haven’t read it. Nevertheless, I found this well crafted piece of magical realism quite imaginative and intriguing, though I suspect fans of the book might be a bit disappointed, given how much is invariably lost in translation when adapting a 700 page book into a movie.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sensuality and violence. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.