April 22, 2015
TAKE YOUR CHOICE OF SITES TO VISIT: The computer screen automatically presents a list of choices as the user starts to type in the name of Laura Barns who committed suicide after being mercilessly hounded by cyberbullies. Her spirit takes revenge on her torturers a year later by terrorizing them online.

TAKE YOUR CHOICE OF SITES TO VISIT: The computer screen automatically presents a list of choices as the user starts to type in the name of Laura Barns who committed suicide after being mercilessly hounded by cyberbullies. Her spirit takes revenge on her torturers a year later by terrorizing them online.

On April 9, 2013, Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) drank too much at a high school classmate’s unsupervised keg party and passed out and soiled herself. In the past, such immature behavior would have been forgiven as youthful indiscretion and quietly swept under the rug the next morning.

However, in the unforgiving digital age the slightest faux pas can easily come back to haunt you forever. That’s precisely what happened to Laura, thanks to a mean-spirited guest who, instead of helping her, whipped out his cell phone and recorded an embarrassing video of her sprawled on the ground.

This invasion of privacy escalated to cyber bullying when the video was posted online followed by a thread of cruel comments. After several days of merciless teasing, Laura took her life with a gun.

Now, exactly one year later, we find Laura’s former best friend Blaire (Shelley Hennig) flirting with Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) on Skype. Their exchange comes to an abrupt end when they are joined in the chatroom by a trio of friends, Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), and Ken (Jacob Wysocki).

Next, an anonymous intruder claiming to be Laura appears and starts divulging deep secrets about each of them. The spooked quintet assumes that the uninvited guest is their prankster pal, Val (Courtney Halverson), until she pops up on a separate screen. Then, when “Laura” starts knocking them off one-by-one, it becomes clear that they are dealing with a disembodied spirit bent on vengeance.

Directed by Levan Gabriadze, Unfriended is a found footage horror film designed for millennials. This novel movie unfolds on a computer screen from its beginning to its terrifying end. Although some people over 30 are apt to find the film disconcerting, the younger generation — that is addicted to electronic stimuli — 24/7, may feel right at home.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, sexuality, teen drug and alcohol abuse, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 82 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

April 15, 2015

 

THE PACK HAS REFORMED AND IS ON THE PROWL: In order to avenge the assassination of his brother, Deckard Shaw has convinced the gang to get together and help him track down his brother’s killers. They are shown here driving their cars on their way to making Shaw’s vow for revenge come true.(Photo by Scott Garfield - © 2015 - Universal Pictures)

THE PACK HAS REFORMED AND IS ON THE PROWL: In order to avenge the assassination of his brother, Deckard Shaw has convinced the gang to get together and help him track down his brother’s killers. They are shown here driving their cars on their way to making Shaw’s vow for revenge come true. (Photo by Scott Garfield – © 2015 – Universal Pictures)

The late Paul Walker (1973-2013) was best known for playing Brian O’Conner, a charismatic lead character of the Fast and Furious series. During a break in the filming of this seventh film, he perished in a fiery crash while being driven in a Porsche by his friend and financial advisor, Roger Rodas.

Director James Wan (The Conjuring) put the production on hold and consulted with Walker’s family before deciding to complete the project. After revising the script, he resumed shooting, using Paul’s younger brothers, Caleb and Cody, as body doubles.

As a result of the delays and complications from the changes in the movie, its budget ballooned to over a quarter-billion dollars. Nevertheless, the rewrite was worth the effort, since Furious 7 is easily the best movie in the series because it convincingly combines sentiment with its trademark swagger and spectacular action sequences.

The movie is still mainly a muscle car demolition derby featuring an array of sensational stunts that destroy 230 automobiles. But it’s also a touching tribute to Paul Walker.

At the point of departure, we’re reintroduced to Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a trained assassin who is hell-bent on avenging the death of his brother, the diabolical villain who was killed during the climax of the previous episode. Deckard’s already killed Han (Sung Kang), so gang leader Dom (Vin Diesel) encourages his wife (Michelle Rodriguez) and the rest of his ragtag crew of mercenaries to regroup in order to avoid the risk of getting picked off one-by-one, since there’s strength in numbers.

However, coaxing brother-in-law Brian out of retirement isn’t easy because he has settled down in suburbia and started a family with Mia (Jordana Brewster). However, the playboys Roman (Tyrese) and Tej (Ludacris) are game for another round of bombastic vehicular warfare, as they compete for the affections of the computer hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel) who has just joined the gang.

The plot plunges the mercenaries headlong into a familiar concatenation of fisticuffs and gravity-defying car chases.

The movie is a captivating combination of camaraderie and action scenes tempered by enough nostalgia to tug at your heartstrings.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for pervasive violence and mayhem, suggestive content, and brief profanity. Running time: 137 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

April 2, 2015
Get Hard Movie

DRESSED FOR SUCCESS: James King (Will Ferrell) is at the top of his game and seems to be going even higher. Having just been made partner in his hedge fund company and about to marry his boss’s daughter, the future looks bright. However, he is brought down by a securities fraud conviction and is about to spend ten years in prison. (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture © 2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

 

Thanks to a successful career as a hedge fund manager, James King (Will Ferrell) is living in the lap of luxury in a sprawling Bel Air mansion. Furthermore, his good fortune seems about to skyrocket because he has been promoted to partner and is going to marry the boss’s (Craig T. Nelson) daughter, Alissa (Alison Brie).

In contrast, working man Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart) lives on the other side of the tracks in South Central Los Angeles where he worries daily about the welfare of his wife (Edwina Findley) and young daughter (Ariana Neal). He’s eager to move his famiy out of the area but needs $30,000 to secure the mortgage on their dream house.

As a regular patron of a valet car washing service, James regularly interacts with Darnell. Nevertheless, he thinks that Darnell is a mugger one day when the black man approaches him in the office parking lot.

To add insult to injury, instead of apologizing for his mistake, James insensitively claims ”I would’ve reacted the same, if you were white.” Then, he rubs salt in Darnell’s wounds by suggesting that, “I got to where I am by hard work,” and smugly adds, “Success is a mindset.”

However, their roles are reversed when James is convicted of securities fraud and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin. A month before he has to report to prison, he asks Darnell to prepare him for life behind bars, based on the unfounded assumption that Darnell is an ex-convict.

Darnell agrees and charges James the $30,000 he needs as a down payment for his ticket out of the ghetto. However, the joke is on James, since the supposed “incarceration expert” he’s just hired has never even seen the inside of a jail.

Get Hard is a comedy co-starring Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell. The movie marks the directorial debut of Etan Cohen, whose successful mix of slapstick comedy and subtle social satire yields a cinematic experience that is silly but also thought-provoking.

So, one moment, we see goofy nudity from Ferrell who prances around in his birthday suit. Then we hear the musings of a spoiled rich kid boasting about how he built his company with his own two hands, before admitting that he had actually relied upon an 8 million dollar loan from his father as seed money.

If you are ready for politically incorrect fare that is racist, misogynistic, and homophobic, you probably will enjoy the inspired pairing of Ferrell and Hart who are at the top of their games.

Very Good (***). Rated R for nudity, drug use, ethnic slurs, profanity, sexuality, and crude humor.

Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

March 25, 2015
THE NON-CONFORMIST DIVERGENTS ARE FLEEING FOR THEIR LIVES: Tris (Shailene Woodley, left), her boyfriend Four (Theo James, center), and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are being hunted down by Jeanine (Kate Winslet, not shown) who is seizing control of the city, but has not succeeded in controlling the handful of Divergents who pose a threat to her dictatorship.(Photo by Andrew Cooper, © 2014, Lionsgate)

THE NON-CONFORMIST DIVERGENTS ARE FLEEING FOR THEIR LIVES: Tris (Shailene Woodley, left), her boyfriend Four (Theo James, center), and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) are being hunted down by Jeanine (Kate Winslet, not shown) who is seizing control of the city, but has not succeeded in controlling the handful of Divergents who pose a threat to her dictatorship. (Photo by Andrew Cooper, © 2014, Lionsgate)

Insurgent is the second in the series of screen adaptations that are based on Veronica Roth’s blockbuster Divergent trilogy. This movie is a rarity for a cinematic sequel because it’s actually better than the first episode.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the series’ basic premise, the post-apocalyptic science fiction story is set amidst the crumbling ruins of a walled-in Chicago where what’s left of humanity has been divided into five factions based on their personality types: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the intelligent).

Our heroine, Tris (Shailene Woodley) was deemed a threat to society after testing positive for several of the aforementioned qualities, since that makes her a Divergent, one of the handful of nonconformists whose minds the government cannot control. Consequently at the end of the original movie, the headstrong rebel ends up orphaned and roaming the streets with her fellow non-conforming outcasts.

Insurgent picks up where Divergent left off, but with more intensity and more visually captivating special effects. At the point of departure, we find Tris on the run with her boyfriend Four (Theo James), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and Peter Hayes (Miles Teller). The fugitives are being sought by Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the maniacal Erudite leader who has seized control of the city by commandeering the Dauntless warrior class.

The despot has declared martial law until all threats to her power have been neutralized. Meanwhile, Tris and her compatriots continue to elude apprehension while simultaneously searching for a sacred talisman that was hidden by Tris’s late mother (Ashley Judd).

The ancient artifact is rumored to contain an important message from Chicago’s founding fathers. However, the box can only be accessed by a Divergent who succeeds in surviving an ordeal that tests for all five of the commonwealth’s designated virtues. Although it’s obvious that Tris is bright, fearless, and altruistic; she could perish while trying to prove herself a pacifist and truthful.

Fans of the source material will undoubtedly be surprised by this complicated challenge that wasn’t in the book. Nevertheless, the seamlessly interwoven plot device works in terms of ratcheting up the tension.

The film features a supporting cast that includes Oscar winners Kate Winslet and Octavia Spencer, and nominee Naomi Watts; along with effective performances from Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Zoe Kravitz, and Miles Teller. However, Insurgent is a Shailene Woodley movie from beginning to end.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sensuality, pervasive violence, intense action, mature themes, and brief profanity. Running time: 119 minutes. Distributor: Lions Gate Films.

March 18, 2015
BUT MY SON HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT: Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson, left) desperately tries to convince his long time friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) that Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) had nothing to do with the shooting of Shawn’s son when a drug deal involving two Albanian dealers went bad. Shawn was convinced that Mike, who happened to be the driver of the limousine hired by the dealers, was involved with the dealers and so had to be killed to avenge the death of Shawn’s son.(Photo by MYLES ARONOWITZ, © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

BUT MY SON HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT: Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson, left) desperately tries to convince his long time friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) that Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) had nothing to do with the shooting of Shawn’s son when a drug deal involving two Albanian dealers went bad. Shawn was convinced that Mike, who happened to be the driver of the limousine hired by the dealers, was involved with the dealers and so had to be killed to avenge the death of Shawn’s son. (Photo by MYLES ARONOWITZ, © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Hit man Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) and mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) have been friends for decades. So much so that the blood brothers from Brooklyn routinely recite their loyalty oath, “Wherever we’re going, we’re going together” as a reminder of their enduring alliance.

However, that unbreakable bond is shattered after Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) is gunned down during a drug deal with a couple of Albanian heroine dealers that went bad. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s son Mike (Joel Kinnaman), who is making an honest living as a chauffeur with a limousine company, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It turns out that he had no idea what was up when he was hired to serve as the Albanians’ getaway driver.

Nevertheless, revenge minded Shawn decides that his best friend’s son has to pay with his life. So, he tells Jimmy that he’s sending his assassins after Mike to even the score.

Of course Jimmy warns his son — who then calls the cops — ignoring his father’s advice to avoid the local police since they’re likely in cahoots with the Maguire crime family. When that turns out to be true, father and son end up on the run from both the authorities and the assassins.

Run All Night, features Liam Neeson, who’s cast in a role that he’s become associated with after his phenomenal performance as an overprotective parent in Taken. This picture’s premise puts a slight twist on the familiar theme because Jimmy’s not an empathetic protagonist given his career as a feared enforcer known as “The Gravedigger.”

Still, Jimmy wants to be redeemed in the eyes of his estranged son who rejected the notion of following in his father’s footsteps. Instead, Mike tried to be a boxer, and when that didn’t work out he took a legitimate job as a limousine driver.

Run All Night was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra who previously worked with Liam Neeson on Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014). Three times is definitely the charm as this adventure is their best collaboration yet. The film also features an excellent supporting cast which includes Nick Nolte, 2015 Oscar-winner Common (for the Best Song “Glory”), and veteran character actors Vincent D’Onofrio and Bruce McGill.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexual references, graphic violence, and drug use. In English and Albanian with subtitles. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

March 11, 2015
ISN’T THIS PLACE JUST PERFECT!: In his usual irrepressible manner, Sonny, (Dev Patel, center) accompanied by Muriel (Maggie Smith), raves enthusiastically about the potential of the building that they hope to turn into the second best exotic Marigold Hotel, provided they can find investors to finance their dream.(Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2014Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

ISN’T THIS PLACE JUST PERFECT!: In his usual irrepressible manner, Sonny, (Dev Patel, center) accompanied by Muriel (Maggie Smith), raves enthusiastically about the potential of the building that they hope to turn into the second best exotic Marigold Hotel, provided they can find investors to finance their dream. (Photo by Laurie Sparham © 2014Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

When we last saw Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) who, in spite of the objections of his meddling mother (Lillete Dubey), he had proposed to his girlfriend Sunaina (Tina Desai). The ambitious young entrepreneur had also managed to raise enough money to renovate the ramshackle hotel with the help of Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), one of the residents of the retirement community.

In this sequel, we find Sonny and Mrs. Donnelly en route to San Diego where they hope to persuade an executive (David Strathairn) of the Evergreen Corporation to invest in a second old folks home he hopes to open. After all, the first is now flourishing and almost filled to capacity.

Meanwhile, back in India, Sunaina is focused on their impending engagement ceremony, known as a Sagai. In the groom-to-be’s absence, she’s asked Kush (Shazad Latif), a friend of the family, to fill in as a dance partner so she can practice the elaborate dance routine that she will perform with Sonny at the ceremony. It is subtly hinted that Kush might pose a threat to the impending marriage because Sonny became so preoccupied with business matters the minute he returned to India.

That is only one of several storylines in a sequel which unfolds more like a daytime soap opera than a feature film. Scene after scene is a setup for another transparent love triangle.

For example, as she checks into the hotel, Lavinia Beach (Tamsin Grieg) becomes interested in another new guest, Guy (Richard Gere), but he is interested in Sonny’s widowed mother. Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie), a pretty British pensioner, can’t decide between the two wealthy Indian suitors she’s dating. And Doug (Bill Nighy) has grown fond of Evelyn (Judi Dench) even though he hasn’t yet divorced his wife (Penelope Wilton). And so forth.

The irrepressible Sonny serves as the master of ceremonies and ties all these loose strands together. Unfortunately, because he’s more of a clown in this film, the movie is a joke-to-joke farce that cannot be taken seriously.

Very Good (**½). Rated PG for mild epithets and suggestive material. In English and Hindi with subtitles. Running time: 122 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

March 4, 2015
WE’D BETTER HURRY OR WE’LL BE LATE TO SCHOOL: Three potential candidates for Coach Jim White’s newly formed cross-country track team race to school from the fields where they were picking fruits or vegetables from first light until school started. Because the farm workers received such low wages, their families needed the extra income their children earned in this manner. As it turns out, their daily sprint to school made them excellent candidates for the track team.(© 2014-Disney Enterprises, Inc)

WE’D BETTER HURRY OR WE’LL BE LATE TO SCHOOL: Three potential candidates for Coach Jim White’s newly formed cross-country track team race to school from the fields where they were picking fruits or vegetables from first light until school started. Because the farm workers received such low wages, their families needed the extra income their children earned in this manner. As it turns out, their daily sprint to school made them excellent candidates for the track team. (© 2014-Disney Enterprises, Inc)

In the fall of 1987, Jim White (Kevin Costner) was fired as head football coach of a high school team in Boise, Idaho after he lost his temper and hit one of his players in the face. With his wife (Maria Bello) and two young daughters (Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher) to support, White found himself in urgent need of another job.

So, he accepted a demotion to assistant football coach at a public high school in the predominantly Latino, working-class town, of McFarland, California. However, once it became clear that being the second-in-command football coach wasn’t working out, White came up with the idea of creating a cross-country track team instead.

Though skeptical, Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez) grudgingly agreed, and White immediately started looking around the school for prospects. As it turned out, many of McFarland High’s Chicano students were excellent candidates, since they were used to running the long distance from the crop fields to the classroom after picking fruit and vegetables alongside their parents in the hours of light before school started.

When he found seven promising protégés, Coach White had to figure out how the runners’ families could afford to let their children train instead of working in the fields in the early hours of the morning. After all, the boys were being offered an opportunity to expand their horizons, and a standout runner could possibly receive an athletic college scholarship.

Directed by New Zealand’s Niki Caro (Whale Rider), McFarland, USA is more than the typical overcoming-the-odds sports story. True, it’s a classic case of a disgraced coach redeeming himself with the help of a crew of undiscovered underdogs. Nevertheless, this true story is touching because it simultaneously sheds light on the plight on of an invisible sector of society — the Chicano immigrants who harvest our produce for low wages.

Kevin Costner has never been more endearing than in this film where he portrays a devoted mentor and family man. And he’s supported by a talented cast of actors. When the closing credits roll we see photos of the real-life people portrayed in the film, plus updates about their present lives that validate all the sacrifices that were made.

Heartwarming!

Excellent (****) Rated PG for violence, mild epithets, and mature themes. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

February 25, 2015
CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE PROVEN TO BE AN EXCELLENT STUDENT: Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith, left) celebrates Jess Barrett’s (Margot Robbie) on being such a quick learner. Nicky took her on as his student after she botched an attempt to rob him by having her “husband” discovering them together in her hotel room.(© 2015-Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE PROVEN TO BE AN EXCELLENT STUDENT: Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith, left) celebrates Jess Barrett’s (Margot Robbie) on being such a quick learner. Nicky took her on as his student after she botched an attempt to rob him by having her “husband” discovering them together in her hotel room. (© 2015-Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) is an aspiring con artist who picked the worst guy to steal a wallet from when she chose Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith). She had no way of knowing that he was a third generation flimflam man whose grandfather once ran a crooked poker game in Harlem.

Nicky, after sharing drinks with Jess at a bar in midtown Manhattan, was curious to see what would happen when he accepted her invitation to come to her hotel room. So, he was ready when her accomplice (Griff Furst), posing as her angry husband, burst in brandishing a fake gun.

Instead of handing over his wallet, Nicky laughed and pointed out the flaws in their little shakedown, such as not waiting until he was naked to try to rob him. Jess is so impressed that she begs him to take her on as a protégé and tells him a hard luck story about having been a dyslexic foster child.

Nicky agrees to show her the ropes and even invites her to join his team of hustlers who are on their way to New Orleans where they plan to pickpocket unsuspecting tourists. They also devise an elaborate plan to fleece a wealthy compulsive gambler (BD Wong) of over a million dollars.

Jess proves to be a fast learner and the plot is executed without a hitch, however, after they become romantically involved, Nicky is reluctant to include her in his next operation. Instead, he moves on alone to Argentina, where he plans to bilk a racing car mogul Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro).

The plot thickens when Nicky finds Jess on the arm of the playboy billionaire when he arrives in Buenos Aires. Is she in love with Garriga or simply staging her own swindle? Will she expose Nicky as a fraud or will she be willing to join forces with her former mentor?

Co-directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love), Focus is an overplotted story that apparently takes its ideas from the House of Games (1987). But whereas that multi-layered mystery was perfectly plausible, this film goes from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Nonetheless, co-stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie generate enough chemistry to make the farfetched romantic romp worth seeing.

Good (**). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and brief violence. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

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.