Unfortunately Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a disappointment. The picture was directed by Zack Snyder, who also directed the 2013 remake of Superman, called Man of Steel.
The first problem with this second movie in the DC Extended Universe series is its interminable 2½ hour running time that could have easily been trimmed to less than 90 minutes. For example, why bother revisiting the backstory about what inspired Bruce Wayne to become Batman, when the murder of his parents had previously been addressed in numerous other episodes?
The second issue with the production has to do with Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) being cast as adversaries for the bulk of the film. True, the source of the tension between them is adequately explained, but the audience nevertheless grows impatient because we’d much rather see our heroes resolve their differences and join forces to fight the real villain. After all, the detestable adversary, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), needs to be dealt with. Unfortunately this slow moving blockbuster takes forever to arrive at that epic showdown. Instead, we’re forced to watch the meaningless machinations of a convoluted adventure that is filled with atmospherics, action, and special effects.
Aside from this, director Snyder features support characters who have nothing much to do with furthering the plot, such as Clark Kent’s colleague Jimmy Olsen (Michael Cassidy), Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), and Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons). The film also features many cameo appearances by celebrities Neil deGrasse Tyson, Anderson Cooper, Brooke Baldwin, Soledad O’Brien, Nancy Grace, and Dana Bash who distract from, rather than advance, the plot.
More enjoyable are the roles played by Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). But by the time the battle with Luthor and his henchman Doomsday (Robin Atkin Downes) finally comes to a head, you’re so tired of peeking at your watch that you just want it over and done with as fast as possible. Make it stop!
A patience-testing blockbuster that adds up to much less than the sum of its parts.
Fair (*). Rated PG-13 for intense violence, pervasive action, and some sensuality. Running time: 151 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.
It is Colonial New England in 1630, and William (Ralph Ineson) and his family have just been banished from the Puritan plantation because of religious differences with the settlement’s elders. The proud patriarch stoically prepares to move from the safe confines of the fort to an unprotected and undeveloped plot of land located on the edge of the forest.
Naturally, William expects to face some serious challenges in trying to overcome the harsh elements, especially since he and his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), have five children to raise. But as devout Christians, they trust in the Lord to help them. Still, they didn’t anticipate the host of supernatural horrors that were about to unfold that would test their faith.
Their troubles begin when their newborn son Samuel vanishes into thin air while being watched by his oldest sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). William tries to explain the disappearance as an abduction by a wild animal, even though his teenage daughter has confessed to the sinful self-indulgence of pangs of sexual arousal. The twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), hint at Satanism, while Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) refuses to ascribe any evil to his big sister.
Their plight continues to deteriorate as crops fail, livestock produce blood instead of milk, and Caleb falls ill and slips into a catatonic state. At this juncture, inconsolable Katherine starts yearning to return home to England and even questions whether God exists.
Since this is Massachusetts in the 17th century, suspicions of sorcery soon swirl around Thomasin, in spite of her vehement protestations of innocence. However, this was a time when a rumors of witchcraft could have serious consequences for a young woman.
Winner of the Best Director Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, The Witch is the directorial and script writing debut of Robert Eggers. Thanks to the period costumes and palpable atmospherics, the movie generates an eerie air of authenticity. Also, the members of the talented cast are totally convincing as Puritans
Excellent (****). Rated R for disturbing violence and nudity. Running time: 92 minutes. Distributor: A24 Films.
(Photo by Philippe Antonello – © 2104 Focus Features, LLC)
2015 was a banner year for Christian-oriented movies, as over 30 faith-based films were released in theaters. 2016 appears to be following suit, with Risen, The Lady in the Van, and The Witch among the movies with religious overtones.
Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh (The Stoning of Soraya M.), The Young Messiah is a Biblical story about critical events that transpired during a momentous year in the life of the Christ child (Adam Greaves-Neal). The intriguing historical drama was adapted from Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, a bestseller by Anne Rice. The foray into Christian-themed literature is a big change for Rice who earned Beliefnet’s 2005 Book of the Year for her work based on the Gospels.
The New Testament provides very little information about Jesus’s formative years, and this film convincingly fleshes them out. As the movie unfolds, we find Him living in Alexandria and behaving like your typical 7-year-old while His parents, Mary (Sara Lazzaro) and Joseph (Vincent Walsh), struggle with how to go about explaining the concept of God to His own Son.
We also learn that they have been living in exile because of King Herod’s (Jonathan Bailey) order to his army to execute all the young boys born in Bethlehem. The despot was determined to prevent the rumored Messiah from seizing the throne. Herod’s death allows the family to return home, although the obsessed centurion Severus (Sean Bean) is still searching for Jesus and sees Him lurking behind every rock.
Meanwhile, Jesus goes about healing His sick uncle, curing a blind rabbi, and bringing both a bully and a bird back from the dead. And He also performs many random acts of kindness.
However, He desperately searches for an explanation of these powers until Mary finally tells him about the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth, and His divine destiny.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence and mature themes. Running time: 111 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.
The conventional wisdom for shooting a sequel to a successful action movie is that “bigger is better.” In the case of this follow up to Olympus Has Fallen, that means bigger guns, more elaborate chase scenes, a higher body-count, and more pyrotechnics, including exploding cars careening off cliffs in flames.
Directed by Babak Najafi, London Has Fallen stars Gerard Butler in his role as Mike Banning, the Secret Service Agent who is in charge of protecting the president of the United States. Also reprising their roles are Radha Mitchell as his wife, Leah; Aaron Eckhart as President Asher; Morgan Freeman as Vice President Trumbull; Angela Basset as Secret Service Director Lynne Jacobs; Melissa Leo as Secretary of Defense Ruth McMillan; and Robert Forster as General Clegg.
At the point of departure, the Bannings are examining paint samples for their first baby’s nursery. Leah is due in a couple weeks, and the prospect of fatherhood has Mike seriously contemplating retirement. But before he can tender a letter of resignation, word arrives that the British Prime Minister has unexpectedly passed away.
Over his worried wife’s objections, Mike grudgingly agrees to join the detail that is accompanying the president to the funeral. Despite very heavy security in London, chaos ensues when radical Muslims — disguised as Bobbies and Beefeaters — open fire, assassinating several of the 28 leaders of the world leaders who are attending the funeral.
Mike instinctively springs into action to escort the president from Westminster Abbey back to Air Force One. Of course, this is easier said than done, since it’s almost impossible to tell the good guys from the bad, and terrorists armed with automatic weapons and RPGs are lying in wait at every turn.
With the help of cartoon physics and a bulletproof physique, Mike manages to prevail against the army of bloodthirsty jihadists who are working for the diabolical mastermind, Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul).
Very Good (***). Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive profanity. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Gramercy Pictures.
Growing up in Cheltenham, Michael Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) told anybody who would listen that he would be an Olympic athlete one day. Although mercilessly teased by playmates and barely tolerated by his skeptical father (Keith Allen), the boy clinged to the unwavering encouragement of his supportive mother (Jo Hartley), who encouraged him to fulfill his seemingly unreachable dream.
Despite being farsighted, born with an unimpressive physique, and bad knees, Eddie pursued a variety of track-and-field events as he was growing up. When none of those panned out, he eventually tried downhill skiing, hoping to represent England in the winter games.
However, after failing to qualify for the Olympics as a racer, he turned his attention to ski jumping where he would have no rivals, because England hadn’t competed in that sport since the 20s. So, he went to Germany — one of the few countries that had the requisite training facilities — to begin his training.
There, Eddie began his quest under the tutelage of Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman). First, in order to meet the Olympic’s minimum entry requirements, he had to complete a series of jumps greater than 60 meters.
Of course, that was easier said than done, for it takes not only skill, but a lot of courage to ski headlong down a long ramp and launch yourself into the air. Furthermore, the key to success requires mastering what Bronsan referred to as the “Jumper’s Paradox,” the counter-intuitive instinct to lean forward while in the air, which is the opposite of the natural tendency to straighten up.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher (Wild Bill), Eddie the Eagle is a heartwarming adventure describing the actual exploits of the underdog who became a crowd favorite during the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. Though initially content just to participate in the games, Eddie became more ambitious as his skills improved.
The movie also makes a passing reference to the Jamaican bobsled team, another group that developed a following in Calgary. Their feats were recounted in Cool Runnings (1993), a picture very similar to this one.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for smoking, partial nudity, and suggestive material. In English, German, and Norwegian with subtitles. Running time: 105 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.
Jesse Owens (Stephan James) is famous for winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics that took place in Berlin. The track and field events in which he competed included the 100 meter dash, the 200 meter dash, the long jump, and the 4×100 meter relay race.
What makes Owens’ feat so remarkable is that he had to overcome not only racism at home but the prejudice that he encountered in Germany’s Nazi notions about Aryan whites being a master race. So, not only did he have to deal with discrimination in the States but the prejudices of Adolf Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) and the Nazis.
Directed by Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space), Race is a biopic that has much more to offer than an account of Jesse’s historic achievements. In addition to recreating the tension surrounding each of the contests, the picture devotes considerable time to developing the protagonist’s personality.
As the film unfolds, we learn about Jesse’s roots in Cleveland, and that he was the first of his family’s ten children to attend college. When he left for Ohio State, he already had a baby (Yvanna-Rose Leblanc) with Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton), the childhood sweetheart he would eventually wed and remain with until his death in 1980.
At the university, Jesse forged a close relationship with his track coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), who also served as a surrogate father. And when Snyder’s competence was being undermined by bigoted officials on the U.S. Olympic Committee, he decided to pay his own way in order to accompany his promising protege to the games in Berlin.
In Germany, Jesse was shaken to be greeted with the N-word. He was equally shocked to see signs in stores declaring “No Jews or dogs allowed.” Nevertheless, he managed to block out the madness all around him and concentrated on performing in the Olympic stadium to the best of his ability.
When Jesse, instead of the Aryan athletes, won medals, Hitler was so infuriated that he refused to shake Jesse’s hand, even though that was the proper protocol for gold medal-winners. Despite pressure from the Führer and Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) to follow suit, German long jumper Carl “Luz” Long (David Cross) went out of his way to embrace the champion who had been ostracized on account of his skin color. The two remained friends although Carl perished while fighting on the front lines in World War II.
Regrettably, Jesse’s reception back home wasn’t much better. Unfortunately, the White House never publicly acknowledged his remarkable achievements. The movie is an inspiring and long overdue tribute to a great patriot and African American icon.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, and ethnic slurs. In English and German with subtitles. Running time: 134 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.
Oscar-winner Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) has been challenging the power structure ever since releasing Roger & Me in 1989. That ground-breaking exposé indicted General Motors for the outsourcing of jobs which led to the devastation of his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Over the intervening years, Moore has tackled a variety of controversial topics including the Iraq War (Fahrenheit 9/11), the healthcare industry (Sicko), and the global financial crisis (Capitalism: A Love Story), to name a few.
With Where to Invade Next, he sets his sights on the subject of American imperialism. You may remember that the Bush Doctrine, announced by President George W. Bush in 2002, asserted the United States’ right to wage preemptive war whenever it was deemed in the national interest. Relying on that doctrine, Moore circumnavigates the globe visiting countries with cultural and social features that are worth emulating.
However, instead of conquest with intent to plunder, the object is to borrow ideas from the ‘invaded’ countries that might improve our quality of life. For example in France, he asks public school cafeteria chefs how they manage to serve their students such fine cuisine as compared to the fare American children are forced to settle for. And his mission in Finland is to discern why its educational system is far superior to ours, while in Italy he describes the generous employment benefits, not only for maternity leave, but for honeymoons as well.
This faux invasion mockumentary features Moore in virtually every tableau. Fortunately, his tongue-in-cheek brand of humor is frequently sublime, and his earnest arguments are often persuasive, even if the format feels a little stale.
Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, drug use, violent images, and brief nudity. In English, Italian, French, German, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Arabic with subtitles. Running time: 110 minutes. Distributor: Dog Eat Dog Films.
In 2015, Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for his poignant portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. In The Danish Girl, Redmayne plays another icon who is virtually upstaged onscreen by an intriguing spouse. Here, he plays Einar Wegener aka Lili Elbe (1882-1931), a Danish artist best remembered as a pioneer in the transgender movement.
Directed by Oscar winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), the film was adapted from David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name. The book is based on a fictionalized account of Lili’s life, although her sexual reassignment surgery is factual.
Redmayne’s androgynous appearance helps the movie immeasurably, as he is very convincing as a female. The picture is very timely in light of Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenner.
The picture’s point of departure is Copenhagen in the Roaring Twenties, which is where we find Einar and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) both working as aspiring artists. Her preference is portraiture, while he’s only been inspired to paint the same desolate landscape marked by a clump of spindly, barren trees.
Things change when Gerda suggests that he serve as a stand-in for the model (Amber Heard) whom she was supposed to paint that day. Einar dons female attire and finds himself enjoying the experience more than he expected.
Next thing you know, he’s secretly slipping out into public in drag and even attends a soiree where he attracts an ardent admirer (Ben Whishaw) who is probably unaware of Lili’s true gender. The pair’s ensuing courtship eventually mushrooms into passion, and the scandalous infidelity puts a strain on Einar and Gerda’s marriage.
Nevertheless, the movie’s main feature is the historic decision for Einar to undergo the world’s first sex change operation. Redmayne would be the favorite to win another Academy Award for Einar’s seamless metamorphosis into Lili, if he hadn’t just received one a year ago.
Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality and nudity. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.
The Catholic Church has a checkered past in the way it has handled the molestation of children by the clergy. Unfortunately, Pope Francis recently issued a plenary pardon to pedophile priests who were willing to confess their sins.
This means that the Church is likely to remain a safe haven for these perpetrators. Meanwhile, their victims continue to be frustrated in their quests for justice.
Directed by Oscar-nominee Tom McCarthy (Up), Spotlight focuses on one of those rare occasions where the truth came to light. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the editor of the Boston Globe, was willing to look into the widespread rumors of a Catholic cover-up of molestation that had been occurring for decades. As a Jew who was new to town, he wasn’t as awed as the locals by the powerful Boston Archdiocese that was being run with an iron fist by Cardinal Bernard Francis Law (Len Cariou).
The editor gave his approval to the reporters who were responsible for writing the Spotlight section of the paper. The crack team, comprised of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) researched the story for several years.
On January 6, 2002, they began publishing their findings in a series of damning articles that exposed Cardinal Law as an enabler offering protection for priests he knew to be guilty of molesting children. The inquiry unearthed evidence that the archdiocese was aware of about 100 children who’d been assaulted by many different men of the cloth.
However, Church attorneys had repeatedly run interference for the perpetrators by settling claims out of court while requiring the plaintiffs to sign non-disclosure agreements. Consequently, the repeat offenders were free to move around from parish-to-parish, destroying additional youngsters’ lives in the process.
Spotlight is a scathing indictment of the Catholic Church. Though not exactly a feel-good movie, the film nevertheless comes highly recommended for several reasons.
First, it is an important reminder about the importance of investigative reporting. Second, the compelling screenplay unfolds in a gripping fashion that doesn’t resort to describing salacious details. And third, the cast members turn in dynamic performances, especially Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci.
Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexual references, and mature themes. Running time: 128 minutes. Distributor: Open Road Films.
On February 18, 1952, one of the worst nor’easters in history hit New England. The seas off Cape Cod were so severe that two oil tankers, caught in the storm, split in two.
While the SS Fort Mercer was able to issue an urgent S.O.S., the SS Pendleton’s fore section was swallowed too quickly by the ocean for the ship to broadcast a distress call. Their captain went down with the front part of the ship, leaving 34 sailors in the stern with no idea whether the world was even aware of their plight.
Fortunately, a tow truck driver (Matthew Maher) spotted a light from the Pendleton as she was listing off the coast of Chatham, and knew that he had to report it to the authorities immediately. Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), the officer in charge of the local Coast Guard station, didn’t hesitate to order a rescue attempt despite the blizzard’s frigid temperatures and gale force winds.
He called upon Bosun’s Mate Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) who hastily assembled a crew composed of Seamen Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Ervin Maske (John Magaro), and Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner). The team left the harbor aboard a small motorized lifeboat that only seated a dozen people and offered scant protection against the elements.
It would take a yeoman’s effort to reach the sinking Pendleton because the tiny Coast Guard lifeboat encountered waves as high as 70 feet when they reached the open seas. Moreover, Webber had lost his compass when they were swamped by one of the waves.
Meanwhile, the remaining sailors on the Pendleton were doing their best to keep what was left of the ship afloat. With the skipper and his other officers lost in the front half of the tanker, a new leader emerged in Engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), who had nerves of steel and a wealth of naval knowledge.
The veteran sailor took command of the crew, and realized that survival depended upon keeping the electric pumps functioning long enough for them to ground the vessel on a sandbar. Back in Chatham the worried families of the brave Coast Guardsmen, including Bernie’s fiancee Miriam (Holliday Grainger), were waiting to hear news about their loved ones.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm), The Finest Hours is a gripping seafaring adventure reminiscent of The Perfect Storm (2000). It is based on a bestseller that recounts the real-life exploits of unsung heroes who rose to the occasion in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
A visually-captivating and moving depiction of what, to this day, remains the most daring Coast Guard rescue on record.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense peril. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.
For six seasons Dame Maggie Smith has been delighting television viewers as dowager Violet Crawley in the Downton Abbey shows. Younger fans might be unaware that she’s won Oscars twice (for California Suite and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and has had an illustrious career prior to appearing in the hit PBS series.
In The Lady in the Van, she’s been cast as a character who is the opposite of the imperious aristocrat of Downton Abbey. In the film, Margaret Shepherd is a down-and-out homeless woman living in a van that she parks on the street in the Camden Town section of North London.
At the point of departure in the early 70s, we learn that Margaret’s plight is one of her own making. She’s been on the run for five years after leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run car accident.
Although the devout Catholic has confessed the sin to her priest, she could never bring herself to surrender to the authorities. Consequently, she’s forever looking over her shoulder, fearful that her arrest might be imminent.
The plot thickens when she can’t afford to fix her jalopy that is sorely in need of a tune-up. Most of the residents in the upscale neighborhood where the van is sitting would like to see the eyesore towed away.
However, Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) feels compassion for the overwhelmed octagenarian, perhaps because his own mother is about the same age as Margaret. So, against his better judgment, the famous Tony Award winning playwright allows “Miss Shepherd” to park her disabled car in the driveway on the express understanding that the arrangement is temporary.
However, to his dismay, Margaret ends up squatting on his property for the next 15 years. Can the odd pair coexist peacefully?
That is the question at the heart of The Lady in the Van, a heartwarming dramatic comedy inspired by actual events. The film was adapted from Bennett’s 1999 theatrical production of the same name which also starred Maggie Smith.
Smith looks relaxed onscreen in the role she originated onstage, whether cadging for alms or exhibiting pangs of remorse about the accident that caused her problems. Just as effective is Alex Jennings’s interpretation of Bennett as a conflicted soul who is constantly carrying on an inner dialogue with himself.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.
Hugh Glass (1780-1833) was a legendary frontiersman who explored the American West in the early 19th century. His life has been previously portrayed in films by Richard Harris in Man in the Wilderness (1971) and Dewitt Lee in Apache Blood (1975).
Glass’s life story has also been the subject of several books, most recently The Revenant, a story of survival published by Michael Punke in 2002. The bestselling book has been adapted by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who won three Academy Awards for writing, directing, and producing Birdman, 2015’s Best Picture of the Year.
The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio who might finally land the Oscar that has eluded his grasp five times. The movie features him in virtually every scene, and his acting never disappoints. He delivers a compelling performance that keeps you on the edge of your seat as you pull for his character from beginning to end.
At the point of departure we are introduced to Hugh (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), who are guiding a hunting party of fur trappers across the Rockies. Along the way, the expedition is tested at every turn by “Injun” ambushes, animal attacks, frigid weather, and the challenging terrain.
Unfortunately John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a member of the party, is a racist who murders Hawk and leaves his badly wounded father behind to die in the forest. However, instead of perishing, Hugh wills himself to survive, in order to track down his son’s killer.
What ensues is a visually captivating movie portraying Hugh’s determination to exact revenge for the murder of his son. Despite the hurdles he encounters, Hugh remains resolute as he stalks Fitzgerald across the Wyoming wilderness. Credit co-star Tom Hardy for portraying the villain Fitzgerald in a manner that the audience loves to see get his due.
Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, graphic violence, gory images, ethnic slurs, brief nudity, and a rape. In English, French, and Native American dialects with subtitles. Running time: 156 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.
The Force Awakens is a splendid sequel to Return of the Jedi, the 1983 finale of the original Star Wars trilogy.
Episode VII, marks the launch of another trilogy and might be the best of the Star Wars films yet. This is no surprise because it was directed by Spielberg’s protege J.J. Abrams (Super 8), who’d proved himself with his prior successes with the Star Trek and Mission Impossible franchises.
The Force Awakens is an ingenious mix of the old and the new and features the familiar faces of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill, as well as fresh ones; John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver. The same can be said of the adventure’s robotic cast members, with the anthropomorphic android BB-8 joining forces with R2-D2 and C-3PO.
An engaging plot interweaves the old and the new in a way that never feels forced. Credit goes to Abrams for collaborating with three-time Academy Award-nominee Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist and Grand Canyon) and Oscar-winner Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) in writing an engaging script. Amongst the hi-tech battles between good and evil, the story exploits breaks in the action to serve up nostalgia and sentimentality.
It all unfolds a few decades after the events in Return of the Jedi, and opens with the trademark “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” followed by an explanation of what’s transpired since the last movie. At the point of departure, we learn that the New Republic is joining forces with the Resistance to fight the Stormtroopers of the First Order, an intergalactic dictatorship led by the diabolical Snoke (Andy Serkis).
Soon thereafter the protagonists: rebel fighter pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), renegade Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), orphaned scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), and Admiral Han Solo (Ford) are introduced. The good guys have an inexhaustible army of adversaries to vanquish en route to making the universe safe again for freedom and democracy.
The hostilities build to a spectacular light saber battle best appreciated in 3-D and on an IMAX screen. Nevertheless, the movie’s most inspired moments are the scenes like the touching reunion of Solo and Princess Leia (Fisher).
Excellent (****).Rated PG-13 for violence. Running time: 135 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.
In 2002, Will Smith received his first Academy Award nomination for his role in Ali, a riveting biopic about Muhammad Ali directed by Michael Mann. Smith managed to disappear into the role of Muhammad Ali and delivered a brilliant performance as “The Greatest” boxer of all time.
Despite Ali’s being able to “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” the sport subsequently exacted a devastating toll on the champ. Ali developed a host of neurological disorders as a consequence of taking so many hits to the head.
While fans call it being “punch drunk,” the clinical term for the condition is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Ironically, Will Smith may receive another Oscar nomination for Concussion, a picture in which he plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian born physician who discovered the link between football and brain damage when he was a forensic pathologist in Pennsylvania.
Omalu first recognized something was amiss while performing an autopsy on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ former center Mike Webster (David Morse), who died at 50 while suffering from a combination of amnesia, depression, and dementia. Dr. Omalu was shocked to observe that, as a result of CTE, the Hall of Famer had the brain of a
very old man, so he decided to posthumously examine the brains of other National Football League veterans who had also died prematurely.
Lo and behold, the research revealed that they all had suffered from CTE, presumably as a result of the pounding their skulls had received on the field. Unfortunately, when Omalu tried to go public with his findings, he was threatened and discredited by an army of lawyers and doctors hired by Commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) to protect the NFL’s image.
Concussion is reminiscent of The Insider (1999), an exposé recounting the ordeal of the whistleblower who took on the tobacco industry when it was denying any link between smoking and cancer.
The movie was directed by Peter Landesman (Parkland). He adapted it to the screen with the help of investigative journalist Jeanne Marie Laksas from an article titled “Game Brain” that she had written about the attempted cover-up in the October 2009 issue of GQ magazine.
Landesman surrounded Smith with a talented cast, starting with the gifted Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Omalu’s feisty wife Prema. The cast also includes Oscar nominees Alec Baldwin (The Cooler) and Albert Brooks (Broadcast News); and Hill Harper, Richard T. Jones, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Eddie Marsan.
Concussion is a marvelous Will Smith vehicle, one that he just may drive all the way to the Oscars on Sunday, February 28th.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, and disturbing images. Running time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures
THIS IS OUR BIG CHANCE TO REALLY CLEAN UP: Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is discussing, with his three fellow investors, the results of his analysis of the stock market that is predicting the upcoming burst of the real estate bubble and is strategizing ways that they can make money when the bubble bursts. (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk – © 2015 Paramount Pictures)
Michael Lewis’s The Big Short was an eye-opening best seller describing the actions of four Wall Street analysts (played by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt) who correctly foresaw the global financial crisis of 2008. They made a lot of money by investing in Credit Default Swaps (CDS) in anticipation of the collapse of the market in Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO).
In layman’s terms, they bet that the real estate bubble would burst because of the easy money that was being lent to unqualified borrowers via subprime mortgages. The banks didn’t mind making the so-called NINJA loans (No Income/No Job) since they would quickly sell the worthless mortgages to unsuspecting investors as soon as the deals were completed.
Despite many decent performances from the cast members, the screen version of The Big Short fails to do justice to the source material. The movie is Adam McKay’s first time directing a dramatic film. The veteran writer/director has a successful career in films that are comedies, with movies that include Anchorman (2004), Talladega Nights (2006), Step Brothers (2008) and The Other Guys (2010), The Campaign (2012), Anchorman 2 (2013) and Get Hard (2015).
The film suffers from a few glaring flaws. The first is that the names of all the key players have been changed. Since this is based on a true story, resorting to fictional characters lessens the intensity of a story that could’ve been more compelling.
The movie is further trivialized by a failure to commit fully to the dramatic importance of the serious subject matter. After all, since no one has been held responsible for the crash, many people are still angry about the billion dollar bailout of Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.
Equally annoying are several celebrity cameos by chef Anthony Bourdain, Australian actress Margot Robbie, and pop diva Selena Gomez. During distracting, fourth-wall breaking appearances, they face the camera to explain the meaning of derivatives and other arcane financial instruments. Apparently, McKay included these interludes to make his script more accessible.
The movie is a disappointingly dry lecture in finance that squanders the services of an A-list cast that has Academy Award-winners Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, and Christian Bale, and nominees Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell.
Fair (*½). Rated R for nudity, sexuality, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 130 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
SHOULD I OR SHOULDN’T I?: While vacationing in the Swiss Alps, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, left) ponders his decision with his best friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Fred has been offered a knighthood in exchange for conducting his most popular composition at a birthday party for Prince Phillip. However, Fred wants to refuse the offer in order to reflect on his mortality and mend his relationship with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz, not shown). (Photo by Gianni Fiorito© 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)
Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) has chosen to withdraw from the limelight after a successful career as a celebrated composer and conductor. He’s presently staying at a scenic spa in the Swiss Alps where he’s vacationing with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and his his best friend, filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel).
Well into their 70s, Mick is working on the script for his next movie with the help of five young collaborators. It turns out that Mick’ss son Julian (Ed Stoppard) is married to Lena, who has just been dumped by him in favor of a British pop singer (Paloma Faith, who plays herself).
While reminiscing with Boyle and soothing his daughter’s fragile psyche, Fred gets a surprising request to come out of retirement by an emissary (Alex Macqueen) from the Royal Family. Queen Elizabeth II is offering Fred a knighthood in exchange for conducting his most popular piece, Simple Songs, at Prince Philip’s impending birthday concert.
However, Fred decides to decline the command performance that comes with the honorary title. He has shed any desire to perform in public and instead prefers to meditate on his mortality and devote his time to give Lena the attention he denied her as a child. We learn that she still hasn’t forgiven him for focusing so selfishly on classical music during her formative years.
Thus unfolds Youth, a surreal mix of heartfelt introspection and escapist fantasy reminiscent of Federico Fellini. The movie was written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) who juxtaposes a variety of jarring images in the movie that are certain to leave a lasting impression, even if you’re not quite sure what to make of the visually captivating scenes.
Caine and Keitel are at their best, albeit in an inscrutable adventure that deliberately does its best to defy definition.
Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and graphic nudity. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
When most people think of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), what automatically comes to mind is the image of a gutsy underdog who holds his own in the boxing ring against a variety of imposing adversaries. Each installment of the series has been about the buildup leading to a riveting championship bout between the underdog and a world champion.
Directed by Ryan Coogler, Creed is a spin-off that pays homage to that tried-and-true formula but also departs from the series’ successful formula. The change is that this film devotes attention to character development in addition to ratcheting up the tension leading to the showdown bout.
The picture reunites Coogler with Michael B. Jordan, who starred in his directorial debut, the critically acclaimed Frutivale Station. In Creed, Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, a juvenile delinquent who’s had several scrapes with the law because of his quick temper and a tendency to settle arguments with his powerful fists.
Just past the point of departure, the hot-headed Adonis is informed by Apollo Creed’s (Carl Weathers) widow (Phylicia Rashad) that he is the illegitimate son of Rocky’s original opponent.
Fast-forward a few years, where we learn that Adonis has learned to channel his anger and explosive might by becoming a boxer. Over the objections of his adoptive mother (Mrs. Creed) he decides to follow in his father’s footsteps.
He moves to Philadelphia to find Rocky who is now running a restaurant called Adrian’s. Adonis prevails upon the ex-champ to serve as his trainer. Rocky agrees on condition that he change his surname to Creed. Soon Adonis rises in the ranks to become the number 1 contender and lands a title fight with Pretty Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellow).
In addition, Adonis falls in love with his next-door neighbor, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an aspiring hip-hop artist who is on the verge of success. Away from the gym, he also spends time with Rocky, and even gives him some heartfelt advice that just might save his aging mentor’s life.
This engaging seventh episode can rightfully claim to be a highly recommended spin-off of the legendary series.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, and sensuality. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.
Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) and Rose Lacey (Fiona Glascott) have stayed in their family’s home because their widowed mother (Jane Brennan) is still grieving the loss of their late father. The devoted daughters have had to put their dreams on hold, since job prospects aren’t great for young women without higher education in tiny Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland.
Although Eilis has exhibited an affinity for math, she settles for a part time job as a clerk at a grocery store where she works under the thumb of a vindictive shrew (Brid Brennan). The time is the early 50s, when an ambitious local young woman might set her sights on America, the land of opportunity with hopefully a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Salvation arrives when Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), a Catholic priest, is willing to sponsor Eilis’s emigration to the United States. She reluctantly agrees because she knows that the entire burden of caring for their mother will now fall on her sister’s shoulders. However, after an exchange of tearful goodbyes, she boards the New York-bound steamship and goes to her bunk in steerage for a seasick plagued voyage to America.
Eilis finds a room in Brooklyn in a female-only boardinghouse run by an eagle-eyed landlady (Julie Walters) who is obsessed with protecting the reputations of the young Irish immigrants under her supervision. Eilis gets a job at a department store and tuition money to study bookkeeping at college.
While grateful for all this generous help, Eilis still misses her mother and sister terribly. So much so that she seriously considers going back to Ireland, although Father Flood assures her that the homesickness will eventually pass.
Everything changes the night she meets handsome Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) at a dance. The two fall in love and embark on a romance that enables Eilis to make the adjustment to life in the States.
However, just when she’s ready to decide to stay in America, fate intervenes when a tragedy occurs that demands her immediate return to Ireland. Of course, when she is back in Enniscorthy, Eilis is pursued by a wealthy bachelor (Domnhall Gleason).
Which suitor will she choose? The answer to that question arrives at a moment of truth in Brooklyn, a touching historical drama directed by John Crowley (Closed Circuit). Based on Colm Toibin’s best seller of the same name, the film features an elegantly understated performance by Saoirse Ronan that is likely to land the 21-year-old ingenue her second Oscar nomination.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for brief profanity and a sex scene. Running time: 111 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
In 2002, Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada, a candidate for the presidency of Bolivia, was floundering in the polls with just a few months to go to election day. Since the desperate multimillionaire had been raised in the United States, he knew how a political consulting firm could influence the outcome of an election.
So, he retained the services of James Carville, who had successfully orchestrated Bill Clinton’s presidential bid in 1992, and Carville came to Bolivia with a team of media-savvy strategists.
Still, repositioning Goni would be difficult, since he was an unpopular ex-president who had been exposed as a pro-American, pro-globalization puppet controlled by powerful corporate interests. Carville and company’s only hope rested in employing smear tactics against the other two favorites in the race: a socialist and a capitalist.
Ultimately, the carpetbaggers prevailed, and that incredible feat was chronicled by Our Brand Is Crisis (2005), a documentary that showed how easy it was for money to corrupt the democratic process with the help of a team from Madison Avenue. The picture also questioned the wisdom of fixing foreign elections in this fashion, since bloody civil unrest subsequently arose in Bolivia, which forced Goni to flee the country for asylum in the U.S. a year later.
Directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), Our Brand Is Crisis 2.0 is a sanitized version of the above described events. Names have been changed and characters have been conflated and added to make the intervention almost appear benign.
Here, courtesy of revisionist history, the socialist (Louis Arcella) and capitalist (Joaquim de Almeida) candidates both rely on assistance from two American PR firms led by Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock), respectively. The entertaining adventure pits a flirtatious and crafty mercenary against an idealistic ex-alcoholic in a battle of wits marked by deception and dirty tricks.
Instead of making a pure political thriller, director Green has cut the tension with moments of levity and sexual innuendo. As a result, the movie works very well as formulaic Hollywood fare.
The movie is a light-hearted primer in how to mount a smear campaign that manipulates a banana republic to vote against its own self-interest.
Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity and sexual references. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.
Nowadays, most women take for granted the fact that they can vote. Nevertheless, they owe a big debt of gratitude to the mostly unsung suffragettes who made great sacrifices for decades before securing that hard-fought right.
In the United States, women got the vote in 1919 when the 19th amendment to the constitution was adopted. The year before, England granted the franchise to females over 30 who were either landowners, college graduates, or married to a politician. However, a decade later, it was extended to all British citizens over 21 on an equal basis.
Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane), Suffragette is a moving documentary drama set in London during the critical period leading up to the Parliament’s passage of the Representation of the People Act of 1918. The film is a substantially fictionalized version of events, since only two of the characters here were real life heroines, namely, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913), portrayed by Meryl Streep and Natalie Press, respectively.
Streep merely makes a cameo appearance as Pankhurst, a pioneer who plays an inspirational role in the movement. Still, she may earn her 20th Oscar nomination because she delivers yet another sterling performance. The picture’s other historical figure, Davison, was a fiery activist who was periodically imprisoned for advocating arson, stone throwing, and other violent tactics in her zealous pursuit of the right to vote.
The movie is about Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a protagonist who is a creation of scriptwriter Abi Morgan’s (The Iron Lady) imagination. Initially, she’s portrayed as a fed up steam laundry employee who desires to improve women’s lot in the workplace in the areas of wages, sexual harassment, and safe working conditions.
In many respects, Maud’s persona is reminiscent of Norma Rae (1979), the feisty union organizer played by Sally Field. Suffragette is a poignant reminder of just how far women have come over the past century. Oh, and yes, the very capable Carey Mulligan is likely to be remembered come awards season, too.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence, mature themes, brief profanity, and partial nudity. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.
Launched by Robert Lawrence Stine in 1992, Goosebumps is a popular series of spooky stories that are carefully crafted to scare 7- to 12-year-olds. The so-called Stephen King of kiddie literature has published hundreds of titles over the years and has sold about a half-billion books worldwide.
Directed by Rob Letterman, the film stars Jack Black as R. L. Stine, (the author he’s portraying makes a cameo appearance during a mob scene). Letterman and Black also collaborated in 2010 on a poorly received remake of Gulliver’s Travels.
At the point of departure, we find teenager Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) and his recently widowed mother (Amy Ryan) grieving their loss and in need of a change of scenery, so they move to Madison, Delaware. Their next-door neighbor, Mr. Stine (Black), is a reclusive grouch who warns the boy to keep off his property and stay away from his home-schooled daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush). However, it’s love at first sight for Zach, who is instantly attracted to her.
On his first day of classes at Madison High, Zach becomes friends with a loner named Champ (Ryan Lee). After school, the pair’s curiosity gets the better of them, and they decide to see what’s happening at the Stine’s house.
After entering the house, they rummage through the author’s mysterious manuscripts that are hidden in the basement, but they don’t realize that they have just unleashed an army of monsters. They’re all characters from Mr. Stine’s fertile imagination: a giant praying mantis, the abominable snowman, the werewolf, lawn gnomes, zombies, venus fly traps, the invisible boy, and so on.
What’s more, the zombies are controlled by a diabolical dummy who wants to wreak mayhem in Madison, and possibly go on to rule the world. Can the creatures be corralled and safely redeposited between the covers of the author’s journal? Can Zach win the heart of Hannah in spite of the objections of her overprotective father? The movie is a family-friendly adventure that provides a perfect blend of light hearted humor and spine tingling fright that will scare and delight children of all ages.
Excellent (****). Rated PG for scary images, intense action, and rude humor. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.
Twenty-nine-year-old Ravi Patel’s parents, Champa and Vasant, are Indian immigrants living in America who have begun pressuring Ravi to find a wife in accordance with their traditional courting customs. That means that they would initiate a process that would only consider a woman from the same caste as theirs, and preferably someone who already shares the family’s surname.
However, Ravi, who was born and raised in the United States, had little interest in choosing a mate in such a limited fashion, especially since he’s been secretly dating Audrey (who is not from India) for the past few years and he has fallen in love with her. Nevertheless, he decided to allow his parents to play matchmakers, but also arranged for his big sister Geeta to film the family’s comical attempts to find Ms. Right through a series of carefully arranged introductions.
Can an American college graduate agree to an arranged marriage when it’s time to settle down? That is the question posed by Meet the Patels, a delightful documentary that is co-directed by Ravi and Geeta.
The picture is hilarious, thanks to Champa and Vasant’s well-intentioned but overbearing style of parenting. It is clear that they want the best for their son, even if their concerns reflect values that Ravi believes in.
They escort Ravi to India to attend a Patel matrimonial convention where he speed-dates a number of eligible women. When he fails to make a connection with any of them, the family returns to California where there is a much smaller pool of appropriate potential wives to choose from.
“We’re paying the price, culturally, for moving to the U.S.,” his mother moans when her son rejects an overweight engineer she found for him at an online website. Meanwhile, comments from relatives like, “I need a marriage this year; I might die soon,” only serve to ratchet up the tension. Meanwhile, Audrey is patiently waiting in the wings and reminds Ravi that, “I have an interest in being your partner.”
Ravi’s difficult decision ultimately rests on whether ethnicity matters more to him than compatibility in the selection of a mate.
Excellent (****). Rated PG for mature themes, suggestive images, and smoking. In English and Gurjarati with subtitles. Running time: 88 minutes. Distributor: Alchemy.
MacGyver was a TV series about a character who was famous for using his scientific knowledge to use everyday household items in order to survive in a variety of life-and-death situations. The Martian is an outer space adventure in which a stranded astronaut, with an uncanny knack for improvisation, uses a similar approach to survive on Mars.
The picture stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a wounded botanist who was mistakenly presumed dead and left behind by his fellow crew members in the wake of a dangerous dust storm on Mars. However, he is actually very much alive, but doesn’t have enough oxygen, water, food, equipment, and other resources necessary to last the four years it will take for NASA to rescue him.
Undaunted, resourceful Mark proceeds, among many other things, to perform surgery on himself and grow potatoes in a makeshift garden that is fertilized using his own waste products. And, like an intergalactic variation on Tom Hanks’s role in Cast Away, Matt Damon appears alone on the screen for most of the movie.
The great news is that Damon is captivating, and the 141 minutes running time flies by in a flash. Besides captivating us with his ingenious inventions, Matt repeatedly makes us laugh with his many humorous asides.
Directed by three-time Oscar-nominee Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down), The Martian has all the tension of the movie Gravity. In addition, its visual effects are the equal of Interstellar.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, injury images, and brief profanity. Running time: 141 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.