February 6, 2014
THESE ITEMS ARE PRICELESS: Two of the seven experts who were chosen to retrieve the art objects that were plundered by the Nazis during World War II are shown examining one of their finds. James Granger (Matt Damon, left) and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchettt) carefully examine some documents in the hope that it will reveal more clues about where other stolen art objects have been hidden.

THESE ITEMS ARE PRICELESS: Two of the seven experts who were chosen to retrieve the art objects that were plundered by the Nazis during World War II are shown examining one of their finds. James Granger (Matt Damon, left) and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchettt) carefully examine some documents in the hope that it will reveal more clues about where other stolen art objects have been hidden.

Most people are probably unaware that while Hitler’s army were sweeping across Europe during World War II, he had also directed his army to sieze any priceless works of art found in the course of its pillaging. The cultural rape of Europe was part of the Führer’s diabolical plan which not only included conquest and ethnic cleansing, but also turning his Austrian hometown into the cultural capital of the Third Reich.

Consequently, millions of artifacts were looted from museums, churches, and private collections and transported to subterranean sites such as salt mines where they’d be safe from aerial attacks. In addition, the scheme also called for the destruction of any treasures he deemed degenerate if they conflicted with his propaganda campaign that promoted Germany’s racial purity and manifest destiny.

So, towards the end of the war, when the Allies realized what was afoot, they assembled a team of curators, archivists, and art historians whose mission was to retrieve and preserve as many of the stolen items as possible. With time of the essence, the seven experts started scouring the ravaged countryside in search of missing masterpieces.

That effort is the subject of The Monuments Men, a bittersweet adventure directed by George Clooney. The movie of the platoon’s heroics is loosely based on Robert Edsel’s best seller of the same name — a meticulously researched, 512-page opus that is encyclopedic.

The film adaptation understandably conflates events and characters as a concession to the Hollywood cinematic formula. Clooney, who stars as Frank Stokes, surrounded himself with a talented cast that is capable of convincingly executing with perfect aplomb a script which veers back and forth between suspense and gallows humor.

The cast features Academy Award winners Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting), Cate Blanchett (The Aviator), and Jean Dujardin (The Artist); and nominees Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), and Bob Balaban (Gosford Park), as well as John Goodman and Hugh Bonneville.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence and smoking. In English, French, German, and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

 

January 29, 2014
WE’RE OFF TO FIND QUEEN ELSA AND PUT AN END TO THIS ETERNAL WINTER: Our three intrepid heroes: Ana (Kristin Bell, left), the snowman (Josh Gad, center), and the Mountain Man (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer, set out to find Ana’s elder sister, Queen Elsa, who put her country Arendelle into an state of eternal winter just before she disappeared. They hope to find the missing queen and persuade her to remove the enchanted winter spell from Arendelle.

WE’RE OFF TO FIND QUEEN ELSA AND PUT AN END TO THIS ETERNAL WINTER: Our three intrepid heroes: Ana (Kristin Bell, left), the snowman (Josh Gad, center), and the Mountain Man (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer, set out to find Ana’s elder sister, Queen Elsa, who put her country Arendelle into an state of eternal winter just before she disappeared. They hope to find the missing queen and persuade her to remove the enchanted winter spell from Arendelle.

Given the toll the polar vortex has been exacting on the continental U.S. lately, plenty of people can relate to the frigid predicament of the people living in the fictional kingdom of Arendelle. Disney’s Frozen is an animated adventure loosely based on “The Snow Queen,” a classic Hans Christian Andersen fairytale first published in 1845.

This delightful musical stars Kristen Bell as the voice of Anna, the young princess who takes it upon herself to save the day after her sister, recently-crowned Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), plunges Arendelle into a permanent winter before disappearing. It turns out that Elsa was born with the power to freeze things in an instant.

Complicating matters is the fact that Elsa, who became queen after her parents died, had just forbidden her sister from marrying Prince Hans (Santino Fontana). So Anna, accompanied by an anthropomorphic snowman (Josh Gad) and a rugged mountain man (Jonathan Groff) with his trusty reindeer, embark on an epic journey to find Queen Elsa with hopes of reversing the curse and reconciling the two sisters’ differences.

En route, Anna and her companions are afforded ample opportunities to belt out a tune and survive numerous perilous situations. The enchanting movie is memorable for its pleasant luminescence, catchy soundtrack (including the Best Song Oscar nominated “Let It Go”), and its unpredictable resolution.

Frozen puts a novel spin on the hackneyed nursery rhyme plotline that has the prince arriving in the nick of time to save the damsel-in-distress. Instead, the film is a touching tale of sisterhood with the message that blood is thicker than an ill-advised crush.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for action and mild rude humor. Running time: 102 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

—Kam Williams

 
January 22, 2014
WE’VE GOT TO GET OUT OF THIS ALIVE: Marcus Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg) is one of a team of four SEALS who were caught in an ambush in Afghanistan. The unfortunate unit, who were on their way to locate a Taliban leader in a nearby village, was surrounded by over 100 Taliban fighters after their presence in the area was reported by seemingly innocuous shepherds. As the title of the film suggests, only Lutrell survived the ordeal and later wrote a memoir about the incident.

WE’VE GOT TO GET OUT OF THIS ALIVE: Marcus Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg) is one of a team of four SEALS who were caught in an ambush in Afghanistan. The unfortunate unit, who were on their way to locate a Taliban leader in a nearby village, was surrounded by over 100 Taliban fighters after their presence in the area was reported by seemingly innocuous shepherds. As the title of the film suggests, only Lutrell survived the ordeal and later wrote a memoir about the incident.

On June 28, 2005, a team of four Navy SEALs based in Afghanistan were issued orders in accordance with Operation Red Wings to locate and terminate a Taliban leader whose militia had been targeting coalition troops in the Kush Mountains of Kunar Province. The four were dropped by helicopter line into rugged terrain outside the tiny village that was suspected of harboring al-qaeida sympathizers.

Soon the soldiers encountered several shepherds and, against their better judgment, allowed the seemingly innocuous civilians to continue on their way in accordance with the U.S. military’s rules of engagement. Unfortunately, about an hour later, the SEALs found themselves ambushed by over a hundred Taliban fighters who had apparently been tipped off as to their whereabouts.

The ensuing battle is the subject of Lone Survivor, a gruesome war film based on Marcus Luttrell’s (Mark Wahlberg) memoir of the harrowing ordeal. Adapted and directed by Peter Berg (Battleship), the picture is reminiscent of Black Hawk Down, that was another film about an American, overseas helicopter operation gone bad.

Given the movie’s title, there isn’t any suspense about how the disastrous misadventure ends. Consequently, the movie amounts to little more than watching members of Luttrell’s unit — and over a dozen of the reinforcements sent to try to rescue them, perish — as well.

Good (**). Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive profanity. Running time: 121 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

—Kam Williams

 
January 15, 2014
HOW CAN WE GET THESE CROOKED CONGRESSMEN TO INCRIMINATE THEMSELVES?: Flamboyant FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, left) confers with small time con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) about how to entice the seven corrupt politicians to allow themselves be bribed by FBI agents disguised as wealthy Arab sheiks.

HOW CAN WE GET THESE CROOKED CONGRESSMEN TO INCRIMINATE THEMSELVES?: Flamboyant FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper, left) confers with small time con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) about how to entice the seven corrupt politicians to allow themselves be bribed by FBI agents disguised as wealthy Arab sheiks.

In the late 70s six U.S. Congressional House Representatives  and a United States Senator were caught on camera taking bribes from FBI agents who were posing as wealthy Arab sheiks. The elaborate sting in which the disgraced Congressmen became ensnared was code named Abscam, a contraction of Arab Scam.

American Hustle is a fictionalized account of that embarrassing chapter in the nation’s history. Set in New York and New Jersey in the Disco Music era, the film was written and directed by David O. Russell, who has been blessed with the golden touch in Hollywood in recent years.

His earlier movie Silver Linings Playbook received eight Academy Award nominations, including 2013’s Best Actress Oscar for Jennifer Lawrence. That picture arrived close on the heels of The Fighter, which had earned seven Oscar nominations which included trophies for both Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in acting categories.

In this film, Russell has produced another engaging and entertaining production featuring a plethora of powerful performances. The movie co-stars Christian Bale as con artist Irving Rosenfeld and Amy Adams as his mischievous British mistress, Sydney. They play a pair of small-time crooks who help the Feds catch bigger fish in exchange for avoiding prosecution.

Reluctantly, they cooperate with Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a flamboyant and ambitious FBI agent who draws attention to himself by curling his straight hair and wearing trendy clothes. Sydney flirts with the fashionable G-man, feeling little loyalty towards her partner Irving, who’s dragging his feet about filing for a divorce from his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

But when Rosalyn realizes that her husband has been cheating, she decides to get even by seducing a shady character (Jack Huston) who, unbeknownst to her, is under government surveillance. Generating great hilarity, these tawdry love triangles escalate into attention-grabbing distractions that threaten to ruin the FBI’s covert operation.

Meanwhile, the naive Mayor of Camden (Jeremy Renner) is being manipulated by Irving to introduce a notorious mob boss (Robert De Niro), as well as the aforementioned corrupt politicians, to Sheik Abdullah (Michael Pena). However, the FBI looks more like the Keystone Cops when the agent trying to pass as an Arab can’t even speak his native language.

Who knows whether any of these ridiculous incidents shown here ever actually transpired? But you don’t really worry about the truth when the laughs just keep coming and the witty repartee remains so inspired.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, pervasive profanity, and brief violence. Running time: 138 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

January 8, 2014
O MAMA, DADDY WILL COME HOME SOON, YOU’LL SEE: Barbara (Julia Roberts, top) tries to console her mother Violet (Meryl Streep). Barbara and her two sisters Ivy and Karen (not shown) all returned home to be with their mother when they heard that their father had suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared.

O MAMA, DADDY WILL COME HOME SOON, YOU’LL SEE: Barbara (Julia Roberts, top) tries to console her mother Violet (Meryl Streep). Barbara and her two sisters Ivy and Karen (not shown) all returned home to be with their mother when they heard that their father had suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared.

In 2008, the play August: Osage County not only won a Pulitzer Prize, but it also received five Tony Awards, including Best Play. However, the screen version of Tracy Letts’ haunting story about a dysfunctional Oklahoma family is unlikely to be as well-received because of the story’s morose plot. Who goes to the movies to get depressed? 

Nevertheless, the picture has a stellar cast headed by Meryl Streep, who turns in an Oscar-quality performance as Violet, the substance-abusing, cancer-stricken matriarch of the Weston clan.

The film is about Violet’s three daughters, who come home when they hear about their suicidal father’s (Sam Shepard) sudden disappearance. As the action unfolds, we find each daughter involved in a bizarre relationship.

The eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives from Colorado with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), a philandering college professor who is dating one of his students, and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Jean is a sullen drug addict who is upset about the state of her parents’ disintegrating marriage.

The youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis), arrives with her fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a successful businessman who is also a pedophile. Meanwhile, the middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), is having an incestuous affair with her first cousin, Charlie, Jr. (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), is a shrew who openly abuses both her son and her husband. She has a humdinger of a skeleton hidden in her closet that just might trump everybody else’s shocking situations.

A movie with so many sensational storylines certainly lends itself to melodrama, which is an accurate description of August: Osage County. The film often feels more like an adaptation of a dime-store romance novel than a film version of an award-winning Broadway production.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, sexual references, and drug use. Running time: 121 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company

 

January 2, 2014
WHEN A ROCK MEETS A HARD PLACE: Gregarious and sociable Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, left) takes a sceptical and reluctant P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to Disney World in an effort to obtain the movie rights to one of the “Mary Poppins” books that Travers had written. Travers does her best to thwart Disney’s efforts to woo her, however, the irrepressible Disney prevails in the end and she signs over the right to the book.

WHEN A ROCK MEETS A HARD PLACE: Gregarious and sociable Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, left) takes a sceptical and reluctant P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to Disney World in an effort to obtain the movie rights to one of the “Mary Poppins” books that Travers had written. Travers does her best to thwart Disney’s efforts to woo her, however, the irrepressible Disney prevails in the end and she signs over the right to the book.

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) was the pen name of Helen Lyndon Goff (1899-1996), the creator of the children’s classic series of Mary Poppins books. When his daughters were young, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) promised to turn their favorite book into a movie, since they were so enchanted by the British nanny with magical powers.

Little did he know that the effort to secure the film rights would drag on for 20 years due to the uncompromising author’s inflexibility and insistence that any adaptation remain faithful to the source material. The protracted courting process finally proved fruitful in 1961, when Walt wined and dined the reluctant writer at his Hollywood studio and made an elaborate sales pitch to turn the story into a musical.

He succeeded in wooing Travers with the assistance of the screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and songwriting team (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), and the deferential chauffeur (Paul Giamatti), assigned to drive her around during her stay, would also play a pivotal role.

That productive two-week visit is revisited in Saving Mr. Banks, a dramatization directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side). The picture’s title is a reference to Mary Poppins’ employer George Banks, who was among the many characters Travers was trying to protect.

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson portray their roles in such a convincing fashion that a period piece about a contract negotiation actually proves entertaining. Hanks pours on the folksy charm impersonating the legendary Disney opposite the chameleon-like Travers who requires time to soften from being skeptical to enthusiastic about the proposed project.

Although Saving Mr. Banks waxes sentimental and ends on an upbeat note, a Mary Poppins sequel was not to be, despite the fact that the original won five Academy Awards. Travers and Disney had such a big falling out prior to the picture’s release that she wasn’t even invited to the premiere.

Furthermore, she was so enraged about her book’s mistreatment at the hands of the studio that she went to her grave refusing to turn over the rights for another adaptation, and even wrote that refusal into her will. However, the truth does not get in the way of a syrupy movie with a stock, “happily ever after” ending.

To paraphrase Mary Poppins, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps revisionist history go down in a most delightful way.”

Excellent (***½) Rated PG-13 for mature themes and unsettling images. Running time: 125 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

 

December 26, 2013
WE’RE ON THE WAY TO FIND MY SON: Philomena (Judi Dench, left) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) are riding on an electric cart in the airport on their way from Great Britain to America. Investigative journalist Sixsmith has found out that Philomena’s illegitimate son Anthony had been adopted at the age of three by a family from the United States.

WE’RE ON THE WAY TO FIND MY SON: Philomena (Judi Dench, left) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) are riding on an electric cart in the airport on their way from Great Britain to America. Investigative journalist Sixsmith has found out that Philomena’s illegitimate son Anthony had been adopted at the age of three by a family from the United States.

Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench) made a big mistake as a teenager. She had sex with a boy (D.J. McGrath) whom she had just met at a carnival and became pregnant, which was a serious issue in Ireland in 1952. 

To avoid disgracing her family with the shame of having an illegitimate child, she was sent to a convent that cared for young women in her situation. When she arrived, she was forced to sign a document relinquishing her parental rights and promising to never ask to see her son after he was adopted.

Three years after he was born and raised in the convent by the nuns — where he would spend about an hour a day with his mother — he was adopted by a wealthy family from the United States and taken away without being allowed to say good bye to his mother.

Meanwhile, Philomena remained at the abbey where she continued to work until she had paid off her debt to the convent for the costs incurred in having the baby. She eventually left the convent and became a nurse, however, she remained forever haunted by the absence of her son, whom she had named Anthony.

50 years after Anthony’s birth, Philomena wanted desperately to learn about his fate. So, she enlisted the help of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a recently-disgraced investigative journalist who agreed to help her look for her son. After being denied access to any of the convent’s adoption records, Martin found out that Anthony had been taken to America.

Directed by two-time Oscar-nominee Stephen Frears (The Queen and The Grifters), Philomena is a true tale based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Sixsmith’s account of their search for the missing son. Dame Judi Dench gives an inspired performance as a wayward woman from a humble background who summons up the strength to search for her son and confront the former Mother Superior (Barbara Jefford)  of the convent when Anthony was born and taken away from Philomena.

A poignant description of motherhood and a searing indictment of the Catholic Church’s attitude, at that time, about what were the best interests of an illegitimate child.

Excellent (****). Rated  PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, and sexual references. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

December 18, 2013
I’VE STRUCK IT RICH!: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) holds the letter in his hand that he’s convinced has informed that he has won a million dollar grand prize in a sweepstakes drawing. In spite of his family’s attempts to eplain to him that he is mistaken, Woody sets out on a trip to Omaha, Nebraska to claim his prize.

I’VE STRUCK IT RICH!: Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) holds the letter in his hand that he’s convinced has informed that he has won a million dollar grand prize in a sweepstakes drawing. In spite of his family’s attempts to eplain to him that he is mistaken, Woody sets out on a trip to Omaha, Nebraska to claim his prize.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a 77-year-old addlepated alcoholic whose brain is so damaged that he’s convinced that he’s struck it rich after getting a mass-mailed letter announcing that the recipient may have won a million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes. As a result, he sets out, alone and on foot, from Billings, Montana to collect his grand prize in Omaha, Nebraska.

Once it’s clear that the cantankerous curmudgeon can’t be talked out of his foolhardy endeavor, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) decides to drive his father there. This doesn’t sit well with Woody’s acid-tongued wife, Kate (June Squibb), who doesn’t want to waste her time indulging the old coot’s nonsense.

However, in spite of the futility of the quest, the pair’s ensuing trip across four states does prove fruitful. Not only does it afford father and son a chance to spend some time together, they also get to reconnect with long-lost friends and relatives whom they visit along the way.

Eventually, Kate and their elder son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), join them en route, and the long trip becomes a family affair. However, it’s hard for them to forget that the outing has been initiated by a fraudulent marketing scheme.

Still, sometimes getting there is all the fun, as is the case with Nebraska — a nostalgic road trip that unfolds against the barren backdrop of the heartland’s crumbling infrastructure. The film was directed by two-time Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (for writing Sideways and The Descendants) whose decision to shoot the picture in black-and-white was a stroke of genius.

The lack of color emphasizes the absence of hope in a rural region that has been devastated by the failure of its factories, farms, and subsequent deterioration of life in small towns. It’s no wonder, then, that some of the poor souls the Grants encounter along the way seize upon Woody’s pipe dream as a way of alleviating their own misery.

Bruce Dern’s performance is destined to be remembered during awards season. Nebraska is a lighthearted character study which, ironically, offers a cold sober look at the downsizing of America’s midwest.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

 

December 11, 2013

Nelson “Madiba” Mandela (Idris Elba) secretly started writing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom while still serving what he had every reason to believe would be a life

IF FIGHTING FOR THE END OF APARTHEID IS TREASON, THEN FIND ME GUILTY: Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba, center in focus) was tried and convicted for treason for attempting to break the rule of apartheid that was imposed on the black population of South Africa. While he was imprisoned, his cause was taken up by groups all over the world, and after 27 years in prison, Mandela was pardoned and then became the first black president of the country.

IF FIGHTING FOR THE END OF APARTHEID IS TREASON, THEN FIND ME GUILTY: Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba, center in focus) was tried and convicted for treason for attempting to break the rule of apartheid that was imposed on the black population of South Africa. While he was imprisoned, his cause was taken up by groups all over the world, and after 27 years in prison, Mandela was pardoned and then became the first black president of the country.

sentence on Robben Island. The lawyer-turned-spokesman for the outlawed African National Congress had been convicted of treason for trying to dismantle South Africa’s racist regime.

However, he was freed, after 27 years, when a bloody civil war was on the brink of bringing an end to apartheid. At that point, Mandela assured the apprehensive white minority that despite the fact that, “Fear has made you an unjust and brutal people, when we come to power, there will be no revenge.”

Soon thereafter, he was democratically elected to be the nation’s first black president, and assumed the reins of power in 1994. And that transition to majority rule proved to be smooth — helped by pardons for crimes against humanity that were granted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to guilty parties from both sides of the conflict.

Directed by Justin Chadwick, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a biopic chronicling the rise, incarceration, and ultimate redemption of the recently-deceased Nelson Mandela. Versatile British actor Idris Elba exhibits the requisite combination of outrage, dignity, empathy, and steely resolve needed to portray the late leader convincingly.

However, since Mandela is behind bars for most of the movie, much of the action revolves around his wife Winnie’s (Naomie Harris) efforts to raise their children while spearheading the anti-apartheid movement in her husband’s absence. Sadly, the decades-long separation eventually took a toll on their marriage.

This film easily surpasses a biopic covering the same subject called Winnie Mandela, that was released just a couple of months ago. That disappointing movie, co-starring Terence Howard and Jennifer Hudson as Nelson and Winnie, was marred by the protagonists’ atrocious accents as well as a disappointing script.

In contrast, this adaptation of Madiba’s autobiography does justice to his legacy as a freedom fighter and his role as a unifying figure for all of South Africa.

Excellent (****). PG-13 for sexuality, intense violence, disturbing images, and brief profanity. In English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa with subtitles. Running time: 146 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

December 4, 2013
HEY BRO, YOU BETTER SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT: Frustrated older brother Russel Blaze (Christian Bale, left) is desperately trying to help his brother, military veteran Rodney (Casey Affleck) turn his life around. Rodney returned from several tours of duty in Iraq suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and has been unable to successfully make the transition into civilian life.

HEY BRO, YOU BETTER SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT: Frustrated older brother Russel Blaze (Christian Bale, left) is desperately trying to help his brother, military veteran Rodney (Casey Affleck) turn his life around. Rodney returned from several tours of duty in Iraq suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and has been unable to successfully make the transition into civilian life.

Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is stuck in a dead-end job at a rural Pennsylvania steel mill that is rumored to be closing soon. However, he’s not in a position to leave the area in search of greener pastures because he has to care for his terminally-ill widowed father (Bingo O’Malley) and a younger brother, Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck), who is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Rodney, a military veteran, hasn’t been able to make the adjustment back to civilian life after having served several tours of duty in Iraq. In fact, he hasn’t been the same since their mother died.

Because of a burgeoning gambling debt, Rodney has agreed to participate in street fights — that are fixed — that are being staged by the bookie (Willem Dafoe), to whom Rodney owes a lot of money. Trouble is Rodney becomes so blinded with rage after being punched, that he can’t be relied upon to throw the fight as promised.

Russell is so desperate to help his brother that he’s even willing to pay off Rodney’s I.O.U. in increments on his modest salary. But even that plan goes up in smoke after Russell is arrested for manslaughter when he was driving under the influence of alcohol.

By the time he’s paroled, Rodney has disappeared and is rumored to have been abducted out of state by a ruthless gang of drug dealers who are led by a sadistic Ramapo Indian (Woody Harrelson). The local police chief (Forest Whitaker) is sympathetic, but has no jurisdiction in New Jersey, which leaves Russell no choice but to take the law into his own hands with the help of his Uncle Red (Sam Shepard).

Written and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), Out of the Furnace is a gritty thriller that unfolds against the backdrop of a decaying American landscape. Thus, almost overshadowing the desperate search at the center of the story, is the background behind the film of an aging national infrastructure that is irreversibly past its prime.

While the violence occasionally goes over the top, the film nevertheless remains highly recommended, because the cast is as adept at delivering dialogue as it is in dispensing street justice.

The movie is a gruesome showdown between warring clans that is reminiscent of the backwoods feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, drug use, and graphic violence. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

November 27, 2013
FIGHTING FOR HER LIFE: Expert archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes aim at an enemy in the Quarter Quell tournament. She was forced to take part in it, in the hope by the government, that her death would silence the revolutionary feelings amongst the poverty stricken masses that she and her partner Peet (Josh Huthcerson, not shown) aroused in their speeches during their victory tour that they were on after they won the latest Hunger Games competition.

FIGHTING FOR HER LIFE: Expert archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes aim at an enemy in the Quarter Quell tournament. She was forced to take part in it, in the hope by the government, that her death would silence the revolutionary feelings amongst the poverty stricken masses that she and her partner Peet (Josh Huthcerson, not shown) aroused in their speeches during their victory tour that they were on after they won the latest Hunger Games competition.

The Hunger Games book trilogy has so captured the collective imagination of children the world over that it has already eclipsed Harry Potter as the best-selling children’s book series of all time. Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic adventure is set in Panem, a dystopia in which the poverty stricken majority are brutally subjugated by the powerful, privileged few.

In the first film, heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) grudgingly participated in a winner-take-all death match against other teens, each representing his or her home district. Known as the Hunger Games, the annual competition is presented to the masses as entertainment designed to distract them from their miserable plight.

Wise beyond her years, underdog Katniss emerged triumphant at the end of the first episode by virtue of a combination of craftiness, compassion, and her skills as an archer. However, she did break a cardinal rule by sparing the life of her co-winner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her friend and male counterpart from District 12.

At the second movie’s point of departure, we find the pair embarking on a government sponsored victory tour around the country. However, when their speeches stir up revolutionary fervor in the crowds, vindictive President Snow (Donald Sutherland) breaks a promise by drafting the pair to take part in the Quarter Quell, a tournament of champions comprised entirely of former Hunger Games winners.

So, it’s not long before they’re back in training for another life or death contest, this time against elite opponents with weapons and capabilities that range from fang-like teeth, uncanny intuition, chameleon-like camouflage, and the ability to harness electricity. Each of the entrants, known as tributes, is introduced by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the festivities’ unctuous master of ceremonies.

Once the pomp and circumstance of the opening ritual are out of the way, the gruesome main event begins. Alliances are forged, and bargains are made, followed by literal and figurative backstabbing in a desperate contest which ultimately forces a cruel betrayal of any loyalties.

In spite of all its frenetic action, this movie nevertheless suffers from a classic case of inbetween-itis, since it is a bridge to the third book’s conclusion.

Very Good (***). PG-13 for profanity, intense violence, frightening images, mature themes, and a suggestive situation. Running time: 146 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

November 20, 2013
MAKING SOME LAST MINUTE BUSINESS DECISIONS: Rayon (Jared Leto, left) confers with partner Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey). The pair started the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that supplied drugs for AIDS patients that were not legally available in the United States.

MAKING SOME LAST MINUTE BUSINESS DECISIONS: Rayon (Jared Leto, left) confers with partner Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey). The pair started the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that supplied drugs for AIDS patients that were not legally available in the United States.

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) was informed that he had 30 days to live when he was diagnosed as being HIV positive in 1986.

While pharmaceutical companies around the world were testing hundreds of chemical compounds in hopes of developing an antidote, the only one approved for distribution in America was AZT, a medication so toxic that it almost killed Ron. Rather than resign himself to a quick death, the tough Texan resolved to fight for his life.

First, he visited a clinic in Mexico that was promoting a cocktail of alternative therapies and purchased enough drugs to test the experimental regimen on himself. When the trial proved effective, he sneaked back across the border, posing as a priest, and smuggled a trunk full of pills out of the country.

Soon thereafter, the enterprising Woodroof founded the Dallas Buyers Club in order to skirt the law and distribute unapproved substances such as Interferon, Peptide T and Compound Q. A mere $400 per month would afford club members access to a variety of state-of-the-art AIDS remedies.

Because of his homophobia, the gruff good ol’ boy wisely went into business with a partner who had deep roots in the gay community. Flamboyant Rayon (Jared Leto), an HIV positive transsexual, played a pivotal role in attracting a clientele of fellow AIDS patients because Ron often used offensive slurs when referring to homosexuals. Together, the pair built the fledgling enterprise into an economic success that provided a service for patients who were frustrated by the FDA’s response to the epidemic.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Café de Flore), Dallas Buyers Club recounts Ron Woodroof’s desperate struggle to survive in the face of a governmental bureaucracy that appeared indifferent to people in his plight. The movie was inspired by “Buying Time,” an article by Bill Minutaglio which appeared in the Dallas Morning News on August 9, 1992.

Riddled with historical inaccuracies, the biopic frequently plays fast and loose with the facts in order to fashion an entertaining movie that fits the Hollywood success formula. In truth, the real-life Ron was apparently not as intolerant of homosexuality as depicted. Furthermore, he was initially given a two-year life expectancy by his doctor, in contrast to the picture’s one month fiction.

However, perhaps most important of all, some of the drugs he imported were banned for very good reasons. Nevertheless, the movie is a terrific tour de force that is likely, at last, to give Matthew McConaughey an Oscar nomination because he convincingly conveys the acute mental anguish of a person ravaged by AIDS.

Excellent (****). Rated R for nudity, drug use, graphic sexuality, pervasive profanity, ethnic and homophobic slurs. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

November 13, 2013
HONEY, YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I LOVE: Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs, right) reassures his suspicious wife Robin (Sanaa Lathan) that even though his head was temporarily turned by his ex girlfriend Jordan (Nia Long, not shown) when he saw her for the first time in 15 year, he really never seriously considered leaving Robin.

HONEY, YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I LOVE: Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs, right) reassures his suspicious wife Robin (Sanaa Lathan) that even though his head was temporarily turned by his ex girlfriend Jordan (Nia Long, not shown) when he saw her for the first time in 15 year, he really never seriously considered leaving Robin.

When released in 1999, The Best Man was dismissed by some as merely an African American version of The Big Chill, and by others as the black male answer to Waiting to Exhale. But the romantic film about a sophisticated set of college graduates was entertaining enough to stand on its own, and even won three NAACP Image Awards, including Best Picture.

Set 15 years later, The Best Man Holiday is a sequel reuniting the principal cast for a mixture of reminiscing, rivalry, and sobering reality during an eventful Christmas season. Written and directed by Malcolm Lee (Undercover Brother), the film features Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Taye Diggs, Harold Perrineau, Regina Hall, Melissa De Sousa, and Monica Calhoun reprising the roles they played in the first movie.

At the point of departure, we find the gang gathering at the sprawling mansion of Lance Sullivan (Chestnut), an NFL running back about to retire after a recording-breaking career with the New York Giants. The God-fearing family man is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Mia (Calhoun), and children.

Author Harper Stewart (Diggs), the best man at their wedding, had stirred-up considerable controversy in the original film by writing a thinly veiled account of his buddies’ sexual exploits. This time around, he gets in trouble when plans to publish a biography of the host Lance come to light.

Furthermore, despite the fact that his wife, Robin (Lathan), is 9-months pregnant, Harper feels pangs of passion when he sees his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, Jordan (Long). So, when her beau (Eddie Cibrian) excuses himself to spend Christmas with his parents, it’s just a matter of time before Harper’s flirting with Jordan leaves him in the dog house with Robin.

Meanwhile, Julian (Perrineau), who married the stripper (Hall) he fell for way back at Lance’s bachelor party, is currently worried that an old YouTube video of his scantily clad spouse might surface. Also, it is hard to ignore Julian’s flamboyant ex-girlfriend, Shelby (De Sousa), a drama-loving reality TV star.

All of the above is cleverly narrated by Quentin (Howard), a one man Greek chorus that supplies intermittent comic relief.

The storyline is thoroughly absorbing throughout the film and alternates between fond reflections and fresh crises.

At the end, all of the loose ends are satisfactorily resolved, allowing for a memorable, bittersweet sendoff, as well as a transparent setup for the next installment in the series.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, ethnic slurs, and brief nudity. Running Time: 124 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures

 

November 6, 2013
WATCH OUT LAS VEGAS, WE’RE HERE: The four friends from childhood: Archie, Billy, Paddy, and Sam (from left, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline) reunite in Las Vegas to throw a bachelor party for Billy. Over the years the four close friends have kept in touch and so when Billy, who has never married finally finds a bride, his friends decide to take him to Vegas for one last fling.

WATCH OUT LAS VEGAS, WE’RE HERE: The four friends from childhood: Archie, Billy, Paddy, and Sam (from left, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline) reunite in Las Vegas to throw a bachelor party for Billy. Over the years the four close friends have kept in touch and so when Billy, who has never married finally finds a bride, his friends decide to take him to Vegas for one last fling.

Billy (Michael Douglas), Paddy (Robert De Niro), Archie (Morgan Freeman), and Sam (Kevin Kline) were inseparable when they were growing up in Flatbush back in the 50s. They managed to remain close over the years despite the demands of their families and careers. That’s why, when Billy, who never married, finally decides to tie the knot, his friends decide to throw him a bachelor party in Las Vegas and also rekindle a little of the macho magic of their youth.

However, even before arriving in Sin City, the senior citizens are forced to face up to the fact that they’re no longer as young as they feel. For example, Archie is recovering from a mild stroke and has to sneak out of the house by telling his son (Michael Ealy) that he’s attending a church retreat. Sam packs Viagra pills and condoms for the trip, and recently-widowed Paddy has been depressed ever since his childhood sweetheart (Olivia Stuck) passed away.

Even Billy seems to be having second thoughts about marrying a woman half his age (Bre Blair), especially after his head is turned by the hotel’s sultry lounge singer (Mary Steenburgen). So, the pals’ greatly anticipated reunion turns out to be less of a last hurrah and more of a nostalgic trip down memory lane as they end up spending more of their time reminiscing and teasing each other than pursuing women.

Directed by Dan Turtletaub (National Treasure 1, 2 and 3), Last Vegas is a laugh-a-minute comedy, with most of the humor coming at the expense of the self-effacing quartet as they grudgingly make concessions to old age. They remain good sports, whether being the butt of jokes about hair transplants, hair color, medications, looking old, or mistakenly flirting with transvestites.

Not surprisingly, the principal cast members (with four Academy Award-winners Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline) have no trouble generating a convincing sense of camaraderie on screen. What is a pleasantly surprising addition is how another Oscar-winner, Mary Steenburgen, uses her support role to upstage her male co-stars by exhibiting an endearing vulnerability in her memorable performance.

Excellent (***½). PG-13 for profanity and sexuality. Running time: 105 minutes. Distributor: CBS Films.

 

October 30, 2013
THIS DEAL WILL MAKE US BOTH RICH: The Counselor (Michael Fassbender, left) toasts the anticipated success of the drug deal he just made with Reiner (Javier Bardem) to smuggle cocaine from Mexico into the U.S. that will be extremely profitable for both of them.(Photo  by Kerry Brown, TM and © 2013 20th Century Fox Films)

THIS DEAL WILL MAKE US BOTH RICH: The Counselor (Michael Fassbender, left) toasts the anticipated success of the drug deal he just made with Reiner (Javier Bardem) to smuggle cocaine from Mexico into the U.S. that will be extremely profitable for both of them. (Photo by Kerry Brown, TM and © 2013 20th Century Fox Films)

It’s easy to see why this crime thriller got the green light in Hollywood. First of all, it was written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Cormac McCarthy whose No Country for Old Men won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Second, Oscar nominated director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Thelma & Louise) was brought aboard, as well as a cast topped by Academy Award-winners Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, nominees Brad Pitt and Rosie Perez, and versatile character actors Michael Fassbender and Goran Visnjic.

Furthermore, since the story is set in Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, it made sense to sign Latino actors Cameron Diaz, Edgar Ramirez, John Leguizamo, and Ruben Blades. Nevertheless, The Counselor turned out to be one of those curious head scratchers that somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

The film is crippled by a pair of fatal flaws — a glacial pace and a verbose script laced with awkward dialogue. While the audience waits for something, anything to transpire, it is fed stilted lines like, “You are a man of impeccable taste” and “I intend to love you ’til the day I die.”

Worse, these corny line are delivered with so little conviction that you never know whether you’re supposed to laugh or take them seriously. The actors comes off as tongue-in-cheek impersonations of characters in a typical Damon Runyon yarn.

The picture’s plot is about a nameless lawyer, referred to only as “The Counselor” (Fassbender), whose greed is getting the better of him. At the point of departure, we find him head-over-heels in love with Laura (Cruz), an exotic beauty he plans to propose to with an expensive diamond ring he can’t afford.

For reasons that never quite make sense, this man of few words gets mixed up in the dangerous Mexican drug trade. He’s offered a start in the business by Reiner (Bardem), a flamboyant dealer with a flashy girlfriend (Diaz).

Ignoring repeated warnings from a low-key middleman (Pitt), that entering the narcotics underworld is like stepping in quicksand, the Counselor decides that the payoff is worth a one-time risk. The plan is to deliver a sewage truck filled with over 20,000 ounces of coke across the border to Chicago.

The pivotal question is — will he be able to avoid becoming a statistic in a bloody turf war where ruthless gangs don’t give a second thought about beheading a rival? The movie is a borefest featuring blasé individuals overindulging in gratuitous violence and coarse, casual sensuality.

Fair (*½). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, graphic violence, and grisly images. Running time: 111 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox

 

October 23, 2013
LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM: This picture of a happy American family, shown in 1841, features Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor top, right) together with his wife (Kelsey Scott) and their two children (Quvenzhané Wallis, bottom left and Cameron Zeigler). Unfortunately their dream turns into a nightmare when Solomon is duped into going to Washington, D.C. where he is sold into slavery for 12 years.

LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM: This picture of a happy American family, shown in 1841, features Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor top, right) together with his wife (Kelsey Scott) and their two children (Quvenzhané Wallis, bottom left and Cameron Zeigler). Unfortunately their dream turns into a nightmare when Solomon is duped into going to Washington, D.C. where he is sold into slavery for 12 years.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a black man who was born a free man in upstate New York in 1808. A skilled carpenter and fiddler, he and his wife (Kelsey Scott) settled in Saratoga Springs where they were raising their children (Quvenzhane Wallis and Cameron Zeigler) when their American Dream turned into a nightmare in 1841.

One day, Solomon was approached by two white strangers (Taran Killam and Scoot McNairy) who offered him a high-paying job playing music with a circus in Washington, D.C. However, upon arriving in the capital, they sold him to a slave trader (Christopher Berry) who put Solomon in chains and shipped him to a cotton plantation in the Deep South.

What ensued was a 12 year ordeal in which Solomon was whipped whenever he attempted to explain that he was a free man. Despite being tortured by a sadistic master (Michael Fassbender) — who was determined to break his spirit — Solomon somehow managed to maintain his sanity and his dignity.

With the help of a kindly Canadian (Brad Pitt), who was passing through town, Solomon was eventually able to inform abolitionists up North of his dire predicament and was finally reunited with his family. Upon his emancipation in 1853, Solomon wrote and published a memoir chronicling the cruelties he suffered in captivity in explicit detail.

Entitled 12 Years a Slave, the book became a runaway best-seller that slipped into obscurity after the Civil War. Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger), the screen version is a fairly faithful adaptation of the memoir.

In a banner year for African American films, this heartbreaking historical drama just might be the best of the bunch. The film has already been generating early Oscar buzz thanks to a People’s Choice Award from the Toronto International Film Festival.

Unapologetically graphic in its depiction of the institution of slavery’s evils, 12 Years a Slave does not contain any comic asides such as the ones in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Therefore, brace yourself for a relentlessly gruesome movie with escalating violence.

The picture is a sobering narrative of the life of a slave that recounts an authentic case of human bondage.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, torture, sexuality, nudity, and ethnic slurs. Running time: 133 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

 

October 16, 2013
JUST DO WHAT WE TELL YOU AND NO ONE WILL BE HURT: The band of four hopped up Somali pirates quickly overpower the Maersk Alabama’s crew and take Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks center) hostage, thereby completing their takeover of the massive cargo ship. Instead of commandeering the ship, they decide to demand a huge ransom from the ship’s owners in exchange for the safe return of Captain Phillips.

JUST DO WHAT WE TELL YOU AND NO ONE WILL BE HURT: The band of four hopped up Somali pirates quickly overpower the Maersk Alabama’s crew and take Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks center) hostage, thereby completing their takeover of the massive cargo ship. Instead of commandeering the ship, they decide to demand a huge ransom from the ship’s owners in exchange for the safe return of Captain Phillips.

On April 9, 2009, the Maersk Alabama, an American container ship headed for Mombasa, Kenya, was hijacked on the high seas in an area that had become very popular with Somali pirates who preyed on international commercial cargo ships. Despite the ship crew’s training in evasive maneuvers in the event of just such an attack, the vessel’s 20-man crew’s flare gun and fire hoses proved no match for the heavily armed quartet of pirates who were high on an herbal stimulant called chat.

After climbing aboard, the pirates abandoned the idea of commandeering the cumbersome 500+ foot-long craft that was carrying 17,000 metric tons of cargo, since what they were really after was a multimillion-dollar ransom. Instead, they took Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) hostage on one of the Maersk’s own lifeboats in order to use him as a bargaining chip.

However, a standoff ensued in the middle of the ocean. Soon, the USS Bainbridge, a destroyer stationed near the Gulf of Aden, was dispatched to the scene and its Captain Frank Castellano (Yul Vasquez) feigned negotiating with the thieves while simultaneously securing permission from President Obama to carry out a daring rescue plan.

Directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93), Captain Phillips is certain to be compared to the somewhat similar film Zero Dark Thirty because they both recount a real-life mission mounted by a crack team of Navy SEALs. The difference, however, is that this picture essentially shows the depth of Captain Phillip’s anxiety over his fate, while Zero Dark Thirty devoted most of its attention to delineating the intricate details involved in the complicated manhunt for Osama bin Laden.

Curiously, this movie repeatedly makes the presumably politically correct point of reminding us that these madmen are not Muslim terrorists. Nevertheless, Tom Hanks does bring his A-game here when he’s cooped-up in close quarters with the support cast of terrorists (Barkhad Abdirahaman, Mahat M. Ali, Barkhad Abdi, and Faysal Ahmed) for most of the picture.

The film portrays the abductors as soulless, primitive natives right out of a typical Tarzan movie. True, the end of the picture is more effective when the bad guys are portrayed as the embodiment of pure evil with no redeeming qualities. Yet, this production would have benefited considerably from just a little development of the villains’ characters.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for intense violence, sustained terror, bloody images, and drug abuse. In English and Somali with subtitles. Running time: 134 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

 

October 9, 2013

Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is ready to retire at the end of a distinguished career as a NASA astronaut. The veteran captain is in command of his final flight of the Space Shuttle Explorer and their primary mission is to replace solar panels on the Hubble Telescope.

MAROONED IN SPACE: While on a routine repair spacewalk to the Hubble telescope, the two astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) suddenly find themselves in a life threatening situation. The pair receive an emergency message from their control center warning them of the high speed approach of space debris from a damaged Russian satellite. By the time they reach their space shuttle, the pair find that the debris has destroyed the shuttle, killing all the crewmembers and leaving their space shuttle damaged beyond repair.

MAROONED IN SPACE: While on a routine repair spacewalk to the Hubble telescope, the two astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) suddenly find themselves in a life threatening situation. The pair receive an emergency message from their control center warning them of the high speed approach of space debris from a damaged Russian satellite. By the time they reach their space shuttle, the pair find that the debris has destroyed the shuttle, killing all the crewmembers and leaving their space shuttle damaged beyond repair.

Upon reaching their destination, the spacewalk proceeds so routinely that bachelor Kowalski is comfortable engaging in flirtatious chitchat with Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her maiden voyage. Unexpectedly, mission control urgently orders them back to the shuttle because the debris field from a damaged Russian satellite is headed in their direction at a high speed.

However, the debris causes catastrophic damage to the shuttle before they get back to it — killing all their crew-mates and destroying the vehicle beyond repair. As a result, Kowalski and Stone find themselves marooned in space, unable to make radio contact with Houston, and with a limited amount of oxygen left in their tanks.

This is the intriguing situation established at the start of Gravity, a gripping science fiction thriller written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Pan’s Labyrinth). What ensues is a desperate race against time in which Kowalski does his best to keep the frightened rookie calm while trying to keep them both safe.

Kowalski’s improvised plan involves the pair using their thrusters to reach the International Space Station 100 kilometers away before the debris returns from completing its orbit around Earth. This is the first of many challenges they must face if the two of them are ever to feel solid ground under their feet again.

Rather than ruin the plot’s unpredictable developments, permit me to heap praise on the unparalleled performances of Oscar-winners George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Equal deserving of praise are the picture’s breathtaking 3D cinematography and the magical way in which weightlessness is convincingly created onscreen.

Buckle up for a riveting roller coaster ride through outer space.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense peril, disturbing images, and brief profanity. Running time: 90 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

October 2, 2013
MAY THE BEST MAN WIN: Bitter rivals, formula 1 race car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, left) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), line up at the start of a race on the way to their final showdown race that will take place in Fuji, Japan where one of them will be crowned the Champion Formula 1 Race Car Driver of 1976.

MAY THE BEST MAN WIN: Bitter rivals, formula 1 race car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, left) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), line up at the start of a race on the way to their final showdown race that will take place in Fuji, Japan where one of them will be crowned the Champion Formula 1 Race Car Driver of 1976.

In the 70s two racecar drivers, who were as different from each other as Dudley Do-Right and Snidely Whiplash, became adversaries on the Formula 1 race car circuit. England’s James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was a brash daredevil who was willing to put his life at risk every time he drove around the track. By contrast, Austria’s Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) was a technician who applied a scientific strategy to his racing contests.

Off the track, the pair were also polar opposites. Hunt was a flamboyant playboy who liked the limelight, while Lauda preferred to spend his free time in peace and quiet with his wife Marla Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara). The bitter rivalry between the two came to a head during the 1976 season, when both were in contention for the coveted title of world champion formula 1 race driver.

The cutthroat quest for the title is the subject of Rush, a drama directed by two-time Academy Award-winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind). Based on a screenplay by two-time Oscar-nominee Peter Morgan (The Queen and Frost/Nixon), the picture’s engaging plot repeatedly juxtaposes the personas of the leads, painting the handsome Hunt as a lovable bon vivant on a crusade to wrest the crown from the defending champ Lauda, who is portrayed as a nerd who is too methodical to root for.

The movie masterfully depicts the cat-and-mouse mental stress as well as the pair’s race car driving skills, with the tension mounting at contests that are staged in cities in Brazil, Spain, Monaco, and Germany that lead up to a white-knuckle championship race in Fuji, Japan.

Along the way, Hunt’s chain-smoking, substance abuse, and womanizing is revealed, as he makes a mockery of Lauda’s Spartan regimen. The emotional build-up subtly suggests that getting the checkered flag in Fuji will serve as a confirmation of the victor’s approach to life.

A compelling, high-octane thriller.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, nudity, sexuality, smoking, disturbing images, and brief drug use. In English, German, Italian, and French with subtitles. Running Time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

 

September 25, 2013
WHO SHALL I MARRY, TOM, DICK, OR HARRY?: Thirty-year-old Montana Moore (right) is interviewing one of her old boy friends Quinton Jamison (Djimon Hounsou), who is also very wealthy, to see if he would do as a potential husband. Quinton is one of several on her list of candidates. Montana’s younger sister Sheree’s (Lauren London, not shown) is already engaged and Montana feels that she at least has to be engaged before her little sister gets married in 30 days. To find out who, if anyone at all, Montana chooses, see the movie.

WHO SHALL I MARRY, TOM, DICK, OR HARRY?: Thirty-year-old Montana Moore (right) is interviewing one of her old boy friends Quinton Jamison (Djimon Hounsou), who is also very wealthy, to see if he would do as a potential husband. Quinton is one of several on her list of candidates. Montana’s younger sister Sheree’s (Lauren London, not shown) is already engaged and Montana feels that she at least has to be engaged before her little sister gets married in 30 days. To find out who, if anyone at all, Montana chooses, see the movie.

Montana Moore (Paula Patton) has a problem. The pretty stewardess is practically 30-years-old, the age at which her mother (Jenifer Lewis) insists any young lady must be married in order to be considered respectable.

Meanwhile, her younger sister, Sheree (Lauren London), who’s a sophomore in college, is already engaged to a big man on campus (Terrence Jenkins), a Heisman trophy hopeful with a bright future in professional football. The blissfully betrothed are set to tie the knot in a month, and Montana is determined to turn one of her former boyfriends into a fiancé prior to Sheree’s wedding day.

So, enlisting the assistance of a couple of colleagues — Gail (Jill Scott) and Sam (Adam Brody) — she proceeds to hack into her airline company’s reservation schedule to determine the travel plans of her ex-beaus. Montana’s candidates include a hip-hop producer (Trey Songz), a Republican politician (Taye Diggs), and a very rich businessman (Djimon Hounsou), but she ignores her lifelong friend (Derek Luke) who is living right across the hall from her and who had once proposed to her when they were in grade school.

The desperate potential spinster starts crisscrossing the country to orchestrate “chance” encounters with her old flames while her Mr. Right might very well be the next-door neighbor she keeps leaving behind in Baltimore. Although the audience is never in doubt about the eventual resolution, it takes Montana most of the movie to realize that she’s meant to marry the man across the hall, who has long admired her from afar.

Written and directed by David E. Talbert, Baggage Claim is a transparent soap opera that telegraphs every punch. Thanks to the intermittent comic relief coming from the irreverent Greek chorus that is comprised of gay Sam and boy-crazy Gail, this exercise in the obvious is nevertheless a lot of fun to watch. It also helps considerably that the protagonist and her handsome and wealthy choices are so easy on the eyes.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity and sexuality. Running time: 96 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

 

September 18, 2013
SOMEONE HAS TO DO SOMETHING TO FIND THE CHILDREN: Anguished mother Grace Dover (Maria Bello) beseeches her husband Keller (Hugh Jackman) to do something to find their missing daughter Anna and her friend Joy, who were abducted on Thanksgiving day, since the local detective seems to have put the official police investigation on the back burner.

SOMEONE HAS TO DO SOMETHING TO FIND THE CHILDREN: Anguished mother Grace Dover (Maria Bello) beseeches her husband Keller (Hugh Jackman) to do something to find their missing daughter Anna and her friend Joy, who were abducted on Thanksgiving day, since the local detective seems to have put the official police investigation on the back burner.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a rugged outdoorsman and a family man with deep roots in rural Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), are raising their children, 6-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and teenager Ralph (Dylan Minnette), in the tiny town of Dover, an idyllic oasis far removed from the problems of big cities.

It is Thanksgiving morning, and Keller has decided his son is ready to shoot his first deer, a rite-of-passage he’d shared with his own father upon coming-of-age a generation earlier. And after a tableau with Christian symbolism represented by a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and a cross dangling from their pickup truck’s rearview mirror, we find the two deep in the woods where the boy bags his first buck.

“Be ready,” Keller ominously advises Ralph on the return trip, not because he has a premonition about any impending disaster, but because of the sense of paranoia he has cultivated over the years as a survivalist. Still, their basement, that is stocked with provisions, would prove to be of no use in the calamity that was about to unfold later that day.

The Dovers go to the home of their neighbors Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), who have two children around the same age as the Dovers. However, after enjoying a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner, the youngsters Anna and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) vanish without a trace while playing outside.

The only lead is a suspicious RV parked down the street which the police trace to Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a local resident who is mentally-challenged and presumably incapable of abducting the children. With no other clues to follow, the investigating officer (Jake Gyllenhaal) puts the case on a back burner, much to the chagrin of the missing girls’ anguished parents.

Since time is of the essence, it is no surprise when a desperate Keller takes the law into his own hands, and his manic behavior is in sharp contrast to the measured approach of Detective Loki. Will the frustrated father or the laid-back cop solve the case first, or will they join forces and pool their resources? Will Anna and Joy be rescued alive, or found too late to save them? Or will the abduction simply be unsolved.

That is the mystery at the heart of Prisoners, a mesmerizing, multi-layered masterpiece brilliantly directed by Dennis Villeneuve. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski deserves equal credit for the film’s intricately plotted script which slowly ratchets up the tension in a compelling fashion that is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.

The movie is a compelling study of the emotional toll exacted by a kidnapping on the psyche of both lawmen and the victims’ loved ones.

Excellent (****). Rated R for pervasive profanity and disturbing violence. Running time: 153 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

September 11, 2013
IT’S NOT SO EASY TO GET RID OF RIDDICK: The elusive antihero Riddick (Vin Diesel) is pursued yet again in this third sequel in the series. In this episode, the superhuman alien is able to elude two teams of bounty hunters who are desperately trying to claim the reward for capturing the antihero.

IT’S NOT SO EASY TO GET RID OF RIDDICK: The elusive antihero Riddick (Vin Diesel) is pursued yet again in this third sequel in the series. In this episode, the superhuman alien is able to elude two teams of bounty hunters who are desperately trying to claim the reward for capturing the antihero.

When we first met Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) in Pitch Black, the notorious criminal had been arrested by a bounty hunter and was being transported to prison when the spaceship encountered a comet and had to make a crash-landing on an uncharted planet. Riddick escaped, and proceeded to elude his captors in a gruesome struggle for survival that would consume most of their lives.

This sequel has more of the same, as we find the title character still at large but marooned on another desolate planet. Now he’s being hunted by two teams of mercenaries, one of which is led by the father (Matt Nable) of the bounty hunter Riddick had killed in the original film.

Although Riddick is wanted dead or alive, the reward is double if he’s brought back in a body bag. Of course, that’s easier said than done, since this indomitable alien from planet Furya has superhuman strength, intuition, willpower, and night vision; traits which make him a formidable opponent, even when outnumbered by pursuers who are armed to the teeth.

So, this movie is an intergalactic posse’s attempt to apprehend Riddick as he tries to hijack one of their rocket ships in order to return to his faraway homeland. Unfortunately, the scriptwriters of this boring film ran out of new ideas for this sequel.

Consequently, the movie does little more than generate a sense of déjà vu because of the barren backdrop (except for a swarm of voracious critters) and the familiar ways in which the elusive antihero’s adversaries are killed. After all, how many different ways can you lop off a head or gut a guy so his entrails spill out?

The job of tracking down Riddick with the assistance of “futuristic” technology might best be described as pseudo-scientific nuttery. The movie is more of an uninspired remake than a interest-catching sequel.

Fair (*). Rated R for profanity, nudity, sexuality, and graphic violence. Running Time: 119 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

September 4, 2013
PAY CLOSE ATTENTION AND LEARN FROM THE MASTER: Grandmaster Yip Oi-dor (Tony Leung) demonstrates some of the moves that made him the Grandmaster of martial arts in all of China. He developed techniques which were fewer in number than the 64 moves employed by his predecessor Gong Yutian (not shown).

PAY CLOSE ATTENTION AND LEARN FROM THE MASTER: Grandmaster Yip Oi-dor (Tony Leung) demonstrates some of the moves that made him the Grandmaster of martial arts in all of China. He developed techniques which were fewer in number than the 64 moves employed by his predecessor Gong Yutian (not shown).

Yip Oi-dor (1893-1972), aka Ip Man, was a legendary martial arts teacher best remembered for some of the prominent protégés who attended his kung fu school, most notably, Bruce Lee. This influential instructor has finally been getting his due in recent years as the subject of several biopics.

The latest, The Grandmaster, directed by Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), is a majestic epic chronicling Ip Man’s life, who’s very capably played by Tony Leung, from the womb to the tomb.

At the picture’s point of departure, we learn that Ip came from Foshan, a city in Guangdong province where he started studying martial arts at an early age. By the time he was a young man, he had developed a reputation as a formidable fighter, and was enlisted by his region’s elders to represent all of southern China in a match against Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), the best man from the north.

Yip prevails in the match by employing an innovative combination of his trademarked “Spade,” “Pin” and “Sheath” techniques which prove to be far simpler than the 64 moves relied upon by his aging opponent. Soon thereafter, Gong finds himself dealing with dissension in the northern ranks as he is betrayed by a disloyal heir apparent (Zhang Jan) and disappointed by his daughter’s (Zhang Ziyi) decision to practice medicine rather than follow in his footsteps.

That enables Yip Man to fill the void and eventually emerge as the greatest grandmaster in all of China. Director Kar-wai resorts to flying harnesses, slow motion, and other state-of-the-art trick photography to showcase his hero’s considerable skills. If you’re familiar with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then you have a good idea of what to expect in terms of gravity defying kick and fisticuffs.

The production’s only flaw is its occasionally confusing editing, which unnecessarily resorts to flashbacks in order to recount the decades-spanning tale, when the movie might have worked just as well if allowed to unfold chronologically. Regardless, this comprehensive combination history lesson, love story, and action film features everything necessary to entertain any fan of the martial arts.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, smoking, and brief drug use. In Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese with subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

August 28, 2013
HOW WILL WE EVER GET OUT OF THIS?: Surrounded by police cars, retired racecar driver Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke, right), accompanied by the kid (Selena Gomez), uses his driving skills to outmaneuver the two police cars and continue on their quest to locate and rescue Brent’s kidnapped wife Leanna (Rebecca Budig, not shown) from her abductors.

HOW WILL WE EVER GET OUT OF THIS?: Surrounded by police cars, retired racecar driver Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke, right), accompanied by the kid (Selena Gomez), uses his driving skills to outmaneuver the two police cars and continue on their quest to locate and rescue Brent’s kidnapped wife Leanna (Rebecca Budig, not shown) from her abductors.

Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke) is a former racecar driver who recently moved, with his wife Leanna (Rebecca Budig), from the United States to her hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria. But their plans for a quiet retirement are rudely interrupted when she is kidnapped at the height of the Christmas season.

Brent gets a call from a mysterious madman (Jon Voigt) who tells him that the only hope of seeing her alive is to follow his instructions without calling the police. Then, Brent is ordered to steal a specific custom-built Ford Mustang that is parked in a nearby garage.

After he gets behind the wheel, he realizes that the auto has been outfitted with cameras and microphones. Soon, he finds himself being ordered by the kidnapper to execute a series of dangerous maneuvers, at high speed, through a crowded market place, across a rink filled with skaters, up onto a stage, and down a flight of steps.

Of course the car’s maneuvers attract the attention of the cops, who set up a dragnet to put an end to the dangerous shenanigans. Brent, however, relies on his professional skills to elude the authorities, although he still has no idea of his wife’s whereabouts — or what crazy stunt is next on the inscrutable abductor’s bizarre agenda.

Getaway is a thriller that borrows popular elements from Taken, Speed, and Ransom. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired, since the picture is an hour and a half of chase scenes that are punctuated by crashes and pyrotechnics.

For some reason, director Courtney Solomon (Dungeons & Dragons) ignored character development in favor of incessant action and spectacular special effects. Hence, the audience is never able to invest emotionally in the plight of the anguished protagonist or his imperiled spouse. Instead, we repeatedly watch careening cars crashing, rolling over, almost hitting pedestrians, and (this reviewer’s personal favorite), flying off a bridge in flames.

Along the way, Brent encounters the hijacked car’s true owner (Selena Gomez), a spoiled rich kid who wants her graduation present back. Fortunately for Brent, the tech-savvy kid sympathizes with Brent’s plight, and decides to use her laptop in order help him find his spouse.

Unfortunately, the dialogue never rises above trite lines like “Why is this happening?” “You’re running out of time. Tick-tock!” and “You don’t have to do this.” The movie is a frenetically-paced Selena Gomez vehicle that is full of sound and fury and ultimately signifies nothing.

Good (**). Rated PG-13 for profanity, rude gestures, mayhem, and pervasive violence. Running time: 94 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

August 21, 2013
KEEPER OF THE KEYS: Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has the unenviable task of keeping out the destitute earthlings from overrunning the exclusive space station Elysium, which the wealthy Earth citizens have created as a haven from the miserable conditions on their home planet Earth which is over populated and polluted.

KEEPER OF THE KEYS: Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has the unenviable task of keeping out the destitute earthlings from overrunning the exclusive space station Elysium, which the wealthy Earth citizens have created as a haven from the miserable conditions on their home planet Earth which is over populated and polluted.

It’s 2154, and the planet Earth has become so polluted and overpopulated that anyone who can afford it has abandoned it to live in a luxurious state-of-the-art space station. Their decadent enclave, Elysium, looks similar to Beverly Hills, and is filled with palm trees and mansions with private swimming pools.

Meanwhile, down on Earth, the teeming masses of poor people struggle to survive, and escape to Elysium is their only hope for a decent existence. Of course, that’s easier said than done, since you have to be able to afford an expensive ride aboard a space ship to get there. And, even after arriving, you have to provide the authorities with proof of citizenship in order to stay.

The job of preventing illegal immigrants from entering Elysium falls to Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), a heartless executive who has no qualms about shooting down unauthorized space shuttles. She takes her orders from John Carlyle (William Fitchner), the nefarious CEO of Armadyne Corporation, much to the annoyance of the space station’s president (Faran Tahir).

It turns out that it’s impossible for any politician to control the powerful defense contractor, a fact which Earth dwelling Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) learns the hard way. He only has five days to live after being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation in an industrial accident.

After his request for medical treatment, that is readily available on Elysium, is summarily denied, he becomes determined to reach the space station by hook or by crook. He also wants to bring his childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), and her young daughter (Emma Tremblay) who is suffering from acute leukemia along with him. Standing in their way, however, is Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a blood-thirsty heavily armed mercenary, deputized by Delacourt to patrol Los Angeles to make sure that no unworthy earthlings make it to Elysium.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp, Elysium is a disappointing sophomoric effort from the South African who had made such a spectacular splash in 2009 with the sleeper hit District 9. This film feels like he’s all out of ideas, because he uses similar themes from his earlier success, and has a cliché-ridden script filled with hackneyed lines like: “That’s what I’m talking about,” “You have no idea,” and “I’m just getting started.”

Fair (*½). Rated R for pervasive profanity and graphic violence. Running time: 109 minutes. Distributor: Tri-Star Pictures.