June 3, 2015
THANK GOD YOU WERE ABLE TO FIND ME: Ray (Dwayne Johnson, left) is embraced by his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) after he came to rescue her from atop a skyscraper in San Francisco that was on the verge of collapsing when the shift in the San Andreas fault triggered a massive earthquake that was felt all over California. (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture-©-2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC—U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda)

THANK GOD YOU WERE ABLE TO FIND ME: Ray (Dwayne Johnson, left) is embraced by his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) after he came to rescue her from atop a skyscraper in San Francisco that was on the verge of collapsing when the shift in the San Andreas fault triggered a massive earthquake that was felt all over California.
(Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture-©-2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC—U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda)

If you were afraid to swim in the ocean after watching Jaws, you might be reluctant to visit San Francisco after seeing this spectacular disaster movie. Directed by Brad Peyton (Journey 2), San Andreas features a plot that is accompanied by riveting special-effects scenes.

The film stars Dwayne Johnson as Ray Gaines, a decorated helicopter pilot who has led more than 600 rescue missions. At the point of departure, we find the Los Angeles Fire Department chief risking his life to pluck an accident victim (Stephanie Johnston) from a car that is dangling precipitously over a deep canyon. For you or me, such a dangerous maneuver would be unthinkable, but to Ray, it’s business as usual.

Meanwhile, Professor Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) is delivering a lecture at the California Institute of Technology in which he discusses the incredible power of earthquakes. When his colleague (Will Yun Lee) detects some unusual seismic activity in the vicinity of the Hoover Dam, the two scientists rush off to observe the event firsthand.

They arrive in time to witness the considerable damage caused by an earthquake that registered 7.1 on the Richter scale. Worse, their instrumentation indicates that this event is a precursor to an impending earthquake of much greater magnitude.

The ensuing shift in the San Andreas fault wreaks havoc all across California. Chief Gaines jumps into action, plucking his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), from the roof of a teetering skyscraper and then flying to the quake’s epicenter in San Francisco.

They flew there because their terrified daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) had called them for help. Fortunately she was being helped by two young British friends (Art Parkinson and Hugo Johstone-Burt).

While searching for their daughter, the desperate parents run a perilous gauntlet — via air sea and land — to the Bay Area, and encounter turbulence, tsunamis, and landslides along the way.

San Andreas has a cast of readily identifiable archetypes; the musclebound hero, the effete coward, the damsel in distress, the nerdy professor, each of whom are played perfectly by the talented cast.

Nonetheless, the best reason to see this summer blockbuster is to experience the eye-popping panoramas in 3D.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense action, mayhem, and brief profanity. Running time: 114 minutes. Studio: Warner Brothers Pictures.

May 27, 2015
WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF A BAD SITUATION: Daniella (Sofia Vergara, left) is thrown together with policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) when Daniella and her husband were ambushed as the authorities were arranging to put them into the witness protection program. Unfortunately, the transfer into the program was interrupted when a collusion of mobsters and crooked cops murdered Daniella’s husband. However, she and Cooper managed to escape and thus began their perilous, yet hilarious trip to safety in Dallas.(Photo by Sam Emerson-© 2015-Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Inc.)

WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF A BAD SITUATION: Daniella (Sofia Vergara, left) is thrown together with policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) when Daniella and her husband were ambushed as the authorities were arranging to put them into the witness protection program. Unfortunately, the transfer into the program was interrupted when a collusion of mobsters and crooked cops murdered Daniella’s husband. However, she and Cooper managed to escape and thus began their perilous, yet hilarious trip to safety in Dallas. (Photo by Sam Emerson-© 2015-Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Inc.)

As the notorious kingpin of a drug cartel that is terrorizing Texas, Vincente Cortez (Joaquin Cosio) has orchestrated over a hundred murders. However, he’s never been convicted because the witnesses mysteriously disappear before they can testify against him.

Therefore, the authorities decide to take special precautions with the Rivas couple, the Cortez confederates who agreed to become state’s witnesses in the latest case against him. When the police escort arrives to place them in the witness protection program, the husband is killed in an ambush but his wife Daniella (Sofia Vergara) and policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) barely escape in a hail of bullets.

As they drive away in the Rivas’s Cadillac convertible, they realize that they’ve been targeted by mobsters and crooked cops. So, with no one but each other to lean on, the police officer and outlaw grudgingly join forces during their trip to a safe sanctuary in Dallas.

Of course, cooperating is easier said than done, because they’re polar opposites in almost every way. Daniella is a striking, statuesque chatterbox as oppposed to Cooper’s plain, diminutive, straitlaced personality. Nevertheless, the pair gradually bond during their road trip in which they have a close brush with death every five miles or so.

Directed by Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), Hot Pursuit is a mindless diversion full of the staples of the unlikely buddies genre, such as car chases and accidental drug use. Although the movie fails to break cinematic ground, it provides enough laughs to for this critic to recommend it.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, profanity, violence, and drug use. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

May 20, 2015
GOSH, I HOPE HE LIKES MY SONG: Beca (Anna Kendrick) has secretly taken an internship with an award winning record producer in hopes that he will like the songs that she has written.(Photo by Richard Cartwright-© Universal Pictures)

GOSH, I HOPE HE LIKES MY SONG: Beca (Anna Kendrick) has secretly taken an internship with an award winning record producer in hopes that he will like the songs that she has written. (Photo by Richard Cartwright-© Universal Pictures)

The Bellas are back and badder than before! In case you’re unfamiliar with the sassy, all-girl singing group, they’re students at Barden University, a fictional college located in Atlanta, Georgia. In the original movie, the students overcame a number of frustrating setbacks on the road to victory at the national a cappella competition.

Now the crew, led by senior Chloe (Brittany Snow), have their sights set on the world championship in Copenhagen. However, they get off to a horrible start, because of an embarrassing onstage wardrobe malfunction experienced by Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) during a command performance for President Obama and the First Lady.

The audience lets out a collective gasp when her leotard splits down the middle. As consequence of this unfortunate incident, the Barden Bellas are temporarily suspended from participating in competitions by the college’s board of governors.

During this break from performing, the movie develops the lives of several members of the group. Bumper (Adam DeVine) admires Amy but will she let him see her sensitive side? Meanwhile, Beca (Anna Kendrick) secretly takes an internship with a Grammy-winning record producer (Keegan-Michael Key), hoping that he will listen to the songs she’s composed.

There’s also suspense about an angry black lesbian (Ester Dean), a freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) who has low self-esteem; and an undocumented alien (Chrissie Fit) who is afraid she will be deported. The banter frequently borders on the politically incorrect, but it somehow works, perhaps because it’s never too mean-spirited.

As the assorted controversies are gradually resolved, the story focuses on the big competition against The Sound Machine, the German group that is the defending world champion. Paradoxically, even though the groups are supposed to be singing a cappella renditions of classic hits and show tunes, all the vocalists are accompanied by musical instruments.

Will the Bellas win? Sit back and enjoy the ride. As Bobby McFerrin would sing, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity and sexual innuendo. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

May 13, 2015
WHAT A WAY TO GET AROUND IN THE POST-APOCALYPTIC YEAR 2060: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) directs the driver of his Rube Goldberg means of transportation. He will soon meet up with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, not shown) and help her in her quest to rescue a group of sex slaves from their captor Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, not shown).(Photo by Jasin Boland—© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

WHAT A WAY TO GET AROUND IN THE POST-APOCALYPTIC YEAR 2060: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) directs the driver of his Rube Goldberg means of transportation. He will soon meet up with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, not shown) and help her in her quest to rescue a group of sex slaves from their captor Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, not shown). (Photo by Jasin Boland—© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Fury Road restarts the legendary Mad Max series which has been dormant for several decades. This fourth movie was again produced, written, and directed by Oscar-winner George Miller (Happy Feet) who chose Tom Hardy to replace Mel Gibson in the title role of Max Rockatansky — the former highway patrol officer who has become an intrepid road warrior who dispenses grisly vigilante justice.

Set in 2060 A.D., this post-apocalyptic adventure unfolds in the grim dystopia that is left after a series of global calamities that led to a breakdown of civilization. At the point of departure, we find Max haunted by his tragic past and hunted by desperate scavengers as he drifts around the vast wasteland in a rusty, rattling, off-road car.

The stoic gunslinger’s resolve to go it alone changes when he crosses paths with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a fearless female fleeing across the desert with a group of sex slaves hidden in her big rig. She’s just freed them from Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a ruthless tyrant who wants his breeders back, especially Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), since she’s pregnant and may be carrying his first male heir.

The enraged warlord has dispatched a caravan of bloodthirsty goons who will stop at nothing to retrieve his so-called “wives.”

Fortunately, Max agrees to join forces with Furiosa when he learns of their plight. They plan to drive across the desert to “The Green Place,” a Shangri-La rumored to be teeming with water, vegetation, and other scarce natural resources. But to get there our hero and heroine must negotiate a gauntlet of evil adversaries driving dune buggies that are fitted with a variety of deadly military hardware.

An edge-of-your-seat high body-count movie that is riveting from start to finish despite the lack of any plot development.

Excellent (****). Rated R for disturbing images and relentless, intense violence. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

May 6, 2015
FAIRY TALES CAN COME TRUE, IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU: When she wins the lottery, Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) a woman with bipolar disorder suddenly finds herself with enough money to make her dream of hosting a TV show like Oprah’s come true.(Photo by Suzanne Hanover

FAIRY TALES CAN COME TRUE, IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU: When she wins the lottery, Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) a woman with bipolar disorder suddenly finds herself with enough money to make her dream of hosting a TV show like Oprah’s come true. (Photo by Suzanne Hanover)

Let’s say you’re a diehard Oprah fan who has always wanted to have your own television series just like Oprah. What would you do if you won the lottery and suddenly had enough money to turn that dream into a reality?

That’s what happened to Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) when she won $86 million in the California Stacks Sweepstakes. The trouble is that she suffers from bipolar disorder and deludes herself into believing that now that she’s rich she no longer needs drugs.

So, she informs her psychiatrist (Tim Robbins) that she’s going off her medications and then offers him a bribe to give her a clean bill of health. Next, she approaches Rich, the general manager (James Marsden) of a TV station that specializes in infomercials, about buying air time for the talk show about herself that she wants to host.

Concerned about his struggling network’s bottom line, Rich gives his okay as soon as Alice gives him the $15 million needed to underwrite the project. His brother and business partner (Wes Bentley) is less enthusiastic about taking advantage of Alice until she proceeds to seduce him.

Since she’s the topic of every episode, Alice appropriately names the program “Welcome to Me.” The themes for the programs range from titles like “Jordana Spangler – a Liar,” “Matching Colors to Emotions,” “Lucky Foods,” “I Can Still Smell You,” and “Regulating Your Moods with a High-Protein Diet.” The only thing they have in common is that they focus on some aspect of the narcissistic emcee’s life.

The emotional exhibitionism proves compelling enough to improve ratings and Alice proceeds to self-destruct in front of her audience who can’t get enough of her no matter what she’s discussing. But at $150,000 per episode, it’s obvious that she’s eventually going to have a crash-landing .

Directed by Shira Piven, Welcome to Me is a droll dramatic comedy that is made for the comedic style of Kristen Wiig. Alternately vulnerable and bizarre, but always endearing, this movie is the Saturday Night Live (SNL) alumna’s best since Bridesmaids.

Kudos to Kristen for baring herself, literally and figuratively, and for delivering a performance that could easily have degenerated into the sort of slapstick she did on SNL.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, profanity, graphic nudity, and brief drug use. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Alchemy.

April 29, 2015
WELCOME TO PARADISE: Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, left) is greeted by the CEO and owner of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After winning a company wide lottery, Caleb was rewarded with a visit to Nathan’s mountain retreat. As it turns out, Nathan had an ulterior motive. He wants Caleb to evaluate his latest fembot to see if she can pass the Turing test, which means that she can pass as being a human instead of a cyborg.(Photo © 2015 — Universal Pictures International)

WELCOME TO PARADISE: Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson, left) is greeted by the CEO and owner of his employer Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After winning a company wide lottery, Caleb was rewarded with a visit to Nathan’s mountain retreat. As it turns out, Nathan had an ulterior motive. He wants Caleb to evaluate his latest fembot to see if she can pass the Turing test, which means that she can pass as being a human instead of a cyborg. (Photo © 2015 — Universal Pictures International)

Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson) is a computer programmer for Blue Book, the most popular internet search engine in the world. When he wins a staff lottery, he is summoned to the hilltop retreat of the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).

After being brought there by corporate helicopter, he discovers that his billionaire boss has a hidden agenda. As it turns out, the place is really a high-tech facility that is conducting research in artificial intelligence.

In order to stay, Caleb is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement in which he promises to keep secret what he’s about to witness. Nathan next explains that an android has been invented, and he wants to see if it will pass the Turing test — which means that the software will be examined for signs that reveal the android is not human.

He then introduces Caleb to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful fembot that he wants Caleb to study for a week. Caleb is surprised by her level of sophistication, since her brain is complex enough to discern the meaning of idioms like “breaking the ice.” He’s even more impressed by her non-deterministic nature, as she appears to have been successfully programmed to have free will.

The plot thickens several days into the project when Ava senses Caleb has developed feelings for her. At that point, the attractive automaton quietly confides her fears about being expendable. She claims that Nathan wouldn’t have a second thought about wiping her memory banks clean once she’s no longer considered to be state-of-the-art. She points out that that’s what he’s done to each of her predecessors in his quest to build a better cyborg.

Where does Caleb’s loyalty lie? With the callous employer whom he suddenly sees as a heartless tinkerer? Or with the flesh-covered machine that exhibits a full range of emotions, including a seductive vulnerability? That is the dilemma confronting the anguished protagonist in Ex Machina, an intriguing science fiction adventure that is the directorial debut of Alex Garland. Best known as the scriptwriter of 28 Days Later, Garland proves he is a capable filmmaker here, with a thought provoking thriller that is guaranteed to keep you enthralled.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, violence, sexual references, and graphic nudity. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: A24.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 15, 2015

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 2, 2015
Get Hard Movie

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heartwarming!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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