November 12, 2014
IS THIS THE WAY TO CARNEGIE HALL?: Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) burns the midnight oil in hopes of pleasing his cruel professor, Terence Fletcher (not shown). Andrew drives himself mercilessly and practices so much that he breaks up with his girl friend and wrestles with bouts of depression.(Photo by Daniel McFadden - © 2013

IS THIS THE WAY TO CARNEGIE HALL?: Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) burns the midnight oil in hopes of pleasing his cruel professor, Terence Fletcher (not shown). Andrew drives himself mercilessly and practices so much that he breaks up with his girl friend and wrestles with bouts of depression. (Photo by Daniel McFadden – © 2013

Nineteen-year-old Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) got more than he bargained for when he entered mythical Shaffer Conservatory. The prodigy had expected that the best music school in the country would be the ideal place to pursue his ambition of becoming a celebrated jazz drummer.

However, he ends up under the thumb of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an impatient perfectionist who has a twisted teaching method. The Machiavellian professor’s approach involves not only belittling his students, but pitting them against one another by making them compete for spots in the school’s elite performance band.

In Andrew’s case, he has to compete for the drummer’s chair against an upperclassman (Nate Lang) and a fellow newcomer (Austin Stowell). Meanwhile, Andrew finds himself ducking chairs thrown at him while being called everything from a “retard” to a “tonal catastrophe” by Fletcher. The professor is a taskmaster who rationalizes the abuse of his students by invoking the tough love theory that his job is “to push people beyond what is expected of them.”

As a result, Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) and surrenders any semblance of a social life in order to “practice! practice! practice!” for the sake of his coach. However, such a narrow, self-negating path takes a toll on his body and soul, as evidenced by his bloody calloused hands and bouts of depression.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), Whiplash is an electrifying drama that might be thought of as a variation on the protégé-mentor theme typified by movies like The Emperor’s Club, Dead Poets Society, and Mr. Holland’s Opus. As a result of universal critical and popular acclaim, the movie has generated considerable Academy Award buzz. Look for J.K. Simmons to land a nomination, and don’t be surprised if his co-star Teller, and director Chazelle are invited to Oscar night too.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and some sexual references. Running time: 107 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.

 

November 5, 2014
THIS ONE LOOKS LIKE IT COULD BE A WINNER: Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) gave up stealing stolen scrap metal and selling it to junkyard owners in favor of making videos of accidents or crime scenes that had grisly images of injured people. He realized that selling the videos to the local network news programs, besides being legal, was also much more lucrative.(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick)

THIS ONE LOOKS LIKE IT COULD BE A WINNER: Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) gave up stealing stolen scrap metal and selling it to junkyard owners in favor of making videos of accidents or crime scenes that had grisly images of injured people. He realized that selling the videos to the local network news programs, besides being legal, was also much more lucrative. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick)

Petty thief Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) was eking out a living selling stolen scrap metal to junkyards until the day he stumbled upon a legitimate line of work when he assisted a driver who was trapped in a fiery car crash. He was surprised to find that freelance journalists were flocking to the scene in hopes of shooting graphic video footage that they could sell to the network television stations.

He quietly observed them in action and then asked a reporter some probing questions about what the job entailed. After listening intently, Lou — a quick learner — visited a pawn shop and purchased a camcorder and police scanner; the only tools, besides the car he already had, that were essential to enter the business.

The next thing you know, he’s roaming the streets of Los Angeles and joining the cutthroat competition to be the first to arrive in the aftermath of a gruesome murder or highway pileup. Understanding the TV news credo, “If it bleeds, it leads,” he starts picking which emergency calls to pursue based on their potential for providing the sort of captivating pictures that would be popular with viewers.

After some early successes, he hires a homeless person (Rick Garcia) as his navigator. He also develops a mutually beneficial relationship with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the veteran news director at Channel 6, the local station that also has the lowest ratings. Lou’s uncanny ability to get grisly shots coincides with Nina and KWLA’s desperate need to attract a wider audience.

Thus unfolds Nightcrawler, a riveting thriller marking the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy. Jake Gyllenhaal is better than ever here in the title role, eclipsing both his outing last year in Prisoners as well as his Oscar nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain.

As the film unfolds, the plot thickens when Lou decides to make news rather than merely cover it. The potential financial rewards become so tempting that he begins to orchestrate events for the sake of the almighty dollar. Conveniently, Nina looks the other way even though there is mounting evidence that her star stringer is crossing an ethical line.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, profanity, and graphic images. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Open Road Films.

 

October 29, 2014
DON’T MAKE WAVES: Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) is not interested in furthering the cause of black students at Winchester University. She just wants to get along with everybody and also get a part in the reality TV show that is conducting auditions on campus.(© 2014 Roadside Attractions)

DON’T MAKE WAVES: Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) is not interested in furthering the cause of black students at Winchester University. She just wants to get along with everybody and also get a part in the reality TV show that is conducting auditions on campus. (© 2014 Roadside Attractions)

The academics are tough enough at Winchester University, a mythical Ivy League institution. It’s too bad that black students there also have to worry about making themselves comfortable socially.

That’s the predicament we find four African American undergrads facing in Dear White People, a social satire that is the directorial and scriptwriting debut of Justin Simien. Earlier this year, the thought provoking dramatic comedy won the Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at the Sundance Film Festival.

The picture’s protagonists are as different from each other as night and day. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is gay and uncomfortable around his own people because blacks teased him the most about his sexuality back in high school. He lives in a predominately white dorm where he is still teased by his dorm mates.

Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) is a legacy admission to Winchester thanks to his  his father (Dennis Haysbert), who is an alumnus and the current dean of students. Troy is dating a white woman, Sofia Fletcher (Brittany Curran), who is the daughter of the school’s president (Peter Syvertsen).

Political activist Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) is at the other extreme — she is a militant woman who lives in the all-black dorm that serves as a refuge for the “hopelessly Afro-centric.” She also hosts the talk show “Dear White People” on the college’s radio station, where she indicts Caucasians about everything from their racism to their sense of entitlement.

Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris) wants to assimilate into mainstream American culture. She is more concerned with whether she might make the cut for the reality TV show that is conducting auditions on campus than she is with challenging the status quo.

It is clear that the four lead characters have little in common besides their skin color. However, the plot thickens when Pastiche, a student-run humor publication, decides to throw a Halloween party with an “unleash your inner-Negro” theme.

Now, at the party, the black students are stereotyped by their white classmates who are cavorting in blackface and are dressed as pimps and gangstas or as icons like Barack Obama and Aunt Jemima.

In the course of the story, director Simien pulls a couple of rabbits out of his hat to help the plot along, laces the dialogue with pithy lines (“Learn to modulate your blackness up or down depending on the crowd and what you want from them”), and touches on hot button issues ranging from affirmative action to Tyler Perry.

A delightful dissection of the Ivy League that stirs the pot in the way most folks mean when they a call for a national discussion of race.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, ethnic and sexual preference slurs, sexuality, and drug use. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Roadside Attractions.

 

October 22, 2014
MAYBE WE WERE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER: Former high school sweethearts, Dawson Cole (James Marsden, right) and Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan) find themselves attracted to each other again when they reunite at an old friends funeral in their hometown. Will Dawson and Amanda get together as adults, or is this attraction for each other only a passing fancy. To find out, see the movie.(Photo by Peter Iovino - © 2014 Best of Me Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved)

MAYBE WE WERE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER: Former high school sweethearts, Dawson Cole (James Marsden, right) and Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan) find themselves attracted to each other again when they reunite at an old friends funeral in their hometown. Will Dawson and Amanda get together as adults, or is this attraction for each other only a passing fancy. To find out, see the movie. (Photo by Peter Iovino – © 2014 Best of Me Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved)

The true test of a good tearjerker movie is whether or not it moves you to tears. And this movie managed to make me cry in spite of myself.

As this film unfolded, I found myself criticizing its considerable structural flaws; the questionable casting, the farfetched storyline, and one humdinger of a reveal. Nevertheless, as the closing credits rolled, I found myself wiping my eyes, a sure sign that this melodrama had achieved its goal.

Directed by Michael Hoffman (The Last Station), the picture is loosely based on the Nicholas Sparks best seller of the same name published in 2011. Sparks is the author of 18 romance novels, and half of them have been adapted to the big screen, most notably Message in a Bottle and The Notebook, with more in the works.

Set in Oriental, North Carolina, The Best of Me stars James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan as Dawson Cole and Amanda Collier, former high school sweethearts who haven’t seen each other in a couple decades. Strangely, the teenage versions of the same characters are played in a series of flashbacks by Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, who don’t look at all like their older versions.

The point of departure is the present, where we learn that Dawson, who never married or attended college, is employed on an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana. He barely survives a deepwater explosion that blows him off a hundred-foot high platform and turns the Gulf of Mexico into a sea of fire. Meanwhile Amanda, who is unhappily married, is living in Baton Rouge where she has stuck it out for 18 years with her abusive alcoholic husband (Sebastian Arcelus) for the sake of their son (Ian Nelson).

Fate brings the two back to their tiny hometown for the funeral of Tuck (Gerald McRaney), a mutual friend who had a posthumous agenda. He named them both in his will with the hope of arranging a reunion of the high school lovers — whom he thought were meant for each other. Sure enough, sparks fly, but will they share more than a brief dalliance?

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, brief profanity, and some drug use. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

October 15, 2014
CIRCUMSTANCES SOMETIMES BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER AGAIN: Judge Robert Palmer (Robert Duvall, right) is being defended by his estranged son Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.), who is a successful criminal defense attorney in Chicago. The judge has been arrested for allegedly being involved in a hit and run killing and Hank, who left home several years ago after managing to alienate himself from his father and brother, agrees to defend his father.(© 2014 - Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures)

CIRCUMSTANCES SOMETIMES BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER AGAIN: Judge Robert Palmer (Robert Duvall, right) is being defended by his estranged son Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.), who is a successful criminal defense attorney in Chicago. The judge has been arrested for allegedly being involved in a hit and run killing and Hank, who left home several years ago after managing to alienate himself from his father and brother, agrees to defend his father. (© 2014 – Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures)

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a successful criminal defense attorney with a good reason to hide his humble roots. It seems he was a rebellious child who frequently landed in trouble with the law while growing up in Carlinville, Indiana.

His juvenile delinquency alienated him from his father, Joseph (Robert Duvall), who happened to be the town’s only judge. In addition, Hank managed to permanently estrange himself from his older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio). Unfortunately, their other sibling, Dale (Jeremy Palmer), was mentally handicapped, As a result, Hank hadn’t been back home in ages until he received word that his mother (Catherine Cummings) had died.

He had planned to make a perfunctory appearance at the funeral and quickly return to Chicago where he had his hands full. In addition to his busy law practice, he was involved in a custody battle with his estranged wife (Sarah Lancaster) over their young daughter (Emma Tremblay). However, everything changed for Hank when his father, Judge Palmer, was arrested in the hit-and-run killing of a convict (Mark Kiely) whom he had publicly castigated in court before releasing him from police custody.

This shocking development forces Hank to represent his father, and simultaneously allows him to mend a few fences at home. In addition, Hank seduces a woman he meets in a bar (Leighton Meester), who turns out to be the daughter of his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga), and who might be his own love child.

Thus unfolds The Judge, a drama which is half whodunit, half soap opera that pulls a rabbit out of the hat every five minutes or so. Thanks to Robert Duvall, who plays the Palmer family patriarch with a sobering, stone cold gravitas, the film remains rather well grounded.

Also, Robert Downey, Jr. and Billy Bob Thornton turn in inspired performances as the opposing attorneys matching wits in a classic courtroom showdown. Excellent (***½). Rated R for profanity and sexual references. Running time: 141 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

October 8, 2014
DOTTING THE T’S AND CROSSING THE I’S: Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) carefully checks his facts during the course of gathering information to be used in his inflammatory esposé of the Central Intelligence Agency’s dealings with the Nicaraguan Contras. Webb’s story “Dark Alliance” was published in the San Jose Mercury News, in a series of articles in 1996. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, © 2013, Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved)

DOTTING THE T’S AND CROSSING THE I’S: Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) carefully checks his facts during the course of gathering information to be used in his inflammatory esposé of the Central Intelligence Agency’s dealings with the Nicaraguan Contras. Webb’s story “Dark Alliance” was published in the San Jose Mercury News, in a series of articles in 1996.
(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, © 2013, Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved)

In August of 1996, the San Jose Mercury News published an exposé detailing how the Central Intelligence Agency had orchestrated the importation of crack cocaine from Nicaragua and its distribution in the black community of South Central Los Angeles. Entitled “Dark Alliance,” the series of stories were written by Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), an investigative journalist who had risked life and limb to obtain and release the incendiary information.

For example, while conducting his research, he had been asked by a CIA operative who was trying to intimidate him “Do you have a family?” The spy agency was determined to suppress any facts that might shed light on its covert dealings with the Contras, the rebels who were attempting to topple the government of Nicaragua.

But Webb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, would not be intimidated and he completed the piece. And even though he had supported his allegations with declassified documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, the CIA secretly enlisted the assistance of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times to discredit him.

These prominent papers discredited the notion that the CIA was behind the dissemination of crack in the inner-city. Nevertheless, Dark Alliance became the biggest story of the year, especially among African-Americans, many of whom surfed the internet in order to read the damning report.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters (Dem-Calif.) took to the House floor warning that “Somebody’s going to have to pay for what they have done to my people.” Yet, the revelations seemed to take the greatest toll on Gary Webb, who lost his good name, his job, his career, his home, and even his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt).

This shameful chapter in American history is the subject of Kill the Messenger, a sobering biopic directed by Michael Cuesta and starring Jeremy Renner. The film features a cast that includes Ray Liotta, Barry Pepper, Tim Blake Nelson, Andy Garcia, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Robert Patrick, and Paz Vega.

However, this riveting thriller is Renner’s movie, and the two time Academy Award-nominee (The Hurt Locker and The Town) delivers another Oscar-quality performance as a family man and respected writer who slowly becomes a paranoid soul haunted by demons and hunted by Machiavellian mercenaries.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and drug use. Running time: 112 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

October 1, 2014
GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Mild mannered, seemingly innocuous Robert McCall (left) is intrigued by the prostitute Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) whom he comes to know during his late night visits to the diner whenever he has bouts of insomnia. Teri frequents the diner during breaks between her clients, and McCall befriends her. When Teri comes in one night with a black eye, McCall, who is a retired spy, takes it upon himself to punish the person who beat up Teri.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Mild mannered, seemingly innocuous Robert McCall (left) is intrigued by the prostitute Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) whom he comes to know during his late night visits to the diner whenever he has bouts of insomnia. Teri frequents the diner during breaks between her clients, and McCall befriends her. When Teri comes in one night with a black eye, McCall, who is a retired spy, takes it upon himself to punish the person who beat up Teri.

On the surface, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is a pleasant hail fellow well met person. By day, the affable widower works as a sales associate at a hardware superstore where he jokes with co-workers who call him “Pops.” Evenings, he retires to a modest apartment in a working class Boston community, although bouts of insomnia often have him going to a nearby diner to read a book into the wee hours of the morning.

The dingy joint looks a lot like the diner depicted by Edward Hopper in the classic painting Nighthawks. Among the seedy haunt’s habitués is Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teen age prostitute who hangs out there between clients.

Robert takes a personal interest in the troubled teen who is a recent immigrant whose real name is Alina. He soon learns that she’d rather be pursuing a musical career than sleeping with stranger after stranger. Trouble is she’s under the thumb of Slavi (David Meunier), a sadistic pimp who’ll stop at nothing to keep her in check.

A critical moment arrives the night she arrives in the restaurant and hands Robert her new demo tape while trying to hide a black-eye. But he becomes less interested in the CD than in the whereabouts of the person who gave her the shiner.

What neither Teri, nor anybody else knows, is that Robert is a retired spy who has a set of deadly skills that he learned as part of his past job. At this juncture, the mild mannered retiree reluctantly morphs into an anonymous vigilante who doles out street justice on behalf of Teri and other vulnerable crime victims who have no other recourse for justice.

Thus unfolds The Equalizer, a riveting, gruesome adaptation of the popular 1980s TV series. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, this version is actually more reminiscent of Death Wish (1974), because the film’s protagonist behaves more like the brutal avenging angel portrayed on the big screen by Charles Bronson than the television show’s British gentleman.

Considerable credit goes to Oscar winner Mauro Fiore’s (Avatar) captivating cinematography that shows Boston in a way which is somehow both stylish and haunting. Nevertheless, the panoramas only serve as a backdrop for Denzel who is even better here than in his Oscar winning collaboration with Fuqua in Training Day.

Excellent (****). Rated R for graphic violence, sexual references, and pervasive profanity. In English and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 131 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

September 24, 2014
THE BEGINNING OF HECTOR’S QUEST FOR HAPPINESS: At last Anjali (Veronica Ferres, back to camera), one of Hector’s (Simon Pegg) patients summons up the courage to tell him that he is not helping her at all. (Photo by Ed Araquel,  © 2014 Egoli Tossell Film/ Co-Produktionsgesellschaft “Hector 1” GmbH & Co. KG/ Happiness Productions Inc./ Wild Bunch Germany)

THE BEGINNING OF HECTOR’S QUEST FOR HAPPINESS: At last Anjali (Veronica Ferres, back to camera), one of Hector’s (Simon Pegg) patients summons up the courage to tell him that he is not helping her at all.
(Photo by Ed Araquel, © 2014 Egoli Tossell Film/ Co-Produktionsgesellschaft “Hector 1” GmbH & Co. KG/ Happiness Productions Inc./ Wild Bunch Germany)

Hector (Simon Pegg) is a funny duck. The eccentric neat freak is lucky to have a girlfriend like Clara (Rosamund Pike) who’s willing to put up with his odd requests, such as arranging everything in perfect order, from his socks to his sandwiches. He’s even more fortunate to have a thriving psychiatric practice, in spite of the barely contained contempt he feels for his patients.

A moment of truth arrives the day one of them (Veronica Ferres) finally tells him to his face that he’s transparent, inauthentic, and just going through the motions. Conceding that he’s become so jaded and unhappy that he isn’t helping his patients anymore, Hector decides to embark on a globe spanning spiritual quest for the fulfillment and happiness that has escaped him.

After all, how could he not be happy, when he is surrounded by all the trappings of success? Hector’s plans have Clara concerned about whether their relationship is on shaky ground, because she’s been reluctant to start a family and she’s also aware that he has a former girl friend (Toni Collette) whom he still cares about.

Hector and the Search for Happiness is an introspective travelogue played mostly for laughs. Simon Pegg exhibits an endearing naïvete as the peripatetic protagonist, whether misreading the flirtations of a prostitute (Ming Zhao) in China or not realizing that his cab has been car-jacked by the underlings of an African crime boss (Akin Omotoso).

Such perils notwithstanding, our hero persists in asking his pressing question “What is happiness?” at each stop as he circumnavigates the globe. Taking copious notes on a writing pad, he records the answers he receives, like “Being loved for who you are,” “Answering your calling,” and “Feeling completely alive.”

Eventually, Hector experiences the epiphany he’s been searching for, and revitalized, rushes home to Clara, his career, and his clients, who might not be so annoying after all.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and brief nudity. In English, French, and German with subtitles. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

September 17, 2014
BUT THIS WAS YOUR FATHER’S DYING WISH: Mort Altman’s (Will Swenson, not shown) dying wish was that his family observe shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning period of seven days, in spite of the fact that he was not an observant Jew, and in fact was an atheist. During this period of mourning, the problems of each of the children, from left Judd (Justin Bateman), Paul (Corey Stoll), Wendy (Tina Fey), and Phillip (Adam Driver) are revealed in this dramatic comedy.

BUT THIS WAS YOUR FATHER’S DYING WISH: Mort Altman’s (Will Swenson, not shown) dying wish was that his family observe shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning period of seven days, in spite of the fact that he was not an observant Jew, and in fact was an atheist. During this period of mourning, the problems of each of the children, from left Judd (Justin Bateman), Paul (Corey Stoll), Wendy (Tina Fey), and Phillip (Adam Driver) are revealed in this dramatic comedy.

When Mort Altman (Will Swenson) passed away, his children returned home expecting to remain in town for a day or two. After all, despite being raised as Jews, they had no reason to expect to sit shiva (the traditional seven day mourning period), since their father was an avowed atheist and their psychologist mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) is a gentile.

However, after the funeral, their mother informs the children of their father’s dying wish that they mourn him for a week in accordance with religious tradition. And then she announces that they’re all grounded for seven days.

This development doesn’t sit well with any of them, since they don’t get along with each other and this is the first time in years that they’ve all been sleeping under the same roof. Furthermore, their father’s death couldn’t have come at a more inopportune moment, since each of them is in the midst of a midlife crisis.

Judd (Jason Bateman) has just learned that his wife (Abigail Spencer) is having an affair with his boss (Dax Shepard). Meanwhile, brother Paul’s (Corey Stoll) marriage is in jeopardy because his wife (Kathryn Hahn), whose biological clock is ticking, has been unable to become pregnant.

Then there’s the playboy baby brother, Philip (Adam Driver), a narcissist with unresolved oedipal issues, and is dating a psychologist (Connie Britton) who is old enough to be his mother. However, he’s such a womanizer that he doesn’t think twice about shamelessly flirting with an old flame (Carly Brooke Pearlstein) right in front of his mortified girlfriend.

Finally, although their sister Wendy (Tina Fey) seems to be the most stable of the four, who is a mother of two with a devoted, but emotionally distant, husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) who is also a great provider. However, Barry’s obsession with his career on Wall Street has come at the cost of losing the passion and intimacy in their relationship. So, the last thing Wendy needs now is the temptation of an affair with Horry (Timothy Olyphant), her high school sweetheart who is still single, still in shape, and still living right across the street, even if he’s brain-damaged and lives with his mother (Debra Monk).

All of these situations serve as fodder for sophisticated humor in This Is Where I Leave You, a droll dramatic comedy directed by Shawn Levy (Date Night). Adapted to the screen by Jonathan Tropper, author of the best seller of the same name, this witty film features funny repartee as it explores themes ranging from religion, mortality, love, and betrayal.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and drug use. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

September 10, 2014
IS THIS RYAN OR HIS TWIN BROTHER DREXEL?: Elvis impersonator Blake Ryan portrays the identical twin babies Ryan and Drexel, one of whom grows up to become the King of Rock and Roll. The twins were separated shortly after being born and Drexel grew up to become a national singing sensation, but Ryan’s fate is less certain.

IS THIS RYAN OR HIS TWIN BROTHER DREXEL?: Elvis impersonator Blake Ryan portrays the identical twin babies Ryan and Drexel, one of whom grows up to become the King of Rock and Roll. The twins were separated shortly after being born and Drexel grew up to become a national singing sensation, but Ryan’s fate is less certain.

What if Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin had survived his mother’s pregnancy instead of dying during the twins birth in January, 1935? That is the alternate reality presented in The Identical, a musical that is the directorial debut of Dustin Marcellino.

Unfortunately, Dustin chose an Elvis impersonator to star in his revisionist version of events, a dubious decision that becomes obvious when Blake Rayne isn’t singing and shaking his hips on-stage. The first-time actor plays both Ryan Hemsley and his identical sibling, Drexel (Elvis), in this fictionalized account of the life of the King of Rock and Roll.

The movie’s point of departure is in Decatur, Georgia during the Depression, which is where we find poverty stricken sharecroppers Helen (Amanda Crew) and William Hemsley (Brian Geraghty) trying to figure out how they’re going to provide for their newborn twins. The answer arrives at a revival meeting that is being held under a big tent by Reverend Reece Wade (Ray Liotta), who is a Pentecostal preacher with a soul full of hope and a barren wife (Ashley Judd).

The Wades desire to start a family dovetails with the Hemsleys having one more baby than they can afford. So, with God as their witness, Reece and Louise secretly agree to adopt Ryan before going back to Tennessee. Meanwhile, Helen and William announce the missing boy’s death to friends and relatives, and stage a faux funeral, complete with an empty casket.

Reece proceeds to raise Ryan in the church with a career in the ministry in mind although, because of his singing talent, he is more comfortable in the choir than the pulpit. He finally rebels in his teens and enlists in the military, leaving his domineering father and a sweetheart (Erin Cottrell) behind. By contrast, Drexel, who was also blessed with a great voice, is allowed by the Hemsleys to pursue his passion, and blossoms into a singing sensation.

Will the twins ever learn of each other’s existence? If so, will they be able to forgive their parents for separating them at birth? And will Ryan ever get his own shot at fame and fortune?

These questions are posed by a production so flawed in terms of plot, dialogue, and acting that it is unintentionally funny. Regrettably, The Identical lacks plausibility, such as its farcical reimagining of race relations in the Jim Crow South and its silly staging of car chases that are straight out of The Dukes of Hazzard.

Fair (*). Rated PG for smoking and mature themes. Running time: 107 minutes. Distributor: Freestyle Releasing.

 

September 3, 2014
HOW CAN YOU KILL THIS INNOCENT BABY: Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) desperately clutches the baby, with whom he has become attached. The infant will be euthanized solely because he was born with a birth defect, and therefore cannot be allowed to become a member of  the society in which everybody is perfect.

HOW CAN YOU KILL THIS INNOCENT BABY: Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) desperately clutches the baby, with whom he has become attached. The infant will be euthanized solely because he was born with a birth defect, and therefore cannot be allowed to become a member of the society in which everybody is perfect.

Despite being born in the same year and having overlapping careers, Oscar winners Meryl Streep (Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, and The Iron Lady) and Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) never made a movie together until now. However, the collaboration is well worth the wait in this haunting science fiction adventure set in a dystopia that masquerades as being heaven on Earth.

The film is based on Lois Lowry’s bestseller of the same name which won the Newbery Award as America’s best children’s book of 1994. The adaptation, approved by the author, was directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) who chose Brenton Thwaites to portray the young hero, Jonas.

The picture’s point of departure is the young protagonist’s graduation day, when he participates in a coming-of-age ritual in which 18-year-olds are assigned an occupation by the elders of their community. Jonas’s best friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) learn that they’ll be trained as a drone pilot and a nurturer, respectively.

Jonas, however, who has been recognized as being special because of his ability to see things differently, is designated as the “Receiver of Memories,” and becomes the protégé of the “Giver” (Bridges). In that capacity, he soon realizes that the whole society is a charade which shields its citizens from the fact that there is suffering in the world by injecting them once a day with a drug which keeps them naïve, obedient, and blissfully content.

However in truth, evil does exist in their midst, although it is veiled; such as how the sick and the old are “released” in a way that gives no hint that they’re actually being euthanized. As a result of his revelation, Jonas experiences a crisis of conscience and must decide whether to obediently follow in the Giver’s footsteps or to upset the society by revealing how everybody’s minds are being controlled.

Among the factors influencing his decision is the unexpected pleasure he feels from the “stirrings,” the formerly suppressed sexual awakening he suddenly feels for Fiona. Another involves the impending euthanization of a baby who was born with a birth defect (Alexander Jillings), and with whom Jonas has formed a strong bond.

Besides the historic pairing of Streep and Bridges, the film features excellent performances by the three actors playing the leads, as well as Katie Holmes and Taylor Swift, who have supporting roles. The film is a thought provoking look at mind control and gives a valuable lesson about the virtue of challenging any totalitarian authority.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for action, violence, and mature themes. Running time: 94 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

August 27, 2014
DIDN’T YOUR MOTHER EVER TEACH YOU TO KNOCK?: The head of a CIA team of assassins David Mason (Luke Bracey) makes a dramatic entrance into a room as he chases down the person he has been assigned to kill.

DIDN’T YOUR MOTHER EVER TEACH YOU TO KNOCK?: The head of a CIA team of assassins David Mason (Luke Bracey) makes a dramatic entrance into a room as he chases down the person he has been assigned to kill.

Director Roger Donaldson is probably most closely associated with No Way Out, one of the best espionage thrillers ever made. Here he revisits the genre with The November Man, although this picture pales in comparison to his 1987 classic movie.

Nonetheless, Roger has managed to craft a labyrinthine cat-and-mouse caper that keeps you on the edge of your seat despite an often incoherent plot, slapdash action sequences, and an inscrutable cast of characters whose motivations are difficult to discern. Overall, the adventure amounts to a dizzying head scratcher that takes you on a roller coaster ride, even if you might need a scorecard to keep the players straight.

Based on the Bill Granger best seller There Are No Spies, the movie stars Pierce Brosnan in the title role as Peter Devereaux, an ex-CIA agent whose code name was “The November Man.” Although he had retired to Switzerland five years earlier, it didn’t take much to coax him to help extract Natalia (Mediha Musliovic), a Russian double agent, who is ready to come in out of the cold.

Peter and Natalia share a secret past which resulted in their daughter Lucy (Tara Jevrosimovic), a love child whom he misses terribly. However, the prospects of a father daughter reunion are reduced significantly when Natalia is shot in the head by a team of assassins led by David Mason (Luke Bracey), Peter’s former protégé in the CIA.

What’s up with that? Did the Agency really want Natalia dead? Or did David go rogue? These are the questions left unanswered as Peter accepts another dangerous assignment, namely, the exfiltration of Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko) from Moscow.

It turns out that Alice is a pivotal witness for the prosecution who is scheduled to testify at a war crimes tribunal that is about all the atrocities committed in Chechnya by Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski). However, Federov is Russia’s ruthless president-elect and he isn’t about to let some social worker interfere with his plans.

Peter quickly realizes that Alice has many angry adversaries, both Soviet, such as Federov’s henchwoman (Amila Terzimehic); and American, such as the CIA mole who is giving David his assignments. Not surprisingly, the pair leave a messy trail of bodies behind them as they pick up Lucy and make a daring escape to the West.

Very Good (**½ stars). Rated R for rape, profanity, sexuality, nudity, graphic violence, and brief drug use. In English and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

August 20, 2014
SHOULD I CHOOSE LIFE OR DEATH?: Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz, center) after a car accident that left her severely injured, miraculously steps out of her body on the gurney behind her, and learns that she has 24 hours to choose between living or dying.

SHOULD I CHOOSE LIFE OR DEATH?: Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz, center) after a car accident that left her severely injured, miraculously steps out of her body on the gurney behind her, and learns that she has 24 hours to choose between living or dying.

Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a bright 17-year-old young woman full of the bloom of youth. Between playing the cello for pleasure and dating the boy of her dreams (Jamie Blackley), the happy high school senior considers herself truly blessed.

She is lucky enough to have the perfect parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) who support her decision to major in classical music, whether she gets into Juilliard or simply sticks around Portland to attend Lewis & Clark College. Mia is also very close to her only sibling, Teddy (Jakob Davies), who absolutely adores his big sister.

However, fate intervenes one snowy day during a family outing when a car coming in the opposite direction veers across the highway’s double lines. In the blink of an eye, their fortunes are irreversibly altered by an unavoidable head-on crash.

By the time the ambulances and paramedics come to the rescue, all four passengers are in grave condition, and there is a chance that none of them will survive the tragic accident. Mia, who has a collapsed lung, a broken leg, and internal bleeding, slips into a coma.

At that instant, her spirit miraculously separates from her body, and she is suddenly able to observe situations and eavesdrop on conversations as if she were an invisible ghost. While a team of doctors struggle to stabilize her vital signs in the hospital, she watches a nurse (Aisha Hinds) lean over and whisper into her ear that “Living or dying is all up to you.”

This suggests that Mia must choose between dying and ascending to heaven or returning to earth where she will face a host of challenges on her way to recovery. Suspended in this state, she’s afforded the unusual opportunity to reflect and reminisce during the next critical 24 hours before having to make her decision.

That is the surreal setup of If I Stay, a bittersweet flashback movie based on Gayle Forman’s young-adult novel of the same name. Although this sentimental tearjerker will undoubtedly resonate with teenagers, the film’s sophisticated thought-provoking exploration of such themes as family, friendship, love, and spirituality should appeal to audiences in general.

Directed by R.J. Cutler, the movie is about Mia’s contemplation of her future while considering her family’s grim prospects, nostalgia, and the bedside manner of visitors like her grandfather (Stacy Keach), boyfriend, and best friend (Liana Liberato). Although reminiscent of The Lovely Bones (disembodied teen narrator), The Notebook (love story with a syrupy finale), and Twilight (star-crossed romance set in the Pacific Northwest), If I Stay is a unique adventure with a tale all its own to share.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sexuality and mature themes. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

August 13, 2014
THIS REALLY IS THE MOTHER OF ALL TORNADOS: The tornado predicted by meteorologist Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies, not shown) touches down with three funnel clouds in Silverton and disrupts the local high school’s graduation ceremony.

THIS REALLY IS THE MOTHER OF ALL TORNADOS: The tornado predicted by meteorologist Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies, not shown) touches down with three funnel clouds in Silverton and disrupts the local high school’s graduation ceremony.

The skies are serene over Silverton, Oklahoma, with no reminder of the fact that four people recently perished in a deadly tornado that touched down in a neighboring city. So, we find the townfolk blissfully unaware of the rough weather that is bearing down on their area and threatening to ruin the high school’s graduation ceremonies.

Vice Principal Gary Morris (Richard Armitage), who is in charge of the commencement, has told his sons, Trey (Nathan Kress), a sophomore, and Donnie (Max Deacon), a junior, to film the ceremony in order to preserve it in a buried time capsule. His younger son complies with the request, but the elder is distracted by an opportunity to assist an attractive classmate (Alycia Debnam Carey) salvage her own video project.

Meanwhile, a team of storm chasers is rushing towards Silverton under the direction of its meteorologist, Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies), since her data has predicted that the next funnel cloud is likely to form somewhere in that vicinity. However, she’s a single mother with a 5-year-old (Keala Wayne Winterhalt) back home, and as a consequence she’s less enthusiastic about taking risks with their safety than their leader, Pete Moore (Matt Walsh).

Moore is maniacal in his quest to capture what appears to be the mother of all cyclones on camera. So, he exhorts Allison and the rest of the crew to risk their lives in order to capture that elusive dream photo that will be taken from inside the eye of a storm.

However, they have a couple of vehicles that are specially outfitted for severe weather, including a glass turreted tank that can withstand winds up to 170 m.p.h. However, two local residents, Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (John Reep), are daredevils who have decided to try to capture films of the storm by riding around in a pickup truck with a hand-painted sign that reads “TWISTA HUNTERZ.”

Allison’s dire forecast proves uncannily accurate as ominous clouds form overhead. That’s when the action begins in Into the Storm, a disaster film reminiscent of such classics as Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974).

This movie benefits immeasurably from state-of-the-art computer generated images, and is worth seeing for the eye-popping special effects alone. The movie is a campy, cheesy, yet visually captivating roller coaster ride.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexual references, and scenes of intense peril and destruction. Running time: 89 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

August 6, 2014
FATHER BLESS ME FOR I HAVE SINNED: Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) was warned that he would be killed in one week’s time by an insane confessor who was in the confessional booth. Although Father Lavelle suspects that he knows who threatened him, he decides to continue his life as usual without going to the police.

FATHER BLESS ME FOR I HAVE SINNED: Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) was warned that he would be killed in one week’s time by an insane confessor who was in the confessional booth. Although Father Lavelle suspects that he knows who threatened him, he decides to continue his life as usual without going to the police.

While listening to confessions in church one day, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) receives the shock of his life. A disturbed man recounts in lurid detail, how, as a child, he’d been raped by a priest every other day for five years. Then, the anonymous confessor announces that since the pedophile who ruined his life is already deceased, he’s decided to even the score by murdering Father James in exactly one week.

The demented parishioner doesn’t care that his intended victim is innocent and wasn’t even a priest when the transgressions occurred. In fact, Father James was married back then and entered the priesthood relatively recently after his wife’s untimely death.

However, there’s no reasoning with the lunatic who is making the death threat through the opaque screen. He abruptly exits the confessional booth without asking for absolution, thereby leaving Father James in a quandary about what to do next.

The concerned priest consults his immediate superior, Bishop Montgomery (David McSavage), who suggests the matter be reported to the police. However, despite having a hunch about the identity of the unhinged maniac, Father James resumes ministering to the needs of his tiny congregation as if nothing happened, apparently willing to be martyred for the sins of another.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of suspects in the deceptively serene village that is nestled along the Irish seacoast. There’s an unscrupulous banker (Dylan Moran) who is unsatisfied by wealth beyond his wildest dreams, a cuckolded butcher (Chris O’Dowd) with a bipolar spouse (Orla O’Rourke) who’s cheating on him, and her sadistic African lover (Isaach De Bankolé) who admits to beating her.

Other bizarre characters include a physician (Aidan Gillen), who flagrantly violates the Hippocratic oath; a closet cannibal (Domnhall Gleeson), who claims that human flesh tastes a lot like pheasant; and a cop (Gary Lydon) who secretly consorts with a male prostitute (Owen Sharpe). Additionally, there is (Killian Scott), who is considering enlisting in the Army, and a suicidal American writer (M. Emmet Walsh).

Yet, if anyone’s really entitled to want to kill Father James, it would be his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly). She felt like she lost both of her parents when he entered the seminary at a time she needed him the most.

Directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), Calvary is a modern morality play which walks a fine line between a playful whodunit and a sobering parable. However, Brendan Gleeson serves as the glue that holds the production together. He delivers an excellent performance as an introspective soul on a spiritual path who is able to maintain his sanity while facing his mortality in an environment where so many in his flock have clearly lost their minds.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexual references, drug use, and brief violence. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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