November 15, 2017

By Kam Williams 

First published in 1936, Murder on the Orient Express is the most famous case solved by the famous detective Hercule Poirot. Created by Agatha Christie, the Belgian sleuth appeared in 33 of her novels, a play, and over 50 short stories.

This complex murder mystery was first made into a movie by Sidney Lumet in a faithful adaptation that co-starred Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Sir John Gielgud, Albert Finney, and Jacqueline Bisset. Bergman won her third Oscar for her sterling performance as Greta Ohlsson, a Swedish nurse.

This version of Murder on the Orient Express was directed by five-time Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh who assembled a top-flight cast. The cast includes Academy Award winners Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz, and Award nominees Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, and Johnny Depp.

In addition to directing the film, Branagh also stars as Poirot and sports the detective’s trademark mustache. The visually captivating movie is perhaps more memorable for its breathtaking panoramas than the deliberately paced mystery that takes some time to be unraveled.

The picture opens in Jerusalem, where Poirot is visiting the Wailing Wall and then boards a boat to Istanbul. Once there, his vacation is cut short by a telegram that informs him that he must return to London immediately.

With the help of a fellow Belgian, who happens to be a train company executive (Tom Bateman), he secures a berth aboard the lavish Orient Express for what is usually an unremarkable three-day trip. However, the train is stranded in a snowstorm overnight and the next morning an American art dealer (Johnny Depp), who expressed a fear of being killed, is found dead.

As Poirot investigates the murder, we gradually see that each of the 13 passengers on the train had a motive to kill the unsavory character. Although everybody is a suspect, who is the murderer? The legendary Hercule Poirot solves the classic Agatha Christie mystery by using his extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning.

Excellent (***½ stars). Rated PG-13 for violence, ethnic slurs, and mature themes. In English and French with subtitles. Running time: 114 minutes. Production Studio: Kinberg Genre/The Mark Gordon Company. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

November 8, 2017

By Kam Williams

Chariots of Fire (1981) told the real-life story of Eric Henry Liddell (1902-1945), known as “The Flying Scotsman,” who won the gold medal in the 400-meter race at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. What made his feat so amazing was that he had only qualified to run in the 100-meter dash but refused to compete in the race when he learned that it would be occur on a Sunday.

Liddell was a devout Christian whose missionary parents had instilled in him the Biblical injunction that the Sabbath was a holy day of rest. Consequently, he decided to enter the 400-meter contest instead, and miraculously managed to prevail against the best runners in the world in an event that he hadn’t even trained for.

Chariots of Fire was a critically-acclaimed movie that received four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Now, after 36 years, this sequel tells what became of the Olympic star after the Olympic Games of 1924.

Co-directed by Stephen Shin and Michael Parker, On Wings of Eagles stars Joseph Fiennes as Eric Liddell. At the point of departure, we learn that he eschewed fame and fortune in 1925 to return to China, the country of his birth, in order to follow his calling to be a missionary.

He settled down in Asia and started a family with his wife, Florence Mackenzie (Elizabeth Arends). However, their life was irreversibly changed when the Japanese invaded China in 1937.

During the occupation, the Liddells were given the opportunity to leave the country, but the dedicated minister decided he could not to abandon his flock.

However, he did send his pregnant wife and daughters, Patricia (Laura Justine Friis Lodahl) and Heather (Asta Friis Lodahl), to live with his in-laws in Canada. Sadly, Eric was interned in a concentration camp where he suffered terribly before passing away in 1945, only months before Japan’s surrender.

The movie is a tribute to a man of great faith who always chose to follow humbly in the footsteps of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Very Good (***). Rated PG 13. In English, Mandarin, and Japanese with subtitles. Running time: 96 minutes. Production Studio: Goodland Pictures/Innowave Ltd/Bondit. Distributor: Archstone Distribution.

November 1, 2017

By Kam Williams

In the spring of 2007, Washington Post reporter David Finkel accompanied a combat team of American infantrymen who were deployed to Baghdad at the start of the surge that was ordered by President Bush. After being embedded with the team for a year, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter wrote about the G.I.s’ efforts to bring stability to the region in a riveting bestseller titled The Good Soldiers.

In 2013, Finkel published a follow up book, Thank You for Your Service, that updated the team’s struggle to readjust to civilian life after returning home from Iraq. The book has now been made into a film and is a psychological drama that is tightly focused on the mental state of a few members of the team’s battalion.

The movie is the directorial debut of Jason Hall, who previously wrote and appeared in American Sniper (2014). The picture stars Miles Teller as Adam Schumann, the team’s sergeant who suffers from PTSD.

As the film unfolds, we learn that Adam has remained close with the surviving members of the tight-knit unit that was under his command. Unfortunately, all of them have some form of damage, mentally and/or physically. Consequently, all of their relationships at home are in crisis, and none of them has managed to hold down a steady job since their return.

Adam’s wife (Haley Bennett) starts pressuring him to get help because he inexplicably dropped their newborn baby and he’s constantly looking for IEDs whenever they drive down the street. Unfortunately, there’s a nine-month waiting list to see a psychiatrist at the VA hospital and he’s also being discouraged from seeking treatment by a callous colonel (Jake Weber) who tells Adam that all he needs to do is toughen up.

Other members of the group are Solo (Beulah Koale), a Samoan with amnesia whose pregnant wife (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is thinking of leaving him. Another buddy, Will (Joe Cole), was dumped by his fiancée (Erin Darke) even before he returned home.

Things get worse before they get better. But this loyal band of brothers can count on each other, if not the VA or their loved ones for support. The movie is a heartbreaking tale that’s difficult to watch because its based on the hard, cold truth and is a sobering account of our wounded warriors’ tragic misfortunes.

Excellent (***½). Rated R for sexuality, drug use, graphic violence, brief nudity, and pervasive profanity. In English and Samoan with subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

October 25, 2017

By Kam Williams

Bride-to-be Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) is anxious to return home where she and her fiancé (Dermot Mulroney) are scheduled to be married in the morning. The only reason the dedicated photojournalist was in Idaho so close to her wedding was because of her sense of duty to cover a demonstration by skinheads and neo-Nazis. Elsewhere, in the same airline terminal, Dr. Ben Bass (Idris Elba) is just as eager to get to Denver because he’s urgently needed to perform life-saving surgery on a critically-ill child.

Imagine their frustration when they learn that their commercial flight has been canceled due to a forecast of inclement weather. The two strangers commiserate over their plight and decide to charter a private plane.

Unfortunately, their pilot (Beau Bridges) has a fatal heart attack and the plane crashes  on top of a snow capped mountain. Their cell phones are useless and Ben — with broken ribs, and Alex — with a fractured leg, are stranded in the mountains far from civilization.

The Mountain Between Us is a harrowing tale of survival based on the Charles Martin bestseller of the same name. The visually captivating production is superficially reminiscent of The Revenant.

The movie is mostly about the protagonists’ battle against the elements when they are lost in the frigid wilderness and are miles from civilization. During their perilous trek they negotiate their way through a treacherous gauntlet that has cougars, slippery cliffs, and lakes with thin ice, to name a few.

The film also has a romantic angle, because Ben and Alex gradually grow fond of each other during their ordeal. As a result, the burning question becomes whether these feelings will continue once they’re saved. After all, he’s married and she’s engaged.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief profanity. Running time: 103 minutes. Production Studio: Chernin Entertainment. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

October 19, 2017

By Kam Williams

In 1887, 24-year-old Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) was sent from India to England to represent India by presenting Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) with a gold coin that commemorated her Golden Jubilee year as the Queen. When he presented the coin at a banquet at Windsor Castle, he managed to catch the attention of the lonely monarch.

In fact, she was so taken with Karim that she made him her companion and promoted him to be her “munshi,” Urdu for teacher. Not surprisingly, this development didn’t sit well with members of the royal court, especially her son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard). The crown prince was suspicious of the interloper’s intentions and was concerned about how things looked with his widowed mum having a handsome young Muslim at her side.

However, Victoria brushed aside any objections as racial prejudice, and kept Abdul on as her trusted confidant until she passed away in 1901. Based on Shrabani Basu’s bestseller of the same name, Victoria and Abdul describes the unlikely friendship that developed between her majesty and her devoted subject. Directed by two-time Oscar nominee Stephen Frears (The Queen and The Grifters), this “mostly true” tale portrays the relationship as a dramatic comedy whose comedic elements outweigh its dramatic moments.

Dame Judi Dench, who won an Academy award for playing Queen Elizabeth, is again at her best here as an imperious, but vulnerable, Queen. She plays an empathetic visionary adrift in a sea of intolerance that is swarming with British bigots who are too blinded by hate to begin to understand a mild-mannered foreigner whose customs are different than theirs.

The picture’s transparent message about brotherhood is delivered in too heavy-handed a fashion to take seriously. Nevertheless, the movie’s lighter moments generate enough laughs to make the movie worth seeing.

Very Good (**½ stars). Rated PG-13 for profanity and mature themes. In English, Hindi, and Urdu with subtitles. Running time: 111 minutes. Production Studio: BBC Films/Working Title Films/Perfect World Pictures. Distributor: Focus Features.

October 11, 2017

By Kam Williams

William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) was a Renaissance man with an impressive array of talents. After earning his BA, PhD, and law degrees, the Harvard graduate taught psychology at Radcliffe. Despite a demanding academic career, he found time to write self-help books and to invent the precursor of the lie detector.

To this day, however, he remains best remembered as the creator of Wonder Woman. Selling the idea to a comic book publisher in 1941 was no mean feat, since until then, Superman, Batman, The Flash, Captain Marvel, The Green Lantern, and all the other superheroes, were male.

The character Marston envisioned was not just a powerful crime-fighter, but also was an attractive Amazon whose eroticism and dominance were deemed to be sexual and sado-masochistic in nature by her detractors. Although Wonder Woman wore a skimpy outfit, as did Superman, and used a rope to subdue and restrain adversaries, the comic books were far from pornographic. Marston had been inspired by the success of the suffrage movement that helped advance the feminist cause. In fact, he once stated that “The only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development, and equality of women.”

Another source of inspiration were the two women in Marston’s life; his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their longtime lover, Olive (Bella Heathcote). He would father children with each woman, and they all lived under the same roof, although the scandalous arrangement led to the family being shunned by polite society.

Written and directed by Alexandra Robinson, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is an intriguing and informative biopic that finally awards a brilliant visionary, who had been marginalized by history, his due. Thanks to our more enlightened LBGTQ-embracing times, William Moulton Marston can finally be fully appreciated.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, graphic sexuality, and lewd images. Running time: 108 minutes. Production Studio: Stage 6 Films/Boxspring Entertainment/Topple Productions. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures.

October 4, 2017

By Kam Williams

Faith-based films usually have limited appeal beyond the Christian community because most tend to be heavy-handed morality plays that preach to the choir. A Question of Faith is a refreshing change of pace, because instead of proselytizing, the film features character development and a compelling plot.

This carefully crafted modern parable explores a mix of worldly and spiritual themes in a way that will entertain the faithful and sinners alike. The picture was directed by Kevan Otto, who recruited an impressive cast to perform Ty Manns’s script.

The cast disappears so thoroughly into their parts that it’s easy to forget you’re watching actors after just a few minutes into the movie. One of the stars is Kim Fields, who’s best known for the role of Tootie that she originated in the TV sitcom Different Strokes, and continued to play in the spinoff, The Facts of Life.

The film unfolds in Atlanta where we’re introduced to three families that are dealing with serious life issues. The first is Theresa Newman (Fields), who is worried that her husband (Richard T. Jones) is so obsessed with taking over as senior pastor of the church from his father (Gregory Alan Williams) that he might break a promise to attend their younger son’s (Caleb T. Thomas) basketball game.

Next, gospel singer Michelle Danielsen’s (Amber Thompson) father (C. Thomas Howell) is pressuring her to perform at a record company’s audition because he needs the money his daughter’s contract with the record company would provide to help save his business. He is apparently more concerned with avoiding an impending collapse of his business than with finding the cause of his daughter’s debilitating headaches.

Finally, restaurant owner Katie Hernandez (Jaci Velasquez) keeps reminding her daughter Maria (Karen Valero) to stop texting while driving when she is making deliveries to customers. Katie doesn’t want Maria to have an accident that might prevent her from becoming the first person in their family to attend college.

These parallel storylines converge in a very dramatic fashion. As their fates become intertwined the protagonists rise to the occasion in different ways.

The film is a moving tale of redemption that reveals God’s grace and makes a case for cross-cultural tolerance.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mature themes. Running time: 104 minutes. Production Studio: Silver Lining Entertainment. Distributor: Pure Flix Entertainment.

September 27, 2017

By Kam Williams

Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco) must be the least liked student at Ninjago High. The unassuming 16-year-old is so unpopular that nobody will even sit on the same side of the bus with him on their ride to school.

What they don’t know, however, is that he has a super hero alter ego — the Green Ninja. He is the leader of the Secret Ninja Force, a team of five teens and an android who are helped by Lloyd’s wise and wisecracking uncle, Master Wu (Jackie Chan).

Master Wu has taught each of his protégés how to harness the different forces of nature that are contained in his magical treasure chest. The hot headed Red Ninja (Michael Pena) controls fire; the music-loving Black Ninja (Fred Armisen) has mastered earth; the Blue Ninja (Kumail Nanjiani), lightning; and the Gray Ninja (Abbi Jacobson), water; and the robotic White Ninja’s (Zach Woods) domain is ice.

Their mission is to prevent Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) from conquering Ninjago City. It turns out that the evil villain is Lloyd’s long-lost father, who abandoned his wife (Olivia Munn) and baby when she refused to accept his decision to go to the dark side.

As a result, all Lloyd knows about his father is what he’s been told by his mother and uncle. Consequently, Lloyd is eager to meet and defeat the diabolical warlord who has the reputation of being the world’s “Worst Guy Ever.”

If you’ve seen either LEGO or LEGO Batman, then you have an idea of what to expect from the third film in the animated series. Directed by Charlie Bean, the film is not only a visually captivating adventure, but also has pithy asides and clever allusions to screen classics that also make the movie interesting to adults.

In this critic’s opinion, Ninjago is the best episode in the series because of all the positive messages that are delivered by the picture’s end.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mild action and rude humor. Running time: 101 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

September 20, 2017

By Kam Williams

Sometimes, substance trumps low-production values, such as in the movie Man in Red Bandana. Minutes after the World Trade Center was hit by United Airlines Flight 175 on the morning of 9/11, Welles Crowther called his mother to let her know he was okay. The 24-year-old stockbroker knew she’d be worried, because his office was located on the 104th floor of the South Tower.  more

September 13, 2017

After separating from her husband Austen (Michael Sheen), Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon) decides to move from Manhattan to Los Angeles with her two young daughters Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) and Isabel (Lola Flanery). Although Alice’s father has passed away, the decision to return to the house she grew up in was easy, because the girls would live in the lap of luxury while being pampered by their grandmother Lillian (Candice Bergen).

Alice’s late father was a famous film director, however, Lillian still complains about his philandering and smugly delights in his demise, saying, “He’s gone now, so I won!” The sprawling mansion left to her by the legendary director has a storeroom stuffed with Oscars, movie posters, and other memorabilia from his Hollywood career.

Soon after arriving, Rosie and Isabel become terribly homesick. However, that’s not the case with their single mother, who heads to a bar to celebrate her 40th birthday with two long-lost friends. Next thing you know, they are sharing drinks with three young filmmakers in their 20s, one of whom, Harry (Pico Alexander), is instantly attracted to Alice.

Alice takes all three of the men home with her, and also has a one-night stand with Harry. However, when Rosie discovers her mother in bed with a stranger the next morning, she asks Alice some tough questions — “How did you meet? Did you have a sleepover?”

The plot tests credulity when grandmother Lillian, instead of objecting to the young men’s presence, invites them to move into the guest house after she learns that they’re almost broke and struggling to make it in showbiz. Next, the plot thickens when Austen arrives unannounced from New York, hoping to reconcile with his estranged wife.

Thus unfolds Home Again, a zany romantic comedy written and directed by Hallie Meyers-Shyer. Her debut is impressive, with a tasteful love triangle storyline that is reminiscent of Something’s Gotta Give (2003) and It’s Complicated (2009). This is not too surprising, since both of those hit pictures were written and directed by her Oscar nominated mother Nancy Meyers (Private Benjamin).

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sexuality and mature themes. Running time: 97 minutes. Production Studio: Black Bicycle Entertainment. Distributor: Open Road Films.

September 6, 2017

By Kam Williams

Annabelle: Creation is the fourth film in a horror film series that features The Conjuring 1 and 2 as well as Annabelle. Because this prequel is set in 1952, well before the events which transpired in the others, you don’t have to be familiar with those pictures to enjoy this one, especially if you like having the bejesus scared out of you.

This horror movie has all the staples of a generic haunted house adventure, ranging from a spooky disembodied voice singing a cappella, to involuntary levitation, to a victim leaving nail marks in the floor as she’s dragged down a darkened hall by a mysterious force. The movie was directed by David F. Sandberg, the Swedish director who made an impressive debut last year with the thriller Lights Out.

As the film unfolds, we find dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and his reclusive bed-ridden wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), living in a ramshackle Victorian mansion on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere. They’re still shaken by the loss of their daughter Bee (Samara Lee) who was hit by a car more than ten years ago.

To ease their loneliness, the inconsolable couple has decided to share their home with six orphans. The homeless girls are chaperoned by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), a God-fearing guardian who is grateful to get a roof over their heads.

The children are given free rein of the place, except for a direct order from Mr. Mullins to stay out of Bee’s bedroom. But of course that injunction proves too tempting for Janice (Talitha Bateman), a curious child who is suffering from polio.

Of course, she goes inside the room and thereby unwittingly unleashes a host of demonic forces that are controlled by Annabelle, a doll Samuel had originally made for his dead daughter. It isn’t long thereafter that all hell breaks loose.

Director Sandberg is adept at ratcheting up the tension. In fact, the spine-tingling movie has innumerable heart-stopping moments.

Very Good (***). Rated R for horror violence and terror. Running time: 109 minutes. Production Company: New Line Cinema/Atomic Monster. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

August 30, 2017

The renowned bodyguard Michael Bryce’s (Ryan Reynolds) services were in great demand until one of his clients, a Japanese tycoon (Tsuwayuki Saotome), was executed. That botched operation simultaneously ruined his professional reputation and his romantic relationship with Interpol agent Amelia (Elodie Yung). His career took such a hit that several years later he was homeless and reduced to chauffeuring clients around in a beat-up jalopy.

A chance at redemption — and at winning back Amelia — arrives when she approaches him to protect Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson). He’s the key prosecution witness in the trial at the International Court of Justice of Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman), an Eastern European dictator who is accused of committing genocide.

Amelia has discovered that there’s a mole inside of Interpol who has compromised Kincaid’s safety. So, the only hope of getting him to court alive is by hiring someone who is outside the organization.

However, Darius is a vicious hit man who has murdered hundreds of people. Despite being disgusted by the assassin’s grisly record, Michael agrees to escort him from a British prison to The Hague where he’s scheduled to testify in less than 24 hours. In return for his cooperation, Darius’s wife, Sonia (Salma Hayek), will be released from prison where she has been since she slit someone’s throat in a gruesome bar fight.

That is the point of departure of The Hitman’s Bodyguard, a comedy directed by Patrick Hill (The Expendables 3). The film unfolds as an action adventure in which the two protagonists are impervious to harm from bullets, explosives, pyrotechnics, or boat and car crashes.

However, the movie works because of the palpable screen chemistry generated between Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds. And it does help that each of these indestructible characters has been humanized by a love interest.

The pair exchange lighthearted barbs while having a close brush with death every other minute as they negotiate their way through an endless gauntlet of assassins.

Excellent (****). Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive profanity. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Summit Entertainment.

August 23, 2017

Laurie Chambers (Katheryn Winnick) is understandably worried about her 11-year-old son’s recurring nightmares. In them, her son Jake (Tom Taylor) is becoming convinced that the demise of Earth is imminent.

So, she takes him to a psychiatrist who diagnoses Jake’s visions as delusional and has him committed to a mental health facility. However, Jake really is psychic, and he is accurately forecasting the impending extinction of life on Earth.

The planet’s only hope of averting this apocalypse rests on the shoulders, or more precisely, on the trigger fingers of Roland Deschain (Idris Elba). He’s the last in a long line of gunslingers from another dimension who have been locked in mortal conflict with forces that are led by Randall Flagg (Matthew McConaughey), an evil sorcerer who is on a quest for infinite power. World domination by him is attainable if Randall can reach the Dark Tower, the nexus between time and space that is located in a parallel universe called End-World.

Soon the mysterious figures in Jake’s dreams begin to materialize on the streets of Manhattan. After Randall’s minions murder Jake’s mother, the boy is rescued by Roland. The two escape through a portal to Mid-World where the epic battle to preserve life on Earth unfolds.

That is the point of departure of The Dark Tower, an adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus of the same name. The science fiction series was inspired by “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” a poem written by Robert Browning in 1855. King also cites Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, and the legend of King Arthur as major influences.

The Dark Tower took a circuitous route to becoming a movie. The story was originally optioned by J.J. Abrams in 2007. Ron Howard subsequently acquired the rights in 2010. However, the picture was ultimately written and directed by Nikolaj Arcel, whose A Royal Affair was nominated in 2013 for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category.

This movie is Mr. Arcel’s first English language film, which is why he received help with the screenplay from three scriptwriters that includes Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind). The final production is engaging enough to establish the franchise and leave you anticipating a sequel.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for action, gun violence, and mature themes.

Running time: 95 minutes. Production Studio: Sony/Media Rights Capital/Imagine Entertainment/Weed Road. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

August 16, 2017

Karla (Halle Berry) is a stressed single-mom who is working as a waitress in a diner. Of course she’d rather be spending her time with her young son, Frankie (Sage Correa). Fortunately, he’s patiently waiting right there in the restaurant for her overtime shift to end.

After she finally gets off work, the two drive to an amusement park for what they expect will be a fun-filled afternoon. We also learn that Karla’s in the midst of bitter custody battle for Frankie with her vindictive ex-husband (Jason George).

That explains why she moves a few feet away from Frankie for a little privacy when she gets a call from her divorce attorney.

Unfortunately, her attention from her son is distracted enough to afford a lurking kidnapper (Chris McGinn) an opportunity to pounce. Next thing you know, Frankie is being dragged to a waiting getaway car.

Karla frantically rushes after them into the parking lot, and in her distress, she drops her cell phone before she spots a suspicious Mustang GT with tinted windows and no license plates rushing out of the parking lot. Karla frantically decides to chase the car.

What ensues is an extended chase scene that lasts the rest of the movie. So unfolds Kidnap, a low-budget movie directed by Luis Prieto (Pusher). Although the plot has comical holes big enough for Karla to drive her car through, the picture nevertheless is compelling thanks to a combination of heart-pounding action scenes and the protagonists’ convincing portrayal of their desperation to be reunited.

Very Good (***). Rated R for violence, profanity, and scenes of peril. Running time: 95 minutes. Production Studio: Well Go USA Entertainment / Gold Star / 606 Films / Lotus Entertainment. Distributor: Aviron Pictures.

August 9, 2017

When Hitler ordered an all-out assault on the Western Front in the spring of 1940, the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line proved to be no match for the German blitzkrieg. The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France all fell to the Nazis in a matter of weeks.

By May 26th, about 400,000 British, French, Polish, Belgian, and Dutch troops had been forced to retreat to Dunkirk, a port located along the northern coast of France. The soldiers were stranded on the beach because there weren’t enough military naval vessels to evacuate all of the forces.

The logistical nightmare left most of the battle-weary men in need of a miracle because they were sitting ducks for the Nazi artillery fire and Luftwaffe bombs. At 7 p.m. that evening, Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, issued an urgent appeal to private boat owners to help in the rescue effort.

By dawn, over 800 hundred vessels had been pressed into service. The flotilla included everything from speed boats and yachts, tugboats and fishing trawlers, and ferries and ocean liners.

For the next nine days, they sailed back and forth across the U-Boat infested waters of the English Channel. About a third of the ships were sunk by the enemy, but the altruistic patriots managed to save 338,226 troops.

Afterwards, Winston Churchill put a positive spin on the devastating military defeat. that had claimed the lives of 68,000 British soldiers and left the country vulnerable to an imminent invasion. On June 4th, he took to the floor of the House of Commons and delivered his famous speech that assured the country that there was no doubt that Great Britain would ultimately prevail.

“Whatever the cost may be,” he said in a stirring summation, “We shall fight on the beaches …. We shall fight on the landing grounds …. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets …. We shall fight in the hills ….” concluding, “We shall never surrender!”

All of the above has been portrayed in Dunkirk, a visually captivating World War II epic directed by Christopher Nolan. Mr. Nolan, who is the best British director besides Alfred Hitchcock who has not yet won an Oscar, has made many memorable movies that include Memento, Inception, Interstellar, and the Batman trilogy, among others.

In Dunkirk, he’s found a novel way to recreate the historic evacuation. Instead of having the documentary drama describe a single protagonist or military unit, he has deftly interwoven several discrete storylines that highlight the different perspectives of a number of unsung heroes. Whether on land, by sea, or in the air, many among those patriotic saviors survived, but some did make the ultimate sacrifice in the valiant stand against the evil that was spreading across Europe. Shot with 70mm film, Dunkirk is an instant classic worth seeing on an IMAX screen.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense battle scenes and some profanity. Running time: 106 minutes. In English, French, and German with subtitles.

Production Studio: Syncopy. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

August 2, 2017

If you’re familiar with the surreal cinematic stylings of Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, then you have an idea of of the treat in store for you in the film Lost in Paris. The talented husband and wife team wrote, directed, and co-starred in their latest foray into the theater of the absurd.

The movie is best described as a cross between Wes Anderson and Charlie Chaplin, because it is an unconventional visually captivating movie with not much dialogue from the leading actors. The rubber-faced duo entertain far more with their movements and expressions than with words.

The film opens in Canada about 50 years ago, where we find Fiona (Gordon) saying farewell to her beloved Aunt Martha (recently-deceased Emmanuelle Riva) who is moving to Paris. Fast-forward to the present when Fiona, now a librarian, receives an urgent appeal for assistance from her 88-year-old aunt.

In the letter, Martha explains that they’re trying to move her into an assisted living facility for old folks. But the feisty aunt will have none of it.

Fiona accepts her aunt’s call for help and the next thing you know Fiona is in France with a large bright orange backpack decorated with a Canadian flag. Her troubles start right off the bat, when she gets stuck in a subway turnstile because of her oversized backpack.

The slapstick escalates further when the weight of the knapsack causes her to topple into the Seine while posing for a photo on a bridge. In order to keep from drowning, she has to free herself from the backpack, and ends up losing all her possessions, including her passport, cell phone, cash, and clothes.

Fortunately Fiona had just met Dom (Abel), a hobo living in a tent pitched along the banks of the river, who just happens to fall in love with her. So, Fiona finds herself having to fend off the advances of her ardent admirer while frantically searching for her missing aunt.

The ensuing search is charming, sublime, hilarious, and implausible. An endearing homage to the silent film era!

Excellent (****). Unrated. In French and English with subtitles. Running time: 83 minutes. Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories.

July 26, 2017

Believe it or not, over a dozen different attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler (Udo Schenk) were made until he took his own life in April of 1945. In 1944, Hitler only suffered minor injuries in the bombing that was the focus of Valkyrie (2008), a documentary drama that stars Tom Cruise.

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), 13 Minutes describes this first attempt to assassinate Hitler just after he had taken control of Germany. The incident occurred in Munich on November 8, 1939 in a hall where the Führer was scheduled to deliver an address.

Unfortunately, Georg Elser’s (Christian Friedel) homemade time bomb went off too late, because Hitler had already completed his remarks and left the building 13 minutes earlier accompanied by the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes), Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, and the architect of the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler (Ulrich Noethen).

Later that same day, Georg was apprehended when he was trying to cross into Switzerland. Border guards took him into custody after they discovered him with incriminating evidence that led them to believe that he was connected to the explosion.

He was taken to Germany’s Chief of Police Arthur Nebe (Burghart Klauszner) and Gestapo Chief Heinrich Muller (Johann von Bulow) for interrogation, but Georg refused to answer any questions until they threatened to arrest his girlfriend Elsa (Katharina Schuttler). Georg then confessed to protect her, but they still didn’t believe that a simple carpenter could have possibly acted alone to produce a powerful explosive device that claimed eight lives and wounded 62.

So, they resorted to torture to extract the identities of his suspected accomplices who only existed in their imaginations. But Georg had nothing further to share, other than an explanation of how he’d secretly amassed enough gunpowder to construct the bomb.

13 Minutes has an unorthodox story structure, because it opens with the failed assassination attempt, and is followed by a series of Georg’s flashbacks. While behind bars, he reminisces about everything from his disgust with the Nazis to his relationship with Elsa.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality and disturbing violence. In German with subtitles. Running time: 114 minutes. Production Studio: Lucky Bird Pictures. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.

July 19, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes is the ninth movie in the film series that began almost 50 years ago with Planet of the Apes. The original groundbreaking science-fiction adventure was based on the novel of the same name by Pierre Boulle, who also wrote The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

That book was adapted to the movie by two scriptwriters: Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) and Oscar-winner Michael Wilson (The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Place in the Sun). So, it’s no surprise that that movie’s thought-provoking social commentary resonated with critics and audiences.

In that movie, the apes’ masks were so skillfully made that the Motion Picture Academy awarded the movie’s makeup artist, John Chambers, an honorary Oscar. However, it wasn’t until the ’80s that Best Makeup became an official Academy Award category.

War for the Planet of the Apes is the finale in a trilogy that recreated the series in 2011, starting with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and followed a few years later by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Fortunately you don’t need to recall, or even have seen, the earlier pictures to fully appreciate this movie.

Additionally, the use of the latest computer graphic image technology has been so skillfully applied that you never once doubt that you’re watching real apes interacting with humans. The best news is that the movie is a morality play of Shakespearean proportions that explores many universal themes on the way to the showdown that settles the fate of both species once and for all.

The apes are again led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), who matches wits with a ruthless army colonel (Woody Harrelson). Between the sophisticated storytelling and the state-of-the-art special effects, War for the Planet of the Apes is a touching finale for the series.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for action, violence, mature themes, and disturbing images. Running time: 140 minutes. Production Studio: Chernin Entertainment. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

July 12, 2017

All you really need to know about Baby Driver is that so far it’s simply the best film of the year. The picture was written and directed by Edgar Wright, who is best known for three British comedies that starred Simon Pegg: Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World’s End (2013).

Mr. Wright shot this movie in Atlanta and it is a labor of love that took several decades to complete. The movie has its beginnings in “Bellbottoms,” a discordant punk anthem that he visualized as “a song in search of a car chase” from the moment he first heard it in 1995.

That cult classic isn’t the only obscure tune in Baby Driver’s eclectic soundtrack that features rarities ranging from T. Rex’s “Debora,” to Blur’s “Intermission,” to The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat.” However, the blockbuster also has its share of recognizable hits too, such as the Commodores’ “Easy,” Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run,” and “Hocus Pocus” by Focus.

The film has an A-list cast that includes Oscar-winners Jamie Foxx (Ray) and Kevin Spacey (American Beauty and The Usual Suspects), Emmy-winner Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and two-time, Screen Actors Guild Award-winner Lily James (Downton Abbey). However, the film is carried by the up-and-coming actor Ansel Elgort.

He plays Baby, a deaf getaway driver who is extraordinarily adept at eluding the authorities. He is reluctantly controlled by the mob because of a debt that he owes to Doc (Kevin Spacey) the manipulative crime boss. Baby wants to be free of the mob so he can start a new life with Deborah (James), the waitress he fell in love with in an empty diner.

Of course Doc insists that he first serve as wheelman for the “last big heist” that is being staged by Bats (Foxx), Buddy (Hamm), and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). When the robbery goes wrong, Baby’s survival instincts kick-in in a primal urge for self-preservation.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence and pervasive profanity. Running time: 113 minutes. Production Studio: Working Title Films. Distributor: TriStar Pictures.

July 5, 2017

The Beguiled is a Civil War story based on the bestseller of the same name by the late novelist/playwright Thomas Cullinan (1919-1995). The book was first adapted to the screen in 1971 as a melodramatic film that starred Clint Eastwood. This year’s remake was directed by Sofia Coppola whose effort was rewarded at Cannes when she became the second woman in the history of the festival to be chosen Best Director.

The story is set in 1864 at a Virginia boarding school for girls run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) with the help of Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst). They have five students under their care, ranging from preteens to the late teens.

As the movie opens, the sounds of battle are heard in the distance. The fighting is in sharp contrast to the serenity of the campus where we see Amy (Oona Laurence) foraging in the forest for wild mushrooms.  more

June 28, 2017

Jessica (Scarlett Johansson) and Peter (Paul W. Downs) are about to get married. However, before the ceremony, they’ve agreed to simultaneously throw themselves bachelor’s and bachelorette’s parties. Jessica flies down to Miami for a wild party with four of her closest college classmates, while Peter plans a modest evening of wine tasting with a few of his buddies.

It turns out that Jessica is in the middle of a campaign for the state senate, so she doesn’t want their party to get out of control and generate negative publicity that would hurt her candidacy. However, she’s unaware that decorum is the last thing on the mind of Alice (Jillian Bell), the girlfriend whom Jessica asked to plan their get together.

Alice sees the reunion as an opportunity for the foursome to indulge one last time in the sort of parties they had on campus ten years ago, when they would get drunk while playing beer pong on a weekend night. So, she’s planned a wild weekend that includes everything from cocaine to a male stripper.

The other three members of the party are Pippa (Kate McKinnon), a clown who is up for anything, as is Blair (Zoe Kravitz), who is recovering from an ugly custody battle. However, Frankie (Ilana Glazer), who is a lesbian, has a history of run-ins with the law and is afraid about violating the “Three Strikes” law that would automatically give her a life sentence in jail.

The party starts in the airport terminal when Alice uncorks a bottle of champagne that unwittingly triggers a stampede by passengers who mistake the pop of the cork for a gunshot. Next, when they arrive at their beachfront rental house, they are invited by the next-door couple Lea (Demi Moore) and Pietro (Ty Burrell) to participate in an orgy.

Things quickly go from bad to worse when the exotic dancer, whom Alice hired, arrives. During his striptease act, he accidentally hits his head and kills himself. Jessica and her friends decide to dump the body in the ocean rather than call the cops and what ensues is a hilariously escalating comedy of errors.

Rough Night is reminiscent of The Hangover (2009), although it also has moments that recall scenes from Bridesmaids (2011) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989). The movie is the directorial debut of Lucia Aniello, the first woman to direct an R-rated comedy since Tamra Davis made Half Baked in 1998.

Excellent (****). Rated R for crude sexuality, drug use, coarse humor, brief bloody images, and profanity. Running time: 101 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

June 21, 2017

A bar mitzvah is nearing its climax in an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem when the balcony reserved for women suddenly collapses. When the dust settles, the members discover that the collapse has left the wife of their rabbi in a coma, and also that her husband, Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar) is in denial about the condition of his wife and is no condition to lead his synagogue’s members.

It becomes clear that neither Rabbi Menashe nor the Mussayof Synagogue will be back to normal anytime soon. With the building closed because it is unsafe, the congregation finds a temporary home in a nearby school. However, its location makes it difficult to assemble a minyan, the quorum of 10, that is required for religious services.

A savior arrives when they ask David (Avraham Aviv Alush), a young rabbi who happened to be passing by, to join them to make their minyan complete. Not only is he willing to join their services, but in the next few weeks he takes over the position of the congregation’s rabbi and their plans to repair their damaged synagogue. However, it turns out that he advocates an ultra-orthodox form of Judaism, and he attempts to convince the congregation that they should embrace his more restrictive interpretation of the laws of the Bible.

For example, he tries to persuade the women to dress more modestly by always covering their heads with a scarf. Next, he announces that instead of using the money that the congregant’s women have collected to repair the balcony, he is going to use the money to commission the writing of a new Torah scroll for the new congregation.

None of this news sits well with the women of the original Mussayof congregation who decide to fight against their new rabbi. As in Aristophanes’ classic play, Lysistrata, and Spike Lee’s latest “joint,” Chi-Raq, they agree to withhold sex until their husbands come to their senses.

All of the above plays out in hilarious fashion in The Women’s Balcony, a delightful tale of female empowerment directed by Emil Ben-Shiron. The movie was a hit in Israel where it won five of that country’s equivalent of the Academy Award nominations. Kudos, too, to Menemsha Films’ Neil Friedman, who has produced several charming sleepers that include Dough, The Rape of Europa, Beauty in Trouble, and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

Excellent (****). Unrated. In Hebrew with subtitles. Running time: 96 minutes. Production Studio: Pie Films. Distributor: Menemsha Films.

June 14, 2017

Five years ago, Mike Dowling published Sergeant Rex, a memoir about the bond he’d forged with a bomb-sniffing dog while serving in over 35 missions in Iraq. Now, Marine Corporal Megan Leavey, is the subject of a documentary drama — based on a true story — that portrays her relationship with the same German shepherd dog.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film stars Kate Mara as the title character, with Edie Falco and Will Patton in support roles.

At the point of departure, we find Megan enlisting in the Marines. After completing basic training on Parris Island, she finds her true calling in the Corps when she is assigned to the K-9 unit. Rex, who has become uncontrollable, is on the verge of being declared unfit for active duty by the base’s veterinarian, Dr. Turbeville (Geraldine James). Fortunately a dog lover begs that someone be given an opportunity to soothe and tame Rex.

Drill Sergeant Martin (Common) intervenes on Megan and Rex’s behalf and gives her the chance to work with the dog. With the patience of Job, Megan shows that she has the touch necessary to tame Rex. The two become inseparable and they’re shipped overseas to search for IEDs buried in the dangerous desert sands of Iraq’s Anbar province.

The deployment is uneventful, until Megan and Rex are injured in an explosion and shipped back to the States for rehabilitation at facilities far apart from each other. However, Megan’s attachment to Rex drives her to find a way to obtain possession of Rex. The remainder of the movie depicts her cutting through bureaucratic red tape until she finally succeeds in achieving ownership of Rex.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, mature themes, and suggestive material. Running time: 116 minutes. Production Studio: LD Entertainment. Distributor: Bleeker Street Media.

June 7, 2017

Paul (Joel Edgerton) managed to find a safe refuge for his family that was far from the rest of humanity in order to escape the deadly plague that has been decimating the Earth’s population. At least that’s what he thought, until his wife Sarah’s (Carmen Ejogo) father somehow caught the disease.

After she and their son (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) said their goodbyes while wearing germ-proof respirators, Paul shot his father-in-law and cremated the body in order to prevent it from infecting them. As the body was being cremated, Travis the 17-year-old grandson, comforted himself by telling his pet dog Stanley “Don’t worry, I’m going to take care of you.” Unfortunately, Stanley is the next to die in It Comes at Night, a suspense thriller that is set inside a darkened cabin in the woods. more

May 31, 2017

KIDNAPPING IS NOTHING TO JOKE ABOUT: Rodrick (Charlie Wright, center) and his wimpy brother Greg (Jason Drucker, right) are being dressed down by the police officer who saw the “kidnapped” sign that Rodrick had pasted in the rear window of their car to protest the way his mother was treating him.    (Photo by Daniel McFadden 20th Century Fox, © TM and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved)

Series’s Fourth Episode Features New Cast Up to Old Tricks

According to Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul provides an example of that saying. The comedy describes the escalating misfortunes that plague the Heffley family during their summer road trip.
The film is the fourth in the series that is based on Jeff Kinney’s illustrated children’s novels. It was directed by David Bowers who also made Wimpy Kid 2 and 3.
The movie features an entirely new cast, starting with Jason Drucker as the title character, wimpy Greg Heffley; Alicia Silverstone and Tom Everett Scott are his parents, Susan and Frank; and Charlie Wright and Dylan Walters are Greg’s older and younger brothers, Rodrick and Manny, respectively.
Wimpy Kid 4 is about a family’s cross-country outing to attend their grandma’s 90th birthday party. The mother Susan sees the drive as an opportunity for the family to bond together, so she collects everybody’s cell phones before departing.
This frustrates her children, who find it boring without their electronic devices. Rodrick calls her “the worst mom ever” and sticks a “kidnapped” sign in the rear window that leads to their being pulled over by the police.
Other eventful stops range from an overnight stay in a motel with rats in the pool and a visit to a country fair where Manny wins a live piglet as a prize. The humor flowing from the escalating insanity is mostly of the bodily function variety.
Every skit is designed to keep the target audience of young children in stitches, with only occasional asides for adults, such as the inspired homage to Psycho’s legendary shower scene.
Very Good (HHH). Rated PG for rude humor. Running time: 91 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.