May 14, 2014
AT LAST, A NIGHT JUST FOR US GIRLS: The three best friends Sondra (Patricia Heaton), Allyson (Sarah Drew) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) are on their way to a well deserved night away from their children, whom they left in the care of their spouses. However, when one child disappears, the threesome give up their planned night of bowling and dinner at a fancy restaurant, in order to search for the missing child.

AT LAST, A NIGHT JUST FOR US GIRLS: The three best friends Sondra (Patricia Heaton), Allyson (Sarah Drew) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) are on their way to a well deserved night away from their children, whom they left in the care of their spouses. However, when one child disappears, the threesome give up their planned night of bowling and dinner at a fancy restaurant, in order to search for the missing child.

Allyson Field (Sarah Drew) really can’t complain. After all, her life is the epitome of the American Dream: she has a handsome husband who adores her and is an excellent provider; a beautiful home in suburbia; and her own minivan for shopping and shuttling around their children, Beck (Zion Spargo), Bailey (Shiloh Nelson), and Brandon (Michael Leone).

However, she’s still overwhelmed by her domestic duties, especially when Sean’s (Sean Astin) work takes him out of town. Consider Mother’s Day, for example, which Ally spent cleaning up messes rather than being appreciated as a mother.

Not alone in feeling frazzled, Ally hatches a plan with her best friends, Sondra (Patricia Heaton) and Izzy (Andrea Logan White) to treat themselves to an evening of bowling and fine dining in a fancy restaurant, while their husbands take care of the children for a few hours. However, a comedy of errors soon ensues after Sean and the other spouses (Alex Kendrick and Robert Amaya) run into a problem.

When a baby is discovered to be missing, the three mothers are recruited to join the frantic search party. With the help of a biker with a heart of gold (Trace Adkins) and an impatient cabbie (David Hunt), the girls put their night out on hold as they join the search for the missing child.

Co-directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin, Moms’ Night Out is a wholesome PG-rated comedy that’s fun for the whole family.

At the madcap movie’s happy resolution, sanity and safety are satisfactorily restored. The wives are no longer taken for granted, but instead are elevated to the lofty status envisioned by William Ross Wallace when he proclaimed that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”

Very Good (***). Rated PG for mild action and mature themes. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

May 7, 2014
I HOPE THAT COP IN THE CAR DOESN’T GIVE ME A TICKET FOR HITCHHIKING: Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) hitches a ride on a police van in one of his crime fighting episodes.

I HOPE THAT COP IN THE CAR DOESN’T GIVE ME A TICKET FOR HITCHHIKING: Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) hitches a ride on a police van in one of his crime fighting episodes.

If the idea behind a sequel to a summer blockbuster is to up the ante in terms of bombast and intensity, then The Amazing Spider-Man 2 certainly fits the bill. This movie is bigger, better, louder, longer, and features more villains, the next generation of special effects, more captivating action sequences, and a romance between Spidey’s alter ego Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).

The picture opens with a flashback that fills in the back story about how Peter became an orphan. We learn that his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) died aboard a doomed private plane that was hijacked by an assassin (Bill Heck). However, Peter’s scientist father managed to email an explanatory message and critical computer file.

Fast-forward to Peter and Gwen’s high school graduation day. Gwen is anxiously searching the audience for her boyfriend as she is delivering her valedictory speech.

It turns out that Peter has been delayed in Manhattan where, as Spider-Man, he’s trying to retrieve a shipment of plutonium that was stolen from a Russian mobster named Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti). During the course of the chase, he also saves the life of Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an engineer at Oscorp, the company that supplies the city with electricity.

After securing the plutonium and turning the perpetrator over to the police, Peter rushes off to his commencement ceremony and arrives just in time to receive his diploma. However, he has no idea that he hasn’t seen the last of Aleksei and Max who are fated to return later in the adventure after a combat suit of armor and a freak accident enable them to morph into the villainous Rhino and Electro, respectively.

After the graduation ceremonies, Peter reluctantly ends his relationship with Gwen in deference to her father (Denis Leary), who doesn’t want his daughter dating a trouble-seeking vigilante. Next, Peter is summoned to the offices of his childhood pal Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who has just inherited Oscorp Industries. It turns out that Harry is suffering from the same hereditary disease that killed his recently-deceased father (Chris Cooper).

Harry futilely asks Peter’s help in locating Spider-Man, hoping that a blood transfusion from him might cure his affliction. However, Peter convinces him to settle for an injection of the venom of genetically-altered spiders, which then transforms him into the Green Goblin, another diabolical nemesis.

That makes three adversaries for the webslinging superhero to deal with before the movie ends. If you’re patient enough to sit through the closing credits after 2½ hours, you’ll see a teaser for X-Men: Days of Future Past, that will open later this month.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for action and science-fiction violence. Running time: 142 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

 

April 30, 2014
BEST FRIENDS FOR LIFE: Two orphaned cousins, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, left) and Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) were taken in by their wealthy aunt and uncle to be raised on their estate in England. The cousins, who were close in age and were adopted when they were eight-years-old, soon became fast friends for life. As they were growing up, Belle’s African lineage brought her into contact with racism and slavery issues that were being debated in England at the time.

BEST FRIENDS FOR LIFE: Two orphaned cousins, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, left) and Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) were taken in by their wealthy aunt and uncle to be raised on their estate in England. The cousins, who were close in age and were adopted when they were eight-years-old, soon became fast friends for life. As they were growing up, Belle’s African lineage brought her into contact with racism and slavery issues that were being debated in England at the time.

Born in the West Indies in 1761, Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was the daughter of Mary Belle, an African slave, and John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a British ship captain. After Mary died, the widower brought his 8-year-old daughter to England to see whether his wealthy aunt and uncle would be willing to raise her.

Lady (Emily Watson) and Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) had just adopted another niece whose mother had passed away. Also, because Dido and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) were about the same age, the orphaned girls could keep each other company.

Captain Lindsay claimed that his daughter was entitled to live on the family estate because of her noble birthright. This prompted a skeptical Lady Mansfield to speculate about whether skin color ranked above or below a person’s bloodline in English society.

Ultimately, she agreed to raise Dido, and the two young cousins forged a close friendship that lasted for life. Proof of their close bond has been preserved for posterity in a striking portrait of the pair that was commissioned in 1779.

That famous painting apparently served as the inspiration for Belle, a mesmerizing biopic based on a script by Misan Sagay. Directed by Amma Assante, the riveting historical drama is another movie in the recent series of pictures — such as Django Unchained, The Retrieval, and Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave — that reexamine race from the black perspective.

The film focuses primarily on Dido and Elizabeth’s coming-of-age against the backdrop of a country that is becoming increasingly uneasy about its involvement in the slave trade. After being protected during their childhood, racism becomes an issue when the young women become involved with suitors whom they meet outside the safe confines of the family estate.

Meanwhile, tension also builds around a legal decision that was about to be made by their uncle Judge Mansfield, who was the Chief Justice of England’s Supreme Court. The case was about a trading company that was seeking compensation from its insurance company for the loss of over a hundred Africans who had been deliberately drowned.

The question Judge Mansfield was being asked to resolve was whether or not slaves should be considered to be human beings or merely cargo that could be thrown overboard for financial gain at the whim of the owner. The longer he agonized over the ruling, the more he felt pressured to issue a landmark opinion that was likely to be the death knell of an odious institution.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for smoking, mature themes, and ethnic insensitivity. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

—Kam Williams

 

April 23, 2014
AAAUGH!!!, THAT’S THE MOST HORRIFYING THING I’VE EVER SEEN: Miguel (Gabriel Iglesias, left) and Malcolm (Marlon Wayans) are looking at yet another demonic disturbance that Malcolm’s jealous dead wife Kisha (not shown) perpetrates in an attempt to break up Malcom’s marriage to Megan (not shown).

AAAUGH!!!, THAT’S THE MOST HORRIFYING THING I’VE EVER SEEN: Miguel (Gabriel Iglesias, left) and Malcolm (Marlon Wayans) are looking at yet another demonic disturbance that Malcolm’s jealous dead wife Kisha (not shown) perpetrates in an attempt to break up Malcom’s marriage to Megan (not shown).

A Haunted House, an irreverent spoof of Paranormal Activity, co-starred Marlon Wayans and Essence Atkins as Malcolm and Kisha, a couple whose home was invaded by demonic forces. Kisha became possessed by the devil and turned on her man, despite the best efforts of an exasperated exorcist (Cedric the Entertainer). All of the above are back for A Haunted House 2, a jaw-dropping sequel with even more gratuitous gore, sexuality, nudity, profanity, and use of the N-word than the original. Nevertheless, the movie may appeal to the same folks who made the first film such a runaway hit. At the point of departure, Kisha perishes in a car accident while Malcolm and his cousin Ray-Ray (Affion Crockett) survive. A year later, Malcolm has married Megan (Jaime Pressly) and they are moving into a new home, along with her kids, Becky (Ashley Rickards) and Wyatt (Steele Stebbins), and Malcolm’s dog, Shiloh. The shopworn cliché of a safe literally falling from the sky and flattening the pet is the first sign that something suspicious might be afoot on the premises. The mysterious goings-on escalate after an inconsolable Malcolm tries to join his dearly departed pet in the grave. It seems that Kisha’s ghost is jealous of Megan and is determined to break up the newlyweds’ relationship. The exorcist is called in and his spells provide the convenient cover for disgusting skits that fail to exorcise the demon. Eventually, the exorcist priest is summoned again and the finale sets the audience for yet another sequel.

Fair (*).

Rated R for violence, graphic sexuality, frontal nudity, drug use, ethnic slurs, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Open Road Films. 

 

April 16, 2014
WHY WON’T YOU BELIEVE ME?: Eric Lomax (Colin Firth, right) has been accused of plotting to sabotage the railroad that he was being forced to build by his Japanese captors during World War II. His interrogator Nagase Takeshi (Hiroyuki Sanada) refuses to believe Eric’s explanation that he has always been fascinated by railroads and even as youngster would make sketches of railroads in his hometown of Edinburgh.

WHY WON’T YOU BELIEVE ME?: Eric Lomax (Colin Firth, right) has been accused of plotting to sabotage the railroad that he was being forced to build by his Japanese captors during World War II. His interrogator Nagase Takeshi (Hiroyuki Sanada) refuses to believe Eric’s explanation that he has always been fascinated by railroads and even as youngster would make sketches of railroads in his hometown of Edinburgh.

Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) served as a signals officer in the British Army during World War II. His unit was dispatched to the Pacific theater where it was captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in 1942.

The members of the unit soon became part of the 60,000+ prisoners of war who were forced to build the Burma Railway that stretched from Bangkok to Rangoon. The Allies came to call the 258-mile construction the Death Railway, because so many soldiers perished along the way, including 6,318 of Lomax’s fellow Britains who were pressed into slave labor by their barbaric captors.

Their grueling ordeal has been made into the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Academy Award winning classic that starred Sir Alec Guinness and that swept the Oscars in 1958. The fictional adventure  movie was about the daring exploits of some heroic saboteurs in the face of overwhelming odds.

In contrast, The Railway Man is an introspective movie. This poignant character study is based on Lomax’s moving memoir of the same name. And although he survived the war, he remained mentally scarred many long years after his physical wounds had healed.

Lomax had been subjected to unspeakable torture that ranged from brutal beatings to waterboarding, most of which was at the direction of one particularly sadistic interrogator, Nagase Takeshi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Eric had aroused the suspicion of the Japanese when he was caught with detailed drawings of sections of the railroad on which he was working.

Eric had always been fascinated by trains while growing up in Edinburgh and had sketched such maps throughout his childhood. Nonetheless the suspicious Nagase suspected Eric of making plans to sabotage the railroad and so the punishment escalated.

When the war ended, Lomax returned home a broken man who was unable to readjust to civilian life. Although he could commiserate with former platoon mates at the veterans club, nonetheless the memories of Burma continued to haunt him.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (Better than Sex), The Railway Man is a heartrending, flashback film set both during World War II and in 1980 which is when Lomax’s wife, Patti (Nicole Kidman), urged him to track down Nagase. She hoped that a meeting might help her traumatized husband exorcise his demons and hopefully recover from his severe psychological afflictions.

Eric’s ensuing search for his torturer inexorably leads to a confrontation with the tormentor, whose face he’d never been able to erase from his mind. However, the question is whether he’ll choose revenge or reconciliation.

Excellent (****). Rated R for disturbing violence. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

April 9, 2014
IT RAINED FOR 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS: Noah (Russell Crowe) prays to God for guidance and help in meeting the problems that he anticipates he will encounter after the deluge is over.

IT RAINED FOR 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS: Noah (Russell Crowe) prays to God for guidance and help in meeting the problems that he anticipates he will encounter after the deluge is over.

Anybody with a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible is familiar with the story of Noah and the ark. That scriptural passage, found in Genesis, is about a righteous patriarch recruited by God to build an ark before the arrival of the flood that was a divine punishment for mankind’s wicked ways. 

Heeding the word of the Lord, he proceeded to construct a mammoth vessel and then herded two of each species of animal into the hold. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights and the water covered the entire Earth’s surface, thereby drowning all creatures living on the surface except for Noah’s family and the animals on the ark.

Oscar nominated director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) has come up with a novel and intriguing reinterpretation of the Biblical story by portraying Noah as a complicated soul who is wrestling with inner demons during his quest to do the Lord’s bidding. The movie also has an ecological message and some computer-generated monsters that presumably were designed to hold the children’s interest. The film stars Academy Award-winner Russell Crowe (Gladiator) in the title role, and features a supporting cast which includes fellow Oscar-winners Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs), three-time nominee Nick Nolte (Warrior, Affliction, and The Prince of Tides), as well as Emma Watson and Ray Winstone.

The picture opens with a refresher course about the creation of Adam (Adam Griffith) and Eve (Ariane Rinehart) who begat three sons: Cain, Abel, and Seth. The evil Cain slew his sibling Abel, and the children descending from Cain continued to do the devil’s work by exploiting the planet’s natural resources.

Noah, by contrast, as a son of Seth, learned how to live in harmony with nature. He and his wife (Connelly) raised their sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), and Ham (Logan Lerman) with the same eco-friendly philosophy.

Eventually, of course, Noah receives a message from God, and the plot thickens when the steady drizzle develops into a never ending downpour. Suddenly, his neighbors no longer see the ark as such a nutty idea, and it takes an army of animatronic angels to keep the desperate hordes from climbing aboard.

Meanwhile, a visibly-anguished Noah agonizes over what’s about to transpire and consults his wise grandfather Methuselah (Hopkins) for advice, and prays to God for help.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, suggestive content, and disturbing images. Running time: 138 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

 

April 2, 2014
LEARNING FROM THE MASTER: The so called “Lobby Boy” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, right) is learning the tricks of the hotel trade from Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Grand Hotel Budapest.

LEARNING FROM THE MASTER: The so called “Lobby Boy” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, right) is learning the tricks of the hotel trade from Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the Grand Hotel Budapest.

Wes Anderson’s films are one of a kind, as easy to identify as, say a Thelonious Monk piano solo or a Frank Sinatra vocal. You can spot one of his works by just watching a snippet of the film. 

Anderson’s latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has his signature vibrant visuals and is true to his tongue-in-cheek narrative style. The movie is right up there with his best films, which include Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Darjeeling Limited, which was this critic’s pick as the no. 1 film of 2007.

Ralph Fiennes is perfectly cast to play the picture’s protagonist, and he is ably assisted by a cast comprised of many alumni of Anderson’s films: including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel, Waris Ahluwalia, and Scott Rudin.

The droll drama is set in 1932 in the fictional eastern European nation of Zubrowka which is where we find the unctuous concierge Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes) plying his trade at the hotel. We soon find that he lavishes his attention and affections on vulnerable ladies, provided they’re rich, blonde, elderly, and needy. Narrating his escapades is Gustave’s protégé, Zero (Tony Revolori), a lowly, loyal, “Lobby Boy,” who is learning the tricks of the trade.

Just past the point of departure, we learn that one of the hotel’s guests, Madame D. (Swinton), has died mysteriously. A swarm of relatives, close and distant, show up for the reading of the wealthy widow’s will by her attorney (Brody), each hoping for a sizable chunk of the estate.

However, it turns out that she left the only valuable painting in her entire art collection, titled “Boy with Apple,” to the gigolo Gustave. Consequently, when an autopsy reveals that she was poisoned with strychnine, Gustave is arrested and charged with murder.

It’s not long before he hatches an elaborate jailbreak with the help of Zero, and soon the chase is on, with the heirs, authorities, a hired assassin (Dafoe), and even Nazis in hot pursuit, as Gustave desperately attempts to clear his besmirched name so he can hold onto the priceless portrait.

A sublime whodunit designed for sophisticated cinephiles.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and violence. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

 

March 26, 2014
WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF THE SITUATION WE’RE IN: Four single mothers are waiting for the fifth member of their group to show up. From left May (Nia Long), Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Esperanza (Zulay Henao), and Lytia (Cocoa Brown) are expecting Hillary (Amy Smart, not shown) to join them for one of their weekly night out get togethers where they try to figure out how to solve their problems with their children and deal with the men in their lives.

WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF THE SITUATION WE’RE IN: Four single mothers are waiting for the fifth member of their group to show up. From left May (Nia Long), Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Esperanza (Zulay Henao), and Lytia (Cocoa Brown) are expecting Hillary (Amy Smart, not shown) to join them for one of their weekly night out get togethers where they try to figure out how to solve their problems with their children and deal with the men in their lives.

Fast food waitress Lytia (Cocoa Brown) lives from paycheck to paycheck and has to rely on public transportation in order to get around. By contrast, Jan (Wendi McLendon-Covey) is an ambitious executive at a prominent publishing company who can afford many amenities and drives a luxury car. 

May (Nia Long) is unemployed but dreams of a career in journalism. Hillary (Amy Smart) is a recent divorcée who’s a bit overwhelmed because she is raising her kids alone in suburbia. And, Esperanza (Zulay Henao) cowers and hides from her abusive ex-husband (Eddie Cibrian) who continues to threaten her long after their separation.

At first blush, it sounds like these five women would have little in common, let alone a reason to cross paths. But they do when they’re all summoned to the principal’s office at West Merryville Prep where they each have a child who has just been put on probation after they were caught smoking and spray painting graffiti.

At the meeting, Principal Walters (Carrie L. Walrond) leaves the parents no choice but to co-chair the school’s annual fundraising dance. They grudgingly agree to organize the affair, but can these black, white, and Latino women get past their considerable class and cultural differences? That is the question raised at the outset of The Single Moms Club, a humorous story of female empowerment.

Written, produced, directed, and co-starring Tyler Perry, the picture first pits the protagonists against one another and then has them gradually see their similarities as overburdened sole providers. At that point, they create an informal association which functions as a babysitting support group and provides them with a weekly girls’ night out where they decompress by singing karaoke and trading relationship advice about their experiences with men.

Perry tones down the sermonizing in this movie in favor of more humor. Of course, before the closing credits roll, he makes sure his heroines bond into a tightly knit band whose lovers and children are all behaving.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality and mature themes. Running time: 111 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

March 19, 2014
REVENGE IS A DISH BEST SERVED COLD: Artemisia (Eva Green, center) was a Greek child who was sold into slavery by her countrymen after they slaughtered her family in front of her eyes. She was freed by her Persian owners and is now leading a formidable armada of over 1000 Persian warships to battle the Greeks.

REVENGE IS A DISH BEST SERVED COLD: Artemisia (Eva Green, center) was a Greek child who was sold into slavery by her countrymen after they slaughtered her family in front of her eyes. She was freed by her Persian owners and is now leading a formidable armada of over 1000 Persian warships to battle the Greeks.

The epic movie 300 (2007) chronicled the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. when an outnumbered band of 300 soldiers were sent on a suicide mission to defend Sparta against a horde of more than 100,000 Persian invaders. Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, that minimalist, monochromatic adventure was shot almost entirely against blue screens on assorted soundstages. 

300: Rise of an Empire is a rare sequel that actually is better than the original movie. This film has sweeping seascapes and panoramic mob scenes. By exploiting the visual appeal of Eva Green the film also increases the sequel’s sensuality.

At the point of departure, we find triumphant King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) plotting to lead the Persian army against forces led by the Greek General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). The play-by-play action is narrated by Sparta’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) who devotes considerable time to a detailed explanation of ancient history in order to set the table for the ensuing story.

We learn that the commander of the Persian 1,000 ship armada is the warrior Artemisia (Green), a Greek traitor who turned against her own people for good reason. In her youth, she’d been brutally raped and sold into slavery after being forced to witness the murder of her entire family.

The orphan was freed and raised as a warrior by Xerxes’ late father, Darius (Yigal Naor). In the film, she has matured into a ravishing fighting machine who is as likely to subdue an adversary with her womanly wiles as with her sword. In perhaps the movie’s most memorable moment, she decapitates a foe and then plants a kiss on the skull’s lips.

Such gruesome displays are the norm for the movie, as scene after scene shows either sensuality or stomach-churning depictions of torture and gore.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, and violence. Running time: 102 minutes Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

 

 

March 12, 2014
IT’S GOOD TO BE A DETECTIVE AGAIN: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, right) goes over some material with her ex boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring). Logan is the principal suspect in the murder of Bonnie De Ville, however, Veronica, who is now living in New York City, is convinced that he is innocent, so she drops everything and returns to Neptune, California to help Logan prove his innocence.

IT’S GOOD TO BE A DETECTIVE AGAIN: Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell, right) goes over some material with her ex boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring). Logan is the principal suspect in the murder of Bonnie De Ville, however, Veronica, who is now living in New York City, is convinced that he is innocent, so she drops everything and returns to Neptune, California to help Logan prove his innocence.

Veronica Mars was a critically acclaimed TV series that ran from 2004 to 2007. Kristen Bell starred in the title role as a teen age detective who solved crimes committed in her mythical hometown of Neptune, California. 

Fans of the series will be delighted to learn that Kristen and eight other principal cast members have returned for the movie version of the program. Written and directed by the show’s creator, Rob Thomas, this faithful reincarnation was substantially funded by a Kickstarter funding campaign.

At the point of departure, we find Veronica happily living in New York City, where she’s preparing for the bar exam, having recently graduated from Columbia Law School. She’s also now in a long term relationship with Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell) and expects to be offered a job with a prestigious Manhattan firm.

However, fate intervenes when pop singer Bonnie De Ville’s (Andrea Estrella), body is found in her bathtub and Veronica’s ex-boyfriend, Logan (Jason Dohring), is the prime suspect. So, Veronica returns to Neptune to help him find a good attorney, since she’s convinced that he’s innocent.

Not surprisingly, her detective instincts kick-in and, just like old times, she’s uncovering clues with the help of her father (Enrico Colantoni), who is a private investigator. Veronica’s arrival back in town conveniently coincides with her 10th high school reunion.

The gathering proves to be the best place to interrogate persons of interest in the unsolved murder. It turns out that Bonnie had attended Neptune High, and several alumni seem to have had reasons to want her silenced. That’s as far as it’s fair to go without spoiling this nostalgic whodunit that is laced with surprising plot twists.

Consider this movie compelling enough to even hold the attention of folks who are unfamiliar with the original TV show.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, profanity, and drug use. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

March 5, 2014
IF THIS IS SOMEONE’S IDEA OF A JOKE, IT ISN’T VERY FUNNY: Anonymous air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) receives a text message in a flight en route to London, in which the texter threatens to kill someone every 20 minutes unless a huge sum of money is deposited into an offshore bank account. Initally, Bill dismisses the text as a prank being played by his fellow air marshal, however, when the first body turns up, he realizes that the threat is very real.(Photo by Myles Aronowitz, © 2014, Universal Pictures)

IF THIS IS SOMEONE’S IDEA OF A JOKE, IT ISN’T VERY FUNNY: Anonymous air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) receives a text message in a flight en route to London, in which the texter threatens to kill someone every 20 minutes unless a huge sum of money is deposited into an offshore bank account. Initally, Bill dismisses the text as a prank being played by his fellow air marshal, however, when the first body turns up, he realizes that the threat is very real. (Photo by Myles Aronowitz, © 2014, Universal Pictures)

Police officer Bill Marks’ (Liam Neeson) life went into a tailspin after his young daughter lost her battle with childhood leukemia. He looked for solace in a bottle of alcohol, an addiction which cost him his marriage and career. 

The ex-cop was lucky to be employed as an air marshal, a job he decided to take despite a terrible fear of takeoffs. On this particular evening, he’s been assigned to protect a packed transatlantic flight from New York to London.

The trip starts out uneventfully with Bill hiding his identity while making the acquaintance of the attractive passenger (Julianne Moore) sitting next to him. However, a crisis arises soon after he receives a text from an anonymous caller who claims to be in the cabin and is threatening to murder a passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is deposited into an offshore bank account.

Initially, Bill dismisses the message as a prank on the part of his colleague (Anson Mount), who is also aboard the plane, since a breach of the supposedly-impenetrable federal network is almost impossible. However, once the first victim is found, Bill realizes he has an emergency on his hands.

Who might the hijacker be? The Muslim (Omar Metwally) sporting a skullcap? The black teenager (Corey Hawkins) who is reluctant to surrender his cell phone? Somebody else? Of course, the actual perpetrator won’t be easy to pinpoint in this deadly game of cat and mouse.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Non-Stop features Liam Neeson. The surprising success of Taken, has turned the rugged Irishman into an action star, as can be seen in subsequent similar movies such as The A-Team, Taken 2, Unknown, and the upcoming Run All Night.

In this film, Neeson stays close to the Taken formula, with his character portraying a broken soul who is in need of redemption. Again, he rises to the occasion in a tough, two-fisted fashion, while also exhibiting a vulnerability that will move you to tears during the closing credits.

Besides an engaging premise and a satisfying resolution, Non-Stop has an inscrutable plot which delicately ratchets up the tension as it winds its way towards the unpredictable denouement.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sensuality, profanity, intense violence, and drug use. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

 

February 26, 2014
I’M OFF TO WORK HONEY, DON’T KNOW WHEN I’LL BE HOME FOR DINNER: Successful author and psychologist Dr. Thomas Carter (Anthony Mackie, right) blithely bids his wife (Sanaa Lathan) farewell, little realizing that he would soon be imprisoned in hia patient’s basement where he would be sadistically tortured.(Photo by Patti Perret

I’M OFF TO WORK HONEY, DON’T KNOW WHEN I’LL BE HOME FOR DINNER: Successful author and psychologist Dr. Thomas Carter (Anthony Mackie, right) blithely bids his wife (Sanaa Lathan) farewell, little realizing that he would soon be imprisoned in hia patient’s basement where he would be sadistically tortured. (Photo by Patti Perret)

Therapist Dr. Thomas Carter (Anthony Mackie) has just published a popular self-help book that is about the near death experience that helped him turn his life around. He is proud of the fact that, after almost perishing in a horrible car crash in his teens, he went on to earn graduate degrees in world religion and clinical psychology and also find and wed his soulmate, Maggie (Sanaa Lathan). 

Tommy has a happy marriage and a flourishing practice that is founded on a spiritual philosophy that combines faith and positive thinking. However, his successes are the opposite of his wayward brother Ben’s (Mike Epps) life, who was just released from prison.

After Ben was paroled, he was barely back on the streets when news of a $12,000 bounty on him spread around their native New Orleans. So, when Ben asks his brother for money to keep the bounty hunters at bay, Tommy decides to raise the money by extending the publicity tour for his best selling book.

At a local book signing, he is approached for an autograph by a reader, Angel Sanchez (Forest Whitaker), who is urgently in need of counseling. Against his better judgment, Tommy agrees to see Angel as a patient, because the $300/session fee definitely will help pay brother Ben’s debt.

Unfortunately, Carter decides to meet Angel, who is devastated by the death of his mother (Adella Gautier), in Angel’s home, Unfortunately, Carter doesn’t realize that Angel is at the end of his emotional rope because, in addition to his problem with his mother, his wife and daughter have become estranged from him.

The plot thickens when Angel takes Tommy hostage, and ties him up in his basement and then proceeds to torture him.

Directed by Philippe Caland (Ripple Effect), Repentance is a psychological thriller that establishes a compelling premise but then morphs into an otherworldly horror film. Over the course of this rudderless adventure, Forest Whitaker ultimately finds himself abandoned by an implausible script.

Fair (*½). Rated R for profanity, violence, and torture. Running time: 90 minutes Studio: Code Black Films. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

February 19, 2014
IS IT TRUE LOVE OR JUST CHEMISTRY: Bernie (Kevin Hart, left) and Joan (Regina Hall) are involved in a very passionate love affair. However, neither of them seem to be interested in forging a more permanent relationship that is not based solely on their passion for each other.

IS IT TRUE LOVE OR JUST CHEMISTRY: Bernie (Kevin Hart, left) and Joan (Regina Hall) are involved in a very passionate love affair. However, neither of them seem to be interested in forging a more permanent relationship that is not based solely on their passion for each other.

Released in 1986, About Last Night was about two Chicago yuppies (played by Rob Lowe and Demi Moore) who tried to forge a solid relationship that began with a casual one-night stand. The movie was adapted from Sexual Perversity in Chicago, a drama by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross).

Loosely based on the original, this remake is a romantic comedy that serves as a vehicle for the popular comic-turned-actor Kevin Hart. His character, Bernie, was the sidekick in the original film, and is now the leading man. Furthermore, the setting has been shifted to Los Angeles, and the principal cast members are now black.

Directed by Steven Pink (Hot Tub Time Machine), the picture co-stars Regina Hall opposite Hart as Joan, his love interest. Rounding out the principal cast are Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant as Danny and Debbie, the aforementioned couple who are deciding to give serious commitment a go.

At the point of departure we are introduced to Bernie and Danny, best friends and co-workers at a restaurant supply company. Bernie recounts an escapade he had with Joan before he introduced Danny to Joan’s roommate. Danny is immediately smitten with Debbie, and the cinematic table is set.

Bernie and Joan can’t keep their hands off each other. By contrast, Danny and Debbie move in together, buy furniture, adopt a pet, and map out a future for themselves.

The plot thickens when Danny loses his job and ends up tending bar at Casey’s, a saloon frequented by his ex-girlfriend (Paula Patton). Bernie helps the plot along by pressuring his suddenly domesticated pal to go back to playing the field.

However, the resulting relationship tensions take a back seat to the lighthearted banter in this superficial adventure. Look for cameos by NFL great Terrell Owens as well as ones of Rob Lowe and Demi Moore, via a clip from the original film.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, nudity, and brief drug use. Running time: 110 minutes. Distributor: Screen Gems

 

February 12, 2014
SHALL WE DANCE: Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) dances the night away with Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). The two met when Peter broke into Beverly’s room one night and unexpectedly encountered her. The pair fell hopelessly in love and, because she was dying from tuberculosis, began a whirlwind romance to make the most of their short time together.

SHALL WE DANCE: Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) dances the night away with Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). The two met when Peter broke into Beverly’s room one night and unexpectedly encountered her. The pair fell hopelessly in love and, because she was dying from tuberculosis, began a whirlwind romance to make the most of their short time together.

Peter Lake’s (Colin Farrell) parents had hoped to immigrate to the U.S. but were turned away at Ellis Island upon their arrival early in the 20th century. Although they weren’t allowed into America, the Russian couple decided to leave their baby behind, and set him adrift in a tiny model of a ship called the “City of Justice.”

The infant was carried to the shores of Bayonne, New Jersey where he was found and raised by compassionate clam-diggers. Upon coming of age, he moved to Manhattan and became a mechanic until he was pressured into joining a gang of thieves led by Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe).

Peter learned how to be a thief under Pearly’s tutelage, but the two became enemies after Peter tired of taking orders from him. However, after severing his ties to the gang, Peter was fearful that Soames would avenge his defection from the group.

A moment of truth occurs when Peter is surrounded by his former colleagues but is somehow spirited away by a winged white stallion. Another turning point in his life happens the night he breaks into a mansion through a second floor window.

When he breaks into the room Peter encounters Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a sickly young heiress who is dying from tuberculosis. Despite her illness, he falls hopelessly in love with the frail philosophical free-spirited woman. Over the objections of her skeptical father (William Hurt), the lovers begin an otherworldly romance.

Thus unfolds Winter’s Tale, a delightful flight of fancy that is the directorial debut of Akiva Goldsman, who won an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of A Beautiful Mind. Akiva also wrote the script for this film which is based on Mark Helprin’s best-seller of the same name.

Does this movie measure up to the source material? Can’t say, since I haven’t read it. Nevertheless, I found this well crafted piece of magical realism quite imaginative and intriguing, though I suspect fans of the book might be a bit disappointed, given how much is invariably lost in translation when adapting a 700 page book into a movie.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sensuality and violence. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Kam Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Kam Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

December 11, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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