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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

May 21, 2014
HERE IT COMES TO SAVE THE DAY: The monster Godzilla rises from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to help San Francisco defend itself against the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) who are attacking the city.

HERE IT COMES TO SAVE THE DAY: The monster Godzilla rises from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to help San Francisco defend itself against the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) who are attacking the city.

Godzilla made its debut in 1954 when the mythical man eating monster, accidentally created by an atomic blast, emerged from the Pacific Ocean to carve a path of death and destruction across Japan, which the country’s overmatched military was unable to stop. A couple of years later, Raymond Burr narrated a documentary-style, English language remake which was a dubbed version of the original with his lines spliced in.

Despite relying for decades on stilted scripts and a guy in a rubber suit towering over a scale model of a toy-sized Tokyo, the B-movie series has remained popular enough to spawn at least 30 sequels. This remake of the series, however, abandons campy dialogue and cheesy trick photography in favor of an emotionally engaging plot as well as state-of-the-art special effects.

In the 2014 edition, Godzilla still looks like a fire-breathing mutant iguana, however, it behaves more like an anthropomorphic ally of humanity instead of its evil adversary. The villains, here, are nuclear waste ingesting MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) that are not only threatening to level San Francisco but are poised to unleash a litter of their hostile offspring.

In case you’re wondering, there’s plenty of precedents for Godzilla’s squaring off against fellow behemoths. Consider such classic showdowns as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), to name a few.

This film’s finale is well worth the wait, even though it takes some time getting around to the spectacular battle royale. In fact, we don’t even see Godzilla during the film’s first hour, which is devoted to developing characters and filling in the back story.

The picture was directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters) who assembled a sophisticated cast for an action packed summer blockbuster. The cast includes Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), and nominees David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai).

The adventure is about the Brody family. The widowed patriarch Joe (Cranston) is trying to learn the truth behind the catastrophe at a Japanese nuclear power plant that claimed his wife’s (Binoche) life 15 years earlier. Their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy explosives disposal expert, leaves his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) behind in San Francisco, in order to accompany his father to the Orient.

Of course, all hell eventually breaks loose back home when Godzilla selflessly rises to the occasion to defend San Francisco. Will the MUTOs meet their match? Will the separated Brodys manage to survive the apocalyptic mayhem for a tearful reunion?

The picture is surprisingly haunting and panoramic, and explores universal themes like loss and yearning, but has all the fixings for first-rate action entertainment.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence and scenes of destruction. Running time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

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.