August 14, 2013
STAND BY YOUR MAN: Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, left) staunchly supports her husband Eugene (Forest Whitaker), who is at odds with their elder son Louis (David Oyelowo, not shown) about their views on Civil Rights issues. Louis wants his father to take advantage of his position in the White House to express opinions about the aims of the Civil Rights movement to his superiors at work, which would contravene Eugene’s terms of employment.

STAND BY YOUR MAN: Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, left) staunchly supports her husband Eugene (Forest Whitaker), who is at odds with their elder son Louis (David Oyelowo, not shown) about their views on Civil Rights issues. Louis wants his father to take advantage of his position in the White House to express opinions about the aims of the Civil Rights movement to his superiors at work, which would contravene Eugene’s terms of employment.

Eugene Allen (1919-2010) served eight presidents during his career in the White House where he rose from the position of Pantry Man to Head Butler by the time he retired in 1986. In that capacity, the African American son of a sharecropper was privileged to be an eyewitness to history, since his tenure coincided with the implementation of most of the landmark legislation that dismantled the Jim Crow system of racial segregation.

Directed by two time Oscar nominee Lee Daniels, The Butler is a father-son biopic relating events in Allen’s life as they unfolded against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. This fictionalized account features Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker in the title role as Cecil Gaines, and a supporting cast of Oscar winners Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Williams, and Melissa Leo, as well as Oscar nominees Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey.

The movie begins in a plantation in the deep south, where Cecil witnesses his father’s (David Banner) murder in a cotton field for protesting his mother’s (Mariah Carey) rape by an overseer. Because the perpetrator was never brought to justice, the youngster gets the message at an early age that “Any white man could kill us at any time and not be punished for it.”

Therefore, to avoid the same fate as his father, in his teens, he skips town and settles in Washington, D.C. where he lands steady work as a bartender in a hotel that caters to an upscale clientele. There he also meets Gloria (Winfrey), the maid whom he marries, and starts a family.

Cecil’s reputation as a polite and deferential black man leads to a position in the White House, where he is hired on the express understanding that “You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve.” Although he maintains an apolitical façade on the job, the same can’t be said for his home life, where current events are freely debated.

As a result, Cecil finds himself increasingly at odds with his elder son, Louis (David Oyelowo), a civil rights activist who participates in voter registration marches, sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, and freedom bus rides. The simmering tension between the two builds over the years to the boiling point when Louis derisively refers to his father an Uncle Tom.

At that point, Cecil’s wife slaps her son and then delivers the moving line that is likely to earn Oprah Winfrey another Academy Award nomination: “Everything you have, and everything you are, is because of that butler.” However, Forest Whitaker is even more deserving of accolades, thanks to his nonpareil performance as a humble provider who is understandably reluctant to rock the boat.

Kudos to Lee Daniels for crafting a gut-wrenching tour de force that never hits a false note and chronicles critical moments in the African American fight for equality.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, sexuality, smoking, profanity, ethnic slurs, disturbing images, and mature themes. Running time: 132 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

August 7, 2013
WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLF?: The wolf in Rawson Marshall Thurber’s “We’re the Millers” is drug kingpin Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms), who needs $44,000 from small-time dealer David Burke (Jason Sudeikis, on right). Members of Burke’s emergency “family” are a stripper named Rose (Jennifer Aniston) and a teenage runaway named Casey (Emma Roberts).

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLF?: The wolf in Rawson Marshall Thurber’s “We’re the Millers” is drug kingpin Brad Gurdlinger (Ed Helms), who needs $44,000 from small-time dealer David Burke (Jason Sudeikis, on right). Members of Burke’s emergency “family” are a stripper named Rose (Jennifer Aniston) and a teenage runaway named Casey (Emma Roberts).

David Burke (Jason Sudeikis) is a small-time pot dealer with a big problem. He’s just been robbed of all of his cash and stash, leaving him indebted to Brad Gurdlinger, an impatient drug kingpin (Ed Helms) to the tune of $44,000.

Now, David’s only hope of wiping the slate clean rests with accepting a proverbial “offer you can’t refuse” from skeptical Brad, namely, to smuggle a couple of tons of marijuana across the Mexican border. Figuring a family in an RV would look a lot less suspicious trying to get through customs than a single guy with a panel truck, he starts looking for folks down on their luck willing to pose for a few bucks as his wife and kids.

All he can find on such short notice are Kenny (Will Poulter), a naïve, home alone kid who lives down the hall; Rose (Jennifer Aniston), a struggling stripper at the local gentlemen’s club; and Casey (Emma Roberts), a streetwise teen runaway. But will the faking foursome be able to pass themselves off as a typical suburban family over the course of their 4th of July weekend jaunt?

That is the intriguing premise of We’re the Millers, a raunchy road comedy directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball). Of course, the faux family has a really hard time maintaining their cover, such as when supposed mother and daughter are spotted making out by a DEA Agent (Nick Offerman) they unwittingly befriend en route.

While certifiably funny in spots, consider this a fair warning: much of the movie relies on a coarse brand of humor apt to shock fans of co-stars Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis, given the relatively-tame, TV fare they’re known for. For instance, there’s the hilarious, if graphic, sight gag featuring a swollen testicle that’s been bitten by a tarantula.

The dialogue can be crude, too, especially when characters discuss their sexuality and bodily functions. But betwixt and between the bottom-feeding jokes, director Thurber continues to ratchet up the tension as we watch the Millers do their best to deliver the weed despite alarming the authorities and being trailed by a vicious mobster (Tomer Sisley) with a claim on the contraband.

Picture Cheech & Chong on a National Lampoon Vacation!

Very Good (***). Rated R for pervasive profanity, crude sexuality, drug use and full-frontal male nudity

 

July 31, 2013
HEY, OFFICER, I’M JUST ON MY WAY HOME FROM A PARTY: Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) refuses to obey the Oakland police officer’s order to lie on his stomach so he could be handcuffed. The subsequent scuffle with two police officers results in Grant being Tasered and then mortally wounded by a bullet fired into his back.

HEY, OFFICER, I’M JUST ON MY WAY HOME FROM A PARTY: Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) refuses to obey the Oakland police officer’s order to lie on his stomach so he could be handcuffed. The subsequent scuffle with two police officers results in Grant being Tasered and then mortally wounded by a bullet fired into his back.

Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) and his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), were returning to Oakland in the wee hours of the morning after attending a New Year’s Eve 2009 celebration. Their crowded train was stopped by police in response to a report of a disturbance on the train. Oscar was among a number of male passengers ordered onto the platform at Fruitvale Station, where he was initially told to sit quietly with his back against the wall.

However, he was subsequently ordered to lie on his stomach so that he could be handcuffed and placed under arrest. When he resisted, a struggle ensued during which Oscar could be heard begging not to be Tasered as a cop yelling “bitch-ass [N-word]” forced him to the ground.

Another officer pulled out a pistol and shot Oscar, who was unarmed, in the back, prompting the mortally-wounded young father to exclaim, “I got a 4 year-old daughter!” The incident was captured on a cell phone by a passenger who posted the video on Youtube, which turned the controversial slaying into an international event.

Was Oscar callously executed or accidentally killed by a cop who may have mistaken his .40 caliber weapon for his stun gun? The officer’s guilt or innocence, a matter that is left for a jury to decide, is not the primary focus of Fruitvale Station.

Instead, this bittersweet biopic humanizes the colorful Oscar Grant by chronicling the series of events that led up to his untimely death. The film depicts the last day in the 22-year-old’s abbreviated life, as he interacts affectionately with Sophina, their daughter (Ariana Neal), his mother (Octavia Spencer), pals, strangers, and relatives.

For instance, we see Oscar inform his girlfriend that he’s lost his job as a clerk at the local supermarket. Later, he tucks tiny Tatiana into bed and promises to take her to Chuck E. Cheese the next day. And he ominously takes his mother’s erroneous advice that riding the train would be a lot safer than driving to San Francisco that fateful night.

Already winning awards at both the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals, Fruitvale Station marks the writing and directorial debut of Ryan Coogler. A recent graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, the 27 year-old Coogler exhibits the talents of a seasoned veteran here, crafting a character driven tale that’s touching and emotionally engaging without resorting to sentimentality or melodrama.

Some of the credit must also go to Michael B. Jordan for his compelling warts-and-all portrayal of Oscar, a complicated soul with perhaps as many positive attributes as faults. The support cast deserves a share of the accolades, too, for ensuring that the production, well grounded in a sobering, inner-city reality, never hits a false note.

Whether Oscar Grant deserves to be remembered as a martyr or a provocateur, this poignant portrait of him as a flawed free-spirit is moving enough to be remembered at Academy Awards time.

Excellent (****). Unrated. Running time: 85 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

July 24, 2013
NOW TELL US IN DETAIL WHAT HAS BEEN HAPPENING IN YOUR HOUSE: Ron and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, seated at the right side of the table) in desperation have turned to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, seated at the left side of the table), recognized psychic researchers, to help exorcise the evil spirit which resides in the Perron’s house.

NOW TELL US IN DETAIL WHAT HAS BEEN HAPPENING IN YOUR HOUSE: Ron and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, seated at the right side of the table) in desperation have turned to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, seated at the left side of the table), recognized psychic researchers, to help exorcise the evil spirit which resides in the Perron’s house.

In 1952, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) founded the New England Society for Psychic Research. The couple also turned a wing of their house into a museum of occult artifacts which they collected during their career as psychic researchers.

Lorraine was a celebrated clairvoyant and medium and her World War II veteran husband was the only non-ordained demonologist who was recognized by the Catholic Church. As a team, they investigated thousands of reports of haunted houses over the years, most notably, the Amityville house.

The Conjuring, directed by James Wan (Saw), recounts one of the Warrens’ lesser-known cases. Set in 1971, the film unfolds in Harrisville, Rhode Island when Ed and Lorraine were summoned to the secluded lakefront home of Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (Lily Taylor).

The Perrons had recently moved into the old farmhouse with their five young daughters (Mackenzie Foy, Joey King, Hayley McFarland, Shanley Caswell, and Kyla Deaver), despite several signs that the place had bad energy. For example, their pet dog refused to enter the house, the smell of rotting meat would periodically permeate the air, and they would awaken every morning to discover that their clocks had stopped running at precisely 3:07 a.m.

Nevertheless, as optimistic new owners, the Perrons did their best to adjust to the disconcerting occurrences, only to have the supernatural spirit gradually increase its disturbances. Before long, it was shaking paintings off the wall, toying with an antique music box, and knocking loudly three times in the middle of the night, presumably as an insult to the Holy Trinity.

Mr. Perron was particularly frustrated by these developments, because, as a truck driver, he often had to be away from his family for as long as a week at a time. The straw that broke the camel’s back occurred when the evil doings escalated from annoyances to the demonic possession of a loved one.

When the Vatican dragged its feet about sending an exorcist to the scene, out of desperation the Perrons enlisted the assistance of the Warrens. What ensued was a classic battle between God and the devil heavily laden with Christian symbolism.

If you aren’t offended by an obvious faith-based agenda suggested by exchanges like: “Are you baptized?” “No.” “You might want to rethink that,” this film is a frightening horror film which does a masterful job of ever so slowly ratcheting up the terror. It is the most spine-tingling exorcist flick since — well — since The Exorcist.

Excellent (****). Rated R for disturbing violence and scenes of terror. Running time: 112 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers

 

July 17, 2013
EVEN A SNAIL’S DREAMS CAN COME TRUE: The miraculously transformed snail Turbo (Ryan Reynolds) achieves his life long dream of racing in the Indy 500 race, and even racing against his hero, driver Guy Gagne (not shown). Thanks to a freak accident, Turbo receives a dose of laughing gas which turns him into the fastest snail in the world; fast enough to compete in the annual Indianapolis 500 race.

EVEN A SNAIL’S DREAMS CAN COME TRUE: The miraculously transformed snail Turbo (Ryan Reynolds) achieves his life long dream of racing in the Indy 500 race, and even racing against his hero, driver Guy Gagne (not shown). Thanks to a freak accident, Turbo receives a dose of laughing gas which turns him into the fastest snail in the world; fast enough to compete in the annual Indianapolis 500 race.

Theo (Ryan Reynolds) is ridiculed by his friends for dreaming the impossible dream of competing in the Indianapolis 500. Even his brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), suggests that, “The sooner you accept the reality of your existence, the happier you’ll be.”

After all, Theo is a garden variety suburban snail and so slow he can barely get out of the way of a lawn mower or a child on a tricycle. But that hasn’t stopped him from painting the number “5” and racing stripes on his shell.

Theo whiles away his days dining on tomatoes that have ripened on the vine and fallen to the ground. At night, however, he retreats to his lair to watch TV and see drivers like his hero, Frenchman Guy Gagne (Bill Hader), fly around racetracks at over 200 miles per hour.

However, everything changes the day Theo is sucked into the engine of a passing automobile and accidentally injected with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). When he is deposited back on the ground, somewhere in the inner city, the slowpoke has been transformed into the speed demon, Turbo, thanks to the laughing gas that is now coursing through his body.

The snail quickly becomes the latest internet sensation and is welcomed to the ’hood by a gang of streetwise slugs led by mellow Smoove Move (Snoop Dogg), trash-talking Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson), and flirtatious Burn (Maya Rudolph). He also finds human benefactors in the kindly co-owners of Dos Bros Tacos, the owners of a mobile Mexican restaurant.

Not surprisingly, all of the above, including the food cart, make their way from Los Angeles to Indiana, with Angelo’s (Luis Guzman) and Tito’s (Michael Pena) life savings paying the Indy 500 entrance fee. At the track, it’s no surprise that the race ultimately becomes an exciting showdown between Turbo and his idol, Guy.

Turbo is the directorial debut of David Soren, and is a visually captivating and inspirational modern parable guaranteed to keep the kids perched on the edge of their seats. Besides its uplifting overcoming the odds message, the movie fills the screen with a menagerie of colorful characters who keep the audience laughing all the way to the satisfying conclusion.

A hilarious variation of Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mild action and mature themes. Running time: 96 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

 

July 10, 2013
SO SORRY TO INTERRUPT YOUR DAUGHTER’S BIRTHDAY PARTY, BUT CAN YOU HELP US?: Attractive Agent Lucy Wilde (voiced by Kristen Wiig) shows up unexpectedly at Gru’s daughter Agnes’s birthday party to beg him to help her organization, the Anti-Villain League, track down the nefarious villain who has stolen a top secret transmutation potion PX-41, and retrieve the vials before they can be put in use by the villains.

SO SORRY TO INTERRUPT YOUR DAUGHTER’S BIRTHDAY PARTY, BUT CAN YOU HELP US?: Attractive Agent Lucy Wilde (voiced by Kristen Wiig) shows up unexpectedly at Gru’s daughter Agnes’s birthday party to beg him to help her organization, the Anti-Villain League, track down the nefarious villain who has stolen a top secret transmutation potion PX-41, and retrieve the vials before they can be put in use by the villains.

When we last saw Gru (Steve Carell), the diabolical bad guy had abandoned his plan to steal the moon, turned over a new leaf, and settled in suburbia to raise the three adorable orphans he had adopted. At this action-packed adventure’s point of departure, we find the new family man contentedly doting on his demanding daughters, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Kate Fisher) with the help of his loyal army of minions.

However, in the middle of a medieval-themed birthday party for Agnes, he is asked to come out of retirement by Agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) of the Anti-Villain League (AVL). It seems that a research lab, where scientists had been developing a top secret transmutation potion, has vanished.

Lucy further explains that the substance, PX-41, could be the most devastating weapon on Earth, should it fall into the wrong hands. And since it takes a villain to catch a villain, it is her hope that Gru will lead AVL’s effort to track down the serum-snatching scoundrel.

Gru weighs his fatherly duties against the urgent call to apprehend a villain bent on world domination. Yet another consideration, is that he’s developing a crush on the cute spy who is seeking his assistance.

So, it’s not long before the two are on the trail of El Macho (Benjamin Bratt), a Mexican madman intent on morphing Gru’s minions into man-eating monsters. Complications ensue when the outlaw’s handsome son, Antonio (Moises Arias), starts chasing after Margo after meeting her in the mall.

Therefore, Gru’s challenging mission involves retrieving the vials of PX-41, protecting his teenager’s virtue, and wooing the love of his life.

Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, Despicable Me 2 is an inspired sequel. Far from a mere rehash of the winning elements which made the animated original such a hit, this episode features enough fresh ideas and funny moments to stand on its own and even warrant another film in the series.

Of course, the pat Hollywood ending is a foregone conclusion, but nobody’s complaining when the roller coaster ride is so thoroughly enjoyable.

Excellent (***½ stars). Rated PG for crude humor and mild action. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures

 
July 3, 2013
movie rev

THE UNSUNG HEROES OF THE SINGING WORLD RECEIVE SOME RECOGNITION AT LAST: Some of the many back up singers in the pop music world are shown singing their hearts out in a recording studio. Unfortunately, while waiting and hoping for their breakthrough into the world of stardom, these passionate musicians were underpaid and underappreciated.

Do the names Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, or Lynn Mabry ring a bell? Probably not, yet you are undoubtedly very familiar with their work as backup singers for a variety of musical icons.

For example, it’s Merry’s powerful voice that adds a memorable touch of soul to the Rolling Stones’ classic “Gimme Shelter” in the brief interlude where she makes the most of the opportunity to belt out the bizarre lyrics “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!” The same can be said of Darlene who not only sang backup on hundreds of hits by everyone from Elvis Presley to The Beach Boys to Tom Jones to Sonny and Cher, but she also anonymously ghost recorded the lead vocals on such 60s anthems as “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “He’s a Rebel” and “It’s in His Kiss,” without getting credit or decent compensation.

Sadly, despite their considerable talents, these artist generally have little to show financially for their contributions to rock, soul, and other music genres. Most of the backups are black and female with gospel backgrounds, and have stories about being underpaid, under-appreciated and sometimes outright exploited. For example, Darlene had to clean houses as a maid between gigs in order to survive at a low point in her career.

Most backup singers are frustrated artists who spend years helping others shine while waiting for that big break, that might never come, that could catapult them into the limelight. Finally, thanks to Twenty Feet from Stardom, these neglected singers are finally getting their credit, if not the fortune and fame that has eluded them for so long.

Directed by Morgan Neville, this entertaining and illuminating documentary includes testimonials from Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Sheryl Crow, and other greats who freely pay tribute.

Excellent (HHHH). Rated PG-13 for profanity and sexuality. Running time: 91 minutes. Distributor: Radius-TWC.

—Kam Williams

 
June 26, 2013
I’M GOING TO GET YOU ON A NAVY SHIP IN THE ATLANTIC OCEAN, WHERE YOU’LL BE SAFE: Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt, right) is struggling through the panic-stricken crowd with his wife Karen (Mireille Enos, left), who is holding their daughter Constance (Sterling Jerins). Gerry is holding onto their other daughter Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) as they work their way to the embarkation point where Gerry’s family can be transported to the Navy’s safe ship, while Gerry goes off to help save the world from the pandemic.

I’M GOING TO GET YOU ON A NAVY SHIP IN THE ATLANTIC OCEAN, WHERE YOU’LL BE SAFE: Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt, right) is struggling through the panic-stricken crowd with his wife Karen (Mireille Enos, left), who is holding their daughter Constance (Sterling Jerins). Gerry is holding onto their other daughter Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) as they work their way to the embarkation point where Gerry’s family can be transported to the Navy’s safe ship, while Gerry goes off to help save the world from the pandemic.

After a career spent risking his life in international hotspots like Bosnia and Liberia, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) resigned from his dangerous post at the United Nations in order to devote himself to his family. As the story unfolds, we find him assuring his wife (Mireille Enos) and young daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove) that he has quit his job to spend more time with them at home.

However, that same morning on TV, network news anchors are reporting rumors of a rapidly spreading rabies outbreak overseas. Eventually, all hell starts to breaks loose in the U.S., too, after the president perishes and the vice president is missing.

By the time the Emergency Broadcast System takes over the airwaves, the escalating zombie scourge can no longer be covered up or contained. And the pandemic, which started in Taiwan, has already overrun a dozen countries.

Given the desperate state of affairs, Gerry has no choice but to answer the call when he is begged by the U.N. Deputy Secretary General Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) to come out of retirement. He agrees to join a crack team of researchers whose mission is to find the source of the outbreak and develop a vaccine.

After he secures berths for his family aboard a quarantined Navy ship that is safely located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Gerry boards a plane to try and track down the epidemic. What ensues is a harrowing adventure that includes South Korea, Jerusalem, and Wales.

At each stop, Gerry and his team members encounter voracious zombies that can only be destroyed by burning them or shooting them in the head. Of course, the team ultimately figures out how to turn the tide, although the resolution conveniently leaves a loophole, thereby setting up the beginning of the sequel for the second film in a planned trilogy.

Directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball), World War Z is a summer blockbuster any way you slice it. With its hordes of man-eating creatures, mob scenes of panicked citizens, tension-maximizing editing, captivating special effects, breathtaking panoramas of the collapse of civilization, and a matinee idol as the hero, the film’s features assure the audience its money’s worth of viewing pleasure and excitement.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for disturbing images and pervasive horror violence. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

 

 
June 21, 2013
WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THAT??: Four of the celebrities, from left, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, and Craig Robinson, who managed to save themselves from the apocalyptic earthquake that interrupted the Hollywood party they were at, are confronted by something they have never seen before and are trying to figure out a way of escaping from it.

WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THAT??: Four of the celebrities, from left, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, and Craig Robinson, who managed to save themselves from the apocalyptic earthquake that interrupted the Hollywood party they were at, are confronted by something they have never seen before and are trying to figure out a way of escaping from it.

When Jay Baruchel was picked up at the Los Angeles airport by his close friend and fellow Canadian Seth Rogen, he was disappointed to learn that instead of unwinding, they were going to a housewarming party at James Franco’s mansion where a lot of celebrities would be in attendance. Despite having achieved his own measure of success, low-key Jay still lives in Montreal, in part to avoid such shallow Hollywood gatherings.

Upon their arrival, he awkwardly exchanges pleasantries with the host and Jonah Hill, both of whom he secretly suspects hate him. Furthermore, he’s overwhelmed to find himself surrounded by so many famous people whom he’s never seen in person before, icons that include Kevin Hart, Channing Tatum, Jason Segel, Emma Watson, and Mindy Kaling, to name a few.

Jay also feels uncomfortable about the liquor, drugs, and bawdy behavior. Such as when Craig Robinson sits down at the piano to sing a tune called “Take Your Panties Off,” while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the same phrase.

However, all of the above becomes irrelevant when an earthquake registering 9.7 on the Richter scale rocks the city and rips a giant fissure right in front of Franco’s place. The guests scatter in all directions as a widening sinkhole starts to swallow some of the revelers at the same time that blue beams of light lift others heavenward.

Meanwhile, James, Jay, Seth, Emily, Craig, and Jonah barricade themselves inside to await rescue. Eventually it dawns on them that the cavalry might never be coming, since what’s unfolding all across Los Angeles looks more like Judgment Day than the result of an earthquake.

Thus unfolds This Is the End, a zany apocalyptic comedy that is the directorial debut of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the writing team responsible for Superbad and Pineapple Express. This novel adventure proves to be every bit as side-splitting as their earlier work, and much of the inspired humor is due to the actors who are willing to be the butt of the joke while playing themselves.

Excellent (****). R for crude humor, coarse sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use, violence, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 107 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures

June 12, 2013
I KNOW I CAN FLY DOWN THERE AND FIX IT, DAD: A youthful Superman (Dylan Sprayberry, right) reassures his anxious father (Kevin Costner) that, thanks to his extraordinary super powers, he can solve the potential disaster they are looking at.

I KNOW I CAN FLY DOWN THERE AND FIX IT, DAD: A youthful Superman (Dylan Sprayberry, right) reassures his anxious father (Kevin Costner) that, thanks to his extraordinary super powers, he can solve the potential disaster they are looking at.

For my generation, Superman was “a strange visitor from another planet” who was “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound“ who was engaged in “a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” However, in this age of information, audiences want to know a lot more about a superhero’s history.

Also, what passed for special effects on the original TV show were cheesy flying sequences in which support wires were plainly visible. And the fight scenes generally ended when the bumbling villain with little imagination ran out of bullets and threw his pistol at the Man of Steel’s chest in sheer frustration.

Over the years, Superman has been revived twice on television (Lois & Clark and Smallville) and five times on the big screen. This sixth film version stars Henry Cavill in the title role opposite Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Laurence Fishburne as a black Perry White, and Rebecca Buller as Jenny (not Jimmy) Olsen.

Director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) undertook Man of Steel as a remake of the series, because plans are already in the works for the character to reappear in an adaptation of DC Comics’ Justice League scheduled for 2015. Thus, this movie devotes considerable attention to an explanation of Superman’s roots.

The picture opens on the planet Krypton where we find the parents (Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) of the planet’s first naturally-conceived child in centuries, secretly sending their newborn in an unmanned spaceship headed to Earth. This development doesn’t sit well with genetic engineer General Zod (Michael Shannon), a megalomaniac in charge of deciding which of Krypton’s bloodlines are allowed to continue, and this baby’s family definitely isn’t one of them.

The rocket crash-lands in the cornfields of Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), a kindly couple who proceed to raise the baby as their own. Of course, Clark isn’t like other boys, and he does his best to harness and hide his superpowers, although they occasionally come in handy like when he rescues a school bus full of students that’s sinking in a river.

The plot thickens when aliens arrive from Krypton in order to eliminate Superman. Not surprisingly, they’re led by the diabolical Zod, who proceeds to commandeer the mass media, spouting typical invasion threats warning the “People of Earth” that resistance is futile. But, he hasn’t taken into account Superman.

At this juncture, the action the kids have been waiting for finally kicks into high gear, with a spectacular battle replete with dizzying technical wizardry and acrobatic dexterity that mercifully reduces the pretentious dialogue that is laced with pseudo-scientific babble. Ultimately, good, and the American way, triumph over evil, and Superman is left alive to defend truth and justice in upcoming sequels and spinoffs.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity, violence, and intense action sequences. Running time: 143 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

June 5, 2013
THIS IS THE PERFECT PLACE FOR OUR HIDEAWAY!: The three teens, Patrick (Gabriel Basso, left), Biaggio (Moises Arias, center), and Joe (Nick Robinson) have found a clearing in the woods that is the ideal place for them to build a shack so they can run away from their controlling parents for the summer.

THIS IS THE PERFECT PLACE FOR OUR HIDEAWAY!: The three teens, Patrick (Gabriel Basso, left), Biaggio (Moises Arias, center), and Joe (Nick Robinson) have found a clearing in the woods that is the ideal place for them to build a shack so they can run away from their controlling parents for the summer.

Freshman year of high school has just ended for Patrick (Gabriel Basso) who isn’t looking forward to spending the summer under the same roof as his over protective parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson), who monitor his every move and tease him mercilessly about his raging hormones. The situation’s even worse for Joe (Nick Robinson) whose widowed father’s (Nick Offerman) way of grieving involves belittling and grounding Joe at every opportunity.

One night at a party, the best friends come up with a solution to their predicament when they discover a clearing in the middle of the forest. Why not build a house out in the woods where they will be free from the abuse and control of their meddling parents?

Swearing each other to secrecy, they hatch an impromptu plan to live off the land. They are joined in their clandestine endeavor by classmate Biaggio (Moises Arias), a mysterious eccentric contemporary who is willing to help them out.

Next, they’re building a shack out of materials they found on a construction lot, and forage for food by diving into a dumpster behind a restaurant. Meanwhile, their worried parents are calling the poice, convinced that the missing boys have been kidnapped.

That is the point of departure of The Kings of Summer, a quirky comedy that is also the directorial debut of Jordan Vogt-Roberts. His laugh-a-minute adventure is reminiscent of some the best of the rebellious adolescent genre movies, such as Stand by Me (1986), Superbad (2007), Ghost World (2001), Super 8 (2011) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).

The picture’s clever script, written by first-timer Chris Galletta, is laced with hilarious scenes such as when Biaggio attempts to throw the police off their trail with a ransom note from the fictitious “Jamal Colorado” inspired by combining a black first name with one of the fifty states. Biaggio’s main role in the film is to provide intermittent comic relief.

The movie is about the trio’s struggle to survive while eluding the search party. The plot thickens with the sudden arrival of Kelly (Erin Moriarty) at their hideaway, a beautiful young woman who Joe is interested in dating.

Will Kelly prove to be the boys’ undoing, or will their bond remain intact? Let’s just say that between memorable performances by a cast of relative newcomers, and a haunting score by Ryan Miller, The Kings of Summer is a sleeper not to be missed.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and underage alcohol consumption. In English and Italian with subtitles. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: CBS Films.

May 29, 2013
YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT??!!: The gangster Marshall (John Goodman, left) accompanied by his sidekick (John Epps) refuses to divulge where he stashed the $21 million dollars he stole from Chow (Ken Jeong, not shown). So it is up to the wolfpack to figure out where the money is and free Doug, who has been kidnapped by Chow.

YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT??!!: The gangster Marshall (John Goodman, left) accompanied by his sidekick (John Epps) refuses to divulge where he stashed the $21 million dollars he stole from Chow (Ken Jeong, not shown). So it is up to the wolfpack to figure out where the money is and free Doug, who has been kidnapped by Chow.

When we last left the wolfpack, (Doug, Stu, Phil, and Alan), the boys were in Thailand for the wedding of Stu (Ed Helms) and Lauren (Jamie Chung). Of course, before the bride and groom could tie the knot, the men found themselves separated from Doug (Justin Bartha) who was suffering from amnesia following a wild night of partying in a seedy part of Bangkok.

But that was two years ago and now everybody has settled down into humdrum, uneventful lives in suburban Los Angeles. Everybody that is, except Alan (Zach Galifiniakis). He went off his medications recently which might explain such bizarre behavior as driving down the freeway with a giraffe in a trailer.

However, after his father (Jeffrey Tambor) passes away suddenly, Alan takes a turn for the worse and his pals stage an intervention and drive him to a mental health facility in Arizona for help.

However, before they arrive, their car is run off the road and Doug is kidnapped for ransom by Chow (Ken Jeong), the mobster you may remember from Hangover I and II. He and his henchman (Mike Epps) demand that the wolfpack retrieve $21 million in gold stolen from them by Marshall (John Goodman), a ruthless gangster who stashed the bars of bullion in the walls of a mansion located somewhere in Tijuana.

That is the point of departure of The Hangover Part III, a finale for the trilogy which is an improvement over Part II yet still pales in comparison to the zany original. At least you don’t develop a nagging sense of déjà vu watching this screwball adventure, even if it isn’t exactly laugh out loud funny.

The story takes Phil (Bradley Cooper) and the rest of the wolfpack south of the border and then on to Las Vegas for another round of male-bonding rituals. Once there, Stu stumbles upon his ex (Heather Graham) and Alan finds the woman of his dreams (Melissa McCarthy), a big hint that the trilogy is destined to be stretched into a tetralogy.

Very Good (***). Rated R for sexuality, drug use, violence, brief nudity, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

May 22, 2013
ENJOYING A BREAK FROM THEIR NON-STOP SAILING DUTIES: The crew of the Kon Tiki take advantage of what was surely a rare moment in their trip to enjoy a calm moment in their long and dangerous voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

ENJOYING A BREAK FROM THEIR NON-STOP SAILING DUTIES: The crew of the Kon Tiki take advantage of what was surely a rare moment in their trip to enjoy a calm moment in their long and dangerous voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

At the beginning of the 20th century it was generally agreed that Polynesia had been settled by Asians arriving from the Far East. But it’s one thing for a professor to sit in an ivory tower and speculate about who might have discovered the island group some 1,500 years ago and quite another to go about proving a theory by attempting to replicate the putative pioneers’ feat.

While doing research in the Marquesas on the Isle of Fatu Hiva in the mid-30s, a Norwegian anthropologist named Thor Heyerdahl (Pal Sverre Hagen) came up with a novel idea about the roots of the natives. After studying the local fauna and flora, watching the flow of the tides, and listening to aborigine folklore about their ancestors’ arduous journey towards the setting sun, he reasoned that the region must have been settled by tribes migrating there from South America.

When his iconoclastic idea was roundly ridiculed by his colleagues, Thor decided to prove his theory by organizing a 4,300-mile expedition from Peru to Polynesia. Even though he knew nothing about sailing, and couldn’t swim, he had the sense to assemble a team capable of assisting him in the dangerous endeavor.

They built a balsa wood raft identical to the type used by indigenous people in pre-Columbian times by meticulously following their methods of construction down to the smallest detail. And since they would not be able to steer this vessel, christened the Kon-Tiki, Thor estimated it would take about three months for the currents and winds to take them to their destination.

His intrepid crew was comprised of four fellow Norwegians and a Swede, including his childhood friend, Erik Hesselberg (Odd Magnus Williamson), the navigator; radioman Knut Haugland (Tobias Santelmann), a decorated World War II veteran; Torstein Raaby (Jakob Oftebro), another radio expert; Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), an engineer; and Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgard), the Swedish steward.

Co-directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, Kon-Tiki faithfully chronicles their historic transoceanic voyage. Despite the fact that most of the picture’s dialogue is English, it earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category earlier this year.

The men set sail in the spring of 1947, encountering storms, shark attacks, ship rot, insubordination, and a host of other challenges. The deliberately paced production harks back to a bygone era when much of the Earth’s surface had not yet been explored.

Replete with breathtaking Pacific panoramas shot on location, Kon-Tiki is worth watching for the captivating visuals alone. However, the storytelling is solid, too, which all adds up to a fitting tribute to the exploits of legendary Thor Heyerdahl.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence. In English, Norwegian, Swedish, and French with subtitles. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

May 15, 2013
DAISY, DAISY, GIVE ME YOUR ANSWER DO: Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, right) has prevailed upon his next-door neighbor Nick Carraway (not shown) to invite his married cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) to his house for a tryst between Jay and Daisy, who were once an item before Jay went overseas to fight in World War I.

DAISY, DAISY, GIVE ME YOUR ANSWER DO: Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, right) has prevailed upon his next-door neighbor Nick Carraway (not shown) to invite his married cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) to his house for a tryst between Jay and Daisy, who were once an item before Jay went overseas to fight in World War I.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an era defining literary masterpiece that captured the decadence, debauchery, and self-destruction of privileged elites living in the lap of luxury at the height of the Roaring Twenties. Set in an eventful summer on Long Island, the tragic tale of love and betrayal unfolds from the point-of-view of social climber Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a nondescript bond salesman who hopes to be a celebrated writer someday.

At the point of departure, we find him renting a modest cottage that is in the shadow of a sprawling waterfront mansion owned by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a self-made man who throws extravagant parties for his fellow members of high society. Despite having his pick of gold-digging flappers, the mysterious millionaire remains obsessed with Daisy (Carey Mulligan), an attractive woman he had dated when he was a soldier before going off to fight in World War I.

While he was overseas, Daisy met and married Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), an abusive adulterer from an old money family whose mammoth estate is located on the other side of the bay from the Gatsby estate. Nick comes to play a critical role in the proceedings once Gatsby learns that Nick is a distant cousin of Daisy.

Soon, the lovelorn Gatsby prevails upon his next-door neighbor to serve as a go-between by inviting Daisy over for a secret rendezvous. Sparks fly afresh, and it’s not long before all the morally-corrupt central characters end up taking a ride aboard an emotional roller coaster.

Perhaps more pertinent than recounting further the familiar plotline of a novel we all remember from high school is addressing its reimagining as a visually-captivating, ethereal fantasy by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge). The director shot the New York story in his native Australia, and filled the soundtrack with hip-hop tunes by the film’s executive producer, Jay-Z, and wife, Beyoncé.

Before you join the rush to indict the anachronistic inclusion of rap as blasphemous in a movie that is recreating the Jazz Age, consider the fact that historical costume dramas generally tend to tell us more about the period in which they were made than about the one in which they transpire. Why else would anyone see fit to mount a fifth version of Gatsby?

Reflecting the influences of both its producer and director, this riveting reinterpretation for the Hip-Hop Generation is probably best appreciated by fans of gangsta’ rap who were weaned on videos featuring materialistic misogynists enjoying champagne while surrounded by gyrating beauties. Bravo to Baz for effectively lending his lush and lurid touch to a classic that chronicles the downside of the American Dream.

Excellent (****) Rated PG-13 for sexuality, smoking, violent images, partying, and brief profanity. Running time: 143 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

May 8, 2013
WHEN YOU HUG ME, JUST REMEMBER YOUR SUPERHERO STRENGTH: Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, right) is apparently unafraid of being crushed to death by the Iron Man (Robert Downey,Jr.) as he holds his sweetheart in a fond embrace.

WHEN YOU HUG ME, JUST REMEMBER YOUR SUPERHERO STRENGTH: Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, right) is apparently unafraid of being crushed to death by the Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) as he holds his sweetheart in a fond embrace.

This film is the seventh movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series that started with Iron Man 1 in 2008, and followed by The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers. The question is whether the series is running out of steam or if it’s worth investing in yet another episode.

Great news! The movie more than lives up to its billing as the first blockbuster of this summer season. And, the plot remains true to the basic comic book formula in which a superhero is pitted against a diabolical villain bent on world domination.

However, Iron Man 3 adds something new to the usual mix of derring-do and visually-captivating special effects because Robert Downey, Jr. brings so much charm to the title character. He delivers a plethora of pithy comments, whether in his role as bon vivant billionaire Tony Stark, or his intrepid alter ego.

Also reprising their roles are Gwyneth Paltrow as Iron Man’s love interest Pepper Potts, Don Cheadle as his best friend Rhodey, and Jon Favreau (the director of episodes 1 and 2) as his chauffeur and chief of security Happy Hogan. Critical additions include Ty Simpkins as Harley, Iron Man’s new sidekick, and Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin, the maniacal spokesman for an international terrorist organization.

The point of departure is Bern, Switzerland on New Year’s 2000 where we find Tony Stark declining an offer to go into business together being made by Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a disabled scientist who covets an experimental drug being developed by Stark Industries botanist Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). The story immediately fast-forwards to the present, and a string of bombings that are suspected of being set by The Mandarin.

Foolishly, Tony dares the Mandarin to a fight, and soon Tony’s ocean front home is leveled by a barrage of rockets. Fortunately, a number of Iron Man outfits were left unscathed and, with the help of Harley and Rhodey (aka Iron Patriot), he proceeds to get to the bottom of who is really behind the bombings.

Far be it from this critic to spoil the surprising developments which ensue en route to the big showdown. Just brace yourself for an array of captivating stunt work interrupted intermittently by comical comments by our protagonist. Audience members who are patient enough to sit through the long (and I mean long) closing credits will be rewarded with a brief session of the Iron Man decompressing on the shrink’s couch with Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence and brief sensuality. Running time: 130 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Studios.

May 1, 2013
IN SPITE OF ALL THAT HAPPENED, WE’RE MARRIED AT LAST: Missy (Amanda Seyfried, right) contentedly rests her head on her new husband Alejandro’s (Ben Barnes) shoulder. The wedding finally occurred in spite of many embarrassing events that occurred prior to the ceremony.

IN SPITE OF ALL THAT HAPPENED, WE’RE MARRIED AT LAST: Missy (Amanda Seyfried, right) contentedly rests her head on her new husband Alejandro’s (Ben Barnes) shoulder. The wedding finally occurred in spite of many embarrassing events that occurred prior to the ceremony.

This picture is such a disaster that it’s hard to decide where to start in critiquing it. I could talk about how it is just the latest case of Hollywood remaking a French farce (Mon Frère se Marie) which somehow lost all of its charm when it was translated into English. Or I could point out how it’s a variation of Meet the Parents and even has Robert De Niro reprising his role as a macho father-in-law who is less inclined to reason with somebody than to threaten to bust his kneecap.

Or I could focus on how the production squanders the talents of a cast that includes four Oscar winners De Niro, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, and Diane Keaton, as well as that of seasoned comedians Topher Grace, Katherine Heigl, Amanda Seyfried, and Christine Ebersole. Or I might mention that the movie sat on the shelf for over a year before the studio decided to pump up the marketing and dump it on the public.

Then there’s the homophobia and racism, reflected in disparaging remarks about lesbians and Colombians. Equally objectionable is the picture’s use of sophomoric sight gags such as projectile vomiting. Perhaps most offensive of all is the film’s coarse, off-color humor.

All of the above amounts to a bitter disappointment, especially given the elite cast. Blame for this fiasco rests squarely on the shoulders of writer/director/producer Justin Zackham, who apparently was trying to replicate the lowbrow nature of his only other feature-length film, Going Greek, a raunchy film that was released in 2001.

As for the storyline, Mr. Zackham relies on “The Big Lie” cliché, a hackneyed plot device that has been popular in TV sitcoms since the beginning of television. The plot is about characters who go to increasingly great lengths to hide an embarrassing fact from someone until the ruse blows up in their faces and the truth comes out.

In the movie, Missy (Amanda Seyfried) and Alejandro (Ben Barnes) are on the verge of tying the knot in Connecticut, when they learn that his birth mother, Madonna (Patricia Rae), is unexpectedly flying in from Colombia to attend the wedding. Because she’s a devout Catholic, they don’t want her to know that the adoptive parents Don and Ellie (De Niro and Keaton) have been divorced for a decade.

So, instead of simply explaining the changed state of affairs to Madonna, everybody agrees to participate in an elaborate cover up to make it appear that Don and Ellie are still together, even though he’s currently in a committed relationship with Bebe (Sarandon). What a patently preposterous premise!

The escalating concatenation of calamities adds-up to an incoherent string of crude skits.

Poor (0 stars). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and brief nudity. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 90 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films

April 24, 2013
CRIME DOES NOT PAY: The three trainers at the Sun Gym in Miami Florida think they can get lots of easy money by kidnapping a wealthy businessman from Colombia (not shown) and hold for a large ransom. The leader of the conspiracy is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg, center), accompanied by his henchmen Paul (Dwayne Johnson, left) and Adrian (Anthony Mackie). The film is based on a real life incident that occurred in the nineties.

CRIME DOES NOT PAY: The three trainers at the Sun Gym in Miami Florida think they can get lots of easy money by kidnapping a wealthy businessman from Colombia (not shown) and hold for a large ransom. The leader of the conspiracy is Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg, center), accompanied by his henchmen Paul (Dwayne Johnson, left) and Adrian (Anthony Mackie). The film is based on a real life incident that occurred in the nineties.

Michael Bay is a director who has been associated with mindless stunt filled action films such as Armageddon, Bad Boys, and the Transformers series. His latest offering, however, Pain & Gain is a change because it tones down the special effects and pyrotechnics in favor of a credible plot and character development.

Based on a true event that transpired in Florida in the nineties, the alternately comical and gruesome movie is about the felonious exploits of three bodybuilders who concocted a kidnap-for-ransom plot that went terribly awry. The mastermind of the scheme was Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), an ex-con who was employed as a personal trainer at the Sun Gym in Miami.

Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a regular customer there, was an arrogant businessman from Colombia with an oversized ego and a temper to match. His condescending attitude made it easy for Daniel to consider extorting cash from the wealthy businessman Kershaw.

Lugo enlists the assistance of two cronies, recently-paroled Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and steroid addicted Adrian (Anthony Mackie).

But the seat-of-the-pants plan has little chance of success, in spite of Lugo’s assurances that “I know what I’m doing” because “I’ve watched a lot of movies.”

One complication is Paul’s reservations about crime ever since he became “born again” and turned his life over to Jesus. Adrian also has health problems that are caused by his addiction to steroids.

Nevertheless, the three still proceed with the conspiracy and abduct Victor and take him to an abandoned warehouse where they torture him mercilessly in order to learn where his fortune is hidden.

Credit the convincing performances by the leads, especially Dwayne Johnson (cast against type here as a fairly sensitive soul), for actually inducing the audience to empathize and laugh at the wacky antics of three despicable miscreants. Also, Tony Shalhoub plays his role of a dislikable victim so well, that he makes it easy to root for his captors.

Very Good (***). Rated R for graphic nudity, bloody violence, crude sexuality, drug use, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures

 
April 17, 2013
YOU’LL HAVE TO BE MORE THAN JUST A GREAT BASEBALL PLAYER: General manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, right) discusses some of the obstacles Jackie Robinson (Chad Boseman) would face in his historic role as the first African American to play in the major leagues.

YOU’LL HAVE TO BE MORE THAN JUST A GREAT BASEBALL PLAYER: General manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, right) discusses some of the obstacles Jackie Robinson (Chad Boseman) would face in his historic role as the first African American to play in the major leagues.

From its formation in the late 19th century until well into the 1940s, major league baseball operated in accordance with an unwritten rule that the sport was to remain strictly segregated. The tacit understanding among the owners stipulated that no blacks were to be signed by any clubs, thereby frustrating the aspirations of many African Americans who dreamed of playing professionally.

In the wake of World War II, however, this state of affairs rankled Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), a man who fervently felt that to remain the national pastime, baseball needed to integrate. After all, thousands of African American soldiers were returning home to face discrimination based on their skin color despite having been willing to die for their country in the conflict overseas.

So, in 1945, Rickey decided to challenge the status quo by being the first general manager to put a black ballplayer on the field. However, he anticipated that the landmark moment might be met with considerable resistance, given the virulent racism still existing throughout much of the nation.

Therefore, he knew that the choice of the person to break the color barrier was critical, because he would have to be an individual blessed not only with extraordinary athletic talent but with the requisite strength of character, namely, an amalgam of integrity, restraint, and resolve that would assure the success of the ground breaking endeavor. The candidate he settled upon was Jackie Robinson (Chad Boseman), a college educated veteran Army officer who was an All-Star second baseman in the fledgling Negro leagues.

The two forged an alliance after Robinson assured his boss that he wouldn’t respond in kind to any of the racial epithets or vile vitriol about to be hurled in his direction while on the road. As it turned out, even some of his own new teammates initially took issue with his joining the Dodgers in 1947, the year he was brought up to the big leagues.

That historic achievement is painstakingly recreated in 42, a poignant cinematic portrait of an American legend directed by Brian Helgeland. The film carefully chronicles the humiliations Robinson was forced to endure, such as “Colored Only” bathrooms, separate accommodations, the relentless heckling from the bigoted fans in the stands and his rivals in the opposing dugout.

Fortunately, Jackie managed to maintain his dignity and composure, thereby opening the door for the full integration of baseball for other African Americans waiting in the wings. The movie is an emotionally draining biopic featuring Oscar quality performances from Harrison Ford and Chad Boseman in what is easily Hollywood’s best offering of the year thus far.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for epithets, ethnic slurs, and mature themes. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 
April 10, 2013
IF THEY ONLY KNEW WHAT THEY WERE GETTING INTO: The singing group The Sapphires are shown here on a personnel carrier greeting some of the troops in the Vietnam war. The four Australian aborigines were a big hit amongst the soldiers. The quartet arrived in Vietnam in the midst of the Tet offensive and experienced first hand the horrors of war as the shows they put on got closer and closer to the front lines.

IF THEY ONLY KNEW WHAT THEY WERE GETTING INTO: The singing group The Sapphires are shown here on a personnel carrier greeting some of the troops in the Vietnam war. The four Australian aborigines were a big hit amongst the soldiers. The quartet arrived in Vietnam in the midst of the Tet offensive and experienced first hand the horrors of war as the shows they put on got closer and closer to the front lines.

As young children, the McCrae sisters, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), were forming a promising singing group with their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens). But the quartet barely got off the ground before Kay was seized by the authorities and taken from her family while she was recuperating in a hospital.

Unfortunately, the girls were growing up in Australia at a time when the law allowed fair-skinned aborigines, like Kay, to be taken from their mothers and placed with Caucasian families so they could be raised in accordance with the “White Ways.” Consequently, half-caste Kay had virtually no contact with her indigenous culture or any of her relatives over the next decade.

By 1968, however, Gail, Julie, and Cynthia were old enough to track their cousin down, and when they found her, they persuaded her to run away with them. Soon after, the four youths entered a local amateur competition as a country music act.

Although they were not the favorites of the audience that day, they did impress Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), who recognized their potential, and convinced them to change their repertoire to popular Motown tunes. In short order, he became the quartet’s piano player, conductor, choreographer, and manager, and whipped his diamond in a rough into Australia’s version of The Supremes and was able to arrange for them to perform for the troops over in Vietnam.

Based on the stage play of the same name, The Sapphires recounts the group’s harrowing, real-life experiences when they arrived in Southeast Asia during the bloody Tet offensive. The movie marks the impressive debut of aborigine Wayne Blair, a gifted actor-turned-director who does a remarkable job of subtly recreating the political climate of the turbulent 60s.

For instance, Blair effectively employs the iconic clip of Muhammad Ali refusing to serve in the army (“No Viet Cong ever called me a [N-word].”) to convey the growing opposition to the war. Nevertheless, blinded by a combination of naivete and the pay, our four heroines find themselves in the middle of a war zone with little preparation for the unspeakable horrors they are about to witness.

With no choice but to make the best of a bad situation, they proceed to put on a number of very well-received shows as the tour takes them closer and closer to the frontlines. However, amidst the insanity of war, they somehow find time for reverie, reflection, and even a little romance.

A well-deserved tribute to four Australian women who risked their lives to entertain the boys.

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

April 3, 2013
I’VE GOT TO FIGURE OUT SOME WAY TO SAVE THE HOSTAGES: Disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), manages to enter the White House unobserved by the terrorists, thanks to his detailed knowledge of the building’s floor plan. Once there, he devises a plan for rescuing the president, vice president and the cabinet from the terrorists who are torturing the hostages for the codes for the nuclear asrsenal.

I’VE GOT TO FIGURE OUT SOME WAY TO SAVE THE HOSTAGES: Disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), manages to enter the White House unobserved by the terrorists, thanks to his detailed knowledge of the building’s floor plan. Once there, he devises a plan for rescuing the president, vice president and the cabinet from the terrorists who are torturing the hostages for the codes for the nuclear asrsenal.

While serving as the President’s (Aaron Eckhart) personal bodyguard, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) grew very close to the first family. During his tenure at the White House, the dedicated detail-oriented Secret Service agent familiarized himself with every part of the building’s layout.

However, Banning was reassigned to a desk job after he failed to rescue the First Lady (Ashley Judd) when the presidential limousine plunged off a bridge into a river en route to a Christmas party. Although the accident wasn’t his fault, he agonized over a snap decision of his that might have made the difference between her living and dying.

A year and a half later, Banning is still riddled with guilt despite receiving assurances from the Secret Service director (Angela Banning) that there was nothing he could have done. However, he soon gets a chance to redeem himself when a band of ninjas from North Korea attacks the White House and takes the president and his cabinet hostage.

With the president and vice president (Phil Austin) abducted, the line of succession specifies that the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) assumes power, which he does from a well-fortified bunker. Meanwhile, the leader (Rick Yune) of the terrorists proceeds to torture his hostages in an attempt to learn the codes controlling America’s nuclear arsenal.

Banning observes the attack and subsequent slaughter of his former colleagues from an office window across the street. The disgraced agent springs into action and surreptitiously enters the White House armed only with a handgun and a walkie-talkie. However, he has the advantage over the army of heavily armed intruders because of his detailed knowledge of the White House’s floor plan.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, Olympus Has Fallen is a fast-paced film that is engaging and entertaining enough to be recommended, provided you don’t question any of the picture’s implausible plot developments.

Featuring pyrotechnics worthy of a 4th of July fireworks display, Olympus Has Fallen is an eye-popping, patriotic, high-octane adventure that leaves no doubt about who the vindicated hero is who has kept the world safe for democracy.

Very Good (***). Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive profanity. In English and Korean with subtitles. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Film District.

March 27, 2013
THOSE WERE THE DAYS MY FRIEND: Portia (Tina Fey, left) meets John (Paul Rudd), who was her former college boyfriend when they were both students at Dartmouth. John is now the principal of a high school in New Hampshire, and, as part of her job of admissions officer at Princeton University, Portia is looking for potential candidates. To her surprise, John recommends someone who turns out to be Portia’s son whom she gave up for adoption at birth.

THOSE WERE THE DAYS MY FRIEND: Portia (Tina Fey, left) meets John (Paul Rudd), who was her former college boyfriend when they were both students at Dartmouth. John is now the principal of a high school in New Hampshire, and, as part of her job of admissions officer at Princeton University, Portia is looking for potential candidates. To her surprise, John recommends someone who turns out to be Portia’s son whom she gave up for adoption at birth.

Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) has worked for 16 years in the admissions office at Princeton, the university regularly rated by experts as among the best in the country. Because of her pivotal role in picking prospective students for the highly selective Ivy League institution, she often finds herself approached by pushy parents who are seeking preferential treatment for their children.

That’s why she prides herself on never having compromised the integrity of the application process, a commitment that is appreciated by her boss, the outgoing Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn). In fact, he has recently indicated that he’s prepared to recommend either her or the equally dedicated Corinne (Gloria Reuben) as his replacement when he retires.

That announcement starts a fierce competition between the two colleagues which has Portia going up to New Hampshire in search of qualified candidates for admission. She visits an alternative high school whose handsome principal, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), had been a classmate of hers at Dartmouth. Sparks fly, but nothing transpires, because she’s in a committed relationship at home in Princeton.

John pressures Portia to interview Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a bright but underachieving student with a woeful academic transcript. She has no problem dismissing the application out of hand until John gives her a birth certificate showing that Jeremiah is the son that she gave up for adoption years ago.

Suddenly, Portia finds herself on the horns of a dilemma. Should she reject this candidate who is clearly not Princeton material, or should she bend the rules for her own flesh and blood? After all, it’s the least she could do, since she had no part in raising him.

That is the conundrum at the heart of Admission, a delightful romantic movie directed by Paul Weitz (American Pie). Based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s bestseller of the same name, the film offers a revealing look at the cutthroat college entrance process from the gatekeepers’ point of view.

Besides the temptation of nepotism, the film is about the tender romance between Portia and John which has a chance to blossom when she’s abandoned by her philandering boyfriend (Michael Sheen), which she discovers when she returns from New Hampshire. Additionally, intriguing subplots abound that involve a cornucopia of colorful support characters.

For instance, John, who is not married, has an adopted African son (Travaris Spears) who craves the predictability that settling down with a stable woman might provide. And Portia needs to mend fences with her estranged mother (Lily Tomlin), a breast cancer survivor who in turn would benefit from the attentions of an ardent admirer (Olek Krupa). Additional sidebars feature memorable cameos by Roby Sobieski (Leelee’s little brother), Asher Muldoon (author Korelitz’s son), and an emerging ingénue, Nadia Alexander.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity and some sexuality. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

March 20, 2013
NEVER NOT BE AFRAID!: The head of a family living in a cave in the Stone Age and headed by Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage, far right) sets out on a perilous journey in search of a safer place to live. Grug constantly reminds them to “never not be afraid” because from his experience the world is a very, very dangerous place.

NEVER NOT BE AFRAID!: The head of a family living in a cave in the Stone Age and headed by Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage, far right) sets out on a perilous journey in search of a safer place to live. Grug constantly reminds them to “never not be afraid” because from his experience the world is a very, very dangerous place.

Are you better off than you were four million years ago? That’s the evolutionary question playfully posed by The Croods, a visually captivating action cartoon about a family of cave dwellers who summon up their courage to abandon their home in the face of an impending climate change.

The enchanting movie was co-directed by Kirk De Micco (Space Chimps) and Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon), who assembled a cast featuring Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, and Cloris Leachman to breathe life into a colorful array of prehistoric characters. Besides the talented voice cast, the film effectively uses 3-D technology to guarantee that the audience will be enthralled by ducking projectiles aimed directly at their heads or trying to touch objects dangling just out of reach.

At the point of departure we find the Croods huddled inside their dank dark cave where they sleep together in a pile to keep warm at night. The family is presided over by Grug (Cage), an overprotective patriarch whose mantra is the double-negative “Never not be afraid!”

The other members of the clan include a nagging mother-in-law Gran (Leachman), long-suffering wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), and their three children: baby Sandy (Randy Thom), man-child Thunk (Clark Duke), and rebellious teen Eep (Stone). Grug feels it is his duty to remind them on a daily basis of the many dangers lurking just beyond the entrance of their boulder-fortified abode.

That’s why he’s so fond of telling bedtime stories in which any curiosity about what happens in the outside world invariably proves fatal. Grug’s scare tactics work until the fateful day Eep sneaks off to explore on her own and encounters a boy named Guy (Reynolds) about her own age.

Not only has Guy figured out how to harness fire to keep hungry creatures at bay but he forecasts imminent doom for any one who fails to move to higher ground. When Eep brings word of this frightening development to her father, it becomes abundantly clear that it’s going to take more than a little convincing to get him to lead the family out of the cave on a perilous trek to safety.

Mother Nature plays a part in nudging him to grudgingly join forces with Guy, and the ensuing journey across a vast wasteland to Shangri-La allows for a priceless lesson about risk-taking as relevant today as it must have been back in the Stone Age. The movie is a side-splitting thrill-a-minute adventure reminiscent of the best of The Flintstones.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for scenes of peril. Running time: 98 minutes. Studio: Dreamworks Animation. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

 

March 13, 2013
NOW, FOR MY NEXT TRICK: Street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) gesticulates magically to perform yet another spectacular illusion before the crowd of onlookers. Steve is so successful with his street act, that he is able to draw away the people who would have attended the headlining show given by Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell, not shown) and Anton Marvelton (not shown) at Bally’s. In order to save their reputations, Burt tries to outdo Steve’s illusions in the street.

NOW, FOR MY NEXT TRICK: Street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) gesticulates magically to perform yet another spectacular illusion before the crowd of onlookers. Steve is so successful with his street act, that he is able to draw away the people who would have attended the headlining show given by Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell, not shown) and Anton Marvelton (not shown) at Bally’s. In order to save their reputations, Burt tries to outdo Steve’s illusions in the street.

Back in 2003, Jim Carrey was upstaged as the title character of Bruce Almighty by scene-stealing Steve Carell who was the TV newscaster Evan Baxter. Consequently, Carrey wasn’t even around for the sequel, Evan Almighty, a spinoff which was all about Carell’s expanded role.

Turnabout is fair play, and a decade later we find Carell overshadowed here by a rejuvenated Carrey. The viewing public benefits, because the two have reunited and they’re better than ever as magicians who are competing to outdo each other in an escalating game of one-upmanship.

Directed by Don Scardino (NBC-TV’s 30 Rock), The Incredible Burt Wonderstone also features a stellar supporting cast that includes Alan Arkin, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, James Gandolfini, Brad Garrett, and Jay Mohr, as well as amusing cameo appearances by David Copperfield, CNN’s Erin Burnett, and MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe.

The picture’s premise is easy to follow. Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) have been doing magic tricks together since childhood, when they first teamed up to entertain their classmates. Thirty years later, they are sharing top billing on the marquee as “Burt & Anton: A Magical Friendship at Bally’s in Las Vegas.”

However, they’ve come to despise each other, primarily because of Burt’s massive ego. As a result, their act has grown stale, and this gives the street performer Steve Gray (Carrey) a chance to steal their thunder with his bizarre stunts, such as not blinking for days on end.

When the newcomer captures the public’s imagination, attendance at Burt and Anton’s shows declines, and it’s not long before they feel the pressure to match Gray in outrageousness. But after Anton breaks his ankles and some ribs during their first dangerous stunt, Burt is forced to go up against Gray by himself.

The ensuing competition in illusions contrasts Carrey’s over-the-top antics with Carell’s droll tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and in this critic’s opinion, Carrey’s sight gags are much better than Carell’s dry wit. The battle of competing comedy styles is won hands-down by the rambunctious rubber-faced Carrey!

Excellent (***½). Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, dangerous stunts, and a drug-related incident. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

March 6, 2013
ARGUABLY ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS OCCUPATIONS: Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) works in an aquarium in the south of France where she trains the notoriously dangerous killer whales. Unfortunately, one of them becomes out of control during a training session and smashes Stephanie against the side of the pool. When she is rescued, it turns out that as a result of the accident, she has lost the use of her legs and is confined to a wheelchair.

ARGUABLY ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS OCCUPATIONS: Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) works in an aquarium in the south of France where she trains the notoriously dangerous killer whales. Unfortunately, one of them becomes out of control during a training session and smashes Stephanie against the side of the pool. When she is rescued, it turns out that as a result of the accident, she has lost the use of her legs and is confined to a wheelchair.

Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a homeless street hustler barely eking out a living in his native Belgium when he is unexpectedly given custody of his 5-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure). Overwhelmed by the unanticipated extra responsibility, he moves to Antibes in the South of France to give the boy he barely knows to his obliging sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero), to care for.

Buff, imposing, and blessed with formidable strength, Alain soon lands part-time work as a bouncer in a trendy nearby nightclub. He also starts taking advantage of his good looks and enters into lustful, brief liaisons with the attractive customers of the club.

Elsewhere in the seaside resort town, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an attractive young woman, works at an aquarium where she trains Killer whales. She meets Alain one evening after he rescues her from a nasty brawl inside the cabaret.

Stephanie takes his phone number, but before she has a chance to call and thank him, she loses the use of both of her legs in an unfortunate accident when she is crushed against the side of the pool by an Orca. When the two finally meet again, she is confined to a wheelchair, and terribly depressed by the change in her life caused by the accident.

Will Alain befriend the handicapped Stephanie, or will he go right back out on the dating circuit? That is the crux of the question at the heart of Rust and Bone, a romance drama written and directed by Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips).

This love story ultimately proves far more poignant than one might expect of a picture that starts out with such an apparent boor as a protagonist. Fortunately, his character undergoes considerable development over the course of the movie.

Alain gradually gets in touch with his sensitive side to the point where he’s ready to abandon his womanizing ways and also to spend time with his neglected son. In addition to the movie unfolding against an array of beautiful backdrops, Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard give tour de force performances in Rust and Bone.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, profanity, graphic sexuality, and nudity. In French and English with subtitles. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.

February 27, 2013
HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAY!: Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a common farmer, has fallen in love with the beautiful Princess Isabelle (not shown) and is determined to rescue her. He is climbing a giant beanstalk that has carried his house and the missing princess a mile high into the sky. Jack did not realize that the beanstalk had connected the world of the giants who lived high in the sky to the earth below. As a result, the giants descended from their heights and attempted to conquer the kingdom on earth. So in addition to rescuing the princess, Jack will have to defeat the giants as well.

HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAY!: Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a common farmer, has fallen in love with the beautiful Princess Isabelle (not shown) and is determined to rescue her. He is climbing a giant beanstalk that has carried his house and the missing princess a mile high into the sky. Jack did not realize that the beanstalk had connected the world of the giants who lived high in the sky to the earth below. As a result, the giants descended from their heights and attempted to conquer the kingdom on earth. So in addition to rescuing the princess, Jack will have to defeat the giants as well.

When Jack (Nicholas Hoult) was a little boy, his imagination was inspired by a bedtime story about a mythical war that was waged ages ago against a fearsome race of giants who had descended from the sky. Before his mother (Caroline Hayes) died, she suggested that he might even be related to Erik the Great (Craig Salisbury), the brave monarch who had led the valiant defense of Earth against the gargantuan invaders.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the peaceful kingdom, young Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) was being told a similar tale about an epic showdown between good and evil.

A decade later, we find the farmhand’s path crossing that of the future queen when the princess, now a headstrong teenager, sneaks out of the castle to learn about the life of the commoners. When she is accosted by a menacing gang of ruffians at a puppet show, Jack rushes to her assistance.

The damsel in distress becomes so smitten with the gallant lad that she informs her father that she wishes to break off her arranged engagement to the insufferable Roderick (Stanley Tucci), an effete lout who is twice her age. Nonetheless, King Brahmwell would rather have his daughter marry someone she doesn’t love but who is a blue-blooded member of the Royal Court, than marry a commoner.

Fate intervenes in the form of a monk (Simon Lowe) who hands Jack a few mysterious beans. During a secret visit from Isabelle, one slips through the floorboards under Jack’s house, takes root, and starts to grow rapidly, sweeping the humble abode with the princess in it way up into the heavens.

Soon both of her suitors start to search for the missing princess and begin by scaling the mile-high beanstalk  that leads to the other world in the clouds. Jack has no idea that the mammoth plant has also reopened a gateway to the ground for an army of gigantic adversaries. And it’s not long before ancient hostilities are reignited over Isabelle and the fate of the planet below.

Directed by Bryan Singer, Jack the Giant Slayer is an enchanting and often eye-popping adventure which must be seen in 3-D to be appreciated fully. Between the breathtaking panoramas and the derring-do, the picture is a captivating cinematic treat guaranteed to enthrall anyone interested in seeing a classic fairytale being brought to life.

Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum! I smell a hit with the little ones!

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for frightening images, brief profanity, and intense violence. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers