December 5, 2012

SHALL WE DANCE?: Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley, right) finds herself falling hopelessly and shamelessly in love with the young and dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The initially giddy attraction between the lovers ultimately results in Anna descending into madness as the pressures exerted by society on her forbidden love affair take their toll.

First published between 1873 and 1877 as a series of installments in a literary magazine, Anna Karenina is a more than one thousand page opus about the ill-fated affair between a St. Petersburg socialite and a young soldier. Despite the soap opera at the heart of the story, the novel is actually much deeper because it explores many motifs, including feminism, family, forgiveness, and fate.

Leo Tolstoy’s tale of forbidden love has been brought to the screen over 20 times, most notably starring Greta Garbo (1935) and Vivien Leigh (1948) in the title role. Here, Academy Award nominee Keira Knightley (for Pride & Prejudice) delivers a fresh interpretation of the flawed heroine in a bold adaptation directed by Joe Wright.

The movie is the pair’s third collaboration, which includes the critically acclaimed Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), costume dramas which together received a total of 11 Oscar nominations. Similar accolades are likely in store for this movie as well, primarily as a consequence of Knightley’s powerful performance and Wright’s daring and dazzling interpretation of the Russian classic.

The highly stylized production has a stagy feel to it rather reminiscent of Moulin Rouge! (2001). Most of the film unfolds in a dingy dilapidated theater, which might sound at first like a disappointing downsizing of the sweeping source material. But this surreal treatment, replete with stampeding horses and a host of other surprises lying in wait in the wings and up in the rafters, is nothing short of magical without diminishing the Tolstoy epic one iota.

At the point of departure, we find unhappily married Anna falling in love with dashing Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bachelor serving in the cavalry. The two proceed to carry on shamelessly, much to the chagrin of her older cuckolded husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), who is a boring government bureaucrat.

In addition, the picture devotes its attention to a couple of lesser-developed subplots. One involves Anna’s brother (Matthew Macfadyen), a womanizer who has been cheating on his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). The other is about wealthy Konstantin Levin’s (Domhnall Gleeson) pursuit of Dolly’s teenage sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), a debutante who has hopes of being courted by Vronsky.

Ultimately, Anna’s mind gradually unravels, as she is tragically undone by a mixture of jealousy, bitterness, and assorted social pressures. All of the above transpires before a visually arresting backdrop as envisioned and brilliantly executed by the gifted Wright.

A sumptuous cinematic feast!

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality and violence. Running time: 130 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

November 28, 2012

WE HAVE JOINED TOGETHER TO FIGHT THE BOOGEYMAN: Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin’s voice), together with Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and the Sandman have joined together to form the Guardians in order to prevent the nefarious Boogeyman from destroying the pleasures that children derive from their myths while they are still innocent believers.

When the Boogeyman (Jude Law) hatches a diabolical plan to eliminate the dreams of sugarplums dancing in tykes’ heads and to steal baby teeth that were left under their pillows at bedtime, it’s clear that something must be done. For, if left unchecked, it’ll just be a matter of time before the evil schemer will quash children’s beliefs in the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the Sandman.

Fortunately, these beloved mythical figures have already united to fight their longtime adversary by forming the Guardians, an association dedicated to the preservation of the innocence, imagination, and sense of wonder of children all over the world. And at the urging of their wise leader, the Man in the Moon, they become convinced that Jack Frost (Chris Pine) will be an indispensable member of their team.

Initially, Jack is reluctant to join because of he is so young and he also feels inadequate because he is invisible. But Jack ultimately yields to his confederates’ relentless pressuring and they convince him that “You cannot say no!” and “It is destiny!”

With greatness thus thrust upon him, will Jack rise to the occasion to spearhead the charge against the Boogeyman? That is the question posed by the Rise of the Guardians, an enchanting fairytale loosely based on The Guardians of Childhood series of best-sellers by William Joyce.

The animated adventure marks the directorial debut of veteran storyboard artist Peter Ramsey who makes uses of state-of-the-art 3-D technology in such a way that it warrants an investment in goggles in order to enjoy all the eye-popping special features. Nevertheless, at heart, the picture remains a sweet story with a universal message about the importance of protecting children’s innocence.

Although aimed at impressionable young children, Rise of the Guardians will resonate with children of all ages who still have a sense of wonder and awe. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus; and a Tooth Fairy, a Jack Frost, an Easter Bunny, and a Sandman, too.

Excellent (***½). Rated PG for mature themes and scary action sequences. Running time: 97 minutes. Distributor: Dreamworks Pictures.

November 21, 2012

DO NOT FORSAKE ME IN MY HOUR OF NEED: Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) prays in desperation to his three religions to ask for help in surviving this terrible natural catastrophe which leaves him stranded in the middle of the Pacific ocean with a Bengal tiger. Pi and his parents were en-route to Canada with their family’s zoo, when their cargo ship capsized in the terrible storm which hit them.

Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) was raised in the Hindu faith before converting to Catholicism and Islamism all on his own. The 16-year-old’s parents reacted differently to the changes in the boy’s unorthodox behavior which included going to church and praying facing east five times a day.

His frustrated father (Adil Hussain) warned, “You cannot follow three religions at the same time,” while his more tolerant mother (Tabu) told him that “Science cannot teach what is in here,” touching her heart. Both shrugged it off as probably just a passing phase, since they were busy planning the big move of the family household and zoo from India to Canada.

However, tragedy strikes en route, when their cargo ship capsizes and sinks in the middle of the Pacific, leaving Pi, the sole human survivor, in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Will the religious believer remain true to his lofty ideals while playing out the faith-testing hand he’s suddenly been dealt?

That’s the pressing question posed in Life of Pi, a visually captivating tale of spirituality and survival. Directed by Oscar winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), the movie was shot against a series of exquisite seascapes that look like glorious, hand-painted, pastel panoramas.

After the occurrence of the shipwreck, the picture is a one-man show, similar to Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000). However, in this film the protagonist has to figure out how to coexist peacefully in very close quarters with a tiger who’d probably prefer to make him its next meal.

The burden of carrying the film falls on the shoulders of first-time actor Suraj Sharma, who does a magnificent job of conveying the existential angst of the beleaguered, ever-exasperated title character.

This richly textured adaptation will undoubtedly be a hit with fans of the Yann Martel best-seller upon which it’s based, as well as with audience members of any age who are looking for an entertaining movie. Of interest is that during an opening sequence of this flashback film, the audience is told that what is about to unfold is a story that will make you believe in God.

For all its religious overtones, however, the thrust of the production is less about an attempt to convert disbelievers than around Ang Lee’s brilliant use of the screen as a cinematic canvas to narrate a compelling story. The film is a critic and crowd pleaser that will be impossible to forget when Academy Award season comes around.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mature themes and scary action sequences. In English, French, and Japanese with subtitles. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox

November 14, 2012

HI, MY NAME IS CHERYL AND I’M HERE TO HELP YOU: Professional sex surrogate Cheryl (Helen Hunt) has agreed to help Mark O’Brien (not shown) explore his sexuality and become able to develop a full relationship with a woman. As a child he was paralyzed by polio and has had to spend most of his time in an iron lung in order to breathe, with only brief periods outside of it when he can use a portable respirator.

Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) was left paralyzed from the neck down by the polio he’d contracted as a child. Consequently, he can only breathe with the assistance of an iron lung, although he can use a portable respirator for a few hours at a time.

Nonetheless, the condition has never stopped him from having sexual fantasies, such as about his attractive attendant Amanda (Annika Marks), who quit when he expressed his desire for her. The sexually frustrated 38-year-old decides that the only way he’ll probably ever lose his virginity is by paying a woman to sleep with him.

However, there are the physical challenges presented by quadriplegia and, as a devout Catholic, he has to resolve a major moral issue because Catholicism forbids fornication outside the sanctity of marriage. So Mark decides to consult his parish priest for a special dispensation.

Armed with the surprisingly sympathetic Father Brendan’s (William H. Macy) blessing, Mark retains the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate. Over the course of a half-dozen, romantic rendezvous, the sensitive therapist gradually helps her patient conquer his problems.

The Sessions’ subject matter might strike some as salacious, given the film’s frequent nude scenes. But the movie actually is a compassionate tale that explores a variety of themes, including faith, friendship, relationships, and the indomitability of the human spirit.

Written and directed by Ben Lewin, himself a polio victim, the movie is based on Mark O’Brien’s (1950-1999) life story as chronicled in his autobiography How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man’s Quest for Independence. The late author was also the subject of Breathing Lessons, a biopic which won an Academy Award in 1997 in the Best Documentary category.

The movie resists the temptation to follow a Hollywood style formula in favor of a realistic plot that Mark undoubtedly would have appreciated. As a journalist and longtime civil rights advocate, he never looked for pity but lobbied for legislation and equality on behalf of the handicapped.

Co-stars John Hawkes and Helen Hunt generate an endearing chemistry and turn in virtuoso performances that deserve serious Oscar consideration.

Excellent (****). Rated R for graphic sexuality, nudity, and frank dialogue. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

November 7, 2012

THE BUCK STOPS HERE: The head of MI6 (Judi Dench) accepts full responsibility for the apparent death of Agent 007, aka James Bond (Daniel Craig, not shown), but refuses to step down from her post. Of course, her stubbornness is vindicated when Bond resurfaces alive and well and proceeds to track down the maniacal madman (played by Javier Bardem, not shown) and put an end to his attempts at world domination.

Each new James Bond film is destined to be compared to all the prior movies in the enduring series. Directed by Academy Award-winner Sam Mendes (for American Beauty), Skyfall earns high grades because it pales in the eyes of this critic only in relation to the standard-setting classic films that starred Sean Connery as 007.

Daniel Craig returns for a third episode of savoir faire and derring-do as the legendary British secret agent with “a license to kill” and matches wits with a maniacal madman played by Oscar-winner Javier Bardem (for No Country for Old Men). Besides the obligatory villain bent on world domination, this 007 adventure arrives complete with trademarks such as witty repartee, a bevy of Bond girls (most notably Naomie Harris and Berenice Marlohe), exotic locales, and a memorable title song (by Adele) that oozes the required combination of danger and sensuality.

The movie wastes little time launching into high gear, opening with a daredevil motorcycle chase across roofs high above Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, that leads to an even more eye-popping stunt atop a careening freight train approaching the proverbial mountain tunnel. The incident ends with a breathtaking plunge into a river that apparently claims Bond’s life.

Back at MI6 headquarters, responsibility for the tragedy is ultimately placed squarely on the shoulders of M (Dame Judi Dench). However, she refuses to turn in her resignation when called to account by her boss (Ralph Fiennes).

Of course, 007 isn’t really dead, and he soon resurfaces to embark, with M’s blessing, on a revenge-fueled, name-clearing, international manhunt with ports-of-call in Macau and Shanghai that ends in a spectacular showdown on an ancestral family estate in Scotland. What makes the roller coaster ride so much fun is a plethora of surprising plot twists.

Brace yourself for the best Bond picture in ages, thanks to Daniel Craig’s coming of age to make the role his own.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, smoking, violence, and intense action sequences. Running time: 143 minutes. Studio: Columbia Pictures.

November 6, 2012

THANK GOODNESS HE WAS FLYING THE PLANE: Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) confidently boards his airplane even though he is legally drunk and has stayed up all night drinking and snorting coke together with a stewardess (Nadine Velazquez, not shown). In spite of these grave infractions of the rules, Whip is able to land the plane after a disastrous failure of its hydraulic system. The subsequent investigation reveals Whip’s shortcomings and the question is, will he be able to cover up his criminally liable actions.

Co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) is at the helm of SouthJet Flight 227 from Orlando to Atlanta because the plane’s captain, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), has passed out after a night of debauchery in which he drank booze and snorted coke while carousing with a stewardess (Nadine Velazquez). However, when the plane unexpectedly encounters severe turbulence and starts losing altitude the concerned rookie immediately rouses the senior officer out of a deep sleep.

Despite a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit, the veteran aviator assumes control and quickly ascertains that the plane’s plunge is due to a complete failure of the hydraulic system. He further surmises that the only hope of pulling out of the precipitous nosedive requires that he lower the landing gear prematurely, dump fuel, and fly the aircraft upside-down.

Against all odds, he executes each step flawlessly, unless you count clipping the top off a church steeple moments before making an emergency landing in an open field. 96 of the 102 passengers survive, and Whip’s astonishing feat is soon the subject of the national media.

However, during its routine investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) uncovers evidence that the pilot had a blood alcohol level of .24 at the time of the accident. Since six people perished in the crash, Captain Whitaker could be held criminally liable for their deaths.

Will the hero’s image be tarnished by scandal? Not if his defense attorney (Don Cheadle) and the union representative (Bruce Greenwood) have anything to say about it. The two hatch a plan to suppress the toxicology report and to sober Whip up by the time of the NTSB hearing.

Directed by Academy Award-winner Bob Zemeckis (for Forest Gump), Flight is a riveting thriller with spellbinding special effects and an unparalleled performance by two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington (for Glory and Training Day). After the spectacular opening scene plane crash, the picture shifts in tone to a portrait of a self-destructive addict who is in denial and plagued by demons.

The supporting cast features Kelly Reilly as Whip’s love interest, John Goodman as his drug dealer, Melissa Leo as a snoopy NTSB bureaucrat, as well as Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood. This movie is as much a star vehicle as Zemeckis’s Cast Away, where Tom Hanks was the only actor on screen for over an hour.

Excellent (****). Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, nudity, sexuality, and an intense action sequence. Running time: 139 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

October 24, 2012

THE FILM MAKERS’ VIEW OF THE FUTURE: Shown here is a scene from “Cloud Atlas” which depicts the directors’ (Tom Twyker, and Andy and Lana Wachowski) interpretation of the author David Miller’s vision of what Korea will be like in the year 2140 as described in his bestselling book of the same name.

Based on David Mitchell’s novel of the same name, Cloud Atlas offers an intriguing and visually captivating cinematic experience that’s well worth seeing, if only for its unorthodox narrative. However, you would be well advised to familiarize yourself with the bestseller’s cryptic plot structure, if you want to have an idea about what’s going on.

Since I hadn’t read the British Book Award winning novel, I initially found myself quite baffled by the surrealistic elliptical storyline. Still, I was able to enjoy it immensely after gradually discerning the underlying method to the time-shifting madness.

The story consists of a half-dozen insular adventures which ultimately interlock despite unfolding over the course of past, present, and future eras. They transpire in locales as far afield as a Pacific atoll in the 1840s, Cambridge, England in the 1930s, San Francisco in the 1970s, present day London, Korea in the 2140s, and a post apocalyptic Hawaii in the 2340s. Meanwhile, the adventures’ themes range from slavery and gay love, to corporate mind control.

It took a collaboration by a trio of noted directors, Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix), to create this ambitious $100 million screen adaptation. In addition, the principal cast members, including Oscar-winners Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, and Jim Broadbent, each play multiple versions of reincarnated characters.

Cloud Atlas is a morality play about human fears, frailties, and failings as well as a mind-bending science fiction mystery. While you’re busy deciphering complicated clues, the picture intermittently indulges in fortune cookie type philosophy about the deeper meaning of life.

The dialogue is diminished by preachy poster speak such as “separation is an illusion,” “to know yourself is only possible through the eyes of another,” and “from womb to tomb we are bound to others” that is designed to deliver a simplistic New Age message. Another minor flaw is the film’s almost three-hour running time, which can easily be explained by the directors’ desire to remain as faithful to the 544-page source material as possible, rather than conflate characters, condense chapters, and make other concessions for the sake of a Hollywood formula.

Very Good (***). Rated R for violence, profanity, sexuality, ethnic slurs, nudity, and drug use. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 172 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

October 17, 2012

HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAY: CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) strides into the CIA building for a meeting with the director to receive his next assignment. He is charged with the task of getting six American diplomats, who are hiding in the Canadian Ambassador’s home, after they escaped from the takeover of the American embassy in Teheran by the Iranians. Mendez devises an elaborate scheme in which the diplomats become members of a film crew that is supposedly shooting a movie in Teheran.

On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants stormed the United States embassy in Teheran, taking 52 Americans hostage with the intent to exchange them for the recently deposed Shah. What ensued was a 444-day ordeal which would last long after the despised despot died in exile without standing trial.

While that standoff occupied the world’s attention as front-page news, almost no one knew that a half-dozen Americans had managed to escape unnoticed during the assault and take refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Of course the discovery of their whereabouts by the rabidly anti-Western Khomeini regime would have undoubtedly triggered another international incident.

So, they surreptitiously contacted the CIA which assigned their rescue to Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a specialist with a perfect record of freeing captives from similar perilous predicaments.

Agent Mendez proceeded to hatch an attention grabbing scheme that was the antithesis of the sort of clandestine operation one might expect from the CIA.

His plan involved creating a cover for the stranded diplomats by making a movie that was actually a CIA front. First, he enlisted the assistance of a veteran Hollywood executive (Alan Arkin) and an Oscar-winner (John Goodman) and swore them to secrecy. They lent an air of authenticity to the ruse by posing as the picture’s producer and makeup artist, respectively.

Figuring that “If you want to spread a lie, get the press to sell it for you,“ they launched the project at an elaborate press conference that had actors who appeared in gaudy costumes. The media fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and soon Hollywood was abuzz about Argo, an upcoming science fiction movie set to be shot on location in Iran.

In truth, Mendez would be the only person venturing on the dangerous mission to Teheran and when he arrived there the film’s tone shifted from flip and lighthearted to stone cold sober. Upon arriving at the Canadian ambassador’s house, he hands the six Americans newly-prepared passports that identitify them as members of a Canadian film crew.

The tension rapidly ratchets-up as the Iranian authorities close in just as the diplomats are making their escape to the airport, where the slightest slip during an interrogation could mean the difference between life and death. An edge-of-your-seat thriller not to be forgotten at Oscar time!

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and violent images. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

October 10, 2012

BOY AM I EVER OUT OF SHAPE: Scott Voss (Kevin James, facing the camera), a biology teacher, is being coached and trained by a retired kick boxing champion (Mark DellaGrotte, back to the camera). Scott is training to fight in a mixed martial arts prize match in order to win enough money to donate to his school so that his best friend Marty Streb (Henry Winkler) won’t lose his job as music teacher, which the principal wants to cut in order to balance the school’s budget.

Scott Voss (Kevin James) is a bored biology teacher at mythical Wilkinson High in Massachusetts, a cash strapped school suffering from low morale. Scott is part of the problem, because he sets a horrible example for his students, such as stealing candy from vending machines and always arrives late for class.

During recess, the bored 42-year-old bachelor always flirts with the beautiful school nurse, Bella (Salma Hayek). However, she routinely rebuffs his advances with gentle reminders of how often she’s rejected each of his requests for a date.

The plot thickens when Principal Betcher (Gregg German) assembles the faculty in the auditorium to announce the latest budget cuts. The measures include plans to eliminate after school activities such as the debate club and field trips, and also the entire music program.

That means Scott’s colleague and friend, Marty Streb (Henry Winkler), will be callously laid-off right before earning tenure. And to add insult to injury, the dedicated music teacher’s firing comes at a time when his wife (Nikki Tyler-Flynn) is pregnant.

This dire state of affairs inspires Scott to prevail upon the principal to preserve his pal’s position. But Betcher says the school simply doesn’t have the $48,000 to pay Marty.

Therefore, Scott, who hasn’t wrestled competitively since college, decides to raise the cash by moonlighting in the ring as a mixed martial arts fighter. With the help of Marty and a retired kickboxing champ (Bas Rutten), he proceeds to whip himself, a middle-aged couch potato, into shape.

Here Comes the Boom is a sweet-natured sports story that combines familiar elements from Rocky (1976) and Nacho Libre (2006). Directed by Frank Coraci (The Waterboy), the movie showcases Kevin James’s comic genius at his best, such as pratfalls in a mask while wearing ill-fitting stretchy pants, or futilely wooing the woman of his dreams.

The plot inexorably builds to a showdown between Scott and an intimidating adversary (Krzysztof Soszynski) for a purse that conveniently matches Marty’s salary. Wouldn’t it be nice if Wilkinson’s student body and school band were on hand in the Vegas arena to cheer for their altruistic teacher, and better yet if Bella had a change of heart and also arrived ringside for a kiss at the moment of truth?

Here Comes the Boom is a pat Hollywood tale of redemption where a perennial loser transforms himself into a beloved hero who wins the match, saves his best friend’s job, and gets the girl!

Very Good (***) Rated PG for sports violence, crude humor, and mild epithets. Running time: 105 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

October 3, 2012

WE DID IT, WE DID IT: Nona Alberts (Viola Davis, left), Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal, center) and Jamie’s daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lynd) are overwhelmed with joy when they learn that their attempt to change Malia’s school from a public to a charter school has succeeded under the new, so-called Parent Trigger Law.

In 2010 California passed the nation’s first “Parent Trigger Law,” a bill which enables a district with an under-performing public school to fire the principal, replace the staff, and convert it to a charter school, if a majority of the parents with students attending it sign a petition. The legislation has proved very controversial thus far, with opponents alleging that the measure is merely anti-union, whereas the sponsors call it an overdue reform intended to give children who are stuck in so-called “dropout factories” a fair chance.

Consequently, Won’t Back Down is opening under a cloud of controversy, which is unfortunate since the film is otherwise a quite engaging and entertaining tale of female empowerment. The reason why the picture has generated so much interest is because it was produced by Walden Media, the same studio that just a couple of years ago released Waiting for Superman, a documentary that came under attack for blaming teachers’ unions for the dysfunctional education system.

Although based on actual events that transpired in Los Angeles, Won’t Back Down is set in Pittsburgh, where we find Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) struggling to make ends meet. Between selling used cars by day and bartending at night, the single mother barely has any energy left to attend to the academic needs of her dyslexic daughter, Malia (Emily Alyn Lind).

Convinced that the lagging 8-year-old hasn’t learned to read out of neglect by her teachers at school, she enters the little girl in a lottery for one of the few spots opening up at Rosa Parks, a nearby, highly-regarded, charter school. But when Malia’s name isn’t chosen, the frustrated mother decides to do something about the school the child’s in.

Inspired by the state’s new “Fail Safe Law,” Jamie becomes a tireless child advocate hell-bent on wresting the reins of control from an administration and staff that have low expectations for their students. Along the way, she enlists the assistance of Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a jaded teacher who had almost given up trying to fight the system.

Initially, Nona is reluctant to get involved, because she could very easily get blacklisted for trying to bust the union. Furthermore, she’s an emotional wreck because she is overwhelmed at the prospect of having to raise her son (Dante Brown) on her own after her husband (Lance Reddick) recently left them.

However, Jamie and Nona bond and, over the objections of bureaucrats, not only garner the requisite number of parental votes but even talk the teachers into surrendering job security in favor of performance-based salaries. The movie is an uplifting Hollywood story that suggests that the solution to public education’s woes might be as simple as a couple of women picking up picket signs.

Very Good (***). Rated PG for mature themes and mild epithets. Running time: 121 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox/Walden Media.

September 26, 2012

BUT DADDY, I LOVE HIM!: Count Dracula (left, voiced by Adam Sandler) desperately tries to convince his daughter that a vampire is not a compatible companion for a mortal person. However, Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) has fallen hopelessly in love with Jonathan (not shown) who managed to crash the lavish birthday party that Dracula was giving for Mavis and refuses to listen to her father.

I know it’s a little early in the season, but if you’re ready for a Halloween film that’s a lot of fun for the whole family, have I got a cartoon for you. More romantic and funny than spooky and spine-tingling, Hotel Transylvania is a tenderhearted tale that gets most of its laughs by turning the basic scary movie convention on its head.

The picture unfolds from the point of view of Count Dracula (Adam Sandler) and a beleaguered brotherhood of peace-loving creatures who have not only been unfairly demonized as monsters but are actually more afraid of humans than humans are of monsters. Who knew? As victims of bad press and paranoia, they naturally shy away from making any contact with humans.

After his wife’s untimely demise at the hands of an angry mob, an understandably overprotective Dracula restricts his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez), to the safe confines of the family’s hilltop mansion, which is far removed from any prejudiced townsfolk who might be armed with torches and pitchforks. Inside that protective bubble, “Daddy’s Little Ghoul” was raised on nursery rhymes in which all the villains were people.

Figuring that his fellow social outcasts might also enjoy a sanctuary of tranquility safe from humanity, Dracula transforms his sprawling estate into the Hotel Transylvania, a swanky, 5-stake (read “5-star”) resort that caters strictly to fellow monsters. The plot thickens when he lowers the drawbridge over the moat to the castle to welcome his friends to celebrate Mavis’s birthday.

A passing hiker, who stumbled upon the place, manages to slip in alongside Frankenstein (Kevin James), The Mummy (CeeLo Green), The Werewolf (Steve Buscemi), Quasimodo (Jon Lovitz), The Invisible Man (David Spade), and other invited guests. Jonathan (Andy Samberg) may be a mere mortal, but the party crasher is just the right age to appreciate the blossoming beauty of a rebellious teen-age vampire.

It’s cross-species love at first sight, much to the chagrin of Count Dracula whose desperate efforts to discourage his defiant daughter prove futile. His cries of “You’re barely out of your training fangs!” and “There are so many eligible monsters!” fall on deaf ears, as Mavis opts instead to heed her late-mother’s sage advice that “A zing comes along only once in a life.”

A child-friendly Halloween adventure that sends a universal message of tolerance through the oft-repeated maxim in the movie that monsters are people too.

Very Good (***). Rated PG for action, rude humor, and scary images. Running time: 91 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

September 19, 2012

MOWING DOWN THE MUTANTS: Writer director Paul W.S. Anderson’s real-life wife Milla Jovovich returns yet again as Alice in Mutant Land in “Resident Evil: Retribution,” the fifth in the Resident Evil series.

The Resident Evil film franchise is proving to be every bit as enduring as the hordes of flesh-eating zombies featured in its every episode. The movies are based on the popular series of high body-count computer games which has also spawned some comic books, graphic novels, cartoons, and a line of merchandise with action figures and more.

This fifth screen adaptation marks yet another collaboration between writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson and his wife, cover girl-turned-actress Milla Jovovich. She, of course, reprises her lead role as Alice, the pistol-packing protector of a planet once again threatened with extinction.

As usual, Anderson does his best to exploit his supermodel spouse’s good looks, between keeping her clad in form-fitting latex for the duration of the adventure and seizing on any excuse to take a pause in the action for a lingering, extreme close-up of her flawless facial features. Otherwise, RE 5 offers formulaic zombie fighting fare, with Alice and an intrepid team of defenders (Michelle Rodriguez, Boris Kodjoe, Bingbing Li, et al) representing the last hope of humanity.

At the point of departure, our heroine, by way of voiceover, quickly recounts the back story of what’s transpired in the prior installments. We learn that the trouble all started when an industrial accident triggered a viral outbreak which in turn led to the rise of the undead.

Today, the diabolical Umbrella Corporation is apparently again up to no good, and on the verge of unleashing an army of mind-controlled minions, including clones of our pretty protagonist. Over-plotted to the point of absurdity, there’s no reason to try to follow RE 5’s storyline.

For while Milla might be up to the challenge of executing the script, the same can’t be said about her supporting cast’s wooden delivery of every last line of dialogue. The worst in this regard is Hong Kong star Bingbing Li who is crippled by the English language making a disastrous Hollywood debut here. A visually-captivating fantasy for teenage males with raging hormones, the demo most apt to appreciate enjoy watching an invincible vixen in spandex waste wave after wave of mindless mutants.

Fair (*). Rated R for partial nudity and pervasive graphic violence. Running time: 95 minutes Distributor: Screen Gems

To see a trailer for Resident Evil: Retribution, visit: 

September 12, 2012

WE MEET AT LAST: Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper, left) finally meets up with the real author (Jeremy Irons) of Jansen’s runaway bestseller first novel “The Window Tears.” See the movie in order to find out what they said to each other.

The latest stop on Clayton Hammond’s (Dennis Quaid) book tour has the renowned author in New York City to promote his latest work. It’s a cautionary tale of overwhelming regret recounting the rise and fall of a presumably fictional character called Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper).

In a series of flashbacks, the story open; with Rory as an aspiring novelist who is being pressured to find a job after years of relying on handouts from his father (J.K. Simmons). The young man grudgingly capitulates and takes a job in the mailroom of a leading literary agency.

The steady pay enables Rory to save enough money to finally propose to his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) who has been patiently waiting to marry him. The newlyweds spend their honeymoon in Paris where the grateful bride impulsively buys her husband a weather-beaten briefcase that she finds in a dusty antique shop.

When they return home Rory opens the valise and discovers that it contains a yellowed handwritten manuscript written by someone who is far more talented than him. However, instead of trying to locate the author, he succumbs to the temptation to submit the novel to publishers under his own name.

Lo and behold, the book, The Window Tears, becomes a runaway bestseller, and Rory finds himself in the midst of the literary career he’d always dreamed of having. However, because the real author (Jeremy Irons) could step forward to expose the fraud, Rory faces the prospect of spending his life looking over his shoulder.

Co-written and co-directed by Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, The Words is constructed as a series of flashbacks narrated by a visibly-haunted Hammond as he reads excerpts from his new book. It gradually becomes obvious that he is emotionally agonizing over the material on the pages as the tension mounts around whether his audience is hearing is autobiographical or fiction.

Unfortunately, the problems with this slow-paced production are plentiful. First, it’s hard to accept the film’s farfetched premise, and harder still to fathom how its protagonist has managed to maintain the charade for so long, especially given his guilty conscience and being confronted by the aggrieved party he’s impersonated.

Additionally, neither of the parallel plotlines is particularly engaging, the only issue of interest being whether Hammond’s new book is a confession that his debut novel had been purloined. For this reason, the film’s biggest flaw rests in its cliffhanger ending failing to resolve if Rory Jansen is indeed a thinly-veiled version of the author.

That anticlimactic conclusion proves to be quite unsatisfying after an investment of what feels like an eternity waiting for the answer to the question “Did he or didn’t he?” The only thing worse than a movie without an ending, is a ninety-minute endurance test without an ending.

Fair (*). Rated PG-13 for smoking, sensuality, and brief profanity. Running time: 96 minutes. Distributor: CBS Films.

September 5, 2012

MAKING BEAUTIFUL MUSIC TOGETHER: Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner, left), Timothy Green (CJ Adams, center), and Jim Green (Joel Edgerton) perform an impromptu musical song and dance routine in their living room. Cindy and Jim are ecstatic because Timothy miraculously appeared in their garden overnight, after their doctor had told them that Cindy would not be able to have children.

Jim (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy Green (Jennifer Garner) are very happily married, however, they don’t yet have children. After being informed by Cindy’s gynecologist (Rhoda Griffis), that she can’t conceive, they write down all the qualities they’d hoped to pass on to the child they’ll never have, starting with Cindy’s good heart and Jim’s honesty.

Then, they bury the wish list in a box in the backyard right before a torrential rainfall. To their astonishment a real live boy sprouts up in their garden overnight who, other than having leaves growing out of his legs, seems to be perfectly normal.

What’s more, 10-year-old Timothy (CJ Adams) not only exhibits the positive traits desired by Cindy and Jim, but he refers to them as mom and dad without any prompting. While the Greens are certainly happy to welcome their miraculous blessing with open arms, they are hard-pressed to explain the sudden addition to their family to skeptical relatives and friends.

For sensitive Timothy, life is also rather rocky because he is being teased by bullies at school for wearing long socks and rejected at home by his macho grandfather, Jim Sr. (David Morse), for not being manly enough. Timothy even frustrates his mother when she’s fired by her boss (Dianne Wiest) because of his compulsive frankness.

However, he does find a kindred spirit in Joni (Odeya Rush), a shy classmate who is hiding a painful secret of her own. The harder Timothy tries to measure up to the world’s expectations, the more he retreats to a magical oasis of solitude he shares with this newfound friend.

Directed by Peter Hedges (Pieces of April), The Odd Life of Timothy Green is an enchanting fairy tale designed for young and old alike. Thanks to a combination of seamless special effects and a talented cast it is easy for the audience to suspend disbelief in the face of a supernatural storyline with an implausible premise.

Once that hurdle is scaled, a  very satisfying payoff — which tugs on your heartstrings — awaits anyone who see this instant Disney classic. Buy an extra ticket for the box of Kleenex you’ll need to have sitting on the seat beside you.

Excellent (HHHH). Rated PG for mature themes and mild epithets. Running time: 125 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.

August 29, 2012

LISTEN SON, THERE’S BEEN A MISTAKE: Posing as the Dean of students at Columbia university, Ackerman (Michael Shannon, right), who is really a crooked police officer, attempts to persuade the bike riding courier Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levin) to give him the package that Wilee is supposed to deliver to Chinatown ASAP. When Wilee refuses and gets on his bike to deliver the package, Ackerman pursues him in his car and a dizzying chase through Manhattan traffic begins.

Traffic is so congested in Manhattan that it’s hard to see how it can be a viable setting for high-octane chase scenes. Yet that is precisely what we have in Premium Rush, an adventure about daring bike messengers who dart between cars and dodge pedestrians in order to make their deliveries.

At the film’s point of departure, we’re introduced to several staff members of a bonded company called Security Courier. Employee of the Year Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Columbia law school graduate who prefers this line of work to being stuck sitting behind a desk in a business suit.

Similarly, his girlfriend Vanessa, (Dania Ramirez), sees it as a preferable alternative to waiting tables in a restaurant. Although she does have to fend off the overtures of both fellow messenger, Manny (Wole’ Parks), and the dispatcher, Raj (Aasif Mandvi).

However, this picture is more about non-stop action than romance, and the adventure starts soon after Wilee receives an assignment to deliver an envelope designated “Premium Rush” from Columbia University to Chinatown ASAP. However, before he even leaves the campus, a gentleman (Michael Shannon) named Ackerman identifies himself as the Dean of Students and asks that he be given the parcel.

Wilee’s becomes suspicious when Ackerman goes ballistic in response to a polite explanation that it can only be handed over to the addressee. Wilee’s concern escalates to fear when Ackerman starts chasing Wilee in his car and even runs lights and drives against traffic while trying to catch him.

Wilee manages to give him the slip, but the plot thickens when he stops at the police station to report the attempted theft. There, he discovers that he’s on his own because it turns out that Ackerman is a crooked police officer who wants to get the package.

Premium Rush proceeds from this juncture forward at a breakneck pace that doesn’t give you a chance to pause to consider whether what you’re watching is even credible. But it doesn’t matter because the urgent bike ride manages to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, ethnic slurs, and profanity. In English and Mandarin with subtitles. Running time: 91 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

August 22, 2012

HER SWAN SONG: Playing the character of Emma Anderson, Whitney Houston sings her heart out in a Sunday church service. As it turns out, this was her last performance before her untimely death.

Emma Anderson (Whitney Houston) didn’t want her daughters to follow in her footsteps by having babies when they were teenagers, while squandering their future in the futile pursuit of celebrities and boys who wouldn’t respect them as women. That’s why the overprotective single mother is glad to be able to raise them in a middle class suburb of Detroit where she keeps them on the straight and narrow path by using a combination of Christianity and high moral standards.

All three of her daughters have inherited the ability to sing from their mother, a blessing they put to good use in the church choir every Sunday. However, the girls also have their own distinctive personalities and are yearning to express themselves.

Dolores (Tika Sumpter) has her mind set on attending medical school. Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) is a gifted composer who’s too shy to perform any of her ballads in public. However, Sister (Carmen Ejogo) is a confident extrovert who craves the limelight and the attention of men.

Consequently, it’s no surprise when Sister rebels and runs away from home, rather than abide by her mother’s restrictive house rules. She’s only been back in town for two months, but already has a couple of suitors competing for her hand  — Levi (Omari Hardwick), a penniless, perfect gentleman, and Satin (Mike Epps), a flashy, silky smooth operator.

Given Sister’s materialistic nature, it’s easy to guess that that she would be more interested in the attentions of Satin, a misogynist who has a dark side that hasn’t yet been revealed. Meanwhile, Sparkle starts dating Stix (Derek Luke) who encourages the talented sisters to form a trio and try and become superstars.

So unfolds Sparkle, a modern morality play with a sobering message made all the more telling because it’s Whitney Houston’s cinematic farewell. Several of her lines in the movie induce goose bumps, such as when she asks, “Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?”

The film features standout performances from Whitney Houston and Carmen Ejogo, with Derek Luke and Mike Epps also appearing at their best. Jordin Sparks certainly holds her own when called upon to sing, but she doesn’t seem to be quite ready to handle the acting demands of a title role.

The movie is written and directed by the husband-wife team of Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, and is very loosely based on the 1976 musical of the same name; with the point of departure, the timeline, plot developments, and the score being tweaked for the overhaul. A must-see, if only for Whitney’s sentimental swan song and Carmen’s coming out party.

Excellent (***½). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, drug use, smoking, mature themes, and domestic abuse. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

August 15, 2012

I THINK I’D RATHER BE KISSING BABIES: The incumbent congressman Cam Brady (Will Ferrell, center) is desperately seeking votes by appearing at a meeting of a religious sect of evangelists who handle rattlesnakes as part of their religious services.

If you’ve been looking for a comedy film that is a refreshing alternative to all the kiddie movies and summer blockbusters currently at the megaplexes, your wait is over. And what could be more timely than a picture about dirty tricks being employed during a cutthroat political campaign?

The Campaign was directed by Jay Roach, best known for making Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers trilogy. The movie stars Will Ferrell as Cam Brady, a popular North Carolina congressman who’s running unopposed for his fifth term in office until an embarrassing sexual peccadillo becomes public knowledge.

That blunder opens the door for an opponent like Marty Higgins (Zach Galifianakis) to enter the race. He is being bankrolled by a couple of very wealthy businessman, Glen (John Lithgow) and Wade Motch (Dan Aykroyd), who are sleazy, power-hungry brothers.

Bragging about being “candidate creators” more than “job creators,” the Motch brothers chose naïve Marty because he’s so malleable. Behind the scenes, they orchestrate a complete overhaul of Marty’s image with the help of a no-nonsense campaign manager (Dylan McDermott).

Brady soon realizes that he’s in the fight of his political life, as both sides resort to increasingly devious tactics in order to win on election day. For instance, we find Marty wearing what he calls a “Yamaha” on his head during services at a synagogue, while Cam sings in the gospel choir of a black Baptist Church and plays with rattlesnakes in order to curry favor with a congregation of serpent-handling evangelists.

Despite his best efforts, Brady continues to sabotage his own campaign at every turn, whether by accidentally punching a baby and a puppy, or by being caught having en flagrante dalliance with a supporter. When the polls indicate that the tide is turning decisively in Marty’s favor, the question becomes will he be a puppet of the Motch brothers or choose to do what’s best for his district, thereby alienating the Motch pair.

Will Ferrell’s over-the-top approach to Cam serves as the perfect counterpoint to Zach Galifianakis’ subdued interpretation of Marty. The film also features several inspired support performances, most notably from Dylan McDermott and Jason Sudeikis as the devious campaign managers, and Karen Maruyama as an Asian housekeeper.

Throw in amusing cameos by a string of political pundits like Bill Maher, Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews, Piers Morgan, Joe Scarborough, Lawrence O’Donnell, Willie Geist, Mika Brezinski, Ed Schultz, and Dennis Miller, and you’ve got the makings for a bona fide election year hit. Ferrell and Galifianakis hit their stride as the funniest candidates money can buy!

Excellent (***½). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, nudity, and crude humor. Running time: 97 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers

August 8, 2012

I CAN’T STAND THIS GHOST STORY: Rowley ( Robert Capron, left) covers his ears because the ghost story being told by Fregley (Grayson Russell, right) is too scary. Rowley’s best friend Greg (Zachary Gordon, center), on the other hand, is eager to hear how the story turns out.

This episode of the Wimpy Kid film series is based on a combination of wacky misadventures culled from both the third (The Last Straw) and fourth (Dog Days) books in the best-selling series created by Jeff Kinney. The movie was directed by David Bowers (Wimpy Kid 2) who reassembled his principal cast, including Zach Gordon in the title role as the beleaguered Greg Heffley, and Robert Capron as his rotund BFF, Rowley Jefferson.

The picture’s point of departure is opening day at the overcrowded public pool which is where we find Greg unhappy at the prospect of sharing the water all summer with smelly adults and infants who aren’t potty-trained. He’d prefer to be frequenting the facilities at the Plainview Heights Country Club, especially after he learns that Holly Hills (Peyton List), the cute classmate he has a big crush on, will be teaching tennis to children.

After all, Greg’s only vacation plans involve playing video games at home and hanging out with Holly. However, when he asked her for her phone number on the final day of school, she was distracted in the middle of writing it down and never got around to finishing it for him.

As luck would have it, Rowley’s family happens to be members of the same country club, so Greg can gain access to the place as his pal’s personal guest. Anything would be better than the boring activities his mother (Rachael Harris) and father (Steve Zahn) already have planned for him like fishing, starting a reading club, and attending Civil War reenactments.

Therefore, in order to see the girl of his dreams every day, Greg tells his folks that he’s found a summer job at Plainview Heights. Of course, in accordance with the “One Big Lie” comedy formula, it’s just a matter of time before the truth comes out.

However, the boys’ futile attempts at a cover-up sets in motion a series of silly slapstick scenes. Between a steady diet of sight gags and bodily function fare, Wimpy Kid is entertaining enough to engage youngsters. Adults might not find the film’s unfocused style of sophomoric storytelling all that compelling, but they will nonetheless laugh a lot and appreciate the squeaky clean brand of humor so rarely found in films anymore.

A comfy, feel good comedy movie for the whole family.

Excellent (***½). Rated PG for rude humor. Running time: 94 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

August 1, 2012

ALFRED, WHAT SHOULD WE DO ABOUT HER?: Trusty and crusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine, right) is being asked by his employer, wealthy philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who also becomes the Caped Crusader Batman when circumstances require it, what to do about the pesky cat burglar (Anne Hathaway, not shown) who is making a nuisance of herself in Wayne’s mansion in Gotham City.

The Dark Knight Rises brings an end to the brilliant Batman trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale as Batman. Each of the earlier episodes, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), earned a spot on this critic’s annual Top Ten List, numbers 9 and 1, respectively.

Because the late Heath Ledger played the part of the Joker to perfection, and delivered an Oscar-winning performance in the previous movie, you knew it would be hard for Nolan to find as compelling a character for his finale. If The Dark Knight Rises does have a weakness, it’s because the primary villain pales in comparison. Otherwise, the movie measures up to the previous two films expectations, although its convoluted plot and 2¾ hours running time is likely to have younger kids squirming in their seats.

The picture opens eight years after the end of the last adventure, when Batman selflessly accepted the blame for the untimely demise of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). The broken, embittered vigilante has kept a low profile over the intervening years, allowing the Gotham police department to fight crime on its own.

But, the situation changes with the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a member of the association of assassins known as The League of Shadows. Although Banes speech is somewhat muffled by a contraption affixed to his face, you don’t need to understand his unintelligible mumblings to know that he’s a maniacal menace. The masked terrorist is bent on blowing up the city with a nuclear device and it isn’t long before Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) needs help handling the situation.

Meanwhile, Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, has his hands full with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar he catches snooping around his mansion. Fortunately, Wayne still has his loyal assistants Alfred (Michael Caine), the butler, and weapons/vehicle/gadgetry specialist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Plus, he develops a new friendship with John Blake (Joseph-Gordon-Levitt), a cop with excellent instincts who might become Batman’s sidekick Robin should the series be continued.

Outfitted with a state-of-the-art motorcycle and hovercraft, a revivified Batman enthusiastically engages his evil adversary. And between Nolan’s loyalty to 35 mm film and live action stunts, what’s served up on screen is spectacular.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sensuality, profanity, and intense violence. Running time: 165 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

July 25, 2012

TOO BAD THIS HOLIDAY ONLY COMES ONCE A YEAR: Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) runs excitedly through the bayou holding a lit sparkler in each hand. She is clearly enjoying the holiday as only a six-year-old can.

Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is growing up in “The Bathtub,” a backwoods bayou located on the swampy side of a Louisiana levee. The self-sufficient tomboy divides her days attending to her sickly father (Dwight Henry) and she lives in harmony with a handful of other hardy refugees from civilization.

Hushpuppy feels sorry for the children growing up in nearby New Orleans because they eat fish wrapped in plastic and have been taught to fear the water. While those city kids were confined to strollers and baby carriages during their formative years, she’s been free to explore her surroundings that are teeming with vegetation and wildlife.

Yet, her existence is far from idyllic, because she pines for the mother whom her widowed father explained simply “swam away” one day. The heartbroken little girl tries to fill the void via flights of fancy. Using her vivid imagination, she has imaginary conversations with her long-lost mother.

Hushpuppy is also concerned about her father’s failing health and by an ominous foreboding that climate change is ruining her surroundings. She’s been warned by Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana), a sage soothsayer, who is her surrogate mother, that “The trees are gonna die first, then the animals, then the fish.”

So unfolds Beasts of the Southern Wild, a compelling tale which is also the directorial debut of Benh Zeitlin. The movie, an early entry in the Academy Awards sweepstakes, is a surreal fairy tale about the prospects of the planet that richly deserves all the accolades it received at Sundance, Cannes, and other film festivals.

Considerable credit goes to Quvenzhané Wallis, a talented youngster who not only portrays protagonist Hushpuppy but narrates the film as well.

A clever mixture of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the movie repeatedly reminds us of a pre-pollution, pre-digital era when children were encouraged to plunge headlong into nature to experience the world firsthand rather than through electronic media.

The movie is a visually enchanting fantasy told from the perspective of a naïve waif untouched by the 21st century.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, child imperilment, disturbing images, and brief sensuality. Running time: 91 minutes.Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

July 18, 2012

SO NEAR AND YET SO FAR: The whimsical prehistoric animal Scrat (voiced by Chris Wedge), who is half squirrel and half rat, is obsessed with burying his acorn for future use when food is scarce. Unfortunately, Scrat tries to bury the acorn in the frozen tundra of the north. His efforts set off a series of cataclysmic events which results in the world’s land mass separating into separated continents.

Unfortunately, the people behind the latest installment of this animated series of movies abandoned the family-friendly formula which made the earlier films so popular with children of all ages. Instead, they decided to produce a comedy that is more concerned with generating cheap laughs by any means possible than with spinning a coherent tale that will also engage adults.

In addition to the unfocused, scatterbrained storyline, Ice Age 4 features a plethora of preposterous anachronisms which suggest that pirates, togas, and telephones existed in the age of prehistoric creatures. Plus, the picture makes a number of distracting allusions to everything from the movie Meet the Parents, to Trix cereal TV commercials (“Silly Rabbit!”), to Homer’s Odyssey (seductive sirens as characters), and to the Bible (Book of Jonah).

The result is an adventure designed to enthrall tykes at the expense of appealing to older audiences. In addition to the principals who are reprising their roles, newcomers to the voice cast include Jennifer Lopez, Drake, Wanda Sykes, Joy Behar, Peter Dinklage, Nicki Minaj, and Keke Palmer.

The fun starts when half-squirrel/half-rat Scrat (Chris Wedge) accidentally triggers the tectonic division of the planet’s continents when he tries to bury an acorn in the frozen tundra. Elsewhere, Woolly mammoths Manny (Ray Romano) and his wife, Ellie (Queen Latifah), exhibit concern about their daughter Peaches’s (Palmer) crush on Ethan (Drake). Predictably, the smitten teen rides roughshod over the feelings of a secret admirer (Josh Gad) whose existence she barely acknowledges becauses he’s just a molehog.

Additional subplots involve sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) who is caring for his sassy grandmother (Sykes), and saber-toothed tiger Diego’s (Denis Leary) pursuit of a love interest. However, the film’s primary concern is reuniting the families who were separated from each other and ended up on different land masses in the wake of Scrat’s cataclysmic hijinks.

Too bad the resolution of every piece of this cinematic jigsaw puzzle proves predictable.

Fair (*). Rated PG for rude humor, action, and scenes of peril. Running time: 94 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

July 12, 2012

WE SHOULD SAVE THESE OUTFITS FOR HALLOWEEN: Partners in the marijuana drug trade in southern California Ben (Aaron Johnson, left) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) prepare themselves for a dangerous mission in which they clearly don’t want to be recognized.

If you’ve seen the documentary Cash Crop, then you know that violent Mexican drug cartels have begun to force their way into the United States to claim a share of the lucrative marijuana market. That eye opening exposé suggested that it’s only be a matter of time before the same sort of violence occurring in Mexico also starts erupting in this country.

Although Savages is fictional — based on Don Winslow’s best-selling novel of the same name — its chilling account of a California turf war is so realistically depicted that you easily forget that what you’re watching isn’t a true story. The movie was directed by three time Oscar winner Oliver Stone (for Platoon, Midnight Express, and Born on the Fourth of July), who directs the film with a highly stylized flair akin to Miami Vice (the TV series) while grounding the grisly goings-on with a sobering gravitas reminiscent of Traffic (2000).

The picture pits a pair of home growing pot producers operating out of Laguna Beach against a ruthless Chicano gang that wants a piece of the action. At the point of departure, we find Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) living in an oceanfront mansion, with the help of a crooked DEA Agent (John Travolta), and a very potent strain of weed that has made the duo millionaires several times over.

The pair complement each other nicely, since Ben, as a Berkeley graduate who majored in business and botany, supplies the brains, while Chon, a former Navy SEAL who served a couple of tours in Afghanistan, provides the brawn. The partners share the same girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively), a blonde who says that she loves both of her beaus.

The three share a hedonistic existence until they’re paid a visit by an emissary (Demian Bichir) sent to the states by a brutal Mexican crime boss (Salma Hayek), who make the threesome an offer they can’t refuse. They grudgingly enter into a partnership with the Mexicans in order to avoid the thinly veiled threat of being decapitated.

What ensues is a gruesome game of cat-and-mouse where it’s often difficult to discern who’s got the drop on whom. When the smoke finally clears, look for a mind bending twist that leads to a rabbit-out-of-the-hat resolution.

An unsettling vision of America degenerating into a lawless dystopia.

Excellent (****). Rated R for nudity, drug use, graphic sexuality, gruesome violence, ethnic slurs, and pervasive profanity. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

July 3, 2012

I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S COME OVER ME: Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, right) is amazed at his new found capabilities that resulted from the spider bite he received when visiting a biotech company. Nonetheless, he is happy to finally be able to impress Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and have her become his steady girl friend.

When Columbia Pictures first brought Spider-Man to the big screen in 2002, the Marvel Comics adaptation was such a box-office bonanza that it spawned two equally successful sequels. Now, a decade later, the studio has seen fit to revive the popular series.

Although that might strike some as too soon to attempt to replicate a winning formula, director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) is up to the challenge. The Amazing Spider-Man easily eclipses the earlier trilogy by using a combination of shadowy cinematography, dialogue, seamless special effects, and romantic chemistry.

The film stars Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker who becomes the superhero Spider-Man, with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) as his love interest. At the point of departure Peter is a 98-pound weakling who is being bullied in school and secretly harboring a crush on Gwen.

We learn that Peter has been raised by his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and is consumed with solving the mystery of his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) who disappeared years ago. So, he pays a visit to a former colleague of his father, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a leading research scientist at Oscorp, a biotech company that is attempting to develop a revolutionary limb regeneration serum.

Connors claims to be trying to create a world without weakness by splicing human genes with those of other species. But his interest isn’t entirely altruistic, since he also happens to be missing an arm himself.

While visiting Oscorp labs, Peter is bitten by a mutated spider which causes him to develop incredible strength as well as the ability to climb walls and spin webs. This evolution conveniently gives him a new physique with which to impress Gwen, and the strength to get even with his tormentors back at Midtown Science High.

Concurrently, the murder of his uncle by a mugger inspires him to embark on a crime fighting campaign as a masked vigilante. That doesn’t sit well with Gwen’s father (Denis Leary), a New York police department captain, who is opposed to citizens taking the law into their own hands.

Nevertheless, the ante is upped when Dr. Connors morphs into a formidable lizard-like creature after injecting himself with an experimental elixir. Worse, the drug made the power hungry madman hell-bent on hatching a plan for world domination which the cops are ill-equipped to fight, but is tailor-made for Spider-Man to combat.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence and intense action. Running time: 136 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

June 27, 2012

TAKE IT OFF — TAKE IT ALL OFF: Mike Martingano (Channing Tatum), aka Magic Mike, struts his stuff in a male revue in the Xquisite club in Tampa, Florida. Realizing that he isn’t getting any younger Mike dreams of getting out of the exotic dance business and setting himself up as a furniture designer.

Channing Tatum held a number of odd jobs before he became a matinee idol, including a brief stint as a male stripper. Rather than deny that embarrassing episode in his life on his way to becoming a superstar, he has opted to make a semi-autobiographical movie recounting his foray into the adult entertainment industry.

The result is Magic Mike, a raw and revealing drama directed by Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) who has also collaborated with Channing in the movie Haywire. The two have also just finished shooting A Bitter Pill, a crime caper film set for an early 2013 release.

In Magic Mike, Channing stars as Mike Martingano, an exotic dancer who goes by the stage name Magic Mike when titillating the ladies at a seedy Tampa dive called Xquisite. The place is managed by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), a silky smooth operator who has promised his most popular performer 10 percent equity in his business if Mike follows Dallas when he relocates the club to Miami.

Unfortunately, Mike isn’t getting any younger, and his big plans for himself definitely don’t include stripping into his 40s like Dallas and the other members of the aging revue: Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Ken (Matt Bomer), and Richie (Joe Manganiello). Instead, he dreams of saving up enough money to set himself up as a custom furniture designer and settling down with Brooke (Cody Horn), the sister of the 19-year-old (Alex Pettyfer) he’s just recruited for Dallas.

Unfolding over the course of a long hot Florida summer, Magic Mike is such an unpredictable and raw-edged adventure that you soon forget that you’re even watching actors performing on sets. In that regard, the picture is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s similarly realistic Jackie Brown (1997), a masterpiece which also featured a flawed protagonist ensnared in a sticky predicament at an unpretentious oceanfront setting.

Will Mike summon up the requisite resolve to extricate himself from the stripping game? Or will a financial setback cause him to rationalize moving to Miami, leaving his hopes and girlfriend behind for the sake of easy money?

A compelling character study not to be missed, if only to witness the gutsy performance delivered by Channing Tatum.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, drug use, nudity, and sexuality. Running time: 110 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

June 20, 2012

OH HIM — HE’S ONLY MY FATHER: Hans Solo (Andy Samberg, left) reluctantly introduces his father Donnie Berger (Adam Sandler) to an unseen person. Unfortunately, Donnie was the product of a one time liaison between Donnie, who was a teen ager in junior high school who was raped by one of his teachers. Ashamed of his origins, Hans changed his name and disappeared into the woodwork and reemerged as a successful business man about to get married and was completely surprised when his ne’er do well father showed up.

Anybody familiar with the work of Adam Sandler knows he built his career playing dim-witted characters like Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996), and The Waterboy (1998) in coarse comedies that appealed to the lowest common denominator. So, his loyal fan base won’t be disappointed by this latest offering, a film about yet another pea-brained protagonist.

In case you’re wondering, That’s My Boy is not a remake of the Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin college football classic, but is based on an original script by David Caspe. Sandler stars as Donnie Berger, a father desperate for a reunion and chance of redemption with his estranged son, Hans Solo (Andy Samberg).

However, Hans was so ashamed of being born as a result of the statutory rape of Donnie, who was an adolescent, by his junior high school teacher (Eva Amurri Martino) that Hans changed his name and disappeared the first chance he got. His unremorseful mother was sentenced to a long prison term for statutory rape but Donnie Berger, his slacker of a father, never really amounted to anything.

Fast-forward to the present where we find Donnie down-on-his-luck and $43,000 in debt to the IRS. He is wasting his days drinking at Classy Rick’s Bacon and Leggs, a seedy suburban strip club.

The plot thickens when Donnie accidentally discovers the new identity of his long-lost son. It turns out that he is Todd Peterson, who is a successful hedge fund manager about to get married to a refined socialite (Leighton Meester) from a prominent family. Donnie decides to track down his son with the help of a fellow has-been, a one-hit singer named Vanilla Ice.

Not surprisingly, Todd is embarrassed by the arrival of his disreputable father, and does his best to distance himself from him. Consequently, much of the ensuing humor is drawn from the shocking contrast between upper and lower class sensibilities.

A cross between The Three Stooges and Meet the Parents, That’s My Boy trades in typical Sandler fare, namely cheap jokes at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society such as: minorities, the disabled, and the mentally-challenged. When you factor in the profusion of profanity, graphic sexuality, and pedophilia, it adds up to a tasteless waste of time with no redeeming value.

Poor (0 stars). Rated R for nudity, sexuality, drug use, ethnic slurs, crude humor, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.