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

February 20, 2013
CAN TRUE LOVE CONQUER EVIL?: The local librarian Amma (Viola Davis, left), who is also a seer, shows the young couple Lena (Alice Englert, center) and Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) a display chronicling Lena’s family’s history. It seems that Lena will come into her powers as a witch  when she turns 16 and she will have to decide whether to put her powers to use on the side of good or evil.

CAN TRUE LOVE CONQUER EVIL?: The local librarian Amma (Viola Davis, left), who is also a seer, shows the young couple Lena (Alice Englert, center) and Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) a display chronicling Lena’s family’s history. It seems that Lena will come into her powers as a witch when she turns 16 and she will have to decide whether to put her powers to use on the side of good or evil.

Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) has lived only in Gatlin, South Carolina, a tiny town whose residents still deny that the South lost the Civil War. The community is so backwards that it has banned books such as To Kill a Mockingbird.

This frustrating state of affairs has left the curious  high school sophomore determined to attend a college far, far away from the Bible Belt. In the meantime, however, he is secretly reading as many of the censored titles that he can get his hands on.

For months Ethan has also been haunted by a recurring nightmare in which he attempts to approach a beautiful ghost, only to die right before reaching her. Consequently, he wakes up in a cold sweat every morning with a crush on an apparition he thinks doesn’t really exist.

However, a new transfer student, who’s the spitting image of the girl of his dreams shows up in Ethan’s class on the first day of the fall semester. Recently orphaned Lena (Alice Englert) has just been taken in by her Uncle Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), head of the wealthy family who founded Gatlin generations ago.

Most of the locals know better than to trespass onto the forbidding Ravenwood Estate, but Ethan is too smitten by Lena to care. It’s not long before he and Lena fall in love, although the beautiful 15-year-old does her best to warn her new beau that she’s more than what she seems to be.

If Ethan had bothered to consult librarian/seer Amma Treadeau (Viola Davis), he’d know that he should steer clear of the entire Ravenwood clan. For, truth be told, they’re “Casters,” meaning otherworldly beings whose supernatural powers appear when they turn 16. With Lena’s 16th birthday rapidly approaching, the question is whether she’ll be a good witch or be drawn to the dark side by her cousin (Emmy Rossum) and late mother (Emma Thompson).

Thus unfolds Beautiful Creatures, a deliciously naughty adaptation of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s young adult novel of the same name. Directed by Richard LaGravenese, the picture’s plotline is a bit reminiscent of the vampire/human series Twilight, except with the human and non-human protagonists’ genders switched.

With its talented cast and a compelling script, Beautiful Creatures is bound to be popular with its targeted teen demographic with whom such cross-species romances seem to resonate nowadays.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence, sexuality, and scary images. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

February 13, 2013
AN IMPOSSIBLE SITUATION: Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, facing the camera) has placed her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in an impossible situation when she made him promise that he would not return her to a hospital or place her in a nursing home, regardless of how ill she became. However, Georges found that he was not physically able to provide her the care that she needed at home. To find out how he resolved his dilemma, see the movie.

AN IMPOSSIBLE SITUATION: Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, facing the camera) has placed her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in an impossible situation when she made him promise that he would not return her to a hospital or place her in a nursing home, regardless of how ill she became. However, Georges found that he was not physically able to provide her the care that she needed at home. To find out how he resolved his dilemma, see the movie.

Retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) have been married for over 60 years. But the frail octogenarians’ love for each other remains as strong as it was the day they met.

The elderly couple lives in a Paris apartment surrounded by music and art and other indicia of an appreciation of culture. With Anne’s health in sharp decline, their days are now mostly spent attending to her host of medical issues.

Unfortunately, Anne’s been bedridden since a stroke left her right side paralyzed. Her biggest fear is not death but the prospect of returning to the hospital or being moved to a nursing home.

It’s clear that Georges would prefer to abide by his wife’s wishes. However, he’s no youngster either, and she’s gradually becoming more than he can handle as her health deteriorates. They do have a daughter, but Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is a travelling musician who can only visit occasionally because of her hectic touring schedule.

When it becomes obvious that Anne has passed the point of no return, Georges finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. Does he abide by his life-mate’s last request and let her live out her days in the familiar confines of their home, or does he accept that he can no longer provide the quality care she needs to survive?

That is the critical question explored in Amour, a bittersweet drama which tugs on the heartstrings. Written and directed by Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher), the flashback film has deservedly been nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, foreign film, director, actress, and original script.

A poignant tale of undying love.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes and brief profanity. Running time: 127 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

February 6, 2013
NECESSITY MAKES FOR STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: New Orleans hit man Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone, right) and Washington D. C. police detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) join forces to bring the local mob boss Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, not shown) to justice. In unrelated incidents Morel ordered the killing of Bobo’s close friend and detective Kwon’s partner. Since the local police are all in Morel’s pocket, the only way the unlikely team can catch Morel is to join forces in an unholy alliance.

NECESSITY MAKES FOR STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: New Orleans hit man Jimmy Bobo (Sylvester Stallone, right) and Washington D. C. police detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) join forces to bring the local mob boss Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, not shown) to justice. In unrelated incidents Morel ordered the killing of Bobo’s close friend and detective Kwon’s partner. Since the local police are all in Morel’s pocket, the only way the unlikely team can catch Morel is to join forces in an unholy alliance.

Sylvester Stallone is the only movie star who has been number one at the box-office in five straight decades, a record stretching from Rocky in the 70s through last summer’s action hit The Expendables 2. And, judging by Bullet to the Head, the aging matinee idol need not retire to a rocking chair any time soon.

This riveting revenge thriller was directed by the legendary Walter Hill who, in 1982, brilliantly cast Eddie Murphy opposite Nick Nolte in 48 Hours. Here, his inspired pairing of Stallone and the relative newcomer Sung Kang as unlikely partners proves to be equally entertaining.

Based on Alexis Nolent’s graphic novel of the same name, Bullet to the Head is about two tough guys from opposite sides of the law who grudgingly team up to settle a score with their common adversary. Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) is a hit man operating in New Orleans whose protégé (Jon Seda) has just been gutted in a bar by a goon with a bowie knife (Jason Momoa). Meanwhile. Taylor Kwon (Kang) is a cop from Washington, D.C., who is in town to investigate the murder of his partner (Holt McCallany).

As it turns out, both murders were ordered by Morel (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), an ambitious mobster who will stop at nothing in his quest for control of the city’s crime rackets. Because so many corrupt police and politicians are already in cahoots with Morel, double-crossed Detective Kwon almost ends-up dead when he tries to enlist the assistance of the local authorities in solving his partner’s slaying.

That betrayal leads him to reluctantly forge an unholy alliance with Jimmy. Together, they proceed to embark on a bloody rampage, dispensing a brutal brand of vigilante justice to the henchmen who stand between them and the ruthless Morel. In adddition to creating mayhem, however, the two share many moments of levity during disagreements over what weapons and tactics to employ.

Streetwise Jimmy repeatedly relies on his instincts and brute force: shooting first and asking questions never. This approach grates on tech-savvy Kwon, who is dependent on his cell phone and the internet. Kwon also finds time to develop a romantic interest in Jimmy’s estranged daughter (Sarah Shahi), an attractive tattoo artist whose parlor is in a seedy neighborhood.

This action packed movie is all about exacting vengeance and body counts, and it won’t disappoint diehard Stallone fans in that regard.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, nudity, drug use, violence, and bloody images. Running time: 91 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

January 30, 2013
IS IT TOO LATE TO MAKE A GO OF IT?: Reggie (Tom Courtenay, left) and Jean (Maggie Smith) find themselves together again as residents in Beecham House, a retirement home for classical musicians. The pair was briefly married in the past and Reggie has not yet gotten over the breakup. Also, their reconciliation is crucial to the success of the annual fundraising concert for the home because they form half of the famous quartet whose appearance will guarantee the concert’s success, thereby keeping Beecham House solvent.

IS IT TOO LATE TO MAKE A GO OF IT?: Reggie (Tom Courtenay, left) and Jean (Maggie Smith) find themselves together again as residents in Beecham House, a retirement home for classical musicians. The pair was briefly married in the past and Reggie has not yet gotten over the breakup. Also, their reconciliation is crucial to the success of the annual fundraising concert for the home because they form half of the famous quartet whose appearance will guarantee the concert’s success, thereby keeping Beecham House solvent.

Sometimes a gem of a movie falls through the cracks that really has no business getting lost. Such is the case with Quartet, a delightful film directed by Dustin Hoffman and starring Maggie Smith.

The film was released in late December by the Weinstein Company, and one would naturally expect it to generate a lot of Academy Award buzz. But it was overlooked entirely, which means moviegoers might now be tempted to pass over the picture in favor of Oscar contenders. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss Quartet just because it lacks the Academy’s stamp of approval.

The story is set at Beecham House, a sprawling estate in England which is a retirement home for accomplished classical musicians. At the point of departure, we are introduced to three of its residents; Wilfred (Billy Connolly), Cecily (Pauline Collins), and Reginald (Tom Courtenay), opera singers who once shared the limelight as members of a famous quartet.

Melancholy Reggie is rather reserved in contrast to the comic relief from slightly senile Cissy and ladies man Wilf, a frisky codger who flirts with anyone in a skirt. In the meantime, Beecham House is busy preparing to put on an annual concert that is staged each year on Verdi’s birthday.

The plot thickens when Jean Horton (Smith), a very demanding retired diva, moves in unannounced. Not only was she responsible for the breakup of the above mentioned quartet, but she was also to blame for the failure of her brief marriage to Reggie.

However, Jean is so narcissistic that she’s initially oblivious to the effect that her arrival is having on Reggie, who apparently never fully recovered from their divorce. Instead, she spends her time complaining about having to adjust to the relatively modest accomodations at Beecham House.

Will the two reconcile, let alone be able to even share the same space? And can the quartet be reunited to perform as headliners at the recital, a fundraiser that is critical to Beecham’s remaining solvent? These are the concerns that will keep you entertained and engaged every step of the way to the glorious resolution.

A charming romantic romp.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for suggestive humor and brief profanity. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

January 23, 2013

 

A DIFFICULT NIGHT TIME OPERATION: Equipped with an aresenal of deadly weapons and equipment and wearing night vision eyepieces, highly trained Navy SEAL Team Six members have entered Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan where they will ultimately track him down, identify, and kill him.

A DIFFICULT NIGHT TIME OPERATION: Equipped with an aresenal of deadly weapons and equipment and wearing night vision eyepieces, highly trained Navy SEAL Team Six members have entered Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan where they will ultimately track him down, identify, and kill him.

After 9/11, the United States intensified its efforts in the international manhunt for Osama bin Laden (Ricky Sekhon). Nevertheless, the elusive mastermind of the terrorist attack continued to orchestrate mass murders in Bali, Istanbul, London, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere around the world.

Dismayed by the mounting death toll, the authorities rationalized the use of rough interrogation tactics bordering on torture in the hope of expediting the capture, dead or alive, of the elusive al-Qaida leader. He was finally tracked down to a walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where he died on May 2, 2011 during a daring helicopter raid conducted by the Navy’s SEAL Team Six.

Directed by Academy Award-winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Zero Dark Thirty (military speak for 12:30 a.m.) is a riveting account of the decade long search for bin Laden. Bigelow has again collaborated with Oscar winning scriptwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker), and they apparently had access to classified materials while working on the movie.

The film is presented as a tale of female empowerment involving Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent who manages to keep her head even when many around her are losing theirs, literally and figuratively. She also has an uncanny knack for deciphering which clues might be worth following, in sharp contrast to her bumbling colleagues who spend most of their time on wild goose chases.

At the point of departure, we find Maya getting her first fieldwork assignment after she had been studying bin Laden from behind a desk in Washington, D.C. She’s been reassigned to participate in the questioning of al-Qaida members and sympathizers who have been detained at secret sites located outside the U.S. where the Geneva Conventions provisions relating to torture presumably don’t apply.

Soon, Maya’s imvestigating leads from Pakistan, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, alongside her bosses (Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler) who could have cracked the case sooner if they weren’t male chauvinists who didn’t believe Maya’s analyses. It’s a shopworn plot device that pits a frustrated and unappreciated protagonist against a group of stubbornly skeptical naysayers.

Whether a convenient cinematic contrivance, or an accurate portrayal of what transpired, Zero Dark Thirty’s version of history is a very convincing piece of patriotic storytelling. Credit goes to Jessica Chastain for imbuing her character, Maya, with a compelling combination of vulnerability, sagacity, and steely resolve in a memorable, Oscar quality performance.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, disturbing images, and graphic violence. Running time: 157 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

January 16, 2013
ROMEO AND JULIET IN THE MOB WORLD OF THE 1940S: Sergeant Jerry Worters (Ryan Gosling, right) finds himself falling in love with a moll (Emma Stone) from Mickey Cohen’s mob, the mob that Worters has been assigned to break up. What to do, what to do. To find out how it turns out, see the movie.

ROMEO AND JULIET IN THE MOB WORLD OF THE 1940S: Sergeant Jerry Worters (Ryan Gosling, right) finds himself falling in love with a moll (Emma Stone) from Mickey Cohen’s mob, the mob that Worters has been assigned to break up. What to do, what to do. To find out how it turns out, see the movie.

Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) was born and raised in Brooklyn where he started out as a prizefighter before moving to Chicago during Prohibition to become an enforcer for Al Capone. In the 40s, he was sent by Meyer Lansky to Los Angeles to establish extortion, gambling, prostitution, and loan shark operations on behalf of the Jewish Mafia.

Mickey gradually began to make inroads, which didn’t sit well with Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte) who was determined to prevent any crime syndicate from gaining a foothold in his city. But that would prove to be easier said than done since the mobster had already succeeded in bribing and/or intimidating many cops, judges, and powerful politicians.

In light of the frightening degree of corruption, Parker decided that the only way to bring down Mickey was to behave just as ruthlessly as he did. So, Parker asked one of his most fearless officers, Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), to form a top secret team whose mission would be to enforce the law by breaking it.

The so-called gangster squad’s mission was simply to enter each of Cohen’s establishments anonymously and break kneecaps and generally trash the place. Of course, if any of O’Mara’s operatives were killed or captured, the police commissioner would have to disavow any knowledge of their actions.

Gangster Squad is a stylized costume drama with far more charm than one would ordinarily expect to find in a ganster movie. Directed by Ruben Fleisher (Zombieland), the film is based on the Paul Lieberman bestseller of the same name.

The production has an A-list cast which includes Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick and Mireille Enos. Therefore, there are no throwaway roles here, and even lesser characters are developed because the veteran cast members put their experience into their performances.

As a result, the audience cares not only about whether or not Mickey will ever be brought to justice, but about surprisingly engaging subplots such as a lawman (Gosling) going gaga over the gangster moll Grace Faraday (Stone), and about a pregnant wife’s (Enos) fear that her husband Sergeant John O’Mara (Brolin) will not live long enough to see his baby being born. Nevertheless, the front story does feature all the staples of the genre, such as flashy zoot suits, tommy guns, and street-smart dialogue that mixes slang and savoir faire in a manner reminiscent of Damon Runyon.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and graphic violence. Running time: 113 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

January 9, 2013
Damon

TRUST ME, YOU’LL MAKE A FORTUNE: Steve Butler (Matt Damon) is earnestly cajoling a farm owner into signing over the drilling rights to his farmland, so that the company that Butler is representing can proceed to extract natural gas from the oil shale deposit underneath the farmer’s property. Butler is hoping that the lure of easy money will blind the farmer to the potential long term damage to the local community’s ecology caused by the fracking process.

In 2011, a disturbing documentary called Gasland was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category. That eye opening exposé chronicled how energy companies had duped landowners in Pennsylvania and Colorado into signing over the drilling rights on their property and, at the same time, downplaying the ecological risks.

Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, the process employed to extract natural gas from underground oil shale deposits, has contaminated many communities environments, and made a number of homes virtually uninhabitable. In that documentary, victims demonstrated with a match how their tap water had become flammable and how their pets had turned sickly and started shedding fur in patches.

Presumably inspired by Gasland, the biblically titled Promised Land is a cautionary tale that tackles the same theme. This modern morality play reunites director Gus Van Sant with Matt Damon for their fourth collaboration which began back in 1997 with Good Will Hunting. The pair also worked together on Finding Forrester in 2000 and on Gerry a couple of years later.

In this film, Damon stars as Steve Butler, a farm boy who has become an itinerant corporate pitchman employed by a gas conglomerate to fast-talk country folks into turning over their drilling rights to the company. He and his partner (Frances McDormand) have been assigned to go to McKinley, a cash-strapped rural community whose local environment will almost certainly to be polluted if its residents are tricked into signing on the dotted line.

Steve has a down-home way of insinuating himself with the locals which even turns the head of a pretty schoolmarm (Rosemarie DeWitt). Fortunately, a couple of gadflies emerge when a skeptical science teacher (Hal Holbrook) and an outside agitator (John Krasinski) urge everybody not to be blinded by dollar signs, but to do a little research into the potential environmental consequences of fracking.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

January 2, 2013
“WANTED — DEAD OR ALIVE”: Bounty hunters Dr. Schulz (Christoph Waltz, right) and freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) are tracking down criminals who have eluded the justice system in the wild west of yesteryear. Along the way, Django takes advantage of his position to even the score with the people who tortured him when he was a slave.

“WANTED — DEAD OR ALIVE”: Bounty hunters Dr. Schulz (Christoph Waltz, right) and freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) are tracking down criminals who have eluded the justice system in the wild west of yesteryear. Along the way, Django takes advantage of his position to even the score with the people who tortured him when he was a slave.

There’s a good reason why nobody ever wanted to be an Indian whenever we played Cowboys and Indians as kids. That’s because the white man was invariably the hero of the Westerns which we’d seen, while the red man had always been presented as a wild savage dismissed by the dehumanizing declaration that, “The only good Injun is a dead Injun.”

True, a few films, such as Apaches (1973), The Sons of Great Bear (1966) and Chingachgook: The Great Snake (1967), portrayed Native Americans as the good guys and the European settlers as the bad guys. But those productions were few and far between.

Hollywood has also promoted a set of stereotypes when it comes to the depiction of black-white race relations during slavery, with classics like The Birth of the Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) setting the tone. Consequently, most movies have by-and-large suggested that docile African Americans were well treated by kindly masters, as long as they remained submissive and knew their place.

However, Quentin Tarantino has put a fresh spin on the genre, similar to what he did in the World War II movie Inglourious Basterds (2009). In Django Unchained, the writer/director rattles the cinematic cage in an irreverent adventure that turns conventional thinking on its head.

Set in the South in 1858, the picture is visually reminiscent of the Spaghetti Westerns popularized in the 60s by Italian director Sergio Leone, replete with big sky panoramas and cartoonish villains who are the embodiment of evil. But, in this movie instead of fighting cattle rustlers, it’s racists who are being slowly tortured or executed.

The movie stars Jamie Foxx in the title role as a slave who was liberated by a German dentist who became a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz). Dr. Schultz altruistically takes Django on as an apprentice, and teaches him how to ride a horse and handle a gun.

As a bounty hunter who tracks down outlaws who are “Wanted Dead-or-Alive,” the freed slave has many opportunities to exact revenge upon the people who were responsible for torturing him in his former life. The ones who gave him the scars on his back, or the “R” for “Runaway” branded on his cheek, or separated him from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The action gets pretty gruesome, as is par for the course for any Tarantino movie.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, nudity, ethnic slurs, and graphic violence. Running time: 165 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company

December 26, 2012

LOVE IN BLOOM: Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper, right) discovers that with the right woman, in this case Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), and the right circumstances, the pair can find true love and happiness together.

Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) completely lost his temper one day when he came home early from work to find his wife Nikki (Brea Bee) naked in the shower with one of her colleagues (Ted Barba). In fact, he proceeded to beat up her lover so badly that the only way he avoided a prison sentence was by agreeing to enter a mental hospital.

That was eight months ago and now that he’s being discharged he’s eager to reconcile and reunite with Nikki. However, she’s so afraid of his temper that she sold their house and got a restraining order issued against him.

She has good reason to be concerned, since Pat has been diagnosed as bipolar, and having depression and anger management issues. Consequently, with no wife, no job, and no home to return to, the state releases Pat to the custody of his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver).

While suffering under the delusion that Nikki will come back to him soon, he is introduced to a recently widowed neighbor (Jennifer Lawrence). As luck would have it, Tiffany is afflicted with a set of neuroses that are somehow compatible with Pat’s problems.

She confides in him that she’s been very promiscuous as of late, and that she was fired for sleeping with just about everybody in her office. A platonic friendship is gradually forged between the two, with Pat chivalrously protecting Jennifer instead of exploiting her weaknesses. For her part, Tiffany agrees to secretly deliver forbidden letters to his estranged wife so long as he promises to be her dance partner in an upcoming ballroom competition.

Adapted from the Matthew Quick novel of the same name, Silver Linings Playbook is a tenderhearted tale about two terribly wounded souls who survive by leaning on each other for support. Written and directed by Academy Award nominee David O. Russell (The Fighter), this charming film has earned four well deserved Golden Globe nominations for best picture, screenplay, lead actor, and lead actress.

The protagonists Bradley Cooper and Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) exhibit an impressive acting range in emotionally demanding roles. The stellar supporting cast is at its best when providing comic relief, especially Anupam Kher as Pat’s eccentric psychiatrist, Chris Tucker as his pal, and Robert De Niro as his obsessive-compulsive father.

Director Russell deserves credit for keeping the audience captivated and in suspense with the help of a clever script and a crew of colorful characters. The movie is a romantic story about two unstable misfits who take forever to realize that they’ve found one another.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and nudity. Running time: 122 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company


December 19, 2012

IN THE MOOD: Pete (Paul Rudd, left) and his wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) are enjoying a rare romantic moment, which Pete will undoubtedly dispel later on with inappropriate behavior, such as flossing his teeth at a critical moment.

We first met Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) in Knocked Up (2007), when the couple was in crisis, primarily because of her controlling behavior. She unreasonably suspected her husband of cheating on her because of the odd hours he kept as a rock and roll talent scout.

Their subplot was an amusing diversion from the main story about the farcical plight of a popular TV host. In This Is 40, Pete and Debbie, who we learn are in an unhappy marriage, have become the protagonists of a battle-of-the-sexes comedy.

At the point of departure, we find them both on the verge of turning 40-years-old. Debbie’s in denial, still trying to pass for 38, and is dreading the impending arrival of her birthday.

Meanwhile, Pete has regressed behaviorally, and routinely undermines any potential romantic mood by inappropriately flaunting unappetizing behavior such as flossing, among others, thereby ruining the mood. So, it comes as no surprise that the spark has gone completely out of their relationship.

This sad state of affairs is established during the picture’s opening tableaus when we see how, between their demands of work and raising two daughters (Maude and Iris Apatow), Pete and Debbie are too drained by the end of the day to even think about lovemaking. In fact, the most passion either exhibits is for their jobs.

He’s the CEO of a struggling retro record company that represents obscure has-beens like Gram Parker, and she owns a trendy boutique that is in financial trouble because of embezzlement on the part of a trusted employee. In addition to their marital problems, they may also lose their multimillion-dollar McMansion.

It’s important to note that This Is 40 was written and directed by Judd Apatow, who is the master of the shock and exploitation genre, whose productions have glorified profanity, potty humor, graphic sexuality, and nudity. This offering won’t disappoint his diehard fans in that regard, and even has the rudiments of a plot that may be of interest to people whose IQs are in the room temperature range.

Very Good (**½). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, crude humor, drug use, and profanity. Running time: 134 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.