October 2, 2013
MAY THE BEST MAN WIN: Bitter rivals, formula 1 race car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, left) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), line up at the start of a race on the way to their final showdown race that will take place in Fuji, Japan where one of them will be crowned the Champion Formula 1 Race Car Driver of 1976.

MAY THE BEST MAN WIN: Bitter rivals, formula 1 race car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, left) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), line up at the start of a race on the way to their final showdown race that will take place in Fuji, Japan where one of them will be crowned the Champion Formula 1 Race Car Driver of 1976.

In the 70s two racecar drivers, who were as different from each other as Dudley Do-Right and Snidely Whiplash, became adversaries on the Formula 1 race car circuit. England’s James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was a brash daredevil who was willing to put his life at risk every time he drove around the track. By contrast, Austria’s Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) was a technician who applied a scientific strategy to his racing contests.

Off the track, the pair were also polar opposites. Hunt was a flamboyant playboy who liked the limelight, while Lauda preferred to spend his free time in peace and quiet with his wife Marla Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara). The bitter rivalry between the two came to a head during the 1976 season, when both were in contention for the coveted title of world champion formula 1 race driver.

The cutthroat quest for the title is the subject of Rush, a drama directed by two-time Academy Award-winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind). Based on a screenplay by two-time Oscar-nominee Peter Morgan (The Queen and Frost/Nixon), the picture’s engaging plot repeatedly juxtaposes the personas of the leads, painting the handsome Hunt as a lovable bon vivant on a crusade to wrest the crown from the defending champ Lauda, who is portrayed as a nerd who is too methodical to root for.

The movie masterfully depicts the cat-and-mouse mental stress as well as the pair’s race car driving skills, with the tension mounting at contests that are staged in cities in Brazil, Spain, Monaco, and Germany that lead up to a white-knuckle championship race in Fuji, Japan.

Along the way, Hunt’s chain-smoking, substance abuse, and womanizing is revealed, as he makes a mockery of Lauda’s Spartan regimen. The emotional build-up subtly suggests that getting the checkered flag in Fuji will serve as a confirmation of the victor’s approach to life.

A compelling, high-octane thriller.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, nudity, sexuality, smoking, disturbing images, and brief drug use. In English, German, Italian, and French with subtitles. Running Time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

 

September 25, 2013
WHO SHALL I MARRY, TOM, DICK, OR HARRY?: Thirty-year-old Montana Moore (right) is interviewing one of her old boy friends Quinton Jamison (Djimon Hounsou), who is also very wealthy, to see if he would do as a potential husband. Quinton is one of several on her list of candidates. Montana’s younger sister Sheree’s (Lauren London, not shown) is already engaged and Montana feels that she at least has to be engaged before her little sister gets married in 30 days. To find out who, if anyone at all, Montana chooses, see the movie.

WHO SHALL I MARRY, TOM, DICK, OR HARRY?: Thirty-year-old Montana Moore (right) is interviewing one of her old boy friends Quinton Jamison (Djimon Hounsou), who is also very wealthy, to see if he would do as a potential husband. Quinton is one of several on her list of candidates. Montana’s younger sister Sheree’s (Lauren London, not shown) is already engaged and Montana feels that she at least has to be engaged before her little sister gets married in 30 days. To find out who, if anyone at all, Montana chooses, see the movie.

Montana Moore (Paula Patton) has a problem. The pretty stewardess is practically 30-years-old, the age at which her mother (Jenifer Lewis) insists any young lady must be married in order to be considered respectable.

Meanwhile, her younger sister, Sheree (Lauren London), who’s a sophomore in college, is already engaged to a big man on campus (Terrence Jenkins), a Heisman trophy hopeful with a bright future in professional football. The blissfully betrothed are set to tie the knot in a month, and Montana is determined to turn one of her former boyfriends into a fiancé prior to Sheree’s wedding day.

So, enlisting the assistance of a couple of colleagues — Gail (Jill Scott) and Sam (Adam Brody) — she proceeds to hack into her airline company’s reservation schedule to determine the travel plans of her ex-beaus. Montana’s candidates include a hip-hop producer (Trey Songz), a Republican politician (Taye Diggs), and a very rich businessman (Djimon Hounsou), but she ignores her lifelong friend (Derek Luke) who is living right across the hall from her and who had once proposed to her when they were in grade school.

The desperate potential spinster starts crisscrossing the country to orchestrate “chance” encounters with her old flames while her Mr. Right might very well be the next-door neighbor she keeps leaving behind in Baltimore. Although the audience is never in doubt about the eventual resolution, it takes Montana most of the movie to realize that she’s meant to marry the man across the hall, who has long admired her from afar.

Written and directed by David E. Talbert, Baggage Claim is a transparent soap opera that telegraphs every punch. Thanks to the intermittent comic relief coming from the irreverent Greek chorus that is comprised of gay Sam and boy-crazy Gail, this exercise in the obvious is nevertheless a lot of fun to watch. It also helps considerably that the protagonist and her handsome and wealthy choices are so easy on the eyes.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity and sexuality. Running time: 96 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

 

September 18, 2013
SOMEONE HAS TO DO SOMETHING TO FIND THE CHILDREN: Anguished mother Grace Dover (Maria Bello) beseeches her husband Keller (Hugh Jackman) to do something to find their missing daughter Anna and her friend Joy, who were abducted on Thanksgiving day, since the local detective seems to have put the official police investigation on the back burner.

SOMEONE HAS TO DO SOMETHING TO FIND THE CHILDREN: Anguished mother Grace Dover (Maria Bello) beseeches her husband Keller (Hugh Jackman) to do something to find their missing daughter Anna and her friend Joy, who were abducted on Thanksgiving day, since the local detective seems to have put the official police investigation on the back burner.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a rugged outdoorsman and a family man with deep roots in rural Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), are raising their children, 6-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and teenager Ralph (Dylan Minnette), in the tiny town of Dover, an idyllic oasis far removed from the problems of big cities.

It is Thanksgiving morning, and Keller has decided his son is ready to shoot his first deer, a rite-of-passage he’d shared with his own father upon coming-of-age a generation earlier. And after a tableau with Christian symbolism represented by a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and a cross dangling from their pickup truck’s rearview mirror, we find the two deep in the woods where the boy bags his first buck.

“Be ready,” Keller ominously advises Ralph on the return trip, not because he has a premonition about any impending disaster, but because of the sense of paranoia he has cultivated over the years as a survivalist. Still, their basement, that is stocked with provisions, would prove to be of no use in the calamity that was about to unfold later that day.

The Dovers go to the home of their neighbors Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), who have two children around the same age as the Dovers. However, after enjoying a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner, the youngsters Anna and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) vanish without a trace while playing outside.

The only lead is a suspicious RV parked down the street which the police trace to Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a local resident who is mentally-challenged and presumably incapable of abducting the children. With no other clues to follow, the investigating officer (Jake Gyllenhaal) puts the case on a back burner, much to the chagrin of the missing girls’ anguished parents.

Since time is of the essence, it is no surprise when a desperate Keller takes the law into his own hands, and his manic behavior is in sharp contrast to the measured approach of Detective Loki. Will the frustrated father or the laid-back cop solve the case first, or will they join forces and pool their resources? Will Anna and Joy be rescued alive, or found too late to save them? Or will the abduction simply be unsolved.

That is the mystery at the heart of Prisoners, a mesmerizing, multi-layered masterpiece brilliantly directed by Dennis Villeneuve. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski deserves equal credit for the film’s intricately plotted script which slowly ratchets up the tension in a compelling fashion that is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.

The movie is a compelling study of the emotional toll exacted by a kidnapping on the psyche of both lawmen and the victims’ loved ones.

Excellent (****). Rated R for pervasive profanity and disturbing violence. Running time: 153 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

September 11, 2013
IT’S NOT SO EASY TO GET RID OF RIDDICK: The elusive antihero Riddick (Vin Diesel) is pursued yet again in this third sequel in the series. In this episode, the superhuman alien is able to elude two teams of bounty hunters who are desperately trying to claim the reward for capturing the antihero.

IT’S NOT SO EASY TO GET RID OF RIDDICK: The elusive antihero Riddick (Vin Diesel) is pursued yet again in this third sequel in the series. In this episode, the superhuman alien is able to elude two teams of bounty hunters who are desperately trying to claim the reward for capturing the antihero.

When we first met Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) in Pitch Black, the notorious criminal had been arrested by a bounty hunter and was being transported to prison when the spaceship encountered a comet and had to make a crash-landing on an uncharted planet. Riddick escaped, and proceeded to elude his captors in a gruesome struggle for survival that would consume most of their lives.

This sequel has more of the same, as we find the title character still at large but marooned on another desolate planet. Now he’s being hunted by two teams of mercenaries, one of which is led by the father (Matt Nable) of the bounty hunter Riddick had killed in the original film.

Although Riddick is wanted dead or alive, the reward is double if he’s brought back in a body bag. Of course, that’s easier said than done, since this indomitable alien from planet Furya has superhuman strength, intuition, willpower, and night vision; traits which make him a formidable opponent, even when outnumbered by pursuers who are armed to the teeth.

So, this movie is an intergalactic posse’s attempt to apprehend Riddick as he tries to hijack one of their rocket ships in order to return to his faraway homeland. Unfortunately, the scriptwriters of this boring film ran out of new ideas for this sequel.

Consequently, the movie does little more than generate a sense of déjà vu because of the barren backdrop (except for a swarm of voracious critters) and the familiar ways in which the elusive antihero’s adversaries are killed. After all, how many different ways can you lop off a head or gut a guy so his entrails spill out?

The job of tracking down Riddick with the assistance of “futuristic” technology might best be described as pseudo-scientific nuttery. The movie is more of an uninspired remake than a interest-catching sequel.

Fair (*). Rated R for profanity, nudity, sexuality, and graphic violence. Running Time: 119 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

September 4, 2013
PAY CLOSE ATTENTION AND LEARN FROM THE MASTER: Grandmaster Yip Oi-dor (Tony Leung) demonstrates some of the moves that made him the Grandmaster of martial arts in all of China. He developed techniques which were fewer in number than the 64 moves employed by his predecessor Gong Yutian (not shown).

PAY CLOSE ATTENTION AND LEARN FROM THE MASTER: Grandmaster Yip Oi-dor (Tony Leung) demonstrates some of the moves that made him the Grandmaster of martial arts in all of China. He developed techniques which were fewer in number than the 64 moves employed by his predecessor Gong Yutian (not shown).

Yip Oi-dor (1893-1972), aka Ip Man, was a legendary martial arts teacher best remembered for some of the prominent protégés who attended his kung fu school, most notably, Bruce Lee. This influential instructor has finally been getting his due in recent years as the subject of several biopics.

The latest, The Grandmaster, directed by Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), is a majestic epic chronicling Ip Man’s life, who’s very capably played by Tony Leung, from the womb to the tomb.

At the picture’s point of departure, we learn that Ip came from Foshan, a city in Guangdong province where he started studying martial arts at an early age. By the time he was a young man, he had developed a reputation as a formidable fighter, and was enlisted by his region’s elders to represent all of southern China in a match against Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), the best man from the north.

Yip prevails in the match by employing an innovative combination of his trademarked “Spade,” “Pin” and “Sheath” techniques which prove to be far simpler than the 64 moves relied upon by his aging opponent. Soon thereafter, Gong finds himself dealing with dissension in the northern ranks as he is betrayed by a disloyal heir apparent (Zhang Jan) and disappointed by his daughter’s (Zhang Ziyi) decision to practice medicine rather than follow in his footsteps.

That enables Yip Man to fill the void and eventually emerge as the greatest grandmaster in all of China. Director Kar-wai resorts to flying harnesses, slow motion, and other state-of-the-art trick photography to showcase his hero’s considerable skills. If you’re familiar with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then you have a good idea of what to expect in terms of gravity defying kick and fisticuffs.

The production’s only flaw is its occasionally confusing editing, which unnecessarily resorts to flashbacks in order to recount the decades-spanning tale, when the movie might have worked just as well if allowed to unfold chronologically. Regardless, this comprehensive combination history lesson, love story, and action film features everything necessary to entertain any fan of the martial arts.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, smoking, and brief drug use. In Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese with subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

August 28, 2013
HOW WILL WE EVER GET OUT OF THIS?: Surrounded by police cars, retired racecar driver Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke, right), accompanied by the kid (Selena Gomez), uses his driving skills to outmaneuver the two police cars and continue on their quest to locate and rescue Brent’s kidnapped wife Leanna (Rebecca Budig, not shown) from her abductors.

HOW WILL WE EVER GET OUT OF THIS?: Surrounded by police cars, retired racecar driver Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke, right), accompanied by the kid (Selena Gomez), uses his driving skills to outmaneuver the two police cars and continue on their quest to locate and rescue Brent’s kidnapped wife Leanna (Rebecca Budig, not shown) from her abductors.

Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke) is a former racecar driver who recently moved, with his wife Leanna (Rebecca Budig), from the United States to her hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria. But their plans for a quiet retirement are rudely interrupted when she is kidnapped at the height of the Christmas season.

Brent gets a call from a mysterious madman (Jon Voigt) who tells him that the only hope of seeing her alive is to follow his instructions without calling the police. Then, Brent is ordered to steal a specific custom-built Ford Mustang that is parked in a nearby garage.

After he gets behind the wheel, he realizes that the auto has been outfitted with cameras and microphones. Soon, he finds himself being ordered by the kidnapper to execute a series of dangerous maneuvers, at high speed, through a crowded market place, across a rink filled with skaters, up onto a stage, and down a flight of steps.

Of course the car’s maneuvers attract the attention of the cops, who set up a dragnet to put an end to the dangerous shenanigans. Brent, however, relies on his professional skills to elude the authorities, although he still has no idea of his wife’s whereabouts — or what crazy stunt is next on the inscrutable abductor’s bizarre agenda.

Getaway is a thriller that borrows popular elements from Taken, Speed, and Ransom. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired, since the picture is an hour and a half of chase scenes that are punctuated by crashes and pyrotechnics.

For some reason, director Courtney Solomon (Dungeons & Dragons) ignored character development in favor of incessant action and spectacular special effects. Hence, the audience is never able to invest emotionally in the plight of the anguished protagonist or his imperiled spouse. Instead, we repeatedly watch careening cars crashing, rolling over, almost hitting pedestrians, and (this reviewer’s personal favorite), flying off a bridge in flames.

Along the way, Brent encounters the hijacked car’s true owner (Selena Gomez), a spoiled rich kid who wants her graduation present back. Fortunately for Brent, the tech-savvy kid sympathizes with Brent’s plight, and decides to use her laptop in order help him find his spouse.

Unfortunately, the dialogue never rises above trite lines like “Why is this happening?” “You’re running out of time. Tick-tock!” and “You don’t have to do this.” The movie is a frenetically-paced Selena Gomez vehicle that is full of sound and fury and ultimately signifies nothing.

Good (**). Rated PG-13 for profanity, rude gestures, mayhem, and pervasive violence. Running time: 94 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

August 21, 2013
KEEPER OF THE KEYS: Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has the unenviable task of keeping out the destitute earthlings from overrunning the exclusive space station Elysium, which the wealthy Earth citizens have created as a haven from the miserable conditions on their home planet Earth which is over populated and polluted.

KEEPER OF THE KEYS: Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) has the unenviable task of keeping out the destitute earthlings from overrunning the exclusive space station Elysium, which the wealthy Earth citizens have created as a haven from the miserable conditions on their home planet Earth which is over populated and polluted.

It’s 2154, and the planet Earth has become so polluted and overpopulated that anyone who can afford it has abandoned it to live in a luxurious state-of-the-art space station. Their decadent enclave, Elysium, looks similar to Beverly Hills, and is filled with palm trees and mansions with private swimming pools.

Meanwhile, down on Earth, the teeming masses of poor people struggle to survive, and escape to Elysium is their only hope for a decent existence. Of course, that’s easier said than done, since you have to be able to afford an expensive ride aboard a space ship to get there. And, even after arriving, you have to provide the authorities with proof of citizenship in order to stay.

The job of preventing illegal immigrants from entering Elysium falls to Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster), a heartless executive who has no qualms about shooting down unauthorized space shuttles. She takes her orders from John Carlyle (William Fitchner), the nefarious CEO of Armadyne Corporation, much to the annoyance of the space station’s president (Faran Tahir).

It turns out that it’s impossible for any politician to control the powerful defense contractor, a fact which Earth dwelling Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) learns the hard way. He only has five days to live after being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation in an industrial accident.

After his request for medical treatment, that is readily available on Elysium, is summarily denied, he becomes determined to reach the space station by hook or by crook. He also wants to bring his childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), and her young daughter (Emma Tremblay) who is suffering from acute leukemia along with him. Standing in their way, however, is Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a blood-thirsty heavily armed mercenary, deputized by Delacourt to patrol Los Angeles to make sure that no unworthy earthlings make it to Elysium.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp, Elysium is a disappointing sophomoric effort from the South African who had made such a spectacular splash in 2009 with the sleeper hit District 9. This film feels like he’s all out of ideas, because he uses similar themes from his earlier success, and has a cliché-ridden script filled with hackneyed lines like: “That’s what I’m talking about,” “You have no idea,” and “I’m just getting started.”

Fair (*½). Rated R for pervasive profanity and graphic violence. Running time: 109 minutes. Distributor: Tri-Star Pictures.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Cheech & Chong on a National Lampoon Vacation!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
July 3, 2013
movie rev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Kam Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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