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.


December 12, 2012

HERE’S TO THE SUCCESS OF “PSYCHO”: Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins, center) toasts the completion of the the film “Psycho” at a dinner with his wife Alma (Helen Mirren, right) and leading lady Janet Leigh (Scarlet Johannson). All was not right in tinseltown, when Hitchcock flirted with the women on the movie set and Alma left him and moved to a beach house. To see if the pair were reconciled, see the movie.

It wasn’t long after the Hollywood premiere of North by Northwest in July of 1959 that Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) began searching for his next project, since he was happiest when he was making movies. After passing over all the scripts being pitched by Paramount, the master of suspense became curious about a recently published novel inspired by the gruesome exploits of a Wisconsin serial killer (Michael Wincott).

Hitchcock found the book Psycho captivating, and acquired the rights to the novel over the objections of his agent (Michael Stuhlbarg), accountant (John Rothman), assistant (Toni Collette), and the studio’s president (Richard Portnow). He even had a hard time convincing his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), whose support was always critical because she was his longtime collaborator and sounding board.

After the couple decided to finance the picture themselves, they turned their attention to casting. They settled on relatively unknown Anthony Perkins (James-D’Arcy) in the pivotal role of Norman Bates, while opting for Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) over a fading star (Jessica Biel) as their ill-fated leading lady.

However, pressures continued to mount after the filming got underway, with concerns ranging from the director having to massage actresses’ egos to figuring out how to get the graphic shower scene past the censors. Unfortunately, Hitchcock’s flirtatious behavior on the set took a toll on his relationship with Alma, who disappeared with a friend (Danny Huston) to a beachfront pied-a-terre.

Will Alma cheat on him or reconcile with Hitchcock despite his roving eye? That is the real tension at the heart of the movie, since everybody knows that Psycho was completed and went on to become a cinema classic.

Directed by Sacha Gervasi, this delightful docudrama is based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello. What makes the movie so compelling is the badinage between Alma and Alfred as ably portrayed by Oscar winners Helen Mirren (The Queen) and Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs).

Who knows whether their alternately acerbic and admiring interaction is accurate or pure fabrication? It almost doesn’t matter when delivered so convincingly, thereby allowing the audience a rare “fly on the wall” opportunity to watch how a genius and his wife made movie magic together.

A cinematic treat that offers rare peeks behind the scenes and behind the closed doors of a legendary director and the love of his life.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violent images, and mature themes. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.


December 5, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sumptuous cinematic feast!

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


November 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 21, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 7, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 6, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 24, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 17, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 3, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 19, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To see a trailer for Resident Evil: Retribution, visit: www.youtube.com/watch?v=fetL5JuKGv4 


September 12, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 5, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


August 29, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


August 22, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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