December 11, 2013

Nelson “Madiba” Mandela (Idris Elba) secretly started writing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom while still serving what he had every reason to believe would be a life

IF FIGHTING FOR THE END OF APARTHEID IS TREASON, THEN FIND ME GUILTY: Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba, center in focus) was tried and convicted for treason for attempting to break the rule of apartheid that was imposed on the black population of South Africa. While he was imprisoned, his cause was taken up by groups all over the world, and after 27 years in prison, Mandela was pardoned and then became the first black president of the country.

IF FIGHTING FOR THE END OF APARTHEID IS TREASON, THEN FIND ME GUILTY: Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba, center in focus) was tried and convicted for treason for attempting to break the rule of apartheid that was imposed on the black population of South Africa. While he was imprisoned, his cause was taken up by groups all over the world, and after 27 years in prison, Mandela was pardoned and then became the first black president of the country.

sentence on Robben Island. The lawyer-turned-spokesman for the outlawed African National Congress had been convicted of treason for trying to dismantle South Africa’s racist regime.

However, he was freed, after 27 years, when a bloody civil war was on the brink of bringing an end to apartheid. At that point, Mandela assured the apprehensive white minority that despite the fact that, “Fear has made you an unjust and brutal people, when we come to power, there will be no revenge.”

Soon thereafter, he was democratically elected to be the nation’s first black president, and assumed the reins of power in 1994. And that transition to majority rule proved to be smooth — helped by pardons for crimes against humanity that were granted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to guilty parties from both sides of the conflict.

Directed by Justin Chadwick, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a biopic chronicling the rise, incarceration, and ultimate redemption of the recently-deceased Nelson Mandela. Versatile British actor Idris Elba exhibits the requisite combination of outrage, dignity, empathy, and steely resolve needed to portray the late leader convincingly.

However, since Mandela is behind bars for most of the movie, much of the action revolves around his wife Winnie’s (Naomie Harris) efforts to raise their children while spearheading the anti-apartheid movement in her husband’s absence. Sadly, the decades-long separation eventually took a toll on their marriage.

This film easily surpasses a biopic covering the same subject called Winnie Mandela, that was released just a couple of months ago. That disappointing movie, co-starring Terence Howard and Jennifer Hudson as Nelson and Winnie, was marred by the protagonists’ atrocious accents as well as a disappointing script.

In contrast, this adaptation of Madiba’s autobiography does justice to his legacy as a freedom fighter and his role as a unifying figure for all of South Africa.

Excellent (****). PG-13 for sexuality, intense violence, disturbing images, and brief profanity. In English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa with subtitles. Running time: 146 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

December 4, 2013
HEY BRO, YOU BETTER SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT: Frustrated older brother Russel Blaze (Christian Bale, left) is desperately trying to help his brother, military veteran Rodney (Casey Affleck) turn his life around. Rodney returned from several tours of duty in Iraq suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and has been unable to successfully make the transition into civilian life.

HEY BRO, YOU BETTER SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT: Frustrated older brother Russel Blaze (Christian Bale, left) is desperately trying to help his brother, military veteran Rodney (Casey Affleck) turn his life around. Rodney returned from several tours of duty in Iraq suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and has been unable to successfully make the transition into civilian life.

Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is stuck in a dead-end job at a rural Pennsylvania steel mill that is rumored to be closing soon. However, he’s not in a position to leave the area in search of greener pastures because he has to care for his terminally-ill widowed father (Bingo O’Malley) and a younger brother, Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck), who is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Rodney, a military veteran, hasn’t been able to make the adjustment back to civilian life after having served several tours of duty in Iraq. In fact, he hasn’t been the same since their mother died.

Because of a burgeoning gambling debt, Rodney has agreed to participate in street fights — that are fixed — that are being staged by the bookie (Willem Dafoe), to whom Rodney owes a lot of money. Trouble is Rodney becomes so blinded with rage after being punched, that he can’t be relied upon to throw the fight as promised.

Russell is so desperate to help his brother that he’s even willing to pay off Rodney’s I.O.U. in increments on his modest salary. But even that plan goes up in smoke after Russell is arrested for manslaughter when he was driving under the influence of alcohol.

By the time he’s paroled, Rodney has disappeared and is rumored to have been abducted out of state by a ruthless gang of drug dealers who are led by a sadistic Ramapo Indian (Woody Harrelson). The local police chief (Forest Whitaker) is sympathetic, but has no jurisdiction in New Jersey, which leaves Russell no choice but to take the law into his own hands with the help of his Uncle Red (Sam Shepard).

Written and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), Out of the Furnace is a gritty thriller that unfolds against the backdrop of a decaying American landscape. Thus, almost overshadowing the desperate search at the center of the story, is the background behind the film of an aging national infrastructure that is irreversibly past its prime.

While the violence occasionally goes over the top, the film nevertheless remains highly recommended, because the cast is as adept at delivering dialogue as it is in dispensing street justice.

The movie is a gruesome showdown between warring clans that is reminiscent of the backwoods feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, drug use, and graphic violence. Running time: 116 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

November 27, 2013
FIGHTING FOR HER LIFE: Expert archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes aim at an enemy in the Quarter Quell tournament. She was forced to take part in it, in the hope by the government, that her death would silence the revolutionary feelings amongst the poverty stricken masses that she and her partner Peet (Josh Huthcerson, not shown) aroused in their speeches during their victory tour that they were on after they won the latest Hunger Games competition.

FIGHTING FOR HER LIFE: Expert archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes aim at an enemy in the Quarter Quell tournament. She was forced to take part in it, in the hope by the government, that her death would silence the revolutionary feelings amongst the poverty stricken masses that she and her partner Peet (Josh Huthcerson, not shown) aroused in their speeches during their victory tour that they were on after they won the latest Hunger Games competition.

The Hunger Games book trilogy has so captured the collective imagination of children the world over that it has already eclipsed Harry Potter as the best-selling children’s book series of all time. Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic adventure is set in Panem, a dystopia in which the poverty stricken majority are brutally subjugated by the powerful, privileged few.

In the first film, heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) grudgingly participated in a winner-take-all death match against other teens, each representing his or her home district. Known as the Hunger Games, the annual competition is presented to the masses as entertainment designed to distract them from their miserable plight.

Wise beyond her years, underdog Katniss emerged triumphant at the end of the first episode by virtue of a combination of craftiness, compassion, and her skills as an archer. However, she did break a cardinal rule by sparing the life of her co-winner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her friend and male counterpart from District 12.

At the second movie’s point of departure, we find the pair embarking on a government sponsored victory tour around the country. However, when their speeches stir up revolutionary fervor in the crowds, vindictive President Snow (Donald Sutherland) breaks a promise by drafting the pair to take part in the Quarter Quell, a tournament of champions comprised entirely of former Hunger Games winners.

So, it’s not long before they’re back in training for another life or death contest, this time against elite opponents with weapons and capabilities that range from fang-like teeth, uncanny intuition, chameleon-like camouflage, and the ability to harness electricity. Each of the entrants, known as tributes, is introduced by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the festivities’ unctuous master of ceremonies.

Once the pomp and circumstance of the opening ritual are out of the way, the gruesome main event begins. Alliances are forged, and bargains are made, followed by literal and figurative backstabbing in a desperate contest which ultimately forces a cruel betrayal of any loyalties.

In spite of all its frenetic action, this movie nevertheless suffers from a classic case of inbetween-itis, since it is a bridge to the third book’s conclusion.

Very Good (***). PG-13 for profanity, intense violence, frightening images, mature themes, and a suggestive situation. Running time: 146 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

 

November 20, 2013
MAKING SOME LAST MINUTE BUSINESS DECISIONS: Rayon (Jared Leto, left) confers with partner Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey). The pair started the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that supplied drugs for AIDS patients that were not legally available in the United States.

MAKING SOME LAST MINUTE BUSINESS DECISIONS: Rayon (Jared Leto, left) confers with partner Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey). The pair started the Dallas Buyers Club, a business that supplied drugs for AIDS patients that were not legally available in the United States.

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) was informed that he had 30 days to live when he was diagnosed as being HIV positive in 1986.

While pharmaceutical companies around the world were testing hundreds of chemical compounds in hopes of developing an antidote, the only one approved for distribution in America was AZT, a medication so toxic that it almost killed Ron. Rather than resign himself to a quick death, the tough Texan resolved to fight for his life.

First, he visited a clinic in Mexico that was promoting a cocktail of alternative therapies and purchased enough drugs to test the experimental regimen on himself. When the trial proved effective, he sneaked back across the border, posing as a priest, and smuggled a trunk full of pills out of the country.

Soon thereafter, the enterprising Woodroof founded the Dallas Buyers Club in order to skirt the law and distribute unapproved substances such as Interferon, Peptide T and Compound Q. A mere $400 per month would afford club members access to a variety of state-of-the-art AIDS remedies.

Because of his homophobia, the gruff good ol’ boy wisely went into business with a partner who had deep roots in the gay community. Flamboyant Rayon (Jared Leto), an HIV positive transsexual, played a pivotal role in attracting a clientele of fellow AIDS patients because Ron often used offensive slurs when referring to homosexuals. Together, the pair built the fledgling enterprise into an economic success that provided a service for patients who were frustrated by the FDA’s response to the epidemic.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Café de Flore), Dallas Buyers Club recounts Ron Woodroof’s desperate struggle to survive in the face of a governmental bureaucracy that appeared indifferent to people in his plight. The movie was inspired by “Buying Time,” an article by Bill Minutaglio which appeared in the Dallas Morning News on August 9, 1992.

Riddled with historical inaccuracies, the biopic frequently plays fast and loose with the facts in order to fashion an entertaining movie that fits the Hollywood success formula. In truth, the real-life Ron was apparently not as intolerant of homosexuality as depicted. Furthermore, he was initially given a two-year life expectancy by his doctor, in contrast to the picture’s one month fiction.

However, perhaps most important of all, some of the drugs he imported were banned for very good reasons. Nevertheless, the movie is a terrific tour de force that is likely, at last, to give Matthew McConaughey an Oscar nomination because he convincingly conveys the acute mental anguish of a person ravaged by AIDS.

Excellent (****). Rated R for nudity, drug use, graphic sexuality, pervasive profanity, ethnic and homophobic slurs. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

November 13, 2013
HONEY, YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I LOVE: Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs, right) reassures his suspicious wife Robin (Sanaa Lathan) that even though his head was temporarily turned by his ex girlfriend Jordan (Nia Long, not shown) when he saw her for the first time in 15 year, he really never seriously considered leaving Robin.

HONEY, YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I LOVE: Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs, right) reassures his suspicious wife Robin (Sanaa Lathan) that even though his head was temporarily turned by his ex girlfriend Jordan (Nia Long, not shown) when he saw her for the first time in 15 year, he really never seriously considered leaving Robin.

When released in 1999, The Best Man was dismissed by some as merely an African American version of The Big Chill, and by others as the black male answer to Waiting to Exhale. But the romantic film about a sophisticated set of college graduates was entertaining enough to stand on its own, and even won three NAACP Image Awards, including Best Picture.

Set 15 years later, The Best Man Holiday is a sequel reuniting the principal cast for a mixture of reminiscing, rivalry, and sobering reality during an eventful Christmas season. Written and directed by Malcolm Lee (Undercover Brother), the film features Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Taye Diggs, Harold Perrineau, Regina Hall, Melissa De Sousa, and Monica Calhoun reprising the roles they played in the first movie.

At the point of departure, we find the gang gathering at the sprawling mansion of Lance Sullivan (Chestnut), an NFL running back about to retire after a recording-breaking career with the New York Giants. The God-fearing family man is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Mia (Calhoun), and children.

Author Harper Stewart (Diggs), the best man at their wedding, had stirred-up considerable controversy in the original film by writing a thinly veiled account of his buddies’ sexual exploits. This time around, he gets in trouble when plans to publish a biography of the host Lance come to light.

Furthermore, despite the fact that his wife, Robin (Lathan), is 9-months pregnant, Harper feels pangs of passion when he sees his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, Jordan (Long). So, when her beau (Eddie Cibrian) excuses himself to spend Christmas with his parents, it’s just a matter of time before Harper’s flirting with Jordan leaves him in the dog house with Robin.

Meanwhile, Julian (Perrineau), who married the stripper (Hall) he fell for way back at Lance’s bachelor party, is currently worried that an old YouTube video of his scantily clad spouse might surface. Also, it is hard to ignore Julian’s flamboyant ex-girlfriend, Shelby (De Sousa), a drama-loving reality TV star.

All of the above is cleverly narrated by Quentin (Howard), a one man Greek chorus that supplies intermittent comic relief.

The storyline is thoroughly absorbing throughout the film and alternates between fond reflections and fresh crises.

At the end, all of the loose ends are satisfactorily resolved, allowing for a memorable, bittersweet sendoff, as well as a transparent setup for the next installment in the series.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, ethnic slurs, and brief nudity. Running Time: 124 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures

 

November 6, 2013
WATCH OUT LAS VEGAS, WE’RE HERE: The four friends from childhood: Archie, Billy, Paddy, and Sam (from left, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline) reunite in Las Vegas to throw a bachelor party for Billy. Over the years the four close friends have kept in touch and so when Billy, who has never married finally finds a bride, his friends decide to take him to Vegas for one last fling.

WATCH OUT LAS VEGAS, WE’RE HERE: The four friends from childhood: Archie, Billy, Paddy, and Sam (from left, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline) reunite in Las Vegas to throw a bachelor party for Billy. Over the years the four close friends have kept in touch and so when Billy, who has never married finally finds a bride, his friends decide to take him to Vegas for one last fling.

Billy (Michael Douglas), Paddy (Robert De Niro), Archie (Morgan Freeman), and Sam (Kevin Kline) were inseparable when they were growing up in Flatbush back in the 50s. They managed to remain close over the years despite the demands of their families and careers. That’s why, when Billy, who never married, finally decides to tie the knot, his friends decide to throw him a bachelor party in Las Vegas and also rekindle a little of the macho magic of their youth.

However, even before arriving in Sin City, the senior citizens are forced to face up to the fact that they’re no longer as young as they feel. For example, Archie is recovering from a mild stroke and has to sneak out of the house by telling his son (Michael Ealy) that he’s attending a church retreat. Sam packs Viagra pills and condoms for the trip, and recently-widowed Paddy has been depressed ever since his childhood sweetheart (Olivia Stuck) passed away.

Even Billy seems to be having second thoughts about marrying a woman half his age (Bre Blair), especially after his head is turned by the hotel’s sultry lounge singer (Mary Steenburgen). So, the pals’ greatly anticipated reunion turns out to be less of a last hurrah and more of a nostalgic trip down memory lane as they end up spending more of their time reminiscing and teasing each other than pursuing women.

Directed by Dan Turtletaub (National Treasure 1, 2 and 3), Last Vegas is a laugh-a-minute comedy, with most of the humor coming at the expense of the self-effacing quartet as they grudgingly make concessions to old age. They remain good sports, whether being the butt of jokes about hair transplants, hair color, medications, looking old, or mistakenly flirting with transvestites.

Not surprisingly, the principal cast members (with four Academy Award-winners Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline) have no trouble generating a convincing sense of camaraderie on screen. What is a pleasantly surprising addition is how another Oscar-winner, Mary Steenburgen, uses her support role to upstage her male co-stars by exhibiting an endearing vulnerability in her memorable performance.

Excellent (***½). PG-13 for profanity and sexuality. Running time: 105 minutes. Distributor: CBS Films.

 

October 30, 2013
THIS DEAL WILL MAKE US BOTH RICH: The Counselor (Michael Fassbender, left) toasts the anticipated success of the drug deal he just made with Reiner (Javier Bardem) to smuggle cocaine from Mexico into the U.S. that will be extremely profitable for both of them.(Photo  by Kerry Brown, TM and © 2013 20th Century Fox Films)

THIS DEAL WILL MAKE US BOTH RICH: The Counselor (Michael Fassbender, left) toasts the anticipated success of the drug deal he just made with Reiner (Javier Bardem) to smuggle cocaine from Mexico into the U.S. that will be extremely profitable for both of them. (Photo by Kerry Brown, TM and © 2013 20th Century Fox Films)

It’s easy to see why this crime thriller got the green light in Hollywood. First of all, it was written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Cormac McCarthy whose No Country for Old Men won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Second, Oscar nominated director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Thelma & Louise) was brought aboard, as well as a cast topped by Academy Award-winners Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, nominees Brad Pitt and Rosie Perez, and versatile character actors Michael Fassbender and Goran Visnjic.

Furthermore, since the story is set in Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, it made sense to sign Latino actors Cameron Diaz, Edgar Ramirez, John Leguizamo, and Ruben Blades. Nevertheless, The Counselor turned out to be one of those curious head scratchers that somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

The film is crippled by a pair of fatal flaws — a glacial pace and a verbose script laced with awkward dialogue. While the audience waits for something, anything to transpire, it is fed stilted lines like, “You are a man of impeccable taste” and “I intend to love you ’til the day I die.”

Worse, these corny line are delivered with so little conviction that you never know whether you’re supposed to laugh or take them seriously. The actors comes off as tongue-in-cheek impersonations of characters in a typical Damon Runyon yarn.

The picture’s plot is about a nameless lawyer, referred to only as “The Counselor” (Fassbender), whose greed is getting the better of him. At the point of departure, we find him head-over-heels in love with Laura (Cruz), an exotic beauty he plans to propose to with an expensive diamond ring he can’t afford.

For reasons that never quite make sense, this man of few words gets mixed up in the dangerous Mexican drug trade. He’s offered a start in the business by Reiner (Bardem), a flamboyant dealer with a flashy girlfriend (Diaz).

Ignoring repeated warnings from a low-key middleman (Pitt), that entering the narcotics underworld is like stepping in quicksand, the Counselor decides that the payoff is worth a one-time risk. The plan is to deliver a sewage truck filled with over 20,000 ounces of coke across the border to Chicago.

The pivotal question is — will he be able to avoid becoming a statistic in a bloody turf war where ruthless gangs don’t give a second thought about beheading a rival? The movie is a borefest featuring blasé individuals overindulging in gratuitous violence and coarse, casual sensuality.

Fair (*½). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, graphic violence, and grisly images. Running time: 111 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox

 

October 23, 2013
LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM: This picture of a happy American family, shown in 1841, features Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor top, right) together with his wife (Kelsey Scott) and their two children (Quvenzhané Wallis, bottom left and Cameron Zeigler). Unfortunately their dream turns into a nightmare when Solomon is duped into going to Washington, D.C. where he is sold into slavery for 12 years.

LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM: This picture of a happy American family, shown in 1841, features Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor top, right) together with his wife (Kelsey Scott) and their two children (Quvenzhané Wallis, bottom left and Cameron Zeigler). Unfortunately their dream turns into a nightmare when Solomon is duped into going to Washington, D.C. where he is sold into slavery for 12 years.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a black man who was born a free man in upstate New York in 1808. A skilled carpenter and fiddler, he and his wife (Kelsey Scott) settled in Saratoga Springs where they were raising their children (Quvenzhane Wallis and Cameron Zeigler) when their American Dream turned into a nightmare in 1841.

One day, Solomon was approached by two white strangers (Taran Killam and Scoot McNairy) who offered him a high-paying job playing music with a circus in Washington, D.C. However, upon arriving in the capital, they sold him to a slave trader (Christopher Berry) who put Solomon in chains and shipped him to a cotton plantation in the Deep South.

What ensued was a 12 year ordeal in which Solomon was whipped whenever he attempted to explain that he was a free man. Despite being tortured by a sadistic master (Michael Fassbender) — who was determined to break his spirit — Solomon somehow managed to maintain his sanity and his dignity.

With the help of a kindly Canadian (Brad Pitt), who was passing through town, Solomon was eventually able to inform abolitionists up North of his dire predicament and was finally reunited with his family. Upon his emancipation in 1853, Solomon wrote and published a memoir chronicling the cruelties he suffered in captivity in explicit detail.

Entitled 12 Years a Slave, the book became a runaway best-seller that slipped into obscurity after the Civil War. Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger), the screen version is a fairly faithful adaptation of the memoir.

In a banner year for African American films, this heartbreaking historical drama just might be the best of the bunch. The film has already been generating early Oscar buzz thanks to a People’s Choice Award from the Toronto International Film Festival.

Unapologetically graphic in its depiction of the institution of slavery’s evils, 12 Years a Slave does not contain any comic asides such as the ones in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Therefore, brace yourself for a relentlessly gruesome movie with escalating violence.

The picture is a sobering narrative of the life of a slave that recounts an authentic case of human bondage.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, torture, sexuality, nudity, and ethnic slurs. Running time: 133 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.

 

October 16, 2013
JUST DO WHAT WE TELL YOU AND NO ONE WILL BE HURT: The band of four hopped up Somali pirates quickly overpower the Maersk Alabama’s crew and take Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks center) hostage, thereby completing their takeover of the massive cargo ship. Instead of commandeering the ship, they decide to demand a huge ransom from the ship’s owners in exchange for the safe return of Captain Phillips.

JUST DO WHAT WE TELL YOU AND NO ONE WILL BE HURT: The band of four hopped up Somali pirates quickly overpower the Maersk Alabama’s crew and take Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks center) hostage, thereby completing their takeover of the massive cargo ship. Instead of commandeering the ship, they decide to demand a huge ransom from the ship’s owners in exchange for the safe return of Captain Phillips.

On April 9, 2009, the Maersk Alabama, an American container ship headed for Mombasa, Kenya, was hijacked on the high seas in an area that had become very popular with Somali pirates who preyed on international commercial cargo ships. Despite the ship crew’s training in evasive maneuvers in the event of just such an attack, the vessel’s 20-man crew’s flare gun and fire hoses proved no match for the heavily armed quartet of pirates who were high on an herbal stimulant called chat.

After climbing aboard, the pirates abandoned the idea of commandeering the cumbersome 500+ foot-long craft that was carrying 17,000 metric tons of cargo, since what they were really after was a multimillion-dollar ransom. Instead, they took Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) hostage on one of the Maersk’s own lifeboats in order to use him as a bargaining chip.

However, a standoff ensued in the middle of the ocean. Soon, the USS Bainbridge, a destroyer stationed near the Gulf of Aden, was dispatched to the scene and its Captain Frank Castellano (Yul Vasquez) feigned negotiating with the thieves while simultaneously securing permission from President Obama to carry out a daring rescue plan.

Directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93), Captain Phillips is certain to be compared to the somewhat similar film Zero Dark Thirty because they both recount a real-life mission mounted by a crack team of Navy SEALs. The difference, however, is that this picture essentially shows the depth of Captain Phillip’s anxiety over his fate, while Zero Dark Thirty devoted most of its attention to delineating the intricate details involved in the complicated manhunt for Osama bin Laden.

Curiously, this movie repeatedly makes the presumably politically correct point of reminding us that these madmen are not Muslim terrorists. Nevertheless, Tom Hanks does bring his A-game here when he’s cooped-up in close quarters with the support cast of terrorists (Barkhad Abdirahaman, Mahat M. Ali, Barkhad Abdi, and Faysal Ahmed) for most of the picture.

The film portrays the abductors as soulless, primitive natives right out of a typical Tarzan movie. True, the end of the picture is more effective when the bad guys are portrayed as the embodiment of pure evil with no redeeming qualities. Yet, this production would have benefited considerably from just a little development of the villains’ characters.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for intense violence, sustained terror, bloody images, and drug abuse. In English and Somali with subtitles. Running time: 134 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

 

October 9, 2013

Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is ready to retire at the end of a distinguished career as a NASA astronaut. The veteran captain is in command of his final flight of the Space Shuttle Explorer and their primary mission is to replace solar panels on the Hubble Telescope.

MAROONED IN SPACE: While on a routine repair spacewalk to the Hubble telescope, the two astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) suddenly find themselves in a life threatening situation. The pair receive an emergency message from their control center warning them of the high speed approach of space debris from a damaged Russian satellite. By the time they reach their space shuttle, the pair find that the debris has destroyed the shuttle, killing all the crewmembers and leaving their space shuttle damaged beyond repair.

MAROONED IN SPACE: While on a routine repair spacewalk to the Hubble telescope, the two astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) suddenly find themselves in a life threatening situation. The pair receive an emergency message from their control center warning them of the high speed approach of space debris from a damaged Russian satellite. By the time they reach their space shuttle, the pair find that the debris has destroyed the shuttle, killing all the crewmembers and leaving their space shuttle damaged beyond repair.

Upon reaching their destination, the spacewalk proceeds so routinely that bachelor Kowalski is comfortable engaging in flirtatious chitchat with Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her maiden voyage. Unexpectedly, mission control urgently orders them back to the shuttle because the debris field from a damaged Russian satellite is headed in their direction at a high speed.

However, the debris causes catastrophic damage to the shuttle before they get back to it — killing all their crew-mates and destroying the vehicle beyond repair. As a result, Kowalski and Stone find themselves marooned in space, unable to make radio contact with Houston, and with a limited amount of oxygen left in their tanks.

This is the intriguing situation established at the start of Gravity, a gripping science fiction thriller written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Pan’s Labyrinth). What ensues is a desperate race against time in which Kowalski does his best to keep the frightened rookie calm while trying to keep them both safe.

Kowalski’s improvised plan involves the pair using their thrusters to reach the International Space Station 100 kilometers away before the debris returns from completing its orbit around Earth. This is the first of many challenges they must face if the two of them are ever to feel solid ground under their feet again.

Rather than ruin the plot’s unpredictable developments, permit me to heap praise on the unparalleled performances of Oscar-winners George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Equal deserving of praise are the picture’s breathtaking 3D cinematography and the magical way in which weightlessness is convincingly created onscreen.

Buckle up for a riveting roller coaster ride through outer space.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense peril, disturbing images, and brief profanity. Running time: 90 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

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.