April 25, 2012

LET ME SHOW YOU HOW IT’S DONE: The alpha male Freddie, (center), of a clan of chimpanzees living in the Ivory Coast’s jungle patiently shows Oscar (left) how to crack and clean nuts for food. Oscar became an orphan when his mother (not shown) disappeared during a battle with a tribe of rival chimpanzees who were trying to take over Oscar’s clan’s territory. Much to the surprise of the documentary’s crew members, in a never before observed behavior, Freddie undertook the task of raising Oscar.

This delightful Disneynature documentary, narrated by Tim Allen and shot in the wilds of Africa’s Ivory Coast, is about the adorable antics of an infant chimpanzee named Oscar. Co-directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, the film chronicles the little fellow’s adjustment from an infant who is completely protected by his mother, but who overnight becomes an orphan due to circumstances beyond his control.

At the point of departure, we find 3-month-old Oscar living in the heart of the jungle where he’s surrounded by a tight-knit extended family of 35 chimpanzees. There, under the watchful eye of his mother, Isha, he plays with other youngsters while exploring the world around him.

Oscar is completely oblivious to all the surrounding threats to his existence, such as ferocious leopards and the rival group of chimpanzees located nearby that covets his clan’s grove of fertile nut trees. Defense of the clan’s turf is a collective affair that is directed by the alpha male, Freddie. The two clans skirmish intermittently but Oscar’s family generally gets the better of the exchange even though they are outnumbered.

Monkeys are a little lower than chimpanzees on the food chain and are the chimpanzees’ favorite meat to eat. One monkey provides enough food to feed the clan. Interestingly, the chimps have developed a complicated scheme to trap a monkey that calls for members of the hunting party to play different roles, such as stalkers, blockers, and ambushers, in order to trap their prey.

Oscar’s situation changes drastically when Isha disappears one day during a battle. When it looks like unprotected Oscar might soon succumb to a predator or the elements, Freddie, the alpha male of the clan, spontaneously adopts Oscar as his own.

This never before seen bonding prompts the observing primatologists to exclaim: “The loss of his mother could’ve meant the end. Instead it’s a new beginning.”

The film is a must-see for animal lovers and people who liked March of the Penguins and Winged Migration.

Excellent (****). Rated G. Running time: 78 minutes. Distributor: Disneynature.


April 18, 2012

WHO’S DOWN HERE?: Curt (Chris Hemsworth, center) accompanied by Marty (Fran Kranz, left rear) and Jules (Anna Hutchinson) are investigating a strange noise that is emanating from the basement of the isolated cottage they are staying in during their weekend break from college.

At first glance, The Cabin in the Woods appears to be a run-of-the-mill slasher film. After all, it’s about unsuspecting teenagers who are alone in a secluded setting and who find themselves stalked by a homicidal maniac. At the picture’s point of departure, we’re introduced to five naïve college kids setting off on a weekend getaway to a lakefront cottage that has no cell phone reception and even can’t be tracked by GPS.

Such a break off the grid from school is just what the overstressed quintet of college students assembled by Curt (Chris Hemsworth) need. It turns out that he’s been given free use of a cabin that is owned by his long-lost cousin. Each of Curt’s classmates who were invited to join him for the trip is a typical horror film archetype. There’s Jules the blonde (Anna Hutchinson); Marty the wasted stoner (Fran Kranz); Dana the innocent virgin (Kristen Connelly); and Holden the straight-A student (Jesse Williams).

En route, they blithely dismiss the ominous warning to avoid the place that is given by a creepy local resident (Tim De Zarn) who is familiar with the grisly history of their destination. Of course it isn’t long after their arrival that the evil forces at the haunted house start picking them off one-by-one.

That is where the similarity to the stock scary movie plot begins to unravel in this film which is the directorial debut of Drew Goddard. Our heroes have no idea that their ensuing struggle for survival is a high-tech ordeal orchestrated from an underground bunker by a couple of government bureaucrats (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) who are assisted by an army of techno-wizards.

It’s impossible to discuss the storyline further without spoiling the many surprising supernatural developments. Suffice it to say that there is a host of bloodthirsty ghouls and goblins who can kill in creative ways. Overall, this hair-raising movie keeps you on edge for the length of the picture, although its frustrating game often feels unfairly rigged in favor of the sadistic manipulators.

This horror film definitely deserves its R rating given the incessant gore. Nevertheless, it remains highly recommended for fright fans interested in a more cerebral brand of bloodletting.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, drug use, sexuality, nudity, and graphic violence. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

April 11, 2012

SON, MAYBE IT’S TIME WE TALKED ABOUT THE BIRDS AND THE BEES: Father and son Noah Levenstein (Eugene Levy, left) and Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) sit down for a heart to heart talk when Jim comes home to East Great Falls, Michigan, with his wife and child (not shown) for his and his wife’s high school class’s thirteenth reunion.

To some, it probably seems like only yesterday that the high school seniors in American Pie were on a mission to lose their virginity before their graduation. But that was actually two sequels (American Pie 2 and American Wedding) and four spinoffs ago, and the high school friends have long since graduated and gone their separate ways.

Thus, at the point of departure we find that Jim (Jason Biggs) has married former band geek Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) and the couple are raising a toddler (George Christopher Bianchi) who gets into everything. Meanwhile, Oz, the jock (Chris Klein), is now a high-profile TV sportscaster in Los Angeles; Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is married and working as an architect; and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is a bohemian fantasizing about doing something more daring than managing a Staples store in New Jersey.

As middle-age approaches, the buddies decide to put their lives on hold and return to East Great Falls to attend their 13th high school reunion. There, they encounter former classmates Stifler (Seann William Scott) and The Shermanator (Chris Owen); Kevin’s ex-girlfriend, Vicky (Tara Reid); Oz’s ex-wife Heather (Mena Suvari); as well as Stifler’s mother (Jennifer Coolidge); and Jim’s father (Eugene Levy).

In the ensuing weekend, the band of friends reminisce and become embroiled in sordid affairs and sophomoric hijinks. For example, Kevin gets so drunk that when he wakes up in bed with Vicky, he can’t remember whether he’s cheated on his wife (Charlene Amoia). Jim is pursued by his 18-year-old next door neighbor (Ali Kobrin) whom he used to babysit.

Frankly, the group is a little long-in-the-tooth to over-imbibing in alcohol, ecstasy, and sex. A telltale sign that the cast members might have run its course is the lack of enthusiasm (other than Eugene Levy and Seann William Scott) with which they deliver their lines.

Good (**). Rated R for nudity, profanity, drug use, teen drinking, crude humor, and graphic sexuality. Running time: 113 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

April 4, 2012

TO HELL AND BACK: Perseus (Sam Worthington, center front) accompanied by his band of valiant warriors, are setting out on their descent into hell to rescue Perseus’s father Zeus, who has been imprisoned by Hades (Ralph Fiennes, not shown) and Ares (Edgar Ramirez, not shown) in an underworld dungeon. On the way to rescuing his father, Perseus must overcome a series of mythical creatures such as a cyclops, a minotaur, and fire breathing dragons.

I don’t understand why the characters in movies that are set in ancient Greece invariably speak with British accents, since the English language didn’t even come into existence until centuries later. Other than that, I have no complaints about Wrath of the Titans, a 3D sequel which actually exceeds the original in quality.

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles), this visually captivating action adventure is about another epic battle between the forces of good and evil. Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Danny Huston, and Ralph Fiennes have returned to reprise their lead roles as Perseus, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, respectively.

The story unfolds a decade after the previous film ended with our hero Perseus’s defeat of the Kraken. After slaying the monstrous sea monsters, the widowed demigod had been passing an unassuming existence as an ordinary fisherman, quietly raising his now 10-year-old son, Helius (John Bell).

However, when Perseus learns that the Titans Hades and Ares (Edgar Ramirez) have imprisoned his father, Zeus, in an underworld dungeon, he has a good reason to take his mighty sword out of its scabbard.  Because, after Poseidon was killed, the two renegade titans entered into a diabolical pact to dominate the world.

Accompanied by the lovely Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) with comic relief Agenor (Toby Kebell) tagging along, Perseus and his band of warriors descend into a subterranean hell on behalf of humanity.  While searching for Zeus, they encounter a host of mythological creatures, including a one-eyed Cyclops (Martin Bayfield), the half-man half-bull Minotaur (Spencer Wilding), an addlepated fallen god (Billy Nighy), and fire-breathing dragons.

Of course, the quest culminates in a spectacular showdown which takes full advantage of advances in 3-D technology. Be prepared to find yourself frequently ducking or squinting to avoid boulders or flaming embers that appear to be aimed straight at your head.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for action and intense violence. Running time: 99 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers

March 28, 2012

READY, AIM, SHOOT: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has a doe in her sights, but this time it gets away. She has had to learn how to survive in the woods outside of her district, which are out of bounds for the residents of the 12 Districts, because of the harsh conditions of her family’s life in District 12. She has taught herself how to track and and shoot game in order to keep herself and her family from starving to death.

Picture a post-apocalyptic North America devastated by a combination of fire, famine, drought, and wars. The United States has been replaced by a centralized totalitarian regime that is run with an iron fist by the president (Donald Sutherland) with the support of a group of effete elites who are living in the capitol city.

These wealthy elites are insulated from the suffering of the rest of the population that lives in the country’s twelve outlying districts. As a result of an attempted coup 74 years earlier, the government has been punishing the districts by staging an annual fight to the death, called the Hunger Game. It takes place in an unsettled wilderness area, and each district is represented by a boy and a girl.

The 24 participants are chosen by lottery and, as the story unfolds, we find 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) consoling her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), who has had her name picked to represent District 12. Katniss altruistically volunteers to take her terrified sibling’s place, and soon finds herself riding on a train to the site of the nationally-televised Hunger Games.

En route, she and her fellow District 12 entrant, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are mentored by a former winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). But the alcoholic Haymitch only has discouraging words to share, warning them to, “Embrace the possibility of your imminent death, and know there’s nothing I can do to save you.”

Nonetheless, Katniss is determined to survive the ordeal. Fortunately, she has a host of survival skills at her disposal, since she is adept at archery and camouflage.

Based on the first installment of Suzanne Collins’s popular trilogy of the same name, The Hunger Games is a riveting adventure which will not disappoint the book’s loyal fans. The movie addresses a number of timely themes such as greed, loyalty, exploitation, and corruption.

It is a futuristic science fiction movie about a reality show where humans hunt humans they don’t even know in order to survive.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense violence and disturbing images. Running time: 142 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

March 21, 2012

HERE WE COME TO SAVE THE DAY: Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum, left) and his partner Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) received their first assignment upon graduating from the Police Academy. They were responsible for patrolling a downtown park and were doing fine until they neglected to read a perpetrator his Miranda rights while arresting him.

Aside from their both missing the senior prom, popular jock Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) and social outcast Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) had nothing in common when they were in high school. However, they missed the prom for very different reasons; Greg didn’t attend because of poor grades and Mort simply couldn’t find a date.

However, seven years later while attending the Police Academy, the pair has met again. This time, the academically challenged Greg and out of shape Mort help each other pass the written and physical portions of their final exam.

Upon graduating, these opposite personalities launched their law enforcement careers as partners. However, when they were patrolling a downtown park on bicycles they failed to read a perpetrator his Miranda rights. They were called on the carpet and ordered to report to 21 Jump Street, a clandestine detective unit based in an abandoned church with a dusty, Korean Jesus crucifix dangling over the altar.

Their new boss, Captain Dickson, (Ice Cube) assigns Schmidt and Jenko to work undercover at Sagan High School in order to crack a drug ring that is selling deadly narcotics. The disgraced officers leap at the opportunity to make amends for their earlier mistake, unaware of how hard it will be for them to pass themselves off as students.

Not only do they look older, but the culture has substantially changed since they left school. They soon discover that macho misbehaving and bullying are out; while studying, drama club, and caring about the environment are in. Even being gay is considered cool thanks to the television show Glee.

This change in culture sets the stage for the awkward scenarios which abound in 21 Jump Street, a hilarious comedy co-starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. What makes the film so endearing is the camaraderie that the leads cultivate when the handsome ex jock has to rely on the goofy outcast geek to figure out how to fit in at school.

The movie is more than just a screen adaptation of the eighties cop drama of the same name. However, to its credit, the picture does pay homage to the classic TV series when it features cameo appearances by three of the original cast members: Johnny Depp, Peter DeLuise, and Holly Robinson-Peete.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, drug and alcohol abuse, coarse sexuality, crude humor, and pervasive profanity. Running time: 109 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

March 14, 2012

WELL SHUT MY MOUTH: Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy) is sitting underneath a tree that has magically appeared in his back yard. It seems that every time Jack speaks, a leaf falls from the tree, and he soon realizes that when the last leaf falls, his life will be over. Can Jack break the spell put upon him by changing his life and redeeming himself?

Whether starring in a comedy (like Trading Places and 48 Hours), a children’s film (such as Nutty Professor and Dr. Doolittle), a standup comedy performance (such as Raw and Delirious), or in an animated adventure as a donkey (Shrek) or a dragon (Mulan), Eddie Murphy’s best movies have invariably featured him talking trash. Even his Oscar nomination (for Dreamgirls) was for playing a jive talking motor mouth where he played a character inspired by James Brown.

In light of the above, you really have to wonder how a project like A Thousand Words ever got off the ground. Instead of taking advantage of Murphy’s strong feature, the movie actually goes to the opposite extreme by buttoning up his lips for most of the film.

The studio probably realized it had a lemon on its hands, since it let the picture sit on the shelf for four years before releasing it. The movie marks the third collaboration between Eddie and director Brian Robbins, after Norbit and Meet Dave.

A Thousand Words portrays a familiar anti-hero archetype; the backstabbing corporate conniver sorely in need of an attitude readjustment. When we’re introduced to Jack McCall (Murphy) he’s a high powered Hollywood agent who is very successful and living in the lap of luxury in a sprawling, mountaintop mansion with a pool and a view.

The insufferable bully takes pleasure in intimidating everyone he encounters; his assistant (Clark Duke), his spouse, Caroline (Kerry Washington), and even perfect strangers. But Jack’s comeuppance begins the day he lies to his latest client, a popular New Age guru (Cliff Curtis) who has just written a self-help book.

Abracadabra! A magical tree that sheds a leaf for every word that Jack utters suddenly materializes in his backyard. And by the time he figures out that he will die when the last leaf falls, so few leaves are left that he has no choice but to take a vow of silence.

Mute Jack is then beset by a host of woes, including the loss of his job and the love of his wife and son Tyler (Emanuel Ragsdale). At this juncture, the picture turns to heavy handed sermonizing in lieu of humor, as our humbled protagonist learns his lesson about what really matters most in this world.

Poor (0 stars). Rated PG-13 for PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, and drug-related humor. Running time: 91 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

March 7, 2012

WHEN IT’S GONE, IT’S GONE: The Lorax (Danny DeVito), who is a defender of the Earth’s plant life, is horrified and saddened to discover that another Truffula tree has been cut down. He pleads with Ted, who cut the tree down, to talk to the Once-ler (Ed Helms, not shown), who then explains to Ted the importance of preserving the ecology of the Earth’s plant life by keeping pollution and deforestation in check.

Twelve-year-old Ted (Zac Efron) has a big crush on the girl next-door (Taylor Swift), so he makes up excuses to ring her doorbell just so he can see her. He finally realizes he actually has a chance with Audrey when she mentions that she’d marry the first boy who could bring her a real live tree.

She’s never seen one, because their hometown of Thneedville is an artificial environment where everything is plastic except for the citizens. What the children don’t know is that their idyllic community is also walled-off from the contaminated outside world that has been turned into a vast wasteland as a result of environmental pollution.

Intent on impressing Audrey, Ted asks his grandmother Norma (Betty White) where he might find a Truffula, the species of trees that once thrived in Thneedville. She suggests he seek out the Once-ler (Ed Helms), a reclusive elder who lives outside the city.

So, Ted hops on his scooter and drives out of town for the first time. He is shocked to see the widespread blight that he’s been shielded from his whole life. Also, it’s apparent that the desolation is due to the smog and sludge being spewed by an operation owned by Thneedville’s avaricious Mayor O’Hare (Rob Riggle).

Ted finally finds the wise old Once-ler who, in a series of sobering conversationss, teaches Ted a valuable lesson about the importance of protecting the environment from greedy corporations. And the Once-ler even admits to the role he played in the destruction of the forest when, over the objections of a tiny, planet-protecting creature called the Lorax (Danny DeVito), he harvested all the trees to make a quick buck.

Loosely based on the Dr. Seuss children’s classic of the same name, The Lorax is a parable about the importance of preserving the Earth’s natural resources.

While the movie’s dire apocalyptic message might scare some impressionable children, most of them will likely take it all in stride, especially with the film’s fairy tale ending.

Very Good (***). Rated PG for mild epithets. Running time: 86 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

February 29, 2012

WHAT KIND OF PLACE IS THIS?: George (Paul Rudd, left) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) discover that the “quaint bed and breakfast” inn that they checked into the previous night is really a commune of nudists who believe in free love. Ready to try anything, the happily married couple decides to give the alternative life style a try, which results in them ending up in some hilarious situations.

Happily married Linda (Jennifer Aniston) and George (Paul Rudd) bought a home after being convinced by their realtor (Linda Lavin) that a “micro loft” in the West Village of Manhattan would be a great investment. However, when George subsequently loses his high paying, high stress job, the couple is forced to sell their postage stamp-sized studio apartment at a considerable loss.

Unable to afford to live in Manhattan any longer, they decide to take up George’s brother’s (Ken Marino) generous offer of a job and a place to live in Atlanta until they can get back on their feet. So, they pack up their car and start the long drive to Georgia.

En route they book a room for a night at what they think is a quaint country bed and breakfast located off the beaten path. But they quickly realize that something strange is afoot when they are greeted in the driveway by a naked man (Joe Lo Truglio) who isn’t the slightest bit modest. They learn that they have just checked into a free love commune that considers monogamy tantamount to sexual slavery.

Linda is initially put off by the free love idea while George is intrigued by the alternate lifestyle. However, she grudgingly agrees not only to move in but even to have an open relationship in order to make her husband happy.

Then, lo and behold, Linda does take to the arrangement, and she soon seduces Seth (Justin Theroux), after he serenades her with his guitar. George, on the other hand, has a harder time bringing himself to cheat on his wife with the attractive young blonde (Malin Akerman) who is propositioning him.

Can this marriage survive the infidelity and ever present temptations? That is the question posed by Wanderlust, a comedy directed by David Wain.

The picture was produced by Judd Apatow, whose string of coarse films includes Bridesmaids, Knocked Up, Superbad, Pineapple Express and Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Fortunately, the conviction which Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd bring to their parts as the couple in crisis succeeds in holding together an implausible storyline. The talented leads are ably assisted by a gifted supporting cast of veterans like Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, as well as scene-stealing comediennes Kathryn Hahn and Kerri Kenney.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, drug use, and nudity. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

February 22, 2012

ARE WE DOING THE RIGHT THING?: Wesley Deeds (Tyler Perry, left), the successful CEO of Deeds Corporation, is having second thoughts about going through with his impending marriage to Natalie (Gabrielle Union), who is a successful realtor. Wesley finds Natlie to be a shallow person, and she thinks that he is boring and predictable. To add to the tension, Wesley finds himself attracted to a homeless war widow who has a young daughter.

Wesley Deeds (Tyler Perry) seems to have it all. He is the CEO of the Deeds Corporation — a thriving computer software company — and is about to marry a successful, if shallow, San Francisco realtor Natalie (Gabrielle Union). Wesley was chosen to be the CEO by his mother (Phylicia Rashad), who picked him over his hot-headed brother Walter, (Brian White), to replace their late father, the former CEO of the Company.

However, it seems that Wesley has spent most of his life trying to satisfy his domineering mother, and it looks like he might be getting married more to please her than himself. Even Natalie finds Wesley to be boring and predictable, despite his being a great catch.

Then, as the couple is putting the final touches on their elaborate wedding plans, an unlikely other woman, Lindsey Wakefield (Thandie Newton) — who is a single mother living in a car with her 6-year-old daughter, Ariel (Jordenn Thompson) — enters the picture.

Lindsey’s world crashed around her after her husband was killed in Iraq. She was forced to drop out of nursing school and was able to find a job as the night janitor in Wesley’s office building.

The gruff woman initially rubs Wesley the wrong way. She is definitely not the class of women that he is accustomed to meeting.

However, the tension between the two starts to dissolve the night she offers to give him a back massage while he’s burning the midnight oil at work. And upon hearing all the details of her pitiful plight, Wesley altruistically offers Lindsey and Ariel an apartment to live in indefinitely.

Will Wesley develop deeper feelings for Natalie? If so, will he be able to summon up the courage to break off his engagement and defy his mother?

That difficult dilemma is the center of the plot of Good Deeds, the latest morality play written, directed, and starring Tyler Perry. Avoiding his usual staples of comic relief, courtesy of Madea and clownish support characters, Perry presents this soap opera in a straightforward fashion.

As a result, the plot is not only perfectly plausible, but remains refreshingly grounded in reality from start to finish. The veteran lead actors, Tyler Perry, Thandie Newton, and Gabrielle Union generate a convincing chemistry that will keep you interested right up to the surprising resolution of the love triangle.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, violence, profanity, and mature themes. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Lionsgate Films.

February 15, 2012

HOW DID THOSE GUYS KNOW WHERE WE WERE?: Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington, left) and Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) barely manage to escape alive from the CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Now they must figure out who compromised the location and bring the guilty parties to justice.

Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is a veteran CIA agent who has been on the run for close to 10 years after he was suspected of selling military secrets to America’s enemies. However, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a newcomer to the agency who’s been itching for some action. Unfortunately, he’s stationed in South Africa where he’s been assigned to maintain a backwater safe house that’s never been needed for a clandestine operation.

Until now. The two meet soon after Frost decides to come in from the cold in Cape Town because an army of assassins is closing in on him. The renegade spy surrenders himself at the U.S. Consulate, which in turn is directed by the CIA brass to deposit Frost in the safe houuse with Weston for debriefing.

However, all hell breaks loose right after the team of interrogators arrives, and the safe house unexpectedly comes under attack by a gang of mercenaries. Frost and West barely escape with their lives out the back door while the rest of the CIA agents perish during the siege. With no idea why the supposedly secure location had been compromised or whether there’s anybody whose word they can trust, the rookie and the rogue realize that their survival depends on their mutual cooperation.

That is the intriguing point of departure of Safe House, a riveting espionage thriller with non-stop action. The film is best described as a combination of The Bourne Identity (2002) and Taken (2008), with the former’s “spy on the run desperate to clear his name” theme and the latter’s wanton slaughter and sense of urgency.

The movie is the English language debut of Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, who has obtained a great performance from Denzel Washington. In addition, he has also allowed Ryan Reynolds to show that he is a capable actor.

The co-stars not only acquit themselves well in the fight sequences, but the chemistry that develops between them enables the audience to forgive the periodic holes in the picture’s plot. They are helped by powerful support performances from Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson, and Ruben Blades.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and graphic violence. In English, Afrikaans, and Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

February 8, 2012

WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THAT?: In the process of exploring a mysterious cave that suddenly appeared in Steve’s (Michael B. Jordan, center) backyard, Steve, Matt (Alex Russell, left), and Andrew (Dane DeHaan), encounter a mysterious object glowing in the cave. At this point the three boys pass out and when they awake, they realize that they have been magically imbued with super powers.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) bought a camera so he could videotape every waking moment of his day. The proverbial 98-pound weakling is routinely teased by bullies, but fortunately his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell) frequently intervenes on his behalf. The situation at home is just as bad because he is the butt of his disabled father’s (Michael Kelly) verbal abuse while he is watching his terminally-ill mother (Bo Peterson) slowly die.

Everything changes the evening Matt invites his cousin to attend a party with him. Once there, Andrew is asked by a classmate Steve (Michael B. Jordan), to bring his camera outside to film a strange hole he’s found in the woods. The three proceed to descend deep into a cave where they encounter a mysteriously glowing object and instantly pass out.

Fast forward a few weeks where we find that all three teens have been magically transformed — they have developed psychic powers, superhuman strength, and the ability to fly. Initially, they use their newfound powers by doing some sophomoric pranks such as telepathically moving a parked car to a different spot on a lot, or scaring a child in a toy store by levitating a teddy bear.

Matt and Steve are satisfied with such benign experiments, however, social outcast Andrew sees this as his opportunity to turn the tables on the cruel world that has treated him so badly. After running an annoying tailgater’s car into a ditch with the wave of his hand, he ignores his buddies’ pressure to employ his powers only for good things. Instead, he indulges his darker impulses, while Matt and Steve become increasingly worried about him.

That is the premise of Chronicle, a riveting, science fiction thriller marking the directorial debut of Josh Trank. Given that this is a “found-footage” film, it makes sense that much of the dizzying production would have been shot from the perspective of a shaky, hand-held camera. However, the movie measures up well against movies such as Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project.

Surprisingly sophisticated for a teen-oriented adventure, Chronicle’s script has intellectual asides about the philosophies of Plato, Jung, and Schopenhauer. My only complaint about the film is the pessimistic picture it paints of humanity, implying that we might be naturally more inclined towards malice than compassion.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, sexuality, teen drinking, and intense violence. Running time: 83 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

February 1, 2012

THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS: When George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, left) was at the top of his cinematic career as a silent film star, he chose to ignore the ugly rumors about Peppy Miller (Berenice Bijo) that were being printed in the tabloids, and hired her to co-star with him as his dance partner. That role served as the beginning of her career as a movie star in the new talking movies, while George quickly became forgotten by the fickle public because he couldn’t make the transformation to the talkies.

It is 1927, and George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the height of his career as a matinee idol. But that is also the year that talkies were introduced, an innovation which signaled the demise of the silent movie era.

Unfortunately, because George doesn’t realize that the talkies are about to transform the movie industry, he is caught by surprise when he is no longer in demand as a leading man. Then, with the loss of income and the stock market crash of 1929, he ends up losing all of his money and also his wife (Penelope Ann Miller).

After moving from a sprawling mansion to a modest apartment, George lays off his longtime chauffeur (James Cromwell), whom he can no longer afford. At this point, the dejected has-been feels like his only friend in the world is his Jack Russell Terrier (Uggie).

Meanwhile, the career of emerging ingénue Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) is in sharp contrast to George’s. However, she owes a debt of gratitude to George because, despite an ugly rumor printed in the tabloids, George had still cast her as his dance partner in one of his pictures even she was an unknown aspiring actress.

Although sparks had flown between the two on the set back then, nothing had become of the mutual admiration. However, now, with Peppy on top of the world, the question is whether she will remember George, who had given her her big break.

So unfolds The Artist, a silent, black & white film which celebrates a bygone era. This cinematic masterpiece is entertaining as it chronicles a critical moment in the evolution of the cinematic art form.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for a crude gesture and a disturbing image. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

January 25, 2012

HURRY UP AND WAIT: The Tuskegee airmen were trained as fighter pilots in 1940, but were relegated to an isolated base at the Tuskegee Institute because the armed forces were racially segregated at that time. Even when the United States entered the second world war, it took several years until they were allowed to enter into combat. Their competence, bravery and valor in over 1500 missions showed that they were as good, if not better, than other units in the armed forces, and helped eliminate racial discrimination in the U.S. military forces.

The Tuskegee airmen is the nickname given to the 332nd Fighter Group, the first squadron of African-American aviators ever trained by the U.S. Air Force. Formed in 1940, the historic unit was stationed at a base on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama because the armed forces were still racially segregated.

After America entered World War II, the government was still reluctant to deploy these pioneering pilots overseas, out of a concern that the presence of black officers in the midst of white soldiers might have a negative effect on military morale. Consequently, the Tuskegee airmen languished stateside for several years, seeing no action until they were finally cleared for combat in the European theater of operations.

Upon arriving in Italy, their second rate airplanes were upgraded to state-of-the-art P-51 Mustang fighter planes, which they flew to escort B-17 bombers on dangerous raids deep into Germany. The untested pilots performed admirably on over 1,500 successful missions and demonstrated their competence and valor.

Red Tails is an eye-popping special effects movie which portrays these unappreciated veterans’ daring exploits in the war, while simultaneously chronicling their uncompromising quest for dignity in the face of the ever present humiliation of discrimination. The movie marks the feature film debut of Anthony Hemingway, who is previously best known for having shot episodes of several TV series, including The Wire, True Blood, Treme, The Closer, and CSI:NY.

The picture was produced by Lucasfilm where it has been a pet project of the studio’s founder, George Lucas, for the past quarter-century. It features an ensemble cast headed by Academy Award-winner Cuba Gooding and Oscar-nominee Terrence Howard.

Aside from raising the question of the arbitrary color line, the plot reads like a typical war movie, with its typical tight knit crew of colorful characters. Each is a simplistic archetype, like the ill fated pilot you know isn’t long for this world the moment he’s shown sitting in his cockpit gazing fondly at a picture of his fiancée right before he takes off.

Another familiar figure is the cigar chomping major (Gooding), a paternalistic pontificator who delivers inspirational speeches about God, mom and apple pie. He cares about each of the men under his command, including alcoholic “Easy” Julian (Parker); daredevil “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo); class clown “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley); and “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds), a youngster who yearns to be taken seriously by his teasing colleagues.

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, we find Colonel A.J. Bullard (Howard) tirelessly lobbying the military brass to put an end to racial discrimination against the Tuskegee airmen. In the end, the film is more memorable for its spectacular action sequences than for the corny dialogue which ranges from “We’re on the side of God Almighty!” to trite declarations such as “Let’s give those newspapers something to write about!”

Nonetheless, Red Tails is a long overdue tribute to a group of intrepid World War II heroes who never let their second-class status diminish their patriotism.

Very Good (HHH). Rated PG-13 for violence and profanity. Running time: 125 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

January 18, 2012

When the Sacred Divinity Church’s choir director Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) passes away unexpectedly, Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. Should he move the late deacon’s assistant, Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) into the vacant position, or give it to the late director’s grieving widow, G.G. (Dolly Parton)?

After agonizing over the decision, the reverend settles on Vi Rose Hill, thereby potentially risking the survival of the church, since the well-to-do Sparrow family is the church’s major benefactor. By comparison, life’s a struggle for Vi Rose and most of the other citizens of Pacashau, Georgia.

As a consequence of the economic recession, the once thriving town has become a decaying metropolis complete with foreclosure signs, a soup kitchen packed with homeless people, and a business district that is dotted with vacant storefronts.

G.G.’s grudging ratification of the promotion of Vi Rose has answered the prayers of Pastor Dale who desperately wants to avoid creating a rift in his congregation. He hopes that with Vi Rose, the choir will have a chance to place first at the upcoming National Gospel Competition. This would bring a measure of pride to the church and the town of Pacashau.

That unlikely event is the essence of the plot of Joyful Noise, a modern morality play with musical numbers. The soulful singing performances are the film’s forte, such as Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson’s heartfelt duet of “From Here to the Moon and Back,” Keke Palmer and Jeremy Jordan’s interpretation of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and Ivan Kelley, Jr.’s spirited rendition of “That’s the Way God Planned It.”

At the point of departure, we see that Vi Rose has her hands full. She is leading the choir and raising two teenagers alone because her husband (Jesse L. Martin) has joined the military because he couldn’t find a local job. Their son, Walter (Dexter Darden), needs help handling his Asperger’s syndrome, and their daughter, Olivia  (Palmer), has a thug for a boyfriend (Paul Woolfolk).

Everything changes the day G.G.’s grandson Randy (Jordan) unexpectedly comes home from New York City. Although a little rough around the edges, the misunderstood young man is just the answer for everybody’s problems.

First, he falls in love with Olivia at first sight and then he becomes a surrogate big brother to Walter. When he joins the choir it’s only a matter of time before he mends the fences between Vi Rose and G.G., as they are on the road to the finals at the Joyful Noise contest in Los Angeles.

Very Good (**½). Rated PG-13 for profanity and a sexual reference. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

January 9, 2012

MADAM PRIME MINISTER: Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) is shown here as the prime minister of Great Britain. She shepherded her country through several tempestuous periods during her tenure, namely the troubles with the Irish Republican Army and the Falkland Islands war. (Photo by Alex Bailey

Over the course of her career, Meryl Streep has landed more academy award nominations (16 and counting) than any other actor. Blessed with a great emotional range and a knack for foreign accents and regional dialects, the versatile actress has repeatedly demonstrated her uncanny ability to disappear into whatever role she’s been asked to play.

Such is the case with The Iron Lady, a comprehensive biopic about Margaret Thatcher, who served as the prime minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990. The movie was directed by Phyllida Lloyd who has collaborated with Streep on Mamma Mia! in 2008.

Ms. Streep will undoubtedly receive another Oscar nomination for her spot-on impersonation of Margaret Thatcher’s persona, such as her pursed lips, steely demeanor, and haughty tone of voice. She further rises to the challenge of capturing Ms. Thatcher’s descent into dementia.

Unfortunately, Streep’s sterling performance has been squandered by an overambitious screenplay by Abi Morgan which bites off more than it can chew in a less than two hour film. As a result, the movie fails to do justice to the touchstones in Thatcher’s life and career, and teases the audience with allusions instead of presenting the material in depth.

Presented as a series of flashbacks, the movie superficially presents events such as Thatcher’s coming of age during World War II, her college days at Oxford, her marriage to Denis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent), their starting a family together, her developing a feminist consciousness, and her entrance into politics. The bulk of the film’s focus is devoted to her tempestuous tenure at Number 10 Downing Street, a period marked by both domestic and international unrest such as the troubles with the Irish Republican Army and the war in the Falkland Islands.

Overall, this empathetic portrait paints the prime minister as a headstrong conservative who was dedicated to her family and to her country. But by the film’s end, we really haven’t learned much more about Margaret Thatcher beyond her enduring love for her devoted husband who predeceased her.

An underwhelming production that is singlehandedly elevated by Meryl Streep’s tour de force performance.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violent images and brief nudity. Running time: 105 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

January 4, 2012

WHY DIDN’T I JUST TAKE THE ELEVATOR: Crack undercover agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is the human fly who is scaling a skyscraper in Dubai, as part of his assignment to recover the activation codes for Russia’s nuclear device. To find out if his team succeeds in their quest, see the movie.

Cruise and Company Go Undercover in Dangerous Assignment

Before he could intercept a courier carrying the activation codes for Russia’s nuclear devices, an American spy (Josh Hollaway) was slain in Budapest, Hungary by a blonde assassin (Lea Seydoux). She was working on behalf of Cobalt (Michael Nyst), a person of interest whose identity can only be determined by infiltrating top secret files that are located inside the Kremlin.

That dangerous assignment is accepted by the latest crack IMF team assembled by Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), with the usual understanding that the secretary will disavow any knowledge of its existence if they are killed or captured. So, when Cobalt blows up the Kremlin during the operation and America is accused of the bombing, the president of the United States has no choice but to issue a Ghost Protocol declaring them as rogue agents.

This means that Hunt and his crew have been blamed for the attack, and the only way they can clear their names is by tracking down the real culprit and retrieving the codes before he can trigger a weapon of mass destruction. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the fourth and arguably the best movie in the international espionage series.

Directed by Brad Bird (Ratatouille), the picture ups the ante in terms of state-of-the-art gadgetry and eye-popping feats on land, sea, and air. Besides the scenes of action that unfold against breathtaking backdrops of such exotic locales as Moscow, Dubai, and Mumbai, the production also has a plot compelling enough to hold your attention throughout the film.

Tom Cruise is in top form, displaying a sophisticated savoir faire instead of the easy boyish charm that’s served him so well in the past. His talented supporting cast includes Simon Pegg who offers comic relief as Benji Dunn, Hunt’s bumbling new sidekick. Joining them are Paula Patton as the sultry agent Jane Carter, and Jeremy Renner as William Brandt, an IMF bureaucrat pressed back into field duty by unusual circumstances.

Michelle Monaghan and Ving Rhames reprise their roles as Hunt’s wife, Julia, and his best friend, Luther, respectively, but only in short cameo appearances.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence and intense action sequences. Running time: 132 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

December 27, 2011
Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

NO COMMENT: As he is exiting the courtroom, Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig, center) is besieged by reporters seeking a statement from him about the trial in which he lost the libel case against a powerful billionaire Ulf Friberg.

Fincher Makes First-Rate Adaptation of Swedish Mystery Novel

Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) resigns in disgrace from his position as the editor of Millennium Magazine after being unable to substantiate in court the allegations he’d made about a corrupt billionaire (Ulf Friberg). Fortuitously, the disgraced journalist is secretly approached by an intermediary representing recently retired industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) who wants Mikael to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his beloved niece, Harriet (Moa Garpendal), in 1966.

Mikael accepts the offer in order to escape the media circus surrounding him in Stockholm because the investigation of the case will be based at the family’s secluded estate where the niece had disappeared. An additional incentive is Henrik’s promise to provide the proof necessary to overturn Mikael’s libel conviction.

So he moves up to the remote island of Hedestad in northern Sweden and starts sifting through boxes of 40-year-old evidence. After unearthing an array of sordid skeletons in the Vanger family closet ranging from anti-Semitism to sadomasochism, he realizes that he needs help, and takes Henrik’s suggestion that he collaborate with Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an eccentric and brilliant computer expert.

Mikael is willing to overlook the young hacker’s tattoos, piercings, and hairstyle because her computer skills complement Henrik’s interviews of surviving witnesses. However, as they close in on solving the mystery they find that both of their lives are threatened.

So unfolds The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a remake of the Swedish language movie of the same name that was released in 2009. Directed by David Fincher (The Social Network) the English version is actually a rarity because it is an improvement over the original film.

Both movies are based on the first book of the trilogy of novels by the late Stieg Larsson, and Sony Pictures has already committed to adapting the other two books to the screen. In the movie reviewed here, Rooney Mara is riveting as Lisbeth and Daniel Craig disappears into his role as Mikael so well that you forget that he has portrayed James Bond in the past.

Excellent (****). Rated R for rape, torture, brutal violence, profanity, nudity, and graphic sexuality. Running time: 158 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

December 20, 2011
Sherlock Holmes 2

WATSON, HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?: An unhappy looking Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr., left) is witnessing the marriage of his faithful companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law, center) marry his bride Mary (Kelly Reilly). Little does Holmes know that soon he and Watson will be on a trans-European escapade trying to foil the evil plot of the nefarious Professor Moriarty (not shown).

Holmes and Moriarty Match Wits in Action Packed Sequel

Guy Ritchie has once again created an interpretation of Sherlock Holmes that will undoubtedly have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle purists squirming in their seats. Nonetheless, the movie is a cinematic treat that is both cerebral and visually captivating.

Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively, and Jared Harris is the pair’s diabolical archenemy, the evil Professor James Moriarty.

At the point of departure we find Holmes throwing a bachelor party for Watson who will be getting married to Mary (Kelly Reilly) the next morning. However, after the wedding, the newlyweds’ travel plans go awry due to a series of errors that result in the bride being unceremoniously thrown off the train. As a result, Watson and Holmes find themselves sharing the honeymoon suite aboard the Trans Europe Express.

It’s just as well, because Holmes has been the only detective who is able to connect the dots among a series of recent murders of, among others, an Indian cotton tycoon, a Chinese opium trader, and an American steel magnate, as well as some suspicious bombings in Strasbourg and Vienna. Holmes has figured out that it must be the work of his archenemy Moriarty, and that the maniacal madman is trying to create an international incident.

From this point on, a frenetically paced cat-and-mouse mystery unfolds in which the protagonists chase the professor through France, Germany, and Switzerland. Along the way, they are assisted by Holmes’ brother (Stephen Fry) and a gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace), who has a proverbial heart of gold.

Prepare yourself for the stylized high impact fare for which director Ritchie is best known. Aside from the bravado and over-the-top derring-do, the movie also has intellectual interludes during which Sherlock and his Moriarty match wits.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for drug use and intense violence. In English and French with subtitles. Running time: 129 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

December 15, 2011
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

PLAYING A DEADLY CHESS GAME: George Smiley (Gary Oldman) has been assigned the task of ferreting out the Soviet double agent who has infiltrated the highest echelon of Britain’s famed MI6 agency. To make the job even more difficult, he must work alone in order to avoid tipping off the mole.

Dateline: Budapest, 1973. It is the height of the Cold War, and British spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) has been sent behind the Iron Curtain on a covert anti-Communist mission. But when the operation is badly botched and blood is shed, there are consequences back in London at MI6 headquarters where both the head of the organization (John Hurt) and his right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forced to resign in disgrace.

However, it isn’t very long before Smiley is secretly rehired by Undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), the member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet responsible for overseeing the intelligence agency. It seems that there is good reason to believe that a Soviet mole has infiltrated the “Circus,” the government’s name for MI6’s highest echelon. As it turns out, Prideaux was in Hungary in search of the double agent whose identity has been narrowed down to four suspects referred to by their codenames Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciaran Hinds), and Poor Man (David Dencik).

It falls to the wily Smiley to match wits with a savvy and inscrutable adversary. What makes the task particularly perilous is that Smiley dare not risk suspicion by confiding in any of his contacts inside MI6. Instead, as a lone wolf, he must rely on a combination of experience and his finely-tuned personal radar to ensnare his elusive prey.

Is the traitor the ambitious Percy Alleline (Tinker), the unflappable Bill Haydon (Tailor), the rough-edged Roy Bland (Soldier), or the officious Toby Esterhase (Poor Man)? The result is a spellbinding espionage thriller.

It should be no surprise that the multi-layered mystery is so intriguing, because it’s based on the bestseller that many fans of the genre consider to be the best spy novel of all time. Author David John Moore Cornwell, aka John Le Carré, who wrote under a pseudonym as required by MI6 of its former agents, appears in a cameo in the picture as a guest at a Christmas party.

This adaptation is considerably denser compared to the miniseries the BBC shot in 1979 that starred Sir Alec Guinness. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) has distilled the 400-page opus down to its essential elements while remaining faithful to the source material.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, profanity, sexuality, and nudity. Running Time: 127 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

December 1, 2011
Movie Review: "The Descendants"

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER: Matt King (George Clooney, center) has finally realized how much he has neglected his two daughters Alex (Shallene Woodley, left) and Scottie (Amara King) and has promised not to let it happen again.

Attorney Matt King (George Clooney) can trace his lineage back to the 19th century marriage of the last Hawaiian monarch to a European missionary. Today, as the family patriarch, he’s very busy managing 25,000 acres of prime real estate on behalf of his extended clan.

Sadly, he has neglected his wife, Liz (Patricia Hastie), and they have drifted so far apart that he’s unaware that she is having an affair virtually right under his nose. Her partner is the local realtor (Matthew Lillard) who stands to make a fortune in commissions if Matt follows through with his tentative plans to sell all the property in the trust to a developer.

Unfortunately, Matt has also grown distant from his two daughters. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara King) has no qualms about disrespecting her father, and her teenage sister, Alex (Shailene Woodley), is using drugs and dating boys who are a lot older than herself.

Everything changes when Liz is left in a coma after a boating accident. Shaken out of the doldrums by the tragedy, Matt vows to be a better husband and father. But when the doctor’s dire diagnosis indicates that Liz is unlikely to emerge from a vegetative state, the best he can do is to try to repair his relationship with his daughters.

This is the point of departure of The Descendants, a drama based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ debut novel of the same name. Directed and adapted to the big screen by Oscar-winner Alexander Payne (for Sideways), the film stars George Clooney as a parent filled with overwhelming regret.

Unfortunately, Clooney fails to demonstrate the requisite gravitas to convince you that his character Matt has been deeply affected by his wife’s imminent demise or that his decision to spend quality time with his childrens is heartfelt. The problem is that, as narrator, he often merely informs the audience of his feelings via voiceover, as opposed to portraying the emotions with his facial expressions and acting.

However, even if Clooney is the picture’s weak link, the rest of the cast turns in such splendid performances that they make up for his shortcomings. As an additional bonus, the movie unfolds against the visually captivating backdrop of Hawaii’s island of Kauai.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and sexual references. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight