April 10, 2013
IF THEY ONLY KNEW WHAT THEY WERE GETTING INTO: The singing group The Sapphires are shown here on a personnel carrier greeting some of the troops in the Vietnam war. The four Australian aborigines were a big hit amongst the soldiers. The quartet arrived in Vietnam in the midst of the Tet offensive and experienced first hand the horrors of war as the shows they put on got closer and closer to the front lines.

IF THEY ONLY KNEW WHAT THEY WERE GETTING INTO: The singing group The Sapphires are shown here on a personnel carrier greeting some of the troops in the Vietnam war. The four Australian aborigines were a big hit amongst the soldiers. The quartet arrived in Vietnam in the midst of the Tet offensive and experienced first hand the horrors of war as the shows they put on got closer and closer to the front lines.

As young children, the McCrae sisters, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), were forming a promising singing group with their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens). But the quartet barely got off the ground before Kay was seized by the authorities and taken from her family while she was recuperating in a hospital.

Unfortunately, the girls were growing up in Australia at a time when the law allowed fair-skinned aborigines, like Kay, to be taken from their mothers and placed with Caucasian families so they could be raised in accordance with the “White Ways.” Consequently, half-caste Kay had virtually no contact with her indigenous culture or any of her relatives over the next decade.

By 1968, however, Gail, Julie, and Cynthia were old enough to track their cousin down, and when they found her, they persuaded her to run away with them. Soon after, the four youths entered a local amateur competition as a country music act.

Although they were not the favorites of the audience that day, they did impress Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), who recognized their potential, and convinced them to change their repertoire to popular Motown tunes. In short order, he became the quartet’s piano player, conductor, choreographer, and manager, and whipped his diamond in a rough into Australia’s version of The Supremes and was able to arrange for them to perform for the troops over in Vietnam.

Based on the stage play of the same name, The Sapphires recounts the group’s harrowing, real-life experiences when they arrived in Southeast Asia during the bloody Tet offensive. The movie marks the impressive debut of aborigine Wayne Blair, a gifted actor-turned-director who does a remarkable job of subtly recreating the political climate of the turbulent 60s.

For instance, Blair effectively employs the iconic clip of Muhammad Ali refusing to serve in the army (“No Viet Cong ever called me a [N-word].”) to convey the growing opposition to the war. Nevertheless, blinded by a combination of naivete and the pay, our four heroines find themselves in the middle of a war zone with little preparation for the unspeakable horrors they are about to witness.

With no choice but to make the best of a bad situation, they proceed to put on a number of very well-received shows as the tour takes them closer and closer to the frontlines. However, amidst the insanity of war, they somehow find time for reverie, reflection, and even a little romance.

A well-deserved tribute to four Australian women who risked their lives to entertain the boys.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, sexuality, smoking, and mature themes. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

April 3, 2013
I’VE GOT TO FIGURE OUT SOME WAY TO SAVE THE HOSTAGES: Disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), manages to enter the White House unobserved by the terrorists, thanks to his detailed knowledge of the building’s floor plan. Once there, he devises a plan for rescuing the president, vice president and the cabinet from the terrorists who are torturing the hostages for the codes for the nuclear asrsenal.

I’VE GOT TO FIGURE OUT SOME WAY TO SAVE THE HOSTAGES: Disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), manages to enter the White House unobserved by the terrorists, thanks to his detailed knowledge of the building’s floor plan. Once there, he devises a plan for rescuing the president, vice president and the cabinet from the terrorists who are torturing the hostages for the codes for the nuclear asrsenal.

While serving as the President’s (Aaron Eckhart) personal bodyguard, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) grew very close to the first family. During his tenure at the White House, the dedicated detail-oriented Secret Service agent familiarized himself with every part of the building’s layout.

However, Banning was reassigned to a desk job after he failed to rescue the First Lady (Ashley Judd) when the presidential limousine plunged off a bridge into a river en route to a Christmas party. Although the accident wasn’t his fault, he agonized over a snap decision of his that might have made the difference between her living and dying.

A year and a half later, Banning is still riddled with guilt despite receiving assurances from the Secret Service director (Angela Banning) that there was nothing he could have done. However, he soon gets a chance to redeem himself when a band of ninjas from North Korea attacks the White House and takes the president and his cabinet hostage.

With the president and vice president (Phil Austin) abducted, the line of succession specifies that the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) assumes power, which he does from a well-fortified bunker. Meanwhile, the leader (Rick Yune) of the terrorists proceeds to torture his hostages in an attempt to learn the codes controlling America’s nuclear arsenal.

Banning observes the attack and subsequent slaughter of his former colleagues from an office window across the street. The disgraced agent springs into action and surreptitiously enters the White House armed only with a handgun and a walkie-talkie. However, he has the advantage over the army of heavily armed intruders because of his detailed knowledge of the White House’s floor plan.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, Olympus Has Fallen is a fast-paced film that is engaging and entertaining enough to be recommended, provided you don’t question any of the picture’s implausible plot developments.

Featuring pyrotechnics worthy of a 4th of July fireworks display, Olympus Has Fallen is an eye-popping, patriotic, high-octane adventure that leaves no doubt about who the vindicated hero is who has kept the world safe for democracy.

Very Good (***). Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive profanity. In English and Korean with subtitles. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Film District.

March 27, 2013
THOSE WERE THE DAYS MY FRIEND: Portia (Tina Fey, left) meets John (Paul Rudd), who was her former college boyfriend when they were both students at Dartmouth. John is now the principal of a high school in New Hampshire, and, as part of her job of admissions officer at Princeton University, Portia is looking for potential candidates. To her surprise, John recommends someone who turns out to be Portia’s son whom she gave up for adoption at birth.

THOSE WERE THE DAYS MY FRIEND: Portia (Tina Fey, left) meets John (Paul Rudd), who was her former college boyfriend when they were both students at Dartmouth. John is now the principal of a high school in New Hampshire, and, as part of her job of admissions officer at Princeton University, Portia is looking for potential candidates. To her surprise, John recommends someone who turns out to be Portia’s son whom she gave up for adoption at birth.

Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) has worked for 16 years in the admissions office at Princeton, the university regularly rated by experts as among the best in the country. Because of her pivotal role in picking prospective students for the highly selective Ivy League institution, she often finds herself approached by pushy parents who are seeking preferential treatment for their children.

That’s why she prides herself on never having compromised the integrity of the application process, a commitment that is appreciated by her boss, the outgoing Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn). In fact, he has recently indicated that he’s prepared to recommend either her or the equally dedicated Corinne (Gloria Reuben) as his replacement when he retires.

That announcement starts a fierce competition between the two colleagues which has Portia going up to New Hampshire in search of qualified candidates for admission. She visits an alternative high school whose handsome principal, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), had been a classmate of hers at Dartmouth. Sparks fly, but nothing transpires, because she’s in a committed relationship at home in Princeton.

John pressures Portia to interview Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a bright but underachieving student with a woeful academic transcript. She has no problem dismissing the application out of hand until John gives her a birth certificate showing that Jeremiah is the son that she gave up for adoption years ago.

Suddenly, Portia finds herself on the horns of a dilemma. Should she reject this candidate who is clearly not Princeton material, or should she bend the rules for her own flesh and blood? After all, it’s the least she could do, since she had no part in raising him.

That is the conundrum at the heart of Admission, a delightful romantic movie directed by Paul Weitz (American Pie). Based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s bestseller of the same name, the film offers a revealing look at the cutthroat college entrance process from the gatekeepers’ point of view.

Besides the temptation of nepotism, the film is about the tender romance between Portia and John which has a chance to blossom when she’s abandoned by her philandering boyfriend (Michael Sheen), which she discovers when she returns from New Hampshire. Additionally, intriguing subplots abound that involve a cornucopia of colorful support characters.

For instance, John, who is not married, has an adopted African son (Travaris Spears) who craves the predictability that settling down with a stable woman might provide. And Portia needs to mend fences with her estranged mother (Lily Tomlin), a breast cancer survivor who in turn would benefit from the attentions of an ardent admirer (Olek Krupa). Additional sidebars feature memorable cameos by Roby Sobieski (Leelee’s little brother), Asher Muldoon (author Korelitz’s son), and an emerging ingénue, Nadia Alexander.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity and some sexuality. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

March 20, 2013
NEVER NOT BE AFRAID!: The head of a family living in a cave in the Stone Age and headed by Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage, far right) sets out on a perilous journey in search of a safer place to live. Grug constantly reminds them to “never not be afraid” because from his experience the world is a very, very dangerous place.

NEVER NOT BE AFRAID!: The head of a family living in a cave in the Stone Age and headed by Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage, far right) sets out on a perilous journey in search of a safer place to live. Grug constantly reminds them to “never not be afraid” because from his experience the world is a very, very dangerous place.

Are you better off than you were four million years ago? That’s the evolutionary question playfully posed by The Croods, a visually captivating action cartoon about a family of cave dwellers who summon up their courage to abandon their home in the face of an impending climate change.

The enchanting movie was co-directed by Kirk De Micco (Space Chimps) and Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon), who assembled a cast featuring Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, and Cloris Leachman to breathe life into a colorful array of prehistoric characters. Besides the talented voice cast, the film effectively uses 3-D technology to guarantee that the audience will be enthralled by ducking projectiles aimed directly at their heads or trying to touch objects dangling just out of reach.

At the point of departure we find the Croods huddled inside their dank dark cave where they sleep together in a pile to keep warm at night. The family is presided over by Grug (Cage), an overprotective patriarch whose mantra is the double-negative “Never not be afraid!”

The other members of the clan include a nagging mother-in-law Gran (Leachman), long-suffering wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), and their three children: baby Sandy (Randy Thom), man-child Thunk (Clark Duke), and rebellious teen Eep (Stone). Grug feels it is his duty to remind them on a daily basis of the many dangers lurking just beyond the entrance of their boulder-fortified abode.

That’s why he’s so fond of telling bedtime stories in which any curiosity about what happens in the outside world invariably proves fatal. Grug’s scare tactics work until the fateful day Eep sneaks off to explore on her own and encounters a boy named Guy (Reynolds) about her own age.

Not only has Guy figured out how to harness fire to keep hungry creatures at bay but he forecasts imminent doom for any one who fails to move to higher ground. When Eep brings word of this frightening development to her father, it becomes abundantly clear that it’s going to take more than a little convincing to get him to lead the family out of the cave on a perilous trek to safety.

Mother Nature plays a part in nudging him to grudgingly join forces with Guy, and the ensuing journey across a vast wasteland to Shangri-La allows for a priceless lesson about risk-taking as relevant today as it must have been back in the Stone Age. The movie is a side-splitting thrill-a-minute adventure reminiscent of the best of The Flintstones.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for scenes of peril. Running time: 98 minutes. Studio: Dreamworks Animation. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

 

March 13, 2013
NOW, FOR MY NEXT TRICK: Street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) gesticulates magically to perform yet another spectacular illusion before the crowd of onlookers. Steve is so successful with his street act, that he is able to draw away the people who would have attended the headlining show given by Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell, not shown) and Anton Marvelton (not shown) at Bally’s. In order to save their reputations, Burt tries to outdo Steve’s illusions in the street.

NOW, FOR MY NEXT TRICK: Street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) gesticulates magically to perform yet another spectacular illusion before the crowd of onlookers. Steve is so successful with his street act, that he is able to draw away the people who would have attended the headlining show given by Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell, not shown) and Anton Marvelton (not shown) at Bally’s. In order to save their reputations, Burt tries to outdo Steve’s illusions in the street.

Back in 2003, Jim Carrey was upstaged as the title character of Bruce Almighty by scene-stealing Steve Carell who was the TV newscaster Evan Baxter. Consequently, Carrey wasn’t even around for the sequel, Evan Almighty, a spinoff which was all about Carell’s expanded role.

Turnabout is fair play, and a decade later we find Carell overshadowed here by a rejuvenated Carrey. The viewing public benefits, because the two have reunited and they’re better than ever as magicians who are competing to outdo each other in an escalating game of one-upmanship.

Directed by Don Scardino (NBC-TV’s 30 Rock), The Incredible Burt Wonderstone also features a stellar supporting cast that includes Alan Arkin, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, James Gandolfini, Brad Garrett, and Jay Mohr, as well as amusing cameo appearances by David Copperfield, CNN’s Erin Burnett, and MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe.

The picture’s premise is easy to follow. Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) have been doing magic tricks together since childhood, when they first teamed up to entertain their classmates. Thirty years later, they are sharing top billing on the marquee as “Burt & Anton: A Magical Friendship at Bally’s in Las Vegas.”

However, they’ve come to despise each other, primarily because of Burt’s massive ego. As a result, their act has grown stale, and this gives the street performer Steve Gray (Carrey) a chance to steal their thunder with his bizarre stunts, such as not blinking for days on end.

When the newcomer captures the public’s imagination, attendance at Burt and Anton’s shows declines, and it’s not long before they feel the pressure to match Gray in outrageousness. But after Anton breaks his ankles and some ribs during their first dangerous stunt, Burt is forced to go up against Gray by himself.

The ensuing competition in illusions contrasts Carrey’s over-the-top antics with Carell’s droll tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and in this critic’s opinion, Carrey’s sight gags are much better than Carell’s dry wit. The battle of competing comedy styles is won hands-down by the rambunctious rubber-faced Carrey!

Excellent (***½). Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, dangerous stunts, and a drug-related incident. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

March 6, 2013
ARGUABLY ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS OCCUPATIONS: Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) works in an aquarium in the south of France where she trains the notoriously dangerous killer whales. Unfortunately, one of them becomes out of control during a training session and smashes Stephanie against the side of the pool. When she is rescued, it turns out that as a result of the accident, she has lost the use of her legs and is confined to a wheelchair.

ARGUABLY ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS OCCUPATIONS: Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) works in an aquarium in the south of France where she trains the notoriously dangerous killer whales. Unfortunately, one of them becomes out of control during a training session and smashes Stephanie against the side of the pool. When she is rescued, it turns out that as a result of the accident, she has lost the use of her legs and is confined to a wheelchair.

Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a homeless street hustler barely eking out a living in his native Belgium when he is unexpectedly given custody of his 5-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure). Overwhelmed by the unanticipated extra responsibility, he moves to Antibes in the South of France to give the boy he barely knows to his obliging sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero), to care for.

Buff, imposing, and blessed with formidable strength, Alain soon lands part-time work as a bouncer in a trendy nearby nightclub. He also starts taking advantage of his good looks and enters into lustful, brief liaisons with the attractive customers of the club.

Elsewhere in the seaside resort town, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an attractive young woman, works at an aquarium where she trains Killer whales. She meets Alain one evening after he rescues her from a nasty brawl inside the cabaret.

Stephanie takes his phone number, but before she has a chance to call and thank him, she loses the use of both of her legs in an unfortunate accident when she is crushed against the side of the pool by an Orca. When the two finally meet again, she is confined to a wheelchair, and terribly depressed by the change in her life caused by the accident.

Will Alain befriend the handicapped Stephanie, or will he go right back out on the dating circuit? That is the crux of the question at the heart of Rust and Bone, a romance drama written and directed by Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips).

This love story ultimately proves far more poignant than one might expect of a picture that starts out with such an apparent boor as a protagonist. Fortunately, his character undergoes considerable development over the course of the movie.

Alain gradually gets in touch with his sensitive side to the point where he’s ready to abandon his womanizing ways and also to spend time with his neglected son. In addition to the movie unfolding against an array of beautiful backdrops, Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard give tour de force performances in Rust and Bone.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, profanity, graphic sexuality, and nudity. In French and English with subtitles. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.

February 27, 2013
HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAY!: Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a common farmer, has fallen in love with the beautiful Princess Isabelle (not shown) and is determined to rescue her. He is climbing a giant beanstalk that has carried his house and the missing princess a mile high into the sky. Jack did not realize that the beanstalk had connected the world of the giants who lived high in the sky to the earth below. As a result, the giants descended from their heights and attempted to conquer the kingdom on earth. So in addition to rescuing the princess, Jack will have to defeat the giants as well.

HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAY!: Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a common farmer, has fallen in love with the beautiful Princess Isabelle (not shown) and is determined to rescue her. He is climbing a giant beanstalk that has carried his house and the missing princess a mile high into the sky. Jack did not realize that the beanstalk had connected the world of the giants who lived high in the sky to the earth below. As a result, the giants descended from their heights and attempted to conquer the kingdom on earth. So in addition to rescuing the princess, Jack will have to defeat the giants as well.

When Jack (Nicholas Hoult) was a little boy, his imagination was inspired by a bedtime story about a mythical war that was waged ages ago against a fearsome race of giants who had descended from the sky. Before his mother (Caroline Hayes) died, she suggested that he might even be related to Erik the Great (Craig Salisbury), the brave monarch who had led the valiant defense of Earth against the gargantuan invaders.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the peaceful kingdom, young Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) was being told a similar tale about an epic showdown between good and evil.

A decade later, we find the farmhand’s path crossing that of the future queen when the princess, now a headstrong teenager, sneaks out of the castle to learn about the life of the commoners. When she is accosted by a menacing gang of ruffians at a puppet show, Jack rushes to her assistance.

The damsel in distress becomes so smitten with the gallant lad that she informs her father that she wishes to break off her arranged engagement to the insufferable Roderick (Stanley Tucci), an effete lout who is twice her age. Nonetheless, King Brahmwell would rather have his daughter marry someone she doesn’t love but who is a blue-blooded member of the Royal Court, than marry a commoner.

Fate intervenes in the form of a monk (Simon Lowe) who hands Jack a few mysterious beans. During a secret visit from Isabelle, one slips through the floorboards under Jack’s house, takes root, and starts to grow rapidly, sweeping the humble abode with the princess in it way up into the heavens.

Soon both of her suitors start to search for the missing princess and begin by scaling the mile-high beanstalk  that leads to the other world in the clouds. Jack has no idea that the mammoth plant has also reopened a gateway to the ground for an army of gigantic adversaries. And it’s not long before ancient hostilities are reignited over Isabelle and the fate of the planet below.

Directed by Bryan Singer, Jack the Giant Slayer is an enchanting and often eye-popping adventure which must be seen in 3-D to be appreciated fully. Between the breathtaking panoramas and the derring-do, the picture is a captivating cinematic treat guaranteed to enthrall anyone interested in seeing a classic fairytale being brought to life.

Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum! I smell a hit with the little ones!

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for frightening images, brief profanity, and intense violence. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A poignant tale of undying love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A charming romantic romp.

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

January 23, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 9, 2013
Damon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 19, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 12, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


December 5, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sumptuous cinematic feast!

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


November 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 21, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 7, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


November 6, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 24, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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