June 28, 2017

Jessica (Scarlett Johansson) and Peter (Paul W. Downs) are about to get married. However, before the ceremony, they’ve agreed to simultaneously throw themselves bachelor’s and bachelorette’s parties. Jessica flies down to Miami for a wild party with four of her closest college classmates, while Peter plans a modest evening of wine tasting with a few of his buddies.

It turns out that Jessica is in the middle of a campaign for the state senate, so she doesn’t want their party to get out of control and generate negative publicity that would hurt her candidacy. However, she’s unaware that decorum is the last thing on the mind of Alice (Jillian Bell), the girlfriend whom Jessica asked to plan their get together.

Alice sees the reunion as an opportunity for the foursome to indulge one last time in the sort of parties they had on campus ten years ago, when they would get drunk while playing beer pong on a weekend night. So, she’s planned a wild weekend that includes everything from cocaine to a male stripper.

The other three members of the party are Pippa (Kate McKinnon), a clown who is up for anything, as is Blair (Zoe Kravitz), who is recovering from an ugly custody battle. However, Frankie (Ilana Glazer), who is a lesbian, has a history of run-ins with the law and is afraid about violating the “Three Strikes” law that would automatically give her a life sentence in jail.

The party starts in the airport terminal when Alice uncorks a bottle of champagne that unwittingly triggers a stampede by passengers who mistake the pop of the cork for a gunshot. Next, when they arrive at their beachfront rental house, they are invited by the next-door couple Lea (Demi Moore) and Pietro (Ty Burrell) to participate in an orgy.

Things quickly go from bad to worse when the exotic dancer, whom Alice hired, arrives. During his striptease act, he accidentally hits his head and kills himself. Jessica and her friends decide to dump the body in the ocean rather than call the cops and what ensues is a hilariously escalating comedy of errors.

Rough Night is reminiscent of The Hangover (2009), although it also has moments that recall scenes from Bridesmaids (2011) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989). The movie is the directorial debut of Lucia Aniello, the first woman to direct an R-rated comedy since Tamra Davis made Half Baked in 1998.

Excellent (****). Rated R for crude sexuality, drug use, coarse humor, brief bloody images, and profanity. Running time: 101 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

June 21, 2017

A bar mitzvah is nearing its climax in an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem when the balcony reserved for women suddenly collapses. When the dust settles, the members discover that the collapse has left the wife of their rabbi in a coma, and also that her husband, Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar) is in denial about the condition of his wife and is no condition to lead his synagogue’s members.

It becomes clear that neither Rabbi Menashe nor the Mussayof Synagogue will be back to normal anytime soon. With the building closed because it is unsafe, the congregation finds a temporary home in a nearby school. However, its location makes it difficult to assemble a minyan, the quorum of 10, that is required for religious services.

A savior arrives when they ask David (Avraham Aviv Alush), a young rabbi who happened to be passing by, to join them to make their minyan complete. Not only is he willing to join their services, but in the next few weeks he takes over the position of the congregation’s rabbi and their plans to repair their damaged synagogue. However, it turns out that he advocates an ultra-orthodox form of Judaism, and he attempts to convince the congregation that they should embrace his more restrictive interpretation of the laws of the Bible.

For example, he tries to persuade the women to dress more modestly by always covering their heads with a scarf. Next, he announces that instead of using the money that the congregant’s women have collected to repair the balcony, he is going to use the money to commission the writing of a new Torah scroll for the new congregation.

None of this news sits well with the women of the original Mussayof congregation who decide to fight against their new rabbi. As in Aristophanes’ classic play, Lysistrata, and Spike Lee’s latest “joint,” Chi-Raq, they agree to withhold sex until their husbands come to their senses.

All of the above plays out in hilarious fashion in The Women’s Balcony, a delightful tale of female empowerment directed by Emil Ben-Shiron. The movie was a hit in Israel where it won five of that country’s equivalent of the Academy Award nominations. Kudos, too, to Menemsha Films’ Neil Friedman, who has produced several charming sleepers that include Dough, The Rape of Europa, Beauty in Trouble, and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

Excellent (****). Unrated. In Hebrew with subtitles. Running time: 96 minutes. Production Studio: Pie Films. Distributor: Menemsha Films.

June 14, 2017

Five years ago, Mike Dowling published Sergeant Rex, a memoir about the bond he’d forged with a bomb-sniffing dog while serving in over 35 missions in Iraq. Now, Marine Corporal Megan Leavey, is the subject of a documentary drama — based on a true story — that portrays her relationship with the same German shepherd dog.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film stars Kate Mara as the title character, with Edie Falco and Will Patton in support roles.

At the point of departure, we find Megan enlisting in the Marines. After completing basic training on Parris Island, she finds her true calling in the Corps when she is assigned to the K-9 unit. Rex, who has become uncontrollable, is on the verge of being declared unfit for active duty by the base’s veterinarian, Dr. Turbeville (Geraldine James). Fortunately a dog lover begs that someone be given an opportunity to soothe and tame Rex.

Drill Sergeant Martin (Common) intervenes on Megan and Rex’s behalf and gives her the chance to work with the dog. With the patience of Job, Megan shows that she has the touch necessary to tame Rex. The two become inseparable and they’re shipped overseas to search for IEDs buried in the dangerous desert sands of Iraq’s Anbar province.

The deployment is uneventful, until Megan and Rex are injured in an explosion and shipped back to the States for rehabilitation at facilities far apart from each other. However, Megan’s attachment to Rex drives her to find a way to obtain possession of Rex. The remainder of the movie depicts her cutting through bureaucratic red tape until she finally succeeds in achieving ownership of Rex.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, mature themes, and suggestive material. Running time: 116 minutes. Production Studio: LD Entertainment. Distributor: Bleeker Street Media.

June 7, 2017

Paul (Joel Edgerton) managed to find a safe refuge for his family that was far from the rest of humanity in order to escape the deadly plague that has been decimating the Earth’s population. At least that’s what he thought, until his wife Sarah’s (Carmen Ejogo) father somehow caught the disease.

After she and their son (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) said their goodbyes while wearing germ-proof respirators, Paul shot his father-in-law and cremated the body in order to prevent it from infecting them. As the body was being cremated, Travis the 17-year-old grandson, comforted himself by telling his pet dog Stanley “Don’t worry, I’m going to take care of you.” Unfortunately, Stanley is the next to die in It Comes at Night, a suspense thriller that is set inside a darkened cabin in the woods. more

May 31, 2017

KIDNAPPING IS NOTHING TO JOKE ABOUT: Rodrick (Charlie Wright, center) and his wimpy brother Greg (Jason Drucker, right) are being dressed down by the police officer who saw the “kidnapped” sign that Rodrick had pasted in the rear window of their car to protest the way his mother was treating him.    (Photo by Daniel McFadden 20th Century Fox, © TM and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved)

Series’s Fourth Episode Features New Cast Up to Old Tricks

According to Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul provides an example of that saying. The comedy describes the escalating misfortunes that plague the Heffley family during their summer road trip.
The film is the fourth in the series that is based on Jeff Kinney’s illustrated children’s novels. It was directed by David Bowers who also made Wimpy Kid 2 and 3.
The movie features an entirely new cast, starting with Jason Drucker as the title character, wimpy Greg Heffley; Alicia Silverstone and Tom Everett Scott are his parents, Susan and Frank; and Charlie Wright and Dylan Walters are Greg’s older and younger brothers, Rodrick and Manny, respectively.
Wimpy Kid 4 is about a family’s cross-country outing to attend their grandma’s 90th birthday party. The mother Susan sees the drive as an opportunity for the family to bond together, so she collects everybody’s cell phones before departing.
This frustrates her children, who find it boring without their electronic devices. Rodrick calls her “the worst mom ever” and sticks a “kidnapped” sign in the rear window that leads to their being pulled over by the police.
Other eventful stops range from an overnight stay in a motel with rats in the pool and a visit to a country fair where Manny wins a live piglet as a prize. The humor flowing from the escalating insanity is mostly of the bodily function variety.
Every skit is designed to keep the target audience of young children in stitches, with only occasional asides for adults, such as the inspired homage to Psycho’s legendary shower scene.
Very Good (HHH). Rated PG for rude humor. Running time: 91 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

May 24, 2017

It’s Maddy Whittier’s (Amandla Stenburg) 18th birthday, but she won’t be celebrating the occasion at a party or restaurant. In fact, she won’t be leaving the house or even have friends over anytime soon.

That’s because she has SCID, a rare genetic disorder that makes her allergic to everything.

Consequently, she’s been living inside a hermetically-sealed house after she was diagnosed with the illness at the age of 3, shortly after her father and brother’s untimely deaths in a terrible car crash.

Fortunately, Maddy’s mother, Pauline (Anika Noni Rose), is a physician who can afford to raise her in a sterile environment, free of the agents that could compromise her immune system. Maddy grew up curious about the outside world, but she learned to explore it by using the internet, together with the help of online courses and a support group for children with her disorder.

Then, Maddy receives the best birthday gift she could ever imagine when new neighbors move in right next-door. The family’s son, Olly (Nick Robinson), is a boy about Maddy’s age, and after seeing her from his window, he falls head-over-heels in love with her.

Olly uses sign language to ask Maddy for her phone number, and then types “U R beautiful” in his first text to her. After he learns about her rare disorder, he asks if there’s any way he could be decontaminated to come over for a visit.

However, that’s against Maddy’s doctor’s orders, so the couple is forced to communicate with each other from afar. Needless to say, Maddy quickly becomes discontented with her sheltered existence in her antiseptic gilded cage.

Will she recklessly abandon her protective bubble to rush into the arms of a neighbor she barely knows? That is the burning question at the heart of Everything, Everything, a bittersweet movie based on the young adult novel by Nicola Yoon. The picture was directed by Stella Meghie who successfully adapted the book into a movie that is certain to satisfy fans of the book.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes and brief sensuality. Running time: 96 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

May 17, 2017

Emily Middleton (Amy Schumer) is having one of those days. First, she’s fired from her sales job in a boutique because she was ignoring customers and instead trying on outfits for herself. Also, her boyfriend (Randall Park) callously dumps her on the eve of their planned romantic getaway to Ecuador.

Emily cries on the shoulder of her mother Linda (Goldie Hawn), but she rubs salt in Emily’s wounds by saying, “Michael was the best you’ll ever do.” Still, against her better judgment, Emily invites Linda to come on the trip with her because the pre-paid vacation package is non-refundable.

However, Linda is also a worrier who rarely leaves her house, let alone the country. And she’ll be worrying about Emily the whole time, and probably prevent her from meeting a new guy. In the end, Linda grudgingly agrees to go, and packs for what looks like an uneventful stay at an exclusive resort in Ecuador.

Snatched is a screwball comedy far more entertaining than it might appear. Although the script does unfold like a generic “Vacation From Hell” story, it’s actually far above average, thanks to a stellar cast that is led by four consummate comediennes.

The picture co-stars Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn as the mother and daughter at the center of the story. It also features two veteran scene stealers, Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack, who make the most of their supporting roles.

The plot thickens when Linda and Emily land in Ecuador. First, Emily’s swept off her feet by a tall, dark, handsome stranger (Tom Bateman) whom she meets in a bar. The next morning, he talks them into a seemingly innocuous drive in the countryside.

Unfortunately, the Middletons are kidnapped by a ruthless gang led by Morgado (Oscar Jaenada) who is demanding a $100,000 ransom for the pair. But the U.S. State Department refuses to help, and Emily’s brother Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz) is also unable to rescue them.

Left to their own devices, the squabbling mother and daughter put aside their differences and rely on their wits to survive. Schumer, Hawn, Sykes, and Cusack, are all at the top of their game.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, brief nudity, pervasive profanity, and crude humor. Running time: 91 minutes. Production Studio: Chernin Entertainment. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

May 10, 2017

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) had less than a dozen of her 1,800 poems published while she was still alive. Since her work was appreciated posthumously, it makes sense that a movie about her life would be about something other than her literary work, which was unrecognized by her contemporaries.

Writer/director Terrence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea) resisted the temptation to examine Dickinson’s poems, but instead examined her tortured soul. As a result, A Quiet Passion is an exquisite costume drama that presents the protagonist as an iconoclastic visionary and a retiring recluse.

The socially-conscious production suggests that the agnostic, feminist abolitionist was ahead of her time, and that she withdrew from the world in response to being raised in an era when evangelism, slavery, and male chauvinism were the order of the day. The movie focuses on her fragile psyche that was further crippled by her cloistered existence.

As the film unfolds, we find Emily (played in her teens by Emma Bell and later as an adult by Cynthia Nixon) finishing a frustrating freshman year at Mount Holyoke. She decides to drop out in order to avoid having to conform to the pious practices that were dictated by the Christian revival movement. That pressure was being exerted on her by the school’s president, Mary Lyon (Sara Vertongen). Dickinson refused to conform because she saw her relationship with God as a private and personal matter, not one that demanded public displays of devotion in a church service.

So she returns to Amherst, Massachusetts, and lives on the Dickinson family estate with her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon), brother (Duncan Duff), and sister (Jennifer Ehle). Unfortunately, Emily is unable to bite her tongue when visitors like the local pastor (Miles Richardson) or even a potential suitor (Stefan Menaul) make social calls.

Even though she has trusted confidantes in her sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May) and Mabel Loomis Todd (Noemie Schellens), Dickinson’s first preference is to remain in her upstairs bedroom where she can write her poems in secret. Cynthia Nixon convincingly conveys the emotional fires that simmer just beneath the surface of Emily Dickinson’s stoic countenance.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes, disturbing images, and suggestive material. Production Studio: Hurricane Films. Running time: 126 minutes. Distributor: Music Box Films.

April 26, 2017

In Eastern Turkey in 1914, druggist Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is working and living in his half-Armenian/half-Turkish village where Christians and Muslims are living together in peace. However, the ambitious apothecary would rather be a doctor, so he courts and marries a neighbor (Angela Sarafyan), whose family is relatively wealthy, in order to get the dowry.

With the money, he is able to afford medical school. However, while studying in Constantinople, he falls in love with Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow Armenian who has recently returned from France. Mikael is taken with her beauty and urbane sophistication that she acquired while rowing up in Paris. Unfortunately, Ana has returned accompanied by her lover, Chris Meyers (Christian Bale), an American photojournalist who was assigned by the Associated Press to find evidence of ethnic cleansing.

When World War I erupts, Mikael is forced to flee the Turkish army’s roundup of Armenian civilians and he returns to his hometown to help rescue his relatives and friends. Ana is in a similar struggle to survive and her lover Chris Meyers does his best to take photos that document the slaughter of Armenians that is rumored to be occurring.

The Promise is a riveting documentary drama directed and co-written by Oscar winner Terry George (The Short). The movie bears a strong resemblance to Hotel Rwanda, which George also directed and co-wrote.

Both of his films depict extraordinary heroism in the face of a complete collapse of civilization. If this picture has a flaw, it’s that it appears to trivialize the ethnic cleansing of one and a half million Armenians by making that genocide a backdrop to the love story that is at the center of the movie.

Excellent (***½). Rated PG-13 for mature themes, sexuality, violence, disturbing images, and war atrocities. Running time: 134 minutes. Production Studio: Survival Pictures. Distributor: Open Road Films.

April 19, 2017

Created by the Belgian cartoonist Peyo, the Smurfs started out as a comic strip in 1958. Over the years, the popular series about a clan of small blue humanoids moved to television and the movies, and in 2011 and 2013 two live-action films were released.

Smurfs: The Lost Village is an animated tale of female empowerment co-written by Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon. Pamela Ribon’s previous screenplay was for the movie Moana. In this film, the heroine also has many of the same characteristics as the heroine of Moana.

The Lost Village is about Smurfette (Demi Lovato), until now, the only female Smurf. In fact, she’s not actually a Smurf, but a facsimile fabricated from a lump of clay by the evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson).

As the film opens, we find Smurfette frolicking with her best friends Brainy (Danny Pudi), Hefty (Joe Manganiello), and Clumsy (Jack McBrayer). The narrator and patriarch Papa Smurf (Mandy Patinkin) points out that all the other smurfs’ names describe their dominant traits, such as Grouchy (Jake Johnson), Jokey (Gabriel Iglesias), and Nosey (Kelly Asbury), while Smurfette’s name does not give any hints about her character.

The plot thickens when Smurfette, with the help of an inverted leaf, hang-glides over the wall that separates the Smurf compound from the Forbidden Forest. Her three worried friends follow her, and the quartet finds a mysterious map with directions leading to the Lost Village. The village turns out to be an all-girl enclave of Amazonian Smurfs who are led by Smurfwillow (Julia Roberts).

The four Smurfs find themselves in a race with Gargamel to reach the Lost Village. He’s hatched a diabolical plot to kidnap all the Smurfs and then become the most powerful wizard in the world by ingesting their essence after boiling them in his lab.

Fortunately, there’s a two-fisted shero (she-hero) who proves that a girl can grow up to be anything she wants to be.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for mild action and rude humor. Running time: 90 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures.

April 12, 2017

Released in 1979, the original Going in Style was about three retirees who broke the monotony of their dreary lives by robbing a bank. That critically-acclaimed comedy co-starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg.

Ordinarily, one would think twice before remaking a classic. However, despite the challenge, Zach Braff (Garden State), decided to try.

He had Oscar nominee Theodore Melfi (screenplay for Hidden Figures) write a terrific script that was loosely based on the original movie. He retained the main characters’ names and the basic “bank heist” premise and updated the dialogue and plot to yield a rollicking adventure.

Zach also convinced Academy Award-winners Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin to play the leads. Although they are 79, 84, and 83 years old, respectively, they generate an endearing camaraderie, and deliver every punchline with perfect timing.

At the point of departure, we find Joe (Caine) in the midst of complaining to an unsympathetic loan officer (Josh Pais) about Williamsburg Savings Bank’s impending foreclosure on his home when the bank is held-up by a gang of masked men. Later, while talking with his former co-workers Willie (Freeman) and Al (Arkin), Joe realizes that they’ve all fallen prey to the bank’s shady practices that included the bankrupting of the pension fund that they were all dependent upon.

The victims decide to take the law into their own hands and conspire to retrieve precisely the amount of money that was “stolen” from them by the bank. Of course, the hold-up proves easier to plan than execute.

Fortunately, the threesome are not to be deterred, even after a disastrous dry run attempt at shoplifting at a local supermarket. However, what’s bad for them is great for the audience, and the laughs just keep coming, even through the closing credits.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, drug use, and suggestive material. Running time: 97 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

April 5, 2017

In 1928, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) became the director of the Warsaw Zoo. For the next ten years, he ran it with the help of his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain). With their help, the zoo flourished until the outbreak of the Second World War in September of 1939 after Hitler invaded Poland.

The zoo was closed to the public after being repeatedly bombed by the Luftwaffe during the siege of the city. However, the Zabinskis continued to live on the grounds with their young son (Timothy Radford) and tended to the animals that managed to survive the bombings.

After Warsaw was occupied by the Nazis, the couple was ordered to report directly to Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the Third Reich’s chief zoologist. Despite being married, Heck was attracted to Antonina, and he shamelessly forced himself on her as they were attending to the animals in the zoo.

Knowing that resistance was futile and might cost his wife her life, Jan told her to submit to the unwelcome advances. Understandably, he felt utterly emasculated because he was unable to prevent Antonina from being ravished by Heck.

However, the Zabinskis did find a way to work against the Nazis through the Polish resistance movement. Joining the underground, they secretly helped smuggle Jews destined for the concentration camps out of the Warsaw ghetto. They also hid the escapees on the grounds of the zoo even though death was the punishment for assisting a Jew.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a fact-based dramatic documentary adapted from Diane Ackerman’s bestseller of the same name. Ackerman’s book is based on an unpublished memoir written by Antonina Zabinski.

Directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider), the picture stars Jessica Chastain as the title character. The two-time Academy Award-nominee (The Help and Zero Dark Thirty) delivers an excellent performance.

Excellent (****) Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, mature themes, smoking, sexuality, and brief nudity. Running time: 126 minutes. Studio: Scion Films. Distributor: Focus Features.

March 29, 2017

Recently Hollywood has been making some outer space adventures, such as The Martian (2015) and The Space between Us (2017), in which the Red Planet is a benign environment that is free of hostile creatures. In contrast, Life is a horror film about a terrifying alien force from Mars that comes to an international space station.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), the thriller co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds as Dr. David Jordan and Roy Adams, respectively, the space ship Pilgrim 7’s flight engineer and chief medical officer. The rest of the six-person crew members are Center for Disease Control quarantine specialist Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), systems engineer Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), eco-biologist Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), and the spaceship’s captain, Katerina Golovkin (Olga Dihovichnaya).

As the film opens, we learn that their mission is to receive a single-cell organism that will be arriving via a space probe from the surface of Mars and deliver it to Earth. It all sounds easy as the disarming plotline initially devotes itself to developing the characters’ back stories, such as David’s service in the Iraq War. When the capsule arrives, they celebrate the discovery of the first incontrovertible proof of life beyond Earth. Sho’s daughter even gives the apparently innocuous substance a cute name, unaware of the danger that is lurking.

The plot thickens when “Calvin” begins reproducing via mitosis, and every cell of its luminescent ectoplasmic mass contains a mix of brains and muscles. By the 25th day, the sentient creature develops proto-appendages and becomes strong enough to breach its container.

Initially, it nibbles on Hugh’s finger, who somehow discerns that “Calvin doesn’t hate us, but he’s got to kill us to survive.” What ensues is a desperate race against time to return to Earth before the mushrooming monster devours them one at a time.

Reminiscent of science fiction classics such as Alien (1979) and Species (1995), Life is a worthy addition to the extraterrestrial threat genre. Substantial credit goes to Jake Gyllenhaal who gives an impressive performance. Prepare yourself for a screamfest that will keep you squirming in your seat.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, terror, and profanity. In English, Japanese, and Chinese, with subtitles. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Columbia Pictures.

March 22, 2017

Every couple of years or so, this reviewer is approached by a friend or acquaintance who is excited about some great new product that they’ve just quit their job to sell. Curiously, instead of trying to make me a customer, they’re always more interested in offering me an opportunity to share in their good fortune by becoming a distributor.

That’s a red flag that the business isn’t legitimate, but a pyramid scheme. Such an operation is easy to identify, because its participants profit primarily by recruitment rather than by the sale of goods or services to consumers.

Directed by Ted Braun (Darfur Now), Betting on Zero chronicles hedge fund manager Bill Ackman’s campaign to expose the health food corporation Herbalife as being a multi-level marketing Ponzi scheme. What makes the movie intriguing is that Ackman may not have been acting altruistically, since he had also shorted Herbalife by placing a billion-dollar bet that the company’s stock price would plummet.

Nevertheless, Ackman was considered a Robin Hood in working-class circles, because he promised to distribute any profits he might make — when the stock’s value plummeted — to the unsophisticated minorities who had lost their life savings that they had invested in the company. The millions of victims were predominantly undocumented immigrants who were afraid to report how they’d been fleeced to the authorities because they were afraid of being deported.

To prove his case, Ackman first needed to convince the Federal Trade Commission that Herbalife was indeed a criminal enterprise. That would not be easy, considering all the prominent individuals who were lobbying on behalf of the firm, such as CNBC investment adviser Jim Kramer, Donald Trump’s crony Carl Icahn, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and ex-Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa.

For instance, billionaire Carl Icahn not only propped up Herbalife’s stock by taking a huge stake in the company but even went on television to refute Ackman’s pledge to give his financial gains from short selling the stock to charity. Ultimately, the controversial case is resolved in one side’s favor, though it would be unfair for me to spoil the ending.

Is Herbalife a con game being run by shady snake oil salesmen, or a benign operation affording average people a realistic shot at the elusive American Dream? You be the judge.

Excellent (****). Unrated. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 104 minutes. Distributor: Zipper Bros. Films.

March 15, 2017

The original King Kong (1933), starring Fay Wray, was about an expedition to an uncharted island in the Indian Ocean that was inhabited by prehistoric creatures. The explorers captured and caged a gigantic ape and put it on exhibition in New York as the 8th Wonder of the World.

Kong escapes and wreaks havoc in the city before scaling the face of the Empire State Building during one of the most iconic climaxes in the annals of cinema. A spin-off, Son of Kong, was released later that year, and launched a series of sequels and remakes.

Kong: Skull Island is a refreshing remake of the original and co-stars Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, and Tom Hiddleston. The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts who made his debut in 2013 with the comedy The Kings of Summer.

The special effects adventure unfolds in the 1970s, near the end of the Vietnam conflict. As the film opens, we find Bill Randa (Goodman) pressuring a U.S. senator (Richard Jenkins) to underwrite an expedition to a Pacific island that is constantly surrounded by treacherous storms that have caused the mysterious disappearance of countless boats and airplanes.

Once the expedition is approved, Randa assembles a crew composed of a photographer (Larson), a geologist (Corey Hawkins), a biologist (Jing Tian), and a bureaucrat (John Ortiz). The team is escorted to the island by a squadron of Vietnam veterans led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Jackson).

It’s man versus monsters in a struggle to survive in a hellhole that time forgot. Stay until the end of the credits and you’ll see an extended postscript previewing Godzilla vs. Kong, a sequel slated for release in the spring of 2020.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for action, intense violence, and brief profanity. Running time: 118 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

March 8, 2017

Samantha “Sam” Kingston (Zoey Deutch) was a spoiled brat who was killed on the night February 12th in a tragic car crash. She and her younger sister Izzy (Erica Tremblay) grew up in the lap of luxury as they were raised by their loving parents (Jennifer Beals and Nicholas Lea).

Also, the unfortunate 17-year-old was leaving behind a handsome boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley) and an ardent admirer — Kent (Logan Miller), a platonic friend whom she had taken for granted since grade school. Sam was also popular at her High School where she was part of an exclusive clique that also included her three best friends, Liz (Halston Sage), Elody (Medalion Rahimi), and Ally (Cynthy Wu).

The quartet delighted in teasing classmates like the lesbian Anna (Liv Hewson) and a reclusive outcast Juliet (Elena Kampouri). Sam would think nothing was wrong with dumping drinks on Juliet while calling her a “psycho bitch.”

However, after the accident, she was given the unusual opportunity to reconsider her cruel behavior when, instead of dying, her spirit miraculously reentered her body. When she awoke, she realized that it was again dawn on February 12th, and that she was about to relive the day.

In fact, Sam experiences February 12th over and over, learning valuable lessons in tolerance each go-round. Thus unfolds Before I Fall, a bittersweet tale of redemption based on Lauren Oliver’s novel of the same name.

Of course the picture’s premise is reminiscent of the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day (1993). The movie was directed by Ry Russo-Young (Nobody Walks), who puts a fresh spin on the theme so that you forget Groundhog Day after the first 15 minutes.

Zoey Deutch is incredibly convincing as Sam in a demanding role which calls for a considerable acting range over the course of the story. Her supporting cast delivers stellar work in portraying an escapist fantasy that might easily have fallen apart.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes, bullying, sexuality, violent images, profanity, and underage drinking. Running time: 99 minutes. Distributor: Open Road Films.

March 1, 2017

After the untimely death of his father, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) was crowned the King of Bechuanaland when he was only four-years-old. Therefore, his Uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene) assumed the reins of power until Seretse completed his education.

While studying law in Great Britain, he fell in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) who was a clerk at Lloyd’s of London. Their romance ignited an international firestorm of controversy because of their color, not their class, differences.

He was black and she was white, and this was 1946, when there was strict racial segregation. So, the couple’s scandalous liaison was met with resistance in England and in Africa.

Although they were the target of racial slurs like “slut” and “savage” while out on dates, the hostility served to intensify their feelings for one another. Additionally, Seretse was threatened with the loss of his throne, since Bechuanaland was a protectorate of neighboring South Africa, a white supremacist nation. Nevertheless, he proposed to Ruth and they were married a year after they had met.

Unfortunately, major impediments were placed between the exiled young monarch and the governing of his country, and that struggle is the subject of A United Kingdom. Directed by Amma Asante (Belle), the film was shot on location in Botswana, which is now the country’s name after it gained independence in 1966.

Because the movie focuses on Ruth and Seretse’s relationship, its success or failure depends on the performances of the co-stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. Fortunately, they’re both very talented actors who generate the chemistry that is necessary to make their characters’ relationship convincing.

The movie is based on the book Colour Bar. Unfortunately, the film’s only flaw is that it feels rushed, as if director Asante had a long list of items — taken from the 432-page book — that she wanted to include in the movie. Nonetheless, the final product is a praiseworthy production.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sensuality, profanity, and ethnic slurs. Running time: 111 minutes. Studio: Harbinger Pictures. Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

February 22, 2017

When novelist/social critic James Baldwin passed away in 1987, he left behind an unfinished work titled Remember This House. The 30-page manuscript assessed the plight of African Americans in the United States and specifically discussed the assassinations of three civil rights icons: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck (Lumumba), cinematically fleshes out Baldwin’s musings into a searing indictment of the United States as an unapologetically racist nation. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the movie has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category.

The focus of the film never strays far from Baldwin, alternating between archival footage of him challenging the status quo and Jackson’s readings from Remember This House and Baldwin’s other writings. Again and again, he questions the depth of the country’s commitment toward reversing the damage inflicted upon the black community by generations of slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow segregation.

For example, he asserts that most Caucasians are perfectly comfortable relegating African Americans to a second-class status. He even goes so far as to refer to them as morally blind monsters who see blacks as sub-human. Until that attitude is eradicated, whites will never recognize that “I am flesh of their flesh.”

Baldwin concludes that “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.” Therefore, with black and white fates inextricably linked, “It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro. The real question is what is going to happen to this country.”

Given today’s precarious state of race relations, the late visionary’s insights prove timely now.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, violent images, and brief nudity. Running time: 95 minutes. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

February 15, 2017

When we first met John Wick (Keanu Reeves), he had gone on a bloody killing spree after losing the love of his life (Bridget Moynahan). And at the end of that film we saw the wounded assassin walk into the sunset with a puppy that he had rescued from the dog pound.

John Wick Chapter 2 opens with Wick vowing to retire after he retrieves his stolen Mustang from a Russian gang. However, before he can retire, he is recruited by mafioso Santonio D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) to perform one last hit.

The mobster wants his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) assassinated so that he can take the reins of the powerful Mafia family that were left to her by their late father. Wick grudgingly agrees to kill her only because Santonio is holding his marker, that ironically turns out to be a blood oath in which he promises to leave his grisly line of work.

Next, Wick goes to Rome to track down Gianna, who commits suicide when she realizes the reason for his visit. Unfortunately, her death doesn’t sit well with her gang of guards, especially her personal bodyguard, Cassian (Common).

So, Wick kills wave after wave of Gianna’s bodyguards while running through the catacombs. After a miraculous escape, things are no better back in America where the senseless slaughter continues.

That is the sum and substance of John Wick: Chapter 2. Keanu Reeves seems to excel when he is called upon to dispatch dozens, if not hundreds, of adversaries in a variety of creative ways.

The picture reunites Reeves with Laurence Fishburne, who was his co-star in The Matrix trilogy. Laurence has a minor role, however, but Common is a standout who proves to be Wick’s worthy adversary in a protracted hand-to-hand showdown.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, brief nudity, and pervasive violence. In English, italian, Hebrew, and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 122 minutes. Distributor: Summit Entertainment.

February 8, 2017

Not since the campy TV-sitcom in the 60s has Batman been so successfully lampooned. In this movie, the superhero is the perfect material for parody in this madcap animated adventure.

More concerned with jokes than plot development, this spoof is relentless in its rush to find the next punch line. Fortunately, the picture never disappoints, whether the laughs are generated by clever quips, silly sight gags, or allusions to earlier versions of the Batman franchise.

For example, right before confronting a couple of villains, Batman (Will Arnett) tells Robin (Michael Cera) that, “We’re going to punch these guys so hard that words are going to magically appear out of thin air.” That, of course is a reference to the cartoon bubbles (such as “Crack!” and “Pow!”) that appeared on the screen during fist fights in the 60s television series.

And it’s not just the TV Batman that gets knocked off a pedestal, every other version of The Caped Crusader is fair game. In this film, Chris McKay makes a remarkable directorial debut with this frenetically-paced farce.

The picture does have a plot that is really just another stock Batman storyline. At the point of departure, The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is planning to level Gotham City with the help of a host of super-villains. In turn, Batman enlists the assistance of Robin (Michael Cera), Batgirl (Rosario Dawson), and his loyal butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes).

However, before the action begins between these archenemies, the Joker demands that Batman actually say “I hate you” to his face. When that phrase isn’t forthcoming, the Clown Prince of Crime vindictively responds with “I’m done — and on my way out, I’m going to blow up Gotham City.”

The ensuing mix of mirth and mayhem is mesmerizing, and it’s easy to forget that you’re watching LEGO figures.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for action and rude humor. Running time: 90 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures.

February 1, 2017

20th Century Women, written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners), is set in Santa Barbara, California in 1979. The nostalgic drama is about the efforts of a neurotic single mother to raise her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who desperately needs a role model.

The picture’s protagonist is Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a middle-aged chain-smoker who owns the rooming house where the story is set. She recruits two considerably younger females, Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning), to help her raise Jamie and, for some reason, ignores her handyman, William (Billy Crudup), who is actually a pleasant father figure.

Abbie tries to reach the impressionable teenager by having him read popular feminist manifestos such as Sisterhood Is Powerful. On the other hand, Julie, 17, establishes a Platonic relationship with him because they’ve known each other since they were little.

The engaging drama uses flashbacks to develop each of the lead characters’ back stories. For example, we hear Jamie thinking about life with his mother — who is fretting about her inability to understand him less and less every day. We also learn about Abbie’s concern about her cervical cancer scare, and Julie’s resentment of her therapist mother who is forcing her into group therapy sessions.

20th Century Women transports the audience back to the late 70s. The movie resurrects the era’s fashions and decor and the action unfolds against familiar backdrops of the period. In addition, the film’s score features a mix of musical artists such as Rudy Vallee, Louie Armstrong, David Bowie, and The Talking Heads.

Excellent (***½). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, and brief drug use. Running time: 119 minutes. Distributor: A24 Films.

January 25, 2017

When it was released in 2002, xXx grossed over $250 billion dollars worldwide in theaters alone. The espionage adventure, that starred Vin Diesel, was reminiscent of a James Bond film, but with a handsomer hero and more spectacular stunts and special effects.

It’s taken 15 years for Diesel to reprise the role he originated. The picture is filled with the death-defying feats that made the first xXx such a hit. That means plenty of action sequences in which the protagonist is impervious to bullets and the law of gravity. Directed by D.J. Caruso (Disturbia), xXx: Return of Xander Cage also acknowledges earlier episodes by showing cameos of Samuel L. Jackson and Ice Cube.

At the point of departure, we find Xander living under the radar in exile in Latin America. He’s an extreme sports enthusiast, and just for fun, skis across the treetops of a verdant rain forest and then switches to a skateboard in a breathtaking ride down a winding mountainside highway.

However, he is coaxed out of retirement by a CIA chief (Toni Collette) in order to keep the world safe. His mission involves retrieving a devastating weapon of mass destruction code-named “Pandora’s Box” that’s fallen into the hands of a gang led by a diabolical trio (Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, and Deepika Padukone) who are bent on world domination.

Refusing the aid of a U.S. military support team, Xander recruits a crew of renegades. Can that rag-tag posse, composed of a crack sniper (Ruby Rose), a fearless getaway driver (Rory McCann), a state-of-the-art gadget wizard (Nina Dobrev), and an affable DJ/ jack-of-all-trades (Kris Wu), rise to the occasion?  Anything is possible, with cartoon physics on your side!

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, profanity, and pervasive violence. Running time: 107 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.

January 18, 2017

Saroo (Dev Patel) was born into poverty in India’s Khandwa district. He lived there with his single mother, Kamla (Priyanka Bose), his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), and his younger sister, Shekila (Khushi Solanki).

His illiterate mother eked out a living by carrying rocks from a local quarry, and she could barely afford to keep a roof over their heads. So, when Guddu found a night job hauling bales of hay, Saroo begged to go with him to help, even though he was really too small for the job.

Saroo fell asleep after the long ride sitting on his brother’s bike’s handlebars to the worksite. “It’s my fault, for bringing him here,” Guddu lamented, before leaving Saroo alone for the night on a train station bench.

Unfortunately, when Guddu was nowhere to be seen when he woke up, the five-year-old forgot his brother’s instruction to stay put and went looking for him. While searching for food on a decommissioned train, the train’s doors locked and it started moving. After several days, Saroo ended up in Bengal, a city 1,600 miles away. When he got off the train, Saroo couldn’t get any help from the busy passers-by, because he did not speak the language spoken there, and he mispronounced the name of his hometown, “Ganestalay.”

He ended up struggling to survive on the streets, until he was taken in by a local orphanage. After some time Saroo, who didn’t know his last name, his mother’s name, or where he was from, was sent to Australia where Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham), were eager to adopt him.

For the next 25 years, he grew up going to school, playing cricket, swimming in a cove off the ocean, and then falling in love with Lucy (Rooney Mara), an Australian. Then one fateful evening a childhood memory was triggered during a dinner of Indian food.

Compulsively curious about his roots, Saroo used his computer to search for his birthplace in India. Finally he realized that he had been mispronouncing the name of the area where he was born and found it on the computer. When he flew to India, he had a joyous reunion with his mother and younger sister, but sadly his brother Guddu had died.

Adapted from Saroo Brierley’s autobiography, A Long Way Home, Lion is a heartbreaking biopic with an emotional punch, thanks to powerful performances by Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel as the young and adult Saroo, respectively. The supporting cast, led by Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman, portrayed the women who had played pivotal roles in Saroo’s life.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes and some sensuality. In English, Hindi, and Bengali with subtitles. Running time: 118 minutes.

Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

January 11, 2017

Paterson (Adam Driver), who happens to live in Paterson, New Jersey, is stuck in a rut. By day, the municipal bus driver drives his bus on a boring route in Paterson. After work, he hangs out at a dingy, neighborhood bar where he limits himself to one beer. Then, he heads home to be with his loving wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and his bulldog, Marvin.

Writing is his only escape from the mind-numbing monotony. Whenever he has some free time, he scribbles poetry into a secret notebook that he always carries with him. Laura wants him to make a copy of the journal in case it gets lost or is accidentally destroyed.

By comparison, Laura is ambitious. Despite her foreign accent and a lack of musical training, she dreams of becoming a country western singer. So, she wants to purchase a guitar and take lessons that they can’t really afford. Fortunately for her, her husband is too blasé to object to her plans.

Resigned to his lot in life, the unassuming blue-collar hero takes everything in stride, whether dealing with passengers, unwinding with his wife, or schmoozing with the colorful regulars at the local saloon. Thus unfolds Paterson, the latest film from the legendary Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise).

The movie relies upon the dialogue of the script that has become a Jarmusch trademark. The movie is more concerned with character development than with cinematic effects. In the film, Adam Driver successfully tones down his usual over-the-top act in order to play the title role of an undistinguished Average Joe.

The picture’s charm rests in the gifted director’s ability to elevate a humble “Everyman” into a personality worthy of a movie audience’s attention.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity. Running time: 118 minutes. Studio: Amazon. Distributor: Bleecker Street Media.

PHS graduate Damien Chazelle met recently with Town Topics film reviewer Kam Williams to  talk about his latest movie, La La Land, which swept the Golden Globes Sunday, winning a record seven awards.

Damien wrote and directed the Academy Award-winning Whiplash which landed five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle. The movie won a trio of Oscars in the Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons) categories.

In 2013, his short film of the same name won the Short Film Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Previously, Damien wrote Grand Piano, starring Elijah Wood and John Cusack, and co-wrote the horror sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane, starring John Goodman. His screenplays for Whiplash and The Claim both appeared on the “Blacklist,” the annual survey of the most liked motion picture screenplays not yet produced.

Damien shot his first feature film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, while still an undergraduate at Harvard University. The critically-acclaimed debut was named the Best First Feature of 2010 by L.A. Weekly and was described as “easily the best first film in eons” by Time Out New York. more