James McAvoy

James McAvoy

“VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN” My rating: C- (Opens wide on Nov. 25)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“It’s alive!” rejoices Dr. Frankenstein (James McAvoy) as an ungodly mess of dead chimpanzee parts begins to stir on his operating table.

Too bad the same cannot be said of “Victor Frankenstein,” an elaborate production design in search of a movie.

The Frankenstein legend has so often been explored and exploited by filmmakers that screenwriter Max Landis and director Paul McGuigan deserve credit for at least trying something different.

This time around the “hero” is the hunchbacked assistant Igor, who far from being a demented moron is played by Daniel Radcliffe as a natural genius, albeit one who for his entire life has been the virtual prisoner of a traveling circus in Victorian England.

During performances this wretched nameless creature dons white makeup and is abused by the other clowns. In his off hours the hunchback studies anatomy and is the circus’ unofficial physician.

He’s rescued by medical student Victor Frankenstein, a hyperactive visionary who cures his new friend’s twisted spine, gives him a new identity (that of Igor, Frankenstein’s drug-addicted roommate who has been missing for months), and makes him a partner in his bizarro experiments.

The transformed Igor not only begins to experience something like normalcy, he strikes up a love relationship with the beautiful aerialist (“Downton Abbey’s” Jessica Brown Findlay) whom previously he worshipped from afar.

But Igor’s bliss keeps getting in the way of Frankenstein’s monomaniacal quest to give life to dead tissue.

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Bryan Cranston as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo

Bryan Cranston as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo

“TRUMBO” My rating: B (Now showing at the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli)  

124 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Bryan Cranston is very good as Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter/Communist/bon vivant/savage wit who won two Oscars under pseudonyms while blacklisted for his politics.

But who would have predicted that “Trumbo” would practically be stolen out from under the multiple Emmy winner by Helen Mirren and John Goodman?

It’s a surfeit of riches.

Dalton Trumbo was contradictory, infuriating, self-righteous, pompous, and wickedly funny. He was very well paid and lived on a sprawling California ranch (earning criticism for being a “swimming pool Soviet”) but appears to have been utterly sincere about making the United States a better place.

He joined the Communist Party of the U.S. largely out of his opposition to fascism in Europe (and, let’s be honest, at home as well). That came back to bite him in the ass after WWII when America went Commie crazy and the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed Trumbo and other Hollywood leftists in a search for Red influence in popular entertainment.

Ten of these unfriendly witnesses refused to answer questions, standing on their Fifth Amendment rights and the fact that joining the Communist Party was perfectly legal.

They were convicted of contempt of Congress (Trumbo publicly acknowledged that he was indeed hugely contemptuous of the bullying Congress), spent a year in prison and emerged to find themselves unable to work in the film or television industry.

Most saw their careers ruined. Trumbo began cranking out screenplays under fake names. Much of his work of this period was pure exploitative schlock, but two of his scripts — for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One” — won Oscars, although of course Trumbo could not acknowledge they were his work.

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Saorise Ronan

Saorise Ronan

“BROOKLYN”  My rating: A- (Opening Nov. 24 at the Tivoli and Glenwood Arts)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Brooklyn” is a wisp of a movie packing a boatload of feeling.

In this humanistic triumph from director John Crowley, little moments add up to an intimate epic.

Based on Colm Toibin‘s novel (the terrific adaptation is by Nick Hornby), this devastatingly lovely effort follows a young woman’s journey from Ireland to America, the gradual falling away of her old identity and the new one that replaces it in the land of promise.

As the film begins Eilis (a sensational Saorise Ronan…expect an Oscar nom) is a shopgirl in small-town post-war Ireland, a place of of narrow vistas, frustrated hopes and small-minded meanness.

Despite her fierce loyalty to her mother (Jane Brennan) and spinster older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), Eilis feels smothered and concludes her future lies elsewhere.

With the sponsorship of Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), an Irish priest living in NYC, Eilis buys a cheap boat ticket and takes off for the New World.

Her first mentor is her shipboard bunkmate,  a much more sophisticated gal who introduces Eilis to rouge and mascara, the initial step in being taken seriously as an American woman.

Once settled in the Brooklyn boarding house run by the hilariously opinionated Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), who presides over a dinner table of single girls like a tart-tongued mother hen, our heroine gets to work.

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Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams

Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams

“SPOTLIGHT” My rating: A- (Opens wide on Nov. 20)

128 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The devastating docudrama “Spotlight” is about the quest for truth when nobody seems to want to hear it.

The film describes how in the early 2000s four investigative reporters for The Boston Globe uncovered the Roman Catholic Church’s routine  reassignment of pedophile priests to new parishes where they could abuse even more children.

It’s a true-life horror story guaranteed to infuriate audiences, yet writer/director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor”) steers clear of cheap shots, hyperbole and sensationalism. “Spotlight” is a work of rigorous discipline; given the film’s focus on religion, perhaps “asceticism” is a better description.

Think of it as a journalistic procedural.

The film stars Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian D’arcy James as the members of the Globe‘s investigative Spotlight team.  They deliver understated, believable, utterly non-glamorous performances without a trace of showboating or pumped-up emoting. (They act the way the Royals play baseball — with their egos on hold.)

Despite the restraint with which it has been conceived and produced, “Spotlight” is hugely effective. The conventional dramatic bells and whistles are not only not missed, they’d be detrimental to the film’s success, getting in the way of a real story that demands to be told.

“Spotlight” begins with the arrival at the Globe of a new executive editor. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) comes to Boston from Miami. He is, as one local wag describes him, “an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball.” In other words, about as much an outsider as you can be in Beantown.

But it’s precisely because he hails from elsewhere that Baron gloms onto a small item in the back of the paper about a pedophile priest and asks Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton) if it’s story worth looking into.

As played by Schreiber, Baron is the kind of stiff, laughless guy uncomfortable with smalltalk. Or, for that matter, with the suggestion of Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) that together the newspaper and the church can work for the betterment of all Bostonians.

Unlike “All the President’s Men,” the reporters digging into the case don’t fear for their own safety. They’re not about to be snatched by men in black.

But they must balance their own faith (most are Catholic) with their obligation to get at the truth, no matter how unpleasant it may be. They’ve got to be bulldogs when it comes to gathering facts, they’ve got to defy the Boston power structure without seeming to be in open rebellion.

The project will require them to call up the patience to wade through reams of material (at the time the internet was a mere shadow of its current form, meaning research had to be done the old-fashioned way, page by early page) and to balance sympathy and professional distance while interviewing the traumatized victims of sexual abuse.

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Simon Pegg, Lake Bell

Simon Pegg, Lake Bell

“MAN UP” My rating: C+ (Opens Nov. 20 at the Barrywoods)

88 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There should be a special place in paradise for beautiful women willing to make themselves look like utter dorks.

Lake Bell is by just about any reckoning a beautiful woman. But in “Man Up” the model-actress-director plays Nancy, a thirtysomething Londoner with low self esteem, bad hair (those bangs!!!) and a miserable track record with the opposite sex.

I kind of love this character, who despite her romantic hiccups is smart and funny with a marvelously cynical world view and no tolerance for other people’s b.s.

Just wish the rest of the film were as watchable as Bell is.

This comedy from director Ben Palmer and writer Tess Morris finds Nancy being mistaken for another woman by that woman’s blind date. I’ll spare you the details of this improbable plot twist.

The main thing is that Nancy’s so desperate for a bit of guy attention that she doesn’t tell the fellow — he’s named Jack and is played by Simon Pegg — that he’s got the wrong girl.

So the two have a night on the town — drinking, eating, drinking, bowling,  drinking, dancing, drinking — and actually start to fall for one another.

Along the way they encounter a creep (Rory Kinnear) who has been obsessed with Nancy since high school, and Jack’s ex-wife (Olivia Williams) who broke his heart by running off with a pretentious yuppie twit.

“Man Up” takes a long, long time to find its voice — it’s only in the final moments that all the pieces come together in screwball fashion — and it often seems the film is trying so hard to be hip and clever that irritation sets in.

Happily Pegg and Bell (an American who comes up with a more than acceptable Brit accent) provide a core of sympathy and humor that gets us through the slow spots.

| Robert W. Butler

Julia Roberts

Julia Roberts

“SECRET IN THEIR EYES” My rating: C (Opening wide on Nov. 20)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Some stories cannot be transplanted from one culture to another without losing much in the process.

Such is the case with “Secret in Their Eyes,” an American remake of an Argentine release which in 2010 won the Oscar for best foreign language film.

The story arcs of the two films are pretty much interchangeable. Both feature a chase through a packed sports stadium, and each ends with a head-spinning last-act revelation capable of inducing a tummy full of dread.

And yet the particulars are different enough that what worked magnificently in one version sputters and dies in the other.

This film from writer/director Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass,” “Breach”) is presented as two interlocking stories taking place in two decades.

In the present former FBI agent (now he handles security for the New York Mets) Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) returns to his old haunts in Los Angeles to complete some unfinished business.

For 13 years Ray has been haunted by the murder of young Caroline Cobb, whose mother Jess (Julia Roberts) was a colleague and investigator for the L.A. District Attorney’s Office.

Ray and Jess were part of a task force looking for terrorist activity originating in a local mosque. The most likely murder suspect was a oddball young man and a member of that congregation.

But the D.A. (Alfred Molina) kept throwing roadblocks in front of the murder investigation. Eventually it was revealed that the suspect was a confidential informant reporting on activities at the mosque. Killer or not, the powers that be are kept him out of the legal system. Given the rampant paranoia after 9/11, they decided that preventing another terrorist attack trumps solving a young woman’s murder.

Despite lacking legal authorization or jurisdiction, Ray and Jess (Roberts has dowdied herself into near-unrecognizability) went after the suspect on their own. They were cautiously abetted by Claire (Nicole Kidman), a new prosecutor for whom Ray had (and continues to have) a raging case of unrequited love/lust.

But the suspect vanishes and the trail went cold.

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the 33 20053“THE 33” My rating: B-  (Opening wide on Nov. 13)

120 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The rescue in 2010 of 33 Chilean miners — buried alive for 69 days after the collapse of a gold and copper mine — is a story guaranteed to nurture hope and raise the spirits.

In fact, you’d have to be a stone not to be moved by a tale this dramatic.

And “The 33” does a pretty decent job of laying out a complicated yarn and seasoning it

with dramatic moments as it twists and turns toward an uplifting conclusion.

But it’s far from a great movie. The four-person screenwriting team and director Patricia Riggen (“Under the Same Moon”) struggle to get their arms around so many characters, so many plot threads. The film has no central character, and its dramatic impact is diffused.

Nevertheless, it does the job because we know that as unlikely as it seems, it’s a true tale.

We are introduced to the working stiffs at the San Jose Mine at a weekend party. One of the guys is an Elvis impersonator. Another is a graybeard preparing for retirement.

There’s a young husband whose wife is expecting their first baby. A lothario who openly juggles both a spouse and a mistress.

Of course our eyes are drawn to Mario (Antonio Banderas), a husband and father who oozes charisma and leadership.

The work gang foreman, Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips), is charged with ensuring the safety of his crews but keeps getting the runaround from superiors who don’t want to sink any more money into a 100-year-old mine that’s almost played out.

There is, of course, a new kid (Tenoch Huerta), a Bolivian who gets teased by his Chilean co-workers. (After they’re buried alive, the men grimly joke that he’ll be the first consumed, since “Bolivians taste like chicken.”)

And we shouldn’t forget the hopeless alcoholic (Juan Pablo Raba), whose older sister (Juliette Binoche) will become a thorn in the side of the greedy mining corporation.

The problem facing director Riggen is obvious. There are too many personalities here to really develop any of them. Many of these fellows are “types” rather than real people.

And things get doubly complicated because while the miners are trapped 2,300 feet  down in 100-degree heat with dwindling resources (mostly a few cans of tuna), back on the surface there’s another conflict brewing. Continue Reading »

*** ****

Alexander Fehling

“LABYRINTH OF LIES” My rating: B- (Opens Nov. 13 at the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli)

124 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Labyrinth of Lies” is an earnest slice of history in which the various characters are less personalities than easily recognized political points of view.

Normally this would not bode well for the enterprise.  But the subject of Giulio Ricciarelli’s drama is so big and compelling — the prosecution of Nazi war criminals (or, rather, the reluctance of post-war Germany to seek justice for the millions of murdered) —  that “Labyrinth” sucks us into its vortex of national guilt.

It’s 1957 and Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling, who plays Carrie’s boyfriend on the current season of “Homeland”) has his first gig as a Frankfurt prosecutor. As the youngest man on the office totem pole he spends most of his time in traffic court.

One day he arrives at work to find his fellow prosecutors being harangued by Thomas Gnielka (Andre Swymanski), a rabble-rousing newspaperman who claims to have discovered a notorious former Auschwitz guard contentedly teaching at an elementary school.

The legal brains aren’t interested. The older attorneys don’t want to stir up trouble.  The younger ones, like Johann, don’t even recognize the word “Auschwitz.”

When Johann asks around about the veracity of Gnielka’s accusations, he’s told that rumors of war crimes are all part of an anti-German smear campaign: “The victors get to make up stories.”

“Labyrinth of Lies” is about how Johann contracts Gnielka’s passion for chasing down war criminals, how he launches his own independent investigation (one opposed by most of his superiors) and little by little begins identifying those war criminals who have hung up their uniforms and resumed civilian life as if nothing had happened.

He spends days in vast musty repositories of fading Nazi documents (think the final warehouse scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”). He interviews concentration camp survivors.  Before long he’s raised his aim from a lowly school teacher to the notorious Josef Mengele, the physician who conducted inhuman experiments on death camp inmates.

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Brendan Gleeson, Carey Mulligan

Brendan Gleeson, Carey Mulligan

“SUFFRAGETTE” My rating: B (Opens wide on Nov. 13)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

A sad lesson of history is that power is rarely shared without a fight.

In “Suffragette” the terrific Carey Mulligan plays a London woman who goes from placid wife, mother and laundress to bomb-tossing terrorist. Her goal: voting rights for women.

Set almost exactly 100 years ago, “Suffragette” takes place at a time when the suffrage movement had hit a wall.  For decades British women had been peaceably seeking equality with their menfolk. They had petitioned their representatives. They’d demonstrated in an orderly fashion. And it had gotten them nowhere.

(The movie’s opening moments are filled with the voices of men pontificating on why women are too emotional and intellectually underachieving to be given a place at the political table. A woman, we’re told, should be happy to have her interests seen to by her husband, father, or brothers.)

In the character of Maud Watts (Mulligan), Abi Morgan’s screenplay gives us a lens through which we experience much of women’s struggle for equality.

As the picture starts Maud is living in more-or-less happy fashion with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and their son George (Adam Michael Dodd, who has a crying scene to match Jackie Coogan’s in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid”). Both adults work at the same laundry, a place of sweat and billowing steam where the owner sexually preys on the younger girls. They are not-quite impoverished but fairly content.

Maud is first exposed to the women’s movement when she witnesses a cadre of suffragettes heaving stones through store windows while chanting “Votes for women!” A co-worker (Anne-Marie Duff) begins talking up the movement and its leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in what amounts to a cameo role). At the last minute a reluctant Maud is recruited to describe conditions at the laundry before a parliamentary committee. She hopes for the best.

The best doesn’t happen. Peaceful rallies are broken up by club-wielding coppers. Mrs. Pankhurst goes underground, emerging publicly just long enough to make a stinging attack upon the authorities before vanishing once again.

Maud finds herself quickly becoming radicalized. She plots with other women at a pharmacy run by Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), whose knowledge of chemistry makes her an ideal bomb maker. Soon Maud is dropping sputtering explosive packages into public mailboxes and cutting telephone lines.

Meanwhile Maud’s activities and subsequent stays in jail — which include a hunger strike and forced feedings — alienate Sonny, who prevents her from seeing her son. (And, as it turns out, does much worse than that.)

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Diane Keaton, John Godoman

Diane Keaton,  farting dog, John Goodman

“LOVE THE COOPERS”  My rating: D+ (Opens wide on Nov. 13)

97 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

In “Love the Coopers” the dysfunctional family holiday movie gets big-name treatment. The results are exceedingly unlovely.

It’s not just that director Jessie Nelson’s Christmas-themed comedy tries to shock us with raunch and cynicism before going all squishy soft in the last reel.  Lots of pretty decent films (“Bad Santa,” “Home for the Holidays,” “The Family Stone”) have assumed the same trajectory.

It’s that Steven Rogers’ screenplay is so blatantly unfeeling, cobbling together standard-issue ideas and characters for a sort of Pavlovian-inspired emotional release.

“Love the Coopers” (the title invokes memories of the inexplicably beloved “Love, Actually,” and like that earlier film gives us several interlocking stories) takes place mostly in a picturesque suburb outside Pittsburgh PA.  Here quaint homes, a steady snowfall and lush woodlands evoke a Norman Rockwell atmosphere.

Emotionally, though, there is no peace in the valley.

For starters, after 40-some years of marriage Sam and Charlotte Cooper (John Goodman, Diane Keaton) are calling it quits. They will break the news to their assembled clan after “one last perfect Christmas.”

Happy holidays, everybody.

Several plots eventually meet around the Coopers’ dinner table.

Daughter Eleanor Cooper (Olivia Wilde) is so reluctant to see the rest of her family  that she settles into the airport bar for some fortification. There she meets Joe (Jake Lacy), a soldier on leave who is charming despite being a Republican.

In an agonizing montage Eleanor and soldier boy engage in a comic ballet on an airport moving sidewalk. It is so gosh-awful “cute” theaters should lay in a supply of insulin.

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assasssin“THE ASSASSIN” My rating: C+ (Opens Nov. 6 at the Tivoli)

105 minutes | No MPAA rating

Achingly beautiful and glacially paced,  Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s “The Assassin” is not your run-of-the-mill martial arts flick.

Depending on your tolerance for art film posturing, you may find yourself wishing for a run-of-the-mill martial arts flick.

A deliberately intellectual effort that places the utmost importance on mood and ambience, “The Assassin” offers no gore and really not much action. Virtually no effort is made to forge an emotional bond between characters and viewers. Many scenes take the form of beautiful tableaus.

Yinniang (Qi Shu) is a young noblewoman kidnapped as a child and for several years trained as an assassin by a nun (Fang-yi Shue) who apparently sees herself as some sort of avenging angel. Now Yinniang is told she must kill her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang) to whom she was once betrothed.

While there is plenty of corruption that needs punishing (the time is the 8th century), Tian seems to be a responsible regional leader who cares about his wife, children and the general welfare of his people. Why the nun wants him dead is a mystery.

And in fact Yinniang — who can infiltrate any high-security area and lurk there unseen for indefinite periods — cannot bring herself to complete her assignment.

assassin_3-2__article-house-780x440And that, folks, is about all I can tell you of “The Assassin’s” plot because I didn’t understand a damn thing that was going on.

There’s court intrigue of some sort, a jealous wife, a big dance sequence…but Hou and his screenwriters don’t seem to care at all about delivering a digestible narrative.

Nor do the players go out of their way to provide three-dimensional characters. Most speak in monotones, as if hypnotized.

“The Assassin” all boils down to sight, sound, atmosphere.  If you can slow down enough to soak it up, I’m sure there are rewards.

I didn’t have the patience.

| Robert W. Butler

heart thumbnail_23253“HEART OF A DOG” My rating: B (Opens Nov. 13 at the Tivoli)

75 minutes | No MPAA rating

Except in the form of an animated avatar, we never  see Laurie Anderson as she delivers the film-as-performance piece that is “Heart of a Dog.”

But this could be the work of no other artist. Anderson’s voice — soothing, calming, seemingly unemotional yet often tinged with deadpan irony — is instantly recognizable to her fans.

And through the visual collages she has created for this film, Anderson offers a total sensory experience, a melding of sight and sound that is hypnotic, captivating, and strangely moving.

The topic of “Dog…” is a biggie:  death.  Curiously,  Anderson doesn’t talk about the passing a year ago of her husband, rock icon Lou Reed (although one of his recordings is featured under the closing credits). Perhaps that’s for the best…the loss of Reed still may be too painful.

Rather, Anderson explores her heavy-duty topic mostly through her experiences with Lolabelle, the pet rat terrier that also died not long ago.

The film consists of brief essays, stories, anecdotes, musings.  For instance, there’s a yarn about how Lolabelle got a whiff of her own mortality when, on a walk along the Pacific coast, a couple of condors targeted her for dinner.


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Abraham Attah

Abraham Attah

“BEASTS OF NO NATION” My rating: A- (Now available on Netflix)

137 minutes | No MPAA rating

To the small handful of brilliant movies about the madness of war — among them “Apocalypse Now” and the Soviet “Come and See” — we must now add Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” a ghastly but hugely moving story about child soldiers in an African civil war.

In this sobering feature — a Netflix original that is also being booked into theaters — we never do learn the nationality of Agu (Abraham Attah), our young protagonist.  Only that he lives with his family in a demilitarized zone where civilians are safe from the violence that swirls around them.

But their sanctuary doesn’t last long. Soldiers — apparently they represent the central government — show up to do a bit of cleansing.  Agu’s mother and younger siblings have already fled to the big city, but now he watches as his unarmed father and older brother are gunned down.

The boy races into the bush, living like an animal. Then’s he’s captured by a band of rebels led by Commandant (a hypnotic Idris Elba) and slowly indoctrinated into their martial ranks.

Commandant is the only adult in sight. His next-in-command is a teenager and most of the troops under him are mere children playing soldier. It’s like “Lord of the Flies”
with machine guns.

But Commandant is a charismatic leader for whom his “men” would do anything. So when newbie Agu is ordered to execute a captive with a machete, he obeys. Reluctantly at first, and then in a frenzy as the lust to kill takes over.

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Meet-The-Patels-e1437091362227“MEET THE PATELS” My rating: B

88 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

I was prepared to give “Meet the Patels” a chilly reception just on principle.

After all, here’s a release that looks suspiciously like a home movie…a home movie that meets everyone’s cliched expectations about the behavior of Americans of East Indian descent.

Okay, I was wrong.  I ended up thoroughly enjoying this goofy, warm, borderline heart-tugging documentary from the brother/sister team of Ravi and Geeta Patel.

And if it sometimes looks like a home movie…well, that’s part of its charm.

Our subject is co-director Ravi Patel, a modestly successful Hollywood actor who, as this documentary begins, is rapidly approaching the age of 30. Though born in the U.S.A., Ravi comes from a traditional Hindu family and the pressure is on for him to marry a nice Indian girl — preferably one also named Patel (it’s a clan thing) — and start producing grandkids.

The Woody Allen-ish Ravi reveals (sometimes in conversation with his unseen older sister Geeta, who’s manning the camera) that his dating history is sketchy at best. He’s rarely had success with American girls, though he did enjoy a two-year relationship which he kept a secret from his family lest they go bonkers because he was seeing a woman who wasn’t an Indian American. Eventually the romance collapsed (you can’t blame the girl…who wants to be a dirty secret?).

Now he agrees to allow his parents, Champa and Vasant, to do the whole matchmaking thing.  Ravi doesn’t want an arranged marriage –though he admits that his parents, who knew each other for all of a week before becoming engaged, are the happiest couple he knows.  Rather, he will submit to a complicated process meant to hook him up with an appropriate Hindu girl.  Both he and the women will have the right of refusal.

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‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” My rating: B+

142 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13


Tom Hanks’ singular status as this century’s James Stewart pays off big time in “Bridge of Spies,” Steven Spielberg’s recreation of one of the Cold War’s lesser known stories.

As the real-life James Donovan, a New York insurance lawyer pulled into the world of espionage and international intrigue, Hanks is wry, moving, and astonishingly ethical. He practically oozes bedrock American decency.

Which was precisely what this movie needs.

The screenplay by the Coen Brothers and Matt Charman runs simultaneously on four tracks.

In the first Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in NYC in 1957 by federal agents. As no lawyer wants to represent him, the Bar Association basically plays spin the bottle — and assigns the job to Donovan.

Jim Donovan believes that every accused person deserves the best defense possible. In fact, he alienates the judge, the feds, and the general public by standing up for his client’s rights and assuming that this is going to be a fair trial when everybody else wants just to go through the motions before sentencing Abel to death.

On a parallel track is the story of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a military flyboy recruited for a top-secret project and trained to spy on the U.S.S.R. from a one-man U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.  Alas, on his very first mission in 1960 he’s shot down, fails in an attempt to commit suicide, and falls into the hands of the Commies.

Then there’s the arrest in 1961 of Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American grad student studying economics who finds himself trapped on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall and vanishes into the labyrinthine East German justice system.

All this comes to a head when Donovan, several years after Abel’s conviction, is dispatched to Berlin in an ex officio capacity to arrange a swap of the Soviet spy for Francis Gary Powers.  And if in the process he can somehow free Fred Pryor from a damp cell, so much the better.

The yarn is so big and dramatic that it seems improbable…yet it happened. (What’s more, a few years later Donovan was dispatched to Cuba to negotiate the release of anti-Communists captured in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.)

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martianMV5BMTUxODUzMDY0NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDE0MDE5NTE@._V1__SX1377_SY911_“THE MARTIAN” My rating: A

141 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

With “The Martian” director Ridley Scott and star Matt Damon deliver an almost perfect piece of popular filmmaking, an intimate sci-fi epic that is smart, spectacular and stirring.

This big screen adaptation (by screenwriter Drew Goddard) of Andy Weir’s best-seller about an astronaut stranded on Mars has just about everything — laughs, thrills, visual splendor and a rousing endorsement of the brotherhood of man.

It’s the least pretentious and most wholly enjoyable film of Scott’s extensive career (which includes  “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Thelma & Louise” and “Gladiator”) and pushes Damon’s acting talents to the max.

The premise melds elements of 1964’s “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” and “Apollo 13” (earthbound scientists and engineers invent ways to help their desperate colleague).

Matt Damon

Matt Damon

And nestled inside this riveting adventure is a sly commentary on bureaucracy.

Set in a near future in which the American space program is thriving (the film’s most patently fantastic assertion), “The Martian” opens on Mars, where a team led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is wrapping up a month-long scientific mission. A fierce sandstorm catches the astronauts out in the open, and they barely make it to the Martian lander that will return them to the orbiting mother ship.

But one of them, botanist Mark Watney (Damon), is literally blown away by the raging wind. Believing him dead, Lewis has no choice but to take off without him before the storm makes liftoff impossible.

But Mark isn’t dead. He awakens to a beeping alarm in his helmet telling him he’s almost out of air, struggles out of the sand in which he is half buried and discovers that he’s been skewered by a shard of wind-blown metal.

He barely makes it into the now unoccupied housing module where he performs a bit of surgery on himself and takes stock of his situation. Continue Reading »

John Wood

John Wood

“FINDERS KEEPERS” My rating: B (Opens Oct. 2 at the Glenwood Arts)

82 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Finders Keepers” is a sort of hillbilly epic about an amputated human leg.

For starters.

In 2004 John Wood of Maiden NC lost his left leg — and his father, Tom — in the crash of their private plane.  Wood asked the hospital where he was treated to let him have his severed limb.  He hoped someday to be buried with it.

He expected to receive bones.  Instead Wood was given the whole leg, decaying flesh and all.

Initially Wood stored it in the freezer of the local Hardee’s (a friend worked there). After the manager threw a snit fit Wood soaked the limb in formaldehyde and hung it from a tree to dry.

But John had a drinking and drug problem. Before relocating to another state he moved his possessions into a storage facility. When he failed to pay the rent his belongings were sold at auction.

Enter Shannon Whisnant, a bombastic, barrel-bodied, bullfrog-voiced good ol’ boy who made a living buying junk cheap and selling it dear. Whisnant purchased and took home Wood’s small barbecue smoker. When he looked inside he discovered not the residue of old ribs but a human leg.

And there Whisnant saw a glorious future. This boondock Barnum would charge folks $3 ($1 for children) to view the limb. He printed up T shirts declaring him The Foot Man.

Meanwhile, between benders John Wood  argued that this was his flesh and bone, after all. He wanted nothing to do with what one observer of the feud describes as “fuckery and shenanigans.”

Shannon Wisnant

Shannon Wisnant

Their battle for possession of the leg would eventually be settled in the reality TV courtroom of Judge Greg Mathis.

At first glance Bryan Cranberry and Clay Tweel’s documentary appears to be a savage sendup of redneck ethos. But “Finders Keepers” takes individuals who at first glimpse seem stupid and silly and recognizes the tragedy in their lives.

For the more you dig into Wood and Whisnant’s back stories, the more complex things become.

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Emily Blunt

Emily Blunt

“SICARIO” My rating: B+

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The war on drugs is lost.

No character in “Sicario” says as much, but the overwhelming thrust of Dennis Villeneuve’s gripping film makes that conclusion unavoidable.

Taylor Sheridan‘s first produced screenplay couches its sobering observations within the familiar tropes of an anti-crime drama. “Sicario” (Mexican slang for “hit man”) begins with FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) leading a raid on what appears to be an unremarkable home in the Arizona desert.

Except that the house is filled with heavily armed men and contains dozens of dead bodies entombed behind dry wall — it’s like some sort of bizarre tract home catacomb.

Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are by-the-book types who make a point of observing all the legal niceties. So Kate is puzzled when she is reassigned to an interagency task force where the rules are bent or broken with disturbing regularity.

Benecio Del Toro

Benecio Del Toro

She’s suspicious of Graver (Josh Brolin), the garrulous but vaguely sinister task force leader. She thinks he may be CIA — but that can’t be, since the CIA cannot legally get involved in domestic operations.

And her red flags really begin twitching in the presence of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who claims to be a former Mexican prosecutor  but radiates lethal possibilities, not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of the Mexican drug cartels they’re trying to bring down.

“Sicario’s” knotted plot is hard to explain — it involves a massive plan to force one drug kingpin to reveal the identity of his heavily-protected boss. There are blatantly illegal incursions South of the Border, a kidnapping and torture — but the mood of desperation, corruption and betrayal that it establishes (abetted by a throbbing musical score that seems to embody doom) is carried with the viewers as we leave the theater.

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