Aldis Hodge

“BRIAN BANKS” My rating: B 

99 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

With “Brian Banks” a familiar story is told in unfamiliar fashion.

Tom Shadyak’s drama follows the true-life saga of Brian Banks, a promising football star who at age 16 was accused of rape, plead no contest to avoid a long prison sentence, and nevertheless spent six years behind bars before being released into a parole system which — because he was now a convicted sex offender — was its own sort of hellish imprisonment.

Most movies would approach the subject chronologically. Doug Atchison’s screenplay cleverly starts in the middle with Banks (Aldis Hodge) already on parole. His history, though, means he cannot find anyone willing to employ him.  Just as bad, a new California law requires him and all sex offenders to wear an ankle monitor and remain within their neighborhoods…meaning he must give up  his place on a local college football team.

We cringe to see the humiliations Brian is subjected to. On the bright side are a handful of individuals upon whom he depends, like his ever-faithful mother (Sherri Shepherd), his new girlfriend (Melanie Liburd) and a prison mentor (an uncredited Morgan Freeman, seen only in flashbacks) who saves his life by emphasizing the need for a mental overhaul if you’re going to survive behind bars.

Somewhat less sympathetic is his by-the-rulebook parole officer (Dorian Missick).

And then Brian gets wind of the California Innocence Project, the brainchild of law professor Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), who with a staff of unpaid law students seeks to free the unjustly imprisoned.

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“THEM THAT FOLLOW” My rating: C+

98 minutes | MPAA rating: R

An obscure corner of American culture — a snake-handling  religious sect — provides the setting for “Them that Follow,” Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s unconventional coming-of-age drama.

Mara (Alice Englert) has grown up in the rural church where her widowed Bible-thumping father, Lemuel (Walton Goggins), is the preacher. A typical ceremony finds the menfolk of the congregation so moved by the Holy Spirit that they reach into a wooden box and withdraw hissing  rattlesnakes.

They’re fulfilling a Biblical prophecy that if they are truly saved, they can handle poisonous serpents and God will protect them.

The snake handling doesn’t freak out Mara.  What does give her sleepless nights is the baby growing inside her. It’s the result of an affair with her childhood friend Augie (Thomas Mann), the son of one of the church’s most steadfast members (Olivia Colman).

But Augie has been drifting from the religious community. He’s talking about moving away to find work and, presumably, himself.

Which leaves Mara…where? Her father has approved her betrothal to Garrett (Lewis Pullman), who has no misgivings about the faith; but how’s that going to play when Garrett learns of her condition?

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Tracy Edwards (left), skipper of The Maiden

“MAIDEN” My rating: B

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Grab your daughters and granddaughters and make a family outing of “Maiden,” an awe-inspiring documentary about a bunch of young women who defied institutional sexism to risk their lives in an around-the-world sailing competition.

For that matter, bring along your sons and grandsons. They could probably use what “Maiden” is selling.

Alex Holmes’ film centers on Tracy Edwards, a young English woman who out of sheer chutzpah raised the money to buy a yacht, assembled an all-woman crew and entered the 1989 Whitbread Around the World Race, a harrowing and life-threatening enterprise executed in five distinct legs for a total of more than 30,000 miles.

“You have to be a bit crazy,” one interview subject observes of the long-distance sailors.

Amazing, old home movie footage going back to Edwards’ childhood exists, and among her Whitbread crew was a woman who kept a film record of the epic voyage. This means that Holmes is able to tell this story cinematically using archival sources, with regular digressions to talking-head interviews of the women today.

Profoundly affected by the death of her father and her mother’s futile struggle to maintain control of his hi-fi business — not to mention Mom’s second marriage to an alcoholic —  Edwards left home early.

Long a lover of the sea and ships, she got a gig crewing on a luxury rental yacht.  One of the boat’s customers was King Hussein of Jordan, who befriended the young woman and, learning of her fascination with sailing, got her a job as a cook on an otherwise all-male boat.

In fact, the yachting world was one big boy’s club, at best patronizing, at worst openly hostile. While she doesn’t report any overt sexual harassment, Edwards says she was clearly an unwelcome outsider. That’s when she came up with the idea of an all-female Whitbread crew.

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Marc Maron, Jon Bass

“SWORD OF TRUST” My rating: B

89 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Lynn Shelton’s “Sword of Trust” is marvelously funny descent into the wacko fringes of modern America, enacted by a superb cast of players who work the material for every droll moment.

Reportedly built on extensive improvisations (the Christopher Guest model) the film opens in a Birmingham pawn shop overseen by Mel (Marc Maron), a morose, cynical guy whose greatest pleasure is buying exotic merchandise on the cheap.

His constant companion is Nathaniel (John Bass), a slack-jawed assistant who wastes most of the business day chortling over Internet videos.

One day they are visited by a lesbian couple, Mary and Cynthia (Michaela Watkins, Jillian Bell) who are interested in selling a Civil War-era sword found in the home of Cynthia’s late grandfather.

The old man left behind an envelope crammed with “documentation” allegedly proving that the sword was surrendered by Gen. Phil Sheridan to one of Cynthia’s rebel forebears.

According to the old man’s scribblings, the sword is proof that the Union lost the War of Northern Aggression.

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Shuzhed Zhao, Awkwafina

“THE FAREWELL”  My rating: B

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Through set largely in a foreign country with its own language and cultural peculiarities, “The Farewell” hits universal themes of kinship and mortality with unerring accuracy and delicate grace.

Lulu Wang’s film, inspired by her own family, centers on two women — the Chinese American Billie (Akwafina), who lives in New York City and is struggling to establish a career as a writer,  and her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), back in China.

Billie’s parents — Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) — brought her to America when she was a young girl.  As a result Billie is way more American than Chinese, although she retains enough conversational Mandarin to get by.

More than two decades in the U.S. have profoundly affected Haiyan and Jian as well.  He feels guilty about not having revisited his homeland in years; she is happy to have escaped the subservient lot of a typical Chinese daughter-in-law.

Then comes the news that Haiyan’s mother has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The doctors give her only three months.

But this fact is kept from the old lady; it is the custom of many Chinese families to keep such bad news from the patient until the last moment.  The rationale is that it allows the condemned to enjoy life for as long as possible.

Everyone in the family wants to visit Nai Nai to pay their respects, but how to do it without spilling the beans about her precarious health?

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Patricia Arquette, Angela Bassett, Felicity Huffman

“OTHERHOOD” My rating: C+

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Thank God for Patricia Arquette, Angela Bassett and Felicity Huffman.

These three classy thesps  make “Otherhood” bearable and intermittently entertaining.

The premise of Cindy Chupack’s film finds three old friends in upstate New York lamenting the indifference with which  their sons ignore Mother’s Day.

Thus the film’s title: once mothers, these three women now find themselves “others.”

But the gals aren’t gonna take it.  They load up an orange Volvo station wagon and tool down to NYC to surprise their errant offspring.

Carol (Bassett) discovers that her son Matt (Sinqua Walls) is the art director of a “lad” magazine (aimed at horny single guys) with a different girl every night.

Gillian (Arquette) finds her son Daniel (Jake Hoffman) struggling not only with a stillborn writing career but a breakup with his longtime girlfriend (Heidi Gardner).

Helen (Huffman) swoops down on the gay-centric apartment of her kid Paul (Jake Lacy) and throws a few hissy fits that alternately amuse and appall Paul’s roomies.

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Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Al Pacino


161 minutes |MPAA  rating: R

Crammed with alternately bleak and raucous humor, a palpable affection for Tinseltown’s past and peccadilloes, and enough pop cultural references to fuel a thousand trivia nights, “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” is a moviegoer’s dream.

Here writer/director Quentin Tarantino eschews his worst tendencies (especially his almost adolescent addiction to racial name-calling) and delivers a story that despite many dark edges leaves us basking in the sunny California sunshine.

Each scene has been exquisitely crafted with every element — art direction, costuming, cinematography, editing, acting — meshing in near perfection.

In the process Tarantino rewrites history, blithely turning a real-life tragedy into a fictional affirmation of positivity. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

The heroes (??) of this 2 1/2-hour opus are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a star of TV westerns who now (the time is 1969) sees his career circling the crapper, and his stunt double, the laconic tough guy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who not only steps in to perform dangerous feats on the set but serves as Rick’s best bud, Man Friday and chauffeur (Rick’s had one too man DUIs).

Tarantino’s script finds the  alternately cocky and weepy Rick (DiCaprio has rarely been better) lamenting his fading status in the industry (he’s been reduced to playing villains in episodic TV) and contemplating the offer of a semi-sleazy producer (Al Pacino) to make spaghetti Westerns in Europe.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate

Cliff, meanwhile, picks up an underaged hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) who takes him to one of his old haunts, the Spahn ranch, an Old West movie set now occupied by one Charles Manson and his family of hippie misfits.

Newly arrived at the home next to Rick’s on Cielo Drive is director Roman Polanski and his beautiful actress wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Tate is a sweetheart, an all-American beauty radiating an almost angelic innocence and positivity. But we can’t help twitching in anxiety…after all, everybody knows that in ’69 she and her houseguests were the victims of a horrific murder spree by Manson’s brainwashed minions.

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