‘The Hundred-Foot Journey embraces food and family

Those wishing to see a relaxing and pleasant film in the middle of the hot and heavy summer movie season should enjoy “The Hundred-Foot Journey.”

With such notables attached to the project as Stephen Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey as executive producers, Lasse Hallstrom as director and Helen Mirren in a lead role, the potential for quality is high.

Based upon the novel by Richard C. Morais and adapted for the screen by Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises”), “The Hundred-Foot Journey” thrives under the guidance of Hallstrom, a proven director with an impressive list of films that includes “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules.”

‘Journey” is the story of the Hadam family, which while in the second generation of operating a restaurant in India suffer tragedy and loss during a post-election uprising. The family flees to London but cannot fit in there, and takes to the road looking for a new home.

The leader of the family is Papa (Om Puri), a gentle but stubborn father. One of his sons, Hassan (Manish Dayal), has shown exceptional potential to be a chef of Indian cuisine, so Papa hopes to settle the family somewhere and start anew in the restaurant business.

Fate lands them in the outskirts of the town of Lumiere near the French Alps, where the Hadams are temporarily taken in by young Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). In this town  Papa finds an old closed-down restaurant facility for sale and despite the warnings of his children, purchases the property.

There is a problem, however. This property is located right across the street from a renowned French restaurant owned and operated by the steadfast and disciplined Madame Mallory (Mirren), a perfectionist and one whose eatery serves as a training ground for superb chefs.

Amid the negativity around him, Papa is optimistic his restaurant can draw customers because it will offer Indian rather than French cuisine. Naturally, Madame Mallory does not take kindly the intrusion upon her restaurant monopoly — and her pursuit of attaining a two-star or more Michelin rating, sort of like the Oscars of the restaurant business — thus the butting of heads between her and Papa, two obstinate people, commences, with the mayor (Michel Blanc) caught in the middle — but well fed as each owner plies him with tasty entrees.

The other story focuses on Hassan and Marguerite, where an obvious attraction is stymied because she is employed in Madame Mallory’s restaurant, thus are friendly foes. The relationship is strained more because both are striving to become master chefs, and as Hassan’s talents become more recognized, Marguerite is torn between her affection for the young man and her envy of him.

Hallstrom uses scenes of food preparation — which can whet appetites — to symbolize the intense competition between Mallory and the Hadams. In one clever sequence, the act of chopping up ingredients during food preparation illustrates the urgency of each restaurant to excel and beat the other.

The interplay between the characters is the key to this movie, with Puri and Mirren splendidly portraying two people accustomed to being in charge and getting their way. Yet as they engage in a war of wits, mutual respect, and more, seems inevitable.

Le Bon and Dayal also show chemistry as two young people struggling with their attachment to each other while other factors prevent them from realizing affection for one another.

A beautifully photographed film, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” has the right emotional touches, along with humor and psychological insight. It is wonderfully cast, and yes, the food serves as a yummy supporting star.

They’re back! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles primed for action in reboot

Thirty years ago, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, two avid fans of adventure comics, put their heads together and created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a franchise of graphic comics, animated series and movies that has thrived for three decades.
A trilogy of live action movies came out in 1990-93, followed 14 years later by “TMNT,” a computer-animated film. Now, for the summer of 2014, a reboot is hitting the screens in a flurry of releases the past few months that has revisited Captain America, the Amazing Spider-Man, Godzilla, X-Men and Planet of the Apes.
Amid the pre-release build-up of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” there have been lively social media debates focusing on red flags that have gone up regarding Michael Bay’s involvement — who serves as a producer, not as director and who has his share of detractors because of the “Transformers” series, despite its massive success  — along with concerns about director Jonathan Liebesman, whose previous efforts — “Wrath of the Titans,” “Battle Los Angeles” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” — have taken their hits from critics and viewers. Then there is the casting of Megan Fox, whose depth as an actress has been questioned, in the pivotal role of April O’Neil.
The good news is that under Liebesman’s direction, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is a visually spectacular summer action movie. It follows the usual blueprint of the good-versus-evil story, with the heroes facing overwhelming odds but who are able to summon the courage, skill and resourcefulness to vanquish a foe.
The opening segment gives nod to the early graphic comic version, with those artistic renderings used as a backdrop while Splinter (Danny Woodburn, but voiced  by Tony Shalhoub), the genetically-enhanced and intelligent rat, presents a voice-over, recalling how he raised the four turtles, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello, since they were babies and how he used the ninja principles to instill discipline as well as physical preparation in the turtles.
Still residing incognito in the sewers of New York, the four turtles are eager to battle bad guys despite Splinter’s assessment that they are not ready yet, and sneak off to right wrongs, knowing they probably will endure the wrath of Splinter when they return.
The screenwriting team of Josh Applebaum (“Alias”), Andre Nemec (“Alias”) and Evan Daugherty (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) has the turtles going up against their usual enemies: the Shredder and his Foot Clan that have a grip on New York City.
Fox’s April O’Neil is a TV reporter for a local news agency who, along with her cameraman/colleague Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) go around the city covering fluff stories (or “froth stories” as Vernon calls them) while April pines to handle hard news stories.  One night she witnesses the thwarting of a Foot Clan burglary on the docks by four mysterious beings, but her story is met with skepticism by her boss, Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg). Even after Fox survives a hostage situation that is diffused by the turtles she cannot find anybody to believe her story, not even Vernon.
Doing research on her own, she discovers the secret of the turtles, and her own involvement years earlier, and with nowhere else to go, she takes the information to Eric Sachs (William Fichtner), a scientist colleague of her late father.
Nothing, however, can stop the inevitable battles between the four teenage turtles and the Shredder, with April and Vernon — in the role of the reluctant hero — in the middle of things.
With the standard plot line and the usual chase and fight scenes and constant peril, the writing team needed to inject character into the story. And here is where “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is elevated. The writers captured the essence of the four turtle brothers, each with a unique personality, and the very real interplay one would expect from teenage siblings.
Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), the free spirit, has the showiest scenes via his overt flirting with April. Leonardo (Peter Ploszek and voiced by Johnny Knoxville) is the leader of the group, the tactical designer, protective of his brothers and dedicated sensei student. Raphael (Alan Ritchson) is the aggressive one who can be sarcastic. Donatello (Jeremy Howard) is the inventor and technical genius. They all are mentored by Splinter, who passed on what he has learned to his adoptive sons.
 The turtles engage in verbal interplay, even in the midst of mortal danger, that is full of wit and playful digs at each other.
As for the humans, Fox is fine as April in a role that demands more physical than emotional action, leaving open the possibility of deeper character development in the likely sequel or two. Arnett’s character also lacks any true development other than being pulled into incredible situations because of his affection for April.
In the end, it is the bond between the four teenage mutant ninja turtles and the way they feed off each other — when not gnawing on pizza — that in this movie, as well as in other media, makes these characters so astonishingly popular.
Hoffman at his best in intricate “A Most Wanted Man”
John LeCarre’s novels are woven with complexity and require a tenacious attention span. Whenever his stories are adapted for a screen presentation, the challenges are the same for the viewers.
A Most Wanted Man,” aside from being our last chance for a big-screen presentation showcasing the enormous talents of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a complex spy tale for our times, when intelligence agencies face the daunting challenge of keeping tabs not only other governments, but also on rogue groups of people that blend in but are committed to kill for their cause.
Smartly adapted for the screen by Andrew Bovell (“Edge of Darkness”) and directed by Anton Corbijn, “A Most Wanted Man” can be classified as an art-house spy thriller. This is not James Bond, with neat high-tech gadgets, eccentric villains, chases, gunplay and exotic locations and women. This is a story that takes place in the trenches.
Much like his earlier “The American” that featured George Clooney, Corbijn presents a somber world where the main characters go about their lives with a gloomy persistence, totally committed to their mission, leaving little time for anything else, including a normal life.
“A Most Wanted Man” focuses on a post-9-11 world where the most dangerous person could be someone standing right next to you. Responding to lessons learned from the 9-11 attacks, in which rivalries and an unwillingness to share information between intelligence entities allowed the terrorists to carry out their attacks, the German government has set up an under-the-radar group led by Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) that has set up shop in an underground garage in Hamburg with its surveillance gear and hits the streets to track down potential terrorists by building allies and recruiting informants.
Bachmann, a man haunted by an operation in Beirut that went horribly wrong because of that fatal lack of cooperation between agencies, is a driven man who considers grooming a secondary concern. He smokes incessantly and  drinks hard liquor, even on the job. In one of the rare scenes in which he is home, one can sense that place also is secondary among his priorities — his home is in that underground facility, and his colleagues are his family.
Bachmann has been tenaciously tracking Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a wealthy, high-profile Muslim who publicly decries the actions of terrorists and  has a network of charities. While most of the funds reach these charities, some of it goes missing and Bachmann suspects it is being diverted to help terrorists obtain weapons.
When a Chechen Muslim, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), illegally immigrates to Hamburg and it is learned he is the son of Chechen leader who committed atrocities but built up a nice financial next egg to pass on, Bachmann sees an opportunity to catch Abdullah in a sting.
Bachmann and his colleagues — Irna Frey (Nina Hoss), Maximilian (Daniel Brühl), Niki (Vicky Krieps) and Rasheed (Kostja Ullman) — are a 24-hour operation, and their quest includes working Karpov’s legal sponsor Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), owner of the bank where the Karpov fortune is held in an account, to cooperate.
The film, despite its slow pace, remains gripping as Bachmann and company engage in psychological and persuasive tactics to achieve the goal. Meanwhile, Bachmann also must deal with other agencies of high power and influence while forming a tenuous, barely trusting association with Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), working for U.S. intelligence.
In Bachmann, Hoffman leaves us with a memorable portrayal of man who invests so much of himself “to make the world safer” that he has become a person who, without his work, is just a hollow existence.
“A Most Wanted Man” is a nice break from the noisy popcorn movies of the summer. Despite its gloominess it is an entertaining exercise, succeeding in being suspenseful while relying solely on dramatic interplay. It is also a grim reflection on the world today and the toll it can take on those on the front lines of the fight against terrorism.

Johnson is a rock in otherwise predictable ‘Hercules’

There is no doubt that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has a commanding physical presence. Whether or nor he can act is debatable, but put him into a role in which he can exploit his superb physicality and the result can be an entertaining if not a particularly deep movie.

In “Hercules,” Johnson is the perfect match for title character: muscular, adept at wielding the weapons of the day — and his fists as well — to vanquish foes, as he assumes the glare that was part of his professional wrestling persona.  Just do not expect any dramatic flair from him.

This version of Hercules is based upon the radical comic from Steve Moore, adapted for the screen by Ryan Condal (his first major screenplay) and Evan Spiliotopoulos, who has written several straight-to-video scripts, and directed by Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour”).

Hercules as presented here is the son of the god king Zeus, and upon enduring the 12 perilous labors, and haunted by personal tragedy, has formed a small group of mercenaries who hire out to fight battles. With no allegiances, Hercules and his group can go into battle and efficiently prevail. Hercules is hoping to soon earn enough gold pieces to secure a serene retirement.

Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of Lord Cotys (John Hurt), leader of Thrace, seeks help from Hercules to save their country from imminent attack from a conquering horde. Upon arriving at Thrace, Hercules and his band face the task of training a novice army of farmers from the depleted ranks of able-bodied men in the kingdom. The first foray into battle has mixed results, so the training continues but before long, Hercules and his group have molded this band into a formidable army.

Unfortunately, Hercules and company are thrown into a dilemma, wondering if they were duped into building an army designed for aggression rather than defense, forcing them to shed their objectivity and pursue what they believe is right.

Between the chaotic battle scenes are the side stories to help build character. Offering some humorous moments is Ian McShane as Amphiaraus, the oldest of Hercules’ group and a man who is devoted to the gods’ prophesies despite their lack of clarity or accuracy. Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) is a young cousin of Hercules, tasked with telling stories of the exploits of Hercules while pining to go into battle, something Hercules continues to deny.

Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) and the mute, animalistic Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) are diehard loyalists to Hercules, having battled side-by-side with him for years. And Ingrid Bosol Berdal is Atalanta, the lone woman of the group, a proficient archer, looking like she came straight out of a “Xena Warrior Princess” episode, and is one of those with an endless supply of arrows.

This is all fantasy, of course, so the viewer needs to dismiss such issues as to how, despite a mounting body count in the battles, there never seems to be a depletion of people, along with the almost laughable way Atalanta always has an ample arsenal of arrows, never needing a timeout to go grab some more.

The battle scenes are fantastic, with some great aerial shots that vividly display the scope of the action. Joseph Fiennes (as King Eurystheus) and Hurt get moments to go Shakespearean and portray the evil of power gone mad.

“Hercules” will not drill the viewer with any plot twists, and it rolls noisily to a conclusion that will surprise nobody. All in all, it is a summer popcorn movie, with a lot of action and not much in the way of searing drama.


‘The Purge: Anarchy’ views perilous hours on the streets

Writer-director James DeMonaco has said a road-rage incident with a drunken driver, and a muttering by his wife in the immediate aftermath about a chance to get even, planted the seed for the idea that developed into “The Purge,” a sleeper hit of 2013. The premise was that in the near future in the United States, the New Founders of America have sanctioned a 12-hour period in which all crime, including murder, is legal. This is ostensibly to allow people to work out their aggression, but obviously there is a more sinister society-cleansing objective involved.

Because of budget limitations, DeMonaco had to pare his story down and focus on one family, James and Mary Sandin (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey) and their two children. James Sandin has become wealthy as a seller of home security systems necessary to survive The Purge. But when his daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) provides sanctuary for a desperate man targeted by killers, he learns that even with all the technology at hand, everything can break down because of human failings.

The success of the movie resulted in more financial muscle for DeMonaco, and he was able to move the action out to the streets in “The Purge: Anarchy,” and tell the story of those who do not have the the means to turn their homes into fortresses. The result is a high-tension horror show that explores the worst, and best, in humans.

“Anarchy” focuses on five people who find themselves with no safe haven as darkness falls on the day of the annual purge. Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) is a single mom of a teen girl, Cali (Zoe Soul), struggling to make ends meet as a server at a coffee shop. Shane and Liz (real-life couple Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) are having financial and marital difficulties and while en route to Shane’s sister’s house their car breaks down, leaving them stranded as The Purge commences.

The fifth person is Leo, also known as Sergeant (Frank Grillo), the only one of the group who voluntarily is on the streets, armed and on some sort of a revenge mission.

Not surprisingly, The Purge also becomes a source of entertainment and amusement for those with the monetary resources to pay for such services. Thus, people like Eva and Cali who don’t have secure homes are vulnerable to invasions and purgings.

Luckily, Eva and Cali, and Shane and Liz encounter Leo, who has to set aside his own objectives and help the four people get through the night.

And what a night it is. But not a fun one for these five people. Lethal danger lurks around every corner. There are a few deranged loners intent on picking off people via sniper strategies,  a gang of masked marauders who have set their sights on Shane and Liz, and a menacing guy named Big Daddy (Jack Conley), cruising around in an 18-wheeler loaded with weaponry and technology that has tapped into surveillance cameras, and accompanied by armed goons on motorcycles.

Leo’s weapons do not match these deadly adversaries, so he has to be resourceful, and it gets even crazier when supposedly safe sanctuaries turn perilous.

DeMonaco keeps the suspense in high gear while also providing a sobering message about decent people in the lower class that are deemed expendable. As the movie ends, The Purge is over for now but seems embedded in the new reality of this future America.

In an interview with Fangoria magazine, DeMonaco was asked if there was a third “Purge” in the works. He declined to comment, saying he did not want to jinx anything. But “The Purge” gets a grip on you, and fans will heartily welcome another installment, especially with an additional story line that is left open.

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ a worthy sequel

Andy Serkis, who despite being under layers of makeup, managed to make us weep for King Kong and freaked us out as Gollum. Now he has scored again as Caesar, the intelligent chimpanzee who leads the simian colony in the superb sequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who wrote the screenplay for the reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” are joined by Mark Bomback (“Wolverine”) in picking up the story, which ended with the ominous possibility of a lethal virus being spread worldwide while Caesar, the super intelligent chimp, is leading his simian group, immune to the virus, to set up residence in the woods outside of San Francisco.

“Dawn” opens with a montage of grim images covering about 10 years as the ALZ-113 virus, originally developed to battle Alzheimer’s, has decimated the human population to possible extinction.

Caesar is now married to Cornelia (Judy Greer) and they have a son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) who is likely a teenager in chimp years, and a new son is soon born. Caesar is the undisputed leader of the simian colony and uses sign language to communicate with most of the colony. He and his lieutenant, Koba (Toby Kebbell), also can speak.

One day Blue Eyes and his friend Ash (Doc Shaw) stumble upon a human, Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who in a panic shoots and wounds Ash. The gunfire draws not only Caesar, Koba and others but a group of humans of which Carver is a member. Malcolm (Jason Clarke from “Lawless”) is the leader of the humans and is fortunately a cool head, who along with Caesar, manages to extinguish a tense situation. But Caesar demands that the humans leave.

The humans, however, need to get through the woods to a nearby dam where a dormant generator can be reactivated to provide much needed energy to a colony of people in the city.

Now aware that humans still exist and needing to keep his colony from panicking, Caesar leads a huge group of simians to the city in a show of power and tells the humans that although they want no war, they will fight if the humans try to come into their territory. As a gesture of faith, Caesar returns a satchel dropped by Malcolm’s teen son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee)  while fleeing the forest.

The human colony is led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who also would prefer not to go to war but realizes they must get the power plant operational. Malcolm pleads with Dreyfus to give him three days to go back and negotiate with Caesar. Dreyfus OKs this but as a backup plan has some of his men go to an armory where weapons are stored and to prepare for possible armed fighting.

Caesar and Malcolm work out a fragile peace that allows the humans on the power plant detail a chance to work on the power plant, on the condition they surrender their weapons.

But as happens there are loose cannons among the cool heads. Carver is discovered to have an additional gun stored away. And among the simians, Koba, carrying scars and distrust of humans after being subjected to their cruelty, takes a couple of apes with him on a reconnaissance mission to the city, where he sees two men testing weapons outside an armory full of weaponry and ammunition.

Koba reports his findings to Caesar, who is concerned but still believes allowing the humans to work on the plant is the best option to assure peace. Koba concedes but with reluctance.

Malcolm banishes Carver from the power plant project, but this enables Koba to manipulate things to trigger animosities. When Caesar is shot and apparently killed, Koba is easily able to rally the simians to attack the human colony.

Director Mark Reeves, whose previous works includes “Cloverfield,” is skilled in creating action scenes loaded with chaos, violence, panic and heroism, and the trio of writers have created a story that highlights the conflict within each faction. Caesar has seen the best and worst in mankind, and in Malcolm he slowly develops a trust akin to that of which he had with Will Rodman (James Franco), who raised him. Koba is a destructive force but he has legitimate reasons to hate the humans. Blue Eyes is at the stage of life where he questions his father but ultimately realizes Caesar’s wisdom and compassion.

Malcolm is supported by Ellie (Keri Russell), a woman he met after losing his wife to the virus and who becomes his lover. Her medical expertise comes in handy when she is able to treat the ill Cornelia, an action that seals the trust between Caesar and Malcolm. Another touching development is the friendship between the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), who is steadfastly loyal to Caesar, and Malcom’s son Alexander.

Even Drefus is given a moment to reflect the tragedy he suffered and why he is driven by his obligations to protect the people he now leads. This creates an effective drama amid the action. For all the trouble they cause, Koba and Dreyfus are worthy of sympathy.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” ends with a sobering realization that despite some real bonding between key members of the simian and human colonies, conflict is inevitable. But the movie also sprinkles a little hope among the grim realities.

For Roger Ebert, ‘Life Itself’ was a grand adventure

For millions of people, the lasting impression of film critic Roger Ebert was that of a heavy-set man, looking like an academic — the kind of person who knew all the answers in class and jacked up the grading curves with his ridiculously high scores. He wore glasses and was every school’s top nerd. He also was charismatic and charming in his own way.

For years people would tune into a show, “Sneak Previews,” that starred Ebert and his co-host Gene Siskel as they offered critiques of the latest movies. The show featured clips of the movies being reviewed, and if you were lucky, an intense disagreement between the two hosts on the merits and flaws of the films.

This was a formula that worked for years and added a spontaneity and human element. It also made Siskel and Ebert the most famous film critics ever. But it all was a compromise, because of those who watched these two on TV, initially very few had access in those days to reading their material in print.

Fortunately, via syndication, book publishing and Internet archives, the writings of Siskel and Ebert have been made available, and with the touching and informative documentary “Life Itself,” now in theaters and soon to hit the pay TV and DVD/Blu-ray market, interest may spike in people seeking their print work.

“Life Itself” is based on Ebert’s autobiography and it is a rich collection of history and commentary on the life of a man who was born to write.

Directed by Steve James, “Life Itself” has a lot of footage that is difficult to watch, following Ebert in the final months of his life in late 2012 and early 2013, almost entirely in the hospital. The ravages of the cancer he had battled for years had deformed his face, making his mouth virtually useless. He could no longer talk or eat.

Thus, the laptop keyboard became his mouthpiece, and despite the miseries he suffered, he was able to exude an inner strength, dignity and humor that is inspiring.

Between these emotionally draining scenes, James puts together a biography of Ebert, rich in photos and clippings, along with recollections from Ebert’s friends and colleagues, including some surprising insights by director Martin Scorsese (who along with screenwriter Steven Zaillian served as executive producer for this film).

Roger Ebert knew at an early age that he was a writer, and as a child he published his own neighborhood paper, and delivered it door-to-door.

He was a driving force at his college newspaper and already had accumulated an impressive portfolio of work when he was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1960s. When the paper’s film reviewer retired, Ebert was assigned to replace him. Ebert settled into this niche nicely and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his film commentary.

While he excelled in his work, he also became seduced by the night life in Chicago, an indulgence that led to the realization he was an alcoholic. He quit drinking, and with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous was able to stay sober the rest of his life.

The core of “Life Itself” centers around the two biggest forces in his life — his late-in-life marriage to Chaz, an inter-racial union that made Ebert instantly a stepfather and step-grandfather; and his many years co-hosting his show with Siskel.

Chaz was 10 years younger than Ebert and they hit it off and were married in 1992, when Ebert was 50. Although an only child and a bachelor for a half-century, Ebert thrived as a family man — in one segment, Ebert fondly recalls (Stephen Stanton provides the voice-over in reciting Ebert’s words) taking long walks with his step grandson.

The Eberts’ love story is richly displayed here, with photos from their life together, and especially in the sobering footage of Chaz at Ebert’s side during his hospitalization, not showing pity but a reinforcing support. Even after some procedures that are clearly uncomfortable, Chaz could read when Ebert was ready to move on and continue working.

Also of great interest is the detailing of the Siskel and Ebert collaboration. In the beginning it had possibilities of being a failure. Siskel and Ebert were competitors: Ebert writing for the working-class Sun-Times and Siskel for the powerful Chicago Tribune. Siskel, before marrying and settling down, was a jet-setter and part of the inner circle at the Playboy mansion.

There are some wickedly funny outtakes from the Siskel and Ebert shows, with these two competitive and driven men taking verbal — and often profane — swipes at each other. Comments from others conceded that although Ebert could hold over Siskel that he had a Pulitzer, and although Ebert was older, Siskel seemed to be the big brother in their relationship.

Initially, the show was not offered in the major markets of Los Angeles and New York, and was a hard sell, with two men sitting in a mock theater, and dressed casually (like clowns, one commentator noted). But when L.A. and New York picked up the show, it really took off.

These were two strong personalities and clashes were constant. Both men were coy when asked how it was decided that Siskel’s named would precede Ebert’s. Despite their disagreements, a true bond developed between them. Siskel’s two daughters served as flower girls at the Ebert wedding in 1992.

When Siskel learned he had a terminal brain tumor, he did not let Ebert know, to Ebert’s dismay. It also motivated Ebert, when he became ill, not to conceal it, which is why he allowed his battle with cancer to be widely known.

In the end, as Siskel’s wife, Marlene, noted, Siskel and Ebert respected each other, “and I believe they loved each other.”

Although he was robbed of his voice, Ebert became a stalwart of the Internet and social media, continuing to write reviews as long as he could, and filing a blog up until the final days of his life.

“Life Itself” does conclude with Ebert’s passing on April 4, 2013, and his funeral, but  uplifting is that he died at peace with his life, holding Chaz’s hand. And we are left with the  knowledge that his writing will be out there for all time. Yes, Ebert had a likable TV presence, but his writing was truly his gift to the world.


A simple story in ‘The Rover,’ but it sticks with you

The lead character in the Australian import “The Rover” does not speak until about 15 minutes into the movie, and this sets the tone for this grim but surprisingly engrossing film, directed by David Michod (“Animal Kingdom”).

The character is named Eric and is played with a quiet intensity by Guy Pearce. His name is Eric, but the only way the audience learns that is by seeing it in the credits.

Michod wrote the screenplay, based on a story on which he collaborated with actor Joel Edgerton (“The Odd Life of Timonty Green”). The film moves slowly and requires patience but before long it is easy to get hooked.

The story takes place in Australia “ten years after the collapse.” What collapsed is not elaborated but as the narrative unfolds it seems to be a breakdown of the economy and infrastructure throughout the country. In the opening moments, Eric is seen sitting silently and solemnly in his dusty car. He eventually exits the car and shuffles into an old rundown building, which turns out to be a karaoke bar.

While he is gloomily having a drink, the scene cuts to a speeding pickup truck in which three excitable and armed men are fleeing from what probably was a botched robbery. One of the men, Henry (Scoot McNairy), is upset because they had to leave his brother Rey behind, possibly dead from gunshot wounds. The activity in the vehicle gets so intense and out of the control that the truck goes into a roll and ends up tangled in debris right outside the karaoke bar.

The three men climb out of the truck, spot Eric’s car, hot-wire it and drive on.

By the time Eric sees what is going on and runs outside, the three bandits have sped off in his car. He climbs into the wrecked truck and finds it still runs and manages to free it from the debris. He goes after his stolen car and follows it until the armed men stop and confront him. Eric demands they return his car and gets knocked cold and left by the road.

Meanwhile, Rey (Robert Pattinson from the “Twilight” series) is not dead. He regains consciousness and manages to stagger to a Humvee used by the military unit now serving as law enforcement, and drives off, nursing a wound to his left side.

Eric awakes to find that at least the thieves left him the truck. He continues on, making stops at whatever settlements he finds in this vast, mostly uninhabited Outback area of Australia, asking if the car with three men passed through. He also obtains a gun in a rather abrupt and bloody way.

During one of Eric’s stops, Rey also pulls into the area and seeing the truck thinks it is his brother and partners in crime, only to learn it is now in the possession of Eric.

Eric, upon learning Rey is a brother of one of the criminals, takes the man to a doctor (Susan Prior) for treatment, and afterward demands that Rey take him to wherever his brother and partners are hiding out. Rey is a bit handicapped mentally and is easily taken under control by Eric, who eventually convinces him that his brother must not have cared much for him if he was willing to leave him for dead.

Eric and Rey develop an uneasy alliance, and it is the interplay between these two men that captures the viewer’s attention. Eric is a man of few words and we learn very little of his background. Rey soon is revealed as a simple-minded man who is coerced with little difficulty. When he is rebuffed impatiently by Eric for talking about things in his past, he pouts and says, “not everything has to mean something.”

Another gripping aspect of the movie is why Eric is so obsessed with getting his car back. Because he has the truck, which serves just as efficiently for transportation as a car, there must be more to the stolen vehicle than just a possession.

Along the way, Eric mostly has to take charge of situations, only to be surprised when Rey proves resourceful at times.

Serving as a backdrop to shaky association between Eric and Rey is the gorgeous but unforgiving landscape of remote Australian Outback territory. During their journey, the two men encounter desperate people torn between trusting others as a means of survival or just fending for themselves.

Michod tracks the story along so that it is impossible to figure out what will happen if and when Eric and Rey catch up to the thieves. In the end, the viewer has been treated to a very simple story, yet the character development is so skillful, using minimal dialogue, that “The Rover” will rattle around in the viewer’s mind for a while.

Eastwood uses the right pieces to make ‘Jersey Boys’ work

Here is something you do not see often in movies these days. As “Jersey Boys” opens, the camera settles upon a street in New Jersey in the early 1950s. Then Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) comes into the scene and immediately addresses the audience, laying the foundation for the story and giving the film an intimate one-on-one feel. This is a device employed in the stage production as written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice — who also wrote the movie screenplay — and used occasionally throughout the movie, Clint Eastwood’s screen adaptation of the popular award-winning musical.
Because of the success of “Jersey Boys” on stage, the story is well known, chronicling the rise and eventual fall of The Four Seasons, the pop group that had several huge hits in the early 1960s. Also, because of the high profile of the play, the screen version has been widely anticipated, especially in the directorial hands of Eastwood, already a proven talent behind the camera.
Eastwood’s smartest move was casting John Lloyd Young, who already has won a Tony Award, in the pivotal role of Frankie Valli, the falsetto-voiced singer who provided the Four Seasons with its unique sound. In fact, Eastwood opted to have stage actors rather than film performers, wanting to get people who have become familiar with the roles from playing them repeatedly.
Of the major characters, only Piazza, who has played Lucky Luciano in “Boardwalk Empire,” and Christopher Walken have extensive film experience.
The result is an exhilarating film, loaded with music, along with its share of drama, humor and tragedy. It’s early, but “Jersey Boys” could be a contender for Academy Award nominations.
Young’s ability to mimic Valli’s voice really cements the authenticity during the many song productions in “Jersey Boys.”
Young’s Valli is a basically decent teenager when “Jersey Boys” opens, a youngster in New Jersey who falls under the influence of the street-wise DeVito, and although DeVito briefly leads Valli astray with some illegal activities, their brotherhood is sealed.
DeVito also is the leader of a pop group, featuring Valli as lead singer, that goes through several name changes before a neon sign inspires the group to become The Four Seasons.
The story follows the usual path of a group struggling to establish itself, doing gigs wherever it could get bookings while trying to generate interest in demo records.
The key relationships that help propel The Four Seasons is the hook-up of songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) with the group, introduced to the band by Joe Pesci (yes that Joe Pesci, but played by Joseph Russo), who starts cranking out the hits; and meeting up with producer-songwriter Bob Crewe (a scene-stealing Mike Doyle).
Fame and fortune follow, along with the inevitable problems. Although devoted to his wife Mary (Renee Marino, also reprising her stage role) and family, Valli’e excessive absences while he is on the road leads to the crumbling of his family.
Meanwhile, DeVito’s irresponsible handling of finances amounts to massive debt, which in turn triggers a splintering of the group.
Before that, Gaudio, a lot more savvy about the music business, forges a partnership with Valli so that once The Four Seasons are no more, the two can continue to make music.
Tragedy almost has Valli completely dropping out of the business until Gaudio brings him another song that he reluctantly takes a look at. It turns out to be “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” another enormous hit that revives Valli’s career.
Walken adds some nice touches as Gyp DeCarlo, a neighborhood boss in New Jersey who takes a liking to Valli’s singing and later proves to be a valuable ally in solving the Devito-generated financial disasters.
Amid the great scenes of The Four Seasons peformances is the familiar story of the glory of success and how easy it can disintegrate. But it also is a story about loyalty and allegiance that became a foundation to the lives of Valli and his fellow group members.
“Jersey Boys” is a throwback to those great musically-centered movies of decades ago and a viewer does not have to be a fan of The Four Seasons to appreciate the production, which concludes with an all-cast dance routine to “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” as the credits begin to roll.

’22 Jump Street’ is a rehash, and it knows its

The pairing of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill for a cop-buddy comedy was inspired and led to the 2012 hit “21 Jump Street,” based on the television series that featured Johnny Depp. Thus it was a no-brainer that a sequel would hit the screens.
The bad news is that “22 Jump Street” is pretty much the same plot as its predecessor. The good news is that the co-directors of the original, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, along with one of the “21” screenplay writers, Michael Bacall, are back, and they cleverly poke fun at the fact the movie is a rehash.
Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum), who were pushing it in “21 Jump Street” by trying to pass themselves off as high school students in an undercover assignment, are again posing as students, this time in college, in an effort to break up a drug ring. Ice Cube is back as Capt. Dickson, still antagonistic, still employing colorful language.
Once on campus, the two officers, who had prided themselves on being a team, doing everything together, find themselves splitting apart. Jenko finds a kindred spirit in the college’s starting quarterback, Zook (Wyatt Russell) and fits in comfortably with the partying jock element on campus.
Schmidt, meanwhile, cannot compete there but hooks up with the bohemian art majors, drawn there by Maya (Amber Stevens), who brings out his sensitive side.
Amid their investigation, Schmidt and Jenko feel the tension as they continue to drift away from each other, especially when Jenko begins to consider pursuing a college football career.
There are a few twists along the way, including a stunning revelation involving Capt. Dickson.
Per usual, there are the slapstick scenes that exploit Schmidt’s athletic shortcomings, as well as Jenko’s stumbling efforts at improvising. The age jokes are prevalent also, mostly coming from Maya’s roommate Mercedes (Jillian Bell), who delivers relentless zingers at Schmidt.
The chemistry between Hill and Tatum is again a strong point of the movie, and Ice Cube offers a hilarious presence with his unabated rage and disgust. Surprisingly, the unlikely pairing of Schmidt and Maya has a sweetness that makes it authentic.
As amusing as “22 Jump Street” is at times, the highlight comes at the end, while the credits roll, and everybody involved in this comedy flat out make fun of the concept of sequels. So stick around to see it.


The more he dies, the more heroic Cruise becomes in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

In a way, the gift that Tom Cruise’s Maj. William Cage receives in “Edge of Tomorrow” is enviable. It is the ability to relive past moments in life and correct the mistakes made to ensure a better result. The down side: You have to die in order to “reset” the time and go back.

That is the premise behind “Edge of Tomorrow,” yet another in the nasty-aliens-invade-Earth genre.

With a relentless assault of “mimics” gaining more ground in an attack on the planet, mankind has found that even technological advances in weaponry cannot thwart these creatures. Amid all this, Maj. Cage, a PR officer quite content with his job that leaves him “in the rear with the gear,” is summoned to Europe to meet with Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), who tells the major he is going to be on the front lines of a massive land attack that will make or break the humans’ defense of the planet. Cage resists and is seized and rendered unconscious. When he wakes up, he finds himself at the military base where the massive assault is being prepared. He is assigned by Master Sgt. Farrell (Bill Paxton) to a squad and given a crash course in combat.

The next day the assault commences and is a disaster. Cage dies within minutes and at the moment of his death wakes up with a start and is back at the base and it is the previous day.

So once again he goes through the preparations and dies in the attack, and wakes up again back at the base. He soon realizes to his amazement he is in some sort of time loop. This is baffling to him but at least every time he goes back into battle he lasts a little longer, knowing what has happened and how to delay his death. In these battles he encounters the Special Forces warrior Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who soon realizes what is happening to Cage and tells him, “When you wake up, find me.”

Cage has to AWOL but does track down Rita on the day before the attack, and she enlightens him on what  he is experiencing and how they should be able to use this ability to gain an advantage over the enemy. Cage does not want any part of this, but Rita tells him it is either this or confinement to a psycho ward or a final stop on a dissection table. Rita takes him Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor), a scientist whose theories on the alien species have been dismissed as looney but hold the secret to victory.

Once Cage has been trained — a darkly-humored sequence in which Cage’s mistakes require a “reset” — the major and Rita must go into the battle repeatedly on that deadly beach, advancing a little more in their quest to administer a crushing blow to the aliens.

Maj. Cage is not a recycled Cruise hero like Maverick of “Top Gun,” Ethan Hunt of “Mission Impossible” or Jack Reacher. For much of the movie he is bumbling and inexperienced, exasperating Rita, but eventually develops into a man now capable of rendering the final blow to the enemy.

Director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”), maintains a swift pace, slowing only as Cage and Rita analyze what they have learned and go from there. There is little time for quiet moments between Cage and Rita although they obviously have grown fond of each other. There are no back stories on either character, so their actions and reactions amid the deadly chaos have to be the key in drawing the audience to them. Fortunately, Cruise and Blunt have a chemistry together that blends well with all the action.

The screenplay, by Christopher McQuarrie (“Jack Reacher”), Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, manages to keep things rolling, with touches of humor, despite repeated scenes. The audience is held in suspense on what the next challenge will be for Cage and Rita and whether there will be yet another “reset.”

 Seth MacFarlane offers a funny view of the Old West

Seth MacFarlane, whose “Ted” has forever changed the way we view cuddly teddy bears, takes a step into Mel Brooks’ territory with his raunchy look at the Old West in “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”
Fans of MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” animated series know he likes to push the envelope in his humor, and those going in to see his “A Million Ways” can expect to be exposed to very crude material that mostly is not sophisticated — although some of the jokes may go over most people’s heads — but is infectious.
As director and co-writer — along with his collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild — MacFarlane had the power to put himself in the lead role as Albert Stark, a sheep farmer of minimal success living a few miles outside of the dumpy town Stump Hill and a man who is quite aware he is out of his element trying to survive in the harsh conditions of Arizona in 1882.
The opening credits appear to be a salute to Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” which in turn played homage to the serious old Westerns, using the same bold and colorful type face on the screen, accompanied by a majestic orchestral theme by Joel McNeely as the musical backdrop to the panoramic views of a gorgeous land  still mostly untouched by progress.
Then there is the opening scene of a typical showdown gun duel on the main street of a town. At that point, all the seriousness breaks down.
Albert, challenged to a draw, does not approach this with narrow-eyed confidence. Instead, he talks his way out of the gun fight, promising instead restitution to the challenger in exchange for likely being shot to death.
All of this is conducted in front of the town folk, including Albert’s girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who then dumps him and soon takes up with Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), the conceited owner of the town’s mustache grooming shop.
With what little confidence he had now imploded, Albert, while sitting in a bar with his best friends, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman), laments the lethal trappings of living in the West.
In a sidebar plot device, despite Ruth being the most popular of the town’s prostitutes, she and Edwards have a chaste relationship.
Meanwhile, the notorious gun slinger and robber Clinch Eastwood (Liam Neeson, having fun in a rare villain role) and his gang are active, and while he is conducting his work, he dispatches his wife Anna (Charlize Theron) and  Lewis (Evan Jones), one of his minions, to lay low in Stump Hill.
Lewis foolishly shoots a man in the town bar, sparking a free-for-all brawl. Albert and Edward do everything they can to avoid getting involved in the melee until Albert sees Anna in danger of being injured and saves her.
Soon, Albert and Anna strike up a friendship, as Anna lends a sympathetic ear to Albert’s lamentations. She suggests they attend the upcoming carnival as a couple in hopes of sparking jealousy in Louise. Albert is reluctant to go because, he says, people always get killed at the carnival. But Anna talks him into it.
Yes, there are some macabre but sickly humorous deaths at the carnival, but also more humiliation for Albert, who in a fit of anger challenges Foy to a gunfight. Upon regaining his senses, Albert is in a panic as he is lousy with a gun, but Anna assures him she can teach him how to shoot.
As in many adult-oriented comedies, amid the raunchiness there is a sweet undertone, and the friendship between Albert and Anna, that is able to develop because she never tells him the truth of her circumstances, is a nice pause in the hilarity. It appears that there might have been some improvisation in the conversations between Albert and Anna, as Theron’s laughter does seem spontaneous.
Of course, just as Albert and Anna fall in love, Clinch comes to town and throws everything into chaos. Before long, Albert has fled Stump Hill and is out in the middle of nowhere, where he is captured by a tribe of Native Americans, led by Cochise (Wes Studi), and this encounter is the key to Albert becoming a man who can summon the courage to face Clinch.
The story is rudimentary and predictable, but the humor comes in loud and hardy, sometimes with an unexpected bang.
“A Million Ways” is not a gentle comedy by any means, nor is it destined to be a classic. It is deeply embedded in guilty pleasure territory.
MacFarlane’s Albert is a likeable goof, and the supporting cast, particularly Theron, Ribisi and Silverman, provide some gems. Only Seyfried comes off as being under-used.