You may ask what is Judi Dench up to this time? I wonder if this wonderful actress ever dreamed her career would continue to soar into her golden years. I hasten to add that everything you have heard in praise of this film is richly deserved. This is a road picture without the outrageous calamities that usually beset players in this genre; it is a gentle comedy without demeaning any of the characters; and it is also a very effective drama about a young mother and her long-lost child.

This PG-13, pleasantly scripted dramedy was co-written by Jeff Coke (Lots of TV) and Steve Coogan himself, based on the book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" by Martin Sixsmith. You will see no sweaty bodies (except when Philomena gives birth), hear no gunshots, and see no vehicular mayhem. What a relief!

We have:
  • Judi Dench ("Skyfall") is Philomena Lee. Many decades ago, as a pregnant teenager abolished to a convent, she was forced to give up her out-of-wedlock boy as penance. She has searched for him for a long, long time. This woman is not worldly, but she IS wise...
  • Steve Coogan ("What Maisie Knew") is Martin Sixsmith, a jaded journalist who suffers from a mild case of depression; he did after all, just lose his job. When he is first approached about this story, his reaction is strictly negative. "Human Interest Stories" are NOT his cup of tea! This may be the first time I've found this actor appealing.
  • Anna Maxwell Martin ("North and South") is Jane, Philomena's daughter who is convinced her mother deserves to know what happened to her little boy after he was taken from her. Jane is the one who approaches the journalist...
The facts, as they are uncovered, are NOT kind to the Catholic Church, nor to the people who administer the penances for their parishioners. In recent years, much has been disclosed about the treatment of young girls and orphans in Ireland, courtesy of the Church, so there is no big surprise here. This simply puts a face on two of its victims.

The home movies that appear throughout seem so authentic, it's hard to know if they are real or not. I can't find anything that tells me, so I think this is simply an extremely sophisticated blend of fact and fiction. Kudos to the artists who put this together!
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Here is a preview:
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According to English journalist Christopher Booker, there are only seven basic plots, but screenwriter Sylvester Stallone ("Rambo" and "Rocky") uses my favorite one (Overcoming the Monster). He gives us someone to root for and then puts that individual in jeopardy.

After establishing our hero's credibility as an undercover agent for an alphabet soup of agencies, this non-stop actioner gets started with a simple little case of grade-school bullying which results in a fist fight; the families quickly escalate the situation and from there on, the action rarely lets up.

We watch:
  • Jason Statham ("The Transporter") A mystified local cop thinks maybe Phil Broker is in the Witness Protection Program...or something. He clearly is NOT a run-of-the-mill local yokel in the small Southern hamlet where he and his daughter have settled.
  • Izabela Vidovic (Lots of TV) is his daughter Maddy, who, miracle of miracles, does NOT trip and fall when being chased, is resourceful and clever, and knows how to stick up for herself.
  • James Franco ("Oz the Great and Powerful") is Gator, a down- home bad boy with a hi-tech meth lab that will be his ticket to the big time.
  • Kate Bosworth ("Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!") is his sister, furious over that playground incident and dead set on revenge.
  • Wynona Ryder ("The Iceman") is Sheryl Mott, a foul-mouthed barmaid; she delivers a file to a powerful man who needs it then watches the whole violent catastrophe unfold.
This has a richly deserved R rating, so expect lots of profanity, broken bones and torture, many intervals of gunfire and drug use along with some highly satisfying blowie uppie stuff. However, I hope you noticed that I said in the first paragraph "Overcoming the Monster" so that means a happy ending! Whew...
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Here is a link to a preview:
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Black Nativity

"I would rather be a lamppost in Harlem than the Governor of Georgia." This is a famous quote from Langston Hughes (1902-1967), who was part of the Harlem Renaissance that began in the early 1920s. His classic play, "Black Nativity," appears on American stages each holiday season, so it's time an updated musical version is offered on film.

We have a fatherless boy sent by his destitute mother in Baltimore to stay with her estranged parents in Harlem until she finds a new job and another place to live. He is confused and angry; plus his backpack is stolen just minutes after he gets off the bus in New York City.

Here is some of the cast:
  • Jacob Latimore (Lots of TV) is Langston, bewildered by the rift between his mother and his grandfather. No one will tell him why they aren't speaking, so all he wants is to go back to Baltimore and try to help his mom.
  • Forest Whitaker ("The Butler") is Langston's grandfather, the Reverend Cornell, a dedicated minister and loving husband, but inflexible where his daughter is concerned.
  • Angela Bassett ("American Horror Story") is the lovely and wise Aretha Cobbs. Langston says, "I don't even know what I'm supposed to call you. Should I call you Grandma?"
  • Jennifer Hudson ("Winnie Mandela") is Langston's single mother, out of options and desperate to protect her son, even though she will NOT accept any help from her family. That inflexible apple didn't fall very far from that inflexible tree....
  • Vondie Curtis-Hall (Lots of TV) is the pawnbroker our young hero visits in a naïve attempt to raise money for his mother.
  • Tyrese Gibson ("Fast Five") is a spooky guy who just seems to keep showing up in that Harlem neighborhood.
This PG-rated musical features a wide range of selections, from original ballads and traditional hymns to rap, so it has something for everyone. The finale is the Christmas nativity presented in Reverend Cornell's Harlem church, so it's seasonal as well.
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Please watch this preview:
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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Admit it. Some of you have been waiting for this one. I know I have. If you saw "The Hunger Games," you will remember that in this battle to the death, our two representatives from District 12 had to pretend to be in love in order to get sponsors to provide some much-needed supplies necessary for their survival (and victory). Now the Panem government wants to see them marry to prove that it wasn't a hoax.

The problem is, The Capitol senses a rebellion brewing and thinks our heroine may be the inspiration, so they announce The Quarter Quell which will pit contestants drawn from previous winners. She is certain to have her name drawn as she is the only female winner from District 12 in the past quarter century. So much for that "lifetime of plenty" she was promised.

Some of these are returnees from the first episode:
  • Jennifer Lawrence (Oscar for "Silver Linings Playbook") is back as Katniss, the role model I wish tweens would emulate: Her first instinct always is to help; she is genuine; she's smart; she's resourceful; AND she has become the unwitting symbol of rebellion in Panem.
  • Josh Hutcherson ("Red Dawn") is Peeta, her partner, and, to make their story look real, her fiance. This guy is steadfast, strong and soooo much in love with her....
  • Liam Hemsworth ("The Last Song")  is Gale, her hunting buddy, still working in the mine back in District 12, taking care of her mother and sister and trying to ignore the publicity about Katniss and Peeta's pending nuptials.
  • Sam Claflin ("Snow White and the Huntsman") is Finnick, one of the other contestants. Is he an ally they can trust or is he an enemy who will stab them in the back?
  • Lenny Kravitz ("Precious") is the wonderful Cinna, the designer who created the marvelous dress that launched Katniss as the Girl on Fire. This year's design is even more provocative. Wait until you see it!
  • Donald Sutherland ("The Hunger Games") returns as President Snow, walking a fine line between assassinating Katniss outright (which might inflame the rebels) and trying to outwit her (which he's fairly confident he can do).
  • Stanley Tucci ("Jack the Giant Slayer") once again is the perfect television host: smarmy, overly enthusiastic and completely despicable.
  • Elizabeth Banks ("Pitch Perfect") This time her Effie Trinket seems to have grown a heart. Whew!
  • Woody Harrelson ("Seven Psychopaths") still is Haymitch (and he still drinks too much). He's the only former winner of the Hunger Games from District 12 still alive, so he serves as mentor to our two contestants.
This is a battle of wits, guts and gumption. It is PG-13 because of the grisly idea behind the games, although we rarely see blood. There is a sprinkle of profanity but it is warranted when used. We mostly see resourceful (and loyal) young adults in a battle for their lives. They remind each other, "Remember who the enemy is."

This is exciting, involving and we have a LOT of people to root for. I haven't named all the principal characters in this 146-minute epic, but I must warn you, there are no dull spots when you can take a quick break, so do NOT drink too many liquids!

I'm looking forward to the third (and fourth) episodes. "Mockingjay," Suzanne Collins' final book in this trilogy has been split into two $creenplay$.

SIDE NOTE: I got a kick out of keeping track of the number of arrows in Katniss's quiver. Sometimes it would be down to three, then, amazingly, a dozen or so...
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Here is the preview:
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Delivery Man

Maybe I'm a purist... but at the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival, we soooo loved "Starbuck," the French Canadian original of this movie, that we were pretty hostile when we heard about a remake. This time we are in luck. Writer/director Ken Scott ("Starbuck" ...smile...) used Martin Petit's original screenplay as his source, so we know this beloved script is in good hands, AND they didn't exaggerate or overplay anything as so often happens in American remakes. Whew!

Briefly, a young man made over 500 anonymous donations to a sperm bank a couple of decades ago because he was paid for each deposit (wait until you figure out how he used the money). Then, through a technical bungle, his were the only donations used for a year. Now, 142 of his offspring have filed a class action lawsuit to identify their father, who had used the name "Starbuck" for anonymity.

Here is the cast:
  • Vince Vaughn ("Couples' Retreat") David really needed the money back when he lived next door to the sperm bank, now he's a delivery man for his father's butcher shop, kinda going nowhere, but happily content and blithely unaware of that former bungle.
  • Chris Pratt ("Zero Dark Thirty") is Brett, our hero's best friend. He washed out of legal practice but wants to defend David and help him maintain his anonymity. Since the news hit the tabloids about that notorious lawsuit, Starbuck has become a punch line!
  • Cobie Smulders ("Safe Haven") is Emma, the woman in his life. Now that our cop is pregnant, Officer Emma is having second thoughts about David's ability to be a good father. She thinks she might be better off going it alone.
This has a very, very large cast: we meet David's father and two married brothers, and then, when he takes a peek in the envelope that identifies the parties to the lawsuit, we meet a number of those offspring. The casting director for this one did a great job!

Rated PG-13, we see absolutely no sweaty bodies, hear no gunshots, endure no vehicular mayhem and suffer through no blowie uppie stuff. (See my original review of "Starbuck" for other comments and observations.)

This film is absurd, heartwarming, funny and great entertainment. I am so relieved they kept the original Canadian team and didn't screw this up. The only weak link is the casting of Vince Vaughn. ...sigh...
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The Best Man Holiday

So this fellow had written a fictitious book inspired by events in his own life... When the old group gathered for a wedding, friends questioned how much of that book was really fiction and how much was actual fact. Oops! That was the premise of "The Best Man" in 1999. Now we have a sequel which takes place 15 years later. And yes, the plot has thickened ...but those old hurts still haven't gone away.

Our little bunch has never been so witty or so appealing; the dialogue is racy, raunchy and very, very funny (the delighted audience laughed out loud over and over again). Religion unabashedly plays a big part in the plot and it is used with NO irony or derision, so we see successful middle- class families who attend church, pray together, and raise polite well- mannered children who sing religious songs at family gatherings. This is a feel-good movie with a huge principal cast, so I must limit this to just a few.

They are:
  • Taye Diggs ("Baggage Claim") is Harper, that selfsame author, back on the prowl again in quest of a topic for a new book. Since his first book's middling success, he seems to be in a sophomore slump. (He was The Best Man 15 years ago.)
  • Sanaa Lathan ("The Cleveland Show") is his wife Robyn, finally due to have a baby (Harper has a low sperm count); problem is, it's breach so she's scheduled for a C-section right after the holidays.
  • Morris Chestnut ("Ladder 49") is Lance, our Alpha dog: a pro football player, a devoted husband, and a loving father of four (he was the groom 15 years ago). Mr. Chestnut says he doesn't take his shirt off in every film, but I am happy to report that in this one he DOES!
  • Monica Calhoun (Lots of TV) is Mia, Lance's adored wife and mother to his four children. (She was the bride 15 years ago.) In that crucial football game she watches with her youngsters, we see something that resembles a rugby scrum rather than a traditional football play.
  • Terrence Howard ("Prisoners") is Quentin, a successful but wayward friend who is always in the middle of everything. I have never seen Mr. Howard so funny!
  • Nia Long ("House of Lies") is an executive with a successful book publishing company. She wants her author to write a biography of a football player who just happens to be a personal friend.
This R-rated outing contains sexual situations (not all the characters are devoted Christians) but stresses the importance of friendship, loyalty and trust. Expect plenty of profanity, lots of anatomical discussions, a girl fight, plus a time to laugh and a time to weep.

All in all, this is a nice emotional workout for everyone; that's why movies are made, isn't it? Kudos to writer/director Malcolm D Lee ("Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins"). A happy and enthusiastic screening audience exited the theater Tuesday night.
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Thor: The Dark World

How do you spell sensory overload? Too, too much! Computer Generated Imaging is fine if it augments a good story, but there was so much CGI in this mess that the uninitiated (ME!) couldn't decipher the plot. Of course there are the good guys and the bad guys, but sometimes even the good guys were sorta bad. And some of the bad guys were even worse!

Clearly, I am NOT a member of the target audience for this one, so a lot of it went over my head. From the conversations overheard in the lobby as we exited the screening, the best-informed audience members were the ones who had read the graphic novels.

Directed by Alan Taylor ("Game of Thrones"), this jumbled slugfest had endless blowie uppie stuff, dismemberments to spare, plus thunderbolts, space ships and family tiffs among immortals. (Only two chaste little kisses though; it is, after all, PG-13.)

Here we go again!
  • Chris Hemsworth ("Rush") is Thor, back to save the universe.
  • Natalie Portman ("The Other Boleyn Girl") returns as Jane Foster, the scientist he left behind...once.
  • Tom Hiddleston ("The Avengers") is resurrected as Loki, the bad brother nobody likes! Remember what The Hulk did to him? We LOVED that!
  • Stellan Skarsgård ("Romeo and Juliet") is back as Dr. Eric Selvig, the man we first see running naked on a TV news broadcast. His lecture on the convergence of the planets is received by a singularly bored class ...of senior citizens.
  • Idris Elba ("Prometheus" and "Luther") is Heimdall again, I'm glad he is on our side!
  • Zachary Levi ("Tangled" and "Chuck") is the third spear carrier from the left...smile...
  • Ray Stevenson ("Rome") is Thor's right-hand man.
  • Kat Dennings ("Thor") is back as Darcy, who provides the too- scarce comic relief. I found myself looking forward to anything with her in it because I could relax a bit and laugh.
A word to the wise: The patented Marvel Comics "teaser" comes just before the closing credits, but if you are patient and sit through an endless scroll of technicians involved in this project, there is a second teaser!
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Here is the International Trailer:
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