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The new collaboration between director Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg, Patriots Day, is not only a valuable tribute to the victims and heroes of the Boston Marathon bombings; it’s a solid, meaningful, gritty look at what it took to take down the terrorist Tsarnaev brothers.

Wahlberg plays Sgt. Tommy Saunders, one of those fictional composite characters that often show up in historical dramas. You will forgive the two Bergs for this kind of artistic license, because the goal of Patriots Day is to take you through the entire drama, from the bombing itself, through the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) inside a boat in somebody’s backyard. There wasn’t a single person who was at all of the events leading up to the ultimate capture of the final living suspect in the bombings, so it’s best to just view the Wahlberg character as a representation of the heroism and diligence that led to that arrest.

The film begins with Saunders bitching about being on street-security detail for the Boston Marathon, as he serves out a probationary period on the Boston police force. He shows up in the “clown suit,” takes some ribbing from fellow cops and detectives, and generally sports a good attitude, doing the gig with an admirable level of conviction. The marathon itself gets his spirits up a bit—and then, as runners are crossing the finish line, the bombs go off.

The film doesn’t shy away from the carnage caused by those bombs—and it shouldn’t. It earns its R rating. The movie dives into the bombing aftermath, then straight into the investigation and tense standoffs that occurred in rapid succession.

Wahlberg has done some of his best work in Berg films (Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor), and this film represents the apex of their collaborations. True, the character he’s playing isn’t totally real, but it’s an honorable deviation.

Wolff is on target as the baseball-cap-wearing douche who doesn’t know how to say no to his brother. There’s nothing sympathetic about the portrayal of this certain brand of evil in this movie. He’s a cold-hearted, ignorant villain, and Wolff captures that essence. As Dzhokhar’s older brother and bombing mastermind, Tamerlan, Themo Melikidze delivers a chilling depiction of radicalism and psychotic egotism.

Michelle Monaghan is effective as Saunders’ wife, as are John Goodman as police Commissioner Ed Davis and Kevin Bacon as FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers. J.K. Simmons is hard-edged and a little bit funny as Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese, who took part in the showdown that claimed the life of Tamerlan. Jimmy O. Yang is memorable as the man the brothers carjacked.

This is definitely one of 2016’s better ensemble casts. (While the film is getting a wide release now, it got a limited release last year to qualify for awards.) Berg, like Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Loving), had two good movies in 2016, with this and Deepwater Horizon. He’s no stranger to historical drama. Ever since Berg nearly derailed his promising directorial career with the abysmal Battleship, all of his big-screen films have been historical dramas: Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and now Patriots Day, all Wahlberg collaborations, are based on real life events. Much to Berg’s credit, all of those events are represented with great detail, emotional honesty and integrity. They are also very entertaining. Right now, he’s kicking Steven Spielberg’s ass in the historical-drama department.

The film is about heroes—the heroes who worked to find the perpetrators, and the selfless, persevering heroes who were standing close to explosive devices when they went off. You’ll walk away from this movie thinking that Berg, Wahlberg and co. did all of these good people justice with Patriots Day. Most importantly, it’s a moving tribute to those who lost their lives.

Some might say “too soon” for the existence of a film such as this one. I say it’s never too soon to honor the good people of Boston and their ability to recover from such a horrific day.

Patriots Day opens Friday, Jan. 13, at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Accountant is a ridiculous, implausible thriller, in some ways even more ridiculous than the recent, somewhat weak film The Girl on the Train.

So why did I end up liking it?

I don’t know. Maybe it was because I was super-high on weed and mescaline, and I got an extra check in the mail from an employer goof-up that gave me all the money I needed to buy a new couch and lots of snacks.

No, wait … I don’t do drugs, and I only dreamt that I got that check. My couch still sucks ass. Instead, I liked The Accountant because it has a fantastic Ben Affleck, and the movie sort of plays out like a deranged Batman pic—with calculator action!

Affleck plays Christian Wolff, a high-functioning autistic man who has managed to harness his extreme intelligence with numbers and physical tics—into the strangest of professions. By day, he’s an accountant who, for example, helps a farm owner find tax loopholes to save a few thousand bucks. By night, he’s some sort of accountant ninja who can take out a room full of mob guys with a dinner knife and some Batman-style forearm blasts to the face.

Yes, Christian takes jobs fixing the books for dirty folks the world over, and while he does have a modest, sparsely decorated home, he also has a mobile man cave (or, should I say … Batcave!) that keeps all the spoils of his riches (like money, gold, Jackson Pollock paintings and, yes, collectors’ items like Batman comic books).

During one job, he is tasked with finding missing money for a prosthetics company led by John Lithgow, and he takes a liking to fellow accountant Dana (the invaluable Anna Kendrick). They conspire to find the missing money … something that, of course, some people don’t want to see happen. Christian and Dana find themselves in loads of trouble, which eventually leads to shootouts and more Batman-style forearms to the face.

Director Gavin O’Connor balances out all of the craziness and outrageous turns of events to deliver a film that, despite a few sleepy parts, is thoroughly entertaining. Affleck is good here, basically playing a dude with repressed rage and childhood trauma issues, minus a cowl.

Kendrick offers up a capable “WTF is going on?!” performance in her fifth movie this year. (She’s busy.) The rest of the supporting cast includes an excellent Jon Bernthal a bad guy much worse than Affleck’s kind-of-bad guy. (Bernthal is essentially this movie’s Joker.) J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson are good as two Treasury Department agents who combine to create the movie’s Commissioner Gordon. And Jeffrey Tambor plays a father figure who rooms with Christian and amounts to this film’s Uncle Ben. Oh, wait … wrong superhero.

Maybe I’m the only one who sees this movie as Batman doing taxes. Maybe that makes me some sort of amateurish idiot who likes movies that are actually kind of lame, just because they play out in a weird way in his overreaching mind. But then again, maybe I am not alone.

Maybe The Accountant will have a sequel in which Christian battles with an even stronger, out-of-town accountant whose mother has the same name as his mother, and who mopes a lot because his dad, the guy from Field of Dreams, died in a tornado accident. Oh, god, please … no.

The Accountant is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Susan Sarandon gets the fun vehicle she deserves with The Meddler, a fine directorial effort from Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend at the End of the World), who also wrote the clever and sweet screenplay.

Sarandon plays Marnie, a New Jersey widow who has moved to Los Angeles to be near her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), a screenwriter dealing with a breakup. Marnie has a bunch of money and a lot of time on her hands, so she calls her daughter constantly, brings her bagels—and basically drives her crazy. When Lori heads back east to shoot a pilot, Marnie winds up befriending Lori’s friends and making a few new ones, including Zipper (J.K. Simmons) and his chickens.

Sarandon takes what could be a clichéd character and makes her endearing, giving Marnie a genuine warmness that makes her a welcomed “meddler” rather than a nuisance.

Byrne disappears for a good chunk of the movie, but when she’s around, she and Sarandon have convincing mother-daughter chemistry. Simmons—normally the purveyor of brash, harsh and funny characters—gets to show off his soft side; Zipper is a real winner.

It’s a cute movie that isn’t too cute, and a must for Sarandon fans. Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch and Michael McKean have small but memorable roles.

The Meddler opens Friday, May 20, at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

Disney has delivered another animated winner with Zootopia, a cute, uplifting story with a surprising dark side. It’s the sort of movie that’ll have kids asking parents questions about some tough topics—while entertaining anyone who sits down to watch it.

Judy (Ginnifer Goodwin, in a performance worthy of the Voice Acting Hall of Fame) is a little bunny determined to be the first bunny cop on the force in Zootopia, a metropolis populated by animals. However, she faces a lot of opposition—both because she’s a bunny and a girl. Judy beats insurmountable odds, and winds up on the force, much to the chagrin Chief Bogo (Idris Elba).

The chief assigns her to traffic, of course, where she meets up with shifty fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who is running an ingenious Popsicle scam. When some mammals come up missing, Judy finds herself on the case. She eventually enlists the help of Nick, and they seek out a missing otter.

The film is co-directed by three guys: Byron Howard (Tangled), Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) and Jared Bush (making his feature debut!). Directing by committee certainly works in this case, as the film has a nice, unified feel while sustaining a surprising depth. Among the themes successfully tackled are sexism, racism and bunnyism.

When discussing these aspects of the film, go ahead and get bunnyism out of the way first with the kids. Here’s a potential hypothetical dinnertime conversation regarding Zootopia when a child asks if a bunny can be a cop:

“No, my dear child, a bunny can’t be on the police force,” the parent answers.

“But Mom and Dad, dogs are allowed on the police force. Why not bunnies, too?”

“Because dogs are big and strong and have heightened senses of smell that help us to find drugs and things.”

“Actually, rabbits not only have a very keen sense of smell, dear parent, but they also have those big ears which makes them really good listeners and potentially awesome detectives! Their presence on the force could provide a new level of insight and outreach for a branch of civilization often roundly criticized for its lack of empathy and compassion.”

“Shut up and eat your broccoli!”

To give away how the film approaches the topic of racism would be to give away too many aspects of the plot. There’s a good mystery at play, and it’s done in an intelligent way that will keep parents and kids guessing and engaged.

Other members of the voice cast include J.K. Simmons as Mayor Lionheart, Tommy Chong as the fly-infested Yax, Jenny Slate as Assistant Mayor Bellwether, and Shakira as Gazelle the pop star. Let it be said that Shakira’s performance of “Try Everything” is better than any movie music 2015 had to offer. Man, last year truly sucked for movie soundtracks, didn’t it?

The animation is top-notch and inventive, with cute little touches throughout. Judy’s hometown is farmland, distinguished by an Easter-pastels palette. At one point, Judy chases a thief through a rodent community, sending a bunch of mice running for cover in their little buildings as if she were Godzilla. I especially liked a moment when a train arrived in a station, and a little door opened up besides bigger doors to let out a stream of chipmunks. Freaking adorable!

Disney now has another great bunny to add to the souvenir rack at Disneyland alongside Thumper, Roger Rabbit and Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh. (I feel Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.) Judy is a true winner, as is Zootopia, already a solid contender for Best Animated Film of 2016.

Take the kids knowing you might actually enjoy yourself, and appreciate the film—even if it does act as a shred grenade on your wallet, especially if you spring for 3-D. Jeez, movie-going is expensive.

Zootopia is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Jack Black returns as the voice of Po in this decent second sequel in the saga of the Panda warrior and his warrior cronies.

This time out, Po encounters his long-lost dad, Li (the warm growl of Bryan Cranston), who takes him to the land of pandas so that he can learn the powers of his chi. An advancement in his warrior techniques is absolutely essential, because the lands are being threatened by a spirit-realm warrior named Kai (J.K. Simmons, voicing some sort of super-muscular yak-type thing).

The stuff with Po and Li is cute; the added element of Po’s adopted dad (James Hong) being a little jealous is sweet. There’s a cool psychedelic look at times, and the animated series continues to impress on artistic levels.

However, the story feels a bit like a repeat of the previous two. That’s OK, but doesn’t necessarily place this chapter high on the originality scale.

I’ll say this for the film: With a voice cast that includes Black, Cranston, Simmons, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, Kate Hudson, David Cross, Jackie Chan and Angelina Jolie, Kung Fu Panda 3 boasts one of history’s all-time-great lineups (as far as animated movies are concerned). This one is good enough to ensure there will be more chapters to come.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

As the Hollywood A-listers began arriving at Palm Springs Convention Center for the 26th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival's Awards Gala on Saturday, Jan. 3, hopes ran high among the fans gathered along the sidewalks across from the red-carpeted entryway.

Whether the fans were locals or visitors to the Coachella Valley, they all had favorites they were hoping to see.

Palm Springs resident Diana Doyle has joined the crowd for three years running. “I’m one of those people now,” she said. “I’m hooked!”

Has she had luck meeting celebrities in the past?

“Last year, I had a great picture taken with Bradley Cooper, and it went into the Los Angeles Times, and now it’s my screensaver,” she laughed. This year, her good luck continued as she got a chance to grab “selfies” with Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell.

For Connie Hale of Palm Desert, this was her eighth year of braving the crowd.

“We got her about 12 noon today,” she said. “I’ve met lots of celebrities over the years, and this is the spot to do it. I’ve met Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr. already, but this year, I’d like to meet any of the stars coming.”

At one point, Hale found herself face-to-face with Michael Keaton—but the moment passed without her getting the autograph she wanted.

KESQ/CBS Local 2 meteorologist Rob Bradley and fiancée Kristina Guckenberger were among the fortunate fans who obtained access to the grandstand seating area next to the red-carpet entrance.

“I’ve had to work in the studio the last two years doing weather updates during down time in our Awards Gala red-carpet live special coverage, so this is my first time being here at the event,” Bradley said.

Did they have any favorites they wanted to see up close this evening? “My mom said I should meet Robert Downey Jr. and Brad Pitt. And for my dad, Reese Witherspoon,” Guckenberger said. Unfortunately, neither Downey nor Pitt appeared out front to greet fans.

Still, the crowd’s mood remained festive as the almost-full moon rose and the temperature dropped, before the fans dispersed as the awards dinner got under way inside.

Scroll down to see some pictures from the red carpet.

Published in Snapshot

And I thought my high school band teacher was tough!

There are natural musicians on this planet—people who pick up a guitar, drumsticks or a saxophone, and play with an enviable ease. Then there are other musical geniuses, extraordinary musicians in training who require some sort of extra push to put them over the top.

Whiplash, the second feature from director Damien Chazelle, is about a young man who needs that extra push—a push that, to an extent, equates to a form of masochism.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, an aspiring drummer at a musical conservatory in Manhattan. He practices late at night when nobody is around, which catches the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school’s most-elite jazz-music teacher. He immediately begins to torture the music out of Andrew. It’s apparent that Fletcher sees something in Andrew early on, even though he’s terrorizing him. Andrew winds up trying out for Fletcher’s band—tryouts which involve verbal emasculation and chairs being thrown at his head.

The torture doesn’t stop during Andrew’s private practice time. We see him beating on his drums until blisters form, and blood spouts from his hands. In his drive to be the best, he puts himself through a hell almost worse than the punishing regimen inflicted upon him by Fletcher. Almost.

Those who watched HBO’s Oz know that Simmons is capable of playing the most heinous of human beasts. Fletcher is an amazing creation, an above-the-law terror who believes great musicians come from great suffering. As horrible as he is, he truly thinks he is doing his students a great service by withholding the reward of teacher approval. There will be no gold stars from him.

Doing much of his own drumming, Teller opens himself up in an astonishing way, both physically and emotionally. Whether he’s taking legitimate cracks to the face from Simmons, or screaming at his sweat-drenched self in a tiny practice chamber, Teller leaves it all on the drum kit, including his own blood.

Together, Simmons and Teller are the stuff of movie legends. Fletcher tears into Andrew like a crow ripping the flesh off of roadside carrion, and Andrew often convinces us that he is down for the count. He rises again and again.

Watching musicians kill each other in Whiplash makes you wonder if Mozart eviscerated himself while learning his piano parts, or whether Lennon and McCartney threw mic stands at one another when putting together “The White Album.” Great artistry can command unholy discipline, and unleash ungodly tempers. Fletcher makes the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket look like Pope Francis.

Paul Reiser gets his best role in years as Andrew’s loving father, a man who wishes he could protect his son from life’s monsters, yet knows that he can’t.

I thought Edward Norton had the Best Supporting Actor Oscar wrapped up for his Birdman performance until I witnessed Simmons in this film. This is going to be an awards-season battle for the ages. As for Teller, he deserves a Best Actor nomination to go with his destroyed hands. He pulls off a physical and emotional demolition on par with that of De Niro in Raging Bull.

Whiplash was filmed at breakneck speed, and Chazelle is a director of amazing precision. This is an all-time-great movie about music, as well as a great character war. It’s not to be missed.

Whiplash is now playing at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at the River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews