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27 January 2015

"The Penguin" was in my neighborhood yesterday. Good thing Detectives Harvey Bullock and Jim Gordon were around as well. The trio of actors who play these iconic characters on the hit TV show "Gotham" - Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue and Robin Lord Taylor - were in town to be part of the 55th Annual Center for Disabilities Telethon. And they helped make this an event to remember, taking time out from their shooting schedule ("Gotham" is filmed in Brooklyn) to come to Albany for the day to be part of this worthy cause.

I've been attending the Center for Disabilities Telethon for over 10 years, having met the likes of Ryan Seacrest, Randy Jackson, Jane Lynch and Seth Meyers at the event. But the scene yesterday was unlike any I've ever experienced. The "Gotham" guys were mobbed by fans from the moment they arrived, and they did a tremendous job pitching for donations while on the air with the telethon hosts, and signing autographs and posing for photos when they were off-camera.

I had the chance to talk with them during one of their breaks, and they couldn't have been more excited to be helping-out the Center, which provides services to disabled children and adults so they can live happy, healthy and productive lives. And the actors are also thrilled with the success of "Gotham", which, in its first season, is one of the highest-rated network shows, developing a huge following among rabid fans of the "Batman" saga community.

McKenzie ("The O.C.") and Logue ("Sons of Anarchy") have each enjoyed prior success on other TV series', but for Taylor, being a famous celebrity is something new, and it was fun to see how much fun he was having with his fans. And Albany-native Mark Pettograsso, who recently joined the cast of the show as Robert "Frogman" Jones, surprised the trio by dropping by, adding even more "Gotham" buzz to the day.

And the best of all - McKenzie, Logue and Taylor, along with all the workers from the Center, telethon staff, volunteers, and everyone watching at home, helped raise a record total of over $2 million dollars for the Center. Congratulations to everyone involved, in particular whoever it was whose job it was to book the special guests this year. Bringing "Gotham" to Albany was a huge success.

However, with all that money involved, Bullock and Gordon better keep an even closer eye on The Penguin.


In Theaters

Black or White (PG-13) C+

Black or White (PG-13) C+ - Movie Reviews for Kids

"Black or White" is inspired by true events and stars Kevin Costner as Elliot, a successful lawyer who works and lives in an affluent areas of Los Angeles. We learn in the opening scenes that his wife has just died in a car accident. The couple had custody of their young, African American granddaughter Eloise (played by Jillian Estell) because her mother, their daughter, died while giving birth to Eloise when she was only 17. The girl's father, a drug addict and criminal, was in and out of prison and not in the picture. He is also black.

The following day Elliot, who's been treating years of pain with excessive alcohol use, shares the news of the death with Eloise after school. It's a nicely executed, heartbreaking scene.

Shortly after the services, Elliot learns that Eloise's other grandmother, Rowena (played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) has decided to seek full custody of Eloise, and bring her to Compton to live with her extensive family. She feels the girl needs the love of her relatives and to be exposed to the black culture and community, which she's not getting now. Elliot won't give-up his granddaughter and Eloise wants to stay with him. So the battle for custody of this little girl is on, with race playing a major role in the strategies used by both sides.

Anthony Mackie gives a career-best performance as Rowena's brother, Jeremiah, an accomplished lawyer who will represent her side in court. He's  determined to make this case all about Black vs. White, painting Elliot as a racist. Rowena reluctantly gives-in to this strategy since it may be the best way for them to win custody. And the fight for Eloise gets ugly, portrayed through a series of incidents, confrontations and courtroom scenes. And Eloise's father returns, complicating things even more.

"Black or White" deals with more tricky, hot-topic issues than it can handle, including death, child custody, substance abuse, and most of all racial tension. You'd think this would mean that it's a straightforward drama. But writer/director Mike Binder (whose last film was the 2007 Adam Sandler/Don Cheadle drama "Reign Over Me") mixes in a surprising amount of light material, including an upbeat compilation of music, a goofy girlfriend of Elliot's lawyer partner, and an over-the-top math tutor hired by Elliot to help his granddaughter. Each of these is constantly interrupting the dramatic tension and flow of the main narrative.

The result is an uneven film in both story and tone, with the positives slightly outweighing the negatives. Costner is excellent in several showcase scenes, and Spencer is solid as a proud woman with a good heart who's blinded by the love for her family. Andre Holland ("42", "Selma") dominates the screen time in the film's second half as Eloise's biological father, who says he's trying to clean up his act, but is losing that fight. This subplot gets a little too much attention.

While watching "Black or White", I was thinking back to the classic child custody film, "Kramer vs. Kramer". What made that 1979 Best Picture winner truly work was the relationship between Dustin Hoffman's Ted and his son Billy. The courtroom scenes did not dominate the film, or take away from the father-son story. It's the exact opposite in "Black or White", as the focus becomes more legal and less emotional as the film progresses.

At times, "Black or White" is quite effective, moving, and daring in dealing with its controversial topics. However, Binder just as often plays it safe, getting both heavy-handed and light in sections that just didn't need either. If handled better, this could've been a very powerful movie. Instead, it falls short of being both a gripping film and a fresh commentary on race relations.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Black or White" gets a disappointing C+.

Mortdecai (R) F

Mortdecai (R) F - Movie Reviews for Kids

I never thought it was possible that an awful trailer for a film could turn out to be better than the actual movie. But, as he seems to do in every film - whether as a wacky character, or in a wild costume, or just with his performance - Johnny Depp has stunned me yet again. "Mortdecai", which Depp both produced and stars in, left me mortified.

Depp has, once again, typecast himself into his unique brand of quirkiness, playing a bumbling Brit with a bloody bothersome accent named Lord Charlie Mortdecai. He is an art aficionado whose latest "masterpiece" is his own mustache. Depp reportedly had multiple versions of it on set - no wonder it looks so ridiculously fake on screen.

The plot can be described in one sentence: Mortdecai learns that a famous painting has been stolen and he goes to great lengths, with his bodyguard and loyal manservant Jock (played by Paul Bettany) to get it back. There's also a whole lot of nothing involving Charlie's wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), a British inspector (Ewan McGregor) who's had a crush on Johanna for more than two decades (somebody should tell him to move on while he still can) and a slew of others who want the rare painting for themselves. Jeff Goldblum plays one of them. He's fresh-off of another "painting heist" comedy, "The Grand Budapest Hotel". I wasn't a big fan of Wes Anderson's latest zany effort, but it's an all-time classic compared to "Mordecai".

The script was written by Eric Aronson, whose only previous credit is the 2001 film, "On the Line", which starred Joey Fatone and Lance Bass. Enough said. The story runs around in so many circles, like a dog chasing its tail, and by the time we reach the end there isn't one hint of satisfaction. Out of the 106 minute runtime there isn't moment of enjoyment or quality. EVERYTHING is wrong, from the low-level plot, to the copycat "Monty Python"/ "Pink Panther"-esque lead character, the embarrassing supporting performances, humorless stunts and gags, and clumsy camerawork and editing. I didn't laugh once, and the five other people in the theater were dead quiet as well.

As for Depp, it only took two months after his short, yet impressive performance as The Wolf in "Into the Woods", to get him on back my list of least reliable actors in Hollywood. Hard to believe he, an everyone else involved in this mess, believed they were working on something anyone would want to see.

Shockingly, "Mortdecai" is based on a novel by the late Kyril Bonfiglioli, who was an art dealer. It had a much funnier title - Don't Point That Thing at Me. But the novel was written more than 40 YEARS AGO! No wonder nothing about this version seems fresh or original. Slow, stale and so silly that it can't be taken seriously, even as a farce, "Mortdecai" is the classic example of a movie project gone wrong and buried by a studio in the month of January. However, in this case, Lionsgate didn't bury it deep enough. This not only belongs six-feet under, but with a high-rise built on top of it so there's absolutely no chance it could ever see the light of day.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mortdecai" gets an F. Even though we're only four weeks into the year, it will be a serious contender for 'Worst Film of 2015' honors.

Cake (R) B

Cake (R) B - Movie Reviews for Kids

"Cake" is quite a departure in the career of star Jennifer Aniston. First of all, it's a drama. Most of the films Aniston has done have been over-the-top, romantic comedies. And before that, of course, she became a star on the TV sitcom "Friends". Next, "Cake" deals with difficult subjects: pain, suicide and death. And finally, to be authentic in the portrayal of her character, Claire, Aniston doesn't wear any makeup. It's a bold decision and a brave performance, deserving of the Best Actress nominations she's already received from Critics Choice, SAG, and the Golden Globes.

"Cake" is one of those films in which the life of the main character is unveiled in pieces, as the story progresses, and you don't figure-out everything until the very end, and even then there are unanswered questions. Claire is living in a suburban California home, separated from her husband. She has a housekeeper Silvana (played by "Babel" Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza). And Claire takes a lot of medication to deal with the constant physical pain she's dealing with throughout her body. Claire has noticeable scars, but early on we're not sure why. And she has major psychological scars as well.

Nina, one of the women in Claire's support group, recently committed suicide by jumping off of a highway bridge, leaving behind a husband and young son. Seeing, in the opening scene, a large picture of Anna Kendrick, who plays Nina, surrounded by the other support group members, is a little startling. Over the next few days, Claire begins to question, as we do, why Nina took her life. In an attempt to get some answers she begins an unlikely friendship with Roy, Nina's widower (played by Sam Worthington).

"Cake" is not the feel-good film of the year. The tone is consistently grim and sad, with only a few brief, lighter moments, as Claire tries to make it through each day dealing with her many physical and emotional issues. She's angry, depressed, and most days it's only the addiction to pain killers that keeps her from lashing-out at everyone around her, and possibly, herself. Hope is nowhere to be found. And as the narrative unfolds, we get more details as to why. The question is: can Claire be saved?

While I admire what this script was attempting to do, there aren't as many layers to "Cake" as I was expecting. The story is surprisingly straightforward, though there is a deeper meaning to many of the elements, including the film's title. But for the entire time, thanks to Aniston's incredible work, we are with Claire as she struggles to turn her life around, haunted, not unlike Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" (not as far-off of a comparison as you might think) by the tragedies of her past, the desperation of her present life, and the fears of what's to come.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Cake" gets a solid B.

The Wedding Ringer (R) B-

The Wedding Ringer (R) B- - Movie Reviews for Kids

Practically a year to the day after the Ice Cube/Kevin Hart action comedy "Ride Along" opened (becoming 2014's first box office hit), Hart is back with the romantic comedy "The Wedding Ringer". He plays Jimmy, the owner of a Best Man service business in which he participates in the weddings of total strangers who don't have a real close friend to be their Best Man.

Doug (Josh Gad) is one of those guys. He's gone through his Rolodex and can't find anyone to be the Best Man at his upcoming wedding to demanding fiancee Gretchen ("The Big Bang Theory" star Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting). So he hires Jimmy, who also needs to recruit seven other guys to be Doug's groomsmen. Of course, this all has to be kept secret from Gretchen, her family, and all the wedding guests. For his fake identity this time, Jimmy is a priest from North Dakota who also serves in the military named Bic Mitchum. As the story goes, he and Doug have been best friends since college.

Of course, in reality, Jimmy and Doug know nothing about each other. But that will change over the next 10 days.

"The Wedding Ringer" is a lot funnier than I expected. Hart and Gad deliver many smarter than average, laugh-out-loud lines that poke fun at relationships, their characters, and completely random material. The humor is often raunchy, but mostly positive, current and on target. The duo make for an entertaining on-screen pair well beyond the five-minute dance sequence teased in the trailer.

While the concept of the "The Wedding Ringer" is unique, the execution is predictable, though never dull. The middle act is the weakest due to  extended periods of time spent at Doug's bachelor party, the ridiculous rest of the evening, and a touch football game featuring NFL Hall of Famers which was added simply to fill time.

And, unfortunately, the story gets overly sentimental at times. You expect it at the end, but too often throughout the film, Hart, Gad and Jennifer Lewis (who plays Jimmy's assistant) have scenes involving heart to heart conversations that kill the mood of what wants to be and should be simply an outrageous comedy. These auditions for dramatic roles in future films were unnecessary.

However, a refreshing effort with a satisfying number of laughs is a not a bad way to kick-off the genre in 2015, and it's a welcome alternative to all the serious Awards Season options currently in theaters. Plus, if you're a Cloris Leachman fan and thought she was ready to retire from acting, you'll be in for a pleasant surprise.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Wedding Ringer" gets a B-.


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"American Sniper" review

Best @ the Box Office
  1. American Sniper  $64.4M
  2. The Boy Next Door  $15.0
  3. Paddington  $12.4
  4. The Wedding Ringer  $11.6
  5. Taken 3  $7.6
  6. The Imitation Game  $7.2
  7. Strange Magic  $5.5
  8. Selma  $5.5
  9. Mortdecai  $4.1
  10. Into the Woods  $3.9
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