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27 November 2014

If you predicted that the adventures of Woody and Buzz were over after 2010's Best Picture Oscar nominee "Toy Story 3", you are surely regretting it now. The announcement that John Lasseter will return to direct "Toy Story 4" (due out in June 2017) stunned many, and delighted even more. The screenplay, co-written by "Parks and Recreation"'s Rashida Jones, is reportedly a love story.

Fans seem to be split on the news. Many are thrilled they'll get to see more of Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Rex, Hamm, Bonnie and the rest of the gang. But others, including those who thought "Toy Story 3" ended perfectly, and those fed-up with Pixar's "obsession" with sequels and prequels, believe this decision is a complete mistake.

This week on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon", Tim Allen talked a little about "TS4". But his main focus was on the challenges in dealing with Tom Hanks voicing Woody. Allen stated that most of his lines as Buzz Lightyear are basically "Watch out, Woody!" He joked that, because of his two Academy Awards, Hawks gets all the great monologues. However, Allen takes pride in the fact that Buzz outsells Woody in the action figure world.

Good news: we don't have to wait 2 1/2 years for a new "Toy Story" story. Following the success of last year's Halloween treat, "Toy Story of Terror", a post-Christmas-themed "Toy Story That Time Forgot" premieres this Tuesday, December 2nd at 8pm on ABC. The plot sounds a little confusing, and the TV promos don't give away much. Let's hope this special lives-up to the very high standards of the franchise. Not one of the feature films, shorts or TV specials has disappointed us yet.

In Theaters

The Imitation Game (PG-13) A-

The Imitation Game (PG-13) A- - Movie Reviews for Kids

"The Imitation Game" is one of those Awards Season films every studio dreams of having on their "For Your Consideration" list. The true-life drama captured the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and it's destined to be a favorite among voters over the next few months, as is star Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays British mathematician and WWII code-breaking genius Alan Turing.

Adapted from the book, "Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges, screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum present us with multi-layered, enriching, moving and high-stakes love stories through three different periods of Turing's life. It's a lot to handle early-on, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear why all these elements are necessary.

As a teenager at an all boys' boarding school, Turing is bullied for being smarter than everyone else and a little different. It's during this period when he develops a fascination with and a talent for solving puzzles and breaking codes. At the same time, he's trying to develop his own identity. In addition we see Turing dealing with life after the war (1951 - which serves as present time). The British police are investigating Turing, believing he may be keeping more secrets than those he held while working during the war.

However, the majority of the film is set during wartime. Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley) and the other top code breakers in the UK are recruited by the military and brought to Britain's Bletchley Park, in hopes they can solve Germany's Enigma Code machine, which everyday sends out orders to the Nazi troops where and when the next attacks will take place. Turing sets-out to create a machine of his own. It's essentially the first computer: a giant device that he (and only he) believes will allow him to intercept the Nazi messages and break their complicated, unsolvable codes. Turing calls it 'Christopher'.

You may already know some of Turing's life story before seeing "The Imitation Game", but in no way will that detract from your appreciation of this film. Tyldum masterfully weaves together these three phases of one life, resulting in a narrative that is easy to follow yet complex enough to genuinely surprise at just the right moments. In an early voiceover we are told to "pay attention", and that turns out to be the right advice, because you can rarely predict what's coming next.

I didn't expect Cumberbatch to be this impressive. It's a heavily emotional role, with dynamics of love, hate, true love and true hate. Through Cumberbatch's bold and brave performance, we are able to understand the turmoil Turing is going through 24/7, and why breaking the Enigma Code, the most important thing in his life, can't solve all of his problems. Knightley, who plays the lone female on the code-breaking team, is also excellent. She and Cumberbatch have pitch-perfect exchanges, including one heartbreaking scene at the end of the film, which showcases both actors and the authenticity they bring to these roles. Knightley will be in the mix for Best Supporting Actress consideration.

"The Imitation Game" presents a lot of serious ethical issues, which you'll think about long after the credits end. Tyldum has crafted a film about a group of people we truly care about, looking to do the impossible, and dealing with the harsh realities of what that may bring. It's suspenseful and surprising, heroic and heartbreaking...and one of the best films of the year.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Imitation Game" gets an A-.

Penguins of Madagascar (PG) B+

Penguins of Madagascar (PG) B+ - Movie Reviews for Kids

Not long after DreamWorks Animation released its over-the-top, all-star comedy "Madagascar" in 2005, the studio was already thinking about having the film's breakout characters, the slick and suave Penguins, headline their own movie. Now, nearly 10 years later (and following two more "Madagascar" films and a "Penguins" TV series on Nickelodeon), the Penguins are finally starring in their first big screen adventure.

"Penguins of Madagascar", the final animated film of 2014, doesn't disappoint. It's entertaining throughout, with loads of laughs. The opening 10 minutes, which includes both origin and backstories, features some of the best jokes in the entire movie. Years before they meet Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria at New York City's Central Park Zoo, the Penguins lived in the cold, Antarctica tundra. The much younger and smaller versions of fast-talking Skipper, his right-hand man Kowalski, and maniac eater Rico go on their first mission, saving a stray penguin egg. All of this is captured by a documentary film crew, of course. The egg soon hatches and Private is born. The trio take Private under their flippers and head-off into the future.

The rest of "Penguins of Madagascar" takes place following the events of 2012's "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted". Skipper and the others decide to leave the circus because they're getting sick of listening to the song "Afro Circus" over and over again. They quickly go head-to-head with a nemesis (who actually has some history with the Penguins): Dr. Octavius Brine (aka Dave, voiced by John Malkovich), an evil scientist/octopus who's out for revenge.

This cat-and-mouse (or octopus-and-penguin) chase leads the Penguins to Venice, where they meet-up with with an elite, high-tech group of secret agent animals called The North Wind. These guys are also trying to take down Dave, who's kidnapping all the penguins in the world. Their leader, Agent Classified (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who in real-life and in the film, can't say the word 'penguin' correctly) is a hungry wolf who doesn't want or need the Penguins' help. The clash of rival spy groups is a fresh and interesting storyline that works quite well, though some of the conversation scenes between the two teams slow the pacing down and create some brief lulls.

While it is a spy/action adventure, "Penguins of Madagascar" works best as a comedy. The writers, directors, and talented voice cast know how to make the well-established Penguins characters both smart and funny. There are several running jokes, including the different names Skipper calls Dave that also start with a D, and Dave's celebrity-filled commands to his octopi assistants. At times the writers do get a little carried away with the puns. The script is filled with sharp one-liners ranging from goofy to downright brilliant. And the well thought-out plot is allowed to come full circle, with an emotionally satisfying final act.

There are more blockbuster action scenes in "Penguins" than in all three "Madagascar" films combined, meaning it will appeal to a younger audience (kids 7-12), as well as those who appreciate the gags and clever dialogue. And visually, the vibrant and electric animation style will be a hit with everyone.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Penguins of Madagascar" gets a B+. "Well done, Kowalski!"

The Homesman (R) D

The Homesman (R) D - Movie Reviews for Kids

"The Homesman" is easily the most bizarre movie of 2014. Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones, one of the most respected actors of the past three decades, co-writes, directs, and stars in this adaptation of a 1988 novel. It's a western, set in the mid-1800s. There are no trains in the film, so to be historically accurate, I have to call this a 'stagecoach-wreck'.

What intrigued me most about "The Homesman" was the Best Actress buzz two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank is receiving for her performance as the plain and bossy Mary Bee Cuddy, a single woman living alone on a ranch in the western territory. She's as rough and tough, and as good a shot, as any man. So she volunteers to take three women who have gone insane hundreds of miles, by horse and wagon, to Iowa so they can be treated. She's joined on this perilous journey by outlaw George Briggs (Jones), a wisecracking, no-nonsense tough guy (basically the same character Jones plays in every movie).

And for the next two hours we watch these two getting to know each and battling the elements, while dealing with the three women tied-up inside their wagon - Cuddy in a thoughtful, caring way, Briggs - a bit rougher. There are a series of flashbacks, in which we are shown, quite graphically, just how sick the patients are. They're very tough to watch.

Unfortunately, watching the rest of the "The Homesman" isn't a picnic, either. The tone of this film is scattered like leaves in an old west dust storm. It's part western road movie, part horror movie, with elements of comedy, music, action and melodrama tossed in. And hardly any of it works. None of the characters and situations are believeable, so at no point did I invest any emotion into them. My favorite line in the film comes when one of the crazy women is repeatedly kicking one of the other crazy women in the face. Seeing this Jones says "What the Hell?!" - the same question that was going through my mind as I was watching this pure madness unfold. At times it felt like I was trapped inside the loony wagon with no way of escaping.

Swank does have a few interesting scenes, but she mostly gives a sappy, one-note performance that's far from award worthy. And Jones' Briggs seems like he wandered in from a different movie - a slapstick, saloon comedy. Together, these two display zero chemistry.

One of the few things that kept my interest was waiting for Meryl Streep and James Spader to make their appearances, which come late in the film. And it's impossible not to think - "Hey, it's James Spader" (as a goofy hotel owner) and "Hey, it's Meryl Streep" (as a pastor's wife). In fact everyone in "The Homesman" comes across as an actor playing a role, never as a believable character.

It all wraps-up with a completely ridiculous final scene, which will leave you not only shaking your head, but wondering what the heck Jones was trying to say - about these characters, their situation, and life at this time in our nation's history. 

"The Homesman" is rated R for violence, language, adult content, nudity and numerous disturbing images. Having absolutely no point, other than to completely stun people with just how messy and meaningless it all is, "The Homesman" is clearly one of the worst movies of the year.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Homesman" gets a D.

The Theory of Everything (PG-13) B

The Theory of Everything (PG-13) B - Movie Reviews for Kids

British actor Eddie Redmayne's breakout performance was opposite Michelle Williams in 2011's underappreciated biopic "My Week with Marilyn". One year later, he joined the stellar ensemble of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried for the big screen adaptation of the Broadway musical sensation "Les Miserables". Now, Redmayne finally takes center stage, giving a demanding and defiant performance as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything".

Felicity Jones ("The Amazing Spider-Man 2", "Like Crazy") is also quite good as Hawking's eventual wife, Jane. The film begins with the two meeting at a party in the early 1960s, while Hawking is studying physics at Cambridge. They quickly develop a fascination for each other. At the same time Hawking is beginning to experience problems with his motor skills. Following a fall, he learns that he has Motor Neuron disease, a form of ALS. He's told that nearly all of his voluntary body functions (including walking and talking) will stop, and that he only has two years to live. Hawking tries to end his relationship with Jane, but instead, she decides to stay with him so they can fight the disease together. They soon get married and begin a family. And while his physical condition continues to worsen, Hawking begins demonstrating his intellectual brilliance, coming-up with new, revolutionary theories on time, space, black holes and the history of the universe.

Director James Marsh ("Man on Wire") crafts many memorable scenes in "The Theory of Everything", some of them challenging and heartbreaking. Watching Hawking, who just earned his PhD, trying to pull himself up a flight of stairs in his house, only to see his young son looking down at him, is extremely powerful. And Marsh does a nice job in keeping the narrative balanced evenly between both Stephen and Jane. This is an intimate look at both members of this relationship, not "The Stephen Hawking Story". As Stephen's personal caretaker for most of their marriage, we see Jane helping him eat, use his wheelchair, and supporting and encouraging him to continue to work. There are similar moments seen in this year's outstanding documentary, "Life Itself", involving late film critic Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz.

And we see the Hawkings' relationship go through highs and lows and take some unexpected turns. Their daily battle to try to be a "normal family", as Stephen describes them at one point, lasts far longer than the expected two years (which is never explained). Unfortunately, in the second half of the film, supporting characters are introduced who take-up too much screen time, interrupting what, up until then, is a fascinating look at two incredible people. The screenplay is based on Jane's own memoir, and all these events apparently did take place in real life. But following the first hour filled with wonder and hope, I couldn't help but grow a little angry watching the film turn into a romantic soap opera. And the ending leaves you with a brutal dose of reality, which thematically, may have been the point, but Marsh is way too heavy-handed with the symbolism here and throughout.

"The Theory of Everything" features nomination-worthy lead performances, a beautiful score, and a vivid, almost whimsical, visual look. I guess my problem is that I wanted 'everything' to work, and it just doesn't.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Theory of Everything" gets a B.

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