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01 November 2014
2014: The Year

"The Simpsons" is Primetime TV's longest-running scripted series. Now in its 26th season on FOX, the 31-time Emmy-winning animated comedy shows no signs of slowing down, since the showrunners have made 2014 one of the most memorable years in "Simpsons" history by crossing over...A LOT:

To celebrate the 550th Episode in May, "The Simpsons" crossed-over into the world of LEGOs with a mix of the traditional, hand-drawn animation and a CGI LEGO look for "Brick Like Me", a clever episode with a smart script that even poked-fun at "The LEGO Movie".

For the one-hour Season Premiere of fellow FOX animated series "Family Guy", Peter Griffin and Co. traveled to Springfield and interacted with The Simpsons and other townspeople. This episode attracted over 8 million viewers on a crowded Sunday night. There were some funny moments, but the crossover went on far too long, and the overall negative tone that the "Family Guy" is all about dominated the story. The script treated these two families/franchises equally when, obviously, that's not the case.

Last month, on this year's very strong "Treehouse of Horror XXV", The Simpsons crossed-over with themselves by having the "Tracy Ullman Show"-looking Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie interact with the present-day Simpsons.

And they're not done yet. Creator Matt Groening will be crossing over one of his other shows, the twice-cancelled "Futurama", into Springfield with "Simpsorama", airing November 9th.

Diehard fans seem to be appreciating these "Event Episodes", which are keeping "The Simpsons" one of the most buzzed-about and respected shows on TV, even after all these years.

In Theaters

Foxcatcher (R) B-

Foxcatcher (R) B- - Movie Reviews for Kids

"Foxcatcher" is director Bennett Miller's follow-up to 2011's "Moneyball", making this his second "based on a true story" sports drama in a row. The first trailer was actually unveiled over a year ago (September 2013) because the film was originally scheduled for release last December. However, Sony Pictures Classics decided to take "Foxcatcher" out of 2013 Awards Season contention and push it back to 2014. At the time SPC said, "We support the decision of the filmmakers to allow for more time to finish the film."

The move surprised a lot of people, considering there was already plenty of buzz about funnyman Steve Carell, who went through a drastic physical transformation to play multimillionaire John du Pont, delivering a career-defining dramatic performance worthy of a Best Actor nomination and possibly a win. But co-screenwriter E. Max Frye (who penned the original draft in 2007), told me that additional editing was indeed the reason for the delay.

So, after more than a year in hiding, "Foxcatcher" is now out - unfortunately, with mixed results. There's a lot to like about this film, but it also has enough problems which, in my mind, keep it from being worthy of Best Picture consideration.

The set-up of "Foxcatcher" is stunningly slow, as we are introduced to Olympic Gold Medal wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum in one of his best roles), who's struggling financially with his career and his personal life. Mark's older brother Dave (played by Mark Ruffalo) also won Gold at the '84 Games. Dave has a big personality, is running a training facility, and has a wife and two kids. Even though they are brothers, in some ways they are exact opposites. But both hope to represent the U.S. again at the '88 Olympics, which are a little over a year away.

Mark is contacted by a man he is unfamiliar with, but will soon know all too well - John du Pont, heir to the du Pont chemical fortune. Along with his many hobbies (and being one of the wealthiest men in the world) du Pont is a wrestling fan and would-be coach. He flies Mark to his Valley Forge, Pa. estate so they can, as John puts it to Mark, "talk about your future". The snail-like pacing doesn't end here. Practically every line of dialogue, particularly conversations between John and Mark, and Mark and Dave, includes lengthy, dramatic pauses that get more and more annoying as the film goes on. Even if this is how these people talked in real life, it really hurts the flow of the film. Just eliminating these pauses alone could have gotten the 2 hour-15 minute runtime under 2-hours.

John convinces Mark to come work for him, and soon convinces USA Wrestling to move their official Olympic training center to du Pont's estate, becoming part of "Team Foxcatcher". But things do not go smoothly, and when Dave enters the picture, the relationships between the three of them - the "love triangle" as Frye describes it - leads to problems and, ultimately, tragedy.

"Foxcatcher" isn't "The John du Pont Story", as many people may expect. It's more "The Mark Schultz Story", but the problem is he's the least interesting of the three main characters. Carell, who at times looks more like Alfred Hitchcock that the real du Pont, gives the showcase performance, captivating the screen with several powerful moments. When you string all of Carell's scenes together, you get a dominant, nomination-worthy effort.

In my mind "Foxcatcher" would've been a stronger film had du Pont been the main focus. In fact, two of the best scenes in the movie involve du Pont and his elderly mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave) who doesn't care for wrestling or any of her son's achievements. They provide insight into du Pont's mental state and some of his future actions. Redgrave's role is very small, but she and Carell provide an emotional layer to the film that's missing elsewhere.

What surpised me the most at the screening I attended was that the majority of the 400 people in the theater didn't know how this true story plays out. If you followed the news coverage of the events at the time, or read about them since, chances are you will still be surprised, as Miller does a nice job portraying the climatic events in a very simple, matter-of-fact way (which is how they actually happened) - even though the time frame is compressed drastically. Many are attacking Miller for altering the years in which some of the key action takes place, but the story wouldn't have worked any other way.

"Foxcatcher" is rated R for language, brief nudity and violence. It's worth seeing for the three showcase performances (Carell at the top of the list) and for the somewhat suspenseful story. But the plodding pacing and soap-opera feel prevents it from being gold medal worthy.

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

"Foxcatcher" opens in Limited Release on November 14th.

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-.

"The Imitation Game" opens in Limited Release on November 28th.

St. Vincent (PG-13) B-

St. Vincent (PG-13) B- - Movie Reviews for Kids

Comedy is Bill Murray's forte. From "Caddyshack" to "Ghostbusters",  "Groundhog Day" to "Garfield", Murray has made us laugh for decades. In 2003, he took a dramatic turn in "Lost in Translation", which earned him an Oscar nomination. Now, as a cranky old man in "St. Vincent" - his most buzzed-about role in over a decade - Murray proves that he can deliver the right mix of comedy and drama in this sweet, satisfying film.

Murray's Vincent lives with his cat in a small house in Brooklyn. He drinks, smokes, and regularly heads over to Belmont Park to bet the horses in hopes of hitting it big and fixing his financial problems. Vincent's crankiness grows with the arrival of his new next-door neighbors: Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie is going through a separation with her husband and has left him to start fresh with her son. She's a hospital tech and works long hours, often into the evening. So she needs an after school "babysitter" for Oliver and Vincent needs the $11 an hour, so he becomes the guy. The relationship between this unlikely pair is the heart and soul of the film.

And "St. Vincent" does have heart, and a little soul, but it's hurt by a story that's way too simple. Cliche situations and characters dominate the script, which includes very few surprises. This is a movie that's solely dependent on the performances, and Murray is in top form, though I don't see him getting much awards attention because the film itself is very light. He and Lieberher are a likeable pair as characters and actors. The 11 year old has great screen presence and holds his own with the veteran cast. McCarthy, known for her outrageous, over-the-top roles, tones it way down here and is genuinely believable as the overwhelmed, frustrated and caring mother. And the always hilarious Chris O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids", "The Sapphires") has some shining moments as Oliver's Catholic elementary school teacher.

There are some subplots involving supporting characters that don't work nearly as well. Naomi Watts plays Vincent's "companion", a pregnant "Lady of the Night", complete with a not-so-convincing Russian accent. And Terrence Howard pops-in for a few scenes, as part of an unnecessary storyline.

"St. Vincent" starts promising with some big laughs and clever moments. It then flattens out, taking on a more conventional "dramedy" tone before an effective and sentimental conclusion. We're left with an overall message about people not always being what they seem, and that's fine, though I was expecting something a little stronger.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "St. Vincent" gets a B-.

The Book of Life (PG) C+

The Book of Life (PG) C+ - Movie Reviews for Kids

"The Book of Life" is Reel FX Animation Studios' follow-up to last year's Thanksgiving-themed comedy "Free Birds". Here the studio takes-on a different holiday with the help of producer Guillermo del Toro and visionary director Jorge Gutierrez, as "The Book of Life" breathes new life into the Mexican fiesta - The Day of the Dead.

Gutierrez uses a clever device - having the story not only narrated, but designed around a group of school kids visiting a museum. Mary Beth, their tour guide (voiced by Christina Applegate) takes them to a special section of the museum where she unveils the The Book of Life, and proceeds to tell them the epic saga of three childhood friends living in Mexico - two boys and a girl. Young Manolo and Joaquin are both in love with the lovely Maria. When she is forced by her father to attend boarding school in Spain, the boys promise to wait for her to return.

The rulers of the two afterlife worlds - the kind and beautiful La Muerte of The Land of the Remembered (home of the dead who the living still think about) and the evil Xibalba of The Land of the Forgotten (for those who die and are forgotten), make a wager on which boy will end-up marrying Maria when she comes back home.

Years later Joaquin (voiced by Channing Tatum) has become a proud and powerful soldier, as his father once was, willing to protect the small town from invaders. Manolo (Diego Luna) has also followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a bullfighter. But his true passion is music. When Maria (voiced by Zoe Saldana) finally returns, she is pressured into making a choice between the two suitors. But things get complicated when Xibalba, worried he's about to lose the bet, decides to interfere, sending Manolo on a wild journey that tests his courage and determination to win Maria's hand.

"The Book of Life" is a comedy, a spiritual adventure, and a musical. But above all, it's a love story. The film moves along at such a frantic pace that, at times, it's difficult to keep-up with all the dialogue and the frenetic action. There are a lot of attempts at humor, including plenty of goofy characters and situations. Much of it doesn't work, but there are a few bright spots, including the students, who pop in and out throughout the film and Ice Cube, who appears late as the mighty Candle Maker.

By far the best thing about "The Book of Life" is the remarkably gorgeous CGI. You could argue that "The Book of Life" has now written its own chapter in The Book of Beautiful Movie Animation. The characters in this "story within a story" are designed as marionette puppet-like toy figures, each with a specific look that makes it unique, vibrant and extremely fun, especially for a young audience. And The Land of the Remembered is a visual wonderland of fantastic images and brilliant colors. And there are several basic but very sweet and effective songs.

"The Book of Life" is rated PG for some mild action/violence and dramatic elements, mostly dealing with the concepts of death and the afterlife in inventive and appropriate ways. While the script isn't on the same level as the best of Pixar, DreamWorks, or Sony Animation, the film has a big heart, providing a look at this culture and its emphasis on family and true love. This is a solid, a pre-Halloween choice for families and a must for anyone who wants to see how imagination and talent can produce the next great accomplishment in the animation art form.

On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Book of Life" gets a C+.

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"Fury" review

What's Next?
Best @ the Box Office
  1. Ouija  $20M
  2. John Wick  $14.15
  3. Fury  $13.0
  4. Gone Girl  $11.1
  5. The Book of Life  $9.8
  6. St. Vincent  $8.1
  7. Alexander/Very Bad Day  $7.0
  8. The Best of Me  $4.7
  9. The Judge  $4.35
  10. Dracula Untold  $4.3
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LCJ and "Fury"'s Jon Bernthal

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