Preview, “Bleeding Steel” promises more of the Jackie Chan we DON’T like

Aged, trigger happy and generic. Sci-fi violence and maybe one vintage Jackie stunt.

Where’s the charm, the wit, the warmth?

Gone with the wind.

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Netflixable? High school romance is kick-started by “The Kissing Booth”

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Shelly and Lee were born in the same hospital at the same time, affluent, dance-crazy California cuties who share so much.

No, not that. Shelly who prefers “Elle” (Joey King) lusts for Lee’s hunky, short-tempered jock older brother, Noah (Jacob Elordi). Noah’s just a little tactless.

“When did you get the boobs?”

“The Kissing Booth” is a flirty, semi-edgy teen rom-com built around that “moment when you suddenly go from invisible, to EVERYbody staring at you.” That “lady shape” thing changed last summer, and showing up for school in a skirt you’ve outgrown creates a stir.

“Dude touched my lady bump!”

The perky, pouty King, of “Independence Day 2” and “Wish I was Here,” clicks with Joel Courtney of “F*#% the Prom” as Lee and Elordi of the most recent “Pirates of the Caribbean” picture.

But “The Kissing Booth,” based on a 15 year-old’s self-published online then New York published YA book, gives us 94 minutes of wondering which “classic” teen comedy they’ll steal from next, who she’ll end up with and how far things will…progress.

The Mean Girls at LA Country Day are stiletto wearing vixens called the OMG Girls — Olivia, Mia and Gwyneth.

“Oh my God, I would TOTALLY have babies with Noah…”

To get the tone of the picture, let’s zero in on Mia (Jessica Sutton), whom Lee openly crushes on. Here’s how he and Elle come up with the idea for a kissing booth at the school club fundraiser.

“The ONLY way you’d get to make out with her is if you PAID for it.”

Yeah, that’s a prostitution joke. But hey, kids these days…

“Oh my God, I think I TOUCHED it.”

Elle is like “the new girl” at school — thanks to her physical development. Noah is on the case, threatening every hunk (Joshua Daniel Eady) who approaches her.

“No boobs are worth a broken nose!”

OK. Maybe not. Though Elle makes her case for the defense. Meanwhile, she’s got to find volunteer “A list” hotties of both sexes to “work” the booth.

As “The Kissing Booth” is a “dead mom” rom-com, Molly Ringwald comes in as the “surrogate mom” advising Elle/Shelly on all matters of the heart and femininity. She gets two scenes, only one that counts. Very John Hughes in the ’80s attitude towards adults.

That’s OK. What surrounds those scenes already steals so much from “The Breakfast Club” and assorted Ringwald-era comedies, including covers of the same iconic songs heard of the soundtracks of those films, that this stumbling homage doesn’t need more.

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The formula is set, with all signs leading to “prom.” The high school “types” are amusingly recognizable, the banter is more quick than sharp — but quick compensates for sharp, much of the time.

It’s a world of no part-time jobs, expensive clothes, boozy teen costume parties and teen Lee getting a 1960s vintage Mustang to celebrate getting his driver’s license, Harvard-bound Noah riding a Shadow motorcycle, multi-story hillside houses with “Architectural Digest” pools you can dive into from the third floor.

Nice. Rich. But nice.

Young Ms. King looks her age (still a teen, and quite short) and more like a real high school girl than than the 20something models/actors who surround her. She’s still got a girl-next-door image when the film begins, and works Christina Ricci-hard at shedding that image before the closing credits.

Not sure playing a girl with exhibitionist tendencies and morning-after waking up in a strange bed is Every Child Actor Parent’s dream, sexist objectification and all that.

“Dress is gone, panties still on? I can work with that.”

Elle keeps stumbling into it, showing us what she’s got and reveling in the attention from the boys and the mean girls. But she still needs booth babes to do the kissing.

“Tickets and epic smooches are non-refundable!”

The kissing montage? It’s more PG-15 than “TV-14.” But there’s a cheerful wholesomeness to the whole “Get a room” approach to blindfolded hotties making out with classmates they can’t identify. A hint of same sex attraction may be only that — a hint. But it points to a more sexual second and third act.

The movie references the web publication turned YA book it is based on with Elle’s omnipresent voice-over narration and random inclusions of “Rules,” as in “Rule number 18, always be happy for your bestie’s success.” No rubbing naughty bits with your bestie’s brother is in there somewhere. Any friendship issues can be worked out with ice cream and an arcade Dance Dance Revolution-clone dance-off is another rule.

The big mack-off is an unintentionally amusing contortion owing to Ms. King’s aforementioned height shortage. Coming from the director of “Zombie Prom,” one would expect no less.

What follows is considerably less PG. And on the down low. The language, the tone, it all becomes somewhat less cute and more adult and testy and soapy.

If you’re looking for a cute/sweet teen comedy that isn’t a grow-up-too-fast exposure for your tweens, “Kissing Booth” isn’t it. But the arc of the story packs a lot of lust and relationship lessons that anybody older than 15 can relate to, and learn from.

It’s just that little about “The Kissing Booth” suggests that’s the audience it’s going for. And it’s way too unsophisticated, ham-fisted, derivative and random for anybody older than 14 to sit through.

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MPAA Rating: TV-14, teen-drinking, violence, sexuality, profanity.

Cast: Joey King, Joel Courtney, Jacob Elordi, Molly Ringwald

Credits: Written and directed by Vincent Marcello, based on the Beth Reekles book. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:34

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Netflixable? “Darc” is another Westerner seeking his Revenge on the Yakuza

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The lurid Japanese underworld of tattooed gangsters is the setting of “Darc,” a culture-clash thriller of the “Black Rain” variety that could be a big — OK, modest — break for Tony Schiena of “Locked Down.”

He co-scripted and stars in this vengeance tale of a manga-loving/Kanji card-collecting Western boy raised in a Japanese brothel who saves his mother from a beating onto to bring down the Yakuza on them.

Years later, he gets out of prison, a pitiless bearded pistol-packing knife fighter granted “early release” thank to an Interpol operative (Armand Assante). Interpol wants something in return. We can guess what that is.

“You should do it for your mother...Justice.

“Nobody…just WALKS into the Yakuza.”

Infiltrate, cozy up to boss Kageyama (Kippei Shîna). Take him down. Oh, and free Mr Interpol’s missing daughter. 

Frequent flashbacks show us the ugly past Jake Walters — “People call me Darc.” — absorbed in Japan.  But access can be attained, rescuing the punk  son (Shô Ikushimaof the mob.

“What were you in for?”

“Which time?”

Next thing you know, he’s murdering bikers on behalf of the West Coast branch of Tattoo U. He’s a gaijin hanging and brawling and accepting gift hookers (Lisa Ito) from the Japanese mob in the Asian strip-and-sex clubs — in Vancouver.

Darc renews his acquaintance with perhaps the most racist culture on Earth (Japan) as they collect protection money from assorted Vancouver Asian businesses.

“F—–g Chinese!” the kid says. Repeatedly.

Wait, this isn’t set in Japan? You can’t make a yakuza movie in Vancouver. Neon and sushi and Japanese men in suits and swords and tattoos — it’ll have to do.

Decent fight choreography and good editing making the savage brawls and death-dealing visceral enough to pay off. There’s enough polish here — majestic crane shots, austere boardrooms, vivid clubs and an ocean of blood — to suggest this world of money, blood, violence and family — infiltrated by a guy the yakuza wouldn’t let get in the door.

Insights? Well, it’s comforting to know that those elaborate yakuza tattoos don’t die with their owners. Seeing one skinned from a dead gangster is something the eyes cannot “un-see.”

Dawn Oliveri is Ivy, his fetching, increasingly neighbor with a thing for beardos.

Schiena is sort of a blander Gerard Butler, in terms of screen presence. He’s OK in the fights, nothing more.

I’d make an argument that Assante’s cool, simmering and forgotten old guy machismo is ripe for rediscovery by the likes of Tarantino or Scorsese. But that’s for another, better film.

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Truthfully, this was never exciting or even interesting enough to make me forget its cut-rate setting.

You can’t make a good yakuza thriller in Vancouver.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R, graphic violence, explicit sex, profanity

Cast: Tony Schiena, Armand Assante, Kippei Shîna

Credits:Directed by Julius R. Nasso, script by Tony Schiena and Dennis Venter . A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:37

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Preview, Matt Dillon goes Murderous for Von Trier’s “House that Jack Built”

Every so often, the Madonna of the Movies, Lars Von Trier, screeches for attention and we’re reminded that he’s still a thing, that there’s something still something rotten in the state of Denmark.

OK, I oversell. Pardon.

This sadistic serial killer riff on violence in art — subtle as ever, Lars — stars Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman and Riley Keough and looks like grim going.

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Preview, Winona, Keanu meet at a “Destination Wedding” — booze and sick burns ensue

What a clever idea for your no-budget (save for travel and stars) rom-com.

Pair up Keanu and Winona and make them not like each other in their patented patois.

This is pretty damned funny. Never heard of the studio, but this summer release looks to be worth tracking down.

 

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Movie Review: Ladies who Lunch Go Christian Grey in “Book Club”

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“Book Club,” aka “Sisterhood of the Traveling Spanx,” stuffs the screen with Oscar and Emmy winning actresses of a certain age and hopes the laughs will follow.

And they do, just often enough to make this genial, eye-roller of a farce work.

The giggles are strictly low-hanging fruit, recycled bits and one-liners delivered in the comforting comic cadences of Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, Diane Keaton and especially sitcom Queen Mum Candice Bergen.

She plays a Federal judge, 18 years divorced, whose pick-up lines could use a little subtlety.

“I do have the power to put you in handcuffs, you know.”

This trip to Nancy Meyersland — older actors, WASPy SoCal affluence — is about that age group discovering the fantasy fiction written with them in mind, the “Fifty Shades of Grey” novels, with their S&M, BDSM and D&D kink, and taking it to heart, with a blush.

Fonda plays a Beverly Hills hotelier and well-preserved hottie who never married but is full of advice to her book club pals — “Oh  honey, I’ve been doing field research on this demographic.” And how.

Steenburgen plays another variation of her “Parenthood” wife, a chef fretting over the sexless retirement her husband (Craig T. Nelson) is subjecting her to.

“Hand me those pull-ties.”

“Oh, are you gonna TIE me UP?”

Diane Keaton is the recently-widowed mom whose daughters (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) insist she move to Scottsdale to be near them. Because, you know, she could break a hip or something.

And Bergen is the judge, happily sexless until this month’s book that they’re reading together gets her on Bumble, prompting “hilarious” online-profile pic accidents, and dates with Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn. Lucky her.

That’s the “Sisterhood” connection, re-igniting their libidos when “We shouldn’t be doing this at our age.”

Fonda’s Viv re-connects with an old flame (Don Johnson), Steenburgen’s Carol tempts, teases and Viagra-doses her disinterested husband, reprising her famous “Parenthood” cop pulls them over scene, and Keaton’s Diane meets a handsome pilot (Andy Garcia) who rocks her world.

The menfolk in this give as good as they get, but Garcia is the stand-out. His genuine surprise and delight at whatever pratfall Keaton executes when they “meet cute” suggests this wasn’t over-rehearsed. Just let the old pros do what they know how to do.

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Producer turned writer (“All is Lost,” “A Walk in the Woods”) and now director Bill Holderman does his best Nancy “Something’s Gotta Give/It’s Complicated” Meyers here. And while he’s not quite in the league with the mistress of the genre, he and co-writer Erin Simms give their stars their moments, their big speeches.

What he couldn’t do was make Paramount release this Mother’s Day-ish movie on Mother’s Day weekend.

He shoots his leading ladies in the most flattering clothes and in the most flattering light, but there’s no effort to hide the fact that Fonda’s America’s best preserved 80 year-old, that Keaton’s lifelong willowy frame looks a trifle skeletal, the way she always wears those old-man-at-the-country-club pants (WAY high), and that Bergen hasn’t had to diet for a TV contract in over a decade.

There’s a “We are who we are” confidence to these aging beauties, female and paunchy, balding male, that is refreshing.

The jokes? Not quite that fresh, lots of Christian Grey, “I could have him in jail for any one of those things,” cracks from the funny judge, “Show off the girls” cleavage suggestions for datewear from the hotelier and “I need a SAFE word” from Diane.

Because you know what they say about dating men over 65. The odds are good but the goods are odd.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13, for racy sexual innuendo

Cast: Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Diane Keaton, Richard Dreyfuss, Andy Garcia, Craig T. Nelson, Don Johnson

Credits:Directed by Bill Holderman, script by Bill Holderman, Erin Simms . A Paramount release.

Running time: 1:41

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Movie Review: “Racer and the Jailbird” (“Le Fidele”)

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“Racer and the Jailbird” is about a rich young Porsche driver and the bank robber she falls for.

It’s a torrid love affair, all-consuming even though the rising-star racer suspects her man lies, and her man is getting too old to do this dangerous work he doesn’t tell her about.

“One last job,” as we say in English, and here they say it in French, sometimes in Flemish. It’s a Belgian film, after all.

And then we see that “one last job,” and the movie becomes something else, in the broader sense, and somewhat less interesting. You undestand why the title is such a contortion in English. “Le Fidele,” “The Loyal One,” wasn’t going to sell many tickets in North America. But giving it a title that makes promises the picture doesn’t keep, and is silly to boot, didn’t help.

Matthias Schoenaerts is Gino, “Gigi” to his mates. He’s been in trouble with the law since childhood, and the crowd he’s run with is the same. He may pass himself off as a car importer, but pushing 40, Gigi isn’t fooling many.

Did I mention he has a morbid, not-quite-irrational fear of dogs? “Foreshadowing” in French is “presage,” mon amis. 

Gigi makes a brazen play for Benedicte, “Bibi” to her friends. They’re all hanging out at the track and the very young woman (Adèle Exarchopoulosin that racing suit is quite fetching out of it.

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She’s got to be half his age (Matthias is 41, Adele 25) and doesn’t seriously question where his money comes from. Her money comes from Daddy, and he (Eric De Staercke) is onto this guy. But he’s shockingly non-judgmental about it. 

“Real men don’t lie,” is all he’ll say about it. And Gigi takes that to heart. Too late to stop that “one last job,” but there you go.

Co-writer/director Michaël R. Roskam, who did the terrific Brooklyn mob thriller “The Drop,” spends a lot of time on the romance, how Bibi scares Gigi when she’s driving, how Gigi keeps taking trips to “Poland” to explain his absences. Roskam spends just enough on “the gang” — older guys, a punk first-gen Arab, etc. — to set up The Last Big Score.

And then it happens and the movie shifts in tone, template and tempo as it morphs into a “Wait for me” prison romance. Aside from depicting the most humane prison system ever committed to film, there’s not much to this second half melodrama — some tears, some conjugal visits, life’s cruel jokes.

Worst of all, Roskam lets it go on and on. Every moment you think this heist picture/soapy romance is about to make a graceful exit passes, and MORE story, more incidents and DOGS show up.

The Belgian hunk Schoenarts (“Far from The Madding Crowd”) was in “The Drop,” because whatever women see in his smoldering good looks, he makes a passable hoodlum. Exarchaopoulus doesn’t have to suggest much more than youth and lust for her man.

We get it.

But that title, that come-on, that promise-not-kept (no getaway scenes, limited action) would be a disappointment even if the picture was better, more brisk. “Le Fidele” may sound mawkish, but it’s more honest.

You translate it to “Racer and the Jailbird” we expect more racing, more heists, more jail and more heat. “Fidele” loyally never quite clears “lukewarm,” and is awfully slow coming to a boil.

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MPAA Rating: R for some strong sexuality, nudity, violence, and for language

Cast: Matthias Schoenarts, Adèle Exarchopoulos

Credits:Directed by Michaël R. Roskam, script by Thomas Bidegain, Noé DebréMichaël R. Roskam. A Pathe release.

Running time: 2:10

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Movie Review: Schrader gives glory to Hawke in “First Reformed”

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“First Reformed” redeems the career of one of the cinema’s great writer-directors, rescuing Paul Schrader from the wilderness of Nicolas Cage B-thrillers and the hell of begging Lindsay Lohan to show up in “The Canyons.”

It’s a powerful, disturbing crisis of faith drama that takes on the raiments of a thriller, and a tour de force for the understated acting of Ethan Hawke. As Reverend Toller, a lonely, sickly pastor at an historic church nicknamed “The Gift Shop,” because more people take tours of it than attend it, Hawke is the very picture of grief, remorse and guilt, a man of the cloth questioning his faith, whether he’s lived a purpose-filled life, and if the death he sees just over his shoulder will have any value either.

Could this be Hawke’s Oscar?

Toller gives sermons to a single-digit congregation, and tours, presides over funerals and does light yard work and plumbing at First Reformed, a 250 year-old white clapboard Dutch Colonial house of worship in rural New York. But he’s got a cough. And he’s started keeping a journal.

“When writing about oneself, you should show no mercy.”

He tries to keep it righteous, but struggles with the petty indignities of his shrinking world and diminishing expectations. He lives a spartan life in an unfurnished parsonage where he writes and drinks. In the ever-grey skies of a late New York winter, he ponders “discernment,” “despair” and belief.

All of those are tested when a young couple come to him for guidance. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant. Michael (Philip Ettinger, in a deflated, depressed performance) doesn’t want the baby. In the house they rent, he’s covered the walls with hotos of environmental crimes and memorials to murdered environmentalists. His computer is constantly on a “rising global temperature” tracking map. He just got out of jail in Canada for some sort of protest there.

And he cannot see bringing a baby into a world that could hit “unlive-ability” by the child’s 33rd birthday.

“Can God forgive us?” is the only question that matters.

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Reverend Toller has answers to some questions, words of comfort for others. He notes in his journal how he treasures this debate and hopes it can continue.

But he’s got less spiritual challenges ahead. He’s basically on the payroll of a nearby megachurch, a caretaker of this historic stop on the Underground Railroad. And the boss, Reverend Jeffrees (Cedric Kyles) is worried about the state of the building that’s about to receive a widely publicized re-consecration, and about Toller.

“Even pastors need a pastor,” he offers.

Every now and then, the comedian known as Cedric the Entertainer gets a serious part that’s perfect for him, and this is one of those occasions. He is reality itself as a jovial preacher who is no-nonsense in running this big business, Abundant Life, which is politically-connected and underwritten, in part, by a big local energy concern.

As Toller goes deeper down the rabbit hole with Michael, he questions this, tries to reconcile it with the humility and poverty of Jesus. And he puts off that medical exam that adoring choir director Esther (Victoria Hill, heartbreaking) is pushing him toward.

It’s no surprise that Schrader, who scripted “Mishima” and “Affliction” and “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” has something to say about serious matters of the psyche and soul. The film’s immaculate, chilly script makes you think, and has but a single off-key word, Toller recalling wandering into the sanctuary “and falling asleep on a bench.” Wouldn’t a pastor know a pew when he slept on one?

There is no music in the film, save for church singing, until the church organ is fixed. We hear the history of the place in every creak of the floors, and sense the isolated joylessness of Toller’s world and life in the silence.

Some things come to pass expected, others as edge-of-your-seat surprises.

Through it all, Hawke broods, questions, argues and pleads like a broken man without the strength or will to do any of those things. His burden is borne in silence, with only the scratching of pen onto paper to underscore his darker and darker thoughts.

It’s a magnificent performance, buttressed with finely-tuned supporting work from Kyles, Seyfried, Ettinger and Michael Gaston (as a perfectly thin-skinned magnate/philanthropist/polluter).

And Schrader, one of our most cerebral and spiritual filmmakers, a throw-back to the Golden Age of “smart” mainstream movies — the ’70s — delivers one more masterpiece, and delivers himself from Hollywood B-movie purgatory as he does.

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MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing violent images

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Antonio Kyles

Credits: Written and directed by Paul Schrader. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:48

 

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Documentary Review: “Coming to My Senses”

 

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Aaron Baker was a California Motocross racer who suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury at 20.

His doctors gave him “a one in a million chance of ever even feeding myself” again.

When he and his mother, Laquito Dian, questioned the prognosis, grasping for options, they were told “You’re not accepting reality.” As an athlete, he vigorously pursued a rehab regimen, only to be told by his insurer that coverage had run out.

But he found help from a kinesiologist named Taylor Kevin Isaacs. And over the course of 14 years — 14 YEARS — of work, he went from the shriveled 100 pound paralytic to a young man whose mother was “watching my son take his first steps, for the second time in my life.”

And he didn’t stop with steps. He took to bike riding, pedaling on the back of a tandem bike across America. Then he rode a trike across America.

By the time we see him in the Dominic Gill documentary, “Coming to My Senses,” he’s pushing a supply cart on a days-long-trek across Death Valley, California.

“Senses” is a film and a cause. Should medicine be writing off people with paralyzing spinal cord injuries the way we have for decades? Baker’s is surely an exceptional case, an injury that made this remote possibility of recovery possible. An early visit, walking in to see and “inspire” somebody else with similar injuries does nothing for the patient, who dies. But others?

Being an extreme athlete, Baker’s focus and optimism is off the charts, and what he chooses to do, he pushes to the limit. “He feels most alive when he’s taken himself to the brink of death” is how his doctor puts it.

But if we’ve learned nothing from decades of Lance Armstrong documentaries, long odds can be shortened by gigantic ego, fanatical focus and endless financial support. And that’s what “Coming to My Senses,” the film, leaves out. The egoism of the athlete is here. After that “insurance runs out” and Mom falls into alcoholic (for a time) despair, what changed?

Baker crossed America with trainers, co-riders, a support van and a nutritionist. Writing this review from Florida, a non-Medicaid-expansion state with the fourth-worst health-care access in America, the obvious question is, “Who paid for all this?”

More to the point, who paid for the 14-16 years-and-counting rehab? How are they financing their Center of Restorative Exercise (CORE) project? Was there fund-raising involved? Is California the only state where this could have happened?

There’s no arguing that the film’s larger thesis, that one and a half million Americans with spinal injuries need fresh options, and that 35 long term care facilities nationwide isn’t enough to serve their needs.

But in a country where such care is increasingly a luxury that only the rich and well-connected (Christopher Reeve) can afford, maybe walking across the desert isn’t “drawing attention” to the real weak link in the system. It’s just drawing attention to the guy demanding and getting all the support that a million others have no hope of accessing. It shouldn’t be just about coming to “My” senses, but about coming to “our” senses.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, discussion of alcohol abuse

Cast: Aaron Baker, Laquito Dian, Taylor Kevin Isaacs

Credits: Directed by Dominic Gill. An Orchard release.

Running time: 1:22

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Preview, Jean Reno headlines an Alpine family film, “Brothers of the Wind”

Love that Jean Reno, fascinating fellow who tipped me to all the apps he uses to track down fine food — he is French, after all — during an interview once.

Here, he’s the old man of the mountains in a tale about a boy and his European eagle.

“Brothers of the Wind” is a 2015 film getting US distribution this year. Epic TV? Cannot tell from IMDb. You can never go too far wrong with a family film that involves nature, animals and a kid.

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