Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: Unrated.
Theater: Lagoon.

 

If you were around for the 1970s peak of success for the “National Lampoon,” that point when fans died over the satirical monthly’s latest issues like new LPs from the Who, you’ll love the good-old-days vibe of “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead.” If you weren’t, grab a seat to understand what was allowed to be funny before the age of political correctness. The Lampoon mocked JFK for getting assassinated, made fun of Stevie Wonder for being blind and ridiculed women in general because it was made by guys mostly. Douglas Triola’s documentary is an in-your-face ramble through the raunchy launch and eventual downfall of a cultural milestone now all but forgotten.

Pushing beyond its early publishing success, the Lampoon produced amusing music albums, off-Broadway stage shows and a weekly radio broadcast that gave the first nationwide exposure to John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray. It filled “Animal House” and the original “Vacation,” now considered beloved family films, with unspeakable taboos. It made tons of money and laughs until a group of crabby appletons who didn’t like their religious dogmas derided chased away all the advertising. Still, the Lampoon introduced some of the best comedic writers and performers of their generation.

New interviews with alumni, famous subscribers and cleverly animated illustrations drawn from the magazine’s pages keep the laughs coming, even after it honors the title by chronicling the loss of some self-destructive members. If you think there is nothing funnier than putting a sacred cow in a blender and hitting the purée button, this is the movie for you.
Colin Covert

 

Big Stone Gap
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: PG-13 for brief sexually suggestive material.

 

Ashley Judd plays Ave, a woman of Italian heritage who tells us, via voice-over, that she was “born and raised in the hills of Virginia, when coal was king.” The year is 1978. Ave is 40, proprietor of the town’s pharmacy, unmarried and, in her words, “the old maid” of Big Stone Gap. The film is written and directed by Adriana Trigiani, author of the 2000 novel it is based upon. The warmth of spirit behind this project (with a cast that includes Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Wilson and Jenna Elfman) allows its missteps to be mostly forgiven.

These include a plot that could be mistaken for the story line of a Hallmark Channel movie. Fortunately, Judd’s character has some complexity: In addition to matters of romance, she’s grappling with the sudden death of her mother and unexpected revelations about her background. In Trigiani’s hands, she and the people who surround her are rendered with dignity and humanity. “Big Stone Gap” suffers from some hokey moments, including an ending that’s implausible and too heavy on the sap. In a lot of ways this is a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” sort of movie. But sometimes, especially when the air’s starting to turn brisk, that’s exactly what you need.
Jen Chaney, Washington Post

 

He Named Me Malala
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats.
Theater: Edina, Arbor Lakes, Regal Eagan, Eden Prairie.

 

Chances are you’re familiar with Malala Yousafzai, the young activist and Nobel laureate who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan. But with Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, based on her memoir, “I Am Malala,” you’ll get to know the remarkable girl in a much more intimate and illuminating light. While the film itself is plagued with structural storytelling issues that are at best emotionally numbing, at worst confounding, Malala’s inspirational spirit is undeniable, and the documentary allows that to shine through.
Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

 

Knock, Knock
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: R for disturbing violent behavior, strong sexual content, nudity and language.
Theater: Mall of America

 

An encounter with teenage temptresses turns to terror for a family man (Keanu Reeves) in a campy, lurid, erotic horror thriller directed by Eli Roth (“Hostel”). Inspired (if that’s the word) by the 1977 exploitation flick “Death Game,” this is a movie that doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is: a slick, twisted, extended sick joke with a classic lesson about the consequences when a good man makes one really big mistake — and pays dearly for it.

Reeves plays a man whose wife and kids are away for a few days, when two gorgeous, soaking wet teens show up at his door spinning a story about getting lost on their way to a party. Before you know it, the duo are ramping up the sexual tension with Reeves, but then “Knock, Knock” goes from titillating to terrifying, with echoes of movies such as “Hard Candy,” “Funny Games” and “Fatal Attraction.”
Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times

 

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: Unrated.
Theater: Lagoon.

 

Stanley Nelson’s vital, vibrant documentary brings viewers a lively, intimate chapter of political history that feels stingingly urgent. The film examines the formation of the Black Panther Party, which emerged in the 1960s to educate and arm communities of color facing injustice in the post-Jim Crow urban North. Personified by the likes of party co-founder Huey Newton, who terrified the white powers that be when he began exploiting gun laws by openly carrying firearms while dealing with the police, the Black Panther Party quickly became a flash point in the nascent culture wars, offsetting its image of violence with healthy breakfast programs for kids and a collective sense of cool, unflappable style.

Here, they’re fully contextualized in a time period that, in its systemic inequalities and appalling cases of police harassment, feel uncannily like this one. If “The Black Panthers” has been designed to leave viewers outraged and energized in equal measure, it succeeds with admirable style. It counts as essential history and a primer in making sense of how we live now.
Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

 

Freeheld
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: PG-13 for some thematic elements, language and sexuality.
Theater: Uptown.

 

“Freeheld” is the fact-based story of a terminally ill woman (Julianne Moore) who went to court to ensure that her domestic partner (Ellen Page) inherited her pension benefits in New Jersey, where inheritance rights for domestic partners were not guaranteed at the time. Yet for about half of “Freeheld,” the movie is not about a court case but a courtship. “Freeheld’’ is really a document in favor of gay marriage, making an argument in the most unimpeachable terms imaginable.

Moore gives us a proud woman dragged unwillingly into the abyss of illness, and she is emotionally and physically convincing as someone in her last days. Page is lovely, giving us someone who is boyish and bashful and not afraid to show when she feels in over her head. It’s a formulaic film, but some formulas are good if you do them right, and it helps knowing that it all really happened, or most of it.
Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle