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Conducting Hope

Conducting Hope is a fascinating documentary that follows the East Hill Singers - the only men’s prison choir in the United States allowed to perform outside of prison walls – as they prepare for an upcoming concert. The East Hill Singers are a unique group, as they are composed of current inmates at the Lansing Correctional Facility in Lansing, Kansas, along with former inmates and community volunteer members. Being part of the choir has a surprising emotional impact on the inmates as they are able to feel a sense of community, commitment, and purpose that they otherwise wouldn’t encounter in the incarcerated environment. One gentleman even said that singing made him feel “human again”, and “not just an object” (or just a number) which is typical of the prison experience. The inmates find it exhilarating to be able to go outside of the correctional facility. They get to feel like part of the community again for a few hours, and are even able to see family members who attend the concert – sometimes this includes family they haven’t seen in years, or children they are not able to see while incarcerated, due to visitation guidelines. For those skeptical of the program and allowing inmates a chance to be outside the correctional facility, volunteer guards do go with the men when they leave for concerts. And in 15 years of this program’s existence, there have been ZERO incidents and no one has ever tried to escape. I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary and highly recommend it. It shows the incredible power and impact that music can have, and makes you think about the possible ways that prison programs could be reformed. Programs like the East Hill Singers help to reduce recidivism by building self-esteem, teaching the importance of teamwork, and most importantly fostering hope. Overall Rating: A
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How to Be Single

How to Be Single…this is far from a self-help film that actually answers that question. Instead, the movie is a raunchy romantic-comedy that proves that everyone has a different approach to relationships, or the lack of one. Dakota Johnson plays Alice, a young woman who is somewhat bored of her life in a monotonous relationship, so she decides to move to New York City and explore life on her own for a while. At her new job as a paralegal, she meets Robin (played by the hilarious Rebel Wilson) who makes it her mission to try to teach Alice how to let loose and have fun with life. Meanwhile, other characters are following their own paths of being single, and for the sake of this movie, those paths all intersect to form a cohesive plot. Though laced with crude sexual humor throughout, I would still classify this as a “chick-flick.” I did appreciate that the storyline (especially the ending) was not as predictable as I had anticipated, which gave it a uniqueness that many rom-coms are lacking. In my opinion, the movie is better suited for a “girl’s night” than a “date night”…but check it out and form your own conclusion. I guarantee you’ll laugh at least once! Overall Rating: B
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Spotlight

This film is based on the Boston Globe’s investigative team of reporters, known as “Spotlight,” who uncovered not only a massive scandal of sexual abuse cases within their local Catholic Archdiocese, but also the cover-up of these cases by the Catholic Church as a whole. Set in the early 2000s, the film follows the investigative work of the Spotlight team as they search to uncover the truth behind the allegations before making the story public in the media. Although the content is heavy and will be emotional to some, I found the movie itself to be phenomenal. The storyline is very well-written and taps into an array of emotions – sadness, frustration, confusion – and the acting of the amazing cast (including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams) is spot-on. I found that the movie drew me into the story, and for 2 hours took me on the emotional journey that forever changed a part of our culture. Spotlight (the movie) was just as deserving of their Academy Award for Best Picture as the original Spotlight team was of their Pulitzer Prize. Overall Rating: A+
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The Martian

Matt Damon stars as astronaut Mark Whatney in this sci-fi, space-adventure that is action-packed from the very beginning. During a manned mission to Mars, the crew of the Hermes is hit by an intense storm that forces them to abort their mission and head back to Earth. However, during the storm, Whatney is hit by debris, separated from the rest of his crew, and left unconscious on the desolate planet. His fellow crew members safely board their rocket, and assuming that Whatney has been killed, they begin their flight back home, while mourning the loss of their dear friend and colleague. Back on Earth, NASA too believes that astronaut Whatney was killed during the storm, and holds a press conference to announce the news to the media and the nation. Meanwhile, back on Mars, Mark Whatney has indeed survived the storm (and his resulting injuries), but is far from confident that he will stay alive long enough to alert anyone that he is still there, let alone ever be rescued. The film follows his ingenious efforts to survive alone on a deserted planet, and the dedication of the NASA team to bring him home. Filled with superb effects, action that captivates you until the very end, and witty humor throughout, this film is another stunning success by director Ridley Scott. Overall Rating: A
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Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep has made it to the big-screen! In this animated comedy, Shaun the Sheep and his friends at the Mossy Bottom Farm have found themselves bored with the monotony of their daily work schedule, and have decided to take a day off. Led by Shaun and his mischievous antics, they figure out a scheme to trick the farmer. When plans go awry, and the entire flock ends up in the big city, they quickly realize they are in trouble...possibly more than they can handle. They begin to miss the simplicity and safety of the farm, and the main focus of this "day off" becomes getting everyone safely back to Mossy Bottom. This endearing movie offers laughs for the entire family, while proving the life-lesson that "grass isn't always greener on the other side." I never would have thought that a flock of sheep in an animated movie which uses NO dialogue whatsoever, could portray such an important lesson of being content with what you have. The animation (claymation) is so remarkable, that at times I forgot I was watching an animated film! With only sound effects, music, and amazing facial expressions by the characters, the animators of this movie brilliantly tell a story that the whole family can appreciate! Overall Rating: A
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Vacation

Rusty Griswold (played by Ed Helms) returns in an all new comedy about a dysfunctional vacation featuring a new generation of the Griswold family. Rusty is all grown up and has a family of his own now – wife Debbie (played by Christina Applegate) and 2 sons, James and Kevin. The family is stuck in a rut, so as they are planning an upcoming vacation, Rusty takes it upon himself to plan a new adventure for them, by recreating a vacation from his past – the infamous trip to Walley World. If you are familiar with the Griswold family, you have come to realize that nothing they attempt to do ever happens easily – wild and crazy antics seem to follow this family everywhere they go! All this being said, I was not impressed with this re-creation of the classic movie. The nostalgia behind the film made me hope for something better, but unfortunately I did not find this version nearly as entertaining or funny as the original. I also was disappointed that Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase) wasn’t a more prominent character in this movie. He is the head of the beloved Griswold family after all! Unlike its predecessor which has become a classic, I don’t feel this movie is worth watching again. Overall Rating: C
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Where Hope Grows

Where Hope Grows is an inspirational drama starring David DeSanctis as “Produce”, a young man with Down syndrome who works in the produce department at a local grocery store, and Kristoffer Polaha as Calvin Campbell, a former professional baseball player who is struggling to find his place in life. Calvin and Produce develop a friendship after meeting at the grocery store, and along the way, Calvin is reminded of the important things in life, including hope and faith. I thought this was a heartwarming, family-friendly movie with the underlying theme that hope can be found in the most unexpected places. The storyline was endearing, and for those not typically fans of the inspirational genre of movies, the religious message in this particular film is more subtle than most, with the plot focusing on overcoming hardships in your life versus trying to “preach” at the audience. This film is a pioneer in its own right by casting a young man with Down syndrome in a lead role, and raising awareness to #StopTheRWord. Overall Rating: B+
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'71

’71 stars Jack O’Connell as young British soldier Gary Hook who is accidentally abandoned by his unit during some intense, violent riots in Belfast in 1971. The movie takes place over the course of one night as you follow the soldier’s journey alone through the streets of Belfast, trying to figure out who he can trust – who is friend versus enemy, even among his so-called comrades. This action-thriller is intense at times, and depicts the real struggle between the Catholic and Protestant forces in Northern Ireland during a very troubled period in their history. (The storyline never picks a side though – it just shows the devastation caused when 2 groups are at war within the same town.) The movie can be a bit confusing at times though, as you try to keep characters straight and you yourself try to figure out who Hook’s friends and foes are. I would also recommend watching this with the subtitles turned on, as the dialogue can be difficult to understand at times. Overall Rating: B
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Focus

Focus, Will Smith’s latest feature film, centers around veteran con-man, Nicky, and his female counterpart, Jess (played by Margot Robbie) as they swindle their way through New Orleans and beyond. Although Smith plays in both comedies and dramas, Focus really encompasses the best of both worlds: I went back and forth between sitting on the edge of my seat and laughing out loud several times during the feature. I also enjoyed trying to figure out which characters were conning each other before the storyline gave it away! Throughout, the acting was fantastic, the costumes were beautiful, and the storyline was engaging, albeit a bit unbelievable at times. Certainly worth a second viewing, this film would appeal to anyone who enjoys a twisting plot and a good laugh. Overall Rating: A-
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Unbroken

Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, follows the life of Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell) from troublesome child, to high school track star, to Olympic athlete, to a soldier fighting in Japan during World War II. After a near fatal plane crash, Louis and his surviving crew members manage to survive on a raft in the middle of the ocean for an astounding 47 days, only to be captured by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. As to be expected during a time of war, the conditions of the camp are brutal and deplorable, making it difficult to watch at times knowing that this is completely based on real-life events. Louis Zamperini is a fighter and hero in every sense of the word, never giving up regardless of his situation, and consistently putting the well-being of others ahead of himself. He lived by the motto “If I can take it, I can make it,” and he certainly proved himself to be a resilient man who truly could not be broken, even among the most terrible of circumstances. Overall Rating: A
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Lucy

In this Sci-Fi thriller, the title character Lucy (played by Scarlett Johansson) gets caught up in a drug deal that turns into a nightmare for her: a bag containing a powerful, synthetic drug is inserted into her abdomen and she is being used to smuggle the drug into a foreign country. The plan changes when the bag containing the drug bursts, leaking it directly into her body, and Lucy decides to get revenge on her captors. The story follows the effects of the drug on the human mind, and the unimaginable changes and super-human powers that occur to a person when their mind is unlocked beyond the standard 10 percent that the average person uses. While the storyline can definitely be seen as far-fetched, I have to admit that it is interesting to consider that there is an “unlocked” portion of our mind and explore the possibilities that come as this potential is reached. This film kept me interested to the very end, wanting to know what happened next as Lucy inched closer and closer to unlocking her mind’s full potential. Overall Rating: A-
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Gone Girl

Based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl is a thriller centered around a seemingly perfect love between Nick and Amy Dunne (played by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) that turned hostile, toxic, and possibly murderous. On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears from their home in Missouri, leaving behind a suspicious looking “crime scene” and enough bizarre clues to paint her husband Nick as the prime suspect in her disappearance and possible murder. Nick insists he is innocent, but as the days pass with no sign of Amy, information surfaces that Nick has been unfaithful and short-tempered in their marriage, adding to the appearance of his guilt. Just when you think you have it figured out, the plot takes another turn, adding to the suspense, and keeping you engaged all the way to the end. While I feel that the book provided more details about the story and the relationships between the characters than the movie did, the cast and the acting brought the story to life for me and had me hooked from the beginning. Overall Rating: A
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Anything Goes by Florida Georgia Line

With all of the hype surrounding the release of country duo Florida Georgia Line’s second album Anything Goes, I must admit that I was underwhelmed and disappointed after listening to it. There is only one song on the album that I like enough to listen to multiple times, and that is “Dirt”, which is already being played on country radio. Most of the other songs sounded very similar musically, and I had to fight the urge to skip tracks without hearing them all the way through because of the monotony. In my opinion they rely too much on lyrics that don’t make sense, as well as unnecessary clichés throughout (including the track titled “Angel” during which they actually sing the line “Did it hurt when you fell from the sky?”). It appears that with all of their recent success and popularity in the modern country music world, Florida Georgia Line may have been too rushed to release their next album, resulting in an overall boring and repetitive collection of songs that surely will not be as popular as their first album.Overall rating: D
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Secrets of the Dead: The Mona Lisa Mystery

In this interesting PBS documentary, a group of experts theorize about the mystery behind Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and whether or not he actually painted his most famous work twice. In the early 1900’s, a second portrait surfaced – the so-called “Isleworth Mona Lisa” – that was strikingly similar to the Mona Lisa which hangs in the Louvre in Paris. Scientists and historians were able to use modern techniques to analyze both works of art in an attempt to determine if they were both created by da Vinci himself or if perhaps the Isleworth painting is nothing more than an excellent forgery. The narrative in this documentary goes back and forth, examining all theories, and by the end many questions are still left up to each individual’s own interpretation. While I learned a great deal from this film regarding the overall history of the famous painting, for me the mystery behind it all still remains a total mystery – but that just adds to the iconic charm of Mona Lisa herself.Overall rating: B+
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Blended

Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore reunite in this romantic comedy to play single parents Jim and Lauren who meet on a terrible blind date. Although they have no intentions of seeing each other again, they manage (by total coincidence) to end up at the same African safari resort for a spring break vacation with their kids. Their families are forced to interact during activities at the resort – some hilarious, and others kind of heart-warming – which of course leads Jim and Lauren to fall in love and their kids to get along like a real “blended” family. Like most Adam Sandler movies that I’ve seen, this film has its quirky and corny moments throughout, but the on-screen chemistry between Sandler and Barrymore is unmistakable, and almost magical. If you enjoyed their previous movie together (“50 First Dates”) like I did, then I believe you will be entertained by this film as well. Overall rating B+
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