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cake_trailer2_mi_16x9_992“CAKE” My rating: B- (Opening Jan. 23 at the Leawood and Cinemark Plaza) 102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

I can usually handle a pain-filled story if there’s a touch of transcendence in there somewhere.

In the case of “Cake,” a glum yarn about a woman enduring excruciating physical and mental pain, that transcendence is provided by Jennifer Aniston in the sort of soul-ripping performance we’ve never see from her.

Claire Bennett is middle aged but moves like an old lady. The scars on her face suggest she’s been through a lot, and as the movie progresses we’ll discover that not all her maladies are physical.

You get the feeling that she’s always had a dark, sardonic streak and that whatever has happened to her has kicked this into overdrive. Early in this film from director Daniel Barnz, Claire rips up other members of her support group for for their simpering responses to the suicide of one of their members.

The woman in question, Claire notes, took a header off a freeway overpass, landed in the bed of a truck and was not discovered until said vehicle had returned to its home base in Mexico, making things even more complicated for her survivors. She made her escape, sure, but at what cost to those she left behind? Way to go.

Her caustic attitude extends to just about everyone in her life, not that there are that many of them.  She’s mean to her physical therapist (Mamie Gummer) and support group facilitator (Felicity Huffman).  She’s brusque with her ex-husband (Chris Messina) and especially with her soulful housekeeper (Adriana Barraza), the sort of person who is almost too forgiving of the faults of others.

Patrick Tobin’s screenplay lacks a strong narrative. Mostly it provides vignettes of Claire’s troubled life as he (rather parsimoniously) deals out the facts about how she came to this sad state.

The crisis here comes when Claire is visited by the ghost of her suicidal friend (Anna Kendrick) and decides to pay a visit to the woman’s husband (Sam Worthington) and child. Maybe she’ll be able to make some sense of her life. Their lives.

I’m guessing we’re to view the ghost as metaphorical rather than literal.  In either case, it’s a rather creaky device.

But at rock bottom this is a case of an actress outshining her material. “Cake” may feel a bit too carefully assembled for credibility, but Aniston’s furious, desperate performance rings true. | Robert W. Butler

Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell

Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell

“FOXCATCHER” My rating: B

129 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Funny guy Steve Carell dons prosthetic teeth and nose for “Foxcatcher,” transforming himself into the fabulously wealthy and seriously unhinged John du Pont,  a convicted murderer who died in prison in 2010.

He’s flanked in the film by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, both of whom give career-high performances.

Yet despite this terrific acting (or because of it), “Foxcatcher” is a squirm-worthy experience. We know going in that it will end badly, but Carell — with director Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”) and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman — ups the ante by creating a mood of queasy uneasiness that slowly builds in intensity until you want to jump out of your skin.

Which puts this critic in the weird position of subtracting points because the movie was too effective. At the risk of seeming a philistine, it is difficult to wholly recommend a movie that makes one feel so uncomfortable for two hours-plus.

The story begins in the mid-’80s with wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum), who with his older brother Dave (Ruffalo) was a big winner at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

While Dave is a family man with a decent gig teaching and coaching at a university, the unmarried, solitary Mark seems to be circling the drain, a not-terribly-bright jock whose glory days are behind him. He’s reduced to donning his gold medal to give talks to elementary school kids for a few bucks.

Enter the mysterious John du Pont, a ferret-like individual who invites Mark to become part of his Team Foxcatcher, a privately funded wrestling community the multimillionaire maintains on his vast estate.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article6492222.html

american-sniper-trailer-bradley-cooper“AMERICAN SNIPER” My rating: B+

132 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In more than 40 years of directing, Clint Eastwood has become a master storyteller.

That is overwhelming evident in the first half-hour of “American Sniper,” Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall’s adaptation of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s memoir about his experiences as the most deadly sniper (160 confirmed kills) in U.S. military history.

They waste no time in plunging us into the action: A street in Iraq. American soldiers searching door-to-door.  Watching from above is Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), new to the war and positioned on a rooftop.

Sienna Miller

Sienna Miller

Suddenly Chris spots movement — an Iraqi mother and her young son are approaching. The mother produces a rocket-propelled grenade from her clothing and gives it to her son, who rushes toward the Americans.

In seconds Chris must decide if his first kill will be a child.

From that hair-raising intro, the film sends jerks us back to Chris’ childhood: reared as a hunter (and possible proto-survivalist) by his father, a misspent youth as a rodeo rider, the decision to enlist in the best military unit in the world, the SEALs.

We see him in sniper training. We also witness a witty display of barroom banter with Taya (Sienna Miller), who dismisses SEALs as ego-fueled macho men but goes for Chris in a big way. He’s funny, he’s handsome, he’s sincere in his patriotism, he’s got that charming Texas drawl. Plus, on their first date he holds back her hair while she’s throwing up.

Several years in Chris’ life are thus established in just a few minutes and with virtually no exposition. This is storytelling at its best, with the images doing the talking and the dialogue providing color and personality.

Then we’re back on that rooftop peering through Chris’ gun sights at the little boy with the bomb.

READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW ON THE KANSAS CITY STAR‘S WEBSITE AT www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article6493422.html

| Robert W. Butler

Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin

Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin

“INHERENT VICE”  My rating: C

148 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has been on such a long, productive run (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”) that it was inevitable he’d mess up one day.

While you can’t categorize “Inherent Vice” as an outright disaster, it spends an awful lot of time going nowhere in particular. Mostly it spreads around lots of  stoner whimsey while wasting the efforts of a terrific cast.

It’s overlong, underpopulated with anything like real characterizations and — perhaps most frustrating of all — it’s a mystery yarn so uninvolving that 10 minutes after seeing it I could no longer recall who dunnit…or what they done.

Critics describe Inherent Vice as the most reader friendly of Thomas Pynchon’s dense, hallucinogenic novels.

As compared to what?  A trigonometry textbook?

It’s a riff on the classic L.A. detective yarn, set in the late 1960s and offering as our private eye protagonist a ganja-addled, sandal-wearing doofus.

“Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, sleepy-eyed and moving at half speed)  is a beach-dwelling sleuth with offices in a free health clinic. He’s visited one night by his former girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), a one-time flower-power love bunny who is now the mistress of the ruthless Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), L.A.’s most celebrated real estate developer.

Shasta tearfully asks Doc’s help in stopping a conspiracy by Wolfmann’s wife and her lover to have him committed to a mental institution. Doc — who for all his pharmaceutical excesses works to maintain his integrity — assents for old time’s sake.

But then both Wolfmann and Shasta go missing, and Doc finds himself dealing with coke-snorting dentist Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short),  killer Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie), and a sax-playing junkie (Owen Wilson) who was declared dead but is now back among the living.  Not to mention the Golden Fang, a vast drug-smuggling cartel.

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selma-bridge“SELMA”  My rating: B+ 

127 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Like writing history with lightning.”

That was President Woodrow Wilson’s reaction to a 1915 White House screening of the Civil War epic “Birth of a Nation,” a film whose artistic ambitions were matched only by its racism.

A century later, director Ava DuVernay has given us “Selma,” a docudrama about a pivotal campaign in the fight for civil rights for black Americans. You could say this film writes history not so much with lightning as with compassion.

“Selma” often gets the details wrong (shuffling chronologies and geography, for instance), but its emotional heft is undeniable. In re-creating the 1965 protest marches from Selma, Ala., led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the movie captures the epic sweep of social upheaval, but also the way it played out for the individuals — famous and anonymous — who made it happen.

David Oweyolo as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

David Oweyolo as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s as close to being there as most of us will ever get.

The screenplay by Paul Webb (his first) cannily begins with three scenes that establish the film’s breadth of focus and what is at stake.

In Oslo, Norway, the Reverend King (David Oyelowo, who like most of the lead players is British) accepts the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Selma, black housewife Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, one of the movie’s producers) attempts to register to vote. A sneering clerk orders her to recite from memory the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. When she does so flawlessly, he tells her to come back when she has memorized the names of all the county judges in Alabama.

And in Montgomery, Ala., four black girls are killed when a bomb planted by racists goes off in their church during Sunday services.

King and other civil rights leaders focus their efforts to register black voters in Selma, a burg so racially backward and with such thuggish law enforcement that it perfectly meets their needs.  With the media focused on the situation — dignified protestors being abused by white cops and racist mobs — the federal government will be forced to get involved.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW, VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR‘S WEBSITE AT

http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article5569809.html 

Jack O'Connell as Louie Zamporini

Jack O’Connell as Louie Zamporini

 

“UNBROKEN” My rating: B

137 minutes| MPAA rating: PG-13

Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” is a highly polished tribute to human resiliency.

So why isn’t it more moving?

Based on the best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit), this ambitious film tells a story that would be outlandish except for the fact that it’s true.

When Louis Zamperini died earlier this year at age 97, he could look back on a personal history that included juvenile delinquency, a stint as an Olympic athlete, and WWII adventures as an Army Air Corp bombardier. Zamperini survived seven weeks drifting on the Pacific in a life raft, and two years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, enduring hellish punishments above and beyond those routinely suffered by his fellow POWs.

That’s a lot of life to cram into a feature film — and the screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese already has drawn fire for what it has left out. More on that later.

Though Zamperini is played as a youth by C.J. Valleroy, the movie is  owned by Brit actor Jack O’Connell, whose adult Louis quickly emerges as the one character with whom we identify.  Other players come and go, but “Unbroken” is virtually a one-man show and O’Connell sinks into the role with almost documentary understatement.

Sumptuously mounted with some terrific action sequences — two bomber crashes plus those long weeks bobbing on a shark-filled sea — the film establishes early and maintains throughout the idea that after a difficult start, Louis was a man determined to survive and succeed.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article4813680.html

 

Benedict Cumberbatch as early computer creator Alan Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch as early computer creator Alan Turing

“THE IMITATION GAME” My rating: B+

114 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

With his monumental forehead and widely spaced eyes, Benedict Cumberbatch more resembles the Star Child from “2001” than a movie sex symbol.
Nevertheless, he has his own army of groupies (the self-proclaimed “Cumberbitches”) and his unconventional looks pay off handsomely in roles as brainy outsiders.
Having already put his stamp on Sherlock Holmes for the BBC and PBS, Cumberbatch now takes on Alan Turing, the mathematician and inventor whose genius — he was instrumental in defeating the Nazis and is considered the father of the computer — wasn’t enough to keep him from running afoul of Britain’s draconian laws about “deviant” sexuality.
This film from Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (maker of the nifty thriller “Headhunter”) resembles an extremely good installment of “Masterpiece Theatre,” right down to the familiar actors.
But Cumberbatch’s central performance is so overwhelming that it elevates this historical drama into the realm of Shakespearean tragedy.
In early World War II this Turing is recruited to help crack Enigma, the Nazis’ allegedly unbeatable system for sending coded messages throughout the Reich’s war machine.
Denniston (Charles Dance), the brittle naval officer in charge of the effort, is not impressed with Turing, who seems indifferent or, worse, smug. (“Mother says I can be off-putting…”)
In fact, Cumberbatch gives us not just a brilliant eccentric but an autistic individual.  He avoids eye contact. He’s incapable of reading other people’s emotions. He doesn’t “get” humor.

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James Cordern, Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep

James Corden, Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep

 

“INTO THE WOODS”  My rating: B-

124 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

“Into the Woods” is a terrific big-screen musical right up to the point when it suddenly stops being great and turns disheartening and annoying.

In this it is exactly like the stage version of this Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine collaboration, which I saw in previews in New York just before its 1987 debut.  I’m talking 90 minutes of wonderful followed by 30 minutes of meh. So meh, in fact, that it damn near ruins all the good stuff.

Director Rob Marshall, who more or less singlehandedly resurrected the movie musical with 2002’s “Chicago,” comes charging out of the gate here, delivering a movie that works musically and  cinematically and which strikes just the right tongue-in-cheek tone in revisiting the fairy tale cliches of our childhoods.

In a village just outside the woods the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) yearn for a child.  Their cronish neighbor (a gleefully scenery-chawing Meryl Streep), widely believed to be a witch, reveals that in his childhood she put a curse of infertility on the Baker.  Now she offers to lift the hex if the couple will obtain for her several items needed for an incantation that will restore her youth and beauty.

Among the things sought in this scavenger hunt: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.

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2014 wasn’t a year of great movies.

Great performances, yes, but often in movies that were only good.

Which poses a problem for the critic assembling a 10 Best List.  Is a spectacular piece of acting enough?  Just how far can it lift a movie that in other regards  fails to reach the stratospheric atmosphere of cinema art?

Examples: Eddie Redmayne’s astounding work as cosmologist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”  Robin Wright in “The Congress.”  Ralph Fiennes in “Grand Budapest Hotel.”  Or Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler.”

Ultimately you have to fall back on the basics, looking not at a film’s parts but at its totality, at the personality it presents to the world. Does the experience stick with you, burrowing into your consciousness so effectively that months or even years later you can recall the thrill of viewing?

These are the films that did it for me this year. There are several documentaries (the genre least insulting to the intelligence of audiences), one foreign title, and several independents (a couple of which came and went in the blink of an eye).

There’s only one mainstream release because…well, because Hollywood is less into discovery than into recycling the tried and true. I find it too late in the day to be treading water.

So here they are no particular order:

TO READ THE REST OF THIS STORY GO TO THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article4645131.html

 

20000 days

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Reese Witherspoon

Reese Witherspoon

“WILD” My rating: B+ 

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Man-against-nature stories are fairly common. Women-against-nature…well, that’s a rarer breed.

In “Wild” a perfectly unglamorous Reese Witherspoon plays real-life writer Cheryl Strayed, who some years ago hiked more than 1000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, which begins at the Mexican border and ends in Canada.

Strayed‘s story, as recorded in her 2012 memoir Wild, was both an escape from a tormented past (a failed marriage and drug addiction, for starters) and a long trek toward self discovery.

That journey, and the agonizing personal history that got it all started, have been effectively realized by Witherspoon (another Oscar nomination seems inevitable) and director Jean-Marc Vallee, who guided Matthew McConaughey to a best actor Oscar in “The Dallas Buyers’ Club.”

That earlier film was a middling movie elevated by a terrific lead performance. “Wild” raises the bar considerably — not only is Witherspoon superb (for much of the movie it’s just her and the scenery), but the storytelling technique proffered by Valee and screenwriter Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy,” “An Education”) almost perfectly captures the key elements of Strayed‘s tale through visual and aural poetry rather than conventional narration.

The film begins with Strayed, a tenderfoot in both the literal and figurative sense, setting out on the trail maintained by the National Park Service.

She has crammed her backpack with so much equipment that she moves like Atlas straining to lift the entire Earth.  The damn thing is so heavy it constantly threatens to flip her onto her back and leave her clawing the air like a helpless turtle.

Her new hiking boots are too tight, resulting in blood and blisters. Initially she’s lucky to cover five miles a day. She has never pitched a tent before, or tried to cook on a propane camp stove. She’s not sure how to deal with the rattlesnake in her path or the coyotes that howl all night.

But she’ll learn, just as she’ll learn to deal with heat and snow and physical exhaustion.

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo (left), and Richards Armitage as Thorin (right)

Martin Freeman as Bilbo (left), and Richards Armitage as Thorin (right)

“THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES” My rating: C 

144 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

I am so over Peter Jackson’s Tolkein obsession.

It’s not that “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” is incompetent filmmaking. Rather, it’s empty filmmaking.

It’s got plenty of spectacle — beginning with a dragon and ending with an hour of uninterrupted combat — but it seems not to be inhabited. The characters are paper thin, and even those with whom we’ve developed some an affinity aren’t on the screen enough for genuine emotions to emerge.

Maybe this is what comes of taking a simple children’s adventure and ballooning it into a 9-hour trilogy.

Perhaps Jackson long ago emptied his quiver of tricks and is now reduced to repeating himself.

And the stuff that once wowed us — the CG that made the original Ring Trilogy such a technological marvel — now seems rather old hat.  So many of the effects on display here look patently artificial rather than real.

For hardcore fans, of course, none of this matters.  Having invested at least 15 hours in the first five Tolkein-inspired films, they’re not about to bail on the big conclusion. They’d probably stick around to watch Bilbo read from the White Pages.

Basically “Battle of the Five Armies” can be broken down into three segments.

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Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking

“THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING” My rating: B

123 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Even if you’re familiar with the life and work of Stephen Hawking, there’s something humbling about seeing it depicted in a film.

One of the world’s greatest minds trapped in a body that refuses to cooperate.  A woman who cares for his every physical and emotional need and bears his children…at least until she cannot any more.

Time. Space. Infinity.

The first thing that should be said about “The Theory of Everything” is that it isn’t actually about Hawking’s cosmological theories of black holes and other scientific conundrums — though they are of  course mentioned in passing.  It is based on Jane Hawking’s memoir (most recently updated in 2013) and is more a relationship film than anything else.

Fine. We’d rather watch a people story than an illustrated physics lecture. And “Theory” provides the platform for two terrific performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who must be considered on the short list for this year’s Oscar nominations.

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Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

“WHIPLASH”  My rating: B+

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) conducts the elite studio jazz band at New York City’s most prestigious conservatory of music.  He’s a musician and educator, though you might be forgiven for mistaking him for a Marine drill instructor…or perhaps a serial killer.

Fletcher enters the rehearsal room with the swagger of a gunslinger flinging open swinging saloon doors. His students don’t make eye contact.  They gaze at the floor or at their charts.  Nobody wants to draw the alpha wolf’s reptilian stare.

But that won’t save them. Fletcher is routinely profane, insulting, and capable of reducing a young musician to sobs. He seems to take great pleasure in finding a victim at every rehearsal.

“Either  you’re out of tune and deliberately sabotaging my band, or you don’t know you’re out of tune — and that’s worse.”

He’s smug, cruel and probably sexist, given his treatment of a woman player in a freshman ensemble: “You’re in first chair. Let’s see if it’s just because you’re cute.”

He punishes those who disappoint him not with pushups but with rehearsals that go on into the wee hours: “We will stay here as long as it takes for one of you faggots to play in time.”

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Michael Keaton and Edward Norton...exploring artistic differences

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton…exploring artistic differences

 

“BIRDMAN”  My rating: B+ (Opens Oct. 31 at  the Glenwood Arts, Cinemark Palace and Studio 30)

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Birdman” is a tour de force, a heady mix of dark comedy and psychic meltdown with energy vibrating from every frame.

Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”), star Michael Keaton (in a bravura performance) and a terrific supporting cast deliver a movie unlike anything we’ve seen before.

If the film, full name: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” isn’t as deep as it thinks it is, there’s no arguing with the jaw-dropping creativity on display — technical, dramatic and thespian.

The setup: One-time movie box office champ Riggan Thomson (Keaton) — who earned worldwide fame portraying a feathered superhero called Birdman — has come to Broadway to write, direct and star in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Riggan has personally financed the production in hopes of restarting his moribund career (“I’m the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question”) and affirming his artistic credentials.

Turns out his sanity is on the line as well.

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Brad Pitt (foreground) and tank crew (left to right): Shia LeBouf, ** , Michael Pena, I*.

Brad Pitt (foreground) and tank crew (left to right): Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal.

“FURY”  My rating: B (Opens wide on Oct. 17)

134 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Fury” is on one level one of the great war/action films, a face-first plunge into the blood, guts and terror of combat.
But writer/director David Ayer (“Training Day,” “End of Watch”) is aiming for more than just a stomach-churning visit to war’s visceral horrors. He wants to show how combat dehumanizes the individuals who must do the dirty work.
It’s impossible to watch the trailers for “Fury” — with a grimy Brad Pitt in charge of a World War II tank crew — and not be reminded of the Nazi-killing good ol’ boy Pitt portrayed in “Inglourious Basterds.”
That 2009 Quentin Tarantino film was an exaggerated, almost hallucinogenic comic fantasy of warfare. Ayer, though, plays it straight, eschewing overtly comic elements and pushing for an unflinching earnestness.
Only trouble is, he may have pushed too hard.
We are introduced to the five-man crew of Fury, a Sherman tank, on a German battlefield in the spring of 1945, during the last gasps of the war. The tank commander, Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt), makes short, silent work of a passing German officer (a knife in the eyeball does the trick nicely). He then climbs back into the tank occupied by three living crewmen and the headless corpse of a fourth.
We’re all accustomed to war movies stocked with various American “types”: a Jew, a Hispanic, a black, a college boy, a redneck. We’re meant to identify with them.
Just try identifying with the creeps who live in Fury. The mechanic Grady  Travis (“Walking Dead’s” Jon  Bernthal) seems more mumbling Neanderthal than modern man. The gunner, Boyd “Bible” Swan (a nearly unrecognizable mustachioed Shia LaBeouf), is intensely religious — he abstains from drink and women but seems to find sexual release in blowing Germans all to hell. The driver, Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), is a bit closer to normal — until you realize that he and Travis are most likely brothers-in-rape.
After years of fighting, whatever civilized veneer these guys had has been stripped away. No longer all-American boys, they are more of a renegade biker gang, killing prisoners and then retreating to their Sherman tank like wolves to their lair.
TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT   http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article2811409.html
Rosamund Pike, Benn Affleck...in happier times

Rosamund Pike, Benn Affleck…in happier times

“GONE GIRL” My rating: A- (Opening wide on Oct. 3)

minutes | MPAA rating: R

The Affleck smirk — the way Ben Affleck, without even trying, looks like a high school halfback who has just initiated one of the new cheerleaders beneath the bleachers — is put to spectacular use in “Gone Girl.”

In David Fincher’s first-rate adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s dark suspense novel, Affleck plays a  handsome husband suspected of killing his beautiful wife, who has inexplicably gone missing. Here’s a poor jerk who — despite his best efforts to appear sympathetic in front of the cops, the cameras and the court of public opinion — can’t help coming off as insincere and smug.

Damn that Affleck smirk!

Or, rather, all hail the Affleck smirk, imbued as it is with ambivalence and leaving us uncertain about whether we should be cheering or booing the film’s protagonist.

That indecision could be problematical (moviegoers like being told what to think and feel), but “Gone Girl” nevertheless sucks us into the bitter (and bitterly funny) world fashioned by Fincher and Flynn (who adapted her own book for the screen — and in many respects actually improved upon the novel).

It’s a thoroughly satisfying mystery and suspense tale, sure, but “Gone Girl” also is one of the cinema’s most supremely cynical statements about the institution of marriage. It makes “The War of the Roses” seem warm and fuzzy.

And as if that wasn’t cake enough, we get for icing a hugely perceptive and bleakly comic depiction of the tabloid media, Internet opinion-making, and the astoundingly shallow fickleness of the American public.

There’s enough great stuff in here for three or four movies.  That Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Zodiac,” “Fight Club”) and Kansas City-reared Flynn keep it all in perfect balance is some sort of miracle.

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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon...eating their way through Italy

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon…eating their way through Italy

“THE TRIP TO ITALY”  My rating: B (Opening on Aug. 29 at the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli)

108 minutes | No MPAA rating

Fans of the 2010 buddy  film “The Trip” will feel right at home with the sequel. There are no surprises here.

Once again we have Brit comic actors Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan portraying slightly fictionalized versions of themselves on a cross-country trek, this time through glorious Italy.

Once again they spend much of their time eating scrumptious food and engaging in chatter that looks suspiciously like the conversational version of hand-to-hand combat. When these two egomaniacs square off, it’s a virtual comedy competition.

Early on, Coogan warns Brydon that he will tolerate no celebrity imitations this time around. This pronouncement may momentarily dampen our enthusiasm (watching the two trying to upstage each other by mimicking Michael Caine was one of the first film’s great wonders), but it soon becomes apparent that Coogan’s dictate has no teeth.

Because for the next 90 minutes we see the two of them (mostly Brydon this time) comically conversing in the voices of Caine, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Christian Bale, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, Hugh Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Humphrey Bogart.

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Ralph Fiennes in Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Ralph Fiennes in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”  My rating: B (Opens wide on March 21)

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a whopper of a shaggy dog story – or more accurately, it’s a series of shaggy dog stories that fit neatly inside one another like one of those painted Russian dolls.

The film’s yarn-within-a-yarn structure and a delightfully nutty perf from leading man Ralph Fiennes are the main attractions here. I had hoped that “Grand Budapest…” would scale the same emotional heights as Anderson’s last effort, the captivating “Moonrise Kingdom.”

It doesn’t. But there’s still plenty to relish here.

Describing the film requires a flow chart. But here goes:

In the present in a former Eastern Bloc country, a young woman visits the grave of a dead author and begins reading his book The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Suddenly we’re face to face with the writer (Tom Wilkinson), who is sitting at the desk in his study. After a few introductory comments and a brusque cuffing of a small boy who is proving a distraction, the author begins telling us the plot of his novel.

Now we’re in the 1990s in the formerly sumptuous but now dog-eared Grand Budapest hotel in the Eastern European alps. Staying there is a Young Writer (Jude Law) who befriends the mysterious Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). An aged empresario who owns several of Europe’s most luxurious hotels, Moustafa keeps the Grand Budapest running for nostalgic reasons.

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adieu“GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE 3-D”  My rating: B-

70 minutes | No MPAA rating

If your average American moviegoer recognizes the name of Jean-Luc Godard, it’s probably for “Breathless,” the 1959 Jean-Paul Belmondo film that singledhandedly introduced the modern era in cinematic storytelling.

Godard hasn’t been much in evidence on U.S. screens since the Sixties — his work is too experimental and challenging even for most cinephiles.  But he’s made a movie almost every year for the last six decades, and finally one is playing in Kansas City.

“Goodbye to Language 3-D” already has gained some notoriety for having been anointed the best film of 2014 by the National Board of Review…a choice hotly debated within that august body (one might say the voters exhibited a perverse, cheeky humor worthy of Godard himself).

Now the film opens at Kansas City’s Screenland Crown Center, one of the few art houses around with projection equipment that can do justice to Godard’s use of 3-D photography.

This is not a conventional film…not even close. Like many of Godard’s works, it’s more of a collage on a central theme, an assault of dramatic (and antidramatic) moments, news footage, clips from old Hollywood flicks and political posturing.

The theme is summed up in the title — though since Godard relies so heavily on the spoken and written word one must assume he’s being ironic.

The picture opens at an outdoor used book stall where the patrons are roughed up by gun-toting men in black suits who attempt to intimidate readers. Periodically these thugs — who don’t seem particularly good at their job — will pop up to continue their harrassment.

A couple (Heloise Godet, Kamel Abdeli) sit around naked in an apartment holding post-coital debates.  Like everyone else in the movie, they are less characters exchanging dialogue than points of view spewing socio-political maxims.

“Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality.”

“The law that denies its own violence cheats.”

“Yes, I am here to say ‘no’.”

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