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Blythe Danner

Blythe Danner

“I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS” My rating: B (Opening June 26 at the Tivoli)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s no other way to put this…at age 72 Blythe Danner seems more beautiful, more luminous, and more talented than at any time in her life.

And “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is an ideal vehicle both for this terrific actress and for exploring issues of age.

Death is never far off in director Brett Haley’s dramedy (co-written with Marc Basch).  In the first scene septugenarian Carol Peterson (Danner) must put down her canine companion of 12 years. While the pooch was around she could always rely on its undivided devotion, but now this widow of 20 years is starting to feet mortality’s tug.

Oh, Carol has what looks like a fairly full life.  Money’s not a problem. She’s got a group of gal pals (Rhea Perlman, June Squibb, Mary Kay Place) with whom she shares bridge, golf and gossip (one of the film’s strong suits is its dialogue, which sounds like real people jabbing rather than the usual moviespeak).  Her friends would like Carol to move into the retirement community where they all live, but she relishes the independence — and perhaps the solitude — of the home she shared with her husband.

“I don’t likely life all complicated,” she says. Funny how complications seem to find her.

Despite her misgivings, Carol senses that she’s in a retirement rut. That may be why she reluctantly allows herself to be talked into a round of geriatric speed dating, a hilarious/appalling experience that only convinces her that solitude is preferable to the the male pickings after 65.

 

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Olivia Cook,  and

Olivia Cooke, Thomas Mann and R.J. Cyler

“ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL”  My rating: B (Opens June 26 at the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli)

105 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

The dying teen film — last year’s “The Fault in Our Stars” being a prime example — typically wrings romance from the weepy nexus of young love and early death.

The Sundance hit “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” takes a different approach, eschewing tearful swooning and emphasizing a snarky (almost too snarky) humor.

Oh, it’ll still have you groping for a tissue in the last reel, but it’s much more devious than its filmic brethren about getting us there.

The protagonist and narrator of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s debut feature is Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school senior who like many a smart dweeb before him employs post-modern irony to shield himself from adolescence’s slings and arrows.

Greg oozes weary contempt for the inanities of both teen and adult society (the latter represented by his touchy/feely parents played by Connie Britton and Nick Offerman). He has navigated the shark-infested waters of a big-city school by becoming a human chameleon, ingratiating himself with various youthful castes. Everyone thinks he’s part of their club, but nobody really knows him.

Perhaps not even Earl (R.J. Cyler), Greg’s best friend since elementary school. They’re an odd couple — the nerdy white guy and an ultra cool black kid.

Greg and Earl are fans of art house movies — we can’t be sure if they really like highbrow films or are just determined to set themselves apart from their mass-consuming peers — and devote their spare time to making short movies parodying cinema classics.

These goofy amateur remakes have clever names (“Grumpy Cul-De-Sacs” is the boys’ take on “Mean Streets”: “MonoRash” spoofs Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”; “Senior Citizen Kane” and “My Dinner With Andre the Giant” speak for themselves) and they’re fun in a so-bad-they’re-good way. (Jesse Andrews’ screenplay, adapted from his novel, references Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore,” whose high school hero stages theatrical adaptations of his favorite films. )

Greg’s too-hip-to-be-bothered facade gets shaken up though, when his mother insists he pay a visit to Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Neither Greg nor Rachel have any illusions about why he shows up at her door. It’s mom-mandated community service, and since Rachel shares some of Greg’s suspicions about conventional sentimentality and socially appropriate behavior, she makes  no demands on her new friend (although Rachel’s needy single mom — Molly Shannon with endlessly replenished glass of white wine — is pathetically grateful for her daughter’s gentleman caller).

One reason Greg keeps coming back — though he’d never admit it — is that Rachel has his number.  She knows the teenage fear of putting oneself on the emotional line and drawing back a stump; she recognizes in Greg and Earl fellow committment phobes.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article25437721.html

 

 

Jean Dejardin

Jean Dejardin

“THE CONNECTION” My rating: B-

135 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Most of us are familiar with “The French Connection,” William Friedkin’s 1971 film about the NYPD’s efforts to stamp out a drug smuggling empire flooding American streets with top-grade heroin.

The French “The Connection” approaches that same situation from the shared POV of the cops and criminals who throughout the ’70s played a long game of cat and mouse in Marseilles, where Neapolitan and Corsican mobsters had set up labs to process opium smuggled in from the Middle East.

Whereas Friedkin’s film was fictionalized (among other things, the names were changed), this offering from writer/director Cedric Jimenez purports to more or less tell the true story of how the police finally broke the back of at least one particular drug operation.

Jean Dujardin, an Oscar winner for his turn as a silent film star in “The Artist,” portrays Pierre Michel, a juvenile magistrate who finds himself bumped upstairs to the organized crime unit. Michel hasn’t a background in criminal law but he has plenty of motivation — while hearing the cases of teenage delinquents he learned much about drug addiction and saw its grim results.

“The Connection” follows Michel as he learns on the run, figuring out how the complicated drug smuggling operation works and winning the confidence of the cops who must implement the anti-crime campaign he will create.

Michel’s story is intercut with that of Gaëtan ‘Tany’ Zampas (Gilles Lellouche), a powerful drug lord who also runs a lucrative protection racket and operates popular nightclubs along the Riviera. Zampas is a attractive/scary blend of sophisticate and thug.

Over nearly 2 1/2 hours “The Connection” follows these two men who, though on different sides of the law, are in many ways very much alike.  Both are devoted family men, both nurse an explosive temper beneath a cool exterior, both are willing to act ruthlessly to achieve their aims.

Over time Michel will bend the legal rules and act less like an administrator than an overzealous cop. Zampas may actually regret having to have his enemies killed — though it doesn’t stop him from seeing the job through.

In fact, actors Dejardin and Lellouche physically resemble one another…that can’t be a coincidence.

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as Yves Saint Laurent

Gaspard Ulliel as Yves Saint Laurent

“SAINT LAURENT” My rating: C+

150 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Even this  fashion backwards film reviewer recognizes the late Yves Saint Laurent, the French couturier who pioneered classy ready-to-wear clothing and founded a wildly successful company that bears his name.

But if you want to understand exactly who Yves Saint Laurent was — well, you’re not going to get much help from “Saint Laurent,” writer/director Bertrand Bonello’s fragmented, impressionistic epic (like, 2 1/2 hours).

The film is great looking and at moments offers a near-documentary feel for the ’60s and ’70s when Saint Laurent was at his creative peak.

But it tells us surprisingly little about the man, his design ethos, or even the fashions he created.

Like a plate of spaghetti thrown against a wall, the film is scattered and splattered, frequently colorful but impossibly messy. Individual moments stick in the mind, but the overall impression is one of angst and hedonistic excess.

As the young Saint Laurent (who is portrayed in his dotage by Helmut Berger), Gaspard Ulliel is eerily believable — thin, high cheekbones, a shy smile, oversized glasses and a mop of Beatle-ish hair. But the film won’t let the actor explore the character’s inner life. This fellow may be a design genius (you’ll have to take that as a given, since the film makes no effort to actually make the case), but mostly he comes off as an idiot savant living a hermetically sealed life.

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** as ***

Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh

“ABOUT ELLY” My rating: B

119 minutes | No MPAA rating

Three families share a long weekend in a rented (and rundown) villa along Iran’s Caspian coast. There’s much good-natured joking, dancing, smoking, cooking out, eating.

These individuals — old law school acquaintances who’ve done well (at least if the BMWs they drive are any indication) — are joined on their mini-vacation by two visitors.  The first is their old friend Ahmad (the charismatic Shahab Hosseini), who lives in Germany and was recently divorced. The second is Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), who teaches the young daughter of Sepideh, one of the wives.

Without consulting anyone else Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) has  invited the single Elly along for the weekend. Ostensibly Elly is there to watch the kids, but it doesn’t take the group long to figure out that Sepideh is playing matchmaker. Especially when she tells the manager of their rental property that Ahmad and Elly are honeymooners. (Iran’s morality police surely would frown on this arrangement, no matter how innocent it seems by Western standards.)

The first 40 or so minutes of “About Elly” — from writer/director Asghar Farhadi, who had a huge art house hit with “A Separation” — are devoted to the settling-in process. Gas and electricity must be turned on, bags unpacked, months of dust and cobwebs swept out. Ahmad and Elly take a brief drive — neither wants to talk about why they’re both there. Several times during the first afternoon, in fact, Elly tries to leave to catch a bus back to Teheran. She’s talked out of it by Sepideh.

And then one of the children nearly drowns. After the confusion and panic of his rescue and resuscitation die down, someone notices that Elly is missing.

Did she make good on her plan to return home? Was she snatched (apparently the beach has a high crime rate)? Did she try to rescue the drowning boy and herself succumb to the waves?

The police are called, a search and rescue boat dispatched.  Nothing. If Elly did indeed drown, her body will wash up within a day or two.

Talk about putting a damper on the weekend!
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Gemma Arterton and Fabrice Luchini

Gemma Arterton and Fabrice Luchini

“GEMMA BOVARY” My rating: C+  (Opening June 12 at the Tivoli)

99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Going in, the logical assumption is that Anne Fontaine’s “Gemma Bovary” is a present-day updating of Flaubert’s classic Madame Bovary (a straight cinematic adaptation opens today at the Cinetopia).

Actually, it’s more complicated and ambitious than that.  Perhaps too ambitious for its own good.

The story is told through the narration of Martin (Fabrice Luchini), the sixty-ish baker in a rural Normandy burg. He tells us that he used to be a literary editor in Paris, but gave it up for an uncomplicated life in the sticks.

Now he’s bored silly.

So he takes special interest when he discovers that his new neighbors, a young English couple, are named Charles and Gemma  Bovary (Jason Flemyng, Gemma Arterton). Quelle coincidence…the newcomers have almost exactly the same names as Flaubert’s characters.

Fascinated and not a little turned on by his pretty new neighbor, Martin befriends the Bovarys (Charles restores antiques, Gemma is an interior decorator specializing in trompe l’oeil) and begins actively studying (or spying on) them.

When he realizes that Gemma — going a bit stir crazy with rural life — has turned to a young law student (Niels Schneider) for a torrid affair, Martin smells a looming disaster. He moves surreptitiously to nip the illicit romance in the bud.

But good deeds can have unforeseen and disastrous consequences. Continue Reading »

jur ydln1orxqd4neeasuboo“JURASSIC WORLD”  My rating: C+ 

 124 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Bigger. Faster. More teeth.

That’s the corporate mantra at Jurassic World, the island theme park built on the ruins of the original Jurassic Park. This business stays on top by every few years introducing a spectacular new genetically modified attraction to keep the crowds coming.

Because with the short attention span of the average tourist, plain old dinosaurs aren’t enough.

“Bigger, faster, more teeth” is also at the heart of the movie “Jurassic World,” the fourth entry in the groundbreaking special effects series.

Back in ’93, when Steven Spielberg unveiled the original “Jurassic Park,” just 10 minutes of CG-animated dinos was enough to guarantee a blockbuster. But in tech-savvy 2015, lifelike dinosaurs are a dime a dozen.

So we all know going in that the dinosaurs are going to be convincingly great. But can the series’ stewards surround the big brutes with a story and characters that matter?

Uh … no.

Director Colin Trevorrow (maker of the low-budget time-travel film “Safety Not Guaranteed”) works with three fellow screenwriters to distract us with a surplus of dinosaurs and action. But mostly “Jurassic World” is content to rehash ideas that were worn out when “Jurassic Park III” came out in 2001.

Not even uber-likable Chris Pratt can dispel the pall of been-there-done-that.

Pratt plays Owen, a Navy veteran working with a quartet of velociraptors (those man-sized mini-tyrannosaurs) he has raised like ducklings. Owen has trained these carnivores to treat him as their alpha male. They don’t take orders, exactly, but at least they don’t have him for breakfast.

What Owen doesn’t realize is that in the massive park geneticists have been mixing DNA to create the baddest dinosaur ever, the Indominus rex. Except that their new creation is way smarter than a lizard should be and has curious skills, like the ability to conceal itself by changing color and body temperature.
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Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson

Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson

“LOVE & MERCY” My rating: B+ (Opening wide on June 5)

120 ninutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Several pages in The Book of Great American Lives should be reserved for the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, whose 72 years have been packed with genius, celebrity, madness and redemption.

There’s more to the Wilson saga than could ever be wedged into just one movie, but Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” spectacularly chronicles one man’s rise-fall-rise in riveting human (and musical) terms.

Pohlad, a first-time feature director with an impressive list of producing credits (“12 Years a Slave,” “Into the Wild,” “Brokeback Mountain”) and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner have come up with a brilliant way of presenting Wilson’s story.

They’ve made two movies: one set in the 1960s starring Paul Dano as the young Brian, the other in the mid-’80s with John Cusack taking on the role. They so cannily entwine the two that just as the first, earlier story is spiraling into tragedy, the second tale, of the middle-aged Brian, is struggling toward recovery.

Let’s acknowledge up front that neither Dano nor Cusack looks much like the real Brian Wilson. Nor do they really resemble each other.

Doesn’t matter. Through some sort of cinematic alchemy, each actor nails the essence of Wilson at different stages of life. And far from triggering a disconnect, the casting of two performers in the same role enhances the story’s richness.

“Love & Mercy” opens with a montage of newsreel-like re-creations of the early Beach Boys in action — on the concert stage, posing for publicity photos on the beach (most of them were not actually surfers), playing for a “Shindig”-like TV show (go-go girls as a backdrop).

These are the heady days of innocence, fame and hit singles. We sense almost immediately, though, that the songwriter and arranger, Brian, stands apart from the group. He’s an odd duck, unnerved by live performances, crippled by panic attacks and driven to create music that he can hear in his head but must struggle to capture on tape.

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and Carl Boneish....one huge leap for thrillseekers

Jean and Carl Boenish….one huge leap for thrill seekers

“SUNSHINE SUPERMAN”  My rating: B (Opens June 5 at the Tivoli)

100 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Perhaps Carl Boenish had a premonition that he would die young.

Not that he was a gloomy sort. A legendary thrill-seeker and pioneer of the sport of BASE jumping — in which parachutists launch themselves off cliffs, bridges, skyscrapers and even towering antennas — Boenish was almost childlike in his enthusiasm for risk-taking.

But in addition to planning and executing daredevil stunts (which frequently ran afoul of the law and required elaborate secret agent-ish preparations), Boenish scrupulously documented his daring activities on celluloid, devising helmet-mounted cameras that allowed him to record sky dives and hair-raising plummets off rooftops.  It’s safe to say that without Boenish’s pulse-quickening footage,  “Sunshine Superman” would never have been made.

Director Marah Strauch makes extensive use of Boenish’s films (they’re way too slick to be called “home movies”), and these astounding images are the main selling point of this documentary about the fraternity of jumpers and the man whose devotion turned a dangerous hobby into a worldwide phenomenon.

Boenish was trained as an engineer but found in the early 1970s that he could parlay his love of sky diving into a gig as an aerial cinematographer, contributing action footage to Hollywood productions like “The Gypsy Moths.” He began creating his own spectacular short films, sometimes devoting two years to making a 15-minute production.

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James Stewart in Hitchcock's "Rear Window"

James Stewart in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”

Readers and Friends:

I’ve got a new part time gig screening movies for the Mid-Continent Public Library. This month (June) we’re displaying the versatility of long, tall James Stewart.

Screenings are at 2 p.m. Sundays at the North Independence Branch on US. 24 (it’s virtually across the street from the Truman Library). I’ll do a short introductory talk, show the movie, and then follow up with more palaver and questions from the audience.

It’s all free of course. Here’s the schedule:

June 7: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939): After all the passing years and our current political quagmire, it says something that Frank Capra’s tribute to honest lawmakers and basic American values can still put a lump in our cynical throats.  Stewart plays a new member of Congress who finds that corruption runs rampant in Washington…and he’s just naive enough to think he can do something about it. With Jean Arthur, Claude Raines, Thomas Mitchell.

June 14:  “Call Northside 777” (1948): Stewart’s innate decency made him a natural as one of society’s “good guys” (cops, newsmen, attorneys). Here he plays a tough Chicago crime reporter who reluctantly reopens a murder case and comes to believe that a man serving a life sentence is innocent. He battles a stubborn system to get to the truth. Shot in docudrama style on location in the Windy City, “Call Northside 777” also serves as a nifty time capsule of post-war Chi-town.

June 21:  “Broken Arrow” (1950): Stewart reinvented himself in the early ‘50s with a series of Westerns (“Winchester 73,” “Bend of the River,” “The Naked Spur”) in which he played flawed, even borderline psycho cowboy anti-heroes. “Broken Arrow” — based on the real-life friendship of government agent Tom Jeffords and the Apache war chief Cochise — is one of his less-disturbing titles from this period, and notable for being one of the earliest studio films to treat Native Americans with respect. Jeff Chandler plays Cochise — and he transcends the white-guy-in-dark-makeup problem to give his best film performance.

June 28: “Rear Window” (1954):  In the 1950s Stewart also became one of the Alfred Hitchcock’s go-to guys. Here he plays L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, a globe-trotting photojournalist stuck in his Greenwich Village apartment with a broken leg. The bored Jeff uses his telephoto lens to spy on his neighbors and uncovers what may be a murder. Grace Kelly adds class and beauty as Jeff’s girlfriend; Thelma Ritter is a hoot as a home-care nurse with quite the mouth. “Vertigo” may be the most ambitious Hitchcock-Stewart film, but for pure pleasure it’s hard to beat “Rear Window,” a thriller overflowing with subtext about how that new-fangled thing television is making us a nation of voyeurs.


| Robert W. Butler

Britt Robertson, George Clooney

Britt Robertson, George Clooney

“TOMORROWLAND”  My rating: C

130 minutes | MPAA rating:  PG  

It’s overwritten, overcomplicated and overlong.

But if you can get past its narrative muddle, really irritating dialogue and a plethora of unanswered questions, “Tomorrowland” offers a potent metaphor about the triumph of human hope and ingenuity.

Wish it were enough. But this time the winning run of writer/director Brad Bird (“The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”) has hit a major speed bump.

It’s not all bad news. George Clooney heads a fine (if not particularly well-used) cast, the state-of-the-art effects are terrific and the film (co-written by Damon Lindelof of “Prometheus,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” and TV’s “Lost”) cleverly taps into a deep well of baby boomer nostalgia.

Nevertheless, the film is an emotionally muted mess that can’t decide if it’s for kids or grown-ups.

It starts out promisingly enough. At the 1964 World’s Fair in NYC, young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) proudly submits his homemade jetpack to an invention contest.

His creation is rejected, but Athena (Raffrey Cassidy), a mysterious young girl with a Brit accent, introduces the boy to Tomorrowland, a futuristic city  in another dimension. Tomorrowland is accessed by a secret portal in Walt Disney’s major fair attraction, the “It’s a Small World” ride. (Bird, a big Disney buff, rarely misses an opportunity to tap into the shared childhood memories of his generation. And the Disney studio gets a plug for its theme park ride.)

In the present we are introduced to Casey (Britt Robertson), a brainy teen whose engineer dad is working his way to unemployment by dismantling NASA’s launch pads in Florida. (Haven’t you heard? The good old USA is pretty much out of the space business.)

Casey finds herself in possession of a mysterious  souvenir pin from the ’64 World’s Fair. When she touches it she is instantly transported to Tomorrowland, a bustling city of sleek towering buildings, zipping monorails and buzzing hovercraft where whatever you dream up can be made reality.

She begins investigating the origins of her pin, hooks up with Athena (who hasn’t aged a day in 50 years) and eventually finds herself with the now-adult Frank (Clooney), a hermit holed up in a farmhouse crammed with sophisticated electronics. Frank — who has a bank of TV screens monitoring environmental disasters, wars, water and food shortages, nuclear threats and social upheavals — is glumly awaiting the end of the world.

Literally. He even has an electronic clock counting down to the day a few weeks hence when it all goes to hell.

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far_from_the_madding_crowd_carey_mulligan_tom_sturridge_1“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”  My rating: B (Opening wide on May 15)

119 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like the 1874 novel on which it is based, the latest screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd has so many melodramatic plot twists that it’s almost laughable.

Yet we don’t laugh. Romance, tragedy and social insight percolate throughout this story of a woman who revels in and suffers because of her stubborn independence.

The success of the book — and any film based on it — lies in Hardy’s ahead-of-his-times feminism, his depiction of subtle psychological states, and the beauty of his language (or visual style, in the case of a movie).

With Carey Mulligan as the strong-willed Bathsheba Everdene and a supporting cast of mostly-solid players, the new “Far from the Madding Crowd” nicely balances those elements.

But a warning: Those who fondly recall John Schlesinger’s 1967 version with Julie Christie may find the approach of director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nichols too muted and subdued.

The earlier film had big dramatic moments and oozed a pastoral passion eagerly embraced by its major stars (Christie, Peter Finch, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp). But the Danish Vinterberg, a founder of Scandinavia’s austere Dogme 95 film movement, aims for low-keyed realism rather than high drama.

We first encounter Bathsheba on horseback. She is riding in the proper sidesaddle fashion, but when she’s sure nobody is watching Bathsheba  throws a leg over the big beast and takes off on  a glorious gallop — man-style.

That scene and her encounter with a neighboring shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), establish her as a woman with big aspirations even if she has no idea of  how to achieve them.

When after just one encounter Oaks asks her to marry him, Bathsheeba turns him down.

“I would hate to be some man’s property,” she says, adding, “You would grow to despise me.”

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mad max fury road“MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” My rating: B

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There is dialogue in the new Mad Max film — mostly delivered in a nearly indecipherable variety of Aussie English — but it really isn’t necessary.

You could eliminate all the words or replace them with made-up gibberish and this still would be the same movie, still a symphony of speed and violence, still a textbook example of visual storytelling.

It’s been 30 years since director George Miller wrapped up his Mad Max trilogy and moved on to projects like the family-friendly “Babe” and “Happy Feet.”  But he remains fascinated with Max’s post-armageddon comic-book world, a world filled with great deserts, rusty cars and trucks cannibalized into bizarro war machines, and traversed by that lonely warrior, Mad Max.

This “Max” is bigger, badder and noisier than previous entries. There’s never been much room in the series for human concerns, and this time around there’s even less.

Even the character of Max (Tom Hardy replacing Mel Gibson) is little more than a physical presence.

But as a mind-boggling exercise in pure action “Mad Max: Fury Road” is overwhelming, achieving the sort of visual poetry typically ascribed to “Ben-Hur’s” chariot race or one of Sam Peckinpah’s blood ballets.

Max, a prisoner of the despotic desert king Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain Toecutter in the first “Mad Max” back in ’79), finds himself swept along on a mission of vengeance and recovery.

Immortan Joe’s five wives — gorgeous young women apparently free of the diseases afflicting most of surviving mankind — have escaped with the help of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, with shaved head and a missing arm), a sort of over-the-road trucker.

Now they’re being pursued across a dusty wasteland (filmed in the sands of Namibia) by the angry husband/king and hundreds of souped up vehicles outfitted with flamethrowers, monstrous crossbows and other jerry-rigged implements of mayhem.

Furiosa’s goal is to find “the green place,” an oasis of water and peace remembered from her childhood. Good luck with that. Continue Reading »

James Marsden, Jack Black

James Marsden, Jack Black

“THE D TRAIN” My rating: B-  

97 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The D Train” begins in familiar, comforting territory.

Jack Black plays an overgrown manchild attempting to relive — and retroactively improve — his outsider adolescence by planning his 20th high school class reunion.

Black’s Dan Landsman is so desperate to be cool and in charge that he’s painful to behold. At the same time, Dan‘s reunion mania leaves little time for him to appreciate the genuinely positive things in his life — the Missus (Kathryn Hahn), their 14-year-old son (Russell Posner), and his good-guy boss (Jeffrey Tambor).

(In fact, Dan is such a miserable sad sack that I found it hard to laugh, even when the frustrated character explodes in furious karate kicks like the ursine warrior Black depicts in the animated “Kung-Fu Panda” franchise).

Dan concocts a scheme to boost reunion attendance by enticing Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), once the school’s dominant BMOC, to return. Oliver is now an LA actor with a national TV ad peddling suntan lotion.

This will require a trip to California to corner Oliver in his natural environment. So that his employer will cover his air fare, Dan lies  that he’s tracked down a big business prospect in Hollywood.

It soon becomes evident to everyone but the starstruck, uber-square Dan that Oliver is a drug-scarfing, bed-hopping bottom feeder who has gotten all the mileage he can out of his hunky good looks. Still, the failed actor is more than happy to engage in a drunken carouse paid for by this this barely-remembered figure from his high school days.

For Dan it’s a chance to get up close to the classmate who previously wouldn’t have given him the time of day.

Then  “The D Train” drops a plot development that is guaranteed to raise eyebrows, appall some viewers and turn the movie inside out. If you want to read the spoiler — and there’s no way to not mention it in a thorough discussion of the film — continue.

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Kristen Stewart, Juliette Binoche

Kristen Stewart, Juliette Binoche

“CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA” My rating: B 

124 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Juliette Binoche is just about perfect in “The Clouds of Sils Maria,” playing a middle-aged actress wrestling with issues of aging and art. Of course we expect excellence from Binoche.

What we don’t expect is that Kristen Stewart, the sullen star of the “Twilight” blockbusters,  would more than hold her own with the veteran French actress in an extended battle of one-on-one acting. (If you’ve seen Stewart’s work in indie efforts like “The Cake Eaters,” “Adventureland,” “On the Road”  or “Stil Alice” you know she’s got chops never put to use in her over-inflated vampire saga.)

Stewart — who won a French Cesar Award for her performance — plays Val, the personal assistant to Binoche’s Maria, and from the film’s first frame she is an organizational dervish, simultaneously fielding calls on two cellphones, scheduling appointments and running interference for her famous employer.

Val is more than just a competent social secretary. She is Maria’s confidant, booster, career consultant and, on some level, friend. When Maria has trouble making up her mind or second-guesses her choices — all too common occurrences — Val knows just what buttons to push, what issues to raise to nudge the older woman to a decision.

Writer/director Oliver Assayas’ film centers on a new stage production of the play that made Maria a star at age 18. Back then she was cast as the young office worker who seduces and gradually destroys her boss, a woman 25 years older.

Now, though, Maria will play the older woman. Her cruel young lover is to be portrayed by Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), a charismatic young star whose talent is frequently eclipsed by her Lohan-esque bad-girl behavior.

The bulk of the film unfolds in a house on a mountainside in the small Swiss enclave of Sils Maria, where  the low-lying clouds are bizarre and beautiful.

Maria and Val have taken up residence there to prepare for the production. They spend much time running lines from the play — Val reads the younger woman’s role — and dissecting Maria’s conflicted feelings about having to renegotiate the drama from the perspective of a mature but insecure woman. Continue Reading »

Photographer Salgado

Photographer Sebastiao Salgado

“SALT OF THE EARTH” My rating: B (Opens May 1 at the Tivoli)

110 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like the late Ansel Adams,  photographer Sebastiao Salgado has an immediately recognizable visual style.

In more than 40 years of shooting (he didn’t pick up a camera until he was in his 20s) the Brazilian-born Salgado mostly has photographed other human beings struggling to survive.

His work has taken him from huge gold mining pits in South America (where 60,000 laborers manually lug bags of dirt up treacherous ladders — looking like insects swarming over an anthill) to refugee camps in Africa and a still-primitive tribe in the jungles of New Guinea.

Photo from Salgado's series "The Miners of Serra Pelada"

Photo from Salgado’s series “The Miners of Serra Pelada”

His work, invariably in black and white, is unsettling. For while his politically-charged subject matter is often disturbing (the corpses of African children dead of starvation, the Rwandan genocide, civil war in the former Yugoslavia), his artistry is overwhelming.

Shooting rapidly using natural lighting, he instinctively finds the right angle, the right composition, the right moment to push his shutter button. He discovers beauty in ugliness. (Though it’s not mentioned in this doc, some critics have accused Salgado of prettifying human misery for Western bourgeoise consumption.)

“The Salt of the Earth,” an Oscar nominee this year for best documentary feature, follows Salgado’s career through his photographs and his personal commentary.

Directed by the great Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the film is an overwhelming sensory experience even as it tugs at our political consciousness.

From Salgado's study of  an Ethiopian refugee camp

From Salgado’s study of an Ethiopian refugee camp

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xxx as Ava

Alicia Vikander as Ava

“EX MACHINA” My rating: B+ 

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The computer or robot that turns on its human creators is one of science fiction’s more popular tropes, sparking films as diverse as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Terminator.”

“Ex Machina” offers one of the more disquieting takes on that idea, delivering a compact four-character pressure-cooker drama that leaves audiences convinced that the creation of artificial intelligence inevitably will lead to humanity’s destruction.

The directing debut of Alex Garland (the screenwriter behind “28 Days Later…” and “Sunshine”), unfolds on the remote estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a Jobs-ian genius and multi-billionaire thanks to the Internet search engine he created at age 13.

We meet Nathan through Caleb (Domhall Gleeson), a lowly computer programer who has won a company-wide contest to spend a week with his boss. This is a very big deal, since Nathan has not made a public appearance in years and lives alone in a high-tech home/laboratory built into a mountainside near the Arctic Circle.

Caleb is what you expect from a computer programmer — smart and dweeby. Nathan, on the other hand, is a force of nature, a sort of scientific Paul

Domnail Gleeson and Oscar Isaacs

Domnail Gleeson and Oscar Isaacs

Bunyan with shaved head and Mennonite beard who, when he’s not playing mad scientist, is furiously lifting weights.

Early on Nathan — who works overtime to give the impression that he’s just one a normal dude — confides that Caleb is here to help him test his newest creation. It’s an android he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants the programmer to perform a series of “Turing tests” — conversations with Ava from which Caleb will deduce whether she’s just a smartly programmed machine or a genuine individual capable of original thought and emotion.

Caleb is wowed by his first encounter with Ava, whose body consists of a mesh exoskeleton through which he can see her metal “bones” and the blinking lights of various hard drives. Her movements are accompanied by the hum of her internal hydraulics. Only her face, hands and feet have been covered with a material that approximates human flesh.

Over several days Caleb befriends Ava, who evolves from a sort of quiet diffidence to eager participant.

“Are you attracted to me?” she asks, remarking on “the way your eyes focus on my eyes and lips.”

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Russell Crowe in

Russell Crowe in “The Water Diviner”…the war goes on

“THE WATER DIVINER” My rating: C 

 111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Russell Crowe’s acting is marked by fierce physicality and an equally intense  intelligence.

The Australian icon once again embraces those qualities in his feature directing debut, “The Water Diviner.” But the results are at best desultory.

Maybe Crowe bit off more than he could chew in tackling this  convoluted World War I yarn with epic ambitions.

He certainly should have been more discerning when it came to the muddled screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, which throws together big themes, cheesy romance and an approach heavy on flashbacks.

The film begins with the 1915 attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey by British and Australian forces.  After months of savage fighting and thousands of casualties, the invaders are repelled and retreat across the sea.

Cut to Australia several years later where farmer Joshua Connor (Crowe) battles drought by using dowsing rods to detect underground water. He appears to have a real talent — possible psychic — for knowing where to dig.

Joshua and his emotionally devastated wife (Jacqueline McKenzie) lost their three sons in one day of fighting on Gallipoli. With the death of his spouse, Joshua decides to honor her last wish — that her boys’ bodies be recovered and buried beside her.

It’s a tall order. It means traveling to Turkey, navigating (or defying) the red tape of the British occupation, getting to the battlefield (from which civilians are banned because of the live ordinance still littering the landscape) and somehow finding three skeletons among the thousands buried in mass graves.

If you think Joshua’s dowsing abilities will come in handy, you’re right.

But there’s a lot more to this overly-busy yarn.

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Brian Wilson leads the Wrecking Crew in recording instrumental tracks for the "Pet " album.

Brian Wilson leads the Wrecking Crew in recording instrumental tracks for the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds ” album.

“THE WRECKING CREW” My rating: B- (Opens April 24 at the Tivoli)

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” LP. The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Virtually anything by the Monkees.

The instrumental backing for these classic recordings was provided not by the groups whose names were on the record label but by anonymous studio musicians who earned millions creating the hooks, beats and arrangements that translated into monster record sales.

These L.A.-based players — there were perhaps two dozen of them — came to be known as the Wrecking Crew. They were given that nickname by old-time record producers who in the early ’60s viewed these blue-jeaned, T-shirted newcomers as a threat that would wreck the recording industry.

Didn’t work out that way.

Denny Tedesco’s long-in-limbo documentary “The Wrecking Crew” — it made the festival rounds in 2008 but its commercial release was delayed by years of negotiations over the music rights — is the filmmaker’s tribute to his late father (legendary session guitarist Tommy Tedesco, who died in 1997) and to a generation of brilliant musicians.

The Crew wasn’t an organized group.  The musicians individually contracted to play at recording sessions (sometimes several in one day), and as the best of the best they kept bumping into one another. Friendships and musical relationships were formed.

Following on the heels of other recent docs taking us back to the formative years of rock ‘n’ roll — “20 Feet from Stardom,” “Muscle Shoals” — this piece provides talking-head conversations (with the likes of Dick Clark, Lou Adler, Herb Alpert, Leon Russell, Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson), archival footage and photos, and a treasure trove of great tunes.

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seymour“SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION” My rating: B 

81 minutes |MPAA rating

Seymour Bernstein is not part of any religious order, but it’s difficult not to think of him as some sort of holy man.

For 50 years he has lived in a monk’s cell of a Manhattan studio apartment, sharing the tiny space with his beloved grand piano. He is celibate…possibly asexual.

And in a sense he prays daily for the salvation of mankind, except that he addresses his devotions not to the Almighty but to the muses of music, fingering not rosary beads but the keys of his piano.

Beginning in the early 1950s Bernstein, who is now 87, had a spectacular career as a concert pianist.  But he gave it all up at age 50, having concluded that the business side of his profession — and his innate fear of performing before an audience — was sapping his love of music.

So he turned to teaching piano, both at a university and in the privacy of his apartment.

A few years ago he met actor Ethan Hawke at a party. At the time Hawke was going through his own crisis involving fame and art, and Bernstein provided a sounding board, offering his own life experiences as and example of how to find balance.

Hawke was so impressed that he made the documentary “Seymour: An Introduction.”

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James Franco

James Franco

“TRUE STORY” My rating: C+

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Every big-city newspaper has a reporter like Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill).  A hotshot writer with an unlimited expense account, Finkel keeps his own schedule, visiting the office only a few times each year to smile condescendingly at his envious colleagues and bathe in their bitter admiration.

Early in writer/director Rupert Goold’s “True Story,” Finkel pays one such rare visit to the newsroom of The New York Times, which has just published his latest Sunday magazine cover story, this one about contemporary slavery in Africa.

Except that this time around Finkel doesn’t have his facts straight. He apparently has combined several individuals into one semi-fictional character (moreover, in the opening scene we saw him pay a source for information…a no-no in the world of legit journalism).

Suddenly this perfect master of newsprint is out on his keister. Plus, once word of the scandal gets out, no other paper will hire him.

“True Story” is based on what happened to the real-life Michael Finkel in the wake of his firing.  He learned that Christian Longo, an Oregon man facing charges of having murdered his wife and three young children, had stolen Finkel’s identity in order to survive on the run.

Having spent way too much time in disgrace, Finkel decides to visit Longo (James Franco) in his jail cell.  Hey, Finkel needs a fan, even if the guy’s a multiple murderer.

He encounters a hooded-eyed sociopath who can seem friendly and perfectly rational, but who refuses to address his own guilt or innocence.  The desperate Finkel,  smelling a best-selling book, cultivates Longo, even coaching him in wordsmithing once the accused man reveals that he’s always wanted to be a writer.

But who’s playing whom?

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Naomi Watts, Ben Stiller

Naomi Watts, Ben Stiller

“WHILE WE’RE YOUNG”  My rating: C+

97 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There may have been a time when we aged — if not gracefully — at least appropriately.

But in a society where youth is worshipped and Botox is a household word, how does one come to terms with getting older?

That question is at the heart of “While We’re Young,” writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy — albeit a dour comedy that could have used a lot more more laughs.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as Josh and Cornelia, 40-something New Yorkers out of sync not just with youth but with their own peers. While their friends are now fully invested in parenthood and career paths, Josh and Cornelia have managed to avoid most of the trappings of middle age.

Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried

Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried

He’s a documentary filmmaker who has spent the last decade futzing around with a project about a grizzled philosopher (Peter Yarrow of folk music fame) that he’ll probably never finish and that nobody will want to see. She’s the producer for her father, a legendary grand old man of documentaries.

They’ve no children, no car, no mortgage.

But their biological clocks are accelerating — he’s got arthritis and she’s conflicted over her inability to have a baby. Mortality is rearing its ugly head.

Enter Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried), a young married couple auditing Josh’s documentary film class at a New York City university. Jamie endears himself to the filmmaker by claiming his life was changed by Josh’s early (and only successful) documentary.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR‘s WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article17831633.html

Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds

Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds

“WOMAN IN GOLD” My rating: B- 

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Despite a tendency to dilute its message with easily digestible Hollywood moments, “Woman in Gold” provides the formidable Helen Mirren with yet another juicy role while raising some thought-provoking questions about art, ownership, and societal upheaval.

The subject is the real-life pursuit of California transplant Maria Altmann (Mirren) to reclaim several paintings stolen from her Jewish family in Vienna by the Nazis. The most  important piece is Gustav Klimt’s “Lady in Gold,” also known as “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” (Adele was Maria Altmann’s aunt). It and several additional Klimt paintings were looted by the Germans and after the war became the property of the Austrian state.

This film from director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn”)  follows parallel narratives  separated by six decades.

In the modern day  — roughly 1998 to 2006 — we follow the efforts of the octogenarian Altmann, operator of a high-end  Los Angeles fashion shop, to reclaim her family’s artwork. In this she is assisted by struggling lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), whose own family history is rooted in Austria — he is the grandson of classical composer Arnold Schoenberg.

They make for an odd couple legal team. Maria is a friend of Randol’s mother and hopes that he will “help me out on the side…like a hobby.” She’s opinionated, sometimes brusque and in your face.

Randol, on the other hand, is not terribly successful and struggling to make ends meet. He only fully gets involved when he realizes that the paintings Maria hopes to recover are worth upwards of $150 million.

Problem is, the Austrian government sees them as priceless, as part of that nation’s psyche, with “Lady in Gold” often compared to the “Mona Lisa.”  Maria’s initial efforts are rebuffed, and it is only after she sues the Austrian government through the American legal system — a case that will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — that her efforts gain any traction.

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"Furious 7"...the usual suspects

“Furious 7″…the usual suspects

“FURIOUS 7″ My rating: B-

135 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Subtlety is not the reason the “Fast and Furious” franchise became a box office juggernaut.

Rather, it’s all about roaring engines, outlandish stunts, bikinied babes, music-video pacing, racially diverse (if one-dimensional) characters and a playful sense of camaraderie — elements that appeal to audiences all over the world.

“Furious 7” doesn’t mess with the formula, though this latest entry can’t help coming off as bittersweet, what with the 2013 car-crash death of leading man Paul Walker as filming neared completion.

If the action is spectacular, giving us violent ballets of speed and destruction, the film’s attempts at emotion are simplistic and sappy. But the lingering sense of loss over Walker’s demise gives the material a dramatic underpinning it doesn’t really deserve.

“7” concludes with flashbacks of Walker from the previous films, and even sneerers may reach for the Kleenex.

Mostly though, Chris Morgan’s screenplay and James Wan’s direction keep things moving. Like a second-grader with ADD, the film is impossibly restless (is there one shot that lasts more than 10 seconds?). The dialogue is often stunningly (intentionally?) bad, filled with cliches from the action movie playbook.

This time around the blended team of crooks and lawmen — the alpha dog Dominic (Vin Diesel), Brian (Walker), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris) and Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) — are being stalked by an implacable and seemingly unbeatable enemy.

Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), brother of the criminal mastermind the crew took down in the last film, wants revenge and methodically goes after our guys.

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***...misbehaving

Taika Waititi…misbehaving

“WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS”  My rating: B-

86 minutes | No MPAA rating 

After several lifetime’s worth of experiences, you’d think vampires would get it right.

But, no, the bloodsuckers starring in the faux documentary “What We Do in the Shadows” are a singularly inept bunch whose existence argues against the notion that with age comes wisdom.

Written and directed by Jemaine Clement (half of the comedy/musical duo Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi, “What We Do…” purports to be footage shot by a New Zealand  documentary crew that’s been granted permission to film the nightly activities of a group of vampires living together in a creaky old house.

Usually front and center is Viago (Waititi), an affable and childlike fellow in the Andy Kauffman mold who still wears the Byronic fashions of his human life and looks upon the film crew as an opportunity to dispel many of the misconceptions about  his vampire brethren.  (“We get a really bad rap.”)

Vladislav (Clement) has a taste for torture that reflects his flesh-and-blood life in the late Middle Ages. Think Vlad the Impaler.

Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is basically a frat boy.  A former Nazi, he now is a dedicated slacker and is often criticized by his housemates for not pulling his weight: “You have not done the dishes for five years.”

Finally there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), who lives in the cellar and is a dead ringer for the bald, rat-clawed vampire in the classic silent film “Nosferatu.”  Petyr is the “father” of the others, but at age 8,000 he doesn’t exert any more energy than is absolutely necessary.

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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.

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.

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