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John Lithgow, Alfred Molina

John Lithgow, Alfred Molina

“LOVE IS STRANGE” My rating: B (Opening Sept. 26 at the Tivoli and Glenwood at Red Bridge)

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Though its two central characters are men in a long-term relationship, it would be a mistake to categorize “Love is Strange” as a “gay” movie.

In fact, Ira Sachs’ melancholy drama is clearly inspired by the 1937 film “Make Way for Tomorrow,” in which an elderly couple run out of money and after a lifetime together must separate to be farmed out to their selfish children in different cities. “Make Way…” tops my list of the most downbeat (though brutally honest) films ever produced by a major studio during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

That Sachs updates the story to a contemporary setting and makes the couple same sex offers an interesting twist, but at its heart “Love is Strange” is less about sexual orientation than about the economics of living in NYC, the brittleness of familial ties, and the difficulties of having several generations living under one roof. (A century ago, of course, multi-generational households were the norm. Today we’re all a bit too self-centered for that.)

We meet Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) on the day of their wedding ceremony. They’ve been together for four decades, and are now taking advantage of recent judicial rulings to make it legal.

Ben is the older by 10 years, a retiree who still dabbles in painting. He’s a bit fussy, the worrier of the pair.  George is the more expansive and upbeat partner.

Staying upbeat, though, is a challenge after George is fired from his longtime job as a music director at a Catholic high school. His sexuality and living situation were never a secret, but by getting married and announcing the news he has violated Church policy. In addition to losing a paycheck, he forfeits health insurance coverage for himself and Ben.

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Ed Harris

Ed Harris

“FRONTERA” My rating: B- (Opening Sept. 26 at the Screenland Crown Center)

103 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

As first features go, “Frontera” is hugely ambitious.  Too ambitious.

Writer/director Michael Berry seems to want to do for illegal immigration what “Traffick” did for drug smuggling.  But he’s trying to touch so many sailiant features of the issue that his film feels frustratingly busy, as if it has been shoehorned into its 90-minut running time.

There’s no time for the film to breath, to take stock. If only “Frontera” had been produced as a three-night cable miniseries…it would have been a whole different — and much more satisfying — experience.

As it is it features some good acting, terrific cinematography of the rugged American Southwest, and a slowly tightening aura of suspense. It’s okay…it could have been so much better.

It starts south of the border with Miguel (Michael Pena), his pregnant wife Paulina (Eva Longoria in decidedly non-glam mode) and their young daughter traveling north.  They spend a night at the home of Paulina’s parents just a few miles south of the Arizona border. And then Miguel strikes out for the long walk into the U.S.A. The plan is for him to find work, send the dollars back to Paulina, and hopefully bring his family across the border.

On an Arizona ranch abutting Mexico, former lawman Roy (Ed Harris) and his wife Olivia (Amy Madigan) are having a happy retirement. Illegal immigrants regularly cross their land, but Olivia has come to an accomodation with the visitors, riding out with her horse to pass out bottled water and blankets to the trekkers in search of a better future.

Cut to a trio of bored teens who take their rifles out to the brush with the intention of taking potshots at any Mexicans they spot. Their prank goes bad, a death results, and the innocent Miguel finds himself facing a murder charge.

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Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader

Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader

“THE SKELETON TWINS”  My rating: B (Opening Sept. 26 at the Tivoli and Leawood)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The old adage about a tragedian lurking inside every comedian is perfectly illustrated by “The Skeleton Twins,” an achingly sad yet hugely amusing study of self-destructive siblings — played by “SNL” alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig — who can find comfort only in their shared misery.

In an early scene of Craig Johnson’s dramedy, Maggie (Wiig) is preparing to gulp a handful of sleeping pills when her grim ritual is interrupted by a phone call.  Across the country in LA, her twin brother Milo (Hader) has beaten her to the punch, slitting his wrists while sitting in the tub.  He’s in the hospital.  Can Maggie — who hasn’t seen her bro in a decade — come and fetch him?

Granted, this doesn’t sound like a laugh riot. Wiig and Hader — who a few years backed played husband and wife in the coming-of-age comedy “Adventureland” — initially approach their roles with dead-on seriousness, their performances imbued with a sense of weariness that makes simply rising from a chair a monumental effort.

But after Milo returns with Maggie to her home in upstate New York, the film (co-written by Mark Heyman) gently begins working its magic.

The twins have been cursed with self-awareness. They realize they are unhappy, they see themselves almost as psychological caricatures, and if they’re not actually going to kill themselves they need to make fun of themselves to get through it all.

Why do they gravitate toward self-destruction? The film offers no easy answers. In brief flashbacks we see their beloved father — himself an early suicide — giving life lessons and presenting the children with colorful plastic skeletons (the message: Get used to death, come to an accomodation with it.)  About halfway through the film they are visited by their absentee mother (Joanna Gleeson), a New Age groupie so bent on spiritual self-improvement that she’s never had time for her progeny.

With no pat psychological explanation of Maggie and Milo’s dilemma we’re left with the conclusion that maybe some people are just born miserable.

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James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain...in happier times.

James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain…in happier times.

“THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: THEM”  My rating: C  (Now showing at the Glenwood Arts)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The hype over “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” has been so pervasive that a letdown was pretty much inevitable.

It’s not a bad film — just a minor one. A forgettable one.

Actually, we’re talking about three movies. “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them,” now playing in Kansas City, stars Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. It’s about the breakup of a marriage in the wake of a tragedy.

But writer/director Ned Benson has created two other films using the same cast and basic plot that tell the story from the separate points of view of the wife, Eleanor, and the husband, Conor. One of these is “TDER: Her”; the other is “TDER: Him.” Presumeably theaters that are showing “TDER: Them” will also book the other two features.

Here’s the problem.  Based on “Them,” I’m not eager to follow these characters for another four hours.

In fact, I found this film irritating despite the solid performances. Benson is a parsimonious storyteller who rations out important information, keeping his cards hidden and giving us what we need to know in meager dribbles.

The film begins with Eleanor’s attempted suicide jump from NYC’s 59th Street Bridge.  Plucked from the East River she spends some time in a pysch ward and then ends up in the suburban home of her parents.  Dad (William Hurt) is a psychologist and educator; Mom (Isabelle Huppert) mostly survives on cigarettes and red wine.

There’s also a younger sister (Jess Wiexler) who with her young son have moved back home after the breakup of her marriage.

How do psychologists raise such psychologically messed-up kids? Just wondering.

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Justin Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoll...siblings  in "This Is Where I Leave You"

Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoll…siblings in “This Is Where I Leave You”

“THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU” My rating: B- (Opening wide on Sept. 19)

103 minutes MPAA rating: R

Families come together to celebrate or grieve.  By Hollywood’s reckoning, grieving is by far the funnier situation.

The latest example is the amusing “This Is Where I Leave You,” in which four siblings return to their Midwestern hometown to bury their father.

Mother Altman (Jane Fonda) informs them that Dad wanted everyone to sit shiva for him. Which is odd, because though born Jewish, he was an atheist.

Anyway, now the kids, their spouses, significant others, and family friends are locked into a week of quiet contemplation. No work, no phone calls, no distractions from the memory of a life well lived.

“It’s gonna be hard,” Mom says in a spectacular display of understatement. “It’s gonna be uncomfortable. You’re going to get on each other’s nerves.”

Judd (Jason Bateman) is a New  York radio producer who just found his wife (“Recitfy’s” Abigail Spencer) in bed with his shock jock boss (Dax Shepard). He explains her absence by telling everyone she’s at home with a bad back.

Wendy (Tina Fey) is saddled with a work-obsessed hubby (Aaron Lazar) who won’t get off the cell phone long enough to give her the time of day. She’s also dealing with a two year old going through an anal phase.

Paul (Cory Stoll), who still operates the family’s sporting goods store, has been trying for months to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant. By now he’s pretty sick of sex.

And baby-of-the-family  Phillip (“Girls’” Adam Driver), an irrepressible/irresponsible wiseass, shows up with his new squeeze, a ridiculously hot lady lawyer (Connie Britton) 20 years his senior.

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Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder

Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder

“A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES” My rating: B (Opens wide on Sept. 19)

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Hollywood hasn’t been kind to modern mystery writers. Giants of the genre like James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky and Tony Hillerman have seen big-screen adaptations of their work crash and burn (although Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police series did finally find a home on PBS).

A similar fate befell Lawrence Block’s great detective character Matt Scudder.  In 1985 the Scudder tale “8 Million Ways to Die” hit the screen with Jeff Bridges as Scudder and the frequently great Hal Ashby behind the camera.  It wasn’t very good.

But now Scott Frank — mostly known as the screenwriter for films like “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “Minority Report” and, weirdly, “Marley & Me” — has written and directed a fine version of Block’s “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”

Dan Stevens

Dan Stevens

Frank seems to have absorbed not just the one novel but the whole of the Scudder canon, and has given us a film that could be either a solid stand-alone or the first step in a new franchise.Ticket sales will tell the tale.

In the meantime we have a taut, dark, surprisingly substantial thriller that is both a dandy detective procedural and a first-rate character study.

Neesom’s Scudder is an alcoholic former NYC police detective who retired from the force after accidentally killing a little girl in a shootout. He hit AA and went into business as an unlicensed private eye, meaning, he says, that “I do favors for people. They give me gifts.”

As “A Walk…” begins Scudder is called to a meeting with Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens, late of “Downton Abbey”) a drug dealer who reports that his wife was kidnapped and, after Kenny paid $400,000 in ransom, killed by her abductors and returned to her husband in little pieces. Kenny can hardly go to the cops.  He wants Scudder to find the fiends and deliver them for punishment.

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Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini

Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini

“THE DROP”  My rating: C+  (Opens Sept. 12 at the Glenwood Arts, Eastglen 16 and Cinetopia theaters)   

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

One of these days Tom Hardy is going to star in a film equal to his talents and then, hoo boy, watch out.

Until then we’re going to have to be satisfied with the Brit actor being the best thing in flawed efforts like “Lawless,” “Locke” and “Warrior” or as a first-rate supporting player in films like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Inception.”

In “The Drop”  the native Londoner plays Bob Saginowsky, a mumbling Brooklyn bartender who is so quiet, gentle and inoffensive that he reminds of the inarticulate Brooklyn butcher at the center of 1955’s “Marty” (for which Ernest Borgnine won the Oscar).

The solitary Bob has a soft spot for aged neighborhood lushes who can’t pay their tabs, much to the chagrin of his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), who runs the tavern. He goes to mass several times a week (but never takes communion…what’s up with that?)  He lives alone in the house where he grew up…it’s like a time capsule of the 1960s.

And early in the film he adopts an abused pit bull puppy he discovers whimpering in a trash barrel on a frigid New York night.

For such a low-keyed guy, Bob is in a pretty hairy business. Cousin Marv’s Bar (a few years back Marv was forced to sell it to Chechen gangsters), is one of several “drop bars” where the local bookies deposit their daily take according to a top-secret schedule.

If you know when Marv’s is that day’s drop bar, you might be able to get away with a big haul.

The overly complicated screenplay by Dennis (Mystic River) Lehane — based on one of his short stories — balances Bob’s “domestic” life (including a tentative romance with the dog-loving waitress Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace) against the ever-more-dangerous machinations at the bar.

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Mos Def, John Hawkes and kidnap victim Jennifer Aniston

Mos Def, John Hawkes and kidnap victim Jennifer Aniston

“LIFE OF CRIME”  My rating: C+  (Now showing at the Cinetopia)

98 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Movie chemistry is a weird thing.

Sometimes you can have a lot going for you — terrific performances, a literary pedigree — and yet the damn souffle won’t rise.

Such is the fate of “Life of Crime,” an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel The Switch and set in his familiar world of bumbling crooks and unlikely heroes.

Written and directed by Daniel Schechter, whose credits include the little-seen “Goodbye, Baby” and “Supporting Characters,” the film has a plot that might be a variation on O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief,” that classic short story about kidnappers who discover the rich brat they’ve snatched is more than they can handle. (It might also remind you of “Ruthless People,” the 1986 Bette Midler comedy about a kidnapping.)

Low-level Detroit crooks Ordelle (Mos Def, performing under his real name of Yaslin Bey) and Louie (the ever-excellent John Hawkes) cook up a scheme to snatch Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of local crooked businessman Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins).  They will hold her in the home of a third accomplice, a Nazi-worshipping head case (Mark Boone Junior).

What nobody counts on is that Frank is having an affair with a scheming younger woman, Melanie (Isla Fisher), and has no reason to cough up a $1 million ransom for the return of the wife he was already planning on trading in.

Typical of a Leonard yarn, “Life of Crime” is a mix of both humor and suspense. We’ve seen this formula work wonderfully in movies like “Get Chili” and “Out of Sight”, but something goes wrong here.  It’s not that Schechter’s movie lacks either humor or suspense, but rather that the proportions seem out of whack.  The best Leonard adaptations are actually funnier than the books they are based on. One is likely to respond to a Leonard book more with a wry grimace than with an outright belly laugh, and that’s the style Schechter adapts.

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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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Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly

Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly

“CALVARY” My rating: C+ (Opening  Aug. 15 at the Glenwood at Red Bridge, the AMC Studio 30, and the Cinemark Plaza)

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Not even a great-ish performance from Brendan Gleeson can disguise the confusion at the heart of “Calvary,” the new Irish movie from writer/director John Michael McDonagh.

As the film begins it seems to be setting up a Hitchcockian dilemma.  In the confessional, Father James (Gleeson) is threatened by a parishioner who as a child was repeatedly raped by his parish priest.

The perpetrator is long dead, but the victim still wants revenge. He announces (we hear his voice, but don’t see him) that in just a week he will kill Father James. The fact that James is a good priest and in no way connected to the long-ago outrage will only make for a more devastating “statement.”

James thinks he knows who this individual is.  And his superior informs him that when a priest’s life is threatened, the sanctity of the confessional is no longer an issue. James is free to go to the police.

But he doesn’t…which is only one of many improbabilities McDonagh pile atop one another.

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alive-inside“ALIVE INSIDE” My rating: A (Now showing at the Screenland Crown Center)

78 minutes | No MPAA rating 

Movies don’t change lives.

Religion can change lives. Falling in love can, and so can becoming a parent. Tragedy, alas, is hugely effective at creating change, albeit painfully.

But movies? Not really.

Except nobody seems to have told this to the makers of “Alive Inside,” a devastating, incredibly inspiring documentary about the power of music.

Michael Rossato-Bennett‘s documentary follows the efforts of Dan Cohen, a volunteer whose personal mission in life is to bring music to Alzheimer’s patients.

He does it with an iPod, a pair of headphones and playlists specially built to reflect the music these individuals enjoyed in their primes.

“Music connects people with who they have been, who they are and their lives,” Cohen says. “Because what happens when you get old is all the things you’re familiar with, your identity, are all just being peeled away.”

Early in the film Cohen works his magic on a 94-year-old man who has been more or less vegetative for years. With the music playing, the man comes alive. He sings along, he claps his hands and waves. And, astoundingly, he begins holding a conversation with Cohen. It’s the first time he’s really talked to another human being in ages.

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Ellar Coltrane...growing up before our eyes

Ellar Coltrane…growing up before our eyes

“BOYHOOD”  My rating: A (Opening Aug. 1 at the Tivoli, Rio, Glenwood Arts and AMC Town Center)

165 minutes | MPAA rating: R

True originality is rare in the cinema, perhaps the most self-referential and cannibalistic of all the art forms.

But with “Boyhood” Texas auteur Richard Linklater has given us something so fresh and new it boggles the mind.

The gimmick is that Linklater filmed the picture over 12 years, each year shooting a few new scenes featuring the same actors.

His central character, Mason,  is portrayed from age 6 to 18 by Ellar Coltrane, who is as natural in his scenes as a college freshman as he was as a first grader when the movie began almost three hours earlier.

It isn’t just Mason who grows up before our eyes.  Everyone in the cast undergoes the transformation dictated by the passage of time — Lorelei Linklater (the filmmaker’s daughter), who plays Mason’s sassy older sister Samantha, and Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who portray their divorced parents. (Hawke, of course, is with Julie Delpy the star of Linklater’s “Before…” series, which to date has produced three movies examining a romantic relationship over two decades.)

Early in this review I called “Boyhood’s” setup a gimmick. Well, if this is a gimmick it is a singularly profound gimmick, one that packs an overwhelming emotional punch. By using the same actors at various stages in their lives Linklater is able to meld the specific with the universal in a way I’ve never before experienced in a fiction film.

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** and Jon Favreau in  "Chef"

Emjay Anthony and Jon Favreau in “Chef”

“CHEF” My rating: B (Opening wide on May 22)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The title character of “Chef” works in a hugely lucrative but artistically stifling high-end L.A. restaurant. He has a meltdown and goes off looking to regain his muse of cooking.

Interestingly enough, “Chef “ was written, directed by, and stars Jon Favreau, who first burst onto the scene as an indie auteur (“Swingers,” “Made”) before finding mucho money and Tinseltown clout cranking out superhero movies for the Marvel folk (“Iron Man”).

“Chef” can be seen as Favreau’s return to down-home cooking/filmmaking. Despite its impressively deep cast, it’s a relatively simple, modestly budgeted affair, less a banquet than a delicate palate cleanser.

Nothing earthshaking happens here. No deep emotions are plumbed or existential dilemmas explored.

But if  the film is superficial, it is often slyly funny, has a real handle on the restaurant biz and its denizens, genuinely likes its characters, and tries to look on the sunny side. In short,  a pleasant couple of hours at the movies.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is top chef at one of Hollywood’s most in-demand eateries. But he’s hit a creative dead end. The joint’s owner (Dustin Hoffman) doesn’t want to tinker with success and consistently nixes Carl’s attempts at an edgier menu.

When a powerful food blogger (Oliver Platt) pans the place as old hat and unimaginative, Carl has a very public meltdown that is recorded by dozens of customers, making him an Internet sensation.  But while being the raving chef raises Carl’s profile, it gets him fired and makes him unemployable.

He’s got no choice but to start over. Continue Reading »

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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