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Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay

Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay

“45 YEARS” My rating: B+ (Opening Feb. 5 at the Tivoli and Glenwood Arts)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Everyone has a few secrets. Usually it’s a case of no harm, no foul.

But for the couple at the center of Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years,” long-kept secrets threaten a decades-old marriage.

Kate (Oscar nominated Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are retirees living in a bucolic and green corner of England. They’ve never had children, doting instead on a series of dogs. They are comfortable and reasonably happy.

One day the postman brings a letter that upends their placid existence. Geoff learns that melting glaciers have revealed the body of his long-ago girlfriend, who was hiking Europe with him when she fell to her death in an alpine crevasse. Now, more than 50 years later, the authorities want him to come settle matters.

Kate knew of this shadowy woman only vaguely. Geoff has never talked much about her. But now she learns that way back then Geoff identified himself to the authorities as the dead woman’s husband. Actually they never married, but as far as the Swiss police are concerned, he’s still next of kin.

This revelation gnaws at Kate as she goes about arranging a party to celebrate her and Geoff’s 45th wedding anniversary (Geoff was ill for their 40th, so this is to make up for lost time).

But even as she must deal with renting  a banquet hall, selecting music for the dance, and creating a menu, she’s gnawed by doubts.

Just how well does she know this man who has shared her life?

Continue Reading »

anomalisa“ANOMALISA” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Jan. 22)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Plenty of movies pack an emotional wallop. Lots of movies deftly employ bleak humor. And cinematic eroticism is nearly as old as film itself.

But to find all of those things going on in an animated release…well, that’s a whole new thing.

Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa,” one of this year’s Oscar nominees for best animated feature,  is a psychological study executed with humanoid puppets that have been animated one frame at a time to give the illusion of life.

But it’s not played for laughs; rather it’s the cry of a man coming apart at the seams. Or of a world sinking into a desultory sameness.

The first thing we hear is the growing babble of dozens of voices. They’re talking about mundane stuff and quickly accelerate into a wall of incomprehensible noise.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a middle-aged passenger on a Cincinnati-bound airplane. A motivation speaker and author, he’s the keynote guy for a convention of customer service employees from throughout Ohio.

As he deplanes and makes his way to his cold, impersonal hotel we realize that everyone in Michael’s world — hotel employees, waitresses, actors on TV, the night clerk at a porno shop — speaks in the same voice (that of veteran character actor Tom Noonan). Or at least so it seems to Michael, who may be going mad.

(It takes a while to notice, but with the exception of Michael and Lisa, all the characters — of whatever sex — have the same face. The hair and clothing is different, but the features are the same.)

Once in the hotel Michael calls his former girlfriend Bella, who agrees to meet him for a drink and ends up screaming at him (again, in the voice of Tom Noonan) for his betrayal a decade earlier.

Just when it seems that things couldn’t get any weirder, Michael hears a distinctive female voice.  It belongs to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is attending the convention with her friend and co-worker Emily.

Lisa is nervously chatty (always saying to herself “Shut up, Lisa”), physically shy, and frets about the facial scar she tries to cover with her hair. She’s childlike and given to big enthusiasms and sorrowful self-recrimination.

She’s just an average person — except, of course, to Michael, to whom her distinctive voice and appearance make her a blessed anomaly.  That’s why he begins calling her Anomalisa. That’s why he declares his love and his belief that they must never part.

Which leads to the saddest and most achingly erotic sex scene of any recent film. Featuring, of course, puppets. Continue Reading »

theeb“THEEB” My rating: B (Opens Jan. 29 at the Tivoli)

100 minutes |No MPAA rating 

On a purely visual level the Oscar-nominated “Theeb” (for foreign language film)  is a knockout, capturing a Middle Eastern desert landscape with an eye to vast spaces and intimate detail in a style clearly meant to evoke memories of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

The setting — the Bedouin fight against the Turks during World War I — is the same as in David Lean’s great epic.

But this accomplished  directing debut from English/Jordanian filmmaker  Naji Abu Nowar is unusual in that it approaches the material from the viewpoint of an 11-year-old boy.

“Theeb” (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) — his name is Arabic for “wolf” — is the third son a recently deceased sheik. His closest companion is his older brother Hasseim (Hussein Salaamed Al-Sweilhiyeen), who is teaching the boy in the ways of the desert.

The film’s opening scenes have a timeless quality — it’s hard to pin down if the action is taking place today or a century ago.  It’s not until the arrival of a British officer (Jack Fox) in the nomads’ camp that we realize there’s a war going on. (In fact, Theeb and his family seem not to even be aware of the conflict.)

The Brit, evidently on a secret mission,  asks Hasseim to guide him to a distant watering hole where he is to meet up with some Arab fighters. Disobeying his sibling, Theeb follows at a distance until he’s so far from home that Hasseim has no choice but to bring the boy along on the journey.

The desert is always dangerous. In this case the perils are multiplied by bandits who prey on travelers.

Continue Reading »

Sam Waterston, Kristin Stewart

Sam Waterston, Kristin Stewart

“ANESTHESIA” My rating: B- (Opens Feb. 5 at the Screenland Crossroads)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Like the Oscar-winning “Crash,” Tim Blake Nelson’s “Anesthesia” delivers a handful of well-known performers in a series of interlocking stories built around a theme.

That theme, as close as I can tell, is about the anesthetizing elements of modern urban life, which tends to isolate us and numb us to our feelings and those of our fellow man.

The film begins with a brutal mugging. In the lobby of a Manhattan apartment building a white-haired man (Sam Waterston) is stabbed, robbed and left for dead. From that traumatic introduction the film then flashes back in time to reveal the victim’s recent past as well as the lives of others involved in the incident.

Waterston plays Walter, an NYU philosophy professor who, only as he nears retirement, realizes how little he actually knows. “I used to believe in nothing,” Walter says. “Now I believe in everything.”

One of the things he believes in is offering a helping hand to students like Sophie (Kristen Stewart), a bright young woman who nevertheless is addicted to burning her own flesh with a hot curling iron.  Only then does she really feel anything.

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John Krasinski

John Krasinski

“13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI” My rating: B 

144 minutes  | MPAA rating; R

“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is an effective combat docudrama in the vein of “Blackhawk Down” and “Lone Survivor.”

But what really makes it noteworthy is the man behind it: director Michael Bay, simultaneously one of our most successful (in box office terms, anyway) and most despised filmmakers.

Here he re-creates Sept. 11, 2012 — when Islamic fighters stormed a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.

Bay’s reputation rests on big, noisy, empty entertainments like the “Transformers” movies, which have been calibrated to a preschooler’s attention span. The prevailing attitude among cineastes is that while one cannot prove that Bay has no soul, there’s been no evidence of one in any of his films.

“13 Hours” is a major departure for Bay, a minute-by-minute dramatization of a recent (and hugely controversial) historic event presented with a minimum of Hollywood hokum and a real feel for the professional warriors who are its heroes.

The film takes no stand on American foreign policy in the Mideast and ignores the subsequent political fallout over how the State Department under Hillary Clinton handled the crisis.

Instead it concentrates on the actions of a handful of former Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and U.S. Marines employed as CIA security contractors who risked their lives to save their fellow Americans.

The central figure is Jack Silva (John Krasinski), who, faced with limited job opportunities at home, once again finds himself a security grunt for Uncle Sam. Leaving behind his wife and daughters, he’s the latest addition to a “secret” CIA operation in Benghazi, and through his eyes we get oriented to a confusing and dangerous situation.

As security chief Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) explains, the two dozen or so American analysts living in a walled intelligence compound don’t officially exist — although the Libyans would have to be idiots not to realize what’s going on. Continue Reading »

Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio

“THE REVENANT” My rating: B

156 minutes | MPAA rating: R

At its most basic level, “The Revenant” is a revenge melodrama with Leonardo DiCaprio playing a man who endures unimaginable hardships to get even.

But the latest from writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Birdman,” “Babel”) is much more than that.

This inspired-by-fact epic is one of the most richly sensory films ever made, an evocation of the American wilderness that is both beautiful and terrifying. In this world of heightened awareness every rock and limb seems etched by the hand of a master and the forests are alive with the creaking of timber. (Who knew aspens were so damn noisy?)

The primitive world evoked here is so sumptuous and scary that it threatens to overwhelm “The Revenant’s” dramatic elements.

The screenplay (by Inarritu and Mark L. Smith) is inspired by the true story of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a member of a fur trapping expedition who in 1823 was mauled by a bear. Expected to die of his injuries, Glass was left in the care of two companions instructed to give him a decent burial.

Except Glass wouldn’t die. His watchers, terrified of an Indian attack, abandoned him and rejoined their companions. But Glass clawed his way out of a shallow grave and with superhuman determination traveled 200 miles — first on his stomach, then on foot — to exact revenge.

(This story was filmed in 1971 as “Man in the Wilderness” with Richard Harris in the lead.)

On its most successful narrative level “The Revenant” is a survival story. Lacking food and weapons, DiCaprio’s Glass  must scavenge for sustenance, sucking the marrow from the bones of a long-dead elk and scarfing raw fish and buffalo innards. He cauterizes his wounds by sprinkling gunpowder over the savaged flesh and igniting it with a burning stick.

It isn’t so much that Glass wants to live as he is determined to punish Fitzgerald (a grunting Tom Hardy), the venal fellow trapper who left him for dead.

Continue Reading »

Will Smith as Dr. Bennett ***

Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu

“CONCUSSION”  My rating: B+ 

123 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Concussion” takes on professional football and leaves the NFL whimpering.

All while giving us Will Smith’s best performance ever.

The subject of this latest offering from writer/director Peter Landesman (“Parkland,” “Kill the Messenger”) is  football’s ghastly heritage of head injuries that over decades have left former players with severe mental and emotional problems.

Smith portrays Bennet Omalu, a real-life pathologist who in the early 2000s virtually singlehandedly took on the National Football League, saying it covered up the growing ranks of former players with serious neurological issues.

Omalu named the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and announced that it was the result of not just severe concussions but of the repeated violent physical encounters that are a routine part of the game. (He has since opined that 100 percent of NFL players will suffer CTE to one extent or another.)

Like many another truth teller, Omalu was vilified, his credentials and reputation questioned. The FBI even showed up to make threats. This Nigerian immigrant had dared to challenge a great American institution, described by one character as so big it has its own day of the week (the same day that used to belong to God).

Yet another David-vs-Goliath scenario in an Oscar season filled with them (“Spotlight,” “Suffragette,” “Trumbo,” “The Big Short”), “Concussion” stands out not only for risking the wrath of the NFL (which continues to drag its feet in recognizing and addressing the CTE problem), but for Smith’s astounding performance.

In his 25-year acting career Smith has proven his proficiency in easygoing charm, sly comedy and action film flexing. Here he gives us more by delivering less.

It’s not so much a loud “Look at me!” as a simple, quiet “I am.”

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article51086760.html

Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander

Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander

“THE DANISH GIRL” My rating: B 

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Eddie Redmayne had best clear a place on the mantel for his second (in as many years) Oscar for best actor.

In “The Danish Girl” the chameleonic Brit gives a quietly devastating performance as the world’s first recipient of a sex change operation.

The latest film from director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (adapting David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel) is, depending upon how you choose to look at it, a story of personal triumph or one of tragedy.

In either case, there’s no arguing with the perfs of Redmayne or Alicia Vikander (another likely Oscar contender).

In the mid 1920s Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is the toast of the Copenhagen art scene. He does landscapes — actually the same landscape, with a grove of trees on the shore of a fiord, but he mixes it up enough that one is reminded of Monet painting the same haystacks over and over.

Wegner’s wife Gerda (Vikander) is a painter, too, albeit a frustrated one. Her portraits of the local bourgeoise aren’t lighting a fire under anyone.

When one of Gerda’s models, a ballerina, fails to show up for a sitting she asks her husband to pull on women’s hosiery and fill in for the missing beauty.  One set of legs apparently is as good as another.

Despite an initial protest, Einar  finds himself strangely moved by the experience. So much so that the couple decide that he will attend a local arts ball in woman’s clothing and a flapperish red wig. Gerda introduces this shy woman as Einar’s country cousin, Lili Elbe.

Einar is shocked and then pleased with a young man (Ben Wishaw) begins paying attention, even taking him/her to a private corner for a tentative kiss.

From that point on the artist prefers to spend his days as Lili. Einar begins to fade away.

Mishandled, this sort of material can come off as vaguely ridiculous, even campy.  Redmayne and Hooper are having none of that. Their thesis is that Lili has always lurked inside Einar. She is his true essence, and now she’s been freed.

Continue Reading »

Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson

Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson

 

 “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” My rating: C

168 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Quentin Tarantino’s films rarely have much to say.

It’s the masterful style with which he doesn’t say anything that accounts for the filmmaker’s critical and popular success.

“The Hateful Eight” suggests that approach is wearing thin.

Absurdly violent yet overly talky, queasily looking for laughs in racism and sexism, and essentially devoid of meaning (unless you find meaning in nihilism), this Western arrives in a blast of near-comical self importance.

Walton Goggins

Walton Goggins

Shot on 70mm film (at least in the version opening Christmas Day at the AMC Town Center; it begins a run in conventional digital a week later) and featuring a 3-hour running time that includes both an overture and intermission, “The Hateful Eight” harkens back to the long-ago days of road-show movie exhibition.

Except, again, it’s not actually about anything.

The film begins with astonishing widescreen vistas of a stagecoach working its way across blinding mountainside snowfields. But, perversely enough,  it spends most of its time claustrophobically sealed in a one-room stagecoach station. Which makes Tarantino’s use of 70mm film seem like a case of using an elephant gun to get rid of a housefly.

John Ruth (Kurt Russell ), a shaggy bounty hunter with Yosemite Sam facial hair, and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are the only passengers on a stagecoach bound for Red Rocks, the town where Ruth will deliver Daisy for hanging.

They’re stopped in the middle of nowhere by yet another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former officer in the Union Army who still wears his flamboyant blue-and-gold military greatcoat.  Warren’s horses have died in a blizzard and he needs a lift for himself and the corpses of the two criminals he has gunned down.

Ruth is immediately suspicious, concerned that he may be robbed of his prisoner before he can collect the bounty. But he allows Warren and the two stiffs to come aboard, and soon they have arrived at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a sort of middle-of-nowhere Quik-Trip for the frontier set.

Minnie and the way station regulars are off attending to family business, according to Bob (Demian Bichir), the Mexican hand who helps stable the horses from an oncoming blizzard.

Tim Roth

Tim Roth

Inside the station are several stranded travelers.

There’s Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate general who still wears his uniform. Mannix (Walton Goggins) is on his way to Red Rocks to start his new job as sheriff.  The British Mobray (Tim Roth) identifies himself as the territorial hangman — he’ll be stretching Daisy’s neck pretty soon.

Joe (Michael Madsen) is a quietly intimidating cowhand. Rounding out the gathering is Ruth’s stagecoach driver, the inoffensive O.B. (James Parks).

There is much macho posturing as these various personalities determine the pecking order. (It may be intended as comic, but I rarely laughed.)

And there’s lots of race baiting. Here we’ve got a black man who insists on the deference accorded everyone else…that’s sure to stir up negative sentiments, especially from the former Confederate general. (BTW…am I the only one offended by Tarantino’s overreliance on the “n” word?)

There’s a sort of Agatha Christie drawing room mystery to the first half of the film. Snowed in and forced to confront one another, some of these he-men drop hints that maybe they aren’t who they say they are. Mind games are played.

And who the hell poisoned the coffee?

Throughout the slatternly Daisy makes wise-ass comments and gets knocked around by her captor.  Leigh doesn’t have to do much acting and when she does it’s through a mask of dried blood.

Continue Reading »

Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett

Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett

“CAROL” My rating: B+ 

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

You could describe “Carol” as a lesbian love story.

More accurately, it’s a love story in which the two main characters are women.

That’s an important difference.

The latest from adventurous indie auteur Todd Haynes is one of his most accessible works, a haunting and quietly erotic tale of love that, far from being forbidden, holds the promise of fulfillment.

Adapted by Haynes from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the film features Oscar-grabbing performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and perhaps the most realistic evocation of the early 1950s I’ve ever seen in a movie (including movies made in the early 1950s, which somehow seem fantastically unreal).

Therese (Mara) is a quiet young woman who seems to be waiting for something to happen.  Certainly she doesn’t expect much from her job selling toys in a big Manhattan department store during the Christmas season.  She thinks maybe she’d like to try her hand at photography.

Nor does she sense much of a future with Richard (Jake Lacy), the boyfriend who wants to travel with her to France. The two are yet to consummate their relationship (remember, it’s the early 1950s).

Then one day the glamorous, well-heeled Carol (Blanchett) comes into the story to buy a present for her young daughter. The customer and the sales clerk strike up a conversation. Carol leaves her fancy gloves behind and Therese has them delivered to Carol’s posh home in the Jersey ‘burbs.

For this act of kindness Therese receives an invitation to tea. Her fascination with this beautiful and cultured older woman becomes a crush.

Continue Reading »

Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg

Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg

“DADDY’S HOME”  My rating : B-

96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13.

Going in, “Daddy’s Home” looks like another case of been-there-done-that.

A needy, good-guy stepdad (Will Ferrell) is threatened by the arrival of the kids’ natural father, a hunky rover (Mark Wahlberg) who will stop at nothing to reclaim his family.

Pretty familiar stuff. Except that “Daddy’s Home” is often screamingly funny. It even has a bit of heart.

Brad (Ferrell) has been married for six months to Sarah (Linda Cardellini).  Over that time he has struggled to gain the acceptance of her two young children.  Being sterile, Brad knows that this is as close to fatherhood as he’s going to get.

And just when the kids are warming to him, word arrives that their real Daddy, Dusty (Wahlberg), is returning to town.  Dusty wasn’t much of a husband and father, but now he wants to start over. And he doesn’t much appreciate Brad being in the way.

Neither Ferrell nor Wahlberg are going out on a limb here. They’ve each been cast in roles that play to their strengths — good-natured klutz and cycle-riding bad boy.

But here familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. Director Sean Anders (“Horrible Bosses II”) and co-writers Brian Burns and John Morris develop very amusing situations that give the cast members room to have fun, and many of the laughs take us by surprise.

Cardellini does a nice job of playing a woman who knows her original husband was bad news but can’t help being swayed by his machismo, and Thomas Haden Church is a scream as Brad’s boss, a much-married Lothario with an absurd real-life story to illuminate (usually inappropriately) any situation.

| Robert W. Butler

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) comforts her daughter, Christy, in JOY.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) comforts her daughter, Christy, in JOY.

“JOY”  My rating: B

124 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The rags-to-riches story, a key element  of American mythology, usually concludes with  dreams realized and a bright future ahead.

Leave it to David O. Russell and his perennial muse Jennifer Lawrence (they collaborated on “The Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”) to poke around in the dark aftermath of dreams that come true.

“Joy” is inspired by the true story of Joy Mangano, a single mother who rose from poverty to multimillionaire after inventing the self-wringing Miracle Mop.

But Russell uses Mangano’s “inspirational” story as a launchpad for a mostly fictional comedy of dysfunction. Then he follows it up with a near-tragic look at how success brings its own set of difficulties.

Joy (Lawrence) has a spectacularly messed-up family. For starters this young woman is perennially flirting with financial and personal disaster. She works as a ticket clerk for a big airline, a gig that results in daily insults from the flying public. And she’s about to be laid off.

Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper

At home she must deal with two children and a slew of bizarre relations. Her ex husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), who aspires to be the Latino Tom Jones, lives in the basement where he endlessly plans the big break that will never come.

Joy’s mother Terry (an almost unrecognizable Virginia Madsen) refuses to leave her bedroom and spends most waking hours watching the TV soap operas she has carefully videotaped. (A running gag finds real former soap stars like Susan Lucci and  Donna Mills appearing in the absurdly awful shows to which Terry is addicted.)

Joy’s father Rudy (Robert DeNiro), operator of an auto repair shop and an Archie Bunker-ish racist, is once again on the romance market, his latest marriage having gone belly up. He is reduced to taking up an uneasy residence in Joy’s cellar with his former son-in-law.

Joy’s stepsister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm) has all sorts of sibling issues.

The only person in the house who seems halfway normal is Grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd), who has always predicted greatness for Joy and narrates the story — even from the grave.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article51075220.html 

Ryan Gosling...kicking Wall Street's Ass

Ryan Gosling…kicking Wall Street’s Ass

“THE BIG SHORT”  My rating: B+ 

130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Everybody loves to see the little guy take on a giant.

But what if in rooting for the little guy we’re also advocating our own destruction?

In Adam McKay’s “The Big Short”  a handful of high-finance outsiders and weirdos smell something fishy in the pre-2008 sub prime housing market. They decide to beat the corrupt financial establishment at its own game.

Viewers of McKay’s ‘s grimly amusing comedy (he’s best known for lightweight Will Ferrell vehicles) will find themselves in a dilemma. For the story’s heroes to emerge triumphant the American and world economies will have to tank. Millions will lose their homes, their savings and their jobs.

But, hey, that’s capitalism. Somebody always wins. Somebody always loses. And making money off the other guy’s misery is the American way.

The screenplay by McKay and Charles Randolph (adapting Michael Lewis nonfiction best seller The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine) begins in 2005 with Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the oddball manager of a California-based hedge fund.  Possessor of a medical degree and virtually no people skills, Burry prefers to hold his conversations with numbers.

Christian Bale

Christian Bale

Burry pads around the office barefoot and in cutoffs and has one glass eye — but he sees enough to recognize that the sub-prime housing market is destined to collapse. Banks have been giving home loans to people who shouldn’t qualify and are destined to default; those bad loans are then bundled and resold, building “worth” where there is no value.

So Burry offers the big Wall Street firms a deal they can’t refuse.  He has them create for him a financial instrument — the credit default swap — that will pay off only if the market collapses. The heavy players are only too happy to oblige…they can’t imagine the bubble bursting.

Burry is considered a madman by most, but to a handful of fund managers he makes real sense.  One is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who is as slick and gung ho as Burry is dweebish (think Matthew McConaughey in “The Wolf of Wall Street” ).  But numbers don’t lie and Vennett gets on board.
Continue Reading »

Star WarsChristopher-Skinner_star_wars_force_awakens

“STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”  My rating: B 

135 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“The Force Awakens” washes away most of the bad taste left by George Lucas’ three “Star Wars” prequels.

It’s not perfect. It’s practically a remake of the original “Star Wars.” But it’ll do.

J.J. Abrams, the guy who reinvigorated the “Star Trek” franchise, here turns his imagination loose on iconic characters like Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie.

He and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt affectionately mine our memories of past “Star Wars” films (or at least Episodes IV, V and VI) while laying the groundwork for an entirely new set of adventures in that galaxy far, far away.

Most importantly, they come as close as anyone will to recapturing the original “Star Wars’” blend of corn, comedy and cosmic adventure. If it doesn’t have the same impact this time around…well, we’re all older now.  You’re only a virgin once.

From the opening credits — that familiar written prologue scrolling into the distant stars —  to John Williams’ music to dozens of outright borrows and homages, “The Force Awakens” tips its hat to the things that made the original “Star Wars” such giddy fun.

As we learn up front, 30 years have passed since the destruction of the second Death Star. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil, now bearded and wrinkled) has been laying low; meanwhile the evil galactic Empire has mutated into the First Order.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Continue Reading »

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Teyonah Parris (second from left) as Lysistrata

“CHI-RAQ” My rating: B

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In recent years even Spike Lee’s biggest fans may have wondered if the creator of “Do the Right Thing” was circling the drain of irrelevancy.

Worry no more. Lee — with an assist from the University of Kansas’ Kevin Willmott and the long-dead playwright Aristophanes — has come roaring back with “Chi-Raq,” a passionate indictment of black-on-black urban violence.

It’s a swing-for-the-bleachers effort that is by turns furious, raunchy, sad, silly and savage.

This mashup of rap concert, poetry reading (the bulk of the dialogue is in rhyming verse) and burlesque sometimes slips into preachiness or heavy-handed satire, but even the shortcomings become part of the film’s overall strength.

“Chi-Raq” begins with titles informing us that in recent years there have been more gun deaths among the citizens of the Windy City than among our special forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then Nick Cannon’s furious rap “Pray 4 My City” kicks in as a sort of profane overture: “Y’all mad cause I don’t call it Chicago / I don’t live in no *** Chicago / Boy, I live in Chi-Raq.”

The city’s South Side is torn between two gangs, led by the preening, cocksure Chi-Raq (Cannon) and the one-eyed, comically goofy Cyclops (Wesley Snipes).

When a little girl dies in a gang crossfire, Chi-Raq’s girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris of “Dear White People”), is so moved by the sorrow and anger of the girl’s mother (Jennifer Hudson) that she organizes the women of both gangs into a movement.

They will deny their men all sexual favors until the guns are put away and violence renounced. Pretty soon their message is taken up by women all over the world. Hookers stop hooking. Porn stars stop porning.

A man can’t get no relief. Continue Reading »

Bryan Cranston as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo

Bryan Cranston as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo

“TRUMBO” My rating: B 

124 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Bryan Cranston is very good as Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter/Communist/bon vivant/savage wit who won two Oscars under pseudonyms while blacklisted for his politics.

But who would have predicted that “Trumbo” would practically be stolen out from under the multiple Emmy winner by Helen Mirren and John Goodman?

It’s a surfeit of riches.

Dalton Trumbo was contradictory, infuriating, self-righteous, pompous, and wickedly funny. He was very well paid and lived on a sprawling California ranch (earning criticism for being a “swimming pool Soviet”) but appears to have been utterly sincere about making the United States a better place.

He joined the Communist Party of the U.S. largely out of his opposition to fascism in Europe (and, let’s be honest, at home as well). That came back to bite him in the ass after WWII when America went Commie crazy and the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed Trumbo and other Hollywood leftists in a search for Red influence in popular entertainment.

Ten of these unfriendly witnesses refused to answer questions, standing on their Fifth Amendment rights and the fact that joining the Communist Party was perfectly legal.

They were convicted of contempt of Congress (Trumbo publicly acknowledged that he was indeed hugely contemptuous of the bullying Congress), spent a year in prison and emerged to find themselves unable to work in the film or television industry.

Most saw their careers ruined. Trumbo began cranking out screenplays under fake names. Much of his work of this period was pure exploitative schlock, but two of his scripts — for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One” — won Oscars, although of course Trumbo could not acknowledge they were his work.

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Saorise Ronan

Saorise Ronan

“BROOKLYN”  My rating: A-

111 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Brooklyn” is a wisp of a movie packing a boatload of feeling.

In this humanistic triumph from director John Crowley, little moments add up to an intimate epic.

Based on Colm Toibin‘s novel (the terrific adaptation is by Nick Hornby), this devastatingly lovely effort follows a young woman’s journey from Ireland to America, the gradual falling away of her old identity and the new one that replaces it in the land of promise.

As the film begins Eilis (a sensational Saorise Ronan…expect an Oscar nom) is a shopgirl in small-town post-war Ireland, a place of of narrow vistas, frustrated hopes and small-minded meanness.

Despite her fierce loyalty to her mother (Jane Brennan) and spinster older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), Eilis feels smothered and concludes her future lies elsewhere.

With the sponsorship of Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), an Irish priest living in NYC, Eilis buys a cheap boat ticket and takes off for the New World.

Her first mentor is her shipboard bunkmate,  a much more sophisticated gal who introduces Eilis to rouge and mascara, the initial step in being taken seriously as an American woman.

Once settled in the Brooklyn boarding house run by the hilariously opinionated Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), who presides over a dinner table of single girls like a tart-tongued mother hen, our heroine gets to work.

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Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams

Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams

“SPOTLIGHT” My rating: A-

128 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The devastating docudrama “Spotlight” is about the quest for truth when nobody seems to want to hear it.

The film describes how in the early 2000s four investigative reporters for The Boston Globe uncovered the Roman Catholic Church’s routine  reassignment of pedophile priests to new parishes where they could abuse even more children.

It’s a true-life horror story guaranteed to infuriate audiences, yet writer/director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor”) steers clear of cheap shots, hyperbole and sensationalism. “Spotlight” is a work of rigorous discipline; given the film’s focus on religion, perhaps “asceticism” is a better description.

Think of it as a journalistic procedural.

The film stars Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian D’arcy James as the members of the Globe‘s investigative Spotlight team.  They deliver understated, believable, utterly non-glamorous performances without a trace of showboating or pumped-up emoting. (They act the way the Royals play baseball — with their egos on hold.)

Despite the restraint with which it has been conceived and produced, “Spotlight” is hugely effective. The conventional dramatic bells and whistles are not only not missed, they’d be detrimental to the film’s success, getting in the way of a real story that demands to be told.

“Spotlight” begins with the arrival at the Globe of a new executive editor. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) comes to Boston from Miami. He is, as one local wag describes him, “an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball.” In other words, about as much an outsider as you can be in Beantown.

But it’s precisely because he hails from elsewhere that Baron gloms onto a small item in the back of the paper about a pedophile priest and asks Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton) if it’s story worth looking into.

As played by Schreiber, Baron is the kind of stiff, laughless guy uncomfortable with smalltalk. Or, for that matter, with the suggestion of Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) that together the newspaper and the church can work for the betterment of all Bostonians.

Unlike “All the President’s Men,” the reporters digging into the case don’t fear for their own safety. They’re not about to be snatched by men in black.

But they must balance their own faith (most are Catholic) with their obligation to get at the truth, no matter how unpleasant it may be. They’ve got to be bulldogs when it comes to gathering facts, they’ve got to defy the Boston power structure without seeming to be in open rebellion.

The project will require them to call up the patience to wade through reams of material (at the time the internet was a mere shadow of its current form, meaning research had to be done the old-fashioned way, page by early page) and to balance sympathy and professional distance while interviewing the traumatized victims of sexual abuse.

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Abraham Attah

Abraham Attah

“BEASTS OF NO NATION” My rating: A- (Now available on Netflix)

137 minutes | No MPAA rating

To the small handful of brilliant movies about the madness of war — among them “Apocalypse Now” and the Soviet “Come and See” — we must now add Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” a ghastly but hugely moving story about child soldiers in an African civil war.

In this sobering feature — a Netflix original that is also being booked into theaters — we never do learn the nationality of Agu (Abraham Attah), our young protagonist.  Only that he lives with his family in a demilitarized zone where civilians are safe from the violence that swirls around them.

But their sanctuary doesn’t last long. Soldiers — apparently they represent the central government — show up to do a bit of cleansing.  Agu’s mother and younger siblings have already fled to the big city, but now he watches as his unarmed father and older brother are gunned down.

The boy races into the bush, living like an animal. Then’s he’s captured by a band of rebels led by Commandant (a hypnotic Idris Elba) and slowly indoctrinated into their martial ranks.

Commandant is the only adult in sight. His next-in-command is a teenager and most of the troops under him are mere children playing soldier. It’s like “Lord of the Flies”
with machine guns.

But Commandant is a charismatic leader for whom his “men” would do anything. So when newbie Agu is ordered to execute a captive with a machete, he obeys. Reluctantly at first, and then in a frenzy as the lust to kill takes over.

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John Wood

John Wood

“FINDERS KEEPERS” My rating: B (Opens Oct. 2 at the Glenwood Arts)

82 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Finders Keepers” is a sort of hillbilly epic about an amputated human leg.

For starters.

In 2004 John Wood of Maiden NC lost his left leg — and his father, Tom — in the crash of their private plane.  Wood asked the hospital where he was treated to let him have his severed limb.  He hoped someday to be buried with it.

He expected to receive bones.  Instead Wood was given the whole leg, decaying flesh and all.

Initially Wood stored it in the freezer of the local Hardee’s (a friend worked there). After the manager threw a snit fit Wood soaked the limb in formaldehyde and hung it from a tree to dry.

But John had a drinking and drug problem. Before relocating to another state he moved his possessions into a storage facility. When he failed to pay the rent his belongings were sold at auction.

Enter Shannon Whisnant, a bombastic, barrel-bodied, bullfrog-voiced good ol’ boy who made a living buying junk cheap and selling it dear. Whisnant purchased and took home Wood’s small barbecue smoker. When he looked inside he discovered not the residue of old ribs but a human leg.

And there Whisnant saw a glorious future. This boondock Barnum would charge folks $3 ($1 for children) to view the limb. He printed up T shirts declaring him The Foot Man.

Meanwhile, between benders John Wood  argued that this was his flesh and bone, after all. He wanted nothing to do with what one observer of the feud describes as “fuckery and shenanigans.”

Shannon Wisnant

Shannon Wisnant

Their battle for possession of the leg would eventually be settled in the reality TV courtroom of Judge Greg Mathis.

At first glance Bryan Cranberry and Clay Tweel’s documentary appears to be a savage sendup of redneck ethos. But “Finders Keepers” takes individuals who at first glimpse seem stupid and silly and recognizes the tragedy in their lives.

For the more you dig into Wood and Whisnant’s back stories, the more complex things become.

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Emily Blunt

Emily Blunt

“SICARIO” My rating: B+

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The war on drugs is lost.

No character in “Sicario” says as much, but the overwhelming thrust of Dennis Villeneuve’s gripping film makes that conclusion unavoidable.

Taylor Sheridan‘s first produced screenplay couches its sobering observations within the familiar tropes of an anti-crime drama. “Sicario” (Mexican slang for “hit man”) begins with FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) leading a raid on what appears to be an unremarkable home in the Arizona desert.

Except that the house is filled with heavily armed men and contains dozens of dead bodies entombed behind dry wall — it’s like some sort of bizarre tract home catacomb.

Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are by-the-book types who make a point of observing all the legal niceties. So Kate is puzzled when she is reassigned to an interagency task force where the rules are bent or broken with disturbing regularity.

Benecio Del Toro

Benecio Del Toro

She’s suspicious of Graver (Josh Brolin), the garrulous but vaguely sinister task force leader. She thinks he may be CIA — but that can’t be, since the CIA cannot legally get involved in domestic operations.

And her red flags really begin twitching in the presence of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who claims to be a former Mexican prosecutor  but radiates lethal possibilities, not to mention an encyclopedic knowledge of the Mexican drug cartels they’re trying to bring down.

“Sicario’s” knotted plot is hard to explain — it involves a massive plan to force one drug kingpin to reveal the identity of his heavily-protected boss. There are blatantly illegal incursions South of the Border, a kidnapping and torture — but the mood of desperation, corruption and betrayal that it establishes (abetted by a throbbing musical score that seems to embody doom) is carried with the viewers as we leave the theater.

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George Clooney

George Clooney

“HAIL, CAESAR!” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Feb. 5)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” isn’t much of a movie, but as an affectionate (mostly) valentine to the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking, it’s a generally enjoyable goof.

The threadbare plot devised by Joel and Ethan Coen provides the siblings with multiple opportunities to go behind the scenes at the massive (and fictional) Capitol Movies studio in Los Angeles in the late 1940s.

We get to watch as America’s fantasies are brought to life. But as with sausages and laws, sometimes it’s best not to know how they’re made.

Kicking the yarn into motion is the kidnapping of stiffly handsome matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), whose current assignment is to play a Roman centurion in the biblical epic “Hail, Caesar!”

Scarlett Johannson

Scarlett Johannson

The studio’s production chief, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) gets to work recovering his ransomed movie star.

That’s about it for story.

The pleasures of “Hail, Caesar!” (the Cohen Brothers movie, not the “tale of the Christ” being filmed on the Capitol lot) are to be found in its satire/celebration of iconic Hollywood personalities and situations.

Early on Eddie must convene a meeting of faith leaders who have been asked to comment on the screenplay for “Hail, Caesar!” — it’s the movie’s funniest scene and a wickedly barbed sendup of institutionalized religion.

Channing Tatum

Channing Tatum

Eddie must contend with the potty-mouthed Esther Williams-type star of aquatic musicals (Scarlett Johansson) whose mermaid outfit now won’t fit because of pregnancy (she’s unmarried).

He drops off the ransom money on a soundstage where a Gene Kelly-ish song and dance man (Channing Tatum) is shooting a big production number about a crew of sailors dismayed at the prospect of eight months at sea without women.  Not only are Tatum’s acrobatic musical comedy skills first rate, but the slyly homoerotic elements of the dance routine suggests that these Navy swabs will find ways to let off steam during their voyage.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article58205943.html

Garret Hedlund, Oscar Isaac

Garrett Hedlund, Oscar Isaac

“MOJAVE” My rating: C

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Oscar Isaac is a pretty great actor, but not even he can find a way to make sense of “Mojave,” a mashup of behind-the-scenes Hollywood existentialism and stalker thriller.

The film was written and directed by William Monahan, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Scorsese’s “The Departed.” Alas, “Mojave” has more in common with the Monahan-penned “The Gambler” from 2014.

There’s hardly a moment here that rings true…but then maybe that’s all part of Monahan’s view of the emptiness of life in Tinseltown’s fast lane. Or maybe not. It’s hard to care, really.

Garrett Hedlund is Thomas, a filmmaker of some renown. His success has bought him a spread in the Hollywood hills (which he is allowing to go to seed) and access to women and drugs. Has this made him happy?

Hah!

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