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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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Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning, and Susan Sarandon

Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning, and Susan Sarandon

“THE LAST OF ROBIN HOOD” My rating: B- (Opens Sept. 5 at the Tivoli )

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Like it or loathe it, “The Last of Robin Hood” succeeds in taking a red-flag subject — pedophilia — and forcing us to reconsider our intense feelings about this taboo.

The writing/directing team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland get away with this by relating a largely true story involving one of Hollywood’s most charismatic leading men.

Here are the facts:  In the last two years of his life, legendary big-screen swashbuckler Errol Flynn kept as his mistress a girl — a self-described “dancer/singer/actress,” though any one of those labels is debatable — who was only 15 when their relationship began.

Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning) had been kicking around the periphery of Hollywood for years. Most recently she had faked her age to get work as a backup dancer in musicals. That’s where she was spotted by the always-on-the-prowl Flynn (Kevin Kline), who was working on a nearby soundstage.

A practiced bullshitter with a charming line of self-deprecation (told by a fan that he had seen one of Flynn’s movies five times, the actor responds: “How extraordinary — I could barely get through it once”), Flynn wooed and seduced Beverly.

But a strange thing happened. The old alcoholic womanizer fell in love. He called Beverly his “little sprite” and “wood nymph.” He dubbed her “Woodsy.”

Not even the late-arriving revelation of Woodsy’s tender years (she had been passing herself off as 18) could cool the ardor of a man who nearly two decades earlier had endured a humiliating trial for statuatory rape and remains a tantalizing target for any prosecutor looking to make a name.

Curiously, “The Last of Robin Hood” is less about Flynn and Beverly (a pretty but vacuous girl with a largely unformed personality) than it is about Flynn and Beverly’s mother, Florence Aadland (Susan Sarandon).

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Robin Wright

Robin Wright

“THE CONGRESS” My rating: B- (Opening Sept. 5 at the Alamo Drafthouse)

122 minutes | No MPAA rating

Masterful and maddening, spectacularly original and hugely frustrating, Ari Folman’s “The Congress” is unlike any other film I can name.  Though it dabbles with elements explored by fantasy epics like “The Matrix,” it has its own distinct personality.

Some of us are going to love it. Some will be irritated by it.  And some — like me — will experience both emotions.

Folman’s film (he was the creator of “Waltz With Bashir,” the brilliant animated effort about PTS among former Israeli soldiers) opens on the aging but still-beautiful face of actress Robin Wright.

Wright is playing herself here — or rather an alternative universe version of herself — and she’s reduced to tears as her long-time agent (Harvey Keitel) tells her that at age 44 her acting career is all but kaput.

She’s made too many bad choices in men, movies, and friends, he says. She’s thrown up too many obstacles about the kind of work she’ll do (no science fiction, no porn, no Holocaust movies) and she has earned a rep for not showing up on the set. Yes, yes, usually it’s because she has to deal with yet another emergency involving her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is slowly going both blind and deaf. But that excuse has gotten old.

A meeting with a bullish exec (Danny Huston) at Miramount Pictures provides a last-ditch solution.

The movie biz has been so changed by digital technology, the desk jockey explains, that  actors are obsolete. Most stars have allowed their faces, bodies, voices and emotions to be scanned into a computer where they can be reanimated by skilled CG artists.

The avatar actors thus created can be made younger or older, fatter or thinner. They’re never late. They make no demands or complaints. They never throw tantrums — unless the script calls for it.

“I need Buttercup from ‘The Princess Bride’,” the exec says. “I don’t need you.”

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Lena Dunham, Anna Kendrick and Jude Swanberg

Lena Dunham, Anna Kendrick and Jude Swanberg

“HAPPY CHRISTMAS”  My rating: B (Now at the Screenland Armour)

minutes | MPAA rating: R

 

Either indie auteur Joe Swanberg is hitting his groove or I’ve finally warmed to his low-keyed style .

Whatever the case, “Happy Christmas” is a genuinely good family comedy/drama that unfolds without either sitcomish excess or melodramatic improbabilities.

“Happy Christmas” is the 18th feature  Swanberg has directed in the last nine years, which may be some sort of American record. I’ve found much of his work underwhelming.

In the last couple of years he gave us “24 Exposures,” an erotic thriller about a sleep-around photographer that made my skin crawl, and “Drinking Buddies,” a modest dramady about two brewery workers (Olivia Wilde, Jake Johannson) who can’t quite admit they mean more to one another than just a few friendly after-work beers. “Drinking Buddies” now feels like a dry run for “Happy Christmas.”

The set up is ridiculously simple. Young marrieds Kelly and Kevin (Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber) are preparing to take in his younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who is no the rebound from unspecified bad luck which most likely involves failures in both the man and career departments.

Jenny isn’t a bad person, but she has self-destructive tendencies. On her first night in town she goes to a party with her childhood friend Carson (Lena Dunham) and gets so blotto that Kevin must drive over in the middle of the night to retrieve her.

Well, anyone can have a bad night, right?  Except that Jenny makes a habit of it. She drinks, smokes pot and lolls around with a guy she’s met (played by writer/director Swanberg). It’s not like she’s mean or cruel — just thoughtless in a way that suggests either narcissism or, more likely, really low self esteem.

Trouble is, Kelly and Kevin have been counting on Jenny to care for their year-old son Jude (Jude Swanberg, the director’s child) and it becomes increasingly obvious that she cannot be trusted  with something so precious.

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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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*** and ***

Margherita Buy and Stefano Accorsi

“A FIVE STAR LIFE” My rating: B (Opens Aug. 28 at the Leawood)

85 minutes | MPAA rating: No MPAA rating

Irene (Margherita Buy) has what many of us would consider a dream job.  She works for a Rome-based outfit that rates luxury hotels.

This means that on any given working day she boards a plane for some exotic destination and checks into a hotel where the rooms can cost thousands per night.

One installed, she pulls on white gloves and goes over the room looking for dust. She has a checklist in her head of important details: Does the desk clerk look her in the eye? Is the bellhop’s uniform properly pressed?

A stopwatch lets her precisely time how long it takes for room service to respond. And Irene also watches how other guests are treated…like the proletarian honeymooners who clearly have never before enjoyed such posh circumstances and who are mostly ignored by the snooty staff.

Irene eats in the hotels’ celebrated restaurants, enjoys the floor shows in their night spots, and subjects herself to spa treatments.

All this is done in secret.  Irene is a sort of spy, a “mystery guest” who ultimately will turn in a report that determines how many cherished stars an establishment can boast of in the travel books.

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Frank (Michael Fassbender), Domhnall Gleeson

Frank (Michael Fassbender), Domhnall Gleeson

“FRANK”  My rating: C+ (Now at the Screenland Armour)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Frank” is such an interesting idea, I wish I liked it more.

Lenny Abrahamson’s bizarro comedy is about a wannabe musician who miraculously is invited to join an avant garde rock band.

This aggregation of misfits is lead by a mad genius named Frank who lives 24/7 with  his features covered by a huge papier mache head.

Except that there’s a whole lot more mad than genius in Frank, who is played by Brit actor Michael Fassbender (the “ X-Men” franchise, “12 Years a Slave”) exclusively through body language and his voice.  Not until very, very late in the game do we see what he looks like beneath the big noggin.

Our narrator/hero is Join (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan), a mediocre pianist/songwriter who on a beach hear his home witnesses a fellow trying to drown himself in the sea.  This poor benighted lug is the keyboardist for the band led by the mysterious Frank.  And now the ensemble needs a piano player. Like right away.

Before long Jon finds himself whisked away to a remote recording studio in Ireland where, with Frank and other band members, he begins a long process of recording the group’s debut album.

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 Griffin Dunne, Stuart Margolin

Griffin Dunne, Stuart Margolin

“THE DISCOVERERS” My rating: B- (Opening Aug. 22 at Cinetopia)

104 minutes | No MPAA rating

In “The Discoverers” a dysfunctional modern family find themselves frustrated yet drawn together when they spend their vacation as historical re-enactors.

Justin Schwarz’s indy effort boasts of a strong cast, some clever ideas, a bit of heart and a few whopping improbabilities. But it’s a pleasant little ride.

Make that a pleasant little walk.  Because depressed academician and failed novelist Lewis Birch (Griffin Dunne) and his two sullen offspring (Madeleine Martin, Devon Greye) find themselves suckered into participating in a cross-country trek with a bunch of folk who annually relive the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The Birch clan get involved because of Lewis’ father (Stuart Margolin), a crusty old bugger with a loaded flintlock and a coonskin cap who wants more than anything to complete one last hike before he dies.

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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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Om Puri and Helen Mirren

Om Puri and Helen Mirren

“THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY” My rating: B  (Opening wide on Aug. 8)

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Moviegoers are forgiven for approaching “The Hundred-Foot Journey” with foreboding. From the ads one might reasonably conclude that this is yet another middlebrow movie tailor-made to soothe (but never challenge) the sensibilities of the art house blue-hair brigade.

Well, Lasse Hallstrom’s film is definitely middlebrow, and it is certainly soothing — but it’s also very well acted and emotionally potent. It  introduces two newcomers (quite possibly the handsomest couple I’ve seen on screen in ages) who will, if there is any justice, become overnight stars. And they are perfectly complemented by two cinema veterans at the top of their game.

Plus, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is, God help me, life-affirming, albeit without feeling manipulative. (I don’t mind when a movie makes me cry…only when it twists my arm to achieve that effect.)

The widower  Kadam (Om Puri) has fled political upheaval in his native India and with his five children has opened a restaurant outside London. But the weather sucks and now they are driving around Europe, trying to find a place to settle down. (Granted, this doesn’t sound like a terribly smart business plan, but since Kadam still converses regularly with his dead wife, you’ve got to assume cosmic forces are in play.)

The family’s van breaks down in a postcard-perfect French burg (it’s got a river, rolling hills and a view of the mountains) and Kadam gloms onto an abandoned building that he believes could become the home for his new Indian restaurant.

Problem is, it sits just across the road (100 feet away, to be precise) from a Michelin-starred French restaurant operated for decades by the widow Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Mallory is a shrewish lady who lives and breathes haute cuisine, and she is appalled by the Kadam family’s blaring Bollywood music, the garish colors of their restaurant’s decor, and the heavily-spiced odors that drift across the road and into her stuffy establishment. (“If your food is anything like your music, I suggest you tone it down.”)

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Andrew

Andrew

“RICH HILL” My rating: A- (Opening Aug. 8 at the Screenland Crown Center)

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

Get out your hanky.  After watching “Rich Hill” you’ll need it.

This Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary from cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo — centering on three adolescent boys coming of age in Rich Hill, MO (southeast of Kanas City in Bates County) — is a heartfelt and sobering study of poverty in America.

It’s about the sort of people the rest of the world looks upon with amusement and disdain, something that is acknowledged in the opening minute by 14-year-old Andrew, who declares “We’re not trash. We’re good people.”

And Andrew really is good people, a young man overflowing with hope and benign intentions despite a family situation — a mother this close to being institutionalized and a handyman father whose endless (and apparently hopeless) quest for employment means moving his clan several times every year — that would leave a lesser individual angry and impotent.

Instead Andrew is smart, well-spoken, and maintains a charitable disposition that is little short of miraculous. You feel that he might have a real chance at making something of himself.

The same cannot be said of the film’s other two subjects.

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Chadwick Boseman as James Brown

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown

“GET ON UP”  My rating: C+ (Opening wide on August 1)

138 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Actor Chadwick Boseman doesn’t look much like James Brown.

They’re both African Americans, yeah, but that’s about as far as the resemblance goes.

But Boseman, who a couple of years back wowed us with his performance as baseball great Jackie Robinson in “42,” pulls off an impressive transformation in “Get On Up.”

He gets some help from a closet full of wigs and funky period clothing, but mostly he acts his way into Brown’s shoes, capturing the movements, the physical attitude, the facial expressions of the late great Godfather of Soul. Viewed from the right angle, illuminated with dramatic stage lighting, Boseman convinces us that he’s the real deal.

Too bad the film of which he is the centerpiece can’t decide what deal it’s talking about.

James Brown was a musical genius, an exacting boss, a wandering and frequently violent husband. He was a bundle of contradictions — compelling and caustic, inspiring and irritating — and the makers of “Get On Up” clearly don’t know what to make of him.

Should they idolize him? Should they knock him off his pedestal?

Perhaps screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth were limited by the dictates of Brown’s estate and heirs.  Or perhaps they simply were unable to find a coherent take on a guy whose rags-to-riches life is the stuff of American legend and whose personal failings were damn near Sophoclean.

They try to mask their wishywashy approach by employing a time-bending narrative that is forever zigging and zagging between Brown’s impoverished (emotionally and financially) childhood and his adult triumphs and misadventures. But without a clear point of view running throughout the picture, “Get On Up” runs out of dramatic steam long before the final credits.

Thank heavens for that superb James Brown songbook, which allows Boseman to perform such killer hits as “It’s a Man’s World,” “Please Please Please,” “Cold Sweat” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”  I can’t tell if Boseman is doing his own singing here or lip-syncing to original Brown tracks, but the results are mesmerizing. At the very least you’ll come away from the film marveling at Brown’s musical contributions and continuing influence.

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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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Philip Seymour Hoffman in "A Most Wanted Man"

Philip Seymour Hoffman in “A Most Wanted Man”

“A MOST WANTED MAN”  My rating: B (Now showing)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Even without the knowledge that it features one of  the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last filmed performances, “A Most Wanted Man” would be a dark, melancholy affair.

After all, Anton Corbijn’s film is based on a John le Carre espionage procedural. As such, it unfolds in a world of spook/bureaucrats where good and evil are more a matter of opportunity than absolutism, a world where the unsuspecting, the innocent, and the idealistic pretty much get eaten alive.

In Hamburg, Germany, a shaggy, soaking wet man pulls himself from the harbor and onto dry land. This scarecrowish figure is Issa Karpov (Grigorly Dobrygin), a Chechnian Muslim suspected by Western intelligence services of being a dangerous jihadist. With haunted eyes staring out of a grey hoodie, Issa seems more like a sorry, half-mad monk than a an actual threat.

But his arrival sets off a manhunt in the world of spies. Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) runs a super-secret anti-terrorism unit of the German government. Unlike most of his rivals in the intelligence community, Gunther views the fugitive Issa not as a threat but as an opportunity.  Like a chess player whose strategy is always several moves ahead of the actual game, Gunther believes he can use Issa to trap a much juicier target, a fundraiser for Muslim charities (Homayoun Ershadi) who may be siphoning off money to buy rocket launchers rather than medical supplies.

There’s no point in trying to describe the knotty machinations that follow.  Let’s just say that they involve a lawyer for a human rights group (Rachel McAdams) who becomes Issa’s protector,  a banker (Willem Dafoe) whose firm maintains an account set up decades earlier by Issa’s father, and a CIA operative (Robin Wright) who uses her clout to back Gunther’s long game despite pressure from other spooks who want to immediately scoop up Issa and throw him into the shadowy underworld of terrorist detention.

This isn’t your typical spy movie.  No guns are fired. No chases down dark, wet alleys.

Instead we get a slowly-paced game of wits that gradually builds to a crushing conclusion.

 

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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.

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

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

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

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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