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John Wayne makes one of the movies' great entrances in "Stagecoach."

John Wayne makes one of the movies’ great entrances in “Stagecoach.”

 

“Stagecoach” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, August 23, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St.  Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.

 

From the moment it hit the nation’s movie screens in March of 1939, John Ford’s “Stagecoach” was declared a masterpiece.

Not just a pretty good Western, but a masterpiece. Never before had an “oater” earned that sort of praise.

Not only did “Stagecoach” redefine the possibilities of an overworked and underappreciated genre, but it made a first-class star of John Wayne,  who had been kicking around for nearly a decade in B-movie purgatory.

Today, 75 years later, “Stagecoach” remains on virtually every list of the best Westerns ever made.

Ironically, Ford almost didn’t get it made at all.

Though he had filmed dozens of silent Westerns in the 1920s, Ford was pretty much out of the cowboy business by 1939.  Throughout the ‘30s he had made comedies, adventures, costume dramas – just about every sort of motion picture. But Ford was considered a prestige director and Westerns were widely considered to be matinee fodder:  cheap, cliché-riddled, horse-heavy melodramas aimed at little boys and men who still thought like little boys.

The big studios hardly ever made Westerns any more, leaving them to a handful of low-budget production companies.  Most Westerns didn’t even get reviewed by the newspapers.

But Ford loved Westerns. He saw in the genre’s clichés possibilities for commenting on what would become his favorite cinematic theme: What it means to be an American.

Ford had purchased the screen rights to the short story “Stage to Lordsburg,” which appeared in Collier’s magazine. It was about a diverse group of travelers  thrown together by circumstance for a dangerous trip through Apache territory. They come from various professions and castes, and represent a microcosm of the larger society.

Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols went to work expanding the tale, adding characters and situations. But the studios weren’t interested. It was only a Western, after all.

Finally producer David O. Selznick (who at the time was hard at work on “Gone With the Wind”) signed on. But when he demanded that Ford cast big stars in the main roles – Selznick wanted Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich —  Ford backed out of the deal.

Because the director already had a cast in mind. For the role of Dallas, a prostitute who has been run out of town, he envisioned a young actress named Claire Trevor.  And for the role of Ringo, a young outlaw who has broken out of prison to seek revenge on his father’s killers, Ford wanted John Wayne.

Nearly a decade earlier Wayne, then a UCLA grad known as Marion Michael Morrison,   had worked for Ford as a prop boy. Now and then he was cast as an extra in a Ford film.

Leaving the Ford company, Wayne began getting roles  in Westerns. But “The Big Trail,” an epic wide-screen production about a wagon train that was supposed to be his big breakthrough, flopped. For several years Wayne’s career had been treading water in low-budget studios like Monogram and Republic.

Ford had kept an eye on his former protégé, studying the development of Wayne’s screen persona through a series of mediocre vehicles and awaiting a role that would show the struggling actor in the best possible light. Ringo was the perfect match.

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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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Jon W***

Jon Wojtowicz, the real “Sonny” from “Dog Day Afternoon”

 

“THE DOG”  My rating: B (Opening Aug. 15 at the Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet)

100 minutes |No MPAA rating

One of the iconic images of the 1970s comes from the film “Dog Day Afternoon.” Al Pacino plays a bank robber who paces in the doorway of the building where he’s holding hostages, berating the surrounding cops, demanding pizza, a getaway plane and a sex change operation for his boyfriend.

Pacino played a character named Sonny. The real life Sonny was John Wojtowicz, and “The Dog” is his story.

Filmmakers Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren followed the elderly Wojtowicz over several years (he died in 2006) and their documentary leaves us with as many questions as answers. This was probably inescapable, for Wojtowicz was a raging egoist, a bombastic storyteller, a mixture of admirable traits (when he fell in love, he fell in LOVE), hilarious self-aggrandizement (until it gets wearisome), profane poetry and a sexual appetite that was off the charts.

“I’ve had four wives, 23 girlfriends,” the white haired Wojtowicz boasts.  “They all know each other. I’m like Prudential. I’m the rock.”

The film follows his remarkable life from Brooklyn boyhood to service in Vietnam, his discovery (in basic training) of gay sex, his return home and his marriage to a neighborhood girl.

But before long he was part of the Manhattan homosexual scene in the wake of the Stonewall riots. Wojtowicz became a gay activist — though he admits it was as much to get laid as for his sense of social justice. He met and “married” Ernest Aaron, a transexual, and it was Ernie’s desperate quest for a sex change operation (he had attempted suicide several times) that drove Wojtowicz in August of 1972 to devise a bumbling plan to rob a Chase Manhattan Bank outlet in Brooklyn.

The crime turned into a long standoff that drew huge crowds and unfolded on live television. Wojtowicz put on a show, strutting for the news cameras, hurling insults and handfuls of cash at the cops, playing the big man.

Watching the vintage TV footage, one realizes how accurately Pacino and director Sidney Lumet captured the event.

Wojtowicz  spent seven years in federal prison being beaten and gang raped…though eventually he “married” another inmate.

While in prison, “Dog Day Afternoon” was released. Wojtowicz was pleased by the attention paid his outlandish story: “Nobody would rob a bank to get the money to cut off a guy’s dick in a sex change operation. That’s why they made a movie about it.”

 

 

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alive-inside“ALIVE INSIDE” My rating: A (Opening Aug. 15 at the Tivoli)

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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Audrey Tatou and Romain Duris in "Mood Indigo"

Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris in “Mood Indigo”

“MOOD INDIGO” My rating: C  (Opens May 8 at the Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet)

94 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Mood Indigo” is so aggressively French — not just French, but avant garde, let’s-blow- Gauloise-smoke-up-our-asses French — that I’m not sure that citizens of any other country should subject themselves to it.

The latest from the ever-eccentric Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) starts out like an episode of “PeeWee’s Playhouse” and ends up like one of Ingmar Bergman’s uber-dark meditations on mortality.

The first half — the “fun” half — unfolds in the Paris world of Colin (Romain Duris), a child/man who lives in what appears to be a subway car slung between two tall buildings.  Colin is a Duke Ellington-obsessed inventor (thus the film’s title). Among his Rube Goldberg-ish creations is an upright piano which mixes cocktails, the ingredients and proportions determined by which jazz classic is being played.

Colin’s household is a wonder.  Live eels squirm out of the kitchen tap, his meals (thanks to stop-action animation) come to life on the table, and a mouse (an actor in an animal suit) grows fresh veggies in a greenhouse fashioned from an old microwave oven.

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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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I-origins-2“I ORIGINS” My rating: C (Opening July 25 at the Tivoli and Glenwood Arts)

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The temptation is to dismiss “I Origins” as an inscrutable mess. Except that it has been made with enough care and intelligence to make a reasonable viewer wonder if he/she hasn’t somehow missed the point.

At least  I certainly missed the point.

The latest from Mike Cahill — who in 2011 gave us a small classic of thinking-person’s sci-fi in “Another Earth” — is a sort of metaphysical science story. It seems initially like one of those yarns in which an atheistic scientist finds his beliefs (or lack thereof) rocked by his discoveries. But the film is so emotionally remote that the payoff never materializes.

Michael Pitt (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) is Ian, a molecular biologist  doing research on the origins of the human eye.  Ian has little use for religion and is irritated by the argument offered by some Christian apologists that evolution cannot account for the complexity of the human eye, that this can only be explained by a creator.

To that end Ian and his nerdy/hot research assistant, Karen (regular Cahill collaborator Brit Marling), are trying to identify some species of blind animal — probably a worm or other primitive — which they can subject to gene therapy.  The idea is to grow functioning eyes where there were none.

As mad scientist plots go, this is pretty low keyed…and it doesn’t help that Cahill’s dialogue is crammed with long, scientific ruminations.

Happily, there is more going on in Ian’s life than just research.  Not only are eyes the focus of his work, they’re a longtime personal passion. For years he has been photographing close-ups of people’s eyes. He has books full of these snapshots.

One night at a Halloween party he falls for a masked woman. She won’t reveal her face, but does allow Ian to photograph her eyes.

*** and Michael Pitt

*** and Michael Pitt

And then he’s thrown for a loop when he spots those very same eyes on a huge billboard — this discovery takes place in a single complex zoom/tracking shot right out of Hitchcock or Spielberg. The eyes belong to a gamine-ish young model, Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and, by happy coincidence (or divine intervention), Ian spots her on the subway.  Despite Sofi’s loopy metaphysical pronouncements — hey, did you know that white peacocks embody the universal soul? — they become lovers. They plan to wed.

And then…let’s just say it doesn’t work out.

Years pass.  Now Ian is married to his former assistant Karen. They have an infant son, and when the kid is put through eye recognition registration, it is revealed that his eyes are virtually identical to the late operator of  cattle ranch Out West as well as to a homeless child in India.

Brit Marling

Brit Marling

Are we talking reincarnation?  Damned if I know. The movie is so muddled that it’s impossible to draw a straight line from A to B.

In any case, Ian goes to India to search out the child, a little girl (Kashish) with eyes as deep and old as the ocean. Haven’t you heard? The eyes are the window to the soul.

Along the way we’re treated to appearances by Archie Panjabi (of TV’s “The Good Wife”) as an Indian welfare worker and William Mapother (the co-star of “Another Earth”) as a vaguely sinister Christian business man Ian encounters in his hotel.

Cahill does some very interesting stuff with reflections — in windows, in eyes, on the surfaces of cars. And he even drops a reference to the famous National Geographic cover photo of beautiful blue-eyed Afghan girl that is echoed in Ian’s discovery of the Indian child..

But in the end “I Origins”  (think “Eye Origins”) is a kitchen sink movie, with so many ideas being furiously thrown at us that nothing is able to stick.

| Robert W. Butler

 

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Scarlett Johansson is Lucy

Scarlett Johansson is Lucy

“LUCY”  My rating: B- (Opening wide on July 25)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

We’ve been repeatedly told that  human beings coast by using only 10 percent of our brainpower.

What happens when we kick that statistic up to 20 percent, 50 percent — even 100 percent — is illustrated in “Lucy,”  director Luc Besson’s giddy, goofy and slickly made sci-fi thriller.

Our titular heroine (Scarlett Johansson) is a young woman studying in Taiwan — though she apparently spends more time partying than cracking books. In the film’s opening moments she is coerced by a former boyfriend into delivering a

Min-sik Choi

Min-sik Choi

briefcase to a high-rise office building. There she finds herself in the clutches of a venal gangster, Jang (Min-sik Choi, the scary/compelling star of “Old Boy” and “I Saw the Devil”), who has a plan to use Lucy and three other kidnapped individuals to smuggle a new superdrug into Europe and the U.S.

The ghastly plan calls for large plastic pouches of the drug CPH-4 to be sewn into the  abdomens of the unwilling mules.  Failure to complete the mission will mean reprisals against the couriers’ families.

Before she can board a plane, though, the bag in Lucy’s tummy ruptures, flooding her system with the potent pharmaceutical and kicking her brain into overdrive.  Not only are her thinking processes given a jump start, but she gains superhuman hand-eye coordination, X-ray vision (a tree comes alive with flowing, glowing dots of energy) and, eventually, control of time and space.

“I feel everything.” she says. “Space, air, vibrations, people…I can feel gravity, the rotation of the Earth.”

All this is presented in a breathless visual style that feels not unlike the mind-blowing head journey that concluded Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” — although Besson delivers his trip at Mach speed.  Creative visual effects depict the changes in Lucy’s body at the cellular level — and in a couple of gloriously oddball sequences we meet a hairy man-ape in the Pleistocene.  Besson also likes to drop in snippets of cheetahs hunting gazelles to suggest that Lucy is now the top predator in her world.

 

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Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal…can you believe this country?!?!?

“GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA” My rating: B  (Opening July 25 at the Screenland Crown Center)

83 minutes | No MPAA rating

Gore Vidal was pissed off by so many people and things that you wonder he could get out of bed in the morning.

He was contemptuous of the ruling class (into which he was born), identifying it as a pack of scheming, manipulative greedheads.  At the same time Vidal could only shake his head in dismay at the boneheadedness of the average citizen, so lazy and distracted by life’s diversions that he cannot discern where his own best interests lie.

Given this, Vidal should have been an insufferable misanthrope.

But as Nicholas D. Wrathall’s documentary makes clear, just the opposite was true. Gore Vidal — novelist (Myra Breckenridge, Lincoln, Burr), social observer (The Rise and Fall of the American Empire), essayist, screenwriter and playwright (“Ben-Hur,” “The Best Man”), gadfly, twice a candidate for Congress — made affrontery charming. With that patrician delivery, his cool analysis of facts and personalities, and his wonderful way with a verbal harpoon, he was hugely entertaining.  Even if you didn’t much like what he was saying.

“Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” begins shortly before the writer’s death in 2012. He’s touring the cemetery where he will be laid to rest,  pointing out the graves of old acquaintances, the plots of prominant families with whom he has been familiar his entire life.  Finally he stands over his own grave. A marker already bears his name and the date of his birth in 1925.  It just awaits the addition of the day he will die.

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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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Ebert pulitzer“LIFE ITSELF”  My rating: A-  (Opening July 11 at the Tivoli)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

 

“Life Itself” is about a man redeemed by love.

Of course it’s about a lot more than that.  Its subject is the late Roger Ebert, the world’s most famous movie critic — hell, the most famous critic in any discipline — and it follows his career from high school journalist to Johnny Carson regular and on to his development as a one-man publishing empire and his death last year after a long and crippling battle with cancer.

That’s the public Ebert. But the emotional narrative that emerges from Steve James’ wonderful documentary is that of a borderline raging egoist who late in life met the right woman and discovered his softer, more humane side, spending his last years basking in the glow of extended family and relishing his role as step-grandpa. It’s the Roger Ebert we  never knew until now.

This film is a profound and deeply moving portrait not just of a great thinker and communicator, but of a brave and — at long last — caring man.

James — whose 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” was championed by Ebert and his TV partner, Gene Siskel — was invited by the critic and his wife Chaz to spend time with them in order to produce a documentary based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir Life Itself.  James had barely gotten started on the project when Ebert died in 2013.

But James forged ahead, using what little original footage he already had, combining it with archival material and the recollections of Ebert’s friends, family, colleagues (critics like A.O.Scott, Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum), as well as famous filmmakers — Martin Scorsese (a producer of the doc), Werner Herzog, Errol Morris — whose careers were advanced by his perceptive and appreciative reviews.

The resulting film is funny, eye-opening, and inspiring. It’s going to score mightily when awards season kicks into high gear.

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Jason Clarke and (beneath the CGI) Andy Serkis

Jason Clarke and (beneath the CGI) Andy Serkis

“DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES”  My rating: B (Opening wide on July 11)

130n minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Despite the overwhelming evidence, there is no rule that big summer blockbuster films have to be insufferably dumb.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is actually pretty smart.

Oh, not in its plotting, which is all too familiar. Or in the acting from the “human” cast, which is perfunctory.

But in creating a  world 10 years after the great ape revolution depicted in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,”  director Matt Reeves (“Let Me In,” “Cloverfield”) and his huge team (the closing credits feel as long as the rest of the movie) have given us a vision that is part Eden, part sci-fi dystopia and populated with monkeys who at their best generate real emotions.

The film begins with a thrilling deer hunt by ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his followers through the primordial greenery of Muir Woods.  Screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback envision the apes as a sort of undiscovered South American tribe living in a sprawling Ewok-ish town of massive “nests.”

These apes eschew the technology of the humans who once persecuted them, but they do make their own weapons of wood and stone.  Most communicate through sign language (we get subtitles), though Caesar and a few other chimps have learned to speak. They create their own versions of totem poles (assemblages of sticks and animal bones) and some of the females even wear rudimentary jewelry.

Most striking of all, the apes have a school, taught by an orangutan who understands human writing. (In the previous film we learned how the simians gained human-like intelligence as subjects in a military experiment.)

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Kiera Knightley, Mark Ruffalo in "Begin Again"

Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo in “Begin Again”

“BEGIN AGAIN” My rating: B (Opening July 2 at the Glenwood Arts)

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Begin Again” is only half the movie that “Once” is.

But it should still be enough to jump start the career of filmmaker John Carney.

“Once,” of course, was Carney’s 2006 art house hit about a tentative romance between a Dublin street busker and a Polish immigrant. This mini-budget wonder, largely improvised and featuring an astounding soundtrack written by the two “stars” (Glenn Hansard, Marketa Irglova), introduced the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly.” It was a new kind of intimate musical, and a bittersweet romance of epic proportions. (It has gone on to become a hit on Broadway).

But the ensuing years have not been kind to writer/director Carney, who used his newfound fame to make two instantly forgettable features: the clumsy visitor-from-another-planet comedy “Zonad” (2008), which was released in the US only on home video, and the supernatural thriller “The Rafters” (2012), which as far as I can tell has been seen by practically no one.

Which brings us to “Begin Again,” an effort to recapture some of the magic of “Once.”

It’s about music. It’s about love.

And it’s actually not bad.

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John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in "Snowpiercer"

John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in “Snowpiercer”

“SNOWPIERCER” My rating: B (Opens July 2 at the Tivoli, Screenland Armour and Leawood)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Allegorical sci-fi doesn’t get much more headsmackingly ambitious than “Snowpiercer,” a claustrophobic epic from Korean director Joon-ho Bong.

Joon-ho got a toehold in the American market with “The Host,” a superlative monster movie that mixed genuine thrills with offbeat humor. He followed that up by going in exactly the opposite direction with “Mother,” which follows the trials of an unsophisticated Korean woman whose only son is accused of murder.

“Snowpiercer,” though, is his most ambitious movie to date, one filled with big-name actors (Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris, for instance, take small but pivotal roles) and overflowing with political and social satire. It’s as if “Das Boot” were mated with Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”

In the near future the world’s great powers try to deal with global warming by shooting into the atmosphere rockets filled with some newfangled chemical that’s supposed to lower Earth’s temperature.  It works all too well, plunging the planet into a new Ice Age that kills just about everything.

But 1,000 lucky — or maybe not so lucky — survivors have found shelter in an ultra high-tech, mile-long train that runs on nuclear energy and for the last 18 years has been roaring unceasingly on a non-stop circuit around the Earth.

We’re first introduced to this brave new world at the back end of the train, where the unwashed proletariat squirm in an existence only a dozen feet wide and hundreds of yards long. it’s like the world’s biggest submarine.

These poor bastards survive on gelatinous protein bars passed out by black-armored riot police who several times each day line everyone up for head counts. Now and then these thugs snatch young children and take them to the front of the train for purposes too unpleasant to contemplate.

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Brendon Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch

Brendon Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch

“THE GRAND SEDUCTION”  My rating: C+ (Opening June 27 at the Glenwood Arts)

113 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

 

We know exactly what the Canadian comedy “The Grand Seduction” is trying to do.

Only problem is that it’s been done so much better by movies like”Local Hero” and “Doc Hollywood” and the TV show “Northern Exposure.”

The premise has “quaint” and “quirky” scrawled all over it.  For a full generation, the residents of the tiny fishing village of Tickle Head on the coast of Newfoundland have watched their tiny burg deteriorate. The once-busy harbor is now all but empty. Nowadays nobody fishes for a living.  Just about every adult  is on welfare.

There’s a slim chance that a petrochemical company may be enticed to set up a recycling plant there.  One of the requirements, though, is that Tickle Head have a full-time physician.

So the locals, led by the usually inactive Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) — whose totem animal should be a hibernating, grouchy bear — launch a massive deception to lure an M.D.  Their target is Dr. Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), who after a run-in with the law is assigned to do a few weeks of public service in Tickle Head.

Murray and company use the Internet to find out everything they can about Paul. Learning that he’s a cricket fanatic, they create a team of former fishermen and outfit them with makeshift uniforms and equipment (a sawed-off rowboat oar becomes a cricket bat). Even more galling, as long as the doc is in town the menfolk who gather to watch cable TV in the local bar must eschew the hockey championship while pretending to be enthusiastic about reruns of famous cricket matches.

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jersey“JERSEY BOYS” My rating: C+ (Opening wide on June 20)

Minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

On stage, “Jersey Boys” was less a conventional musical than a jukebox, a time machine for baby boomers. The joy came not from the plot or the characters (which were riddled with show-biz clichés) but rather from the nostalgic rush of hearing the falsetto-heavy hits of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons being performed live.

So how do you transfer that singular thrill to film?

You don’t. At least director Clint Eastwood hasn’t been able to.

We all know that movies are a liar’s game, that a musical number in a film has been pre-recorded, sonically sweetened and constructed from several individual performances cannily edited together.  Even with the knowledge that we’re hearing the actual voice of John Lloyd Young, the stage actor who reprises his performance as lead singer Frankie Valli, I found it all…well, underwhelming.

Eastwood is a musician and composer and he has in his resume the ambitous “Bird,” a biopic about jazz legend Charlie Parker. But here he seems to have been hamstrung by a creative team drawn largely from the stage production and committed to not allowing too much divergence from what was seen on Broadway and in countless touring companies.

Scripted by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who also wrote the book for the stage musical, “Jersey Boys” is the story of four Italian American kids who rise from the mean streets around Newark to making hit record after hit record throughout the 1960s.

The elements are familiar. There are early brushes with the law (the opening hour feels like ersatz Scorsese), struggles to get gigs and a recording contract, the eventual triumph on the pop music charts followed by revelations of financial shenanigans, marital discord and personal tragedy, not to mention the debilitating effects of constant touring and personalities rubbed raw by too much proximity.

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Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche

Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche

“WORDS AND PICTURES” My rating: C+ (Opens  June 13)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

If “Words and Pictures” is about as deep as your average college entrance essay, at least it’s more entertaining.

Directed by veteran Aussie filmmaker Fred Schepsi,  “W&P” is like “Dead Poets Society” risen from the grave. There’s a bit of the zombie about it.

In a posh suburban prep school, an honors English teacher and an honors art teacher wage a love/hate feud over which has the most power and importance: words or visual images.

In this corner, Jack Marcus (Clive Owen), a once-promising poet/novelist who hasn’t written anything in years. Frustrated by his inability to share his love of literature with his indifferent students (if these entitled jerks in blue blazers are the school’s intellectual elite, I fear for our republic), Jack’s idea of preparing a class plan is to fill a thermos with ice-cold vodka.

The other brawler is a newcomer to the school. Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) is a moderately-famous painter whose career has been cut short by crippling rheumatoid arthritis. Now she teaches  art to students who don’t appear particularly gifted or dedicated. Still, she tells the kids, pictures provide truth while words offer nothing but lies.

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Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska in "Ida"

Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska in “Ida”

“IDA”  My rating: A (Opening June 6 at the Tivoli)

80 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The simple description of “Ida” is that it’s about two women on a road trip.

Yeah, and “Citizen Kane” is about sledding.

Pawel Pawlikowski‘s film – the first feature he has made in his native Poland, having at age 14 fled the country’s Communist regime for a life in the West — is a low-keyed masterpiece.

“Ida”  succeeds brilliantly as the personal story of two very different but inescapably linked women. But it also provides an examination/indictment of Poland’s troubled past, from the endemic anti-Semetism that found many Poles happily helping out with Hitler’s “final solution” to the drab amorality of the post-war Communist years.

And while it’s doing all that, “Ida” does something even more astounding. It achieves a sort of meditative state, thanks to languid pacing, some of the most beautiful black-and-white cinematography you’ve ever seen, and a performance by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska that is so saint-like it seems to have been plucked from the canons of Dryer and Bresson.

In 1961 young Anna (Trzebuchowska) is about to take her vows as a Roman Catholic nun when she’s called into the Mother Superior’s office and told that before joining the order she must spend time with her only living relative – an aunt that Anna didn’t know existed.

Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is a fortysomething atheist and alcoholic.  When Anna shows up at her doorstep, Wanda is sucking on a cigarette and waiting for her one-night stand to clear out of her bedroom. This cynic seems to take pleasure in informing Anna that her name is actually Ida Lebenstein.  What’s more, Anna/Ida – an orphan whose entire life has been spent in the convent — is a Jew.

“A Jewish nun,” Wanda snorts.

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sarah Gadon in "Belle"

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sarah Gadon in “Belle”

“BELLE” My rating: C+ (Now showing at the Tivoli)

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

“Belle” would seem to have everything going for it – except passion.

It’s the fact-based tale of a mulatto girl in 18th century England who was raised by her father’s titled family, negotiated the tricky waters of racism and custom to find an appropriate mate, and played a role in turning the tide against the British slave trade.

What’s more, it’s got a cast that includes respected actors likeTom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Matthew Goode and Penelope Wilton.

In other words, Jane Austen with a social conscience.

Why, then, did “Belle” leave me cold? I’ve got to blame screenwriter Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante, who took a tale overflowing with dramatic and emotional potential and mummified it. It’s good looking, raises some interesting issues…but never engaged my emotions.

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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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