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Michael Keaton and Edward Norton...exploring artistic differences

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton…exploring artistic differences

“BIRDMAN”  My rating: B+ (Opens Oct. 31 at  the Glenwood Arts, Cinemark Palace and Studio 30)

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Birdman” is a tour de force, a heady mix of dark comedy and psychic meltdown with energy vibrating from every frame.

Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”), star Michael Keaton (in a bravura performance) and a terrific supporting cast deliver a movie unlike anything we’ve seen before.

If the film, full name: “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” isn’t as deep as it thinks it is, there’s no arguing with the jaw-dropping creativity on display — technical, dramatic and thespian.

The setup: One-time movie box office champ Riggan Thomson (Keaton) — who earned worldwide fame portraying a feathered superhero called Birdman — has come to Broadway to write, direct and star in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Riggan has personally financed the production in hopes of restarting his moribund career (“I’m the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question”) and affirming his artistic credentials.

Turns out his sanity is on the line as well.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article3449803.html

Jake Gyllenhaal...on the prowl

Jake Gyllenhaal…on the prowl

“NIGHTCRAWLER” My rating: B (Opens wide on Oct. 31)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There are no fanged vampires, voracious aliens or whispy ghosts populating “Nightcrawler,” but this is a horror movie nevertheless.

In this skin-crawling drama from first-time director Dan Gilroy (whose screenwriting credits include “The Fall” and “The Bourne Legacy”), the ever-changeable Jake Gyllenhaal gives what may be the year’s most disturbing performance as Louis Bloom, a dead-eyed loner/loser who discovers his calling capturing news footage of big-city mayhem.

You may want to bring your own hand sanitizer.

When we first see Louis he’s driving a crappy old Toyota and stealing copper tubing, chain link fences and manhole covers to sell to a metal recycler.  It’s apparent from the beginning that he’s a b.s. artist who employs empty loquaciousness and a disarming smile to get out of tough spots.  Then he stumbles across a late-night car accident and a pack of freelance cameramen recording the gruesome goings-on, and decides on a career change.

Soon Louis is the proud owner of a police scanner and a cheap video cam. A quick learner, he spends his nights bouncing from crime scene to highway carnage to house fire. Fearlessly barging in on horrible situations,  he grabs if-it-bleeds-it-leads footage that impresses even seen-it-all Nina Romino (Rene Russo), news director of a struggling local TV station.

Nina has her own ideas about ideal news footage: “A screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

In short order Louis has a flashy new car and a low-paid assistant, the homeless/hapless Rick (Rick Garcia), who serves as his navigator and second cameraman as the pair zap around Los Angeles, trying to beat the other news crews — and even the cops — to the crime scenes.

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Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Kristen Dunst

Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, Kristen Dunst

“THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY”  My rating: B- (Opens Oct. 31 at the Tivoli)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

In a cinema world filled with Bourne-ish violence and spectacular chases, there’s something quietly satisfying to be found in the work of Patricia Highsmith.  Her novels — especially those centering on the vaguely sinister Tom Ripley — were about character and motivation, not overt violence.

“The Two Faces of January” — the directing debut of acclaimed screenwriter Hossein Amini (“The Wings of the Dove,” “Drive,” “47 Ronin”) — is a minor work but a solid one, a tale of corruption and escape set against the spectacular Greek countryside.

It’s 1962 and the American couple, Chester and Collette (Viggo Mortensen, Kristen Dunst) are enjoying the pleasures of Athens.  He’s a money manager, the much younger Collette is rather obviously a trophy wife.

They hook up with another American, the young Rydal (Oscar Isaac, late of the Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis”), an American “poet” who sells his services as a tour guide. And because he speaks fluent Greek and can conspire with local merchants and vendors, Rydal is usually able to double-charge his clients for a bit of extra profit.

 

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Bill Murray

Bill Murray

“ST. VINCENT”   My rating: B (Opens wide on Oct. 24)    

102 minutes   | MPAA rating: PG-13

Moviegoers may be forgiven for approaching “St. Vincent” with caution.

After all, it features Bill Murray in full-curmudgeon mode as a coot who becomes the reluctant caregiver to the son of a single mother (Melissa McCarthy).

Sounds like a gig Murray could do in his sleep, and plenty of us already have maxed out on McCarthy’s brand of overkill comedy. Moreover, the whole thing reeks of “About A Boy: Geezer Division.”

Except that it works.

With his feature debut, writer/director Theodore Melfi can be accused of dishing Hollywood cliches, but his cast’s sheer good humor and professionalism lift this yarn. And the pile of improbabilities is offset by real heart and solid laughs.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT   http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article3257681.html

Anton Yelchin, Billy Crudup

Anton Yelchin, Billy Crudup

“RUDDERLESS” My rating: C (Opens Oct. 24 at the Tivoli)

105 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Rudderless,” actor William H. Macy’s feature writing/directing debut, is a pretty good movie — until suddenly it isn’t.

I will not spoil the experience  (the movie does that all by itself) by giving away the late-second-act revelation that turns the picture inside out , making you indignantly realize that the filmmakers (Macy wrote the script with Jeff Robinson and Casey Twenter) have been less than forthright.

It’ll leave you feeling you’ve been had…and not in a enjoyable “Sixth Sense”/gotcha way.

It’s a grief movie.  Early on advertising exec Sam Manning discovers that his son Josh (we see the kid early on…he’s played by “Parenthood’s” Miles Heizer) was one of seven fatalities in a college campus shooting rampage.

Sam hits the skids: heavy drinking, beard growing, dropping out, moving permanently onto his sailboat (he’s already divorced from Josh’s mother, played by Felicity Huffman, aka Mrs. William H. Macy), and in general behaving like a seedy boor.

Then he gets a box of his late son’s belongings, among which are demo CDs and handwritten lyrics of Josh’s songs. The father is deeply moved and begins performing them on his acoustic guitar at a local bar’s open-mic night (Macy portrays the saloon owner).

 

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Blake Robbins

Blake Robbins

“THE SUBLIME AND BEAUTIFUL” My rating: B (Opening Oct. 24 at the Screenland Crown Center)

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

The Lawrence-lensed “The Sublime and Beautiful” is a home-grown art film, funded through Kickstarter and exuding the sort of downbeat but classy aura that wows ‘em on the festival circuit (where the film has picked up several awards) if not at the multiplex.

This first writing/directing effort from veteran actor Blake Robbins (TV’s “The Office”), who also stars, is what you might call a transcendent tragedy.

The film’s first 20 minutes depict an average day in the lives of Dave (Robbins) and Kelly  (Laura Kirk) and their three kids, who range in age from toddler to tweener.

In a scene of lively chaos the kids are bundled off to school. There’s talk of Christmas wish lists.

At the university where he teaches, Dave — burly, balding, bearded — grades semester finals and gently rejects the offer of a pretty student willing to trade sex for a passing grade.

It’s pretty much a study in normalcy with Dave as our smart, likable, decent protagonist.

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**** (left foreground)

Tessa Thompson (left foreground)…campus troublemaker

“DEAR WHITE PEOPLE” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Oct. 24)

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A post-racial America?

Not according to “Dear White People,” writer/director Justin Simien’s savage satire in which all the swirling crosscurrents of black/white interaction reach critical mass on a posh Ivy League campus.

The film begins with news reports about the furor created by a party at Winchester University. Revelers were invited to “free your inner Negro” by costuming themselves as black stereotypes and dining on friend chicken.

The story proper begins some months earlier and divides its time among several characters, most (but not all) of them African American.

Sam (Tessa Thompson) has a show called “Dear White People” on the campus radio station where she dishes humorous observations on race relations. One wag describes her as “like Spike Lee and Oprah had a pissed-off baby.”

Though she’s more performance artist than true activist, Sam finds herself running for president of one of Winchester’s “houses,” as the various dormitories are known.

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Brad Pitt (foreground) and tank crew (left to right): Shia LeBouf, ** , Michael Pena, I*.

Brad Pitt (foreground) and tank crew (left to right): Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal.

“FURY”  My rating: B (Opens wide on Oct. 17)

134 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Fury” is on one level one of the great war/action films, a face-first plunge into the blood, guts and terror of combat.
But writer/director David Ayer (“Training Day,” “End of Watch”) is aiming for more than just a stomach-churning visit to war’s visceral horrors. He wants to show how combat dehumanizes the individuals who must do the dirty work.
It’s impossible to watch the trailers for “Fury” — with a grimy Brad Pitt in charge of a World War II tank crew — and not be reminded of the Nazi-killing good ol’ boy Pitt portrayed in “Inglourious Basterds.”
That 2009 Quentin Tarantino film was an exaggerated, almost hallucinogenic comic fantasy of warfare. Ayer, though, plays it straight, eschewing overtly comic elements and pushing for an unflinching earnestness.
Only trouble is, he may have pushed too hard.
We are introduced to the five-man crew of Fury, a Sherman tank, on a German battlefield in the spring of 1945, during the last gasps of the war. The tank commander, Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt), makes short, silent work of a passing German officer (a knife in the eyeball does the trick nicely). He then climbs back into the tank occupied by three living crewmen and the headless corpse of a fourth.
We’re all accustomed to war movies stocked with various American “types”: a Jew, a Hispanic, a black, a college boy, a redneck. We’re meant to identify with them.
Just try identifying with the creeps who live in Fury. The mechanic Grady  Travis (“Walking Dead’s” Jon  Bernthal) seems more mumbling Neanderthal than modern man. The gunner, Boyd “Bible” Swan (a nearly unrecognizable mustachioed Shia LaBeouf), is intensely religious — he abstains from drink and women but seems to find sexual release in blowing Germans all to hell. The driver, Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), is a bit closer to normal — until you realize that he and Travis are most likely brothers-in-rape.
After years of fighting, whatever civilized veneer these guys had has been stripped away. No longer all-American boys, they are more of a renegade biker gang, killing prisoners and then retreating to their Sherman tank like wolves to their lair.
TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT   http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article2811409.html
Rosemarie DeWitt, Adam Sandler...always on line

Rosemarie DeWitt, Adam Sandler…always on line

“MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN” My rating: C+ (Opens Oct. 17 at the Tivoli, Glenwood Arts and the Cinetopia)

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Men, Women & Children” is a how-we-live-now movie, an attempt to capture the contemporary zeitgeist through multiple characters and several interlocking plot threads.

The late Robert Altman made how-we-live-now movies quite naturally (“Nashville,” “Short Cuts,” “A Wedding”). One of the best examples of the genre is Todd Solondz’s dark and bitterly funny “Happiness” (1998). Nicole Holofcener (“Friends with Money,” “Please Give”) is our current master of the form.

In “Men, Women & Children” writer/director Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up in the Air,” “Young Adult”) tackles the contemporary family.  The usual suspects are on hand: a suburban couple whose sex lives have hit a dead end, children trying to keep secrets from their parents, the young virgin misused by an older boy, first love, adults with toxic ambitions for their offspring.

Reitman attempts to tie all these loose ends together by stressing how instant internet access, smart phones, video games and other elements of our immersive electronic world have — far from bringing us together– isolated us, each in his own cocoon of “connectivity.”

He is only partly successful.

The film features a flabbergastingly deep cast.  Adam Sandler (in non-comic mode) and Rosemarie DeWitt are Don and Helen, marrieds who have become bored with each other.  He cruises internet porn and escort sites; she joins an online service for wives in search of sexual release.

Their son Chris (Travis Trope) is addicted to online sado-masochism and can’t quite function even when his school’s prettiest cheerleader, Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), expresses an interest in a hook-up.

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*** aka "The Green Prince"

Mosab Hassan Yousef aka “The Green Prince”

“THE GREEN PRINCE”  My rating: B (Opens Oct. 17 at the Glenwood Arts)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Good guys and bad guys are the bread and butter of movie entertainment.  But in the real world the difference between the two can be as fine as a hair — or impossible to discern at all.

Nadav Schirman’s documentary “The Green Prince” is an in-depth dive into a real-world case of espionage. Deciding which side to cheer for could give you a migraine.

For 10 years Mosab Hassan Yousef, eldest son of one of Hamas’ most respected spokesmen, was a secret agent for the Shin Bet, Israel’s shadowy anti-terrorist agency. He wrote of his experiences in a 2011 memoir; now a perpetual target for assassination, he lives alone somewhere in the U.S.A.

This film is both a visualization of his book and an intriguing expansion.  For the film not only allows Yousef to talk about his past, but it also provides a forum for Gonen Ben Yitzhak, the Israeli handler whose growing friendship with and concern for Yousef led to his own career downfall within Shin Bet.

What’s tricky about “The Green Prince” (that was the nickname Shin Bet officials gave to their valuable informer — green being the color of Hamas) is that Schirman doesn’t play favorites. The documentary is 100 percent non-judgmental.  Each man is allowed to explain himself in head-on “interrogations” (these scenes look and feel a lot like Errol Morris’ intense style). It’s up to us to sort through facts, rationalizations, and personalities to reach our own conclusions.

For many of us, that conclusion will be an acknowledgement that it’s impossible to really understand why people do what they do.

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Jeremy Renner as journalist Gary Webb

Jeremy Renner as journalist Gary Webb

“KILL THE MESSENGER” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Oct. 10)

112 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Apart from featuring Jeremy Renner’s best screen performance since “The Hurt Locker,” the new film “Kill the Messenger” is noteworthy as a throwback to the good old days before around-the-clock cable news.

We’re talking about a time when the ink-stained wretches of the newspapers were widely viewed as, well, as kind of heroic.

Badly paid, sure, and probably morally reprehensible in matters of alcohol and other forms of hedonism. But these journalists happily clung to the idealistic notion that their job was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and in films like “All the Presidents Men” newspaper reporters shined a light on corruption and criminality.

“Kill the Messenger” is based on the  career of Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who in the mid-1990’s, while covering the crack cocaine epidemic, stumbled upon a seemingly incredible story: To fund a rebel army battling the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, the Contras had been smuggling countless tons of cocaine into the US.  The ensuing scandal became known as “drugs for guns.”

Webb never alleged that the CIA was behind the program, only that the CIA must have known about the drugs and tolerated it.

In other words, during the same years that Nancy Reagan was telling America’s kids to “just say no,” our government was allowing a flood of dangerous drugs to inundate the country’s inner cities. Most of the victims of this scourge were black.

Written by Peter Landesman and directed by Michael Cuesta (a veteran of Showtime’s “Homeland”), “Kill the Messenger” starts out as a sort of journalistic procedural.  Renner’s Webb stumbles across a secret government document that suggests a partnership between the government and a major drug trafficker.  Then, through dogged research, interviews, and travel to Central America and Washington D.C., Webb puts together a story that will rock the country and win him major journalism awards.

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Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall

Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall

“THE JUDGE”  My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Oct. 10)

141 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The Judge” has a few good things going for it, particularly the promise of a high-octane acting duel between Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr.
What the film doesn’t have is faith that the audience can appreciate solid dramatic acting for more than, oh, three minutes at a stretch.
In this story of an estranged father and son thrown together by a big trial, every  scene that carries a bit of weight immediately goes for a comic coda — often a cheap comic coda. The effect is weirdly mechanical. But we can’t leave the paying customers thinking serious thoughts, right?
The result is an overlong, overstuffed movie at war with itself.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW, VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article2585988.html

The-Notebook-Hungary“THE NOTEBOOK”  My rating: B (Opening Oct. 10 at the Glenwood at Red Bridge)

112 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The varied parts of “The Notebook” don’t add up, but even taken individually some of those parts are amazing.

This Hungarian release from director Janos Szasz (it has absolutely nothing in common with the 2004 Ryan Gosling/Rachel McAdams weeper based on the Nicholas Sparks novel) falls into the children-warped-by-war genre. It is cousin to classics like the French “Forbidden Games” (1952) and the Soviet “Come and See” (1985).

The twist here is that instead of a single young protagonist through whom we experience war’s devastating effects, we are given a pair of identical twins, two young Hungarian boys who in the waning days of World War II are sent to live in the relative safety of the countryside.

In the opening moments we meet the unnamed youngsters (played by twins Laszlo Gyemant and Andras Gyemant) in their parents’ plush Budapest apartment.  Mother (Gyongyver Bognar) is beautiful and sophisticated and dotes terribly on her two little angels.  The father (Ulrich Matthes) is an officer whose access to military intelligence has convinced him that the Nazis with whom he has been collaborating for several years are on their way to defeat. When that happens he’ll be a marked man, as will his children.

Before sending his sons away, Father instructs them to keep a notebook of everything they encounter so that, when the family is finally reunited, he can see how they have educated themselves.

Mother takes the boys on a train ride to the sticks, where she deposits them at the farmhouse door of her mother (Piroska Molnar), a fat, bellicose, thoroughly unlikeable woman so antisocial she’s rumored to be a witch. We see no sign of occult activitiy, but just in her everyday life Grandmother is hell on wheels. She’s bitter have not having seen her daughter for years and contemptuously refers to the twins as “the bastards.”  She’s prepared to make them earn their keep by toiling around the farm. She parcels out food like it was gold. At night in the privacy of her room she obsesses over her small collection of jewelry and other valuables.

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Rosamund Pike, Benn Affleck...in happier times

Rosamund Pike, Benn Affleck…in happier times

“GONE GIRL” My rating: A- (Opening wide on Oct. 3)

minutes | MPAA rating: R

The Affleck smirk — the way Ben Affleck, without even trying, looks like a high school halfback who has just initiated one of the new cheerleaders beneath the bleachers — is put to spectacular use in “Gone Girl.”

In David Fincher’s first-rate adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s dark suspense novel, Affleck plays a  handsome husband suspected of killing his beautiful wife, who has inexplicably gone missing. Here’s a poor jerk who — despite his best efforts to appear sympathetic in front of the cops, the cameras and the court of public opinion — can’t help coming off as insincere and smug.

Damn that Affleck smirk!

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW, VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://bit.ly/1uEWHj4

"Lost Boys" discover electricity...(left to right) XXX

“Lost Boys” discover electricity…(left to right) Arnold Oceng, Emmanuel Jal, Ger Duany

 

“THE GOOD LIE”  My rating: B+  (Opening wide on Oct. 3)110 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Look past the sex, violence and escapism, and you’ll find that Hollywood still is capable of telling genuinely moving and positive stories.

“The Good Lie,” a small epic about the generation of uprooted Sudanese children known as the Lost Boys, is one such humanistic triumph.

Covering more than 20 years and, while fictionalized, based on the true stories of these young refugees, the film is a low-keyed wonder, filled with moments likely to tighten the throat and unplug the tear ducts.

In hands less skilled than those of director Philippe Falardeau (of the French Canadian import “Monsieur Lazhar”) and screenwriter  Margaret Nagle it could have been a treacly affair of the movie-of-the-week variety. Instead it reminds me of Philip Noyce’s 2002 “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” a minor classic about Australian aborigine children on the run from a government bent on civilizing them.

Featuring a totally convincing cast of real Sudanese refugees and their American-born children (several from the KC area), the film gets a bit of star power in the form of Reese Witherspoon as a good-timing Kansas City woman who is sucked into their story.

But what nails the viewer to the wall is not just the knowledge that this astonishing saga is inspired  by real events, but that it has been repeated over and over in the lives of the 3,600 Lost Boys who barely escaped  from war-torn Sudan and found their ways to a new life in America.

In a sense this is two stories populated by different casts playing the same characters.

The film’s first half hour introduces us to village life in southern Sudan in the early 1980s and the civil war — fueled by religious and ethnic enmities — that leaves a handful of children orphaned and on an incredible 800-mile trek to safety in Kenya.

The oldest is only 13 or so, the youngest perhaps five. They endure heat and weather — it means drinking their own urine — dodge the soldiers scouring the countryside, cross a river dotted with bloating corpses, battle a pair of cheetahs for a chance to gnaw down on the big cats’ recent kill. Not all of them will make it. Their bodies will be left behind under the stunted brush in the midst of a vast, primordial landscape.

These opening scenes are both visually beautiful and dramatically harrowing. The oldest boy, Theo, by default the “chief” of the small band, saves the younger travelers by giving himself up to an enemy patrol. The smaller children trek on, until they finally reach a Kenyan camp packed with 100,000 refugees of the Sudanese diaspora.

Jump ahead 13 years.  After more than a decade of waiting some of the children, the lucky ones, are picked to be flown to the U.S. where they will begin their lives anew. Three young men — Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany) and Paul (Emmanuel Jal) — and Mamere’s sister Abital (Kuoth Wiel) find themselves aboard a jet liner for the first time.

Upon arriving in the US, though, they are told that while the boys will proceed to Kansas City, Abital has been taken in by a family in Boston. Nobody in KC was willing to adopt a Sudanese girl. The boys vow that they will find a way to be reunited with their “sister.”

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Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader

Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader

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

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Mos Def, John Hawkes and kidnap victim Jennifer Aniston

Mos Def, John Hawkes and kidnap victim Jennifer Aniston

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

98 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Movie chemistry is a weird thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon...eating their way through Italy

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon…eating their way through Italy

“THE TRIP TO ITALY”  My rating: B (Opening on Aug. 29 at the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli)

108 minutes | No MPAA rating

Fans of the 2010 buddy  film “The Trip” will feel right at home with the sequel. There are no surprises here.

Once again we have Brit comic actors Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan portraying slightly fictionalized versions of themselves on a cross-country trek, this time through glorious Italy.

Once again they spend much of their time eating scrumptious food and engaging in chatter that looks suspiciously like the conversational version of hand-to-hand combat. When these two egomaniacs square off, it’s a virtual comedy competition.

Early on, Coogan warns Brydon that he will tolerate no celebrity imitations this time around. This pronouncement may momentarily dampen our enthusiasm (watching the two trying to upstage each other by mimicking Michael Caine was one of the first film’s great wonders), but it soon becomes apparent that Coogan’s dictate has no teeth.

Because for the next 90 minutes we see the two of them (mostly Brydon this time) comically conversing in the voices of Caine, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Christian Bale, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, Hugh Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Humphrey Bogart.

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Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly

Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly

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

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

78 minutes | No MPAA rating 

Movies don’t change lives.

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

But movies? Not really.

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

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

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

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

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

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Ellar Coltrane...growing up before our eyes

Ellar Coltrane…growing up before our eyes

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

165 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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** and Jon Favreau in  "Chef"

Emjay Anthony and Jon Favreau in “Chef”

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

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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