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GoneTara“Gone With the Wind” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, August 2, 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.

 

In the wake of “12 Years a Slave,” is it still possible to enjoy “Gone With the Wind” with the same enthusiasm with which it traditionally has been received?

That’s the question I asked myself as I sat down to watch the film for the umpteenth time…but the first time since seeing “12 Years a Slave.”

Steve McQueen’s 2013 historic drama – based on the true story of a free black man from New York who in the years before the Civil War was shanghaied by slave traders and sold to a Southern plantation owner  – was a grueling experience.

Making it particularly effective was the movie’s emphasis not only on the agonies slaves endured, but on the corrosive effect of the “peculiar institution” on the attitudes and personalities of wealthy whites who owned other human beings.

Overnight, “12 Years…” became the definitive cinematic statement about American slavery.

Not that “Gone With the Wind” – either in the form of Margaret Mitchell’s novel or the 1939 Oscar-winning film – was about slavery.  In fact, to the extent to which it was possible, the issue of slavery was avoided, glossed over, and trivialized.

The film isn’t history or sociology. It’s a melodramatic page-turner about spoiled rich hellcat Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and her love/hate affair with courtly scoundrel Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).

Watching the film with an eye to how slavery is handled, I’ve concluded that Mitchell and especially the makers of the film had it both ways.

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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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Romain Duris...new guy in New York

Romain Duris…new guy in New York

“CHINESE PUZZLE” My rating: B (Opens July 25 at the Tivoli)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

 

“Chinese Puzzle” is the third film in a series that began in 2002 with “L’Auberge Espangnol,” about a group of college  foreign exchange students living in a Barcelona boarding house.

Writer/director Cedric Klapisch checked in on those same characters as they turned 30 in 2005’s “Russian Dolls.”

“Chinese Puzzle,” the third installment, finds the characters hitting 40 and no more at ease in matters of love than they were as adolescents.

Caplisch’s films are less well known than the celebrated “Seven Up” documentary series (which has followed a group of former British schoolchildren for half a century) or Richard Linklater’s “Before…” films that periodically revisit lovers played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.

But as with those other efforts, Klapisch’s films are bit like a reunion with old friends. The characters may be fictional, but there’s something oddly moving about watching the same actors play the same characters at different stages in life.

As “Chinese Puzzle” begins, Klapisch’s central character, Xavier (Romain Duris), has achieved a degree of fame as a novelist. He and his former college housemate, the British Wendy (Kelly Reilly), are married with two kids. Xavier still hangs with his best friend, the tomboyish lesbian Isabelle (Cecile De France).

He thinks life is swell. So he’s floored when Wendy returns from a business trip to New  York and announces that she’s met someone and is moving to the U.S. — and taking the children.

When Isabelle announces that she, too, has fallen for a New Yorker and is immigrating,  Xavier figures there’s not much left for him in Paris.  He jumps the pond.

“Chinese Puzzle” — that’s how Xavier describes his knottily confusing life — is a round robin of friendships and potential romances. Not to mention a comedy of dislocation as the Gallic Xavier learns to negotiates the brave new world of NYC.

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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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Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney...bootleggers in "The Roaring Twenties"

Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney…bootleggers in “The Roaring Twenties”

“The Roaring Twenties” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 26, 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 in 1931’s “The Public Enemy” when he squished half a grapefruit into the face of his nagging girlfriend (Mae Clarke), James Cagney was a movie star.

And not just any star, but a tough-guy star — an unapologetic, hard-nosed thug.

Over the next decade, Cagney often portrayed cocky gangsters who relished their power and outlaw status. Audiences loved him for it.

As critic Leonard Kirstein wrote of Cagney: “No one expresses more clearly in terms of pictorial action the delights of violence, the overtones of semiconscious sadism, the tendency toward destruction, toward anarchy, which is the base of American sex appeal.”

As the ‘30s were drawing to a close, Cagney was preparing to shut the door on that phase of his career.  His resume during that decade was packed with films — “Smart Money,” “Blonde Crazy,” “The Mayor of Hell,” “Frisco Kid,” “Hard to Handle,” “He Was Her Man,” “Angels with Dirty Faces”– in which he had played con artists, professional gamblers, vice kingpins, and no-nonsense gangsters.

Of course he also played a boxer, a race car driver, a federal agent and, in Max Reinhardt’s all-star version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Bottom the ass-headed weaver. Cagney was smart enough to see that as he aged he’d have to develop other talents and film personas – he couldn’t go forever shooting his way through life.

But now he was putting a cap on his career as a tough guy with 1939’s “The Roaring Twenties,” a film that allowed him to play both a good guy and a bad guy.

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