under-the-skin-scarjo-3“UNDER THE SKIN” My rating: B (Opens April 18 at the Cinemark Palace, AMC Town Center 20, and Leawood)

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” moves like molasses and is astonishingly stingy when it comes to explaining itself…yet there’s something compelling about this challenging, maddening experience you can’t quite shake.

One big thing it has going for it is Scarlett Johansson, weirdly fascinating as a young woman who drives around Glasgow, Scotland, trying to initiate conversations with young men. It’s not that the actress has to show a lot of range here…but she is Lady Scarlett, one of the most watchable movie stars we’ve got.

Johansson’s character hasn’t a name. She seems utterly without emotion…although when confronted with a specimen of thick Scottish manhood she seems to know just what buttons to push — quiet and circumspect with some fellas, more aggressive with others.

When one of these young oafs gets into her vehicle with a bit of action on his mind, she drives him to an abandoned building where both disrobe and she leads him into a pool of black, viscous stuff that sucks him up.

Clearly, our girl is not of this world. Is she killing these lunks?  Storing them for a food supply?

Expect no answers.

She drives around in a white panel van (apparently the vehicle of choice of serial killers throughout the galaxy) and frequently interacts with a silent man in cycle leathers who rides a bike and abets our heroine, though what exactly he’s doing is never explained.

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Jude Law as Dom Hemingway

Jude Law as Dom Hemingway

“DOM HEMINGWAY” My rating: B- (Opening April 18 at the Glenwood Arts, AMC Studio 30, and Cinemark Palace)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Every now and then an actor needs to get outside his comfort zone.

In “Dom Hemingway,”  Jude Law leaves his usual suave screen persona wimpering in the dust.

That it’s going to be a bumpy ride is evident from the first shot of the film, a long take of Dom’s face and naked shoulders as he screams about the power of his penis.

It’s a mighty organ, to hear Dom tell it, capable of upending empires and slaying women who merely get a glimpse of it, and his spittle-spewing rant goes on for two, three, maybe even four minutes of uninterrupted profane poetry.

Oh, did I mention that Dom’s in prison and being pleasured by a young inmate while he lets rip with his phallic analysis?

Dom has spent the last 12 years in a British prison for refusing to give up the crime boss for whom he worked.  Now he’s getting out, and he fully expects to be repaid for his time behind bars.

He’s met at the prison gates by his old pal Dickie (Richard Grant, marvelously greasy), who over the years has lost one hand on a job and now wears an inflexible prosthetic in a black leather glove.

Dom has two things immediately on his mind.  First, sex.  Dickie has provided a couple of eager birds for just that purpose.  Second, he beats the living crap out of the nondescript guy who married Dom’s ex-wife (she has since died of cancer) and raised Dom’s daughter (Evelyn).

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Bette Davis, George Brent, Miriam Hopkins

Bette Davis, George Brent, Miriam Hopkins

“The Old Maid” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 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.


The acting duel you see on screen in The Old Maid isn’t all acting.  It reflects the genuine animosity between its two stars, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins.

The 1939 film version of The Old Maid had quite a pedigree. It began as a novella by the great writer Edith Wharton, and became a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by Zoe Akins.

The story is pure, unadulterated melodrama.

In the 1860s New York, debutante Delia Lovell (Hopkins) learns on her wedding day that the man to whom she promised herself years before has finally returned, having been out of contact for several years while he made his fortune.  Determined to forge ahead with her marriage into a high society banking family, Delia sends her cousin Charlotte Lovell (Davis) to deal with this old beau, Clem (George Brent).

Charlotte comforts Clem. Apparently she really comforts him, because after a long visit to the country for her “health,” she returns to NYC with a baby girl.  Little Clementine, Charlotte explains, is an orphan she picked up on her trip. In fact, Charlotte begins operating an orphanage for children left parentless by the Civil War.

Clem, little Clementine’s papa, died fighting for the Union.  Anyway, Clementine’s heritage is Charlotte’s most closely guarded secret. The only other person who knows the truth is Delia, now a rich widow.  Delia has Charlotte and Clementine come live with her, and Clementine grows up thinking that Delia is her adopted mother and that Charlotte, a bitter old maid, is her aunt.

Motherhood! Jealousy! Rejection!

Bring on the violins! (No, seriously…Max Steiner’s musical score keeps the string section madly sawing away. You never have to guess what you’re supposed to be feeling in any scene because the overwrought music does that job for you.)

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220px-The_Unknown_Known_poster“THE UNKNOWN KNOWN” My rating: B (Opening April 11 at the Screenland Crown Center)

103 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Who the hell is Donald Rumsfeld, anyway?

I mean, I know he has been a career public servant since the Nixon administration, a bureaucrat with unmatchable survival instincts. I know he’s served as Secretary of Defense under two presidents, that he was one of the major creators of the War on Terror.

I remember being in awe of Rummy for his passive/aggressive handling of journalists during the Iraq war – he could engage in a seemingly affable conversation while giving the unmistakable impression that he considered all reporters to be idiots bent on wasting his time.

Was I amused at his disdain for a free press? Outraged? Both, actually.

But, inside, who is this guy?

I had hoped for answers from “The Unknown Known,” the latest documentary from Errol Morris. A few years back in “The Fog of War” Morris turned his camera on Vietnam war architect Robert McNamara, and the result was an Oscar-winning study of a once-powerful man haunted by his mistakes.

So perhaps Morris would work the same sort of magic on Donald Rumsfeld?

Dream on. For starters, the word “mistake” may not even exist in Rumsfeld’s vocabulary. His admitting to one would be a sure sign of the End of Days.

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cap 3“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” My rating: C+ (Opening wide)

136 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There are few moments early in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” that suggest what the film might have been.

Fans of the Marvel Universe will recall that at the end of 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the Cap (Chris Evans) was thawed out after a half-century of suspended animation and was recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his super-secret spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D.

Put yourself in the Captain’s shoes. You grew up in the 1930s a 98-pound weakling. You were transformed into a muscled hunk of extraordinary power by some government-brewed elixir. You fought the Nazis in World War II.

And now you’re in 2014. Overnight you went from a world where “high tech” meant an AM radio to one of cell phones and the worldwide web. Of course, you must contend with more than just technical advancements. You’re bombarded by modern morals and sensibilities that run counter to your squeaky-clean upbringing.

When you were frozen the word “teenager” didn’t exist. Now you’re in a civilization that caters to teens as the most desirable demographic (this movie being Exhibit A).

Credit Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay for this much at least: It tries to say something about the dislocation that good-guy Cap – aka Steve Rogers – feels, to explore the angst of a man from a genteel past trapped in a crass present.

That’s a movie I would have enjoyed.

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Charlotte Gainsbourg in "Nymphomaniac"

Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Nymphomaniac”

“NYMPHOMANIAC” My rating: C(Now available on PPV)

241 minutes | No MPAA rating

You can’t ignore a film by Lars von Trier. No matter how much you might want to.

The guy’s a genius, but a twisted one. He’s a first-class visual artist and a narrative anarchist who presents himself  as a cinematic provocateur. (I sometimes view him as a child playing with his own feces.) The beauty often on display in his films must be balanced against the inescapable fact that he’s awesomely misanthropic.

In his last movie, the spectacularly good “Melancholia,” von Trier destroyed our planet and everyone on it…but he did it with such artistic high style that we are seduced nonetheless.

His latest, “Nymphomaniac” (how’s that for a punch-in-the-mouth title?), is a much rockier affair. It’s the story of one woman’s tormented sexual history, complete with nudity, erect penises, and even a few fleeting shots of real sex acts. It’s almost as if von Trier is daring us to keep watching the screen.

Yet the film isn’t the least bit erotic (just another sign of von Trier’s perversity). One leaves this four-hour experience with the feeling that sex is hell.

Of course, in von Trier’s world most everything is hell.

(“Nymphomania” currently is available on Time-Warner on-demand. It’s presented as two 2-hour films, each of which must be purchased separately. Vol. I costs about $7; Vol. II costs nearly $10. In some cities it’s being shown theatrically, but none of Kansas City’s art theaters have it listed as an upcoming attraction.)

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Ed Harris, Annette Bening

Ed Harris, Annette Bening

“THE FACE OF LOVE” My rating: B- (Opening March 28 at the Rio)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Great performances can trump great pretentiousness.

That’s the story on “The Face of Love,” an eye-rollingly improbable yarn that, thanks to some very fine acting and terrific dialogue, rises above its contrivances and gets under your skin.

In the opening moments of Arie Posin’s film we get scenes from the life of married couple Nikki (Annette Bening) and Garrett (Ed Harris). Theirs appears to be a perfect relationship…although we may be getting an overly rosy view.

Because before too long Garrett drowns while vacationing at a Mexican resort and Nikki is left to rebuild her life. Those flashbacks may represent her idealized view of her marriage.

Five years later Nikki is visiting an L.A. art musuem when she spots a man who looks exactly like Garrett (Harris again). At first she’s stunned, then curious.

She returns to the museum hoping to see him again, then begins stalking him. Discovering that the man — his name is Tom – teaches art at a local college, she approaches him about taking some private art lessons. One thing leads to another and soon they’re dating — although Nikki never lets Tom know that he’s her late husband’s doppelganger.

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

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

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

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Joaquinn Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix…isolated, but not for long

“HER” My rating: A- (Opens wide on Jan. 10)

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The sentient computer — the mechanical brain that becomes self aware — has been with us for many years now (perhaps most famously in the person of “2001′s” HAL 9000). But writer/director Spike Jonze’s “Her” pushes that idea in new and wonderful directions.

Along the way it becomes the best film of 2013.

In the near future – so near you can’t categorize the film as science fiction — a computer operating system is developed that so perfectly imitates human thought and emotion as to make the iPhone’s Siri seem like a grunting Neanderthal.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely romantic.  Lonely because he and his wife (Rooney Mara) are divorcing — though Tehodore cannot bring himself to sign the papers.  Romantic because his day job is writing heartfelt letters  to strangers.

He works for a company that, for a fee, will compose personal letters to family members, dearly beloveds, friends and acquaintances. Apparently in this near future most personal written correspondence is limited to texting abbreviatons and emoticons. Some folks will pay big bucks for a well-written, sincere and “handwritten” letter (actually, a computer provides the appropriate font and coughs it out of a laser printer).

Theodore is a master of this old-fashioned form of communication — which only makes his sterile personal life all the more ironic.

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Toni Servillo in "The Great Beauty"

Toni Servillo in “The Great Beauty”

“THE GREAT BEAUTY” My rating: B+ (Opening Jan. 3 at the Tivoli)

142 minutes | No MPAA rating

It’s impossible to talk about “The Great Beauty” without bringing up Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vida.”

Paolo Sorrentino’s film is, if not a literal sequel to that 1960 masterwork about ennui among the jet setters, inescapably a thematic sequel.  And like Fellini’s film, it takes its journalist protagonist on an episodic ride through the Roman night life they don’t feature in the tourist brochures.

The picture begins with achingly beautiful images of Rome.  Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s camera seems to float effortlessly through a series of semi-tableaus — the effect is like a sensuous melding of moments from Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” and Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.”

Then we suddenly find ourselves plunged into an orgiastic party filled with flashing lights,  throbbing techno music and swaying revelers.  The man of the hour is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a man about town celebrating his 65th birthday.

Some 40 years ago Jep came to Rome after writing a promising first novel…and never followed up on the promise.  Now he does celebrity interviews for a magazine. Apparently it pays well enough for him to maintain a spectacular apartment overlooking the Coliseum.

He’s a Roman down to his toenails — he never leaves the city and knows every alley, fountain, park and plaza like his own bedroom. He wanders the city in the wee hours, usually going home only with the rising sun.

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wolf 2“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Dec. 25)

179 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Is “The Wolf of Wall Street” the result of some sort of show-biz wager?

It’s as if Martin Scorsese (arguably America’s greatest living filmmaker) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Scorsese’s latter-day DeNiro) accepted a challenge to make a three-hour movie that would entice us to laugh along with despicable characters – just because they thought they had the special juice to pull it off.

And there are moments when they come close.

“Wolf” is based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort, a poster boy for ‘90s stock market shenanigans, who made millions selling his customers worthless securities and ended up going to prison for his misdeeds.

Now I’m the sort of fellow who tries to find the essential humanity in just about everyone, but Belfort is the financial equivalent of Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. He’s arrogant and greedy and virtually without conscience – capitalism at its most corrupt.

And DiCaprio and Scorsese have to sweat like stevedores to make him a palatable companion for 180 minutes.

This is a speedball of a movie that maniacally tears along from one scene of misbehavior to the next, hardly ever slowing down to contemplate just what message we’re to take away. Presumably Scorsese disapproves of Belfort and what he represents … but the film feels just the opposite. It seems a monumental  celebration of greed and excess.

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a 12-Years-A-Slave“12 YEARS A SLAVE”

Based on the true story of a free black man kidnapped and enslaved just before the Civil War, Steve McQueen’s film is not only about the horrors of slavery but also the toll that “peculiar institution” takes on those who practice it. Brilliant perfs from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o.


Adele Exarchopoulous, 19, gives one of the greatest screen performances of all time as a French high school girl who falls hopelessly and totally in love with an older woman (Lea Seydoux). Abdellatif Kechiche’s film has been knocked in some quarters for its graphic sex scenes – but that’s 12 minutes in a three-hour movie that follows a young woman’s life over several years in astonishingly psychological detail.

a enough“ENOUGH SAID”

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener is the master of the modern relationship film. In this wise, witty and wonderful comedy a divorced mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) finds herself befriending a trendy poet (Catherine Keener) while falling for the poet’s scruffy but loveable ex (the late James Gandolfini).  It’s a charming look at late love filled with juicy dialogue, dead-on performances and gentle social satire. Continue Reading »

Christian Bale...fat, bald, and out of control

Christian Bale…fat, bald, and out of control

“AMERICAN HUSTLE” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Dec. 18)

138 minutes | MPAA rating: R

David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” is crammed with near-brilliant moments and performances.

Yet the film itself left me cold. More than cold. Alienated.

Granted, mine seems to be a minority opinion. Other scribes are tossing words like “masterpiece” and “great American comedy”  at “Hustle.” Maybe they’re seeing something I missed.

Amy Adams

Amy Adams

Inspired (loosely) by the ABSCAM operation of the late 1970s (when the FBI lured — entrapped? — politicians into taking bribes through an elaborate ruse that involved a phony oil sheik), it’s the story of a couple of con artists who get swept up by the feds and, to avoid prosecution, agree to help the government set up an even bigger con.

The film begins with a superb wordless introduction in which con man/dry cleaning magnate Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) emerges from the shower and gets to work on the face he presents to the world. The normally cut Bale (he’s Batman, fer chrissakes) put on maybe 40 pounds to play the tubby, middle-aged Irving.  Now he stands in front of a mirror creating, strand by strand, spray by spray, the world’s most atrocious comb-over ‘do. It’s awesomely funny, in an I-don’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing way.

Irving is smoking a stogie at a pool party when he gets a glimpse of Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a young woman on the make both professionally and romantically. He’s ugly, she’s beautiful (unlike every other director in America, Russell looks at Amy Adams and sees rampant sexuality, God love him) and they bond over jazz. Soon he’s teaching her the ropes of financial scamming, and together they’re enjoying an erotic field day.

The catch is that Irving is married to the gold-digging Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a quintessential Jersey princess. She won’t divorce him and, anyway, Irving is absolutely crazy about her young son, whom he has adopted.

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inside llewyn 2“INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS” My rating: B+ (Opening Dec. 20 at the Glenwood Arts)

105 minutes | MPAA rating: R

I freakin’ love “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coens’ moody, bitterly funny, dead-on accurate recreation of the early ’60s New York folk scene.

I love it despite the fact that it’s a downer — similar in mood to “Barton Fink” — and that its protagonist is a talented but selfish sphincter.  I love its atmosphere, I love the music.

Of course, the main character is a dick, and I might  love the film even more if it showed even a teeny bit of heart, but then it wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers movie.

We meet our titular protagonist, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), playing and singing in Greenwich Village’s Gaslight club in 1961. Llewyn (pronounced Lew-In) is performing a traditional song called “Hang Me Oh Hang Me,” and he’s really, really good.

Of course he’s also a folkie purist, a snob, and an artiste whose uncompromising vision pretty much rules out anything like commercial success. He’s like a perverse King Midas — everything he touches turns to crap.

The film follows Llewyn as he drifts around the city during a cold snap. Wearing nothing but a threadbare sports coat and a muffler, his touseled hair blowing in the frigid breeze, our man could almost be a character out of Dickens. (Clearly, the Coens have  studied the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” LP.)

He’s got no home so he crashes where he can. He spends a night with a Columbia University professor and his wife, and inadvertently lets the couple’s big orange cat escape. Locked out of the apartment, Llewyn has no option but to carry the feline about on his chilly perambulations.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"

Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave”

Steve McQueen’s ante-bellum drama “12 Years a Slave” made off with the big wins Sunday in voting by members of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle.

The movie won top honors for best picture, best actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), supporting actress (Lupita Nyong’o), supporting actor (Michael Fassbender) and for John Ridley’s screenplay adaptation.  McQueen tied for best director with “Gravity’s” Alfonos Cuaron.

Sandra Bullock was named best actress for her performance as an astronaut stranded in space in “Gravity.”

A second tie occurred in the animated featuring voting, with the honors split between “Frozen” and “Despicable Me 2.”

France’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color” was named best foreign language film.

Best original screenplay honors went to Spike Jonze for “Her,” in which an introvert played by Joaquinn Phoenix falls in love with the Siri-like operating system on his computer. “Her” also won the Vince Koehler Award for Best Fantasy, Science Fiction or Horror film.

“The Act of Killing,” in which former right-wing Indonesian death squad members were encouraged to re-enact their crimes for the camera, was named best documentary.

| Robert W. Butler

Bruce Dern, Will Forte

Bruce Dern, Will Forte

“NEBRASKA” My rating: A (Opening Nov. 27 at the Glenwood Arts)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Delightfully funny and surprisingly soulful, “Nebraska” is filmmaker Alexander Payne’s comic valentine to small-town America.

Fuelled by terrific perfs from veteran Bruce Dern and “SNL” alumn Will Forte as a father and son  on a raggedy road trip — and shot in black-and-white so gorgeous you wonder why Hollywood ever let it go – “Nebraska” skewers small minds while celebrating big hearts.

Having it both ways has long been Payne’s trademark (“Sideways,” “About Schmidt,” “The Descendants”), but this time he’s refined his approach to near perfection. “Nebraska” is more than a plot and a collection of performances – it’s a feeling, a state of mind.

It is pretty freakin’ sublime.

Woody Grant (Dern) is an unshaven old coot who may be drifting off into dementia. Repeatedly he’s been found walking the highway near his home in Billings, Montana;  his destination, he tells the cops, is Lincoln, Nebraska, where a fortune awaits him.

In the mail Woody has received one of those publishing sweepstakes prize packets informing him that he may have won $1 million. Now he’s determined to present the dog-eared letter in person and claim his prize.

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Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

“PHILOMENA” My rating: B+ (Opening wide on Nov. 27)

98 minutes | MPAA Rating: PG-13

It may be a buddy/road movie, but “Philomena” is a buddy/road movie of a singularly high order.

For starters, it’s got Judi Dench in the title role, giving one of her best performances.

The excellence continues with the screenplay by co-star Steve Coogan (with Jeff Pope) that won the top writing award at the Venice Film Fest this year.

And it jells with the direction of Stephen Frears, who approaches potentially controversial and/or maudlin material with just the right deft touch.

Inspired by a non-fiction book by Martin Sixsmith, “Philomena” describes how Sixsmith (Coogan), a former BBC newsman fired from his high-profile government job, goes looking for a story with which to reignite his journalism career.

The perfect yarn falls into his lap when he’s hooked up with Philomena Lee (Dench) , a woman who 50 years earlier gave birth to an illegitimate son in one of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene laundries run by the Catholic Church.

Against her wishes, Philomena’s son was given up for adoption by the nuns. Now she wants to track him down.

“Philomena” pulls off an high-wire balancing act. On the one hand it’s a comedy of class differences.  The rather snooty Sixsmith (nobody can match Coogan when it comes to playing aloof ass-hats) is intially bemused and a bit contemptuous of the working-class Philomena, a woman addicted to bad romance novels whose idea of a big night is sitting in a hotel room watching a Martin Lawrence/”Big Momma” movie.

Coogan and Dench clearly are having a ball playing such dissimilar traveling companions.

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dallas“THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB”  My rating: B (Opening wide on Nov. 22 )

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The critical resurrection of Matthew McConaughey’s career forges ahead with “The Dallas Buyers Club,” which finds him dropping a fifth of his body weight to portray an HIV-infected cowboy/con man.

But McConaughey isn’t the only actor undergoing a big transformation here. Equally impressive is erstwhile studmuffin Jared Leto, who not only does the crash diet thing but reinvents himself as a transvestite hooker.

Talk about trolling for Oscars, fellas.

When we first meet Ron Woodruff (McConaughey) he’s doing a cowgirl in one of the bronco chutes at a rodeo. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (“The Young Victoria”) wastes no time in establishing Ron’s bona fides as a ladies’ man.

Early on we learn that the gaunt rodeo rider is also a hustler who’ll set up a betting pool – his horsey buddies wager on how long a fellow rider can stay atop a bull – and then try to flee with the money without paying off the winners.

Ron lives in a mobile home that has seen better days. He drinks. He does drugs. He stages orgies.

He’s contemptuous of anyone who doesn’t share his homophobic, racist, good ol’ boy Texas view of things.

Ron is about to get his comeuppance. Injured on the job (he’s an electrician), he’s taken to a hospital. When the doctors come to talk to him they’re wearing surgical masks. They inform him that he has tested positive for the HIV virus. Continue Reading »

Michael Fassbender
Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Chiwetel Ejiofor

“12 YEARS A SLAVE”  My rating: A  (Opens wide on Nov. 1)

133 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“12 Years a Slave” is gruelling.



It is, one can say without fear of contradiction, the best, most complex and fully-realized fictional film ever about American slavery.

Here the full panoply of institutional evil is on display, not just the physical abuse (whippings, chains, drudgery) but the emotional toll. 

There have been other movies on the subject, but most have either been a whitewash (“Gone with the Wind,” which feels unwatchable in the wake of the gut-punch that is “12 Years…”) or the stuff of lurid exploitation (“Mandigo” and, yes, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”).

Steve McQueen’s film – based on the 1853 memoir of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery – manages to reference slavery’s many evils without feeling exploitative.

Moreover, it does something I’ve never before seen.  In addition to telling its story from a slave’s point of view, it is a devastating study of the corrosive influence of the “peculiar institution” on the lives of slaveholders themselves.

In 1841 Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lived in upstate New York with his wife and family.  A free Negro, he enjoyed the rights and privileges of any citizen. He was well liked and admired and made a good living as a musician.

Lured away with the promise of work on the road, he was drugged and awoke to find himself in chains in a dank cellar somewhere in Washington D.C.  (The still-unfinished Capitol building towers over the town, providing a silent but eloquently ironic commentary on Solomon’s situation.)

Like any free man, he indignantly protests his treatment — and is beaten for it. He learns to keep quiet.

Soon, with other kidnapped blacks, he finds himself with a new name – Platt – and on a steamboat headed south to Louisiana, where he will pass through the hands of two masters.

Ford (Benedict Cumberbach) is what you might call a Jeffersonian slaveholder. An essentially decent man, he knows slavery is wrong but is too invested economically in his plantation to repudiate the practice.

Still, the slave and the master develop something approaching mutual respect – it’s pretty clear that Solomon/Platt is the only person for miles around with whom Ford can hold an intelligent dialogue.

But in a world where a black man can be hanged for reading and writing, Solomon knows to keep his light well hidden. Continue Reading »

grav“GRAVITY” My rating: B+ (Opening wide on Oct. 4)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The prospector in the waterless desert. The mountaineer in a blizzard. The shipwrecked sailor on a raft.

There have been plenty of movies about humans trying to survive in inhospitable situations, but few are quite as terrifying – or beautiful – as that depicted in “Gravity.”

As just about everyone knows by now, the latest film from the chameleonic Cuaron – a veteran of kiddie lit (“A Little Princess”), teen sex (“E Tu Mama Tambien”); a Harry Potter movie and a dystopian future (“Children of Men”) — is set in outer space and centers on two astronauts  (played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney)  who are marooned when their space shuttle is destroyed by debris from a Russian spy satellite.

“Gravity” isn’t the first stranded-in-space epic…Ron Howard gave us “Apollo 13” in 1995 and long before that there was the melodrama “Marooned” in 1969.

But it is without doubt the most realistic, so perfectly capturing the feel of life in orbit that on the drive home from the theater I couldn’t quite shake the sensation that I was part of a weightless environment.

The film begins audaciously with a single, uninterrupted 12-minute shot in which Cuaron’s camera seems to slowly float around the orbiting shuttle and the Hubbell telescope, which is undergoing a repair job.

The lady with the wrench is Ryan Stone (Bullock), a scientist on her first space flight. Ryan is installing new circuitry of her own design on the Hubbell, and pride of ownership is the only reason she’s doing the job herself.

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Bette Davis, George Brent

Bette Davis, George Brent

“Dark Victory” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 19, 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.

“Dark Victory” is one of those old-fashioned weepies that sophisticated film goers hate to love.

But then, ever since its release in 1939 this Bette Davis classic has left audiences torn between helpless sobbing and a slow-burning resentment over the picture’s emotional manipulation.

Davis, who was nominated for a best actress Oscar (she lost to Vivien Leigh in “Gone With the Wind”), plays spoiled, vivacious heiress Judith Traherne, who is diagnosed with a brain tumor and falls in love with the surgeon who goes poking around in her noggin.

Problem is, after the surgery the M.D. realizes the tumor will come back with fatal results.  But he doesn’t tell his patient of the grim diagnosis (a choice that today would get his license yanked), allowing her to go along with her flighty life. Judith will feel perfectly fine until the day ten months hence when she goes suddenly blind and drops dead.

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Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell

Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell

“The Women” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 12, 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.

No good parts for women?

Not in 1939. That was the year director George Cukor gave us “The Women,” an alternately satiric and heartstring-tugging  comedy featuring an all-female cast. (No man is seen on screen…not even depicted in a photo hanging on the wall.)

Our heroine is well-to-do Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), who learns from a gossiping beautician that her husband has been gallivanting with a slutty perfume counter girl (Joan Crawford). As if that wasn’t upsetting enough, the catty rumor monger Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) is having a field day spreading the news of Mary’s dilemma through the Park Avenue grapevine.

That’s the basic setup, but the film has an endless supply of subplots and supporting characters. Among the actresses you’ll see here are Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Marjorie Main, Virginia Grey, Ruth Hussey and Hedda Hopper (who was an actress before becoming one of Hollywood’s most power gossip columnists).

The film was based on the hit Broadway play by Clare Booth Luce, who in addition to being an accomplished woman of letters was the wife of the powerful Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines. Later she would be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Connecticut and would become a U.S. ambassador.

Luce was a notorious wit whose axioms have entered our common language: “Widowhood is a fringe benefit of marriage.” “A hospital is not the place to be sick.” “No good deed goes unpunished.”

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