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Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone

Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone

“ALOHA” My rating: C (Opens wide on June 5)

105 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Aloha” can mean either hello or goodbye. Thus it’s an appropriate title for a movie that doesn’t know if it’s coming or going.

That the latest from writer/director Cameron Crowe isn’t a total disaster can be credited to players whose charisma helps paper over the screaming holes and loopy notions marring the doddering screenplay.

These performers are just good enough to wrest a few memorable moments from the general chaos of an eccentric romantic comedy that isn’t particularly romantic or funny.

Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) is a near-legendary former Air Force officer who was deeply involved in the U.S. space program.  But after a long career decline and injuries incurred while a contractor in Afghanistan, he’s now a mere shadow of his former self.

Rachel McAdams

Rachel McAdams

He’s returned to his old stomping grounds in Hawaii as an employee of multi-billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray), who has invested heavily in a private rocket program and needs the blessing of native Hawaiian leaders to pave over some public relations potholes.

Brian’s assignment is too look up his old friend, the king of the nativist Nation of Hawaii (Dennis Bumpy Kanahele, playing himself), and secure said blessing.

Meanwhile Brian is torn between two women.  First there’s Tracy (Rachel McAdams), the love he unceremoniously dumped 13 years earlier. She’s now married to an Air Force Officer (John Krasinski) and the mother of two.

The arrival of her old flame — even in his semi-decrepit condition — exacerbates Tracy’s doubts about her marriage and a husband whose verbal communications are painfully  limited.

The other woman is Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a hotshot fighter pilot and one-quarter Hawaiian who is assigned as Brian’s military escort.  Allison starts out all spit and polish with a salute so sharp it snaps air molecules — but after a few days as Brian’s wingman  her military bearing turns all gee-whiz girly.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW, VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article22440057.html

James Randi

James Randi

“AN HONEST LIAR”  My rating: B (Opens May 29 at the Tivoli)

90 minutes | No MPAA rating

James Randi has nothing against lying — at least under the right circumstances.

“It’s OK to fool people,” he says, “if it’s to teach them a lesson in how the world works.”

Under the name of The Amazing Randi, this 86-year-old stage magician (born Randall Zwinge) has devoted most of his life to debunking claims about the paranormal.  Randi doesn’t say that  faith healing, ESP and telekinesis do not exist. That sort of certainty is reserved for the true believers.

What he does claim — and he’s proven it in instance after instance — is that he can use his knowledge of stage magic to detect the deceptions practiced by metaphysical snake oil salesmen eager to exploit  the gullibility of their fellow humans.

A magician is honest, Randi maintains, because he tells you that he’s going to fool you — and then he fools you. And you love it.

“An Honest Liar,” Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom’s documentary about Randi and his long crusade for scientific and critical thinking, is both gleeful good fun (it’s satisfying to see charlatans exposed) and touching as the tale of a man who on occasion has practiced his own deceptions.

While still a teen the magic-obsessed Zwinge ran away from his Toronto home and literally joined the circus. Over time he developed a stage act as The Amazing Randi. His strongest suit was as an escape artist — some experts claimed he surpassed Harry Houdini (the documentary opens with a real-time TV broadcast from the ’50s of Randi being hung upside down in a straightjacket and wriggling his way out).

In the ’70s and ’80s Randi became known as a debunker.  He took on professed miracle workers like the spoon-bending Uri Geller  and the faith-healing evangelist Peter Popoff (who was able to “diagnose” the health problems of total strangers thanks to an earpiece through which his wife read details off the information cards attendees filled out before each “service”).

“A man who heals the deaf doesn’t need a hearing aid,” Randi observes.

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Britt Robertson, George Clooney

Britt Robertson, George Clooney

“TOMORROWLAND”  My rating: C (Opens wide on May 22)

130 minutes | MPAA rating:  PG  

It’s overwritten, overcomplicated and overlong.

But if you can get past its narrative muddle, really irritating dialogue and a plethora of unanswered questions, “Tomorrowland” offers a potent metaphor about the triumph of human hope and ingenuity.

Wish it were enough. But this time the winning run of writer/director Brad Bird (“The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”) has hit a major speed bump.

It’s not all bad news. George Clooney heads a fine (if not particularly well-used) cast, the state-of-the-art effects are terrific and the film (co-written by Damon Lindelof of “Prometheus,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” and TV’s “Lost”) cleverly taps into a deep well of baby boomer nostalgia.

Nevertheless, the film is an emotionally muted mess that can’t decide if it’s for kids or grown-ups.

It starts out promisingly enough. At the 1964 World’s Fair in NYC, young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) proudly submits his homemade jetpack to an invention contest.

His creation is rejected, but Athena (Raffrey Cassidy), a mysterious young girl with a Brit accent, introduces the boy to Tomorrowland, a futuristic city  in another dimension. Tomorrowland is accessed by a secret portal in Walt Disney’s major fair attraction, the “It’s a Small World” ride. (Bird, a big Disney buff, rarely misses an opportunity to tap into the shared childhood memories of his generation. And the Disney studio gets a plug for its theme park ride.)

In the present we are introduced to Casey (Britt Robertson), a brainy teen whose engineer dad is working his way to unemployment by dismantling NASA’s launch pads in Florida. (Haven’t you heard? The good old USA is pretty much out of the space business.)

Casey finds herself in possession of a mysterious  souvenir pin from the ’64 World’s Fair. When she touches it she is instantly transported to Tomorrowland, a bustling city of sleek towering buildings, zipping monorails and buzzing hovercraft where whatever you dream up can be made reality.

She begins investigating the origins of her pin, hooks up with Athena (who hasn’t aged a day in 50 years) and eventually finds herself with the now-adult Frank (Clooney), a hermit holed up in a farmhouse crammed with sophisticated electronics. Frank — who has a bank of TV screens monitoring environmental disasters, wars, water and food shortages, nuclear threats and social upheavals — is glumly awaiting the end of the world.

Literally. He even has an electronic clock counting down to the day a few weeks hence when it all goes to hell.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR‘S WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article21463284.html

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On the lam: David Wiberg, Iwar Wilander, and Robert Gustafsson

“THE 100-YEAR-OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED” My rating: B- (Opening May 22 at the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli)

114 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Sweden gave us Ingmar Bergman, one of the true geniuses of the cinema.

But none of Bergman’s movies enjoyed anything like the boxoffice clout of “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared,” a picaresque comedy based on Jonas Jonasson’s international bestseller. Felix Herngren’s film is Sweden’s biggest domestic hit ever.

Those who equate Scandinavian cinema with dour soul searching are in for a pleasant surprise. “The 100-Year-Old Man…” can best be compared to “Forrest Gump” — the shambling story of one man’s life and his many encounters with the great and powerful.

Written by Herngren and Hans Ingemansson, this is really two stories, one unfolding over a single week in the present, the other spanning several decades and continents.

The “hero” of both is Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson, sporting some pretty convincing old-man makeup).  In the present he’s an independent codger who on his 100th birthday stages a jailbreak from the nursing home where he reluctantly resides.  He hits the road and has adventures.

Allan is a bit of a doofus.  Not spectacularly stupid, but weirdly eccentric and focused on his own obsessions, particularly good liquor and blowing things up.

In the here and now Allan spends his last krona for a bus ticket, in the process absentmindedly departing with another passenger’s suitcase. The luggage is revealed to hold a fortune in cash intended for a big narcotics deal. As a result Allan and everyone he befriends on his trek will find themselves pestered by the members of a singularly inept biker gang and an international drug lord (Alan Ford) who wants his money back.

Along the way Allan teams up with  Julius (Iwar Wilander), a retired stationmaster  who has all sorts of ideas of how to spend their windfall, and Benny (David Wiberg), a sad-sack thirtysomething perennial student who is always changing majors and as a result seems to know something about everything.

Continue Reading »

far_from_the_madding_crowd_carey_mulligan_tom_sturridge_1“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”  My rating: B (Opening wide on May 15)

119 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like the 1874 novel on which it is based, the latest screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd has so many melodramatic plot twists that it’s almost laughable.

Yet we don’t laugh. Romance, tragedy and social insight percolate throughout this story of a woman who revels in and suffers because of her stubborn independence.

The success of the book — and any film based on it — lies in Hardy’s ahead-of-his-times feminism, his depiction of subtle psychological states, and the beauty of his language (or visual style, in the case of a movie).

With Carey Mulligan as the strong-willed Bathsheba Everdene and a supporting cast of mostly-solid players, the new “Far from the Madding Crowd” nicely balances those elements.

But a warning: Those who fondly recall John Schlesinger’s 1967 version with Julie Christie may find the approach of director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nichols too muted and subdued.

The earlier film had big dramatic moments and oozed a pastoral passion eagerly embraced by its major stars (Christie, Peter Finch, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp). But the Danish Vinterberg, a founder of Scandinavia’s austere Dogme 95 film movement, aims for low-keyed realism rather than high drama.

We first encounter Bathsheba on horseback. She is riding in the proper sidesaddle fashion, but when she’s sure nobody is watching Bathsheba  throws a leg over the big beast and takes off on  a glorious gallop — man-style.

That scene and her encounter with a neighboring shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), establish her as a woman with big aspirations even if she has no idea of  how to achieve them.

When after just one encounter Oaks asks her to marry him, Bathsheeba turns him down.

“I would hate to be some man’s property,” she says, adding, “You would grow to despise me.”

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mad max fury road“MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” My rating: B

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There is dialogue in the new Mad Max film — mostly delivered in a nearly indecipherable variety of Aussie English — but it really isn’t necessary.

You could eliminate all the words or replace them with made-up gibberish and this still would be the same movie, still a symphony of speed and violence, still a textbook example of visual storytelling.

It’s been 30 years since director George Miller wrapped up his Mad Max trilogy and moved on to projects like the family-friendly “Babe” and “Happy Feet.”  But he remains fascinated with Max’s post-armageddon comic-book world, a world filled with great deserts, rusty cars and trucks cannibalized into bizarro war machines, and traversed by that lonely warrior, Mad Max.

This “Max” is bigger, badder and noisier than previous entries. There’s never been much room in the series for human concerns, and this time around there’s even less.

Even the character of Max (Tom Hardy replacing Mel Gibson) is little more than a physical presence.

But as a mind-boggling exercise in pure action “Mad Max: Fury Road” is overwhelming, achieving the sort of visual poetry typically ascribed to “Ben-Hur’s” chariot race or one of Sam Peckinpah’s blood ballets.

Max, a prisoner of the despotic desert king Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain Toecutter in the first “Mad Max” back in ’79), finds himself swept along on a mission of vengeance and recovery.

Immortan Joe’s five wives — gorgeous young women apparently free of the diseases afflicting most of surviving mankind — have escaped with the help of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, with shaved head and a missing arm), a sort of over-the-road trucker.

Now they’re being pursued across a dusty wasteland (filmed in the sands of Namibia) by the angry husband/king and hundreds of souped up vehicles outfitted with flamethrowers, monstrous crossbows and other jerry-rigged implements of mayhem.

Furiosa’s goal is to find “the green place,” an oasis of water and peace remembered from her childhood. Good luck with that. Continue Reading »

David

Kim Shaw and David Dastmalchian

“ANIMALS” My rating: B+

90 minutes | No MPAA rating

Years ago I decided I’d seen just about every permutation of the drug addict movie that I cared to see.

I hadn’t reckoned on “Animals.”

This feature debut from director Collin Schiffli and screenwriter David Dastmalchian (a former Overland Park resident who also stars and based the story on his own drug history) is a revelation, not so much for what it tells us about heroin as for what it tells us about the human capacity for love.

As the film starts out Jude (Dastmalchian) and Bobbie (Kim Shaw) are living out of their car. They’re junkies, but at this stage of their shared habit it all seems, well, romantic.

He’s thin and dark and kinda Goth.  She’s girl-next-door blond. They are clearly smitten with one another and determined to share everything — from physical intimacy to their stash.

Their days are spent hanging out near Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Schiffli occasionally punctuates the human story with shots of various animals in their cages at the nearby zoo — not-so-subtle symbolism and one of the few times when the film feels forced.

When we first meet the couple they’re what you might call middle-class junkies.  They can pass for normal. They don’t seem particularly desperate.  In fact, they’re enjoying themselves immensely.

They run nonviolent scams  — like shoplifting CDs and reselling them on the street –to get their hands on money and drugs.

If they need to up their income, Jude publishes an ad offering Bobbie’s sexual services. She’ll show up for a prearranged session at some lonely guy’s home, collect half the evening’s fee, and announce she has to deliver it to her pimp out in the car before any physical business gets underway.

She and Jude laugh all the way to their dealer.

The first half of “Animals” is about drug addicts who seem to think that their love will get them through anything.

The second half puts that thesis to the test. Which is stronger, romance or heroin? When your veins are twitching, are you selfless enough to give your last fix to that special someone?

Shot and performed in a naturalistic manner, “Animals” somehow manages to turn most of the drug cliches inside out, putting a human face where nowadays most of us like to think in terms of policy.

| Robert W. Butler

iris 1_apfel_best_news“IRIS” My rating: B

83 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Don’t be surprised if after watching “Iris” you throw open your closet door and sadly conclude that your wardrobe is boring as shit.

After spending time with designer/raconteur/eccentric Iris Apfel, “normal” clothes just don’t cut it any more.

“Iris” is one of the last films from the late, great Albert Maysles, who died March 5 at age 88. With his brother David, Maysles  pioneered the cinema verite movement with films like “Gimme Shelter” and “Gray Gardens,” documentaries that told their stories by closely observing,  eschewing extensive pre-planning and post-production.

Two Apfel outfits from her Metropolitan Museum of Art show

Two Apfel outfits from her Metropolitan Museum of Art show

The subject here is Iris Apfel, who for more than 60 years has been a force in American fashion and style.  She’s created and manufactured fabrics, operated a wildly successful interior design operation, and amassed America’s most extensive collection of fashion accessories (in Apfel’s hands damn near anything may prove to be a fashion accessory).

In 2006 the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted a hugely popular show of outfits Apfel assembled from things in her closet.

The first thing to be said about Apfel is that at age 93 she is tremendously sharp and wildly entertaining, with a terrific sense of humor and the up-to-date vocabulary of a twentysomething.

Unlike many in the fashion world, Apfel is no snob. She doesn’t care what you or I think, as long as she feels good in the outfits she assembles. (Putting together these various “looks,” she admits, is more fun than actually wearing them out.)

For one thing, she doesn’t make clothing or other fashion items. Rather, she hits the bargain stores, ethnic markets and swap-and-shops in a never-ending quest for interesting items of clothing and jewelry.

She may take an elaborately embroidered Chinese coat and then embellish it with beads the size of hen’s eggs, a bracelet (usually several of them) as big as a kosher bialy, and an immense feather boa.

Add to that her boyish shock of white hair, her huge bottle-bottom eyeglasses, and a slash of fire-engine red lipstick, and you’ve got a figure who might provoke laughter.  But no one laughs because Iris Apfel has an uncanny ability to make it all work. That’s her genius.

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James Marsden, Jack Black

James Marsden, Jack Black

“THE D TRAIN” My rating: B-  

97 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The D Train” begins in familiar, comforting territory.

Jack Black plays an overgrown manchild attempting to relive — and retroactively improve — his outsider adolescence by planning his 20th high school class reunion.

Black’s Dan Landsman is so desperate to be cool and in charge that he’s painful to behold. At the same time, Dan‘s reunion mania leaves little time for him to appreciate the genuinely positive things in his life — the Missus (Kathryn Hahn), their 14-year-old son (Russell Posner), and his good-guy boss (Jeffrey Tambor).

(In fact, Dan is such a miserable sad sack that I found it hard to laugh, even when the frustrated character explodes in furious karate kicks like the ursine warrior Black depicts in the animated “Kung-Fu Panda” franchise).

Dan concocts a scheme to boost reunion attendance by enticing Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), once the school’s dominant BMOC, to return. Oliver is now an LA actor with a national TV ad peddling suntan lotion.

This will require a trip to California to corner Oliver in his natural environment. So that his employer will cover his air fare, Dan lies  that he’s tracked down a big business prospect in Hollywood.

It soon becomes evident to everyone but the starstruck, uber-square Dan that Oliver is a drug-scarfing, bed-hopping bottom feeder who has gotten all the mileage he can out of his hunky good looks. Still, the failed actor is more than happy to engage in a drunken carouse paid for by this this barely-remembered figure from his high school days.

For Dan it’s a chance to get up close to the classmate who previously wouldn’t have given him the time of day.

Then  “The D Train” drops a plot development that is guaranteed to raise eyebrows, appall some viewers and turn the movie inside out. If you want to read the spoiler — and there’s no way to not mention it in a thorough discussion of the film — continue.

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Kristen Stewart, Juliette Binoche

Kristen Stewart, Juliette Binoche

“CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA” My rating: B 

124 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Juliette Binoche is just about perfect in “The Clouds of Sils Maria,” playing a middle-aged actress wrestling with issues of aging and art. Of course we expect excellence from Binoche.

What we don’t expect is that Kristen Stewart, the sullen star of the “Twilight” blockbusters,  would more than hold her own with the veteran French actress in an extended battle of one-on-one acting. (If you’ve seen Stewart’s work in indie efforts like “The Cake Eaters,” “Adventureland,” “On the Road”  or “Stil Alice” you know she’s got chops never put to use in her over-inflated vampire saga.)

Stewart — who won a French Cesar Award for her performance — plays Val, the personal assistant to Binoche’s Maria, and from the film’s first frame she is an organizational dervish, simultaneously fielding calls on two cellphones, scheduling appointments and running interference for her famous employer.

Val is more than just a competent social secretary. She is Maria’s confidant, booster, career consultant and, on some level, friend. When Maria has trouble making up her mind or second-guesses her choices — all too common occurrences — Val knows just what buttons to push, what issues to raise to nudge the older woman to a decision.

Writer/director Oliver Assayas’ film centers on a new stage production of the play that made Maria a star at age 18. Back then she was cast as the young office worker who seduces and gradually destroys her boss, a woman 25 years older.

Now, though, Maria will play the older woman. Her cruel young lover is to be portrayed by Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), a charismatic young star whose talent is frequently eclipsed by her Lohan-esque bad-girl behavior.

The bulk of the film unfolds in a house on a mountainside in the small Swiss enclave of Sils Maria, where  the low-lying clouds are bizarre and beautiful.

Maria and Val have taken up residence there to prepare for the production. They spend much time running lines from the play — Val reads the younger woman’s role — and dissecting Maria’s conflicted feelings about having to renegotiate the drama from the perspective of a mature but insecure woman. Continue Reading »

Photographer Salgado

Photographer Sebastiao Salgado

“SALT OF THE EARTH” My rating: B (Opens May 1 at the Tivoli)

110 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like the late Ansel Adams,  photographer Sebastiao Salgado has an immediately recognizable visual style.

In more than 40 years of shooting (he didn’t pick up a camera until he was in his 20s) the Brazilian-born Salgado mostly has photographed other human beings struggling to survive.

His work has taken him from huge gold mining pits in South America (where 60,000 laborers manually lug bags of dirt up treacherous ladders — looking like insects swarming over an anthill) to refugee camps in Africa and a still-primitive tribe in the jungles of New Guinea.

Photo from Salgado's series "The Miners of Serra Pelada"

Photo from Salgado’s series “The Miners of Serra Pelada”

His work, invariably in black and white, is unsettling. For while his politically-charged subject matter is often disturbing (the corpses of African children dead of starvation, the Rwandan genocide, civil war in the former Yugoslavia), his artistry is overwhelming.

Shooting rapidly using natural lighting, he instinctively finds the right angle, the right composition, the right moment to push his shutter button. He discovers beauty in ugliness. (Though it’s not mentioned in this doc, some critics have accused Salgado of prettifying human misery for Western bourgeoise consumption.)

“The Salt of the Earth,” an Oscar nominee this year for best documentary feature, follows Salgado’s career through his photographs and his personal commentary.

Directed by the great Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the film is an overwhelming sensory experience even as it tugs at our political consciousness.

From Salgado's study of  an Ethiopian refugee camp

From Salgado’s study of an Ethiopian refugee camp

Continue Reading »

xxx as Ava

Alicia Vikander as Ava

“EX MACHINA” My rating: B+ 

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The computer or robot that turns on its human creators is one of science fiction’s more popular tropes, sparking films as diverse as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Terminator.”

“Ex Machina” offers one of the more disquieting takes on that idea, delivering a compact four-character pressure-cooker drama that leaves audiences convinced that the creation of artificial intelligence inevitably will lead to humanity’s destruction.

The directing debut of Alex Garland (the screenwriter behind “28 Days Later…” and “Sunshine”), unfolds on the remote estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a Jobs-ian genius and multi-billionaire thanks to the Internet search engine he created at age 13.

We meet Nathan through Caleb (Domhall Gleeson), a lowly computer programer who has won a company-wide contest to spend a week with his boss. This is a very big deal, since Nathan has not made a public appearance in years and lives alone in a high-tech home/laboratory built into a mountainside near the Arctic Circle.

Caleb is what you expect from a computer programmer — smart and dweeby. Nathan, on the other hand, is a force of nature, a sort of scientific Paul

Domnail Gleeson and Oscar Isaacs

Domnail Gleeson and Oscar Isaacs

Bunyan with shaved head and Mennonite beard who, when he’s not playing mad scientist, is furiously lifting weights.

Early on Nathan — who works overtime to give the impression that he’s just one a normal dude — confides that Caleb is here to help him test his newest creation. It’s an android he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants the programmer to perform a series of “Turing tests” — conversations with Ava from which Caleb will deduce whether she’s just a smartly programmed machine or a genuine individual capable of original thought and emotion.

Caleb is wowed by his first encounter with Ava, whose body consists of a mesh exoskeleton through which he can see her metal “bones” and the blinking lights of various hard drives. Her movements are accompanied by the hum of her internal hydraulics. Only her face, hands and feet have been covered with a material that approximates human flesh.

Over several days Caleb befriends Ava, who evolves from a sort of quiet diffidence to eager participant.

“Are you attracted to me?” she asks, remarking on “the way your eyes focus on my eyes and lips.”

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Russell Crowe in

Russell Crowe in “The Water Diviner”…the war goes on

“THE WATER DIVINER” My rating: C 

 111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Russell Crowe’s acting is marked by fierce physicality and an equally intense  intelligence.

The Australian icon once again embraces those qualities in his feature directing debut, “The Water Diviner.” But the results are at best desultory.

Maybe Crowe bit off more than he could chew in tackling this  convoluted World War I yarn with epic ambitions.

He certainly should have been more discerning when it came to the muddled screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, which throws together big themes, cheesy romance and an approach heavy on flashbacks.

The film begins with the 1915 attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey by British and Australian forces.  After months of savage fighting and thousands of casualties, the invaders are repelled and retreat across the sea.

Cut to Australia several years later where farmer Joshua Connor (Crowe) battles drought by using dowsing rods to detect underground water. He appears to have a real talent — possible psychic — for knowing where to dig.

Joshua and his emotionally devastated wife (Jacqueline McKenzie) lost their three sons in one day of fighting on Gallipoli. With the death of his spouse, Joshua decides to honor her last wish — that her boys’ bodies be recovered and buried beside her.

It’s a tall order. It means traveling to Turkey, navigating (or defying) the red tape of the British occupation, getting to the battlefield (from which civilians are banned because of the live ordinance still littering the landscape) and somehow finding three skeletons among the thousands buried in mass graves.

If you think Joshua’s dowsing abilities will come in handy, you’re right.

But there’s a lot more to this overly-busy yarn.

Continue Reading »

Brian Wilson leads the Wrecking Crew in recording instrumental tracks for the "Pet " album.

Brian Wilson leads the Wrecking Crew in recording instrumental tracks for the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds ” album.

“THE WRECKING CREW” My rating: B- (Opens April 24 at the Tivoli)

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” LP. The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Virtually anything by the Monkees.

The instrumental backing for these classic recordings was provided not by the groups whose names were on the record label but by anonymous studio musicians who earned millions creating the hooks, beats and arrangements that translated into monster record sales.

These L.A.-based players — there were perhaps two dozen of them — came to be known as the Wrecking Crew. They were given that nickname by old-time record producers who in the early ’60s viewed these blue-jeaned, T-shirted newcomers as a threat that would wreck the recording industry.

Didn’t work out that way.

Denny Tedesco’s long-in-limbo documentary “The Wrecking Crew” — it made the festival rounds in 2008 but its commercial release was delayed by years of negotiations over the music rights — is the filmmaker’s tribute to his late father (legendary session guitarist Tommy Tedesco, who died in 1997) and to a generation of brilliant musicians.

The Crew wasn’t an organized group.  The musicians individually contracted to play at recording sessions (sometimes several in one day), and as the best of the best they kept bumping into one another. Friendships and musical relationships were formed.

Following on the heels of other recent docs taking us back to the formative years of rock ‘n’ roll — “20 Feet from Stardom,” “Muscle Shoals” — this piece provides talking-head conversations (with the likes of Dick Clark, Lou Adler, Herb Alpert, Leon Russell, Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson), archival footage and photos, and a treasure trove of great tunes.

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seymour“SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION” My rating: B 

81 minutes |MPAA rating

Seymour Bernstein is not part of any religious order, but it’s difficult not to think of him as some sort of holy man.

For 50 years he has lived in a monk’s cell of a Manhattan studio apartment, sharing the tiny space with his beloved grand piano. He is celibate…possibly asexual.

And in a sense he prays daily for the salvation of mankind, except that he addresses his devotions not to the Almighty but to the muses of music, fingering not rosary beads but the keys of his piano.

Beginning in the early 1950s Bernstein, who is now 87, had a spectacular career as a concert pianist.  But he gave it all up at age 50, having concluded that the business side of his profession — and his innate fear of performing before an audience — was sapping his love of music.

So he turned to teaching piano, both at a university and in the privacy of his apartment.

A few years ago he met actor Ethan Hawke at a party. At the time Hawke was going through his own crisis involving fame and art, and Bernstein provided a sounding board, offering his own life experiences as and example of how to find balance.

Hawke was so impressed that he made the documentary “Seymour: An Introduction.”

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James Franco

James Franco

“TRUE STORY” My rating: C+

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Every big-city newspaper has a reporter like Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill).  A hotshot writer with an unlimited expense account, Finkel keeps his own schedule, visiting the office only a few times each year to smile condescendingly at his envious colleagues and bathe in their bitter admiration.

Early in writer/director Rupert Goold’s “True Story,” Finkel pays one such rare visit to the newsroom of The New York Times, which has just published his latest Sunday magazine cover story, this one about contemporary slavery in Africa.

Except that this time around Finkel doesn’t have his facts straight. He apparently has combined several individuals into one semi-fictional character (moreover, in the opening scene we saw him pay a source for information…a no-no in the world of legit journalism).

Suddenly this perfect master of newsprint is out on his keister. Plus, once word of the scandal gets out, no other paper will hire him.

“True Story” is based on what happened to the real-life Michael Finkel in the wake of his firing.  He learned that Christian Longo, an Oregon man facing charges of having murdered his wife and three young children, had stolen Finkel’s identity in order to survive on the run.

Having spent way too much time in disgrace, Finkel decides to visit Longo (James Franco) in his jail cell.  Hey, Finkel needs a fan, even if the guy’s a multiple murderer.

He encounters a hooded-eyed sociopath who can seem friendly and perfectly rational, but who refuses to address his own guilt or innocence.  The desperate Finkel,  smelling a best-selling book, cultivates Longo, even coaching him in wordsmithing once the accused man reveals that he’s always wanted to be a writer.

But who’s playing whom?

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Naomi Watts, Ben Stiller

Naomi Watts, Ben Stiller

“WHILE WE’RE YOUNG”  My rating: C+

97 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There may have been a time when we aged — if not gracefully — at least appropriately.

But in a society where youth is worshipped and Botox is a household word, how does one come to terms with getting older?

That question is at the heart of “While We’re Young,” writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy — albeit a dour comedy that could have used a lot more more laughs.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star as Josh and Cornelia, 40-something New Yorkers out of sync not just with youth but with their own peers. While their friends are now fully invested in parenthood and career paths, Josh and Cornelia have managed to avoid most of the trappings of middle age.

Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried

Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried

He’s a documentary filmmaker who has spent the last decade futzing around with a project about a grizzled philosopher (Peter Yarrow of folk music fame) that he’ll probably never finish and that nobody will want to see. She’s the producer for her father, a legendary grand old man of documentaries.

They’ve no children, no car, no mortgage.

But their biological clocks are accelerating — he’s got arthritis and she’s conflicted over her inability to have a baby. Mortality is rearing its ugly head.

Enter Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried), a young married couple auditing Josh’s documentary film class at a New York City university. Jamie endears himself to the filmmaker by claiming his life was changed by Josh’s early (and only successful) documentary.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR‘s WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article17831633.html

Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds

Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds

“WOMAN IN GOLD” My rating: B- 

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Despite a tendency to dilute its message with easily digestible Hollywood moments, “Woman in Gold” provides the formidable Helen Mirren with yet another juicy role while raising some thought-provoking questions about art, ownership, and societal upheaval.

The subject is the real-life pursuit of California transplant Maria Altmann (Mirren) to reclaim several paintings stolen from her Jewish family in Vienna by the Nazis. The most  important piece is Gustav Klimt’s “Lady in Gold,” also known as “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” (Adele was Maria Altmann’s aunt). It and several additional Klimt paintings were looted by the Germans and after the war became the property of the Austrian state.

This film from director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn”)  follows parallel narratives  separated by six decades.

In the modern day  — roughly 1998 to 2006 — we follow the efforts of the octogenarian Altmann, operator of a high-end  Los Angeles fashion shop, to reclaim her family’s artwork. In this she is assisted by struggling lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), whose own family history is rooted in Austria — he is the grandson of classical composer Arnold Schoenberg.

They make for an odd couple legal team. Maria is a friend of Randol’s mother and hopes that he will “help me out on the side…like a hobby.” She’s opinionated, sometimes brusque and in your face.

Randol, on the other hand, is not terribly successful and struggling to make ends meet. He only fully gets involved when he realizes that the paintings Maria hopes to recover are worth upwards of $150 million.

Problem is, the Austrian government sees them as priceless, as part of that nation’s psyche, with “Lady in Gold” often compared to the “Mona Lisa.”  Maria’s initial efforts are rebuffed, and it is only after she sues the Austrian government through the American legal system — a case that will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — that her efforts gain any traction.

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"Furious 7"...the usual suspects

“Furious 7″…the usual suspects

“FURIOUS 7″ My rating: B-

135 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Subtlety is not the reason the “Fast and Furious” franchise became a box office juggernaut.

Rather, it’s all about roaring engines, outlandish stunts, bikinied babes, music-video pacing, racially diverse (if one-dimensional) characters and a playful sense of camaraderie — elements that appeal to audiences all over the world.

“Furious 7” doesn’t mess with the formula, though this latest entry can’t help coming off as bittersweet, what with the 2013 car-crash death of leading man Paul Walker as filming neared completion.

If the action is spectacular, giving us violent ballets of speed and destruction, the film’s attempts at emotion are simplistic and sappy. But the lingering sense of loss over Walker’s demise gives the material a dramatic underpinning it doesn’t really deserve.

“7” concludes with flashbacks of Walker from the previous films, and even sneerers may reach for the Kleenex.

Mostly though, Chris Morgan’s screenplay and James Wan’s direction keep things moving. Like a second-grader with ADD, the film is impossibly restless (is there one shot that lasts more than 10 seconds?). The dialogue is often stunningly (intentionally?) bad, filled with cliches from the action movie playbook.

This time around the blended team of crooks and lawmen — the alpha dog Dominic (Vin Diesel), Brian (Walker), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris) and Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) — are being stalked by an implacable and seemingly unbeatable enemy.

Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), brother of the criminal mastermind the crew took down in the last film, wants revenge and methodically goes after our guys.

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***...misbehaving

Taika Waititi…misbehaving

“WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS”  My rating: B-

86 minutes | No MPAA rating 

After several lifetime’s worth of experiences, you’d think vampires would get it right.

But, no, the bloodsuckers starring in the faux documentary “What We Do in the Shadows” are a singularly inept bunch whose existence argues against the notion that with age comes wisdom.

Written and directed by Jemaine Clement (half of the comedy/musical duo Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi, “What We Do…” purports to be footage shot by a New Zealand  documentary crew that’s been granted permission to film the nightly activities of a group of vampires living together in a creaky old house.

Usually front and center is Viago (Waititi), an affable and childlike fellow in the Andy Kauffman mold who still wears the Byronic fashions of his human life and looks upon the film crew as an opportunity to dispel many of the misconceptions about  his vampire brethren.  (“We get a really bad rap.”)

Vladislav (Clement) has a taste for torture that reflects his flesh-and-blood life in the late Middle Ages. Think Vlad the Impaler.

Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is basically a frat boy.  A former Nazi, he now is a dedicated slacker and is often criticized by his housemates for not pulling his weight: “You have not done the dishes for five years.”

Finally there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), who lives in the cellar and is a dead ringer for the bald, rat-clawed vampire in the classic silent film “Nosferatu.”  Petyr is the “father” of the others, but at age 8,000 he doesn’t exert any more energy than is absolutely necessary.

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american-sniper-trailer-bradley-cooper
“AMERICAN SNIPER” My rating: B+

132 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In more than 40 years of directing, Clint Eastwood has become a master storyteller.

That is overwhelming evident in the first half-hour of “American Sniper,” Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall’s adaptation of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s memoir about his experiences as the most deadly sniper (160 confirmed kills) in U.S. military history.

They waste no time in plunging us into the action: A street in Iraq. American soldiers searching door-to-door.  Watching from above is Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), new to the war and positioned on a rooftop.

Suddenly Chris spots movement — an Iraqi mother and her young son are approaching. The mother produces a rocket-propelled grenade from her clothing and gives it to her son, who rushes toward the Americans.

In seconds Chris must decide if his first kill will be a child.

From that hair-raising intro, the film sends jerks us back to Chris’ childhood: reared as a hunter (and possible proto-survivalist) by his father, a misspent youth as a rodeo rider, the decision to enlist in the best military unit in the world, the SEALs.

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