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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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Emanuel, Metthie Maur in "Venus in Furs"

Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Almaric in “Venus in Fur”

“VENUS IN FUR”  My rating: B+ (Opens July 18 at the Glenwood Arts)

96 minutes | No MPAA rating

It’s been a bad day for Thomas (Mathieu Almaric). While a raging thunderstorm soaks Paris, the playwright/director has wasted ten hours cooped up in a seedy theater  holding auditions. He’s seeking a cast for his new stage adaptation of Venus in FurLeopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella about a fellow who gets off on being whipped by a dominant woman. (Thus the word “masochism.”)

Thomas is alone, complaining to a colleague via cell phone about the talentless, self-absorbed actresses — “ten year olds on helium” — who have wasted his time with their wretched posing and preening. After hours of readings he’s no closer to finding someone to play Wanda, the dominatrix heroine of Sacher-Masoch’s tale.

He’s packing up to go home when the doors at the back of the auditorium blow open and a hyperactive blonde  in a raincoat enters, motor mouthing breathlessly about how she was delayed and can she still audition. The woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) introduces herself as Wanda — coincidence or omen? — and begs to be heard.

Thomas isn’t encouraged. This Wanda seems to be just one more prattling actress, a drowned cat with a mouthful of chewing gum.

She produces a resume that features a stint with the Urinal Theatre.

“I somehow missed their season,” Thomas observes dryly.

He’s even less impressed when she removes her raincoat to reveal an S&M outfit — the last-ditch ploy of a performer who can’t pull it off by skill alone.

Sensing his reluctance Wanda assures him that “I’m not usually in leather and a dog collar.  I’m really demure and shit.”

What she really is is a master manipulator who over the next 90 real-time minutes will take Thomas and the audience on a hell of a ride.

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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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Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde

Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde

“THIRD PERSON”  My rating: C  (Opens July 11 at the Glenwood at Red Bridge and the Leawood)

137 minutes | MPAA rating: R

 

There are those who would argue that Paul Haggis’ “Crash” was a bucket of heavy-handed melodrama and that it only received the 2004 Oscar for best picture because the Academy was too cowardly or homophobic to give the award to “Brokeback Mountain.”

To those people I can only say this:  You haven’t seen heavy handed until you’ve sat through all two hours of Haggis’ latest, the artsy fartsy “Third Person.”

Taking the template of “Crash” — several intersecting stories centering on the same theme — Haggis has fashioned an emotionally remote, narratively confused yarn that goes through all the motions without ever delivering a payoff.

In Paris, novelist Michael (Liam Neeson) reunites with the fellow writer Anna (Olivia Wilde), with whom he is having a torrid if idiosyncratic affair (their relationship seems to be as much about baiting as boffing). Every now and then Michael gets a call from the wife he left behind (Kim Basinger, looking beaten down by life).

In New York City, perpetually woebegone Julia (Mila Kunis) is in the midst of a custody case.  Her ex (James Franco) won’t let her see their young son…because the last time Julia took care of him the kid almost suffocated in a plastic drycleaning bag. The penniless, luckless Julia is one of those people who can’t get anything right — not even showing up on time for meetings with her busy lawyer (Maria Bello). Mostly she mopes.

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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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Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson in "The Rover"

Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson in “The Rover”

“THE ROVER”   My rating: B- (Opening Jan. 20 at the AMC Town Center)

102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There must be something about the wide open spaces of Australia’s outback that drives its filmmakers to post-apocalyptic nihilism.

George Miller and the “Mad Max” films.   John Hilcoat with “The Road” and “The Proposition.”

And now David Michôd with “The Rover,” a sweaty, dusty saga about a man in search of his kidnapped car.

Michôd scored a minor coup in 2010 with “Animal Kingdom,” an intimate portrait of a low-level Aussie crime clan that introduced to American audiences the great Jackie Weaver (who nabbed an Oscar nomination). It  was a dark, generally hopeless look at the ties that bind its characters to an evil enterprise.

Now  Michôd goes full-tilt dystopia. The opening credits of “The Rover”  informs us that the story takes place 10 years after “the collapse,” a worldwide economic meltdown that has left most of humanity struggling with chronic poverty.

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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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edge“THE EDGE OF TOMORROW” My rating: B- (Opening wide on June 6)

113 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

 

“The Edge of Tomorrow,” a big-budget sci-fi action epic that melds elements of “Starship Troopers” with “Groundhog Day,” has been earning the sort of reviews usually reserved for Shakespeare adaptations.

This says less about “The Edge of Tomorrow” than about the generally dismal state of the action movie.

Still, the film does have a few things going for it, starting out with Tom Cruise as we’ve never before seen him (playing a physical coward), and extending through the dry humor with which director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) approaches his offbeat tale.

But for all that, it’s still a big-budget action movie in which crashbangboom trumps all other considerations.

In the near future, Earth is under attack by an alien species we humans have nicknamed the Mimics. These are tentacled creatures (they look a bit like the Sentinels from the “Matrix” flicks) that roll around like tumbleweeds, shooting off sparks and tearing up those unfortunate enough to stand in their path.

The Mimics pretty much own Europe, having plowed across the continent. Now they are preparing to jump the English Channel to overrun Britain.

Major William Cage (Cruise) is a U.S. Army public relations specialist stunned to learn that he’s been ordered to shoot combat footage of the first wave of troops to storm the beaches at Normandy. Cage protests that he’s a word man, not a gun guy, that he’s never been trained for combat, that he’ll only get in the way, that he faints at the sight of blood.  In fact, like any sane individual, he’s terrified of the horrors that await him.

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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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George Sanders rallies American fascists in "Confessions of a Nazi Spy"

George Sanders rallies American fascists in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”

“Confessions of a Nazi Spy” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 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.

 

Whatever its merits as entertainment, 1939’s “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” is a social and historical landmark, the first time a major Hollywood studio pulled out all the stops in attacking the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.

The film begins at a rally of an American/German friendship organization. The speaker (Paul Lukas) is haranguing an audience of men in Nazi uniforms: “Those who fight us must perish socially as well as economically because of our determination to destroy our enemies completely and without any consideration…Germans must save America from the chaos that breeds in democracy and racial equality. We Germans must make the United States our America!”

The scene is shocking…in large part because most Americans have forgotten that throughout the 1930s, groups like the German American Bund sought to build support in this country for the German state while encouraging American isolationism. The Bund regularly drew 20,000 Seig Heil-ing supporters to swastika-draped Madison Square Garden. On at least one occasion this spawned rioting in Midtown Manhattan as Nazi supporters, their leftist opponents, and police clashed.

While their newsreel subsidiaries covered the rise of Nazism, in their feature films the Hollywood studios made a point of ignoring what was happening in Europe.  Germany was a big consumer of American movies, and the suits didn’t want to alienate such a lucrative market.

In fact, among American studios, only Warner Brothers had the will and the guts to take on Hitler.  Jack Warner and his brothers were the sons of a Polish Jew who fled the pogroms and came to American in the 1880s, and they looked upon Hitler and his minions with alarm and dismay. Refusing to work with the Nazis, they closed the studio’s Berlin office in 1934. The other studios – MGM, Fox, Paramount – would not do so until war broke out in 1939.

When in 1939 former FBI agent Leon Turrou published a best-seller about how he infiltrated and broke up a Nazi spy ring in the U.S., Jack Warner found a story that could express his own feelings of alarm, outrage, and defiance.  He snapped up the film rights and put director Anatole Litvak – himself a Jew from Kiev and a devoted anti-fascist – to work bringing it to the screen.

The first obstacle was getting the screenplay approved by the Production Code Administration, the industry’s de facto censors. PCA head Joseph Breen was a vocal anti-Semite and worked to shut down production of films that attacked or mocked foreign governments. In fact, the German Consul General in L.A. called on Breen to reject the screenplay, threatening to ban from German cinemas any film featuring an actor who appeared in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.”

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CitizenKochPosterXXL“CITIZEN KOCH” My rating: C+ (Opening July 11 at the Tivoli)

90 minutes | No MPAA rating 

“Citizen Koch” is the notorious documentary about the Tea Party movement that PBS was funding and then pulled the plug on, leading to accusations that one of the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers (David Koch is a major funder of public television) had basically censored the project.

Perhaps. It’s also possible that PBS bigwigs concluded on their own that Tia Lessin and Carl Deal‘s film – they’re the team that made the Oscar-nominated Hurricane Katrina documentary “Trouble the Waters” —  simply isn’t all that good to begin with and is clunkily partisan to boot.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin

Not to mention that the title is a case of bait and switch.  Although the Wichita-based Koch brothers pop up now and then, they are hardly the subjects of the film.

Now as a progressive, I approve of Lessin and Deal’s attempts to draw the lines between the rise of the Tea Party, the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling which virtually bestowed personhood on corporations when it comes to messing about in the political process, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s successful attempts in Wisconsin to ban collective bargaining for state employees.

The film’s laying out of this rightward shift (accompanied by the sort of ominous, rumbling musical soundtrack usually employed by horror pictures) is clumsy and confused, but useful.  Anyway, it scared the hell out of me.

Just as important is the film’s examination of Wisconsin working stiffs who voted for Walker because he’s anti-big government, and then found that they were the targets of his housecleaning. This is important because it suggests that after years of cozying up the right at least some blue collar voters are realizing they’ve been sold an economic bill of goods.

But here’s the thing:  I’ve lost my enthusiasm for partisan documentaries.  Whether they’re by Lessin and Deal on the left or Dinesh D’Souza on the right, I’m getting frustrated with the sort of one-sidedness exemplified by Fox News.

“Citizen Koch” doesn’t even attempt to examine why some fairly reasonable people might embrace libertarianism. Before the first frame hits the screen the film has already decided who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy.

| Robert W. Butler

 

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