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Focus-2015-Movie“FOCUS”  My rating: C (Opens wide on Feb. 27)

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The key to pulling off a scam, according to master con artist Nicky, is to throw off your mark’s focus.

Tap the poor slob on his right shoulder while you remove the Rolex from his left wrist. Misdirect. Confuse.

The same can be said of long-con movies (think “The Sting”), which bluff the audience to deliver a big “Gotcha!!!” payoff.

That’s the goal anyway. The problem with “Focus” is that, well, it has no focus.

Not the characters. Not the fuzzy plotting. Not the halfhearted stab at romance.

Oh, there’s some diversion to be found in the high-roller settings: New Orleans when it hosts the Super Bowl,  Buenos Aires during a Formula One race.  It smacks of an old James Bond flick with a dash of “Thomas Crown Affair” slickness.

But this tepid “thriller” mostly coasts, offering a couple of minor diversions (it’s amusing to see how professional scammers go about their nefarious business) without ever delivering that “wow” moment.

TO  READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR’s WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article11151854.html

leviathan“LEVIATHAN”  My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Feb. 27)

 140 minutes  | MPAA rating: R

There’s a lot going on just in the title of “Leviathan,” Russia’s nominee for the Oscar for best foreign language film.

Leviathan is the Bible’s term for whales, the huge sea creatures that once provided sustenance for the now-abandoned fishing village that is the film’s primary setting. Their massive bones still litter the sand — along with dozens of beached, decaying boats.

Leviathan is also the title of Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 book about the relationship of the individual to government and society.

In “Paradise Lost,” Milton employs the word to describe Satan’s powers.

All of those references are fitting in the context of this exhausting film, which savagely picks apart the new world order of post-communist Russia.

In writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s multi-character drama, the local government tries to seize the property of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), who owns the last occupied house on a spit of land that once was home to a thriving fishing community. Now it is under the jurisdiction of the closest viable town.

Kolya lives with his second wife, Lilya (Elena Liadova), and his teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). He runs a car repair business out of his shed. The place is a dump, but at least it’s his dump.

Moreover, Kolya has a long-standing feud with the mayor, Vadim (Roman Madianov), who is not only forcing him to give up his land but is paying only a fraction of its worth.

To help him fight City Hall, Kolya has employed the services of Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), an old army buddy who is now a hotshot Moscow lawyer. Dimitri has assembled a fat dossier of the Mayor’s crimes and abuses; perhaps a blackmail threat will make the city back off.

Against this legal battle Zvyaginstev and co-writer Oleg Negin explore several personal relationships as well as their view that corrupt Communism has been replaced by crony capitalism and the theocratic dictatorship of the Russian Orthodox Church.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article11158901.html

Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore

“MAP TO THE STARS” My rating: C (Opening Feb. 27 at the Cinetopia)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There have been plenty of great movies about Hollywood.

“Sunset Boulevard.”

“The Bad and the Beautiful.”

“The Player.”

David Cronenberg’s “Map to the Stars” is not one of them.

It’s got a terrific cast (including recent Oscar winner Julianne Moore) and offers many observations about the pathetically fragile egos of those caught up in the celebrity/career cycle, and of the moral vacuum in which the entertainment industry operates.

What it hasn’t got is one character — just one — who isn’t either homicidal, mental, or otherwise set apart from the rest of us average folk. Now this may be a perfectly accurate reflection of life in LaLa Land,  but it makes for an uninvolving movie experience.

The screenplay by Bruce Wagner (“Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills”) follows the template of a classic Robert Altman film.  Take an evocative setting (Hollywood, Nashville, a wedding, a health food convention) and toss into it a dozen or so characters whose trajectories intersect at various points.

It begins with the arrival in L.A. of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a fresh face from Middle America seeking her future and fortune in the city of angels. Did I say she had a fresh face? Not pecisely. Agatha has a huge scar on her left cheek and wears old-fashioned over-the-elbow lady’s gloves to hide what she says are burn marks.

She hires a limousine driver (Robert Pattinson, late of the “Twilight” franchise) to give her a tour of the sights and of celebrity residences. He’s actually an actor, he says, and is contemplating Scientology. “I was thinking about converting. Be a good career move.”

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***...misbehaving

Taika Waititi…misbehaving

“WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS”  My rating: B- (Opens Feb. 27 at the Tivoli)

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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Song-of-the-Sea-e1356164661128“SONG OF THE SEA” My rating: ** (Opens Feb. 20 at the Tivoli)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Frame for frame, the Oscar-nominated “Song of the Sea”may be the most visually beautiful animated feature film ever.  It’s breathtaking.

That’s the good news.

song seafdggThe bad news is that as storytelling the latest effort from Irish animator Tomm Moore (his “The Secret of Kells” was nominated for an Oscar back in 2009) is a clunky ride, with an overthought and overwrought plot so complicated that it never tracks emotionally.

Ben (David Rawle) and his mute little sister Saorise live on an Irish island where their widowed father (Brendan Gleeson) keeps a lighthouse.  Ben finds his little sister a bit of a pain — especially since she is drawn to swim in the dangerous waters and cavort with the seals who have shown up after an absence of many years.

In fact, Saorise is a selkie, a creature of  Celtic legend who is human on dry land but becomes a seal in the water.

When their grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) demands that they come to live with her in the city, the two children hit the road in an effort to return to the island that has been their only home.

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Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore

“STILL ALICE” My rating: B+

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Still Alice” deals with such a disturbing topic — early-onset Alzheimer’s — that most of us will decline to watch it, and those who do will take their seats with the butterflies of trepidation in full flight.

It is well, then, that a big reward awaits those who take the plunge.

Julianne Moore has won the best actress Oscar for her performance in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s drama, and it takes only about 10 minutes to see why. She delivers a brilliant turn that buoys “Still Alice” just when it seems too much to bear.

Moore plays Alice, who at age 50 seems to have it all. She’s a professor of linguistics at Columbia University and the author of a respected book. She has a husband (Alec Baldwin, doing a 180 from his frequent sleazeball portrayals) who clearly adores her.

The couple have two overachieving offspring: a lawyer (Kate Bosworth) and a doctor (Hunter Parrish). Their third (Kristen Stewart) blew off college to become an actress — not that anyone is paying her to act.

It is while guest-lecturing at a West Coast university that Alice suddenly loses her train of thought. After a tense moment she recovers nicely (“I knew I shouldn’t have had that Champagne”) and continues.

A moment of forgetfulness, nothing more.

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Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan

Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan

“FIFTY SHADES OF GREY” My rating: C+

125 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Great literature often defies cinematic adaptation. Bad novels, on the other hand, are right up Hollywood’s alley.

Those who take reading even halfway seriously agree that E.L. James’ best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey is wretched stuff.  A page-turner, perhaps. But wretched.

And yet the movie version — the first 45 minutes or so, anyway — is actually kinda fun, embracing a tongue-in-cheek (no pun intended) sensibility that finds unexpected humor in James’ heavy-panting tale of fabulous wealth and kinky sexual proclivities.

One only wishes that director Sam Taylor-Johnson (whose only previous feature was her young-John-Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy”) had gone whole hog in slyly subverting the whole “Fifty Shades” phenomenon.

As it stands she’s taken a safe middle ground — nothing to outrage the novel’s loyal fans, but enough wryness that a non-believer can find the experience mildly amusing. And, thank heaven, the movie doesn’t force us to wade through James’ purple prose.

Credit for the film’s strong first half rests largely on Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith), who plays college student Anastasia “Ana” Steele as an adorably dweeby girl-next-door.

She agrees to fill in for her ailing editor roomie for a newspaper interview with Christian Grey (former model Jamie Dornan), the 27-year-old billionaire industrialist. There’s a great deadpan comic moment when she pulls up to the Grey House in downtown Seattle, finds a parking spot right in front of the entrance (religions have been founded on less) and stares up at the phallic skyscraper with open-mouthed awe.

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Timothy Spall in "Mr. Turner"

Timothy Spall in “Mr. Turner”

“MR. TURNER”  My rating: B+

150 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Though Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” centers on the great English painter J.M.W. Turner, it isn’t really a conventional biography of an artist.

Nor does it offer much insight into the process of painting. Only rarely do we see Turner — brilliantly portrayed by Timothy Spall — with a brush in his hand.

And there’s no plot to speak of…not all that unusual when you consider that Leigh makes his movies after months of collaborative improvisation with his players.

Best to think of “Mr. Turner” as a time machine, a vehicle for transporting us to another era and so completely capturing the feel of the place that you’d swear you can smell the oil paint and the sea air.

The film concentrates on the last years in Turner’s life.  By this time (from the late 1840s to his death in 1851), Turner has been widely recognized as one of the great artists of the day. He specializes in seascapes, but his style is so radically impressionistic as to border on the abstract. His work alienates many (there’s a scene of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert viewing a Turner canvas and concluding that the artist must be going blind or mad), yet among his fellow artists he is regarded as a genius.

Genius he may be.  As a human being, this Turner leaves something to be desired.

mr turner-count_2911094c Continue Reading »

Colin Firth...the calm eye of the storm

Colin Firth…the calm eye of the storm

“THE KINGSMAN”  My rating: B- 

129 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE”

Tone is the secret sauce of cinema.

A film can have an interesting plot, good acting, great production values…but if the tone is off the whole thing sits queasily on the stomach like a cheap Mexican dinner.

Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman” has a lot going for it.  It’s a wicked spoof of Bondish spy films with tons of over-the-top action.  At its center it has a nifty mentor-student relationship.  And in Colin Firth and newcomer Taron Egerton it has a couple of hugely charismatic leading men.

And yet the tone is, well, iffy.

Borrowing the arched-eyebrow approach of Patrick Macnee’s John Steed from the old “Avengers” TV show, Firth plays Harry Hart, aka Galahad, a member of a super secret agency known as the Kingsmen.

Operating out of a men’s clothing shop in London (which explains why its agents are so nattily dressed with pinstriped suits, tortoise-shell glasses and deadly umbrellas), the Kingsmen were formed decades ago by a cabal of obscenely rich men who thought international security too important to be left in the hands of governments and politicians.

The story — adapted by Vaughn and Jane Goldman from the comic Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons — has two main components.

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Marion Cotillard...facing her coworkers

Marion Cotillard…facing her coworkers

“TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT”  My rating: A 

95 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers –Jean-Pierre and Luc — make small, sometimes mournful films about average individuals caught in the gears of larger institutions.

They’ve never done anything as powerful as “Two Days, One Night,” featuring Oscar-nominated Marion Cotillard in what some day may be recalled as her greatest performance (and she already has a best actress statuette for “La Vie en Rose”).

The setup is simple.

After several months of sick leave, blue-collar worker Sandra (Cotillard) is ready to get back to her job. She, her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) and their two kids can’t last much longer on one income.

Then, on the Friday before she is to resume her duties, she learns that her co-workers have voted not to bring her back. The plant’s managers have proposed dividing up Sandra’s work load — and her paycheck — among the remaining employees. It is, say the bosses, the only way the staff will get a bonus this year.

A desperate Sandra pleads for and is given a second vote so that she can make her case. She has the weekend — two days and one night — to visit all 16 of her co-workers to change minds.

The bulk of “Two Days, One Night” consists of these conversations, which are as tense, angry and sad as you’d expect.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article9287789.html

Mila Kunis...saving Earth

Mila Kunis…saving Earth

 

“JUPITER ASCENDING” My rating: D+

127 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Fate does no favors for filmmakers by giving them early artistic or commercial success.

Two words:  Orson Welles.

Two more words: The Wachowskis.

Their latest, “Jupiter Ascending,” is borderline unwatchable.

Siblings Andy and  Larry (now Lana) Wachowski hit the big time in a big way in 1999 with “The Matrix,” which was hailed as both terrifically popular entertainment and hugely savvy moviemaking.

It’s pretty much been downhill since then: Two “Matrix” sequels of rapidly deteriorating quality, the flawed “V  for Vendetta,” the awful “Speed Racer,” the ambitious but muddled “Cloud Atlas.”

Eddie Redmayne

Eddie Redmayne

“Jupiter Ascending” throws together a bunch of ideas cobbled together from pop culture and science fiction sources, revs them up with an assault of noise and visuals, and makes some pretty good actors look like amateurs.

It begins way out in space where the three immortal Abrasax siblings — the imperiously evil Balem (Eddie Redmayne), the scheming-but-charming Titus (Douglas Booth) and the seemingly empathetic Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) — are arguing over the inheritance left by their late mother.

Among her holdings is a planet called Earth, whose residents are unaware that they soon will be harvested for the essential juice that allows the Abrasax to retain their youths indefinately.

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everly“EVERLY” My rating: B- (Now available on Pay-Per-View)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Few things speak more directly to a man’s reptilian brain than a beautiful woman firing  a big honking gun.

By that reckoning, “Everly”  is the exploitation equivalent of “Citizen Kane.”

The latest from writer/director Joe Lynch (who specializes in high-end “bad” films…see his “Wrong Turn 2: Dead End”) finds the ever-luscious Salma Hayek portraying Everly, a woman who for several years has been kept in sexual slavery by the leader of a Japanese crime gang.

The film starts in darkness with the brutal sounds of Everly being raped by several men. Then she stumbles naked into a bathroom, lifts the lid off the back of the toilet and retrieves an automatic pistol in a waterproof bag.

The first rapist who comes pounding on the door for more action gets perforated for his trouble. Then our girl mows down a half dozen more of the creeps who’ve been lounging around the apartment which has been her prison.

“Everly” takes place in 90 real-time minutes as the titular character desperately tries to contact her estranged mother (Laura Cepeda), who has been caring for Everly’s young daughter (Aisha Ayamah).

Meanwhile she must defend herself not only from wave after wave of assassins, but from the prostitutes in adjacent apartments who hope to claim the bounty on her head.

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Jude Law as a treasure-hunting submarine captain

Jude Law as a treasure-hunting submarine captain

“BLACK SEA” My rating: B- 

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Black Sea” is preposterous, but hugely entertaining.

This latest from director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) is a claustrophobic heist movie about a bunch of down-on-their-luck salvage operators who buy a rusty old Soviet sub and use it to locate and loot a German U-Boat that sank during World War II with millions in gold ingots aboard.

Jude Law stars as Robinson, who just lost his job working for a big international salvage company. His long absences at sea pretty much ruined his marriage, and he’s got nothing to live for. So when a well-suited mover-and-shaker (Scoot McNairy) plays intermediary between Robinson and a rich dude willing to bankroll the project, our man is all too ready to bite.

He assembles a crew of old salts, half Russian and half British, who take no time at all to be at each other’s throats. It doesn’t help that one of the Brits, a deep sea diver played by Ben Mendelsohn, is a paranoid crazy who gets it in his head that if he can kill off a few of his crewmates, that’ll leave more gold for the survivors.

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Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell

Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell

“FOXCATCHER” My rating: B

129 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Funny guy Steve Carell dons prosthetic teeth and nose for “Foxcatcher,” transforming himself into the fabulously wealthy and seriously unhinged John du Pont,  a convicted murderer who died in prison in 2010.

He’s flanked in the film by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, both of whom give career-high performances.

Yet despite this terrific acting (or because of it), “Foxcatcher” is a squirm-worthy experience. We know going in that it will end badly, but Carell — with director Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”) and writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman — ups the ante by creating a mood of queasy uneasiness that slowly builds in intensity until you want to jump out of your skin.

Which puts this critic in the weird position of subtracting points because the movie was too effective. At the risk of seeming a philistine, it is difficult to wholly recommend a movie that makes one feel so uncomfortable for two hours-plus.

The story begins in the mid-’80s with wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum), who with his older brother Dave (Ruffalo) was a big winner at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

While Dave is a family man with a decent gig teaching and coaching at a university, the unmarried, solitary Mark seems to be circling the drain, a not-terribly-bright jock whose glory days are behind him. He’s reduced to donning his gold medal to give talks to elementary school kids for a few bucks.

Enter the mysterious John du Pont, a ferret-like individual who invites Mark to become part of his Team Foxcatcher, a privately funded wrestling community the multimillionaire maintains on his vast estate.

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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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selma-bridge“SELMA”  My rating: B+ 

127 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Like writing history with lightning.”

That was President Woodrow Wilson’s reaction to a 1915 White House screening of the Civil War epic “Birth of a Nation,” a film whose artistic ambitions were matched only by its racism.

A century later, director Ava DuVernay has given us “Selma,” a docudrama about a pivotal campaign in the fight for civil rights for black Americans. You could say this film writes history not so much with lightning as with compassion.

“Selma” often gets the details wrong (shuffling chronologies and geography, for instance), but its emotional heft is undeniable. In re-creating the 1965 protest marches from Selma, Ala., led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the movie captures the epic sweep of social upheaval, but also the way it played out for the individuals — famous and anonymous — who made it happen.

David Oweyolo as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

David Oweyolo as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s as close to being there as most of us will ever get.

The screenplay by Paul Webb (his first) cannily begins with three scenes that establish the film’s breadth of focus and what is at stake.

In Oslo, Norway, the Reverend King (David Oyelowo, who like most of the lead players is British) accepts the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Selma, black housewife Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey, one of the movie’s producers) attempts to register to vote. A sneering clerk orders her to recite from memory the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. When she does so flawlessly, he tells her to come back when she has memorized the names of all the county judges in Alabama.

And in Montgomery, Ala., four black girls are killed when a bomb planted by racists goes off in their church during Sunday services.

King and other civil rights leaders focus their efforts to register black voters in Selma, a burg so racially backward and with such thuggish law enforcement that it perfectly meets their needs.  With the media focused on the situation — dignified protestors being abused by white cops and racist mobs — the federal government will be forced to get involved. Continue Reading »

Benedict Cumberbatch as early computer creator Alan Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch as early computer creator Alan Turing

“THE IMITATION GAME” My rating: B+

114 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

With his monumental forehead and widely spaced eyes, Benedict Cumberbatch more resembles the Star Child from “2001” than a movie sex symbol.
Nevertheless, he has his own army of groupies (the self-proclaimed “Cumberbitches”) and his unconventional looks pay off handsomely in roles as brainy outsiders.
Having already put his stamp on Sherlock Holmes for the BBC and PBS, Cumberbatch now takes on Alan Turing, the mathematician and inventor whose genius — he was instrumental in defeating the Nazis and is considered the father of the computer — wasn’t enough to keep him from running afoul of Britain’s draconian laws about “deviant” sexuality.
This film from Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (maker of the nifty thriller “Headhunter”) resembles an extremely good installment of “Masterpiece Theatre,” right down to the familiar actors.
But Cumberbatch’s central performance is so overwhelming that it elevates this historical drama into the realm of Shakespearean tragedy.
In early World War II this Turing is recruited to help crack Enigma, the Nazis’ allegedly unbeatable system for sending coded messages throughout the Reich’s war machine.
Denniston (Charles Dance), the brittle naval officer in charge of the effort, is not impressed with Turing, who seems indifferent or, worse, smug. (“Mother says I can be off-putting…”)
In fact, Cumberbatch gives us not just a brilliant eccentric but an autistic individual.  He avoids eye contact. He’s incapable of reading other people’s emotions. He doesn’t “get” humor.

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James Cordern, Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep

James Corden, Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep

 

“INTO THE WOODS”  My rating: B-

124 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

“Into the Woods” is a terrific big-screen musical right up to the point when it suddenly stops being great and turns disheartening and annoying.

In this it is exactly like the stage version of this Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine collaboration, which I saw in previews in New York just before its 1987 debut.  I’m talking 90 minutes of wonderful followed by 30 minutes of meh. So meh, in fact, that it damn near ruins all the good stuff.

Director Rob Marshall, who more or less singlehandedly resurrected the movie musical with 2002’s “Chicago,” comes charging out of the gate here, delivering a movie that works musically and  cinematically and which strikes just the right tongue-in-cheek tone in revisiting the fairy tale cliches of our childhoods.

In a village just outside the woods the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) yearn for a child.  Their cronish neighbor (a gleefully scenery-chawing Meryl Streep), widely believed to be a witch, reveals that in his childhood she put a curse of infertility on the Baker.  Now she offers to lift the hex if the couple will obtain for her several items needed for an incantation that will restore her youth and beauty.

Among the things sought in this scavenger hunt: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.

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2014 wasn’t a year of great movies.

Great performances, yes, but often in movies that were only good.

Which poses a problem for the critic assembling a 10 Best List.  Is a spectacular piece of acting enough?  Just how far can it lift a movie that in other regards  fails to reach the stratospheric atmosphere of cinema art?

Examples: Eddie Redmayne’s astounding work as cosmologist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”  Robin Wright in “The Congress.”  Ralph Fiennes in “Grand Budapest Hotel.”  Or Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler.”

Ultimately you have to fall back on the basics, looking not at a film’s parts but at its totality, at the personality it presents to the world. Does the experience stick with you, burrowing into your consciousness so effectively that months or even years later you can recall the thrill of viewing?

These are the films that did it for me this year. There are several documentaries (the genre least insulting to the intelligence of audiences), one foreign title, and several independents (a couple of which came and went in the blink of an eye).

There’s only one mainstream release because…well, because Hollywood is less into discovery than into recycling the tried and true. I find it too late in the day to be treading water.

So here they are no particular order:

TO READ THE REST OF THIS STORY GO TO THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article4645131.html

 

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Reese Witherspoon

Reese Witherspoon

“WILD” My rating: B+ 

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Man-against-nature stories are fairly common. Women-against-nature…well, that’s a rarer breed.

In “Wild” a perfectly unglamorous Reese Witherspoon plays real-life writer Cheryl Strayed, who some years ago hiked more than 1000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, which begins at the Mexican border and ends in Canada.

Strayed‘s story, as recorded in her 2012 memoir Wild, was both an escape from a tormented past (a failed marriage and drug addiction, for starters) and a long trek toward self discovery.

That journey, and the agonizing personal history that got it all started, have been effectively realized by Witherspoon (another Oscar nomination seems inevitable) and director Jean-Marc Vallee, who guided Matthew McConaughey to a best actor Oscar in “The Dallas Buyers’ Club.”

That earlier film was a middling movie elevated by a terrific lead performance. “Wild” raises the bar considerably — not only is Witherspoon superb (for much of the movie it’s just her and the scenery), but the storytelling technique proffered by Valee and screenwriter Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy,” “An Education”) almost perfectly captures the key elements of Strayed‘s tale through visual and aural poetry rather than conventional narration.

The film begins with Strayed, a tenderfoot in both the literal and figurative sense, setting out on the trail maintained by the National Park Service.

She has crammed her backpack with so much equipment that she moves like Atlas straining to lift the entire Earth.  The damn thing is so heavy it constantly threatens to flip her onto her back and leave her clawing the air like a helpless turtle.

Her new hiking boots are too tight, resulting in blood and blisters. Initially she’s lucky to cover five miles a day. She has never pitched a tent before, or tried to cook on a propane camp stove. She’s not sure how to deal with the rattlesnake in her path or the coyotes that howl all night.

But she’ll learn, just as she’ll learn to deal with heat and snow and physical exhaustion.

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Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking

“THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING” My rating: B

123 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Even if you’re familiar with the life and work of Stephen Hawking, there’s something humbling about seeing it depicted in a film.

One of the world’s greatest minds trapped in a body that refuses to cooperate.  A woman who cares for his every physical and emotional need and bears his children…at least until she cannot any more.

Time. Space. Infinity.

The first thing that should be said about “The Theory of Everything” is that it isn’t actually about Hawking’s cosmological theories of black holes and other scientific conundrums — though they are of  course mentioned in passing.  It is based on Jane Hawking’s memoir (most recently updated in 2013) and is more a relationship film than anything else.

Fine. We’d rather watch a people story than an illustrated physics lecture. And “Theory” provides the platform for two terrific performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who must be considered on the short list for this year’s Oscar nominations.

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Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

“WHIPLASH”  My rating: B+

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) conducts the elite studio jazz band at New York City’s most prestigious conservatory of music.  He’s a musician and educator, though you might be forgiven for mistaking him for a Marine drill instructor…or perhaps a serial killer.

Fletcher enters the rehearsal room with the swagger of a gunslinger flinging open swinging saloon doors. His students don’t make eye contact.  They gaze at the floor or at their charts.  Nobody wants to draw the alpha wolf’s reptilian stare.

But that won’t save them. Fletcher is routinely profane, insulting, and capable of reducing a young musician to sobs. He seems to take great pleasure in finding a victim at every rehearsal.

“Either  you’re out of tune and deliberately sabotaging my band, or you don’t know you’re out of tune — and that’s worse.”

He’s smug, cruel and probably sexist, given his treatment of a woman player in a freshman ensemble: “You’re in first chair. Let’s see if it’s just because you’re cute.”

He punishes those who disappoint him not with pushups but with rehearsals that go on into the wee hours: “We will stay here as long as it takes for one of you faggots to play in time.”

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Michael Keaton and Edward Norton...exploring artistic differences

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton…exploring artistic differences

 

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

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

Turns out his sanity is on the line as well.

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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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