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Emma Thompson, Dakota Fanning

Emma Thompson, Dakota Fanning

“EFFIE GRAY” My rating: C+ (Opens April 3 at the Tivoli)

108 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The Effie Gray scandal rocked Victorian society.

Today it might generate a minor shrug and possibly a pop song. (I’m thinking Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold.”) Ah, well, times change.

The subject of Richard Laxton’s film is the unhappy marriage of Scottish lass Effie Gray to the brilliant British art critic John Ruskin, a man twice her age.

Produced and scripted by Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for her screenplay for Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility”), it stars Dakota Fanning as Effie and Greg Wise as Ruskin, who often vacationed near her home while she was growing up and, apparently, convinced himself that he was in love with the girl.

Alas, Ruskin proves to be an intellectual giant and an emotional infant.  No sooner has he planted his new bride in his parents’ home than he begins ignoring her in favor of his writing.

His doting, success-driven Mama and Papa (Julie Walters, David Suchet)  micromanage John’s life to minimize interruptions to his literary pursuits. The result is an antisocial man incapable of appreciating that his young wife is bored silly and can find no purpose to her life.

Most distressing of all, John refuses to touch Effie. On their honeymoon she presents her naked body to him, but he’s so grossed out he flees the room.

And to make matters worse, it seems likely that the medicine Mama Ruskin keeps pouring down her daughter-in-law’s pretty throat may be poisoning the girl.

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xmxmxmxmx

Oh, Pig the cat, and Trig in their flying car

“HOME”  My rating: B- (Opens wide on March 27)

94 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Now and then voice talent can provide the make-or-break factor in an animated feature.

It’s hard to imagine “Aladdin” or “Finding Nemo” without the vocal contributions of Robin Williams and Ellen DeGeneres. Jim Parsons provides a similar service in “Home.”

Parsons, a multiple Emmy winner for playing a scientific genius/social idiot on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” provides the voice of Oh, an alien creature who has come to Earth along with about a million of his fellow Boovs.

The Boovs are a species of six-legged creatures with trashcan bodies, frog-like faces, prehensile ears and a chameleonic ability to change their skin coloring to fit their emotions (red for angry, blue for sad, yellow for fear…).

Though they overnight seize our world — banishing the human population to camps in the Australian Outback that are part suburban subdivision, part carnival midway — the Boovs aren’t particularly scary. They don’t kill or physically harm the dispossessed humans. They’re like a herd of shy pre-schoolers.

Except for Oh, who in comparison to his brethren is a radical rugged individualist.  Aggressively garrulous and outgoing, he irritates his reticent comrades, who dread his friendly incursions into their personal space.  He’s a well-meaning boor upsetting an otherwise sedate environment.

FOR THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article16302596.html

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Charlotte Gainsbour, Mastroiani

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroiani…sisters in love with the same man.

“3 HEARTS” My rating: C+ (Opens March 27 at the Glenwood Arts)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The human heart is a tremendously fickle organ, at least in Benoit Jacquot’s “3 Hearts,” a heavy-sighing melodrama about a soulful taxman torn between two sisters.

Marc (Benoit Poelvoorde) has missed the last train to Paris.  He asks a woman he encounters on the street — she is played by the ever-blue Charlotte Gainsbourg — to suggest a decent hotel in this provincial burg.

But the two spend the entire night walking and talking, and by sunrise they have agreed to meet at a prearranged time in a Paris park.

The screenplay by Jacquot and Julien Boivent doesn’t make it easy for them.  For starters, the two potential lovers fail to exchange their names and phone numbers. It’s an early sign that this movie may not be unfolding in the same world the rest of us live in.

And when they fail to rendezvous (he’s delayed by a tax audit with a couple of Chinese businessmen who speak no French) the woman — her name is Sylvie — takes the train back home.  Her marriage is shaky, but she nevertheless follows her husband to a new job in the U.S.A.

A few weeks later Marc is back in town on business and is approached at the tax office by Sylvie’s sister Sophie (the eternally sad-eyed Chiara Mastroianni).  She needs advice regarding her family’s antique store.

Wouldn’t you know it? She falls for Marc.  Before long she has left her husband, married Marc, and started a family.

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as the "holy family"

Tool Kiki, Ibrahim Ahmed and Layla Walet Mohamed as “Timbuktu’s”  “holy family”

“TIMBUKTU”  My rating: B+ 

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Superficially “Timbuktu” resembles one of those old WWII dramas about the Nazi occupation of a peaceful village.

The difference is that the occupiers in “Timbuktu” are the gunmen of ISIS, and that writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako eschews propaganda for an insightful and thoroughly humane study of both the oppressors and the oppressed.

“Timbuktu”  is a Mauritanian film that  was a nominee this year for best foreign language Oscar (and which cleaned up at this year’s Cesar Awards). It is set in a desert region of Mali,  which shares a border with Mauritania in northwest Africa.

It opens with gorgeous footage of a gazelle bounding across an arid landscape. The animal is being chased by a truck flying the black flag of ISIS while passengers fire their guns — a stark example of natural simplicity compromised by human cruelty.

(right) as the ISIS leader

Abel Jafri (right) as the ISIS leader

This is followed by a scene of beautiful wooden tribal effigy figures being used for target practice.

ISIS fighters go through a village (the buff-colored buildings are reminiscent of the pueblo architecture of the American Southwest), using a bullhorn to announce the rules of the occupation: Music is forbidden. Smoking is forbidden. All women must cover their heads and wear socks and gloves.

Sissako and co-writer Kessen Tall don’t provide one through story. Rather, they give us moments from daily life as experienced by numerous characters.

One story line centers on the nomadic herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), who lives in a tent with his beautiful wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Despite a few modern conveniences like cell phones, Kidane’s family are at peace with their environment, basking in life’s simple pleasures. (They remind of Bergman’s “holy family” of actors in “The Seventh Seal.”)

But their little Eden won’t last.  The local ISIS leader, Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), covets Satima. And Kidane’s dispute with a neighbor will have tragic repercussions.

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Ronit Elkabetz and Menashe Noy

Ronit Elkabetz and Menashe Noy

“GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM” My rating: B+ 

115 minutes | No MPAA rating

One could hardly find a better way to observe Women’s History Month than with “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” a journey down the rabbit hole of Israeli divorce court that gives patriarchal attitudes a swift kick in the tush.

Civil marriage and  divorce don’t exist in Israel. Both are under the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts which will acknowledge a divorce only after a husband officially grants one.  In certain circumstances — if he’s committed adultery or physically abused his wife — a man may be compelled by the court to divorce.  Mostly though, the rabbis advise patience and try to get warring couples back together.

It’s a system stacked against women.

In “Gett” (the Hebrew word for divorce), middle-aged Viviane (Ronit Elkabetz) has already lived three years apart from her husband of 30 years, Elisha (Simon Abkarian). Now she is seeking a divorce.

But the passive-aggressive Elisha isn’t cooperating.  He won’t even show up for a hearing.  Eventually he’s jailed for contempt to force him to appear. Even then he’s totally uncooperative.

Viviane has always been unhappy in a loveless marriage. But technically she hasn’t got much of a case. Simply being miserably married doesn’t qualify.

In the meantime she’s steered clear of other men and continued with certain of her wifely duties, cooking meals that are delivered to Elisha and their youngest child (two older offspring already have moved on).

Still, Elisha stubbornly insists he wants her back. It’s less about love than about control, and to punish Viviane for her temerity in not recognizing his superiority.

Like the hapless defendant in Kafka’s “The Trial,” Viviane’s ordeal will go on for years and years through one absurd situation after another.

Elkabetz, a quietly luminous actress, wrote and directed the film with her brother Shlomi Elkmbetz, and they have employed a rigid visual and presentational format that is hugely effective.

The entire film takes place either in the courtroom or a nearby waiting room — vague, featureless  environments with white, undecorated walls and bland industrial furniture.  Most of the characters dress only in black and white. The entire movie is monochromatic, with  color provided mostly by human flesh. When late in the film a defiant Viviane shows up in a fiery red dress, it’s like a slap at the bearded jaws of her judges.

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gunman-starring-sean-penn-released“THE GUNMAN” My rating: C

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In “The Gunman” (a prime contender for the year’s least creative movie title) Sean Penn spends a good deal of time shirtless, displaying bulging biceps and ripped abs that would be impressive on a college student, much less a guy who soon will qualify for a senior discount.

Penn’s walking testimonial to the personal training industry is about the only noteworthy thing in this empty shoot-’em-up. It’s all too clearly an attempt by the two-time Oscar winner to tap into the graybeard action-hero market so effectively explored by Liam Neeson in the “Taken” series.

Heck, “The Gunman” has even been helmed by “Taken” director Pierre Morel.

But lightning does not strike twice.  It barely flickers.

Penn plays Jim Terrier, a professional killer.  As the film begins he and his team are living in the civil war-ravaged Congo, posing as security contractors for a big firm building a jungle airstrip.

But when the minister of resources threatens to nationalize the country’s mines, shadowy corporate interests order the man’s assassination. Designated the triggerman, Jim kills with a perfect sniper shot, then is whisked out of the country.

FOR TH REST OF THIS REVIEW, VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article15274910.html

| Robert W. Butler

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spring-fb-11“SPRING” My rating: B (Opens March 20 at the Alamo Drafthouse)

109 minutes | Np MPAA rating

For about 15 minutes “Spring” looks like it’s going to be a searing psychological study of a young man who has just lost his mother to a terrible disease.

Then it becomes the story of that same young man on the run from the law and his adventures in Italy, where he lives the life of a backpacking tourist.

He meets a girl, and then it becomes a love story.

And then, 30 minutes in, like a sucker punch out of nowhere, “Spring” turns into one of the weirdest (and weirdly affecting) horror stories encountered in many a full moon.

Gotta give credit to the writing/directing team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead — they may occasionally fumble one of the many balls they’re trying to keep up in the air, but their ambition seems to have no limits. Here they move from the utterly realistic to the spectacularly fantastic in a heartbeat.

And if the supernatural elements they have concocted seem far fetched, those lapses are balanced against two terrific performances and a tonal palette that is erotic, mysterious and genuinely moving.

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