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Patrick Wilson, ****

Patrick Wilson, Dianna Agron

“ZIPPER” My rating: B- (Opening Sept. 4 at the Cinetopia)

103 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Zipper” is an astonishingly dour thriller with a torn-from-the-headlines premise.

Patrick Wilson stars as Sam Ellis, a federal prosecutor with a squeaky-clean reputation who is contemplating a career in politics.

He’s a white knight in the courtroom and has what appears to be an ideal family life with his charity maven wife Jeannie (Lena Headey) and their young son.

When a comely office intern (Dianna Agron) makes a pass at him, Sam throws on the brakes after one kiss. Arriving home late at night, though, he cruises porn sites. When a case brings to his attention a high-end escort service,  he begins doing “research.”

Next thing you know he’s paying big bucks for a few hours with these smart, beautiful, sexually talented young women.

Sam apparently can’t control himself. Part of him hates what he’s doing; another part is coming up with all sorts of devious ploys to allow him to keep on doing it.

There comes a moment, of course, when the noose of revelation tightens around Sam’s neck (thanks to a sleazy journalist played by Ray Winstone). Are his marriage and career on the chopping block?

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phoenix-thumb-630xauto-53973“PHOENIX”  My rating: B (Opening Sept. 4 at the Tivoli)

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Phoenix” relies on outrageous coincidence to a degree that would prove fatal to a lesser film.

But Christian Petzold’s claustrophobic German drama somehow absorbs and defuses our objections,  thanks to some fine acting and an atmosphere of post-war loss and desperation that sinks into the bones.

When we first see Nelly (Nina Hoss), she’s fresh from a recently liberated Nazi concentration camp. Her head is wrapped in bloody bandages, the result of a German bullet that tore up her features.  Now she’s facing months of plastic surgery to restore her face to something resembling its original form.

Nelly is obsessed with finding Johnny, her husband, with whom she had a vocalist/pianist act.  Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), the Jewish relief worker who is handling Nelly’s case, says that most likely it was Johnnie who turned his Jewish wife in to the Gestapo to save his own skin.

But Nelly won’t be swayed. Once the bandages come off  she walks the streets of Berlin at night. One evening, in a nightclub called Phoenix, she sees Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). He’s not playing the piano. He’s bussing tables and mopping floors.

But he notices this quiet woman who bears a vague resemblance to his former wife and he proposes that they team up to work a scam on the authorities.

As the last surviving member of her large family Nelly has a small fortune waiting for her in Switzerland.  Johnny has been rebuffed in his efforts to claim the money as Nellie’s widower.

Now he proposes that this woman pose as his wife. After all, she looks a bit like Nelly. He’ll teach her all she needs to know about Nelly, even provide her with items of Nelly’s clothing.  Together they will stage a heartbreaking reunion and later split all that money.

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Barry Ward as Jimmy Gralton

Barry Ward as Jimmy Gralton

“JIMMY’S HALL” My rating: A- (Opening Sept. 4 at the Glenwood Arts)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Brit filmmaker Ken Loach always has lept in where Hollywood fears to tread. For a quarter century he has been making overtly political films reflecting his leftist/humanist point of view. He’s never been a major box office force, but he’s always been a true artist.

“Jimmy’s Hall” is in many ways the perfect Loach film, a fact-based story depicting the external struggle of left-vs.-right without stooping to caricature or shrillness and overflowing with Irish song, dance and language.

Paul Laverty’s screenplay (based on Donal O’Kelly’s play) begins with the return to Ireland in 1932 of Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), who has spent the last decade in exile in New York City. As we see in flashbacks, at the time of “the troubles” Jimmy ran afoul of the authorities for operating a “hall” on his rural property, a place where local folk could go to take classes in art and music, discuss literature and politics, and hold community dances.

Doesn’t sound particularly insidious, but Jimmy’s sin was to run his hall free of the control of the Church,  for centuries (and for another 80 years) the dominant force in Irish life.

Once back in the neighborhood Jimmy is reunited with his mother (Aileen Henry) and with Oonagh (Simone Kirby), the girl he left behind who has since married and started a family. But it isn’t long before the rural folk are urging Jimmy to spruce up the dust-covered hall and start once again providing a place for common folk to gather  to expand their minds  and open their hearts.

Turns out that life in the new republic hasn’t improved appreciably for these hard-working but underemployed Irishmen. The owners of the big estates can still evict poor tenants for the slightest infraction or uppity behavior, and the Catholic Church — as embodied by Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) — once again is prepared to take on any challenge to its authority.

The film’s villains: masters and pastors.

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Jason Schwartsman, Olympia Dukakis

Jason Schwartsman, Olympia Dukakis

“7 Chinese Brothers” My rating: C+ (Opens Sept. 4 at the Alamo Drafthouse)

76 minutes | No MPAA rating

When we first meet Larry, the main character (one is loathe to call him a protagonist) of “7 Chinese Brothers,” he’s being fired from his bottom-scraping job in the kitchen of a trendy Austin restaurant for stealing from the tip jar and siphoning off liquor from the bar.

Caught red handed, his response is basically a shrug and a wise-guy remark.  Out in the parking lot he keys the car of his chief accuser.

Larry is, not to put too fine a point on it, a slacker asshole. A jerk. he should be intolerable.

Except that Larry is portrayed by Jason Schwartzman, one of those actors who manages to bring to every role a modicum of empathy and insight.

In Bob Byington’s shambling comedy Schwartzman walks a fine line between creepy and compelling.

This is one of those movies that goes nowhere fast. There’s not a whole lot of plot.

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steve-jobs-man-in-the-machine“STEVE JOBS: THE MAN IN THE MACHINE”   My rating: B (Opens Sept. 4 at the Tivoli)

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The first hour of “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” is pretty much what you’d expect. It’s mostly a history of the late Steve Jobs and Apple, the brand with which his name will always be synonymous.

The second hour?  Well, that’s where things get ugly. Because here filmmaker Alex Gibney (the Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side” and HBO’s Scientology expose “Going Clear”) delves into the less-inspiring aspects of Jobs’ character, as well as Apple’s corporate malfeasance.

Gibney, who narrates, says that like millions of others he’s in love with Apple products. But he wonders how the brand’s fans can embrace the tech while overlooking the ugly underbelly of Apple’s rise to corporate dominance.

In the first hour we see Jobs’ first TV interview (he’s like a kid in a candy store, awed by the technology around him), his early partnership with fellow tech wonk Steve Wozniak (whom he blithely screwed out of millions of dollars), and the introduction of early Mac desktops (Jobs created the phrase “personal computer”).

Jobs believed — and made the rest of us believe — that he was a paradigm shifter, a rebel, and also a business giant/genius.  He had one speed — full on — but sought relief in the study of Zen Buddhism.

But even in this retelling of Jobs’ heady early years, there are dark rumblings.  Like his refusal to recognize his illegitimate daughter until DNA proved his paternity. The fact that working for Apple was debilitating despite all the countercultural trappings (Jobs could be incredibly callous and cruel toward underlings).

Gibney speculates that having largely failed with human connections, Jobs compensated by creating technology that connected the entire world. At the same time, the film asserts, people aren’t so much connected to Jobs or other people as to his creations.

“My hand is constantly drawn to it,” Gibney says of his new iPhone, “like Frodo’s hand to the ring.”

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Thomas Ian Nichols (right) as young Walt Disney

Thomas Ian Nichols (right) as young Walt Disney

“WALT BEFORE MICKEY”  My rating: C- (Now at the B&B Shawnee 18)

120 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Factually dense and dramatically anemic, “Walt Before Mickey” is an ultra-low-budget look at the life of the great Walt Disney in the years before his big breakthrough with Mickey Mouse.

Written by Arthur L. Bernstein and Armando Gutierrez (adapting Timothy Susanin‘s non-fiction book) and directed by first-time feature helmer Khoa Le, the film opens  with the Disney family leaving their farm in Marceline MO to move to Kansas City.

The bulk of the film covers 1918 to 1928, when Mickey made his first appearance on the big screen and made Disney a household word. Those years saw Walt found his Laugh-O-gram animation studio in KC, where he recruited young artists who would become the backbone of the future Hollywood animation industry.

It was in this Midwestern city where Disney — not yet old enough to vote — struggled for financial success and recognition and, failing to achieve either, moved on to Los Angeles. But not before sharing a period of impoverishment with a pet mouse Walt adopted in his studio…a mouse who a few years down the road would inspire big things.

In L.A. there were more humiliating failures before the creation of Walt’s famous cartoon rodent would turn everything around.

“Walt Before Mickey” gets high marks for intentions. The filmmakers obviously see in Disney’s story a lesson for all entrepreneurs — that success is rarely comes overnight and is often preceded by debilitating setbacks.

And, given the usual license at work in film biographies, the movie is astonishingly accurate in its narrative. (I can say that, having co-written a book about Disney’s early years.)

Oh, there are some lapses and incongruities. Walt’s father Elias, a skinny wraith of a man, is portrayed by a beefy actor. Here Walt’s first studio is in the loft of a rural barn (in fact, he and partner Ub Iwerks set up shop in a bathroom in a downtown office building). And screenwriters Bernstein and Gutierrez seem to be unaware that Walt’s Kansas City was in Missouri, not Kansas.

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Bel Powley as Minnie

Bel Powley as Minnie

“DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL” My rating: B 

102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“I had sex today,” 15-year-old Minnie tells us in the first scene of “Diary of a Teenage Girl.”

“I think this makes me officially an adult. I guess.”

Striding down a street in 1970s San Francisco, Minnie is quietly proud of  her recent transition to womanhood. She doesn’t even seem particularly concerned that the man who took her virginity is Monroe, the 35-year-old boyfriend of her bohemian mom.

In fact, Minnie targeted and seduced him. Monroe isn’t really a bad guy, but he’s kinda thick. He didn’t put up much of a fight.

“Diary…” features a home run performance from newcomer Bel Powley as Minnie while offering a non-hysterical depiction of sex between a grown man and a young girl. This is not an after school special warning of the dangers of pedophilia, and writer/director Marielle Heller (adapting Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel) doesn’t condemn her heroine to a life of misery for her youthful indiscretions.

By film’s end, in fact, we’re pretty sure that Minnie is going to not only survive, but thrive.

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