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George Clooney

George Clooney

“HAIL, CAESAR!” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Feb. 5)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” isn’t much of a movie, but as an affectionate (mostly) valentine to the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking, it’s a generally enjoyable goof.

The threadbare plot devised by Joel and Ethan Coen provides the siblings with multiple opportunities to go behind the scenes at the massive (and fictional) Capitol Movies studio in Los Angeles in the late 1940s.

We get to watch as America’s fantasies are brought to life. But as with sausages and laws, sometimes it’s best not to know how they’re made.

Kicking the yarn into motion is the kidnapping of stiffly handsome matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), whose current assignment is to play a Roman centurion in the biblical epic “Hail, Caesar!”

Scarlett Johannson

Scarlett Johannson

The studio’s production chief, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) gets to work recovering his ransomed movie star.

That’s about it for story.

The pleasures of “Hail, Caesar!” (the Cohen Brothers movie, not the “tale of the Christ” being filmed on the Capitol lot) are to be found in its satire/celebration of iconic Hollywood personalities and situations.

Early on Eddie must convene a meeting of faith leaders who have been asked to comment on the screenplay for “Hail, Caesar!” — it’s the movie’s funniest scene and a wickedly barbed sendup of institutionalized religion.

Channing Tatum

Channing Tatum

Eddie must contend with the potty-mouthed Esther Williams-type star of aquatic musicals (Scarlett Johansson) whose mermaid outfit now won’t fit because of pregnancy (she’s unmarried).

He drops off the ransom money on a soundstage where a Gene Kelly-ish song and dance man (Channing Tatum) is shooting a big production number about a crew of sailors dismayed at the prospect of eight months at sea without women.  Not only are Tatum’s acrobatic musical comedy skills first rate, but the slyly homoerotic elements of the dance routine suggests that these Navy swabs will find ways to let off steam during their voyage.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article58205943.html

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Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay

Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay

“45 YEARS” My rating: B+ (Opening Feb. 5 at the Tivoli and Glenwood Arts)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Everyone has a few secrets. Usually it’s a case of no harm, no foul.

But for the couple at the center of Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years,” long-kept secrets threaten a decades-old marriage.

Kate (Oscar nominated Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are retirees living in a bucolic and green corner of England. They’ve never had children, doting instead on a series of dogs. They are comfortable and reasonably happy.

One day the postman brings a letter that upends their placid existence. Geoff learns that melting glaciers have revealed the body of his long-ago girlfriend, who was hiking Europe with him when she fell to her death in an alpine crevasse. Now, more than 50 years later, the authorities want him to come settle matters.

Kate knew of this shadowy woman only vaguely. Geoff has never talked much about her. But now she learns that way back then Geoff identified himself to the authorities as the dead woman’s husband. Actually they never married, but as far as the Swiss police are concerned, he’s still next of kin.

This revelation gnaws at Kate as she goes about arranging a party to celebrate her and Geoff’s 45th wedding anniversary (Geoff was ill for their 40th, so this is to make up for lost time).

But even as she must deal with renting  a banquet hall, selecting music for the dance, and creating a menu, she’s gnawed by doubts.

Just how well does she know this man who has shared her life?

(more…)

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anomalisa“ANOMALISA” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Jan. 22)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Plenty of movies pack an emotional wallop. Lots of movies deftly employ bleak humor. And cinematic eroticism is nearly as old as film itself.

But to find all of those things going on in an animated release…well, that’s a whole new thing.

Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa,” one of this year’s Oscar nominees for best animated feature,  is a psychological study executed with humanoid puppets that have been animated one frame at a time to give the illusion of life.

But it’s not played for laughs; rather it’s the cry of a man coming apart at the seams. Or of a world sinking into a desultory sameness.

The first thing we hear is the growing babble of dozens of voices. They’re talking about mundane stuff and quickly accelerate into a wall of incomprehensible noise.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a middle-aged passenger on a Cincinnati-bound airplane. A motivation speaker and author, he’s the keynote guy for a convention of customer service employees from throughout Ohio.

As he deplanes and makes his way to his cold, impersonal hotel we realize that everyone in Michael’s world — hotel employees, waitresses, actors on TV, the night clerk at a porno shop — speaks in the same voice (that of veteran character actor Tom Noonan). Or at least so it seems to Michael, who may be going mad.

(It takes a while to notice, but with the exception of Michael and Lisa, all the characters — of whatever sex — have the same face. The hair and clothing is different, but the features are the same.)

Once in the hotel Michael calls his former girlfriend Bella, who agrees to meet him for a drink and ends up screaming at him (again, in the voice of Tom Noonan) for his betrayal a decade earlier.

Just when it seems that things couldn’t get any weirder, Michael hears a distinctive female voice.  It belongs to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is attending the convention with her friend and co-worker Emily.

Lisa is nervously chatty (always saying to herself “Shut up, Lisa”), physically shy, and frets about the facial scar she tries to cover with her hair. She’s childlike and given to big enthusiasms and sorrowful self-recrimination.

She’s just an average person — except, of course, to Michael, to whom her distinctive voice and appearance make her a blessed anomaly.  That’s why he begins calling her Anomalisa. That’s why he declares his love and his belief that they must never part.

Which leads to the saddest and most achingly erotic sex scene of any recent film. Featuring, of course, puppets. (more…)

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theeb“THEEB” My rating: B (Opens Jan. 29 at the Tivoli)

100 minutes |No MPAA rating 

On a purely visual level the Oscar-nominated “Theeb” (for foreign language film)  is a knockout, capturing a Middle Eastern desert landscape with an eye to vast spaces and intimate detail in a style clearly meant to evoke memories of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

The setting — the Bedouin fight against the Turks during World War I — is the same as in David Lean’s great epic.

But this accomplished  directing debut from English/Jordanian filmmaker  Naji Abu Nowar is unusual in that it approaches the material from the viewpoint of an 11-year-old boy.

“Theeb” (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) — his name is Arabic for “wolf” — is the third son a recently deceased sheik. His closest companion is his older brother Hasseim (Hussein Salaamed Al-Sweilhiyeen), who is teaching the boy in the ways of the desert.

The film’s opening scenes have a timeless quality — it’s hard to pin down if the action is taking place today or a century ago.  It’s not until the arrival of a British officer (Jack Fox) in the nomads’ camp that we realize there’s a war going on. (In fact, Theeb and his family seem not to even be aware of the conflict.)

The Brit, evidently on a secret mission,  asks Hasseim to guide him to a distant watering hole where he is to meet up with some Arab fighters. Disobeying his sibling, Theeb follows at a distance until he’s so far from home that Hasseim has no choice but to bring the boy along on the journey.

The desert is always dangerous. In this case the perils are multiplied by bandits who prey on travelers.

(more…)

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Sam Waterston, Kristin Stewart

Sam Waterston, Kristin Stewart

“ANESTHESIA” My rating: B- (Opens Feb. 5 at the Screenland Crossroads)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Like the Oscar-winning “Crash,” Tim Blake Nelson’s “Anesthesia” delivers a handful of well-known performers in a series of interlocking stories built around a theme.

That theme, as close as I can tell, is about the anesthetizing elements of modern urban life, which tends to isolate us and numb us to our feelings and those of our fellow man.

The film begins with a brutal mugging. In the lobby of a Manhattan apartment building a white-haired man (Sam Waterston) is stabbed, robbed and left for dead. From that traumatic introduction the film then flashes back in time to reveal the victim’s recent past as well as the lives of others involved in the incident.

Waterston plays Walter, an NYU philosophy professor who, only as he nears retirement, realizes how little he actually knows. “I used to believe in nothing,” Walter says. “Now I believe in everything.”

One of the things he believes in is offering a helping hand to students like Sophie (Kristen Stewart), a bright young woman who nevertheless is addicted to burning her own flesh with a hot curling iron.  Only then does she really feel anything.

(more…)

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Garret Hedlund, Oscar Isaac

Garrett Hedlund, Oscar Isaac

“MOJAVE” My rating: C

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Oscar Isaac is a pretty great actor, but not even he can find a way to make sense of “Mojave,” a mashup of behind-the-scenes Hollywood existentialism and stalker thriller.

The film was written and directed by William Monahan, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Scorsese’s “The Departed.” Alas, “Mojave” has more in common with the Monahan-penned “The Gambler” from 2014.

There’s hardly a moment here that rings true…but then maybe that’s all part of Monahan’s view of the emptiness of life in Tinseltown’s fast lane. Or maybe not. It’s hard to care, really.

Garrett Hedlund is Thomas, a filmmaker of some renown. His success has bought him a spread in the Hollywood hills (which he is allowing to go to seed) and access to women and drugs. Has this made him happy?

Hah!

(more…)

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John Krasinski

John Krasinski

“13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI” My rating: B 

144 minutes  | MPAA rating; R

“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” is an effective combat docudrama in the vein of “Blackhawk Down” and “Lone Survivor.”

But what really makes it noteworthy is the man behind it: director Michael Bay, simultaneously one of our most successful (in box office terms, anyway) and most despised filmmakers.

Here he re-creates Sept. 11, 2012 — when Islamic fighters stormed a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.

Bay’s reputation rests on big, noisy, empty entertainments like the “Transformers” movies, which have been calibrated to a preschooler’s attention span. The prevailing attitude among cineastes is that while one cannot prove that Bay has no soul, there’s been no evidence of one in any of his films.

“13 Hours” is a major departure for Bay, a minute-by-minute dramatization of a recent (and hugely controversial) historic event presented with a minimum of Hollywood hokum and a real feel for the professional warriors who are its heroes.

The film takes no stand on American foreign policy in the Mideast and ignores the subsequent political fallout over how the State Department under Hillary Clinton handled the crisis.

Instead it concentrates on the actions of a handful of former Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and U.S. Marines employed as CIA security contractors who risked their lives to save their fellow Americans.

The central figure is Jack Silva (John Krasinski), who, faced with limited job opportunities at home, once again finds himself a security grunt for Uncle Sam. Leaving behind his wife and daughters, he’s the latest addition to a “secret” CIA operation in Benghazi, and through his eyes we get oriented to a confusing and dangerous situation.

As security chief Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale) explains, the two dozen or so American analysts living in a walled intelligence compound don’t officially exist — although the Libyans would have to be idiots not to realize what’s going on. (more…)

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