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under-the-skin-scarjo-3“UNDER THE SKIN” My rating: B (Opens April 18 at the Cinemark Palace, AMC Town Center 20, and Leawood)

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” moves like molasses and is astonishingly stingy when it comes to explaining itself…yet there’s something compelling about this challenging, maddening experience you can’t quite shake.

One big thing it has going for it is Scarlett Johansson, weirdly fascinating as a young woman who drives around Glasgow, Scotland, trying to initiate conversations with young men. It’s not that the actress has to show a lot of range here…but she is Lady Scarlett, one of the most watchable movie stars we’ve got.

Johansson’s character hasn’t a name. She seems utterly without emotion…although when confronted with a specimen of thick Scottish manhood she seems to know just what buttons to push — quiet and circumspect with some fellas, more aggressive with others.

When one of these young oafs gets into her vehicle with a bit of action on his mind, she drives him to an abandoned building where both disrobe and she leads him into a pool of black, viscous stuff that sucks him up.

Clearly, our girl is not of this world. Is she killing these lunks?  Storing them for a food supply?

Expect no answers.

She drives around in a white panel van (apparently the vehicle of choice of serial killers throughout the galaxy) and frequently interacts with a silent man in cycle leathers who rides a bike and abets our heroine, though what exactly he’s doing is never explained.

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Jude Law as Dom Hemingway

Jude Law as Dom Hemingway

“DOM HEMINGWAY” My rating: B- (Opening April 18 at the Glenwood Arts, AMC Studio 30, and Cinemark Palace)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Every now and then an actor needs to get outside his comfort zone.

In “Dom Hemingway,”  Jude Law leaves his usual suave screen persona wimpering in the dust.

That it’s going to be a bumpy ride is evident from the first shot of the film, a long take of Dom’s face and naked shoulders as he screams about the power of his penis.

It’s a mighty organ, to hear Dom tell it, capable of upending empires and slaying women who merely get a glimpse of it, and his spittle-spewing rant goes on for two, three, maybe even four minutes of uninterrupted profane poetry.

Oh, did I mention that Dom’s in prison and being pleasured by a young inmate while he lets rip with his phallic analysis?

Dom has spent the last 12 years in a British prison for refusing to give up the crime boss for whom he worked.  Now he’s getting out, and he fully expects to be repaid for his time behind bars.

He’s met at the prison gates by his old pal Dickie (Richard Grant, marvelously greasy), who over the years has lost one hand on a job and now wears an inflexible prosthetic in a black leather glove.

Dom has two things immediately on his mind.  First, sex.  Dickie has provided a couple of eager birds for just that purpose.  Second, he beats the living crap out of the nondescript guy who married Dom’s ex-wife (she has since died of cancer) and raised Dom’s daughter (Evelyn).

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Bette Davis, George Brent, Miriam Hopkins

Bette Davis, George Brent, Miriam Hopkins

“The Old Maid” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 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.

 

The acting duel you see on screen in The Old Maid isn’t all acting.  It reflects the genuine animosity between its two stars, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins.

The 1939 film version of The Old Maid had quite a pedigree. It began as a novella by the great writer Edith Wharton, and became a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by Zoe Akins.

The story is pure, unadulterated melodrama.

In the 1860s New York, debutante Delia Lovell (Hopkins) learns on her wedding day that the man to whom she promised herself years before has finally returned, having been out of contact for several years while he made his fortune.  Determined to forge ahead with her marriage into a high society banking family, Delia sends her cousin Charlotte Lovell (Davis) to deal with this old beau, Clem (George Brent).

Charlotte comforts Clem. Apparently she really comforts him, because after a long visit to the country for her “health,” she returns to NYC with a baby girl.  Little Clementine, Charlotte explains, is an orphan she picked up on her trip. In fact, Charlotte begins operating an orphanage for children left parentless by the Civil War.

Clem, little Clementine’s papa, died fighting for the Union.  Anyway, Clementine’s heritage is Charlotte’s most closely guarded secret. The only other person who knows the truth is Delia, now a rich widow.  Delia has Charlotte and Clementine come live with her, and Clementine grows up thinking that Delia is her adopted mother and that Charlotte, a bitter old maid, is her aunt.

Motherhood! Jealousy! Rejection!

Bring on the violins! (No, seriously…Max Steiner’s musical score keeps the string section madly sawing away. You never have to guess what you’re supposed to be feeling in any scene because the overwrought music does that job for you.)

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Bette Davis, George Brent

Bette Davis, George Brent

“Dark Victory” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 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.

“Dark Victory” is one of those old-fashioned weepies that sophisticated film goers hate to love.

But then, ever since its release in 1939 this Bette Davis classic has left audiences torn between helpless sobbing and a slow-burning resentment over the picture’s emotional manipulation.

Davis, who was nominated for a best actress Oscar (she lost to Vivien Leigh in “Gone With the Wind”), plays spoiled, vivacious heiress Judith Traherne, who is diagnosed with a brain tumor and falls in love with the surgeon who goes poking around in her noggin.

Problem is, after the surgery the M.D. realizes the tumor will come back with fatal results.  But he doesn’t tell his patient of the grim diagnosis (a choice that today would get his license yanked), allowing her to go along with her flighty life. Judith will feel perfectly fine until the day ten months hence when she goes suddenly blind and drops dead.

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220px-The_Unknown_Known_poster“THE UNKNOWN KNOWN” My rating: B (Opening April 11 at the Screenland Crown Center)

103 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Who the hell is Donald Rumsfeld, anyway?

I mean, I know he has been a career public servant since the Nixon administration, a bureaucrat with unmatchable survival instincts. I know he’s served as Secretary of Defense under two presidents, that he was one of the major creators of the War on Terror.

I remember being in awe of Rummy for his passive/aggressive handling of journalists during the Iraq war – he could engage in a seemingly affable conversation while giving the unmistakable impression that he considered all reporters to be idiots bent on wasting his time.

Was I amused at his disdain for a free press? Outraged? Both, actually.

But, inside, who is this guy?

I had hoped for answers from “The Unknown Known,” the latest documentary from Errol Morris. A few years back in “The Fog of War” Morris turned his camera on Vietnam war architect Robert McNamara, and the result was an Oscar-winning study of a once-powerful man haunted by his mistakes.

So perhaps Morris would work the same sort of magic on Donald Rumsfeld?

Dream on. For starters, the word “mistake” may not even exist in Rumsfeld’s vocabulary. His admitting to one would be a sure sign of the End of Days.

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Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell

Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell

“The Women” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 12, 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.

No good parts for women?

Not in 1939. That was the year director George Cukor gave us “The Women,” an alternately satiric and heartstring-tugging  comedy featuring an all-female cast. (No man is seen on screen…not even depicted in a photo hanging on the wall.)

Our heroine is well-to-do Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), who learns from a gossiping beautician that her husband has been gallivanting with a slutty perfume counter girl (Joan Crawford). As if that wasn’t upsetting enough, the catty rumor monger Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) is having a field day spreading the news of Mary’s dilemma through the Park Avenue grapevine.

That’s the basic setup, but the film has an endless supply of subplots and supporting characters. Among the actresses you’ll see here are Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Marjorie Main, Virginia Grey, Ruth Hussey and Hedda Hopper (who was an actress before becoming one of Hollywood’s most power gossip columnists).

The film was based on the hit Broadway play by Clare Booth Luce, who in addition to being an accomplished woman of letters was the wife of the powerful Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines. Later she would be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Connecticut and would become a U.S. ambassador.

Luce was a notorious wit whose axioms have entered our common language: “Widowhood is a fringe benefit of marriage.” “A hospital is not the place to be sick.” “No good deed goes unpunished.”

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cap 3“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” My rating: C+ (Opening wide)

136 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There are few moments early in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” that suggest what the film might have been.

Fans of the Marvel Universe will recall that at the end of 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the Cap (Chris Evans) was thawed out after a half-century of suspended animation and was recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his super-secret spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D.

Put yourself in the Captain’s shoes. You grew up in the 1930s a 98-pound weakling. You were transformed into a muscled hunk of extraordinary power by some government-brewed elixir. You fought the Nazis in World War II.

And now you’re in 2014. Overnight you went from a world where “high tech” meant an AM radio to one of cell phones and the worldwide web. Of course, you must contend with more than just technical advancements. You’re bombarded by modern morals and sensibilities that run counter to your squeaky-clean upbringing.

When you were frozen the word “teenager” didn’t exist. Now you’re in a civilization that caters to teens as the most desirable demographic (this movie being Exhibit A).

Credit Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay for this much at least: It tries to say something about the dislocation that good-guy Cap – aka Steve Rogers – feels, to explore the angst of a man from a genteel past trapped in a crass present.

That’s a movie I would have enjoyed.

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Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer in "Love Affair"

Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer in “Love Affair”

“Love Affair” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 5, 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.

Directors don’t often get do-overs.

Oh, Hollywood loves remakes. They come with a built-in audience…or so it’s thought.

But a director  making the same movie twice? Not so often.

Hitchcock made “The Man Who Knew Too Much” twice (in 1934 and in 1956). Beyond that I know of only one other such re-do.

In 1939 Leo McCarey directed “Love Affair” with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne. In 1957 he remade it as “An Affair to Remember” with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. (There was even a third version, 1994’s “Love Affair” with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.)

“The difference between ‘Love Affair’ and an ‘Affair to Remember’ is very simply the difference between Charles Boyer and Cary Grant,” McCarey recalled.  “Grant could never really mask his sense of humor – which is extraordinary – and that’s why the second version is funnier. But I still prefer the first.”

Both screenplays were written by McCarey and follow more or less the same plot.  A notorious playboy and a woman (she’s a nightclub singer) meet on a boat chugging from Europe to America. Both are engaged to other people, but they fall in love.

Arriving in New York, they make a pact. They’ll spend time apart and then, if they still feel that romantic tug, they will meet in exactly six months at the top of the Empire State Building (“The nearest thing to heaven that we have in New York”).

If one of them fails to show, they’ll know their affair wasn’t meant to be.

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Charlotte Gainsbourg in "Nymphomaniac"

Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Nymphomaniac”

“NYMPHOMANIAC” My rating: C(Now available on PPV)

241 minutes | No MPAA rating

You can’t ignore a film by Lars von Trier. No matter how much you might want to.

The guy’s a genius, but a twisted one. He’s a first-class visual artist and a narrative anarchist who presents himself  as a cinematic provocateur. (I sometimes view him as a child playing with his own feces.) The beauty often on display in his films must be balanced against the inescapable fact that he’s awesomely misanthropic.

In his last movie, the spectacularly good “Melancholia,” von Trier destroyed our planet and everyone on it…but he did it with such artistic high style that we are seduced nonetheless.

His latest, “Nymphomaniac” (how’s that for a punch-in-the-mouth title?), is a much rockier affair. It’s the story of one woman’s tormented sexual history, complete with nudity, erect penises, and even a few fleeting shots of real sex acts. It’s almost as if von Trier is daring us to keep watching the screen.

Yet the film isn’t the least bit erotic (just another sign of von Trier’s perversity). One leaves this four-hour experience with the feeling that sex is hell.

Of course, in von Trier’s world most everything is hell.

(“Nymphomania” currently is available on Time-Warner on-demand. It’s presented as two 2-hour films, each of which must be purchased separately. Vol. I costs about $7; Vol. II costs nearly $10. In some cities it’s being shown theatrically, but none of Kansas City’s art theaters have it listed as an upcoming attraction.)

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Ed Harris, Annette Bening

Ed Harris, Annette Bening

“THE FACE OF LOVE” My rating: B- (Opening March 28 at the Rio)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Great performances can trump great pretentiousness.

That’s the story on “The Face of Love,” an eye-rollingly improbable yarn that, thanks to some very fine acting and terrific dialogue, rises above its contrivances and gets under your skin.

In the opening moments of Arie Posin’s film we get scenes from the life of married couple Nikki (Annette Bening) and Garrett (Ed Harris). Theirs appears to be a perfect relationship…although we may be getting an overly rosy view.

Because before too long Garrett drowns while vacationing at a Mexican resort and Nikki is left to rebuild her life. Those flashbacks may represent her idealized view of her marriage.

Five years later Nikki is visiting an L.A. art musuem when she spots a man who looks exactly like Garrett (Harris again). At first she’s stunned, then curious.

She returns to the museum hoping to see him again, then begins stalking him. Discovering that the man — his name is Tom – teaches art at a local college, she approaches him about taking some private art lessons. One thing leads to another and soon they’re dating — although Nikki never lets Tom know that he’s her late husband’s doppelganger.

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