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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon...eating their way through Italy

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon…eating their way through Italy

“THE TRIP TO ITALY”  My rating: B (Opening on Aug. 29 at the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli)

108 minutes | No MPAA rating

Fans of the 2010 buddy  film “The Trip” will feel right at home with the sequel. There are no surprises here.

Once again we have Brit comic actors Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan portraying slightly fictionalized versions of themselves on a cross-country trek, this time through glorious Italy.

Once again they spend much of their time eating scrumptious food and engaging in chatter that looks suspiciously like the conversational version of hand-to-hand combat. When these two egomaniacs square off, it’s a virtual comedy competition.

Early on, Coogan warns Brydon that he will tolerate no celebrity imitations this time around. This pronouncement may momentarily dampen our enthusiasm (watching the two trying to upstage each other by mimicking Michael Caine was one of the first film’s great wonders), but it soon becomes apparent that Coogan’s dictate has no teeth.

Because for the next 90 minutes we see the two of them (mostly Brydon this time) comically conversing in the voices of Caine, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Christian Bale, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, Hugh Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Humphrey Bogart.

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Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza in "Life After Beth"

Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza in “Life After Beth”

“LIFE AFTER BETH”  My rating: C      (Opening Aug. 29 at the ***)

91 minutes | MPAA rating: R

How about a moratorium on zombie movies?  At least until someone comes up with a truly novel way of approaching what is quickly becoming a very worn-out genre?

In “Life After Beth,” small-town doofus Zach (Dane DeHaan) is mourning the death of his girlfriend Beth, who went out for hike one morning and was bitten by a poisonous snake.  As Jeff Baena’s film begins, Zach is dealing with her funeral.

Consumed by heartbreak, our hero starts hanging with Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon), sharing memories and bonding through mutual loss. His own family — Mom  (Cheryl Hines), Dad (Paul Reiser) and a trigger-happy security guard sibling (Matthew Gray Gubler) — would just as soon not have  his whiny self around.

One day Beth’s parents start acting strangely. They won’t come to the door. They close the shades.

A bit of sleuthing brings a shocking revelation. Beth (indie “it” girl Aubrey Plaza) has come back. She seems normal…albeit a bit distracted and flaky. But then she always was. How did this resurrection come to be?

Yup. Zombies.

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*** and ***

Margherita Buy and Stefano Accorsi

“A FIVE STAR LIFE” My rating: B (Opens Aug. 28 at the Leawood)

85 minutes | MPAA rating: No MPAA rating

Irene (Margherita Buy) has what many of us would consider a dream job.  She works for a Rome-based outfit that rates luxury hotels.

This means that on any given working day she boards a plane for some exotic destination and checks into a hotel where the rooms can cost thousands per night.

One installed, she pulls on white gloves and goes over the room looking for dust. She has a checklist in her head of important details: Does the desk clerk look her in the eye? Is the bellhop’s uniform properly pressed?

A stopwatch lets her precisely time how long it takes for room service to respond. And Irene also watches how other guests are treated…like the proletarian honeymooners who clearly have never before enjoyed such posh circumstances and who are mostly ignored by the snooty staff.

Irene eats in the hotels’ celebrated restaurants, enjoys the floor shows in their night spots, and subjects herself to spa treatments.

All this is done in secret.  Irene is a sort of spy, a “mystery guest” who ultimately will turn in a report that determines how many cherished stars an establishment can boast of in the travel books.

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Frank (Michael Fassbender), Domhnall Gleeson

Frank (Michael Fassbender), Domhnall Gleeson

“FRANK”  My rating: C+ (Now at the Screenland Armour)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Frank” is such an interesting idea, I wish I liked it more.

Lenny Abrahamson’s bizarro comedy is about a wannabe musician who miraculously is invited to join an avant garde rock band.

This aggregation of misfits is lead by a mad genius named Frank who lives 24/7 with  his features covered by a huge papier mache head.

Except that there’s a whole lot more mad than genius in Frank, who is played by Brit actor Michael Fassbender (the “ X-Men” franchise, “12 Years a Slave”) exclusively through body language and his voice.  Not until very, very late in the game do we see what he looks like beneath the big noggin.

Our narrator/hero is Join (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan), a mediocre pianist/songwriter who on a beach hear his home witnesses a fellow trying to drown himself in the sea.  This poor benighted lug is the keyboardist for the band led by the mysterious Frank.  And now the ensemble needs a piano player. Like right away.

Before long Jon finds himself whisked away to a remote recording studio in Ireland where, with Frank and other band members, he begins a long process of recording the group’s debut album.

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 Griffin Dunne, Stuart Margolin

Griffin Dunne, Stuart Margolin

“THE DISCOVERERS” My rating: B- (Opening Aug. 22 at Cinetopia)

104 minutes | No MPAA rating

In “The Discoverers” a dysfunctional modern family find themselves frustrated yet drawn together when they spend their vacation as historical re-enactors.

Justin Schwarz’s indy effort boasts of a strong cast, some clever ideas, a bit of heart and a few whopping improbabilities. But it’s a pleasant little ride.

Make that a pleasant little walk.  Because depressed academician and failed novelist Lewis Birch (Griffin Dunne) and his two sullen offspring (Madeleine Martin, Devon Greye) find themselves suckered into participating in a cross-country trek with a bunch of folk who annually relive the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The Birch clan get involved because of Lewis’ father (Stuart Margolin), a crusty old bugger with a loaded flintlock and a coonskin cap who wants more than anything to complete one last hike before he dies.

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** and **, enjoying Iceland

Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson — getting in touch with nature in Iceland

“LAND HO!” My rating: A- (Opening Aug. 22 at the Tivoli )
95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Land Ho!” — one of the truest films ever made about male bonding — is a quirky buddy road trip flick that contains not one moment that isn’t completely believeable.

Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens’ minimalist effort is in the style of Kelly Reichardt (whose “Old Joy” would be the perfect other half of a double feature bill). It relies totally on character rather than cute situations.

It’s often funny, but also a bit sad.

It is going to frustrate those with short attention spans. Its cast members are unknowns and aside from a couple of old guys visiting tourist attractions in Iceland, not all that much happens. Or so it may appear…stick with it and discover a sneakily effective film about aging and friendship.

Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), a recently retired surgeon, invites his former brother-in-law Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) for dinner at his home outside New Orleans. The two men, both pushing 70, used to be married to sisters. Both unions ended in divorce — Mitch’s many years ago and Colin’s so recently that the pain is still fresh.

They haven’t seen each other for ages, and Colin is taken aback when Mitch announces he’s treating them both to a tour of Iceland. (Why Iceland? Mitch has read that in addition to the mountains, geysers and volcanoes, the women there are beautiful.)

Talk about unlikely traveling companions…Mitch is a Southern-fried good ol’ boy — loud, crude and about as politically incorrect as you can get in matters of women and sex. Typical of his discourse is his praise of  a particularly tasty dish: “Like angels pissing on your tongue.” He describes his four sons as “one gay, one living in Berlin, one a convert to Judaism, and one regular.”

Colin is an Aussie, a former symphony musician (French horn) who now works in a bank. He’s childless, introspective, wry, and rather glum.

With a bombastic bud like Mitch, though, no one can stay glum for too long.

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John Wayne makes one of the movies' great entrances in "Stagecoach."

John Wayne makes one of the movies’ great entrances in “Stagecoach.”

 

“Stagecoach” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, August 23, 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.

 

From the moment it hit the nation’s movie screens in March of 1939, John Ford’s “Stagecoach” was declared a masterpiece.

Not just a pretty good Western, but a masterpiece. Never before had an “oater” earned that sort of praise.

Not only did “Stagecoach” redefine the possibilities of an overworked and underappreciated genre, but it made a first-class star of John Wayne,  who had been kicking around for nearly a decade in B-movie purgatory.

Today, 75 years later, “Stagecoach” remains on virtually every list of the best Westerns ever made.

Ironically, Ford almost didn’t get it made at all.

Though he had filmed dozens of silent Westerns in the 1920s, Ford was pretty much out of the cowboy business by 1939.  Throughout the ‘30s he had made comedies, adventures, costume dramas – just about every sort of motion picture. But Ford was considered a prestige director and Westerns were widely considered to be matinee fodder:  cheap, cliché-riddled, horse-heavy melodramas aimed at little boys and men who still thought like little boys.

The big studios hardly ever made Westerns any more, leaving them to a handful of low-budget production companies.  Most Westerns didn’t even get reviewed by the newspapers.

But Ford loved Westerns. He saw in the genre’s clichés possibilities for commenting on what would become his favorite cinematic theme: What it means to be an American.

Ford had purchased the screen rights to the short story “Stage to Lordsburg,” which appeared in Collier’s magazine. It was about a diverse group of travelers  thrown together by circumstance for a dangerous trip through Apache territory. They come from various professions and castes, and represent a microcosm of the larger society.

Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols went to work expanding the tale, adding characters and situations. But the studios weren’t interested. It was only a Western, after all.

Finally producer David O. Selznick (who at the time was hard at work on “Gone With the Wind”) signed on. But when he demanded that Ford cast big stars in the main roles – Selznick wanted Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich —  Ford backed out of the deal.

Because the director already had a cast in mind. For the role of Dallas, a prostitute who has been run out of town, he envisioned a young actress named Claire Trevor.  And for the role of Ringo, a young outlaw who has broken out of prison to seek revenge on his father’s killers, Ford wanted John Wayne.

Nearly a decade earlier Wayne, then a UCLA grad known as Marion Michael Morrison,   had worked for Ford as a prop boy. Now and then he was cast as an extra in a Ford film.

Leaving the Ford company, Wayne began getting roles  in Westerns. But “The Big Trail,” an epic wide-screen production about a wagon train that was supposed to be his big breakthrough, flopped. For several years Wayne’s career had been treading water in low-budget studios like Monogram and Republic.

Ford had kept an eye on his former protégé, studying the development of Wayne’s screen persona through a series of mediocre vehicles and awaiting a role that would show the struggling actor in the best possible light. Ringo was the perfect match.

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