Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney...bootleggers in "The Roaring Twenties"

Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney…bootleggers in “The Roaring Twenties”

“The Roaring Twenties” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 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.


From the moment in 1931’s “The Public Enemy” when he squished half a grapefruit into the face of his nagging girlfriend (Mae Clarke), James Cagney was a movie star.

And not just any star, but a tough-guy star — an unapologetic, hard-nosed thug.

Over the next decade, Cagney often portrayed cocky gangsters who relished their power and outlaw status. Audiences loved him for it.

As critic Leonard Kirstein wrote of Cagney: “No one expresses more clearly in terms of pictorial action the delights of violence, the overtones of semiconscious sadism, the tendency toward destruction, toward anarchy, which is the base of American sex appeal.”

As the ‘30s were drawing to a close, Cagney was preparing to shut the door on that phase of his career.  His resume during that decade was packed with films — “Smart Money,” “Blonde Crazy,” “The Mayor of Hell,” “Frisco Kid,” “Hard to Handle,” “He Was Her Man,” “Angels with Dirty Faces”– in which he had played con artists, professional gamblers, vice kingpins, and no-nonsense gangsters.

Of course he also played a boxer, a race car driver, a federal agent and, in Max Reinhardt’s all-star version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Bottom the ass-headed weaver. Cagney was smart enough to see that as he aged he’d have to develop other talents and film personas – he couldn’t go forever shooting his way through life.

But now he was putting a cap on his career as a tough guy with 1939’s “The Roaring Twenties,” a film that allowed him to play both a good guy and a bad guy.

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Romain Duris...new guy in New York

Romain Duris…new guy in New York

“CHINESE PUZZLE” My rating: B (Opens July 25 at the Tivoli)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R


“Chinese Puzzle” is the third film in a series that began in 2002 with “L’Auberge Espangnol,” about a group of college  foreign exchange students living in a Barcelona boarding house.

Writer/director Cedric Klapisch checked in on those same characters as they turned 30 in 2005’s “Russian Dolls.”

“Chinese Puzzle,” the third installment, finds the characters hitting 40 and no more at ease in matters of love than they were as adolescents.

Caplisch’s films are less well known than the celebrated “Seven Up” documentary series (which has followed a group of former British schoolchildren for half a century) or Richard Linklater’s “Before…” films that periodically revisit lovers played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke.

But as with those other efforts, Klapisch’s films are bit like a reunion with old friends. The characters may be fictional, but there’s something oddly moving about watching the same actors play the same characters at different stages in life.

As “Chinese Puzzle” begins, Klapisch’s central character, Xavier (Romain Duris), has achieved a degree of fame as a novelist. He and his former college housemate, the British Wendy (Kelly Reilly), are married with two kids. Xavier still hangs with his best friend, the tomboyish lesbian Isabelle (Cecile De France).

He thinks life is swell. So he’s floored when Wendy returns from a business trip to New  York and announces that she’s met someone and is moving to the U.S. — and taking the children.

When Isabelle announces that she, too, has fallen for a New Yorker and is immigrating,  Xavier figures there’s not much left for him in Paris.  He jumps the pond.

“Chinese Puzzle” — that’s how Xavier describes his knottily confusing life — is a round robin of friendships and potential romances. Not to mention a comedy of dislocation as the Gallic Xavier learns to negotiates the brave new world of NYC.

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Emanuel, Metthie Maur in "Venus in Furs"

Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Almaric in “Venus in Fur”

“VENUS IN FUR”  My rating: B+ (Opens July 18 at the Glenwood Arts)

96 minutes | No MPAA rating

It’s been a bad day for Thomas (Mathieu Almaric). While a raging thunderstorm soaks Paris, the playwright/director has wasted ten hours cooped up in a seedy theater  holding auditions. He’s seeking a cast for his new stage adaptation of Venus in FurLeopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella about a fellow who gets off on being whipped by a dominant woman. (Thus the word “masochism.”)

Thomas is alone, complaining to a colleague via cell phone about the talentless, self-absorbed actresses — “ten year olds on helium” — who have wasted his time with their wretched posing and preening. After hours of readings he’s no closer to finding someone to play Wanda, the dominatrix heroine of Sacher-Masoch’s tale.

He’s packing up to go home when the doors at the back of the auditorium blow open and a hyperactive blonde  in a raincoat enters, motor mouthing breathlessly about how she was delayed and can she still audition. The woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) introduces herself as Wanda — coincidence or omen? — and begs to be heard.

Thomas isn’t encouraged. This Wanda seems to be just one more prattling actress, a drowned cat with a mouthful of chewing gum.

She produces a resume that features a stint with the Urinal Theatre.

“I somehow missed their season,” Thomas observes dryly.

He’s even less impressed when she removes her raincoat to reveal an S&M outfit — the last-ditch ploy of a performer who can’t pull it off by skill alone.

Sensing his reluctance Wanda assures him that “I’m not usually in leather and a dog collar.  I’m really demure and shit.”

What she really is is a master manipulator who over the next 90 real-time minutes will take Thomas and the audience on a hell of a ride.

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Ebert pulitzer“LIFE ITSELF”  My rating: A-  (Opening July 11 at the Tivoli)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R


“Life Itself” is about a man redeemed by love.

Of course it’s about a lot more than that.  Its subject is the late Roger Ebert, the world’s most famous movie critic — hell, the most famous critic in any discipline — and it follows his career from high school journalist to Johnny Carson regular and on to his development as a one-man publishing empire and his death last year after a long and crippling battle with cancer.

That’s the public Ebert. But the emotional narrative that emerges from Steve James’ wonderful documentary is that of a borderline raging egoist who late in life met the right woman and discovered his softer, more humane side, spending his last years basking in the glow of extended family and relishing his role as step-grandpa. It’s the Roger Ebert we  never knew until now.

This film is a profound and deeply moving portrait not just of a great thinker and communicator, but of a brave and — at long last — caring man.

James — whose 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” was championed by Ebert and his TV partner, Gene Siskel — was invited by the critic and his wife Chaz to spend time with them in order to produce a documentary based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir Life Itself.  James had barely gotten started on the project when Ebert died in 2013.

But James forged ahead, using what little original footage he already had, combining it with archival material and the recollections of Ebert’s friends, family, colleagues (critics like A.O.Scott, Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum), as well as famous filmmakers — Martin Scorsese (a producer of the doc), Werner Herzog, Errol Morris — whose careers were advanced by his perceptive and appreciative reviews.

The resulting film is funny, eye-opening, and inspiring. It’s going to score mightily when awards season kicks into high gear.

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George Sanders rallies American fascists in "Confessions of a Nazi Spy"

George Sanders rallies American fascists in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy”

“Confessions of a Nazi Spy” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 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.


Whatever its merits as entertainment, 1939’s “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” is a social and historical landmark, the first time a major Hollywood studio pulled out all the stops in attacking the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.

The film begins at a rally of an American/German friendship organization. The speaker (Paul Lukas) is haranguing an audience of men in Nazi uniforms: “Those who fight us must perish socially as well as economically because of our determination to destroy our enemies completely and without any consideration…Germans must save America from the chaos that breeds in democracy and racial equality. We Germans must make the United States our America!”

The scene is shocking…in large part because most Americans have forgotten that throughout the 1930s, groups like the German American Bund sought to build support in this country for the German state while encouraging American isolationism. The Bund regularly drew 20,000 Seig Heil-ing supporters to swastika-draped Madison Square Garden. On at least one occasion this spawned rioting in Midtown Manhattan as Nazi supporters, their leftist opponents, and police clashed.

While their newsreel subsidiaries covered the rise of Nazism, in their feature films the Hollywood studios made a point of ignoring what was happening in Europe.  Germany was a big consumer of American movies, and the suits didn’t want to alienate such a lucrative market.

In fact, among American studios, only Warner Brothers had the will and the guts to take on Hitler.  Jack Warner and his brothers were the sons of a Polish Jew who fled the pogroms and came to American in the 1880s, and they looked upon Hitler and his minions with alarm and dismay. Refusing to work with the Nazis, they closed the studio’s Berlin office in 1934. The other studios – MGM, Fox, Paramount – would not do so until war broke out in 1939.

When in 1939 former FBI agent Leon Turrou published a best-seller about how he infiltrated and broke up a Nazi spy ring in the U.S., Jack Warner found a story that could express his own feelings of alarm, outrage, and defiance.  He snapped up the film rights and put director Anatole Litvak – himself a Jew from Kiev and a devoted anti-fascist – to work bringing it to the screen.

The first obstacle was getting the screenplay approved by the Production Code Administration, the industry’s de facto censors. PCA head Joseph Breen was a vocal anti-Semite and worked to shut down production of films that attacked or mocked foreign governments. In fact, the German Consul General in L.A. called on Breen to reject the screenplay, threatening to ban from German cinemas any film featuring an actor who appeared in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.”

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CitizenKochPosterXXL“CITIZEN KOCH” My rating: C+ (Opening July 11 at the Tivoli)

90 minutes | No MPAA rating 

“Citizen Koch” is the notorious documentary about the Tea Party movement that PBS was funding and then pulled the plug on, leading to accusations that one of the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers (David Koch is a major funder of public television) had basically censored the project.

Perhaps. It’s also possible that PBS bigwigs concluded on their own that Tia Lessin and Carl Deal‘s film — they’re the team that made the Oscar-nominated Hurricane Katrina documentary “Trouble the Waters” —  simply isn’t all that good to begin with and is clunkily partisan to boot.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin

Not to mention that the title is a case of bait and switch.  Although the Wichita-based Koch brothers pop up now and then, they are hardly the subjects of the film.

Now as a progressive, I approve of Lessin and Deal’s attempts to draw the lines between the rise of the Tea Party, the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling which virtually bestowed personhood on corporations when it comes to messing about in the political process, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s successful attempts in Wisconsin to ban collective bargaining for state employees.

The film’s laying out of this rightward shift (accompanied by the sort of ominous, rumbling musical soundtrack usually employed by horror pictures) is clumsy and confused, but useful.  Anyway, it scared the hell out of me.

Just as important is the film’s examination of Wisconsin working stiffs who voted for Walker because he’s anti-big government, and then found that they were the targets of his housecleaning. This is important because it suggests that after years of cozying up the right at least some blue collar voters are realizing they’ve been sold an economic bill of goods.

But here’s the thing:  I’ve lost my enthusiasm for partisan documentaries.  Whether they’re by Lessin and Deal on the left or Dinesh D’Souza on the right, I’m getting frustrated with the sort of one-sidedness exemplified by Fox News.

“Citizen Koch” doesn’t even attempt to examine why some fairly reasonable people might embrace libertarianism. Before the first frame hits the screen the film has already decided who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy.

| Robert W. Butler


Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde

Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde

“THIRD PERSON”  My rating: C  (Opens July 11 at the Glenwood at Red Bridge and the Leawood)

137 minutes | MPAA rating: R


There are those who would argue that Paul Haggis’ “Crash” was a bucket of heavy-handed melodrama and that it only received the 2004 Oscar for best picture because the Academy was too cowardly or homophobic to give the award to “Brokeback Mountain.”

To those people I can only say this:  You haven’t seen heavy handed until you’ve sat through all two hours of Haggis’ latest, the artsy fartsy “Third Person.”

Taking the template of “Crash” — several intersecting stories centering on the same theme — Haggis has fashioned an emotionally remote, narratively confused yarn that goes through all the motions without ever delivering a payoff.

In Paris, novelist Michael (Liam Neeson) reunites with the fellow writer Anna (Olivia Wilde), with whom he is having a torrid if idiosyncratic affair (their relationship seems to be as much about baiting as boffing). Every now and then Michael gets a call from the wife he left behind (Kim Basinger, looking beaten down by life).

In New York City, perpetually woebegone Julia (Mila Kunis) is in the midst of a custody case.  Her ex (James Franco) won’t let her see their young son…because the last time Julia took care of him the kid almost suffocated in a plastic drycleaning bag. The penniless, luckless Julia is one of those people who can’t get anything right — not even showing up on time for meetings with her busy lawyer (Maria Bello). Mostly she mopes.

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