U.S. naval crews jettison helicopters to make more room for evacuees

U.S. naval crews jettison helicopters to make more room for evacuees

“LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM” My rating: B (Opens Dec. 12 at the Tivoli)

98 minutes | No MPAA rating

Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam” is a riveting and rather depressing bit of history.

For the last 40 or so years Americans have avoided taking too close a look at Vietnam, the first military conflict in our history in which the U.S.A. did not emerge victorious.  Kennedy’s documentary brings to life the final closing chapter of that sad story, and even among the chaos and defeat finds moments of extreme heroism.

The 1973 Paris Accord was supposed to have ended the war in Vietnam, allowing American troops to withdraw as part of Richard Nixon’s “peace with honor” pledge to the nation. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger envisioned a situation not unlike that in Korea, with a Communist Vietnam in the north and a democratic government in the south, each staying to their side of a demilitarized zone.

The peace held, we learn, because the Communists were terrified that Nixon was looking for a provocation to go Medieval on the North — heavy bombing raids or perhaps even the nuclear option.

But when Nixon resigned in 1974, a victim of the Watergate affair, leaders in North Vietnam saw their chance.  They launched a new invasion of the South.

President Gerald Ford asked Congress to authorize millions to shore up the South Vietnamese military.  But after more than a decade of a hugely unpopular war, members of Congress weren’t about to throw more money into the maw.

As the Communist troops advanced southward,  Americans still in Vietnam had to face the likelihood that there would be mass executions of locals who had worked for or with the United States. It was, says one former CIA operative, a “terrible moral dilemma…Who goes? Who stays?”

The first priority was the nearly 7,000 Americans still in the country, many of them with Vietnamese wives and children.  Then there were the United States’ allies and collaborators — nearly a half million of them when you include their families.

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“PELICAN DREAMS” My rating: C+
 (Opening Dec. 5 at the Tivoli)

80 minutes | No MPAA rating 

Filmmaker Judy Irving loves our feathered friends, as was evidenced by her excellent 2003 documentary “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” about a flock of invasive birds who over decades have become a San Francisco tourist attraction.

Since childhood she has had a particular affection for pelicans, which she calls “flying dinosaurs.”

Her documentary “Pelican Dreams” starts with cell-phone footage of an injured/lost pelican that has stopped traffic on the bustling Golden Gate Bridge.  The animal is captured by a taxi driver who throws a blanket over it and drives it to an avian recovery facility.  Irving followed and was inspired enough by what she saw to devote an entire film to the California brown pelican.

It’s a somewhat ramshackle affair, a bit of loose, personal filmmaking that reminds me a bit of the gee-wiz enthusiasm of Bruce Brown’s surfing docs (“Endless Summer”).

Irving takes us to the Channel Islands 40 miles off the coast, where brown pelicans breed and nest. She’s captured some wonderful footage — while mating the birds’ throat sacs turn bright red and their eyes, usually brown, somehow become a haunting blue. She gets footage of the baby pelicans, who have an extremely high morality rate.  She captures their first flights, and the coaching by older birds that shows them how to dive bomb into the surf in search of fish.

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Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank

Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank

“THE HOMESMAN” My rating: B+ (Opens Nov. 5 at the  **)

122 minutes | MPAA rating: R

At age 68, Tommy Lee Jones is not going gently.

His recent selection of film roles — “No Country for Old Men,” “The Company Men,” “In the Valley of Elah” — have found him facing the dark side of human nature (not to mention the darkness at the end of the line) with varying degrees of resistance and resignation.

His choices as an auteur are even bleaker.  He made his directing debut in 2005 with the angry, violent “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” playing an American rancher transporting his friend’s body to Mexico for burial.

With his sophomore effort, “The Homesman,” Jones gives us a revisionist Western that defies expectations at every turn.

It’s a genuine art film in the vein of Aussie productions like “The Proposition.” Moreover, “The Homesman” embraces a world view as bleak as anything in Cormack McCarthy.

Hilary Swank is Mary Bee Cuddy, a single woman operating her own small farm in the Nebraska Territory of the 1850s.  In the opening scene she proposes marriage to her closest neighbor, a fellow eight or nine years her junior. For her effort Mary Bee is rejected as “homely and bossy.”  Well, she is definitely both.  But she is also, as she says, “uncommonly alone.”

The plot of “The Homesman” is kicked into gear by three local women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter) who all have gone mad during a miserable Nebraska winter.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT  http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article4263634.html

Penguins-of-Madagascar-Official-Trailer-2“PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR” My rating: B (Opening wide on Nov. 27)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Some of the best moments in the three “Madagascar” films were delivered not by the stars — a lion and his zoo buddies — but by four peripheral figures.
We’re talking about the penguins, a bunch of madcap Marxists (of the Groucho variety) who have somehow gotten it into their fuzzy little heads that they are an elite military unit. Despite their overall incompetence, at a crucial moment these diminutive black-and-white commandos always come up with an outlandish plan to save the day.
The penguins have enjoyed their own animated TV series, and in DreamWorks’ “Penguins of Madagascar” they seize the big screen. If you’ve managed to overlook them so far, well, they’re kinda great.
Part of it is their distinct personalities, even though they look pretty much alike. The leader Skipper (voiced by Tom McGrath, who created the characters) is a distillation of every movie drill sergeant ever.  He spits out rapid-fire orders (Skipper’s mouth moves much faster than his brain) but has a soft spot for his “men.”
Kowalksi (Chris Miller) is the idea man, expected to come up with an appropriate plan for any contingency. Rico (Conrad Vernon) has a voracious appetite: He’ll gulp down just about anything, only to regurgitate those items days later when they are needed.
Finally there’s Private (Christopher Knights), the new kid, still finding his way and fawned over by the others.
TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article4124867.html
Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking

“THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING” My rating: B (Opens wide on Nov. 26)

123 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Even if you’re familiar with the life and work of Stephen Hawking, there’s something humbling about seeing it depicted in a film.

One of the world’s greatest minds trapped in a body that refuses to cooperate.  A woman who cares for his every physical and emotional need and bears his children…at least until she cannot any more.

Time. Space. Infinity.

The first thing that should be said about “The Theory of Everything” is that it isn’t actually about Hawking’s cosmological theories of black holes and other scientific conundrums — though they are of  course mentioned in passing.  It is based on Jane Hawking’s memoir (most recently updated in 2013) and is more a relationship film than anything else.

Fine. We’d rather watch a people story than an illustrated physics lecture. And “Theory” provides the platform for two terrific performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who must be considered on the short list for this year’s Oscar nominations.

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force-majeure-cannes-21“FORCE MAJEURE”  My rating: B (Opens Nov. 21 at the Tivoli)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Most of us would like to believe that if faced with a life-threatening crisis we would behave decently, nobly…even heroically.

Uh, probably not.  Most of us would be like Tomas, the husband and father whose act of cowardice becomes the topic of Ruben Ostlund’s terse, psychologically ravaging “Force Majeure.”

The Swedish Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) has brought his wife Ebba (Lisa Kongsli) and two young children to posh ski resort in the French Alps.  They appear to be an utterly unremarkable young family.

But while eating lunch at an outdoor cafe, they witness a controlled avalanche set off by explosive detonations.  The churning wall of white speeds down a mountainside, hits the bottom of a valley, then begins rapidly climbing toward the terrace on which the diners are sitting.

“Doesn’t look controlled to me,” Ebba says.

Result: chaos.  People scream, run, freak out.  Ebba grabs her two children and hunkers down behind a table.  Tomas cuts and runs, returning to his loved ones only when it becomes clear that the snow never came close to the restaurant, that a cloud of white fog only made it appear that everyone was about to be buried alive.


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Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

“WHIPLASH”  My rating: B+ (Now showing at the Cinemark Palace, Glenwood Arts)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) conducts the elite studio jazz band at New York City’s most prestigious conservatory of music.  He’s a musician and educator, though you might be forgiven for mistaking him for a Marine drill instructor…or perhaps a serial killer.

Fletcher enters the rehearsal room with the swagger of a gunslinger flinging open swinging saloon doors. His students don’t make eye contact.  They gaze at the floor or at their charts.  Nobody wants to draw the alpha wolf’s reptilian stare.

But that won’t save them. Fletcher is routinely profane, insulting, and capable of reducing a young musician to sobs. He seems to take great pleasure in finding a victim at every rehearsal.

“Either  you’re out of tune and deliberately sabotaging my band, or you don’t know you’re out of tune — and that’s worse.”

He’s smug, cruel and probably sexist, given his treatment of a woman player in a freshman ensemble: “You’re in first chair. Let’s see if it’s just because you’re cute.”

He punishes those who disappoint him not with pushups but with rehearsals that go on into the wee hours: “We will stay here as long as it takes for one of you faggots to play in time.”

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