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Chris Pine, Margot Robie, DIDIDIDID

Chris Pine, Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor

“Z FOR ZACHARIAH”  My rating: B (Opens Aug. 28 at the Cinetopia)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

In a lush valley somewhere in Appalachia, a young woman lives alone. With her dog she hunts wild game. She grows vegetables using hand tools.

The valley is her entire world — not by choice but of necessity. In the wake of nuclear disaster that has left most of Earth too radioactive to sustain life, this few square miles somehow has clean air and water.

It’s a miracle.

At least that’s what Ann (Margot Robbie) thinks.  She’s lived here all her life with her father — a rural preacher — and a younger brother. But months ago the menfolk ventured forth to look for survivors beyond the valley. They’ve not returned. Probably won’t.

So when an outsider arrives, it’s cause for both celebration and concern.

Happily, John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) appears to be a pretty good guy. Reeling from radiation poisoning, he’s slow to regain his strength. He was a research engineer who survived the crisis in an underground government bunker.  But after months of claustrophobia he decided he’d rather take his chances on dying under a blue sky.

Written by Nissar Modi and directed by Craig Zobel (“Compliance”), “Z for Zachariah” is a quiet, reflective, tightly-wound post-apocalyptic tale which relies on sharp characterizations instead of special effects.

Ann and John are happy to have each other, but they are distinctly different individuals.  She’s religious (the film’s title refers a children’s Bible book, “A is for Adam,” that sits on her bookshelf) and while no dummy — the house is jammed with books — has only limited experience with the world beyond her homestead. She may very well be a virgin.

John, on the other hand, is a rationalist…either agnostic or atheist. His faith is in science and his own abilities. Soon he’s contemplating building a waterwheel-powered electric generator at the foot of a nearby waterfall.  Of course he’ll have to tear down the homey chapel in which Ann’s father used to preach.  They’ll need the wood for construction material.

But when they’re done he and Ann will have lights and an operating freezer in which to preserve food.

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Greta Gerwig, ***

Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke

“MISTRESS AMERICA”  My rating: B (Opens Aug. 28 at the Glenwood Arts)

84 minutes | MPAA rating: R

My appreciation of the filmic collaborations of director Noah Baumbach and comic actress Greta Gerwig (“Greenberg,” “Frances Ha”) has been an on-and-off affair. Their latest, “Mistress America,” is definitely an on.

It is, in fact, about as close to a classic screwball comedy as we’re likely to witness in this era of “duh” cinema — wonderfully acted and impeccably timed.

The film begins with an insightful five-minute montage depicting the early days on an NYC campus of Tracy (Lola Kirke), a freshman who dreams of a career as a writer. Instead of life-changing experiences, Tracy finds herself lonely and isolated.

Relief arrives in the form of Brooke (Gerwig), a 32-year-old whirling dervish of energy and ambition who introduces Tracy to the odder corners of the Big Apple.  Tracy’s mother and Brooke’s father are engaged; the two women will soon be stepsisters.

Brooke immediately begins introducing Tracy to her bohemian pals as “my baby sister, Tracy.”

Here’s the thing about Brooke:  She’s all fervent ideas and no followthrough. Her current project is a restaurant that would be a bizarro amalgam of eatery, community center and hair salon.

Brooke has a motormouth that is several blocks ahead of her brain; she converses in a form of East Coast Valley Girl-ese with a stream-of-consciousness style worthy of James Joyce. She’s exhausting, but oddly delightful.

One acquaintance says of her: “I don’t know if you’re a Zen master or just a sociopath.”

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Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt

Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt

“DIGGING FOR FIRE” My rating: B (Opening Aug. 28 at the Screenland Armour)

85 minutes  | MPAA rating: R

If indie auteur Joe Swanberg isn’t careful, he’s going to start making movies that people actually see.

Up to now Swanberg’s heavily-improvised, generational-specific films have earned him cred on the cinematic fringes (and the irritating label “mublecore”).  But last year he made a modest though hugely likable splash with the family dramady “Happy Christmas” — a sign that he may be approaching his cinematic maturity.

With “Digging for Fire” he delivers his most mainstream-friendly effort to date…which is not to say that it’s conventional, only that he’s finding ways to finesse his austere signature style.

Married couple Tim and Lee (Swanberg regular Jake Johnson, who also co-wrote, and Rosemarie DeWitt) are a struggling L.A. couple with an adorable 3-year-old son (Swanberg’s son Jude, a born actor if there ever was one).  He’s a public school teacher.  She’s a yoga instructor.

A wealthy movie industry friend on a foreign shoot has invited them to spend a couple of months living in her ultra cool house on a heavily wooded slope high in the Hollywood hills. We’re talking swimming pool, hammock, plenty of room for the kid’s tricycle.

On their first day in the new digs Tim makes a discovery while walking around the property.  From an overgrown hillside he recovers what looks like a human rib and a heavily-rusted cheap revolver.

The cops aren’t interested in his find — they’ll only show up for an entire corpse. But Tim is intrigued.

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Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando

“LISTEN TO ME MARLON” My rating: B+

95 minutes | No MPAA rating

Marlon Brando was arguably the greatest film actor of all time. And yet for the last 30 years of his life his motto seems to have been “Don’t send the script. Send the check.”

The widespread take on Brando is that with few exceptions his later career was thrown away on  crap for which he was paid a fortune. Moreover, the contempt he seemed to harbor for his craft bled over into his relations with the press. He was aloof and remote and pretty much a mystery.

This wildly ambitious and unexpected effort from director Stevan Riley and his cowriter, Peter Ettedgui, is based on 200 hours of audio recordings the actor made over the years. Basically Brando had conversations with himself — thus the movie’s title.  The subject matter ranged from his childhood (raised by an alcoholic mother and an abusive father) to his thoughts on acting, the price of fame, and the hollowness of Hollywood.

Though the audio tapes are arranged in roughly chronological order, this film is not strictly autobiographical. The effect is fractured and impressionistic. It helps to have a working knowledge of Brando’s life and work going in.

But the film is overflowing with revelations.

 

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Robert "Evel" Knievel

Robert “Evel” Knievel

“BEING EVEL” My rating: B

99 minutes | No MPAA rating

Motorcycle daredevil Robert “Evel” Knieval has been gone for a decade but his influence is everywhere, from our current fascination with extreme sports, to his pioneering of what we’d now call reality TV, to a talent for self-marketing that at the time seemed goofy grandstanding but which now is standard operating procedure. (You could argue that Donald Trump has taken it all the way to presidential politics).

In “Being Evel” — a title with a double meaning, given Knieval’s late career transformation into bully/jerk/boor — Oscar-winning director Daniel Junge (for the 2012 documentary short
“Saving Face””) chronicles the man’s life and lasting influence through a plethora of hair-raising news footage and the memories of those who knew him, hated him, and still revere him.

Reared by relatives in Butte, Montana, after being abandoned by his parents, Robert Knieval became a full-fledged juvenile delinquent and wild kid (“If you dared him he’d do it”) who used his beloved motorcycle to torment the local cops.

His wife Linda — who after years of his flagrant infidelities has few good words for her late hubby — describes Robert ordering her into his car in what might have been either a kidnapping or an elopement: “Danged if we didn’t get married.”

As a young husband and father Robert decided to go for the American dream — by selling life insurance.  His powers of persuasion were legendary. In one week he sold 271 policies…to the inmates and staff of a mental institution.

He then turned to selling Harleys, and from that it was a short step to creating a cycle stunt team.  One of his first challenges was an attempt to fly his bike over a field of rattlesnakes.  He landed in their reptilian midst, sending angry diamondbacks scattering through the panicked crowd of spectators.

Throughout his career Knievel (he was given the nickname “Evil” by a jail guard, then changed the spelling in a rare display of subtlety) tended to announce outrageous stunts without ever looking into whether he could possibly pull them off.

But he quickly learned all about marketing, adopting an Elvis swagger and the King’s penchant for caped leather outfits in patriotic motifs.

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look-of-silence“THE LOOK OF SILENCE” My rating: B+ 

103 minutes| MPAA rating: PG-13

An old man laughingly recalls strangling and eviscerating a bound captive — allegedly a communist — during the Indonesian genocide of 1965.

He’s talks proudly of being part of the death squads that, in the wake of a military coup, slaughtered nearly 1 million Indonesians — many of them his own neighbors — in less than a year. He claims the victims were all reds, but in fact there were relatively few communists. Most of the victims were unionists, intellectuals and farmers.

In 2013 documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer gave us the Oscar-nominated “The Art of Killing,” a ghastly yet profound experiment in which he approached former members of the right-wing death squads and gave them the wherewithall to make their own movies re-enacting the slaughter.

Costumes. Props. Fake blood.

“The Look of Silence” is the perfect companion piece, approaching the genocide from the perspective of the victims.

Ali Sumito is an optometrist who goes door to door in his province, testing his patients’ vision and writing prescriptions for eyeglasses.  Ali was born two years after his older brother, Ramli, was murdered by the local death squad.

Now he studies Oppenheimer’s decade-old filmed interviews with the killers, looking for clues to his brother’s fate and trying to understand how such a thing could have happened. He talks  to his aged mother about losing her son.

At age 44 Ali still has a pleasant, youthful countenance.  Undoubtedly that helps him in his business. It also makes him seem inoffensive and non-threatening, allowing him to talk with his older male patients about their histories.

Despite his wife’s warning that asking too many questions might lead to his own disappearance, Ali plunges ahead with his quest.

 

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William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal in 1968

William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal in 1968

“BEST OF ENEMIES” My rating: B

87 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The early greats of television journalism — Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley — would undoubtedly be appalled by the partisan savagery and intellectual dishonesty that has taken over the electronic news.

Once upon a time the news was straightforward, genteel, presumably unbiased (or at least not openly divisive). The nightly broadcast was viewed as a cementer of ideas, certainly not a disruptor.

Today all bets are off.

“Best of Enemies” makes the case that the long decline of what passes for TV journalism began in 1968 when ABC-TV opted to spice up its bargain-basement coverage of that year’s  Republican and Democratic national conventions by staging “debates” between liberal gadfly  Gore  Vidal and conservative icon William F. Buckley.

It was a clever marketing move on the part of ABC, perennially the third-place TV network (remember…back then there were only three commercial networks, plus PBS). Always strapped for cash and unable to field the deep staffs of their competitors, the ABC bosses basically bought a relatively cheap fireworks show, one that largely replaced insight with controversy and insult.

Robert Morgan and Gordon Neville’s documentary makes the case that the fallout from the Vidal/Buckley confrontations today is thicker than ever.

Buckley was the man who through his National Review and “Firing Line” TV show had become the St. Paul of the conservative movement. (Although his conservatism, when compared to today’s Tea Party thuggishness, seems almost quaint.)

Vidal was a novelist and social commentator way ahead of the cultural curve in writing about homosexuality (The City and the Pillar) and transgender issues (Myra Breckinridge) and who had a long run of bestselling historical fiction.

Both men were East Coast intellectuals — elitists, in fact.  Both exuded a certain gentility. Both had run unsuccessfully for public office.

And each man genuinely despised the other.

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