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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Jason Clarke and (beneath the CGI) Andy Serkis

Jason Clarke and (beneath the CGI) Andy Serkis

“DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES”  My rating: B (Opening wide on July 11)

130n minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Despite the overwhelming evidence, there is no rule that big summer blockbuster films have to be insufferably dumb.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is actually pretty smart.

Oh, not in its plotting, which is all too familiar. Or in the acting from the “human” cast, which is perfunctory.

But in creating a  world 10 years after the great ape revolution depicted in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,”  director Matt Reeves (“Let Me In,” “Cloverfield”) and his huge team (the closing credits feel as long as the rest of the movie) have given us a vision that is part Eden, part sci-fi dystopia and populated with monkeys who at their best generate real emotions.

The film begins with a thrilling deer hunt by ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his followers through the primordial greenery of Muir Woods.  Screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback envision the apes as a sort of undiscovered South American tribe living in a sprawling Ewok-ish town of massive “nests.”

These apes eschew the technology of the humans who once persecuted them, but they do make their own weapons of wood and stone.  Most communicate through sign language (we get subtitles), though Caesar and a few other chimps have learned to speak. They create their own versions of totem poles (assemblages of sticks and animal bones) and some of the females even wear rudimentary jewelry.

Most striking of all, the apes have a school, taught by an orangutan who understands human writing. (In the previous film we learned how the simians gained human-like intelligence as subjects in a military experiment.)

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James Cagney and George Raft in "Each Dawn I Die"

James Cagney and George Raft in “Each Dawn I Die”

“Each Dawn I Die” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 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.


Warner Brothers was the home of tough guys.

The studio was noted for its emphasis on films that dealt with social problems – including crime – and it kept under contract some of the manliest mugs in Hollywood. Going into 1939 Warners already had James Cagney (“Angels with Dirty Faces,” “‘G’ Men”), Humphrey Bogart (“The Petrified Forest,” “Bullets or Ballots”), and Edward G. Robinson (“Little Caesar”) on its roster of stars.

To that lineup it added a new tough guy: George Raft.

Born in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, Raft got his start in show biz not with the gangster roles for which he became famous but for his dancing. He was a Broadway and nightclub hoofer whom Fred Astaire claimed did “the fastest Charleston I ever saw.”

Moving to Hollywood in 1929, Raft got his first meaningful role as a competitor in a dance contest (he was knocked down by one of the other contestants, played by James Cagney). In 1932 he played a coin-flipping hood opposite Paul Muni in Scarface.

Though he was widely known as a true gentleman, Raft grew up knowing plenty of real-life tough guys. He was on a first-name basis with Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, and was a lifelong friend of mobster Owney Madden, who he frequently visited while Madden was doing time in Sing Sing.

Raft undoubtedly drew on his intimate knowledge of these underworld characters when he played gangsters in the movies.  But who could have predicted that the tough guys themselves would become Raft’s biggest fans?  They relished his entertaining and romantic depictions of their lives, his sense of style, and the smart/strong attitude he exuded from the screen.

The ink on Raft’s contract with Warners was barely dry when he began making “Each Dawn I Die,” a prison picture that paired him with Cagney.  For the studio it was a match made in heaven. Cagney’s red-headed, freckled Irishman and Raft’s darkly exotic heavy (people thought he was Italian but both of his parents were German Jews) provided an attractive contrast.

Cagney plays a newspaper reporter who is on the verge of revealing a major scandal in the DA’s office. He’s framed for manslaughter and finds himself in a hellish prison where he slowly makes the friendship of Raft’s seasoned crook.  Among the film’s highlights are a scene in which Cagney’s character, after months in solitary, breaks down piteously before the parole board and begs for his freedom. Critics called it the best work of his career to date.

Meanwhile Raft’s hood, having broken out of prison, starts collecting evidence that will free his friend. In the end he allows himself to be recaptured so that he can continue his work from inside prison walls.

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Jesse Eisenberg and...Jesse Eisenberg in "Double"

Jesse Eisenberg and…Jesse Eisenberg in “The Double”

“THE DOUBLE” My rating: C+ (Opening July 4 at the Screenland Crown Center)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R)


Though it is based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, one could be forgiven for thinking “The Double” is an adaptation of Franz Kafka.

Richard Ayoade’s film gives us a hapless protagonist trapped in a web of illogical but rigid social and political rules. This poor schlub finds himself living in a nightmare from which he cannot awaken.

The problem is that for me dramatizations of Kafka never really work.  They may be well acted, imaginatively mounted, and they may deal with important human issues. But what seems subversive and insightful on the printed page always comes off as a bit silly and, worse, boring when brought to the screen. Kafka-ish yarns are always about an Everyman…and Everymen aren’t all that interesting.

Once in a blue moon a director takes a Kafkaesque situation and makes it both funny and compelling — Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” for example.

“The Double” works about half the time, thanks to its depiction of a glum alternative world and a bravura double performance from Jesse Eisenberg. But it can’t quite make it over the hump.

Eisenberg is best known for playing dweebs in films like “Zombieland” and “Wonderland” and — let’s face it — “The Social Network.” Here gets to play not only a disaffected dweeb but also his lookalike tormentor. Two characters that are polar opposites.

And, yes, the kid can act. He’s so good here I wish I liked the movie more.

Simon (Eisenberg) lives in a grungy, ill-lit metropolis in which technology seems to have peaked around 1935.  He’s employed by some sort of government agency ruled by the Colonel (James Fox), a paternalistic Big Brotherish figure in a white uniform. Exactly what this agency does is never made clear, but it must be important since it has a high degree of security. When he leaves his ID at home, Simon has a hard time convincing anyone at work that he’s been coming there for years.  He’s that forgettable.

Our man yearns for success but is totally lacking in the qualities that might bring it. He’s got no self-assurance, creativity, or charisma.

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Kiera Knightley, Mark Ruffalo in "Begin Again"

Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo in “Begin Again”

“BEGIN AGAIN” My rating: B (Opening July 2 at the Glenwood Arts)

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Begin Again” is only half the movie that “Once” is.

But it should still be enough to jump start the career of filmmaker John Carney.

“Once,” of course, was Carney’s 2006 art house hit about a tentative romance between a Dublin street busker and a Polish immigrant. This mini-budget wonder, largely improvised and featuring an astounding soundtrack written by the two “stars” (Glenn Hansard, Marketa Irglova), introduced the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly.” It was a new kind of intimate musical, and a bittersweet romance of epic proportions. (It has gone on to become a hit on Broadway).

But the ensuing years have not been kind to writer/director Carney, who used his newfound fame to make two instantly forgettable features: the clumsy visitor-from-another-planet comedy “Zonad” (2008), which was released in the US only on home video, and the supernatural thriller “The Rafters” (2012), which as far as I can tell has been seen by practically no one.

Which brings us to “Begin Again,” an effort to recapture some of the magic of “Once.”

It’s about music. It’s about love.

And it’s actually not bad.

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