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Ross Partridge, Oona Lawrence

Ross Partridge, Oona Laurence

“LAMB” My rating: B-

136 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Uncomfortable” doesn’t begin to describe “Lamb,” a drama about a 47-year-old man’s obsession with an 11-year-old girl.

Creeped out yet?

The good news is that Ross Partridge‘s film is anything but exploitative and that the relationship depicted is not sexual…although there are enough stranger/danger moments to fuel a month’s worth of after-school specials.

In addition to directing the film, Partridge — who looks like he could be Dermot Mulroney’s stand in — wrote the screenplay (adapting Bonnie Nadzam‘s novel) and plays the leading role of David Lamb, a middle-aged nobody losing his grip.

Lamb works in a job he doesn’t care about (maybe he’s in the insurance game).  His wife has thrown him out of the house and he’s living in a Chicago motel. His alcoholic, shut-in father has just died. And he’s having a joyless affair with Linny (Jess Weixler of TV’s “The Good Wife”), a co-worker half his age.

He meets seventh grader Tommie (“Southpaw’s” Oona Laurence) when she tries to pick him up in a convenience store parking lot on a dare from her friends.  Lamb deduces that this waif hasn’t a clue about the trouble that could come of such a lark and befriends her.

Tommie’s mom and stepdad are addicted to TV and joy juice, so apparently they don’t immediately notice when Tommie takes up Lamb’s offer of a road trip from Chicago to his late father’s long-abandoned vacation cabin the foothills of the Rockies.

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Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio

“THE REVENANT” My rating: B

156 minutes | MPAA rating: R

At its most basic level, “The Revenant” is a revenge melodrama with Leonardo DiCaprio playing a man who endures unimaginable hardships to get even.

But the latest from writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Birdman,” “Babel”) is much more than that.

This inspired-by-fact epic is one of the most richly sensory films ever made, an evocation of the American wilderness that is both beautiful and terrifying. In this world of heightened awareness every rock and limb seems etched by the hand of a master and the forests are alive with the creaking of timber. (Who knew aspens were so damn noisy?)

The primitive world evoked here is so sumptuous and scary that it threatens to overwhelm “The Revenant’s” dramatic elements.

The screenplay (by Inarritu and Mark L. Smith) is inspired by the true story of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a member of a fur trapping expedition who in 1823 was mauled by a bear. Expected to die of his injuries, Glass was left in the care of two companions instructed to give him a decent burial.

Except Glass wouldn’t die. His watchers, terrified of an Indian attack, abandoned him and rejoined their companions. But Glass clawed his way out of a shallow grave and with superhuman determination traveled 200 miles — first on his stomach, then on foot — to exact revenge.

(This story was filmed in 1971 as “Man in the Wilderness” with Richard Harris in the lead.)

On its most successful narrative level “The Revenant” is a survival story. Lacking food and weapons, DiCaprio’s Glass  must scavenge for sustenance, sucking the marrow from the bones of a long-dead elk and scarfing raw fish and buffalo innards. He cauterizes his wounds by sprinkling gunpowder over the savaged flesh and igniting it with a burning stick.

It isn’t so much that Glass wants to live as he is determined to punish Fitzgerald (a grunting Tom Hardy), the venal fellow trapper who left him for dead.

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Youth“YOUTH”  My rating: A- 

124 minutes | MPAA rating: R

I had to watch “Youth” a second time to really appreciate it.

Glad I did.

As with his previous film, “The Great Beauty,” which was inspired by Fellini’s “La Dolce Vida,” the latest from filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino is inspired by (and often directly copies) Fellini’s “8 1/2.” My mistake the first time around was to see it first and foremost as an homage rather than a free-standing effort that playfully samples a great film from the past.

And then there’s the fact that this is about as subtle a movie as we’re going to encounter this holiday season — minimal plotting, zero action, maximum atmosphere. Do not see “Youth” if you’re tired or short-tempered or preoccupied.

Unfolding almost entirely at a posh hotel and spa in the Swiss Alps, the film centers on two old friends rapidly approaching 80.

As the film begins composer/conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is being approached by an agent of Queen Elizabeth, who for Prince Philip’s birthday wants Ballinger to conduct a performance of his seminal work “Simple Songs.” Ballinger turns down the offer and the accompanying knighthood, telling the oily emissary that he is retired. Period.

In the same hotel veteran filmmaker Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is working with five young writers to complete the script of his next — and penultimate — film.

Fred and Mick find plenty of time to hang out together. Not only is Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) married to Nick’s son, but the two men have been friends for 60 years.  They used to compete for the same women; now they battle over who has the most uncooperative prostate and shakiest memory.

There are other celebs to rub elbows with, like the current Miss Universe (who shocks and delights the two old cronies by swimming nude) and an American movie actor  (Paul Dano) who quietly seethes because his fame rests almost entirely on a cheesy sci-fi flick in which he played a robot. (To stir things up he attends dinner made up and costumed as Adolf Hitler.)

Fred and Mick also amuse themselves studying on other guests, like the obese South American who was once the world’s best soccer player, a Tibetan llama who reputedly has powers of levitation, a small boy learning the violin by playing Fred’s “Simple Songs,” and a young girl who is vastly more advanced than her hovering and provincial mom.

The film even opens its arms to embrace the staff of the hotel, especially a nearly-mute young masseuse with a mouthful of orthodontics — she communicates with her fingers, not her tongue — and a bearded mountaineer who shows up at just in time to catch Lena when her marriage collapses.

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Will Smith as Dr. Bennett ***

Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu

“CONCUSSION”  My rating: B+ 

123 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Concussion” takes on professional football and leaves the NFL whimpering.

All while giving us Will Smith’s best performance ever.

The subject of this latest offering from writer/director Peter Landesman (“Parkland,” “Kill the Messenger”) is  football’s ghastly heritage of head injuries that over decades have left former players with severe mental and emotional problems.

Smith portrays Bennet Omalu, a real-life pathologist who in the early 2000s virtually singlehandedly took on the National Football League, saying it covered up the growing ranks of former players with serious neurological issues.

Omalu named the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and announced that it was the result of not just severe concussions but of the repeated violent physical encounters that are a routine part of the game. (He has since opined that 100 percent of NFL players will suffer CTE to one extent or another.)

Like many another truth teller, Omalu was vilified, his credentials and reputation questioned. The FBI even showed up to make threats. This Nigerian immigrant had dared to challenge a great American institution, described by one character as so big it has its own day of the week (the same day that used to belong to God).

Yet another David-vs-Goliath scenario in an Oscar season filled with them (“Spotlight,” “Suffragette,” “Trumbo,” “The Big Short”), “Concussion” stands out not only for risking the wrath of the NFL (which continues to drag its feet in recognizing and addressing the CTE problem), but for Smith’s astounding performance.

In his 25-year acting career Smith has proven his proficiency in easygoing charm, sly comedy and action film flexing. Here he gives us more by delivering less.

It’s not so much a loud “Look at me!” as a simple, quiet “I am.”

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article51086760.html

Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander

Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander

“THE DANISH GIRL” My rating: B 

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Eddie Redmayne had best clear a place on the mantel for his second (in as many years) Oscar for best actor.

In “The Danish Girl” the chameleonic Brit gives a quietly devastating performance as the world’s first recipient of a sex change operation.

The latest film from director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (adapting David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel) is, depending upon how you choose to look at it, a story of personal triumph or one of tragedy.

In either case, there’s no arguing with the perfs of Redmayne or Alicia Vikander (another likely Oscar contender).

In the mid 1920s Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is the toast of the Copenhagen art scene. He does landscapes — actually the same landscape, with a grove of trees on the shore of a fiord, but he mixes it up enough that one is reminded of Monet painting the same haystacks over and over.

Wegner’s wife Gerda (Vikander) is a painter, too, albeit a frustrated one. Her portraits of the local bourgeoise aren’t lighting a fire under anyone.

When one of Gerda’s models, a ballerina, fails to show up for a sitting she asks her husband to pull on women’s hosiery and fill in for the missing beauty.  One set of legs apparently is as good as another.

Despite an initial protest, Einar  finds himself strangely moved by the experience. So much so that the couple decide that he will attend a local arts ball in woman’s clothing and a flapperish red wig. Gerda introduces this shy woman as Einar’s country cousin, Lili Elbe.

Einar is shocked and then pleased with a young man (Ben Wishaw) begins paying attention, even taking him/her to a private corner for a tentative kiss.

From that point on the artist prefers to spend his days as Lili. Einar begins to fade away.

Mishandled, this sort of material can come off as vaguely ridiculous, even campy.  Redmayne and Hooper are having none of that. Their thesis is that Lili has always lurked inside Einar. She is his true essence, and now she’s been freed.

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Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson

Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson

 

 “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” My rating: C

168 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Quentin Tarantino’s films rarely have much to say.

It’s the masterful style with which he doesn’t say anything that accounts for the filmmaker’s critical and popular success.

“The Hateful Eight” suggests that approach is wearing thin.

Absurdly violent yet overly talky, queasily looking for laughs in racism and sexism, and essentially devoid of meaning (unless you find meaning in nihilism), this Western arrives in a blast of near-comical self importance.

Walton Goggins

Walton Goggins

Shot on 70mm film (at least in the version opening Christmas Day at the AMC Town Center; it begins a run in conventional digital a week later) and featuring a 3-hour running time that includes both an overture and intermission, “The Hateful Eight” harkens back to the long-ago days of road-show movie exhibition.

Except, again, it’s not actually about anything.

The film begins with astonishing widescreen vistas of a stagecoach working its way across blinding mountainside snowfields. But, perversely enough,  it spends most of its time claustrophobically sealed in a one-room stagecoach station. Which makes Tarantino’s use of 70mm film seem like a case of using an elephant gun to get rid of a housefly.

John Ruth (Kurt Russell ), a shaggy bounty hunter with Yosemite Sam facial hair, and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are the only passengers on a stagecoach bound for Red Rocks, the town where Ruth will deliver Daisy for hanging.

They’re stopped in the middle of nowhere by yet another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former officer in the Union Army who still wears his flamboyant blue-and-gold military greatcoat.  Warren’s horses have died in a blizzard and he needs a lift for himself and the corpses of the two criminals he has gunned down.

Ruth is immediately suspicious, concerned that he may be robbed of his prisoner before he can collect the bounty. But he allows Warren and the two stiffs to come aboard, and soon they have arrived at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a sort of middle-of-nowhere Quik-Trip for the frontier set.

Minnie and the way station regulars are off attending to family business, according to Bob (Demian Bichir), the Mexican hand who helps stable the horses from an oncoming blizzard.

Tim Roth

Tim Roth

Inside the station are several stranded travelers.

There’s Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate general who still wears his uniform. Mannix (Walton Goggins) is on his way to Red Rocks to start his new job as sheriff.  The British Mobray (Tim Roth) identifies himself as the territorial hangman — he’ll be stretching Daisy’s neck pretty soon.

Joe (Michael Madsen) is a quietly intimidating cowhand. Rounding out the gathering is Ruth’s stagecoach driver, the inoffensive O.B. (James Parks).

There is much macho posturing as these various personalities determine the pecking order. (It may be intended as comic, but I rarely laughed.)

And there’s lots of race baiting. Here we’ve got a black man who insists on the deference accorded everyone else…that’s sure to stir up negative sentiments, especially from the former Confederate general. (BTW…am I the only one offended by Tarantino’s overreliance on the “n” word?)

There’s a sort of Agatha Christie drawing room mystery to the first half of the film. Snowed in and forced to confront one another, some of these he-men drop hints that maybe they aren’t who they say they are. Mind games are played.

And who the hell poisoned the coffee?

Throughout the slatternly Daisy makes wise-ass comments and gets knocked around by her captor.  Leigh doesn’t have to do much acting and when she does it’s through a mask of dried blood.

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Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett

Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett

“CAROL” My rating: B+ 

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

You could describe “Carol” as a lesbian love story.

More accurately, it’s a love story in which the two main characters are women.

That’s an important difference.

The latest from adventurous indie auteur Todd Haynes is one of his most accessible works, a haunting and quietly erotic tale of love that, far from being forbidden, holds the promise of fulfillment.

Adapted by Haynes from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the film features Oscar-grabbing performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and perhaps the most realistic evocation of the early 1950s I’ve ever seen in a movie (including movies made in the early 1950s, which somehow seem fantastically unreal).

Therese (Mara) is a quiet young woman who seems to be waiting for something to happen.  Certainly she doesn’t expect much from her job selling toys in a big Manhattan department store during the Christmas season.  She thinks maybe she’d like to try her hand at photography.

Nor does she sense much of a future with Richard (Jake Lacy), the boyfriend who wants to travel with her to France. The two are yet to consummate their relationship (remember, it’s the early 1950s).

Then one day the glamorous, well-heeled Carol (Blanchett) comes into the story to buy a present for her young daughter. The customer and the sales clerk strike up a conversation. Carol leaves her fancy gloves behind and Therese has them delivered to Carol’s posh home in the Jersey ‘burbs.

For this act of kindness Therese receives an invitation to tea. Her fascination with this beautiful and cultured older woman becomes a crush.

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