Diane Keaton, John Godoman

Diane Keaton,  farting dog, John Goodman

“LOVE THE COOPERS”  My rating: D+ (Opens wide on Nov. 13)

97 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

In “Love the Coopers” the dysfunctional family holiday movie gets big-name treatment. The results are exceedingly unlovely.

It’s not just that director Jessie Nelson’s Christmas-themed comedy tries to shock us with raunch and cynicism before going all squishy soft in the last reel.  Lots of pretty decent films (“Bad Santa,” “Home for the Holidays,” “The Family Stone”) have assumed the same trajectory.

It’s that Steven Rogers’ screenplay is so blatantly unfeeling, cobbling together standard-issue ideas and characters for a sort of Pavlovian-inspired emotional release.

“Love the Coopers” (the title invokes memories of the inexplicably beloved “Love, Actually,” and like that earlier film gives us several interlocking stories) takes place mostly in a picturesque suburb outside Pittsburgh PA.  Here quaint homes, a steady snowfall and lush woodlands evoke a Norman Rockwell atmosphere.

Emotionally, though, there is no peace in the valley.

For starters, after 40-some years of marriage Sam and Charlotte Cooper (John Goodman, Diane Keaton) are calling it quits. They will break the news to their assembled clan after “one last perfect Christmas.”

Happy holidays, everybody.

Several plots eventually meet around the Coopers’ dinner table.

Daughter Eleanor Cooper (Olivia Wilde) is so reluctant to see the rest of her family  that she settles into the airport bar for some fortification. There she meets Joe (Jake Lacy), a soldier on leave who is charming despite being a Republican.

In an agonizing montage Eleanor and soldier boy engage in a comic ballet on an airport moving sidewalk. It is so gosh-awful “cute” theaters should lay in a supply of insulin.

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Brendan Gleeson, Carey Mulligan

Brendan Gleeson, Carey Mulligan

“SUFFRAGETTE” My rating: B (Opens wide on Nov. 13)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

A sad lesson of history is that power is rarely shared without a fight.

In “Suffragette” the terrific Carey Mulligan plays a London woman who goes from placid wife, mother and laundress to bomb-tossing terrorist. Her goal: voting rights for women.

Set almost exactly 100 years ago, “Suffragette” takes place at a time when the suffrage movement had hit a wall.  For decades British women had been peaceably seeking equality with their menfolk. They had petitioned their representatives. They’d demonstrated in an orderly fashion. And it had gotten them nowhere.

(The movie’s opening moments are filled with the voices of men pontificating on why women are too emotional and intellectually underachieving to be given a place at the political table. A woman, we’re told, should be happy to have her interests seen to by her husband, father, or brothers.)

In the character of Maud Watts (Mulligan), Abi Morgan’s screenplay gives us a lens through which we experience much of women’s struggle for equality.

As the picture starts Maud is living in more-or-less happy fashion with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and their son George (Adam Michael Dodd, who has a crying scene to match Jackie Coogan’s in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid”). Both adults work at the same laundry, a place of sweat and billowing steam where the owner sexually preys on the younger girls. They are not-quite impoverished but fairly content.

Maud is first exposed to the women’s movement when she witnesses a cadre of suffragettes heaving stones through store windows while chanting “Votes for women!” A co-worker (Anne-Marie Duff) begins talking up the movement and its leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in what amounts to a cameo role). At the last minute a reluctant Maud is recruited to describe conditions at the laundry before a parliamentary committee. She hopes for the best.

The best doesn’t happen. Peaceful rallies are broken up by club-wielding coppers. Mrs. Pankhurst goes underground, emerging publicly just long enough to make a stinging attack upon the authorities before vanishing once again.

Maud finds herself quickly becoming radicalized. She plots with other women at a pharmacy run by Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), whose knowledge of chemistry makes her an ideal bomb maker. Soon Maud is dropping sputtering explosive packages into public mailboxes and cutting telephone lines.

Meanwhile Maud’s activities and subsequent stays in jail — which include a hunger strike and forced feedings — alienate Sonny, who prevents her from seeing her son. (And, as it turns out, does much worse than that.)

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*** ****

Alexander Fehling

“LABYRINTH OF LIES” My rating: B- (Opens Nov. 13 at the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli)

124 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Labyrinth of Lies” is an earnest slice of history in which the various characters are less personalities than easily recognized political points of view.

Normally this would not bode well for the enterprise.  But the subject of Giulio Ricciarelli’s drama is so big and compelling — the prosecution of Nazi war criminals (or, rather, the reluctance of post-war Germany to seek justice for the millions of murdered) —  that “Labyrinth” sucks us into its vortex of national guilt.

It’s 1957 and Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling, who plays Carrie’s boyfriend on the current season of “Homeland”) has his first gig as a Frankfurt prosecutor. As the youngest man on the office totem pole he spends most of his time in traffic court.

One day he arrives at work to find his fellow prosecutors being harangued by Thomas Gnielka (Andre Swymanski), a rabble-rousing newspaperman who claims to have discovered a notorious former Auschwitz guard contentedly teaching at an elementary school.

The legal brains aren’t interested. The older attorneys don’t want to stir up trouble.  The younger ones, like Johann, don’t even recognize the word “Auschwitz.”

When Johann asks around about the veracity of Gnielka’s accusations, he’s told that rumors of war crimes are all part of an anti-German smear campaign: “The victors get to make up stories.”

“Labyrinth of Lies” is about how Johann contracts Gnielka’s passion for chasing down war criminals, how he launches his own independent investigation (one opposed by most of his superiors) and little by little begins identifying those war criminals who have hung up their uniforms and resumed civilian life as if nothing had happened.

He spends days in vast musty repositories of fading Nazi documents (think the final warehouse scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”). He interviews concentration camp survivors.  Before long he’s raised his aim from a lowly school teacher to the notorious Josef Mengele, the physician who conducted inhuman experiments on death camp inmates.

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assasssin“THE ASSASSIN” My rating: C+ (Opens Nov. 6 at the Tivoli)

105 minutes | No MPAA rating

Achingly beautiful and glacially paced,  Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s “The Assassin” is not your run-of-the-mill martial arts flick.

Depending on your tolerance for art film posturing, you may find yourself wishing for a run-of-the-mill martial arts flick.

A deliberately intellectual effort that places the utmost importance on mood and ambience, “The Assassin” offers no gore and really not much action. Virtually no effort is made to forge an emotional bond between characters and viewers. Many scenes take the form of beautiful tableaus.

Yinniang (Qi Shu) is a young noblewoman kidnapped as a child and for several years trained as an assassin by a nun (Fang-yi Shue) who apparently sees herself as some sort of avenging angel. Now Yinniang is told she must kill her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang) to whom she was once betrothed.

While there is plenty of corruption that needs punishing (the time is the 8th century), Tian seems to be a responsible regional leader who cares about his wife, children and the general welfare of his people. Why the nun wants him dead is a mystery.

And in fact Yinniang — who can infiltrate any high-security area and lurk there unseen for indefinite periods — cannot bring herself to complete her assignment.

assassin_3-2__article-house-780x440And that, folks, is about all I can tell you of “The Assassin’s” plot because I didn’t understand a damn thing that was going on.

There’s court intrigue of some sort, a jealous wife, a big dance sequence…but Hou and his screenwriters don’t seem to care at all about delivering a digestible narrative.

Nor do the players go out of their way to provide three-dimensional characters. Most speak in monotones, as if hypnotized.

“The Assassin” all boils down to sight, sound, atmosphere.  If you can slow down enough to soak it up, I’m sure there are rewards.

I didn’t have the patience.

| Robert W. Butler

heart thumbnail_23253“HEART OF A DOG” My rating: B (Opens Nov. 13 at the Tivoli)

75 minutes | No MPAA rating

Except in the form of an animated avatar, we never  see Laurie Anderson as she delivers the film-as-performance piece that is “Heart of a Dog.”

But this could be the work of no other artist. Anderson’s voice — soothing, calming, seemingly unemotional yet often tinged with deadpan irony — is instantly recognizable to her fans.

And through the visual collages she has created for this film, Anderson offers a total sensory experience, a melding of sight and sound that is hypnotic, captivating, and strangely moving.

The topic of “Dog…” is a biggie:  death.  Curiously,  Anderson doesn’t talk about the passing a year ago of her husband, rock icon Lou Reed (although one of his recordings is featured under the closing credits). Perhaps that’s for the best…the loss of Reed still may be too painful.

Rather, Anderson explores her heavy-duty topic mostly through her experiences with Lolabelle, the pet rat terrier that also died not long ago.

The film consists of brief essays, stories, anecdotes, musings.  For instance, there’s a yarn about how Lolabelle got a whiff of her own mortality when, on a walk along the Pacific coast, a couple of condors targeted her for dinner.


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Sandra Bullock and Joaquim Alameda

Sandra Bullock and Joaquim de Alameida

“OUR BRAND IS CRISIS”  My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Oct. 30)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Truth is relative in politics,” observes campaign consultant “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) in the opening moments of “Our Brand Is Crisis.”

“I could convince myself of anything if the price is right.”

A catalog of the many dispiriting ways in which the electoral process has become an exercise in lying and slime-slinging, “Our Brand…” is grimly satiric and thoroughly depressing.

Dramatically it is undercooked, with outrage outscoring humanity.

The latest from chameleonic director David Gordon Green is a fictional remake of a decade-old documentary of the same name. That film followed a group of American campaign strategists — among them Clinton stalwart James Carville — working their black magic for candidates in a Bolivian presidential election.

The doc showed these Yankee fixers bringing their mercenary campaign marketing tactics to the developing world.

Gee, thanks, fellas.

Bullock’s Jane Bodine is a one-time terror of the campaign trail who, in the wake of a humiliating defeat, has spent the last six years in eccentric isolation in a Colorado cabin.

Now she’s offered a chance to get back into the game by working for a Bolivian presidential candidate. Jane is ready to reject the idea until she learns that her old nemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton with Carville-esque chrome dome) is working for the competition. This will be her chance for revenge.

Jane and her team (Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan) are working for Pedro Gallo (Joaquim de Almeida), a surly plutocrat and past president whose first term was marked by the crony-pleasing sale of Bolivia’s national resources to multinational corporations.

Now the Americans must figure out how to propel this unsavory character to the top of a six-candidate race.  Their plan is to emphasize crises for which their man offers the best solutions. That these “crises” don’t actually exist is beside the point . They will strike fear in the hearts of Bolivia’s various economic and ethnic voting blocs.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article41717553.html

Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper

“BURNT” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Oct. 30)

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There’s plenty of gastro porn on display in “Burnt”: fruits and veggies exploding in vibrant colors, lusciously marbled meats, clouds of steam and rings of blue flame, plates of edibles arranged with the precision/happy chaos of a modernist painting.

In most other regards director John Wells’ film about a megalomaniacal chef working his way toward redemption is standard-issue stuff. Yeah, it accurately captures the politics and pecking order of a high-end restaurant kitchen (as did the recent sleeper hit “Chef”).

But the big story, the big drama, never materializes.

The film has an invaluable asset in Bradley Cooper, who even when playing a dick oozes charisma. But this yarn (screenplay by Steven Knight, story by Michael Kalesniko) relies too much on stock characters and time-tested dramatic devices without ever digging deep.

Adam Jones (Cooper) is a once-acclaimed chef at a top Paris restaurant. But his career ran aground on drugs, drink and women (a common-enough narrative among this breed) and he retreated to New Orleans where he got sober, gave up sleeping around, and got a lowly job shucking oysters.  After working his way through exactly 1 million of the mollusks (he kept meticulous records of his shucking activities) Adam walked out the door and caught a flight to London.

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