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John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in "Snowpiercer"

John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in “Snowpiercer”

“SNOWPIERCER” My rating: B (Opens July 2 at the Tivoli, Screenland Armour and Leawood)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Allegorical sci-fi doesn’t get much more headsmackingly ambitious than “Snowpiercer,” a claustrophobic epic from Korean director Joon-ho Bong.

Joon-ho got a toehold in the American market with “The Host,” a superlative monster movie that mixed genuine thrills with offbeat humor. He followed that up by going in exactly the opposite direction with “Mother,” which follows the trials of an unsophisticated Korean woman whose only son is accused of murder.

“Snowpiercer,” though, is his most ambitious movie to date, one filled with big-name actors (Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris, for instance, take small but pivotal roles) and overflowing with political and social satire. It’s as if “Das Boot” were mated with Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”

In the near future the world’s great powers try to deal with global warming by shooting into the atmosphere rockets filled with some newfangled chemical that’s supposed to lower Earth’s temperature.  It works all too well, plunging the planet into a new Ice Age that kills just about everything.

But 1,000 lucky — or maybe not so lucky — survivors have found shelter in an ultra high-tech, mile-long train that runs on nuclear energy and for the last 18 years has been roaring unceasingly on a non-stop circuit around the Earth.

We’re first introduced to this brave new world at the back end of the train, where the unwashed proletariat squirm in an existence only a dozen feet wide and hundreds of yards long. it’s like the world’s biggest submarine.

These poor bastards survive on gelatinous protein bars passed out by black-armored riot police who several times each day line everyone up for head counts. Now and then these thugs snatch young children and take them to the front of the train for purposes too unpleasant to contemplate.

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Jenny Slate

Jenny Slate

“OBVIOUS CHILD” My rating: B (Now showing at the Tivoli and Leawood theaters)

84 minutes | MPAA rating: R

It’s about a young woman struggling to make it in the world of stand-up comedy.  The lead character is played by Jenny Slate, who is in fact an stand-up comic, as well as a past cast member of “Saturday Night Live.”

At this point you might jump to the conclusion that Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child” is a comedy.

Well, it is, but not like any comedy we’ve seen lately. It has more in common with dramadies like the cable hits “Girls” and “Nurse Jackie” than your usual rom-com fare. The humor on display elicits as many gasps as guffaws. It’s not so much funny ha-ha as funny weird.

And in its final passages, “Obvious Child” (the title comes from the Paul Simon hit of the same name) achieves a bittersweet blend of hope and loss that is more moving than any plain comedy has a right to be.

Slate’s Donna Stern lives in Brooklyn, works in a fusty old bookstore that specializes in anti-imperialist and non-exploitative works (it actually says so in the store’s name), and spends her after hours at the local open mic night.

As the film begins she learns that her boyfriend has been sleeping with her best friend. The ballsy comic with the potty mouth melts into a weeping mess who spends much time burrowing into the familial warmth of her divorced parents (Richard Kind in absent-minded professor mode, Polly Draper as a college business professor — both excellent).

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William Powell, Skippy/Asta, and Myrna Loy

William Powell, Skippy/Asta, and Myrna Loy

“Another Thin Man” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 5, 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.

 

One of the first things you realize watching 1939’s “Another Thin Man” — the third of six popular film mysteries starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as crime-solving couple Nick and Nora Charles – is that the mystery hardly matters.

A domineering, rich old man (C. Aubrey Smith) has been getting death threats. Soon enough, he’s murdered. The list of possible killers is extensive – a Cuban gangster, the housekeeper, members of the man’s own family – and the plot so twisty you need a flow chart to keep up with it.

Don’t worry if it doesn’t track all that well. Watch the Thin Man films for their sophisticated humor and the superb banter between stars Powell and Loy.

The original “Thin Man” back in 1934, based on a Dashiell Hammett novel, was one of the year’s biggest successes, with Oscar nominations for best film, best director (W.S. VanDyke), best actor (Powell), and best adapted screenplay.

The M-G-M brass were happy to keep giving the public what it wanted. And what it wanted was more Nick and Nora.

Thanks to Nora’s family money, private eye Nick is free to take only those cases that interest him. He spends most of his time pouring and drinking cocktails, leading to some hilarious sight gags and memorable lines, such as Nora’s announcement that “We had had a lovely trip. Nick was sober in Kansas City.”

The thing is, the more Nick drinks, the more charming and perceptive he becomes. According to the late Roger Ebert, Powell “is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he’s saying.”

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Brendon Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch

Brendon Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch

“THE GRAND SEDUCTION”  My rating: C+ (Opening June 27 at the Glenwood Arts)

113 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

 

We know exactly what the Canadian comedy “The Grand Seduction” is trying to do.

Only problem is that it’s been done so much better by movies like”Local Hero” and “Doc Hollywood” and the TV show “Northern Exposure.”

The premise has “quaint” and “quirky” scrawled all over it.  For a full generation, the residents of the tiny fishing village of Tickle Head on the coast of Newfoundland have watched their tiny burg deteriorate. The once-busy harbor is now all but empty. Nowadays nobody fishes for a living.  Just about every adult  is on welfare.

There’s a slim chance that a petrochemical company may be enticed to set up a recycling plant there.  One of the requirements, though, is that Tickle Head have a full-time physician.

So the locals, led by the usually inactive Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) — whose totem animal should be a hibernating, grouchy bear — launch a massive deception to lure an M.D.  Their target is Dr. Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), who after a run-in with the law is assigned to do a few weeks of public service in Tickle Head.

Murray and company use the Internet to find out everything they can about Paul. Learning that he’s a cricket fanatic, they create a team of former fishermen and outfit them with makeshift uniforms and equipment (a sawed-off rowboat oar becomes a cricket bat). Even more galling, as long as the doc is in town the menfolk who gather to watch cable TV in the local bar must eschew the hockey championship while pretending to be enthusiastic about reruns of famous cricket matches.

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968full-andy-hardy-gets-spring-fever-poster“Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, June 28, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.  Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.

 

 

It’s difficult for modern viewers to appreciate the immense popularity of MGM’s Andy Hardy films of the late 1930s and early ‘40s.

Take “Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever,” the seventh release in the 18-film series that began in 1937 and didn’t wrap up until 1958.

The movie finds Andy (Mickey Rooney) stewing over the dalliance of next-door-neighbor Polly (Ann Rutherford) with a dashing military officer. Feeling rejected, our high school hero is vulnerable to the charms of his substitute drama teacher, Miss Meredith (Helen Gilbert), for whom he falls hard. To impress her, Andy writes a play, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in the South Seas.

(Not to worry — it’s all very innocent. This was way before Mary Kay Letourneau.)

Meanwhile Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone), usually a paragon of Midwestern reserve, is giddy over the possibility of overnight riches when a couple of entrepreneurs (or are they scam artists?) reveal that acreage he owns is thick with aluminum ore.

Not terribly scintillating stuff — just some amusing/touching moments from a boy’s life. This is the sort of thing modern TV watchers have been able to get from any number of sitcoms. (“The Wonder Years.” “Malcolm in the Middle.”)

Which, in a way, is the whole point. The Andy Hardy movies served pre-television audiences in the same way that today’s network series do – by providing likeable characters with whom we identify and who we’re happy to follow over the course of many years/seasons.

Russian-born MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer saw the Hardys and their neighbors as representative of his adopted country at its best – generous, religious, patriotic, and tolerant. Turned out that Americans liked seeing themselves depicted in that way.

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jersey“JERSEY BOYS” My rating: C+ (Opening wide on June 20)

Minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

On stage, “Jersey Boys” was less a conventional musical than a jukebox, a time machine for baby boomers. The joy came not from the plot or the characters (which were riddled with show-biz clichés) but rather from the nostalgic rush of hearing the falsetto-heavy hits of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons being performed live.

So how do you transfer that singular thrill to film?

You don’t. At least director Clint Eastwood hasn’t been able to.

We all know that movies are a liar’s game, that a musical number in a film has been pre-recorded, sonically sweetened and constructed from several individual performances cannily edited together.  Even with the knowledge that we’re hearing the actual voice of John Lloyd Young, the stage actor who reprises his performance as lead singer Frankie Valli, I found it all…well, underwhelming.

Eastwood is a musician and composer and he has in his resume the ambitous “Bird,” a biopic about jazz legend Charlie Parker. But here he seems to have been hamstrung by a creative team drawn largely from the stage production and committed to not allowing too much divergence from what was seen on Broadway and in countless touring companies.

Scripted by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who also wrote the book for the stage musical, “Jersey Boys” is the story of four Italian American kids who rise from the mean streets around Newark to making hit record after hit record throughout the 1960s.

The elements are familiar. There are early brushes with the law (the opening hour feels like ersatz Scorsese), struggles to get gigs and a recording contract, the eventual triumph on the pop music charts followed by revelations of financial shenanigans, marital discord and personal tragedy, not to mention the debilitating effects of constant touring and personalities rubbed raw by too much proximity.

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Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson in "The Rover"

Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson in “The Rover”

“THE ROVER”   My rating: B- (Opening Jan. 20 at the AMC Town Center)

102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There must be something about the wide open spaces of Australia’s outback that drives its filmmakers to post-apocalyptic nihilism.

George Miller and the “Mad Max” films.   John Hilcoat with “The Road” and “The Proposition.”

And now David Michôd with “The Rover,” a sweaty, dusty saga about a man in search of his kidnapped car.

Michôd scored a minor coup in 2010 with “Animal Kingdom,” an intimate portrait of a low-level Aussie crime clan that introduced to American audiences the great Jackie Weaver (who nabbed an Oscar nomination). It  was a dark, generally hopeless look at the ties that bind its characters to an evil enterprise.

Now  Michôd goes full-tilt dystopia. The opening credits of “The Rover”  informs us that the story takes place 10 years after “the collapse,” a worldwide economic meltdown that has left most of humanity struggling with chronic poverty.

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