Left to right: Hailee Steinfeld, ** and Britt Marling

Left to right: Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru and Brit Marling

“THE KEEPING ROOM” My rating: B- (Opens Oct. 30 at the Alamo Drafthouse)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The Civil War drama “The Keeping Room” opens with a quote from Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to the effect that war is cruel — and that the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.

Not a happy thought. Not a happy movie.

But despite a tendency toward preciousness, Daniel Bart’s period drama  effectively conveys the desperation, ugliness and moral vacuum of war — not by depicting the chaos of battle but by describing the plight of unfortunate civilians in its path.

Augusta and Louise (Britt Marling, Hailee Steinfeld) are sisters living on their once-prosperous family farm.  But all the men are off fighting for the Confederacy and things are slowly falling apart.  Their only companion is the slave woman, Mad (Muna Otaru).

In better days the sisters no doubt lived pampered lives — Louise, the younger, still exudes the attitude of a spoiled aristocrat — but the war has turned everything topsy turvey.  Now all three women must work the fields if they’re to keep eating.

Meanwhile a pair of  soldiers, Moses and Henry (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) are marauding their way around the countryside — raping, stealing and murdering with impunity. They claim they were sent by the Union Army to soften resistance, though it’s difficult to believe their murderous excesses are sanctioned.  Their clothing is a mishmash of civilian items and those scavenged from the dead of both armies. They may simply be deserters out to indulge their worst instincts.

A confrontation between the three women and the killers is inevitable — especially after Moses casts eyes on Augusta at a general store, determines to have her, and tracks her back to the homestead.

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Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland

“A BALLERINA’S TALE” My rating: B (Opening Oct. 30 at the Tivoli)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

“A Ballerina’s Tale” is several things.

First, of course, it is about the career of Misty Copeland, principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, who has defied dance convention both racially (she’s African American) and physiognomically (she’s curvy, not celery-stalk emaciated) to rise to the top of her art.

But while Nelson George’s documentary touches upon the highlights of Copeland’s career trajectory, it is in no way a conventional biography. In fact, the film deals with Copeland’s personality and her private life in only the most rudimentary fashion. (There’s not a hint of negativity anywhere in this portrait.)

What we get here is lots of footage of Copeland rehearsing and dancing and walking around NYC, balanced with lots of talking heads discussing her impact on the ballet world.

In addition, the film takes a look back at the handful of black ballerinas — among them Raven Wilkinson, who has become something of a mentor and role model for Copeland — who paved the way over the last century.

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Abraham Attah

Abraham Attah

“BEASTS OF NO NATION” My rating: A- (Now available on Netflix)

137 minutes | No MPAA rating

To the small handful of brilliant movies about the madness of war — among them “Apocalypse Now” and the Soviet “Come and See” — we must now add Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” a ghastly but hugely moving story about child soldiers in an African civil war.

In this sobering feature — a Netflix original that is also being booked into theaters — we never do learn the nationality of Agu (Abraham Attah), our young protagonist.  Only that he lives with his family in a demilitarized zone where civilians are safe from the violence that swirls around them.

But their sanctuary doesn’t last long. Soldiers — apparently they represent the central government — show up to do a bit of cleansing.  Agu’s mother and younger siblings have already fled to the big city, but now he watches as his unarmed father and older brother are gunned down.

The boy races into the bush, living like an animal. Then’s he’s captured by a band of rebels led by Commandant (a hypnotic Idris Elba) and slowly indoctrinated into their martial ranks.

Commandant is the only adult in sight. His next-in-command is a teenager and most of the troops under him are mere children playing soldier. It’s like “Lord of the Flies”
with machine guns.

But Commandant is a charismatic leader for whom his “men” would do anything. So when newbie Agu is ordered to execute a captive with a machete, he obeys. Reluctantly at first, and then in a frenzy as the lust to kill takes over.

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** and Gong Li

Daoming Chen and Gong Li

” COMING HOME” My rating: B+

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

In the wrong hands “Coming Home” could have been an insufferable soap opera, like something out of the Nicholas Sparks School of Bathos, China Division.

But the man behind the camera is director Yimou Zhang; in front is his perennial leading lady, the amazing Gong Li; and the subject matter places the yarn’s personal tragedy against a backdrop of political and societal upheaval.

The results are heartbreaking.

The story begins in the early 1970s when Mao’s Cultural Revolution is in full swing.  Feng Wanyu (Li) is a schoolteacher sharing an apartment with her 14-year-old daughter, Dan Dan (Huiwen Zhang).

Dan Dan is an ambitious dancer with a company specializing in proletarian ballets. You know, the kind where the young ladies of the chorus learn to pirouette while waving flags, thrusting bayonets and tossing hand grenades.

Feng’s husband Lu (Daoming Chen) is a former professor who has been imprisoned for more than a decade. His crimes were intellectual and Feng insists on defending her man even though Dan Dan, who has grown up fatherless, has swallowed the party Kool Aid and fears that her chances at big roles are reduced because of her father’s sins.

When word arrives that Lu has escaped, an eager Feng looks forward to being reunited with her long lost love. Dan Dan, though, has a Hitler Youth mentality and isn’t above betraying Daddy to curry favor with the bigwigs at her ballet studio.

The film’s first half hour follows the fugitive Lu as he lives on the streets and tries to contact his wife without alerting the cops who are hovering outside the apartment building. Eventually he is caught and returned to prison without even having held his wife in his arms.

Several years later the Cultural Revolution has run out of steam and hundreds of thousands of “counterrevolutionaries” like Lu are declared rehabilitated and returned to their homes. But the grand welcome the former prisoner has long dreamed of isn’t happening.  Feng now suffers from dementia. She doesn’t recognize Lu…in fact she mistakes him for a party official who once persecuted her.

Lu moves into an abandoned storefront across the street. From there he can watch Feng coming and going and hopefully work his way back into her life.

Gelding Yan’s screenplay is a tragedy of near misses.

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Kate Hudson, Bill Murray

Kate Hudson, Bill Murray

“ROCK THE KASBAH” My rating: C 

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Rock the Kasbah” is what the Brits call a “toss off.”

Director Barry Levinson’s latest is so lightweight that one comes away wondering if the whole project wasn’t just an excuse to hang out with some amusing people in an exotic location.

Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) is a former rock ‘n’ roll tour manager whose best years are long behind him. Now he runs scams on hopelessly untalented “singers” looking for their big break.

He lucks into a USO tour of Afghanistan using his Girl Friday (Zoe Deschenel) as the “star,” but the young lady is so appalled by Kabul’s chaos and violence that she bails, taking Richie’s passport and money with her.

Stranded in a strange world, Richie is adopted by a couple of stoner gun runners (Danny McBride, Scott Caan) who recruit him to make a delivery of ammo to a remote village.

There Richie discovers a great talent, a beautiful girl named Salima (Leem Lubany) who defies tradition and religious edict by retreating to a cave and singing her heart out. (All she knows are Cat Stevens tunes, but it’s a start.)

Richie comes up with a plan to get Salima on Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol.” Except that in doing so he will  be outraging half the nation — the male half — and putting both their lives in danger.

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Julianne Moore, Ellen Page

Julianne Moore, Ellen Page


“FREEHELD” My rating: B-

103 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

A great tale trumps — just barely — mediocre delivery in “Freeheld,” a fictional version of the same story told in the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary of the same name.

Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) is a police detective in Ocean County, NJ. She’s a tough, creative and much-honored cop, admired by her peers and especially her womanizing (so we’re told) partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon).

Laurel is also a closeted lesbian, so worried that her career will stall if her sexual orientation becomes public that she has virtually no personal life.

Then she meets tomboyish Stacie Andree (Ellen Page).  Love blossoms, although the very out Stacie has a hard time dealing with Laurel’s secretive ways.

When Laurel is diagnosed with late stage cancer, she goes public with her sexuality by asking the Ocean County Board of Freeholders (basically the county commission, which runs the local police) to assign her pension benefits to her partner Stacie, who will at least be able to keep the house they have purchased and rennovated.

But all this takes place a decade ago, at a time when local pols weren’t about to set a precedent by giving a gay employee rights normally reserved for married heterosexuals.  So begins a long and painful legal and public relations process as Laurel becomes ever more frail.


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Michael Fassbinder

Michael Fassbender

“STEVE JOBS” My rating: A- 

122 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Love him or hate him, Steve Job’s life was epic…so epic that any attempt to encompass it in a traditional movie biopic is doomed to failure. (Exhibit A: 2013’s lackluster “Jobs” with Ashton Kutcher as Apple’s genius in residence.)

Leave it to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” TV’s “West Wing”) to find a way to embrace the salient features of Jobs’ life and personality while inventing a near-perfect narrative structure.

“Steve Jobs” works on just about every level, with a near-brilliant central performance by Michael Fassbender as Jobs, a jaw-droppingly good supporting cast, and effortless direction by Danny Boyle.

But it’s the script — not just the snappy dialogue but the way the story is told — that makes the film a small classic of operatic intensity.

“Steve Jobs” is essentially three one-act plays, each unfolding in real time and centering on the debut of one of Jobs’ landmark products.

The first 40-minute segment takes place in 1984 with the unveiling of the Macintosh computer. The second unfolds in 1988 when Jobs, having been fired by Apple’s board of directors, debuts his renegade effort, the ill-fated NeXT work station. Finally there’s the presentation in 1998 of the original iMac…by this time Jobs has returned to Apple in triumph.

Kate Winslet

Kate Winslet

There’s an element of show-biz pizzaz and ticking-clock suspense at work here.  Jobs views each product debut as a sort of Broadway opening involving sound, video and his own central performance. And then there’s the not inconsequential fact that these various Apple products are often unfinished and still plagued by bugs.  When Jobs flips the switch will they perform or just sit there?

In a sense, the film is a sort of backstage drama. As with last year’s “Birdman,” the story is captured with a roving camera (the cinematography is by Alwin H.Kuchler) following Jobs as he stalks the theaters wings and subterranean passages, always in motion, always shouting orders and making demands.

Common to all three segments is a recurring cast of characters who grow older and evolve over more than a decade:

Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) is Apple’s head of marketing and apparently the only person on staff who can tell the domineering and arrogant Jobs when he’s full of shit. OK, she’s more politic than that, but basically she is Jiminy Cricket to Jobs’ Pinocchio.

Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) is the computer dweeb who cofounded Apple with Jobs, spearheaded the Apple II (for many years the only Apple product that made money) and over time was nudged out of the company (albeit with a huge golden parachute). Despite the betrayal and hurt, Woz still cares about his old partner.

“It’s not binary,” Wozniak cautions Jobs. “You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” Continue Reading »


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