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Ed Harris

Ed Harris

“FRONTERA” My rating: B- (Opening Sept. 26 at the Screenland Crown Center)

103 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

As first features go, “Frontera” is hugely ambitious.  Too ambitious.

Writer/director Michael Berry seems to want to do for illegal immigration what “Traffick” did for drug smuggling.  But he’s trying to touch so many sailiant features of the issue that his film feels frustratingly busy, as if it has been shoehorned into its 90-minut running time.

There’s no time for the film to breath, to take stock. If only “Frontera” had been produced as a three-night cable miniseries…it would have been a whole different — and much more satisfying — experience.

As it is it features some good acting, terrific cinematography of the rugged American Southwest, and a slowly tightening aura of suspense. It’s okay…it could have been so much better.

It starts south of the border with Miguel (Michael Pena), his pregnant wife Paulina (Eva Longoria in decidedly non-glam mode) and their young daughter traveling north.  They spend a night at the home of Paulina’s parents just a few miles south of the Arizona border. And then Miguel strikes out for the long walk into the U.S.A. The plan is for him to find work, send the dollars back to Paulina, and hopefully bring his family across the border.

On an Arizona ranch abutting Mexico, former lawman Roy (Ed Harris) and his wife Olivia (Amy Madigan) are having a happy retirement. Illegal immigrants regularly cross their land, but Olivia has come to an accomodation with the visitors, riding out with her horse to pass out bottled water and blankets to the trekkers in search of a better future.

Cut to a trio of bored teens who take their rifles out to the brush with the intention of taking potshots at any Mexicans they spot. Their prank goes bad, a death results, and the innocent Miguel finds himself facing a murder charge.

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Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader

Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader

“THE SKELETON TWINS”  My rating: B (Opening Sept. 26 at the Tivoli and Leawood)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The old adage about a tragedian lurking inside every comedian is perfectly illustrated by “The Skeleton Twins,” an achingly sad yet hugely amusing study of self-destructive siblings — played by “SNL” alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig — who can find comfort only in their shared misery.

In an early scene of Craig Johnson’s dramedy, Maggie (Wiig) is preparing to gulp a handful of sleeping pills when her grim ritual is interrupted by a phone call.  Across the country in LA, her twin brother Milo (Hader) has beaten her to the punch, slitting his wrists while sitting in the tub.  He’s in the hospital.  Can Maggie — who hasn’t seen her bro in a decade — come and fetch him?

Granted, this doesn’t sound like a laugh riot. Wiig and Hader — who a few years backed played husband and wife in the coming-of-age comedy “Adventureland” — initially approach their roles with dead-on seriousness, their performances imbued with a sense of weariness that makes simply rising from a chair a monumental effort.

But after Milo returns with Maggie to her home in upstate New York, the film (co-written by Mark Heyman) gently begins working its magic.

The twins have been cursed with self-awareness. They realize they are unhappy, they see themselves almost as psychological caricatures, and if they’re not actually going to kill themselves they need to make fun of themselves to get through it all.

Why do they gravitate toward self-destruction? The film offers no easy answers. In brief flashbacks we see their beloved father — himself an early suicide — giving life lessons and presenting the children with colorful plastic skeletons (the message: Get used to death, come to an accomodation with it.)  About halfway through the film they are visited by their absentee mother (Joanna Gleeson), a New Age groupie so bent on spiritual self-improvement that she’s never had time for her progeny.

With no pat psychological explanation of Maggie and Milo’s dilemma we’re left with the conclusion that maybe some people are just born miserable.

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James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain...in happier times.

James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain…in happier times.

“THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: THEM”  My rating: C  (Now showing at the Glenwood Arts)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The hype over “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” has been so pervasive that a letdown was pretty much inevitable.

It’s not a bad film — just a minor one. A forgettable one.

Actually, we’re talking about three movies. “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them,” now playing in Kansas City, stars Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. It’s about the breakup of a marriage in the wake of a tragedy.

But writer/director Ned Benson has created two other films using the same cast and basic plot that tell the story from the separate points of view of the wife, Eleanor, and the husband, Conor. One of these is “TDER: Her”; the other is “TDER: Him.” Presumeably theaters that are showing “TDER: Them” will also book the other two features.

Here’s the problem.  Based on “Them,” I’m not eager to follow these characters for another four hours.

In fact, I found this film irritating despite the solid performances. Benson is a parsimonious storyteller who rations out important information, keeping his cards hidden and giving us what we need to know in meager dribbles.

The film begins with Eleanor’s attempted suicide jump from NYC’s 59th Street Bridge.  Plucked from the East River she spends some time in a pysch ward and then ends up in the suburban home of her parents.  Dad (William Hurt) is a psychologist and educator; Mom (Isabelle Huppert) mostly survives on cigarettes and red wine.

There’s also a younger sister (Jess Wiexler) who with her young son have moved back home after the breakup of her marriage.

How do psychologists raise such psychologically messed-up kids? Just wondering.

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Justin Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoll...siblings  in "This Is Where I Leave You"

Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoll…siblings in “This Is Where I Leave You”

“THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU” My rating: B- (Opening wide on Sept. 19)

103 minutes MPAA rating: R

Families come together to celebrate or grieve.  By Hollywood’s reckoning, grieving is by far the funnier situation.

The latest example is the amusing “This Is Where I Leave You,” in which four siblings return to their Midwestern hometown to bury their father.

Mother Altman (Jane Fonda) informs them that Dad wanted everyone to sit shiva for him. Which is odd, because though born Jewish, he was an atheist.

Anyway, now the kids, their spouses, significant others, and family friends are locked into a week of quiet contemplation. No work, no phone calls, no distractions from the memory of a life well lived.

“It’s gonna be hard,” Mom says in a spectacular display of understatement. “It’s gonna be uncomfortable. You’re going to get on each other’s nerves.”

Judd (Jason Bateman) is a New  York radio producer who just found his wife (“Recitfy’s” Abigail Spencer) in bed with his shock jock boss (Dax Shepard). He explains her absence by telling everyone she’s at home with a bad back.

Wendy (Tina Fey) is saddled with a work-obsessed hubby (Aaron Lazar) who won’t get off the cell phone long enough to give her the time of day. She’s also dealing with a two year old going through an anal phase.

Paul (Cory Stoll), who still operates the family’s sporting goods store, has been trying for months to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant. By now he’s pretty sick of sex.

And baby-of-the-family  Phillip (“Girls’” Adam Driver), an irrepressible/irresponsible wiseass, shows up with his new squeeze, a ridiculously hot lady lawyer (Connie Britton) 20 years his senior.

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Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder

Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder

“A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES” My rating: B (Opens wide on Sept. 19)

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Hollywood hasn’t been kind to modern mystery writers. Giants of the genre like James Lee Burke, Sara Paretsky and Tony Hillerman have seen big-screen adaptations of their work crash and burn (although Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police series did finally find a home on PBS).

A similar fate befell Lawrence Block’s great detective character Matt Scudder.  In 1985 the Scudder tale “8 Million Ways to Die” hit the screen with Jeff Bridges as Scudder and the frequently great Hal Ashby behind the camera.  It wasn’t very good.

But now Scott Frank — mostly known as the screenwriter for films like “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “Minority Report” and, weirdly, “Marley & Me” — has written and directed a fine version of Block’s “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”

Dan Stevens

Dan Stevens

Frank seems to have absorbed not just the one novel but the whole of the Scudder canon, and has given us a film that could be either a solid stand-alone or the first step in a new franchise.Ticket sales will tell the tale.

In the meantime we have a taut, dark, surprisingly substantial thriller that is both a dandy detective procedural and a first-rate character study.

Neesom’s Scudder is an alcoholic former NYC police detective who retired from the force after accidentally killing a little girl in a shootout. He hit AA and went into business as an unlicensed private eye, meaning, he says, that “I do favors for people. They give me gifts.”

As “A Walk…” begins Scudder is called to a meeting with Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens, late of “Downton Abbey”) a drug dealer who reports that his wife was kidnapped and, after Kenny paid $400,000 in ransom, killed by her abductors and returned to her husband in little pieces. Kenny can hardly go to the cops.  He wants Scudder to find the fiends and deliver them for punishment.

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Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini

Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini

“THE DROP”  My rating: C+  (Opens Sept. 12 at the Glenwood Arts, Eastglen 16 and Cinetopia theaters)   

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

One of these days Tom Hardy is going to star in a film equal to his talents and then, hoo boy, watch out.

Until then we’re going to have to be satisfied with the Brit actor being the best thing in flawed efforts like “Lawless,” “Locke” and “Warrior” or as a first-rate supporting player in films like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Inception.”

In “The Drop”  the native Londoner plays Bob Saginowsky, a mumbling Brooklyn bartender who is so quiet, gentle and inoffensive that he reminds of the inarticulate Brooklyn butcher at the center of 1955’s “Marty” (for which Ernest Borgnine won the Oscar).

The solitary Bob has a soft spot for aged neighborhood lushes who can’t pay their tabs, much to the chagrin of his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), who runs the tavern. He goes to mass several times a week (but never takes communion…what’s up with that?)  He lives alone in the house where he grew up…it’s like a time capsule of the 1960s.

And early in the film he adopts an abused pit bull puppy he discovers whimpering in a trash barrel on a frigid New York night.

For such a low-keyed guy, Bob is in a pretty hairy business. Cousin Marv’s Bar (a few years back Marv was forced to sell it to Chechen gangsters), is one of several “drop bars” where the local bookies deposit their daily take according to a top-secret schedule.

If you know when Marv’s is that day’s drop bar, you might be able to get away with a big haul.

The overly complicated screenplay by Dennis (Mystic River) Lehane — based on one of his short stories — balances Bob’s “domestic” life (including a tentative romance with the dog-loving waitress Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace) against the ever-more-dangerous machinations at the bar.

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Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning, and Susan Sarandon

Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning, and Susan Sarandon

“THE LAST OF ROBIN HOOD” My rating: B- (Opens Sept. 5 at the Tivoli )

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Like it or loathe it, “The Last of Robin Hood” succeeds in taking a red-flag subject — pedophilia — and forcing us to reconsider our intense feelings about this taboo.

The writing/directing team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland get away with this by relating a largely true story involving one of Hollywood’s most charismatic leading men.

Here are the facts:  In the last two years of his life, legendary big-screen swashbuckler Errol Flynn kept as his mistress a girl — a self-described “dancer/singer/actress,” though any one of those labels is debatable — who was only 15 when their relationship began.

Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning) had been kicking around the periphery of Hollywood for years. Most recently she had faked her age to get work as a backup dancer in musicals. That’s where she was spotted by the always-on-the-prowl Flynn (Kevin Kline), who was working on a nearby soundstage.

A practiced bullshitter with a charming line of self-deprecation (told by a fan that he had seen one of Flynn’s movies five times, the actor responds: “How extraordinary — I could barely get through it once”), Flynn wooed and seduced Beverly.

But a strange thing happened. The old alcoholic womanizer fell in love. He called Beverly his “little sprite” and “wood nymph.” He dubbed her “Woodsy.”

Not even the late-arriving revelation of Woodsy’s tender years (she had been passing herself off as 18) could cool the ardor of a man who nearly two decades earlier had endured a humiliating trial for statuatory rape and remains a tantalizing target for any prosecutor looking to make a name.

Curiously, “The Last of Robin Hood” is less about Flynn and Beverly (a pretty but vacuous girl with a largely unformed personality) than it is about Flynn and Beverly’s mother, Florence Aadland (Susan Sarandon).

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