Barbara Stanwyk and Joel McRae in "Union Pacific"

Barbara Stanwyk and Joel McCrae in “Union Pacific”

“Union Pacific” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, March 22, 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.

Cecile B. DeMille didn’t do anything halfway.

To three generations of Americans his name was synonymous with big-screen epics, from his fabulously lurid depiction of the Roman games in Sign of the Cross (1932) to his crowning glory, The Ten Commandments (1956).

And his taste for excess didn’t end when his movies were completed. DeMille was a master publicist who, like a very few other directors of his day (D.W. Griffith and Alfred Hitchcock, come to mind), was considered as important a selling point as the plots and stars of his productions.

Consider the hoopla orchestrated for the premiere of his 1939 film “Union Pacific,” a big Western about the race to complete the first trans-continental railroad.

DeMille and his Paramount team centered the events not in Hollywood but in Omaha, Nebraska, the point from which the Union Pacific railroad  began laying tracks westward in the years after the Civil War.

The film company unveiled the movie simultaneously at three different Omaha theaters on April 28, 1939, within days of the 70th anniversary of the driving of real golden spike which joined the rails of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific in Utah in 1869.

It was all part of a four-day event called the Golden Spike Days Celebration. A quarter of a million visitors flooded Omaha for the various activities. The town’s population doubled overnight; the National Guard was called out to maintain order.

A special train brought DeMille and stars Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea from Hollywood. It was a three-day trip with stops planned several times each day to allow the stars to address the gathered locals.

The celebration in Omaha began when President Franklin Roosevelt pushed a telegraph key at the White House, thus opening the city’s civic auditorium.  There were parades, radio broadcasts, banquets.

It was described as the biggest movie premiere in history.

Did “Union Pacific” live up to the hype?

In its day, yes.  Audiences loved the DeMille touch.

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Elaine-Stritch-580“ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME” My rating: B+  (Opening March 7 at the Tivoli)

80 minutes | No MPAA rating

Elaine Stritch has long been a veteran of the Broadway stage, and for most of that time she’s been the object of cult adoration on a scale matched only by the fan mania surrounding  Bernadette Peters.

Her trademarks: Brassiness, determination, a wicked sense of humor, a deep appreciation of the Broadway songbook. A friend describes her as “a Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius.”

But at age 87, she’s on the downside of her career.  That’s the sobering but weirdly uplifting message of Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” which mixes old footage of memorable Stritch performances with revelatory (often painfully so) cinema verite observations.

We first see Stritch wandering the streets of Manhattan, looking like a puff ball (she loves big animal fur coats – although it might be faux fur) striding on two skinny legs encased  in black tights. (One acquaintance compares her to an ostrich.)

Passersby stop to tell her they’re fans. She sings a duet with the elevator operator in her residence hotel. She takes the compliments graciously, but turning away from the fans she’ll often look at the camera and roll her eyes.

Elaine Stritch is a tough old broad. But she’s a tough old broad on borrowed time, and she knows it. In many ways it’s her determination to say “screw you” to the years and forge ahead that makes her so…well, not loveable, exactly, but compelling.

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Jake Gyllenhaal, meet Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal, meet Jake Gyllenhaal

“ENEMY” My rating:  B (Opening March 21 at the Leawood )

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The old saw “He’s his own worst enemy” gets a new and disturbing twist in “Enemy,” a slowly-percolating thriller that finds Jake Gyllenhaal confronting his own doppelganger.

This is the second teaming up of actor Gyllenhaal and  Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve. Last fall they had a modest mainstream hit with the kidnap drama “Prisoners.” “Enemy,” by contrast, is aimed squarely at the art house crowd.

Adapted by Javier Gullon from Jose Saramago’s novel , “Enemy” centers on Adam (Gyllenhaal), a Toronto history professor whose specialty is the methodology by which totalitarian states control their populations. Adam is a rather nondescript academic who only gets excited when delving into his favorite subject.  At those times he seems borderline obsessed.

Adam seems to have little life off campus. He lives in a chilly, spartan apartment. He has a girlfriend, the cool blonde Mary (Melanie Laurent), but their relationship is less one of passion than of comfortable routine.

On the advice of a coworker, Adam rents a DVD of a period comedy, and is stunned to see himself as an extra, playing a bell hop in a 1920s hotel. A bit of research reveals the name of the actor, and suddenly Adam is consumed with finding out about his mystery double.

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Tyrone Power as Jesse, Jane Darwell as Ma James

Tyrone Power as Jesse, Jane Darwell as Ma James

“Jesse James” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, March 15, 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.

You don’t watch the Tyrone Power/Henry Fonda version of “Jesse James” for an accurate history lesson.

If you want something approaching realism in a depiction of the infamous James Gang, try 2007’s excellent “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” with Brad Pitt as the psychotic outlaw and Casey Affleck as the repellent little creep who shot him in the back.

Back in 1939, though, audiences were all about a romantic Jesse James, and this Henry King-directed Western delivered.

It’s highly selective in the story it tells. For example, it makes no mention of the James brothers’ background as ruthless Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War. Rather, Jesse (Power) and Frank (Fonda) are presented as simple farm folk (albeit good with guns) who turn to violence when a brutish agent for the railroad attempts to seize their land – and kills their mother with a bomb.

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stranger“STRANGER BY THE LAKE” My rating: C+ (Opening March 7 at the Tivoli)

97 minutes | No MPAA rating

There are movies with gay characters, and then there are gay movies.

Writer/director Alain Guiraudie’s “Stranger By the Lake,” to its detriment, falls into the latter category.

Guiraudie is nothing if not ambitious. Here he has created an erotic thriller about a young man who falls for a hunky fellow whom he knows is a murderer. Alfred Hitchcock’s fingerprints are all over this tale of sexual obsession, and Guiraudie’s distinctive presentational style has its source in Antonioni’s 1966 headscratcher  “Blow-Up.”

The film contains a great deal of casual male nudity — which is no big deal. But the enterprise is very nearly derailed by several hardcore sex scenes — the full stand-up-and-salute monty — which work against the eerie mood Guiraudie is trying so hard to create. At this point “Stranger By the Lake” stops being a thriller populated by gay characters and becomes a gay movie, one geared to satisfy the sexual voyeurism of the gay audience.

(I’m not picking on gay cinema.  If the relationship depicted had been heterosexual it, too, would have trouble recovering from full-penetration porn moments.)

The entire movie unfolds during one summer week at a rural lake where gay men congregate. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a pleasant young guy out cruising for a bit of action. He makes the acquaintance of the oddball Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), a fat, sad-sack straight guy who sits apart from everyone else like a contemplative Buddha. But Franck’s real interest is in Michel (Chrisophe Paou), a moustachioed Adonis who is dealing with a very clingy and jealous boyfriend.

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Jimmy_P_Movie_Wallpaper_10_qlaon“JIMMY P.”My rating: B (Opening March 7 at the Screenland Armour)

117 minutes | No MPAA rating

Mental health movies tend to run in well-established ruts.

The theraputic breakthrough. The hellish hospital. Indifferent doctors and sadistic aides/nurses.

“Jimmy P.” isn’t having any of that. This drama from French director Arnaud Desplechin (his last movie was 2008′s “A Christmas Tale,”  a fondly remembered family drama with Catherine Daneuve as the head of a troubled but still tight family) is fiercely, stubbornly realistic.  As well it should be, since  Desplechin adapted it from a memoir by psychiatrist George Devereux, who worked for years at the famous Menninger Clinic in Topeka.

Jimmy Picard (Oscar winner Benicico del Toro) is a Blackfoot Indian from Montana, recently returned from World War II. While in France he suffered a severe head injury in a fall from a moving truck.  Now he’s suffering from what today we’d call PTSD, which manifests itself in crippling headaches, blindness, and visual and auditory hallucinations.

The Veterans Administration sends him to Topeka, Kansas (it was shot in Michigan and Montana), where the doctors conclude there’s nothing wrong with him physically.  Conventional psychiatric therapy seems the best option.

But Jimmy won’t talk. Though he can be perfectly lucid and even eloquent, something in his Native American background gets in the way of the probing that is part of therapy.

As a last resort, clinic head Karl Menninger (Larry Pine) calls an old friend, Romanian anthropologist and psychiatrist Devereux (Mathieu Almaric), who might be described as an Indian groupie.  He’s fascinated with all things Native America and just spent two years living with a tribe in the Mojave Desert.

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Emma Roberts, John Cusack

Emma Roberts, John Cusack

“ADULT WORLD” My rating: D (Opening March 7 at the Screenland Armour)

 97 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In the skin-crawling indie comedy “Adult World,” former tweener star Emma Roberts (TV’s “Nancy Drew”) dulls up the screen as a college coed whose lack of self awareness and sense of entitlement  is so total as to be crippling.

Her Amy, a student at Syracuse University, has convinced herself that she’s a great poet. In fact, she is a ghastly poet (“…shattered wings catapult the vulva to vast oblivion…”), but nothing like a reality check gets in the way of her quest for literary greatness.

In short order she has dropped out of school and been kicked out of her parents’ home.  She gets a job clerking at Adult World, a mom & pop adult book/video store owned by a mom and pop (Cloris Leachman and John Collum, who make an early appearance and then bail) and managed by the sweet/cute/ironic  Alex (Evan Peters, Jesse Eisenberg now being too old for these parts.).

Given the setting, you might expect some “Clerks”-style satire of the whole porn thing, but  we get only a few half-hearted stabs at the store’s loser clientele (“Do you have the anti-microbial anal beads?”). Outrageous? Hardly. It it all feels very 1980s made-for-television. (Still can’t figure out what earned the movie an R rating.)

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