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Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons

“HEARTS BEAT LOUD”  My rating: B+ (Opens June 15 at the Tivoli)

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PGH-13

“Hearts Beat Loud” is this year’s “Once,” a dramedy with music about a father/daughter relationship that that could very well be the summer’s most satisfying movie.

Writer/director Brett Haley, whose first two features (“Hero,” “I’ll See  You in My Dreams”) focused on septuagenarian protagonists, here sheds a few decades, centering the film on  Kiersey Clemons, a quietly spectacular young talent.

Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) runs a record store (no CDs) in Red Hook, N.J. More accurately, he’s running it into the ground. He has little patience for boneheaded customers.

Frank is a widower whose daughter Sam (Clemons) is preparing to leave for college (UCLA…she’s on a pre-med path). Frank is more than a little conflicted about this…for one thing, he’ll miss Sam terribly.

For another, how’s he going to pay for that university education?

Haley’s screenplay (with Mark Basch) chronicles the last days of the record store as well as the growing musical collaboration between father and daughter (he’s a guitarist, she’s a keyboardist with incredible pipes).

For Sam this is simply a fun little hobby with Dad.  When he asks her what they should call their band she responds with a groan: “We’re not a band.” Frank jumps on that comment; soon they’re performing as We’re Not A Band.

Continue Reading »

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“THE INCREDIBLES 2” My rating: B (Opens wide on June 15)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

“The Incredibles” (2004) always was too good for kids.

Youngsters may have made up the bulk of ticket buyers, but so much of Brad Bird’s yarn about the Parrs, an urban family with superpowers, was directed at adults — especially boomers with a collective memory of James Bond films and early ’60s kitsch.

The long-in-coming “Incredibles 2” is more of the same.  Far from being a radical departure from the original film, it picks up precisely where the first one left off (with the arrival of the John Ratzenberger-voiced Underminer and his gigantic burrowing machine); you could watch the two films back to back as one big story.

Once again, Bird’s screenplay pits the family against a villain — in this case a mysterious figure known as the Screenslaver who uses the world’s TV sets  as  invasive hypnotic devices. And the sequel continues the earlier film’s plot thread about a worldwide ban on superheroes, which forces our protagonists to operate mostly in secret.

All well and good. But the real theme of “Incredibles 2” is gender roles.

Because of its early ’60s setting, Bird can dabble in bad-old-days male chauvinism, particularly as it affects the marvelous Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), who finds herself more or less working solo to fight the Screenslaver.

Continue Reading »

Annette Bening

“THE SEAGULL” My rating:B- (Opens June 15 at the Glenwood Arts, Regal Stadium 18 and AMC Independence Commons)

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the new movie version of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull”…save that it is a movie.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe Chekhov was meant to be seen on the stage, where the only thing between the audience and the storytellers is air.  By its very technological nature, film has a way of distancing us from the immediacy of Chekhov’s characters.

That said, this “Seagull,” directed by Michael Mayer and featuring an impressively strong cast, will serve as an introduction — a  limited introduction that hints at the greatness revealed when one views this play in the flesh.

Set on a wooded Russian estate at the turn of the last century, Chekhov’s tale studies a handful of individuals engaged in a round robin of romantic frustration.

Irina (Annette Bening) is a famous stage actress whose current lover, Boris, is a rising literary star a couple of decades her junior.  Vain, pompous and absolutely terrified of aging, Irina is nearly undone by Boris’ obvious attraction to Nina (Saoirse Ronan), the fresh-faced daughter of a nearby landowner who has her own thespian ambitions.

Nina, meanwhile, is loved by Irina’s neurotic son Konstantin (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright and short story writer so sensitive that he appears to be in a constant state of depression or anger.

Konstantin is worshipped from afar by Masha (Elisabeth Moss), who wears black because “I’m in mourning for my life” (she’s a real barrel of monkeys) and nips steadily from a tiny flask.

Masha is loved by Mikhail (Michael Zegen), an impoverished local school teacher.

Then there’s the good-hearted Doctor Dorn (John Tenney), who has long carried a torch for Irina; he’s the unattainable love object of the housekeeper Polina (Mare Winningham).

In other words, just about everyone in sight is in love with someone who doesn’t return the sentiment.

There are other characters blessedly free of the these romantic entanglements, especially Irina’s aging bachelor brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and the chatty estate foreman Shamrayev (Glenn Flesher). Continue Reading »

Cinnamon Schultz

“GOODLAND” My rating: C+ (Opens June 14 at the Screenland Tapcade)

84 minutes | No MPAA rating

Shot in western Kansas by a Lawrence-based Rockhaven Films, funded largely by a Kickstarter campaign and featuring familiar faces from the local theater scene,  “Goodland” has more than a few attractions for Kansas City moviegoers.

It’s a great-looking film, filled with telling details of life out in the flatlands (writer/director Josh Doke is a native of Goodland KS) and features a nifty central performance by area actress Cinnamon Schultz as a sleepy-town sheriff.

Too bad, then, that Doke the screenwriter falls so far behind Doke the director.  It’s not just his often artless attempts to evoke folksy irony in the dialogue…this yarn dabbles in intriguing ideas which are left undeveloped. Halfway through we’re introduced to a crime subplot that is generic and, well, silly.

Individual moments of “Goodland,” though, are fine indeed.

The generally unremarkable duties of Sheriff Georgette Gaines (Schultz) are upended when a local farmer’s combine  largely dismembers a human body in his cornfield.

Gaines and her deputies recognize the dead man as a drifter who came into town a few days back, got into a drunken brawl and, after drying out in a jail cell, was escorted out of town and sent on his way.

He didn’t get far. The most simple explanation is that he got loaded again and passed out in the field (there’s a half-filled whiskey bottle nearby). But the sheriff smells something fishy; she believes he was dead before encountering that big ol’ Allis Chalmers.

All this dovetails with the arrival in town of Ergo Raines (Matt Weiss, a  founding member of K.C.’s Living Room Theatre and Fishtank Performance Studio), who says he’s shooting photos of small towns for a proposed book.

Ergo checks into a cruddy hotel where a teenage desk clerk (Sara Kennedy) all but throws herself at him. Apparently he’s got other things on his mind, and turns down her not-so-subtle advances.

Continue Reading »

Johnny Flynn, Jessie Buckley

“BEAST”  My rating: B- (Opens June 15  at the AMC Studio)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A gnarly character study posing as a serial killer thriller, Michael Pearce’s “Beast” very nearly defies description.

On its most graspable narrative level it’s about a socially challenged young woman who falls hard for a local lad, then begins to suspect that he may be the murderer terrorizing the island on which they live.

But it’s also a wince-worthy portrayal of a destructive family dynamic, of sexual rapture after a life of chastity, and of a hermetically-sealed society driven off the rails by paranoia and panic.

Which is a lot to cram into one movie.  With his first feature writer/director Pearce sometimes struggles to keep it all in balance, but thanks to solid performances he delivers the modest goods.

Moll (Jessie Buckley) is such an outsider she seems a stranger even at her own birthday party.  With an explosion of unkempt red hair and a personality that seems always in retreat, she’s a perennial misfit.

Moll works occasionally as a tour guide — like filmmaker Pearce she lives on the Isle of Jersey, an outpost of stiff-upper-lip Britishness just off the hedonistic French coast — but mostly she’s  caretaker to her dimentia-riddled father. She’s more or less cast in that role by the rest of the family, especially her domineering and icily biting mother (Geraldine James), who treats her like a con on probation.

Which, in a sense, Moll is.  Fourteen years earlier she used a pair of scissors to skewer a bullying classmate. She still hasn’t lived down her reputation as violently unstable. Continue Reading »

Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howe

“ON CHESIL BEACH” My rating: C+ 

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

No film with Saoirse Ronan can be easily dismissed. Nonetheless, many will find “On Chesil Beach” a long haul.

Directed by Dominic Cooke and adapted by Ian McEwan from his 2007 novel, this is a story of lost love.  More specifically, it’s about two young people utterly unprepared for the intimacies of married life who are driven apart by sexual dysfunction.

That may sound intriguing…and on the printed page it was.  The problem is that McEwan’s novel is a deep psychological study of two individuals, and deep psychology is not one of the things the movies do particularly well.

We can see the outside, but we’re not privy to what’s happening on the inside. And despite McEwan’s use of extensive flashbacks to depict the young lovers’ courtship and backgrounds, the whole enterprise feels like it’s unfolding at an emotional arm’s length.

Florence (Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) check into a seaside hotel for their honeymoon. They’re nervous…this is the big night, after all.  The time is the early ’60s and these two virgins are both eager and terrified.

In a series of flashbacks we see how they met and fell in love.

Edward is working class, a bit impetuous and keyed into the burgeoning pop culture of the day. His family history is far from storybook; his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) suffered a head injury when struck by a train and now devotes herself to making art in the nude.

Florence’s background is a pure 180 from Edward’s. She comes from the upper crust, plays violin in a string quartet, and married Edward despite the disdain of her snooty/pompous parents (Emily Watson, Samuel West).

He thinks Chuck Berry is awesome.  She thinks Chuck Berry is “quite, well, merry.” (That early exchange, initially amusing, carries grim portents for the couple’s compatibility.)

Continue Reading »

Douglas Booth and Elle Fanning as Percy and Mary Shelley

“MARY SHELLEY” My rating: 

120 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Men are shit.

At least that’s the moral of “Mary Shelley,” a biopic in which Elle Fanning portrays the author of Frankenstein.

The facts of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s life are plenty fascinating. She was born in 1797 to philosopher and political writer William Godwin (Stephen Dillane) and feminist and free-love advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, who died shortly after giving birth.

As Haifa Al-Mansour’s film begins, young Mary is torn between her professorial father and a wicked stepmother (Joanne Froggatt, late of “Downton Abbey”) who wastes no opportunity to harp on the sexual immorality that is young Mary’s inheritance.

One day a dashing young poet named Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) drops by Papa’s bookstore and the teenage Mary is smitten. He’s romantic. He’s smart. A secret affair ensues.

All is not smooth.  Percy is married, Mary discovers. And his bohemian lifestyle has led to his being cut off from his family’s wealth.

But so enraptured is our heroine that she runs off with him, bringing along her desperate-for-excitement stepsister Claire (Bel Powley). Continue Reading »

Nicolas Cage

“211” My rating:

86 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“211” is less interesting as a film than as a commentary on the failing fortunes of Nicolas Cage.

In the last five years the Oscar winner (for 1995’s “Leaving Las Vegas”) has starred in nearly 20 movies, only one of them (“Joe”) of more than passing interest. “211” is more of the same.

York Alec Shackleton’s action/crime drama is a mashup of “Die Hard” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” with Cage playing a beat cop (he’s about to turn in his retirement papers, of course) who finds himself in the middle of a bank robbery and hostage situation.

Curiously, Cage’s cop, Mike Chandler, is but one of a dozen characters of more or less equal importance.  Shackleton’s screenplay attempts to approach the situation from multiple perspectives.

Thus you’ve got Mike’s partner and son-in-law (Dwayne Cameron), as well as the black teen (Michael Rainey Jr.) who for disciplinary purposes has been required to do a police ride-along.  While pinned down the kid comes up with a MacGyver-ish way to communicate with the outside world.

Meanwhile his mother(Shari Watson),  the head of the hospital E.R., contends with a flood of casualties of the mayhem.

There’s also an Interpol cop (Sapir Azulay) who for months has been tracking the criminals, a band of former U.S. special forces soldiers turned murderously mercenary. These baddies are the least-developed of the characters, delivering curt orders in cliched militaryspeak.

“211” (police code for an armed robbery) has been competently made, with a couple of furious action sequences (and a disturbingly high civilian body count) but it really never adds up to much. Cage doesn’t embarrass himself here, but there’s only so much anyone could do with these cut-and-dried characters.

| Robert W. Butler

Ethan Hawke

“FIRST REFORMED” My rating: B+

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“First Reformed” doesn’t always work, but even as a partial failure it packs more mind- and soul-shaking punch than any other film yet released this year.

This simultaneously beautiful and desolate drama from Paul Schrader isn’t shy about borrowing from its antecedents, foremost among them Ingmar Bergman’s early ’60s religious trilogy (“Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light,” “The Silence”) and Robert Bresson’s 1951 “Diary of a Country Priest.”

But thanks in large part to what may be Ethan Hawke’s finest performance, “First Reformed” finds its own voice, one that uncomfortably weighs conformity against concern for God’s creation.

Our protagonist, Reverend Toller (Hawke), is pastor of First Reformed Church in a picturesque New England Town.

Established before the American Revolution, First Reformed has hardly any parishioners; its doors are kept open through the financial support of a local megachurch whose ambitious and charismatic preacher (an excellent Cedric the Entertainer) views it as a curiosity, a sort of historic religious theme park.

It’s immediately obvious that Toller has hit bottom. A former military chaplain, he urged his son to enlist; when the boy died in combat Toller’s wife left him.

Now he spends his days writing sermons nobody hears and scribbling in a journal — he calls it “a form of prayer” –that he hopes will provide insight into the tailspin that has become his life (“When writing about oneself one should show no mercy.”)

Physically he’s slowly becoming a wraith, thanks to digestive issues — cancer? — which limit him to a diet of bread and broth.

Occasionally, though, he actually does a bit of ministering. He’s approached by a young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who requests counseling for her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger).  Mary is pregnant and Michael wants her to abort the baby.

Continue Reading »

Toni Collette

“HEREDITARY” My rating: B 

127 minutes | MPAA rating: R

No one expects world-class acting from a horror movie. So when you get precisely that, it comes on like a sucker punch.

“Hereditary” is a ghost story — I think — featuring Toni Collette in an emotional performance that will leave audiences limp and exhausted.

Writer/director  Ari Aster’s film is hard to pin down…it may be about ghosts, or it may be a psychological study of mental and spiritual anguish manifesting in very creepy ways.

As the film begins Annie Graham (Collette) is burying her mother, from whom she was estranged for years before finally taking in the old lady at death’s door. Annie isn’t sure whether to react with sobs or cartwheels…Mom was a notoriously difficult personality.  (In her eulogy, Annie says she’s gratified to see so many new faces…she didn’t know this many people cared about her mother. It’s the film’s first subtle clue that Mom had a secret life.)

In the wake of the funeral Annie and her family try to get back to normal.  Husband Steve  (Gabriel Byrne) is an understanding intellectual type. Son Peter (Alex Wolff) is a teen pothead. Daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is something else again, an elfin misfit who, unlike other members of the family, really loved her grandma. In fact, she starts seeing apparitions of the dear departed.

One cannot say much about the plot of “Heredity” without ruining some major surprises.  Let’s just say that Grandma’s death is only the first tragedy to befall the clan; a far more traumatic one is yet to come.

And in the wake of that an emotionally shattered Annie finds herself turning first to a grief support group and then to a fellow mourner (the great Ann Dowd) who claims to have found a way to communicate with the dead.

Aster plays his cards very carefully,  dealing big plot points so matter of factly that it’s only in retrospect that we understand their importance.  There’s no big reveal until the end (and even then it’s a bit ambiguous); mostly he builds a nerve-wracking tension from small moments and observations. (Although there is a dramatic seance scene guaranteed to make every hair on your body stand up and salute.)

Continue Reading »

“THE RIDER” My rating: B 

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With “The Rider” it’s nearly impossible to say where real life ends and art begins.

In Chloe Zhao’s film Brady Jandreau portrays Brady Blackburn, a South Dakota rancher’s son who has suffered a near-fatal head injury during a rodeo competition.

Basically Jandreau is portraying himself…he suffered precisely that sort of head injury when thrown by a bucking bronc. His real-life father and sister (Tim and Lily Jandreau) portray his cinematic father and sibling.

And his real-life best friend, quadriplegic former bull rider Lane Scott, plays himself.

You can’t say this film lacks authenticity.

We first meet Brady just hours out of the hospital, where he spent a week in a coma before awakening and checking himself out against all medical advice. He’s got a new plate in his head and a set of stitches worthy of Frankenstein’s monster.  Frustrated, he uses a pair of pliers to pull the medical staples out of his skull.

The scar will eventually heal.  More problematic is what Brady will do with himself.  He’s been told that just riding a  horse — much less  climbing onto 600 pounds of angry bronco — could prove fatal.

His widowed, hard-drinking, barmaid-chasing father tells him to tough it out: “Play the cards you are dealt. Let it go.”

But Brady — who looks a bit like Josh Hartnett’s country cousin — feels utterly incomplete without his legs wrapped around a horse. Essentially “The Rider” is about whether for the sake of staying alive he can give up an essential part of himself.

Continue Reading »

Joonas Suotamo, Alden Ehrenreich

“SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” My rating: B- 

135 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

For one who has felt smothered by the solemn pomposity of recent “Star Wars” releases, the prequel “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a palate cleanser, an origin yarn about two of the franchise’s most beloved characters in which the words “The Force” are never uttered.

Yeah, it’s overlong. And as is par for the course for “Star Wars” films,  and the plot is mostly a series of mini-quests providing plenty of opportunity for f/x and action overkill. But at its best “Solo” reminds of why we fell in love with a galaxy far, far away in the first place.

Directed with assurance if not much personality by veteran Ron Howard (taking over after “Lego Movie” creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller were dismissed…who can tell who directed what in the final cut?), “Solo” follows Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) from his youth through his first big adventure(s).

Along the way father-and-son screenwriters Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan take the opportunity to fill in seminal but never-before-seen moments from Han’s bio:  How he got his last name in an “Ellis Island” moment, his first encounter with the towering Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), his acquisition of the Millennium Falcon and that distinctive blaster in the low-slung holster, and his early partnership/rivalry with gambler/smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

Our yarn begins on a planet where young Han and his girl Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) are among the orphans in the gang controlled by Lady Proxima, a huge caterpillar voiced by Linda Hunt (think “Oliver Twist’s” Fagin.) Already a conniver, Han absconds with a vial of a priceless energy source called coaxion, a few ounces of which should allow him and Qi’ra to bribe their way off the planet.

But things go bad and Han finds himself on his own, vowing to return for Qi’ra.

He enlists in the Imperial Air Force with dreams of piloting his own ship, but a few years later is a mere grunt knee-deep in trench warfare on a mud planet.  There he encounters not only Chewbacca, but crosses path with a band of mercenaries run by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who at the behest of the shadowy criminal syndicate Crimson Dawn steals materiel from the Imperial forces.

Pushing his way into Beckett’s group, Han participates in the film’s action highlight, the highjacking of a freight train speeding through a mountainous ice planet.  A mashup of “Snowpiercer” and a “Mad Max” movie, this sequence finds Beckett’s band battling not only the train’s Imperial guards but a rival crew of bandits intent on stealing their prize. Continue Reading »

Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen

“BOOK CLUB”  My rating: C+

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The advertising for “Book Club” tells us exactly what to expect. This vehicle for four fine actresses of a certain age (Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen) is basically “The Golden Girls” with Viagra. Don’t wait for surprises…there aren’t any.

The good news is that despite the self-congratulatory, nudge-nudge/wink-wink humor employed by director Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms,  “Book Club’s” cast — not just the female leads but the male supporting actors as well — are solid enough that even a curmudgeonly viewer can take comfort in basking in the glow of so much collective talent.

The premise finds four women, pals since college days, who meet regularly to discuss a new book. They are:

The recently widowed Diane (Keaton), who is contending with the smothering attentions of her two grown daughters (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton). They want to move Mom from L.A. out to their home in Arizona.

The vivacious Vivian (Fonda), a wealthy businesswoman and hotel owner who has never married and in fact refuses to sleep with men. Literally…she’ll bonk their brains out, but she won’t sleep with them, as that implies an intimacy she’s always avoided.

Sharon (Bergen) is a long-divorced federal judge more than a little peeved that her geeky ex-husband (Ed Begley Jr.) is now engaged to a braindead twentysomething blonde. She hasn’t had a date in 18 years.

Finally there’s Carol (Steenburgen), a successful restauranteur whose once-passionate marriage to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) has hit the doldrums. Recently retired, he’s now more interested in servicing his old motorcycle than his wife. Continue Reading »

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

“RBG”  My rating: B+

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Even if you fail to notice that the opening credits of “RBG” overwhelmingly feature women’s names, it will take only a few minutes to recognize this doc as possibly the most feminist movie of all time.

It comes with the territory.  At age 84 its subject, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is, for many of us, the voice of open-minded sanity on the U.S. Supreme Court. This diminutive grandmother has become a cultural icon with a funny (but dead serious) rapper nickname: The Notorious RBG.  Her elfin features appear on coffee cups, T-shirts and bumper stickers.

For millions of women, Ginsberg is the ultimate role model. Interviewee Gloria Steinem calls her “the closest thing to a superhero that I know.”

Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s film might be dismissed as hagiography — though the film opens with right-wing talk radio soundbites excoriating Justice Ginsberg, thereafter nary a discouraging word is heard. Apparently to know RBG is to love her.

And that’s pretty much how audiences will leave “RBG”…with love, respect and awe.

The film works on two levels. First there’s the public person, whose  class at Harvard Law featured  more than 500 students, only nine of whom were women. She taught gender law at Rutgers, then got involved in arguing cases (often before the Supreme Court) that changed the legal parameters of female rights.

But if she argued for abortion rights — maintaining that “freedom” was a cruel illusion if women were denied reproductive rights — and represented a woman denied entry to the all-male (and state-funded) Virginia Military Institute, she was also willing to challenge a Louisiana law that allowed women to opt out of jury duty. Equal is equal, after all.

The talking heads  assembled for this film — among them journalist Nina Totenberg, grandchildren and a slew of Ginsberg’s fellow attorneys — credit her with creating a legal landscape that case by case led to greater sexual equality.

And that was before Bill Clinton named her to the Supreme Court. Continue Reading »

Emily Blunt

“A QUIET PLACE” My rating: B

90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

A big idea will take you farther than a big budget. That was the lesson of last year’s “Get Out” and, on a somewhat more modest scale, of the creepily claustrophobic “A Quiet Place.”

Co-written and directed by John Krasinski, who stars with real-life wife Emily Blunt, “Quiet…” is an intimate post-apocalyptic tale that examines the dynamic of a besieged family. It was made with limited resources; happily talent was not one of the rationed goods.

We first meet the clan — I don’t believe their names are ever mentioned — as they quietly pillage through the remains of an abandoned town.  Emphasize the “quietly” part.

Some sort of alien invasion or government experiment gone bad has unleashed nasty spider-like creatures (we don’t get a good look at them until late in the proceedings) who have an insatiable appetite for mammalian blood.  Only three months after these creatures made their appearance, the human race is teetering on the edge of extinction.

This particular family — Mom (Blunt), Dad (Krasinski), Big Sister (Millicent Simmonds) and Little Brother (Noah Jupe) —  have survived in large part because Big Sister is hearing impaired and the other family members are fluent in sign language. They are able to silently communicate with their hands (what conversation the film offers is rendered in subtitles) and this has allowed them to elude the marauding invaders, who are sightless but have  a finely developed sense of hearing.

After a jarring prologue we find the characters living on a farm, spending much of their time in a basement bunker. They don’t wear shoes (bare feet make less noise) and move with slow deliberation.  They have laid paths of sand around the farmstead…sand absorbs the sound of footsteps. Continue Reading »

John Cena, Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz

“BLOCKERS” My rating: C+

102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A bit of Apatow lite with a heavy load of raunch, “Blockers” mixes parental paranoia and adolescent randiness.  Despite a few flat passages, it mostly works…which is to say it’ll make you laugh even if you’re ashamed to.

This feature directing debut from veteran comedy writer/producer Kay Cannon (the “Pitch Perfect” franchise, “30 Rock,” “New Girl”) centers on a trio of hovering parents who discover that their three adored daughters have signed a pact to lose their virginity on prom night.

The film’s title (the script is by Brian and Jim Kehoe) is short for “cock blockers,” and that bit of information says a good deal about the sort of lurid laughs audiences can expect.

Mitchell (John Cena), Lisa (Leslie Mann) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) meet while dropping their daughters off for the first day of  elementary school.  The little girls bond almost immediately.

More than a decade later the three young ladies are facing high school graduation as virgins…and decide to do something about it. When the parental units intercept texts and emails detailing the planned deflorations, the oldsters go into full anxious mode and set out to prevent any such sexual encounters.

Continue Reading »

“READY PLAYER ONE” My rating: B
140 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

That most films based on video games suck mightily should come as no surprise…video games are all about dishing visceral thrills, not building dramatic momentum or developing characters.

This is why Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is such a remarkable achievement. Instead of attempting to wrestle the video gaming experience into a standard dramatic format, this surprisingly entertaining entry is really just one long video game, albeit a game with so much pop-culture name dropping that geeks will spend countless hours documenting all the visual and aural references.

Think “Tron” to the nth degree.

Don’t go looking for the usual plot developments or relatable characters. The strength of  “Ready Player One” lies in its ability to create an totally plausible fantasy world that operates by its own rules.  At times the audience’s immersion in this universe is total and totally transporting.

The screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (based on Cline’s novel) unfolds in the year 2045.  Economic and environmental disasters have left the working class chronically unemployed.  They live in “stacks,”  mini-high rises made of mobile homes resting on metal frameworks. In this world video games are the opiate of the masses — when they’re not eating, sleeping or taking bathroom breaks, the citizenry are experiencing virtual realities through 3-D goggles.

This is the world of Wade (Ty Sheridan of “Mud,” “Joe” and the X-Men franchise), a shy teen whose on-line avatar is the game-savvy Parzival.  Wade/Parzival is a devotee of The Oasis, a massive video game developed by the late programming guru Halliday (played by Mark Rylance in flashbacks) and so complex and challenging that in the years since its inception no player has come close to beating it. But millions log in daily in an attempt to find three hidden keys that will unlock Halliday’s fantasy world and grant the winner ownership of the unimaginably wealthy Oasis empire.

The challenge attracts not just individual gamers like Parzifal and on-line buddies like the hulking giant Aech or the samurai warrior Daito.  The IOI corporation and its Machiavellian director Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) has its own army of players who compete for the prize.   The person — or business — that solves the game’s many puzzles will in effect become one of Earth’s dominant forces.

Continue Reading »

“BLACK PANTHER” My rating: B- 

134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Some films are noteworthy for their artistry.

Others earn a niche in the history books for their cultural footprint, for staking out sociological territory at just the right moment, for tapping into the zeitgeist.

Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” leans heavily toward the second category.

Narratively this is a  typical Marvel release, a superhero origin story that, as all Marvel movies must, ends with an extended fx-heavy smackdown.

But  there’s far more to “Black Panther.”  The first Marvel movie starring a black superhero, featuring a predominantly black cast and backed by with a heavy presence of African Americans in key creative roles,  the picture arrives at a moment when America’s oppressed groups — galvanized by an onslaught of alt-right rhetoric and rampant assholism — are asserting themselves with renewed determination.

Last year  “Wonder Woman” introduced a whole slew of female issues into the superhero universe; in retrospect it feels like a calling card for the “Me Too” movement.

“Panther” does pretty much the same thing for African Americans.  Think of it as Black Pride on steroids.

Based on the character created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the yarn introduces us to Wakanda, an African nation that to all outward appearances is pretty much your Third World backwater.

Ha.

Thanks to the nation’s supply of vibranium — an element brought to Earth in a meteor — Wakandans live in a high-tech paradise.  The clothing, artwork and architecture may be right out of “The Lion King,”  but behind the scenes vibranium provides unlimited energy, healing power and weaponry. Invisible aircraft, even.

What’s more, in conjunction with tribal spirituality, vibranium imparts to the Wakandan king  superhuman abilities, transforming him into the all-but-invincible Black Panther.

All these wonders are hidden behind a shimmering energy wall which protects Wakanda from the outside world  (also the case with the Amazonian homeland in “Wonder Woman”). By keeping to themselves the prosperous and happy Wakandans ensure that  vibranium never falls into the hands of weapons-crazy Westerners who, it’s obvious, are their inferiors in just about every category worth measuring. Continue Reading »

Sonia Warshawski

“BIG SONIA” My rating: B+

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

At first glance there’s nothing particularly big about Sonia Warshawski.

If anything, Sonia is tiny…though she does make an impression way out of proportion to her diminutive size.  Maybe it has something to do with her penchant for animal print fabrics and bright red lipstick.

In any case, one need watch the new documentary “Big Sonia” for only a few minutes to realize we’re dealing here with a major-league personality. In part it’s because of how the Polish-born Sonia handles the English language (she describes a situation as “bog-mindling”); a big chunk of it is her energy, remarkable for a woman who in her 90s int still running the tailor shop founded by her late husband decades earlier.

But mostly it’s her back story, that of a Holocaust survivor who carved out a new life in Kansas City, raising a family, starting a business and, with the fullness of time, becomes a  conduit to the past by giving public talks about the horrors of her youth.

“Big Sonia” — made by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and co-director Todd Soliday — covers a lot of territory.

It examines how Sonia’s tailor shop — the last surviving store in the now-razed Metcalf South Mall — became a dash of European chic amid all our Midwestern drabness. One longtime customer describes it as “a neighborhood bar &  grill without the booze.” It becomes clear that many of Sonia’s customers are as interested in hanging out with her as they are in having their hems adjusted.

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