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Kate Micucci, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza

THE LITTLE HOURS” My rating: C+ (Opens July 21 at the Tivoli)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Set in rural Italy in 1347, “The Little Hours” strives for historical accuracy, from the costumes and settings to the musical score beneath the action.

Except, that is, when it comes to dialogue. These 14th-century characters — nuns, priests, noblemen, servants — converse in the most modern of idioms.

They swear like drunken sailors. They employ 20th-century phrases.

It’s the contrast between the visual authenticity and the film’s aural outrageousness that gives “Little Hours” — based on a raunchy story by Boccaccio — its comic oomph.

That and a handful of wickedly funny performances from a remarkably deep roster of players.

Mostly the yarn — written and directed by Jeff Baena, maker of the zombie comedy “Life After Beth” — is set in a convent where the fundamentally decent Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) has her hands full keeping peace among her brood of black-habited and foul- tempered nuns.

The snippiest of the bunch is Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), a explosively nasty woman with an unblinking death stare and a vocabulary capable of peeling paint.

Her cohort is the clumsy Sister Geneva (Kate Micucci), the convent’s gnomish tattletale, a snoop always eager to inform on her sisters.

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Sally Hawkins

“MAUDIE” My rating: B (Opens July 21 at the Tivoli and Rio)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Simultaneously a biopic about an eccentric outsider artist and a politically incorrect love story, “Maudie” isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy.

Director Aisling Walsh’s study of Nova Scotia painter Maud Lewis  — the Canadian equivalent of Grandma Moses — is both inspiring and troubling.

Inspiring because the naive Maud overcame crippling arthritis to develop her primitive yet poetic visual style, and troubling because of her marriage to a man who, at least early in their relationship, was guilty of both physical and psychological abuse.

Good thing, then, that Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White have for their stars the terrific Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke, whose performances transcend our usual notions of marital right and wrong.

When we first meet Maud (Hawkins) in the late 1930s, she is a prisoner of her domineering aunt and her indifferent older brother.  Thanks to the arthritis from which she has suffered most of her life, the thirtysomething Maud moves slowly and clumsily; her unimpressive physical presence leads many to assume she’s mentally incapacitated as well.

Hardly.  Though poorly educated, Maud has a biting wit and fierce sense of self.  When she learns that crusty local bachelor Everett Lewis (Hawke) is advertising for a housekeeper, she declares herself a free woman and goes after the job.

Basically she ends up working for room and board for a laborer who was reared in an orphanage, has minimal people skills and is often ruled by his volcanic temper. She puts up with his cruelty because she has nowhere else to go…and because she realizes she’s smart enough to manipulate this angry ignoramus, eventually marrying him.

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Fred Armisen, Adam Pally, Zoe Lister-Jones

“BAND AID” My rating: B-

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

Communication between married couples is an eternal minefield.

You say too much. You say too little. You can’t take criticism.  You find too much enjoyment in dishing criticism.

For Anna (Zoe Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally), the miserable couple at the center of the comedy “Band Aid,” the answer to their misery is to start a band and pour all their issues into caustic but catchy pop tunes.

Turns out to be pretty good therapy.

Lister-Jones not only stars in “Band Aid,” but she wrote it, directs it and composed the funky/punky songs.  It is pretty much a one-woman show…and it pretty much rocks.

As the film begins Anna and Ben are engaged in  yet another ragfest.  They live lives of not-so-quiet desperation.

She was an award-winning writer in college; now she’s an Uber driver.  He’s supposed to be a graphic designer, but he spends all day playing video games.

They have knock-down-drag-outs about dirty dishes piling up in the sink.  About his grooming issues. And of course about their lack of physical intimacy. (“The sensation I get from sex and the one I get eating pizza are pretty much interchangeable now.”)

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Zoe Kazan, Kumail Nanjiani

“THE BIG SICK”  My rating: B 

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Romantic comedy is so ubiquitous — so familiar and overworked and recycled — that nobody expects originality from the genre.

Then along comes “The Big Sick” to take us by surprise.

Directed by Michael Showalter, produced by Judd Apatow and penned by stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, the film starts out in familiar boy-meets-girl territory only to take us to unexpected places.

Nanjiani, a regular on cable’s “Silicon Valley,” is a Pakistani who came to the U.S. for college. Here he plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself, also named Kumail.

The film’s first hour will seem more than a little familiar to fans of “Master of None,” the much-awarded Netflix comedy from Aziz Ansari, the son of Indian immigrants.

While working as an Uber driver, Kumail struggles to make it on the comedy circuit, determined not to rely too much on his ethnicity for laugh fodder. His deadpan persona is belied by the dry hilarity of his zingers.

His mother and father (Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher) expect him to be a good Muslim (when visiting them, Kumail dutifully retreats to the basement with his prayer rug but spends his time there digging through boxes of childhood belongings).

Moreover, our hero is subjected to a steady stream of available Pakistani woman (they exhibit everything from firm self-confidence to embarrassment and desperation) who just happen to be in the neighborhood when he’s having dinner with the folks.

Kumail hasn’t the heart to announce that he’s not interested in a traditional arranged marriage.

Romance intervenes with Emily (Zoe Kazan), who gently heckles Kumail during a show then sticks around for a little intense cross-cultural interaction.  In one of the film’s goofiest moments, she decides to end their night of passion by calling for a ride; since he’s the closest Uber driver, his cellphone goes off. Continue Reading »

Sam Elliott

“THE HERO” My rating: B- 

93 minutes |MPAA rating: R

Some of us would be content to watch Sam Elliott, he of the sonorous voice and luxurious ‘stache, sit in a lawn chair reading the phonebook.

It doesn’t quite come to that in “The Hero,” one of Elliott’s rare starring roles, though Brett Haley’s film recycles plot points that have been picked over so many times there’s not much meat left.

No, the reason to watch “Hero” is, quite simply, Sam Elliott, who at age 72 exudes more raw charisma and sex appeal than actors a fraction of his age.

This is what I want to be when I grow up.

Elliott plays Lee Hayden, a white-haired actor who back in the ’70s was the star of Westerns. Lee’s career, though, has faded with the popularity of the cinematic oater.  As “The Hero” begins he’s doing commercial voice-over work: “Lone Star Barbecue Sauce: The perfect pardner for your chicken.”

Whoa. Deja vu all over again.  Remember Elliott’s distinctive voice telling us in radio ads: “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner”?  This is only the first time “The Hero” will dip into the meta pool,  drawing on Elliott’s own career to create his on-screen character.

Early on in Haley and co-writer Marc Basch’s screenplay Lee learns that he has pancreatic cancer.  As Samuel Johnson observed, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Slowly, hesitantly, painfully, Lee attempts to reach out to those who have meant something to him but whom he has ignored in recent years…especially his ex-wife Valarie (Katharine Ross, the real-life Mrs. Elliott) and his embittered grown daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter, star of Netflix’s “Jessica Jones”).

In truth, Lee’s only friend appears to be his pot dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a former actor who lives in a cannabis haze watching Buster Keaton comedies. Not the worst lifestyle. Continue Reading »

Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Elza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm

“BABY DRIVER”  My rating: B (Opens wide on June 28)

113 minutes  | MPAA rating: R

At a time when hipness has been reduced to emojis and man buns, filmmaker Edgar Wright dishes the real deal with the uber-stylish “Baby Driver,” a crime caper that melds “Drive”-style action and “American Graffiti” musicality.

The results are both familiar and fresh.

The hero of Wright’s funky tough-guy fantasy is Baby (“The Fault in Our Stars’” Ansel Elgort), a kid (he’s maybe 19) who, as the film begins, has two loves: driving and music.

Baby is an expert wheelman employed by Doc (Kevin Spacey), a shadowy crime king specializing in impossible heists. A few years back the youthful Baby stole and wrecked Doc’s car, and now he’s paying off the debt as a getaway driver.

He’s really, really good, as demonstrated by the hair-raising robbery and chase that opens the film.

Baby is also a world-class music freak who is rarely seen without earbuds firmly in place. Other people walk down the street; Baby bops, propelled by the beats in his head.

Not since John Travolta’s Tony Manero sashayed through Brooklyn to the strains of “Stayin’ Alive” has mortal man turned mere perambulation into such a display of awesomeness.

In fact, Baby keeps a small arsenal of MP3 players in his pockets, each filled with a specific kind of music depending upon his mood and the task at hand. He’s got playlists for cruising, for chilling, for getting pumped up and for settling down.

As a result “Baby Driver” has more great across-the-spectrum pop music than any movie since George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” the film that back in 1973 convinced Hollywood that you don’t need a composer and original score if you can tell your story with familiar radio hits. Continue Reading »

Jai Courtney, Lily James

“THE EXCEPTION” My rating: B-  

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

At 88 years of age, Christopher Plummer just keeps getting better.

In “The Exception” he portrays an historic figure — Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany — and pretty much mops up the floor with actors half his age.

The premise of David Leveaux’s directing debut finds a young German officer — Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) — assigned to the thankless task of heading the household guard for Wilhelm II (Plummer), who has lived in exile in the Netherlands since abdicating the German throne two decades earlier after losing World War I.

Though the Nazi hierarchy has little use for the old man, Wilhelm still is regarded by some members of the German public as a beloved figurehead.  It would be a p.r. black eye should he be lost to an assassin or kidnapped by the Allies and spirited off to England. Brandt’s presence is meant to prevent that.

For the young officer — who was wounded in the invasion of Poland — the assignment is a bit of an insult. Wilhelm and his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer), live as high as they can on the cash Hitler’s henchmen provide, all the while dreaming of restoring the monarchy and once again wearing the crown.  Brandt is expected to tolerate their pretensions without encouraging them.

There’s one bright spot in this assignment. The Kaiser has a new housemaid, Mieke (Lily James), who catches the Captain’s eye.  Before long they are having a grand old time despite Hermine’s rule against copulation among members of the staff.

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Connie Britton, Salma Hayek

“BEATRIZ AT DINNER” My rating: C+

83 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Beatriz at Dinner” might be called a comedy of discomfort.

Actually, there’s a lot more discomfort than comedy.

Scripted by Mike White (“The Good Girl”) and directed by Miguel Arteta (a veteran of numerous TV seres), “Beatriz” offers a fish-out-of-water scenario brimming over with class, race and political implications.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek, sans makeup and sporting a mildly horrifying set of bangs) is a New Age-y therapist whose skills run from your standard massage to aura readings.  On this particularly day she has schlepped out from her headquarters in Pasadena to see to the needs of one of her richest (and, it seems, most demanding) clients.

Cathy (Connie Britton) lives in a gated community with an ocean view, along with her high-rolling husband Grant (David Warshofsky). She’s preparing to host a dinner that night and feels a desperate need for some hands-on work from the talented Beatriz.  (It says volumes that Cathy is stressed when all she really had to do was decide on a menu. Household servants and a caterer do all the real work.)

With the massage session over, Beatriz prepares to drive home, only to find that her car won’t start.  Cathy — who credits Beatriz’s therapies with getting her daughter through a bout with cancer — graciously suggests that the masseuse join the other guests for the evening.

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Joicie Appell

” THE TREE” My rating: B- (Opens July 14 at the Tivoli)

  95 minutes | No MPAA rating

KC-based ma-and-pa filmmakers Stephen Wallace Pruitt and Mary Settle Pruitt cannot be accused of taking the easy way out.

To date they have produced three mostly self-financed feature films, all of remarkably high technical quality and all of which avoid genre labeling. The Pruitts are, for want of a better word, humanists whose work eschews  violence, sexuality, offensive language and the sort of conflict that requires  a villain. I’m yet to encounter any actual bad guys in their cinematic world.

Their latest, “The Tree,” has cleaned up on the festival circuit and is now receiving a commercial run at the independent  Tivoli Theatre. It’s a relatively simple yarn that gains depth thanks to the lead performance of Joicie Appell, for decades a staple on the Kansas City theatre scene and now, at 88, making the most of her first movie leading role.

Appell plays widowed grandmother Dorothy Thorp, a resident of Wamego, Kansas, who has a mind to drive her old car east to Terre Haute, Indiana, her birthplace.  As she approaches 90 she’s been thinking a lot about the little girl who was her best friend way back then, and about the magnificent tree which became their playground, hiding place and sacred site.

The Pruitts’ film is a series of vignettes as Dorothy makes her way across the Midwest. Periodically the story returns to Wamego where her neighbors, Marge and John (Laura Kirk, Paul Fellers)  fret over whether they should be telling Dorothy’s relations of this late-in-life fling. John takes a hands-off approach; Marge, though, is serious about her gig as Dorothy’s unofficial guardian. Like everyone in this movie, they’re decent folk.

There are also flashbacks to Dorothy’s semi-idyllic childhood.

“The Tree” quickly falls into a pattern. Dorothy meets folks along the way, gets insights into their troubles, and does what she can to help.  Often that means financial generosity:  leaving a humongous tip for a waitress who has poured out her heart to the traveller, or leaving behind a survival fund for a homeless veteran she finds sleeping in a doorway.

After a while a certain sameness sets in — each scene employs the same setup and rhythms — but keeping us involved is Appell’s performance, a low-keyed wonder in which her character’s thoughts and emotions are presented with refreshing economy. It’s the furthest thing from scenery chewing.

“The Tree” looks and sounds great, which is no small thing when you consider that with a budget of only $60,000 the filmmaking couple had to do darn near every job on the set themselves (cinematography, editing, direction, casting, production design, art direction, sound…etc.).

Like all of their films to date, “The Tree” is an obvious labor of love.  Stephen Wallace Pruitt —  a member of the economics faculty at the University of Missouri-Kansas City — based the story on his own late mother and her childhood best friend.

Even if you take exception to some of the particulars, you cannot remain immune to “The Tree’s” wealth of feeling.

| Robert W. Butler

Okra,An Seo Hyun

“OKJA” My rating: C (Now on Netflix)

118 minutes | No MPAA rating

Following up his multi-layered sci-fi extravaganza “Snowpiercer,” Korean auteur Joon-ho Bong delivers the Netflix original movie “Okja.”

Like its predecessor it blends dystopian imagery, social criticism and first-rate special effects, this time to tell the tale of a girl and her best friend, an elephant-sized pig-creature.

Unlike “Snowpiercer,” though, the pieces don’t fit together. Satire, childlike innocence and violence collide in an adventure nearly derailed by jarring tonal shifts.

The film begins with Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the head of the massive agribusiness that bears her family name (it sounds like Monsanto for a reason), announcing to the world that her firm has developed a super pig that will solve all our food needs.  To kick off the project she is sending baby pigs to farmers in 26 countries; over 10 years these porkers will be monitored as they are reared under local animal husbandry conditions.

The piglet Okja is blessed to be sent to the mountains of Korea where she is seen to by young Mija (An Seo Hyun) and her grandfather.  Mirja and the massive Okja lead a life of bucolic bliss.  They are best friends — though Bong is careful not to ascribe to Okja human intellect.

Of course, Mija doesn’t know that her big bud is destined to become superbacon.

“Okra” treads a familiar path when it becomes the tale of a fugitive child and her pet outrunning the evil forces of grown-up life.  But Bong isn’t really all that interested in that plot line, preferring to devote much screen time to a ham-handed (sorry about that) satire of corporate greed, human vanity and nitwit idealism.

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