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Adrian Titian,  Maria Dragus

“GRADUATION”  My rating: B (Opens April 28 at the Tivoli)

128 minutes | MPAA rating: R

America doesn’t have a filmmaker comparable to Romania’s Cristian Mungiu.  For more than a decade now Mungiu has served as his country’s cinematic conscience, exploring  in film after film Romania’s troubled past and infuriating present.

His biggest international hit has been  2007’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.” Set in the bad old days of the communist Ceausescu regime it follows a  college student as she tries to arrange an illegal abortion for her  roommate. That film offered a portrait of a society in which ordinary individuals routinely break the law simply to ensure their day-to-day survival.

Mungiu’s latest, “Graduation,” is set in the post-Ceausescu present. But cheating as a way of life remains entrenched in Romanian culture.

Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) is a physician in a provincial Romanian city. He’s a fat, middled-aged man who prides himself on never taking bribes from desperate patients seeking preferential treatment — although he may not exactly be a moral giant, since he’s having an affair with a young single mother (Malina Manovici) who was once his patient.

His daughter, Eliza (Maria Drăguş) is about to graduate from high school. She’s been accepted by Cambridge University in England, much to the delight of Romeo and his phlegmatic wife Magda (Lia Bugnar). The couple fled Romania in the bad old days and returned only after the fall of Ceausescu, anticipating a brave new world of opportunity and promise.

Things didn’t work out that way.  The country may no longer be under the thumb of a half-mad strong man, but the stifling bureaucracy makes any kind of real progress problematic.  If Eliza is to have any future, Romeo believes, she must get out of Romania.

Just one problem…Eliza can go to England only if she  geat high scores on a battery of state-mandated examinations required of all new graduates (they’re kind of like the SATs on steroids).

On the eve of the test Eliza is seriously shaken after an assault by a would-be rapist. Fearing his traumatized daughter may not be at her best for the exams, Romeo looks for an edge.

A sympathetic  acquaintance on the police force suggests that Romeo talk to a vice-mayor in need of a kidney transplant. Romeo can pull strings to move the politician up on the transplant list in exchange for Eliza being allowed to cheat on the exam.

It’s the Romanian way of doing things.

 

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David Lynch

“DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE” My rating: B  (Opens April 21 at the Screenland Tapcade)

90 minutes | NO MPAA rating

You’d expect that a documentary about David Lynch would concentrate on his substantial body of film work: “Eraserhead,” “Mulholland Drive,” “The Elephant Man”…even the disastrous “Dune.”

Heck, even Lynch’s failures are interesting.

But co-directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm go in an entirely different direction.

Rather than concentrate on the films, “David Lynch: The Art Life” centers on Lynch’s work in the visual arts…and not on his technique or subject matter but rather on his ideas about art in general.

Then result is both a sort of biography of the artist as a young man (lots of photos and films of Lynch’s youth and college years), lots of stories from his formative years.  We see examples of his current visual works that directly reflect those youthful moments of excitement and trauma (mostly trauma, if the prevailing darkness of his vision is any indication.)

Big chunks of the film show Lynch, now in his early ’70s, working in  his home studio.  His output is simultaneously childish, sophisticated and disturbing. He works with his hands, smearing paint with his fingers (often accompanied by his 2-year-old daughter).

His images are ragged, blurry, dreamlike.

The man seems compelled to create at every opportunity. (“Keep painting. Keep painting. See if you catch something.”)

We get Lynch’s memories of a happy childhood (“I never heard my parents argue, ever”), his discovery of art as an outlet, his early dabbling in experimental films.

It’s a stream-of-consciousness trip through David Lynch’s brain.

Those who want a discussion of how he makes art and what it means will be disappointed.

Those willing to think about art  as a life choice will find the film a treasure trove.

| Robert W. Butler

Gemma Atherton, Bill Nighy

“THEIR FINEST” My rating: B-

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

What is it with filmmakers making movies about making movies?

“Their Finest,” the latest from Danish director Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”), takes that admittedly amusing self-absorption and pumps it up with World War II-era nostalgia and nascent female empowerment.

In Blitz-ravaged London, copywriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) lands the gig of a lifetime.  She’s hired by the Ministry of Information’s Film Division to write a feature film — one that is both “authentic and optimistic” — that will embody Britain’s can-do spirit in the face of Hitler’s juggernaut.

The film is intended as pan-Atlantic propaganda that will show war-wary American audiences that Britain is more than supercilious aristocrats, that it’s a nation of everyday men and women fighting heroically for survival.

Catrin finds her subject in the real-life experiences of two spinster sisters who stole their drunken uncle’s boat and became part of the mass evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in France.

Though she already has a significant other (Jack Huston, playing an unsuccessful painter of glum cityscapes), Catrin finds intellectual stimulation (and other sorts as well) in her new writing partner, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). He’s one of those seen-everything cynics who nevertheless knows exactly how to manipulate an audience (“Film is real life with the boring stuff cut out”).

Together they figure out how to cajole a fading matinee idol  (Bill Nighy, playing the sort of jaded egomaniac he does so well) into taking the seemingly inconsequential role of the drunken uncle. Somewhat more perplexing is how they are to satisfy the Ministry by creating a character for a non-acting American  (Jake Lacy) who has been flying missions for the R.A.F.

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Left to right: Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley

“FREE FIRE”  My rating: C+

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A dozen tough guys stewing in their own testosterone. A van packed with illegal weapons.  A briefcase full of cash. A closed environment from which there is no easy escape.

What could go wrong?

A streamlined 90 minutes of pumped-up bullet blasting (literally) and wienie waving (metaphorically), “Free Fire” is the latest from Brit action auteur Ben Wheatley (“Kill List”), but its origins are pure Quentin Tarantino, with special nods to “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Hateful Eight.”

In an abandoned umbrella factory in Boston an arms deal is taking place.

Chris (Cillian Murphy) has crossed the pond to buy automatic weapons for the IRA (the time is the mid-‘70s, judging by the dreadful fashions, hairstyles and absence of cell phones).

He’s backed by the grimly efficient hitman Frank (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), Frank’s screwup brother-in-law Stevo (Sam Riley), and Stevo’s worthless running buddy, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti).

Selling the weapons is Rhodesian gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a world-class sleazebag whose smarmy mouth keeps writing checks his fists cannot cash.  Good thing his seemingly civilized partner Martin (Babou Ceesay) is there to keep Vernon in check.

Vernon has his own goon squad on hand:  The mountainously hairy Jimmy (Mark Monero) and the wizened Gordon (Noah Taylor).

Supervising the transaction are the two middlemen who set up the deal.  Ord (Armie Hammer) is a superslick dude in a turtleneck and blazer who oozes post-modern irony; Justine (Brie Larson) is a cool beauty sharp enough to verbally emasculate chauvinists like Vernon but willing to use her seductive skills to get what she wants. Continue Reading »

Oscar Isaacs (left)

“THE PROMISE” My rating: C+ 

134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Sometimes the story behind a movie is more interesting than the movie itself.

So it is with “The Promise,” a pet project of the late Kirk Kerkorian (one one of the architects of modern Las Vegas and past owner of the M-G-M Studio), who devoted years and a chunk of his fortune to create a film about the Armenian genocide of 1915-’20.

Never heard of the Armenian genocide?  Join the club.  Giving ill-educated audiences a glimpse of this swept-under-the-rug apocalypse is “The Promise’s” very reason for being. (Kerkorian was the son of Armenian emigres to the U.S.)

Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenians — members of a Christian minority within the Ottoman Empire — were systematically murdered during World War I.

To this day the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge that the slaughter — many see it as a sort of dry run for Hitler’s “final solution” — even  took place.

In fact, a well-financed disinformation campaign currently is underway to  dismiss the history presented in “The Promise.”  After several  preview screenings  earlier this year, the film’s IMDb page was flooded with more than 86,000 user reviews, with nearly two thirds of them negative. Apparently 86,000 persons showed up for a handful of preview screenings…not!

Clearly, “The Promise” is punching buttons.  But how is it as a movie?

Just  O.K.  This David Lean-ish effort (penned by Robin Swicord, an Oscar nominee for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) offers a three-way romance set against the sweep of churning world events (see “Dr. Zhivago”). It’s been directed by Terry George, who a few years back gave us the equally earnest “Hotel Rwanda” about tribal genocide in Africa. Production values are generally good, and in some instances outstanding.

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Charlie Hunnam

“THE LOST CITY OF Z” My rating: B

141 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There are really two movies at work in James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z.”

One unfolds in the well-appointed parlors, bucolic fields and imposing halls of turn-of-the-last-century England.

The other plays out in a world of daunting jungles,  piranha-infested rivers and unpredictable Amazonian cannibals.

Holding those two realities together is the real-life figure of Percy Faucett, an Englishman who embodied his era’s spirit of discovery, scientific exploration and a seemingly superhuman need to experience physical challenges and personal perils.

“The Lost City of Z” (the Z is pronounced “zed,” Brit-style) is the most expansive, grandest vision of writer/director Gray’s career (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards,” “The Immigrant”), achieving at times the sweep of a David Lean epic.

And as is the case with Lean, it sometimes seems that the epic overpowers the human elements.

We first meet Faucett (Charlie Hunnam, about 180 degrees away from his biker Hamlet in cable’s “The Sons of Anarchy”) as a struggling young military officer whose prospects are limited, in the words of one aristocratic snob, because he has been “rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.”

Faucett gets a shot at fame and glory when he’s asked by the Royal Geographic Society to travel to the Amazon to prevent a war.  Seems the Bolivians and the Brazilians cannot agree on an official border between their two nations; Faucett is to survey the impenetrable jungle and set a boundary that will ensure the peace.

Accompanied by his equally adventurous assistant, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson in full beard mode), the two not only accomplish their mission but stumble across tantalizing evidence that somewhere deep in the wilderness are the ruins of a centuries-old city, a metropolis that would have been bigger and more sophisticated than anything in Europe at that time.

Returning to Britain a national hero, Faucett touts his belief in the lost city, leading to accusations that he has fallen for an “El Dorado”-type myth. That attitude is as much racist as it is scientific…Faucett’s belief that the Amazon Indians once had a world-class civilization doesn’t go down well with imperialists who embrace the white man’s duty to raise and/or exploit the world’s great unwashed. Continue Reading »

Cezanne (Guillame Gallienne) and Zola (Guiilame Canet)

“CEZANNE ET MOI”  My rating: B

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Real friends can endure almost anything.

In the case of the famous true friendship shared by novelist Emile Zola and post-impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, it meant enduring class differences, professional jealousy, romantic entanglements and, perhaps, a touch of mental illness.

“Cezanne et Moi,” the latest from writer/director Daniele Thompson, attempts nothing less than to encapsulate a nearly 70-year relationship between two giants of French arts. Not that it was always a given that both of them would become artistic immortals.

The boys met when Cezanne, a son of provincial wealth, befriended new-kid-in-town Zola.  Their adventures in the forests and mountains around Aix cemented a connection that could not be broken even by the disapproval of Cezanne’s father, who thought the Italian-born Zola no respectable companion for his up-and-coming son.

Ironically, it is the financially strapped Zola (played as an adult by Guillaume Canet) who first scores success with novels like 1867’s Therese Paquin. Money and celebrity follow…much to the consternation of Cezanne (Guillaume Gallienne), who has been disowned by his family and struggles to find the artistic style that finally will be his enduring legacy. (It will be a long struggle; Cezanne’s genius wasn’t recognized until late in his life.)

Cezanne becomes an unwashed antisocial brawler (he instigates a fistfight with swells who dare criticize Manet’s “Dejuener sur l’herbe”), a drinker and a frequenter of whorehouses. He is driven to paint, yet for most of his life his painting isn’t particularly good.

He resents Zola’s success and bourgeoise lifestyle, especially after Zola marries a former seamstress (Alice Pol) with whom both men had been intimate.

Even worse, Cezanne finds himself fictionally depicted  in Zola’s novels and, in effect, doing research for the author.  Too sexually uptight to to actually visit the dens of inequity he is writing about, Zola relies on Cezanne’s misadventures for ideas.

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Jack Lowden

“TOMMY’S HONOUR”  My rating: B (Opens April 14 at the Town Center, Glenwood Arts and Cinemark Palace)

117 minutes | MRAA rating:  PG

If the Yankees’ Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had been father and son, their story would play a lot like that of Thomas Morris and his son, Tommy Jr.

More than anyone before or since, these 19th-century Scotsmen refined, codified, and popularized the game of golf.

That most of today’s 60 million golfers have never heard of the Morris clan is a crime. The new film “Tommy’s Honour” is poised to remedy this situation.

Director Jason Connery (Sean’s son) and scripters Pamela Martin and Kevin Cook have fashioned a great-looking duo biopic that delves into the origins of a huge popular sport, follows one character’s tragic arc amid generational conflicts, and delivers a swift kick to an overbearing British class system.

It’s a satisfying mix of sport, personal drama and social conscience.

In the 1850s young Tommy Morris grows up under the wing of Tom Morris Sr. (the ever reliable Peter Mullan), who runs what today you’d call the pro shop at Scotland’s St. Andrews Links, where the game was invented a century earlier.

Tom Senior’s job description is flexible. He coaches players (invariably they are drawn from the snobbish nobility). He designs and manufactures clubs and other equipment in his shop. He maintains the course. He caddies.

And he plays professionally, though that means something different than what we now recognize as professional golfing.

There are no prize purses. Instead the elder Morris is sponsored by a cabal of rich gentlemen.  Each match is surrounded by furious wagering; when Tom triumphs his backers give him a share of the winnings. How much is up to them. Being a working class bloke, he accepts that this is the way things are.

Young Tommy (Jack Lowden) comes of age with a club in his hand and by his late teens can outplay his father.  But whereas Dad is an undemanding traditionalist, Tommy announces to the rich swells that from now on he’ll collect the winning bets and dole out the money to them. 

The stuffed shirts (Sam Neill plays their leader) grouse but finally give in. The kid is that good. He’s the sport’s first true superstar.

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Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine

“GOING IN STYLE”   My rating: C 

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The story told in “Going in Style” — three disgruntled old codgers rob a bank — has the makings of a fine movie.

We know this because of the original “Going in Style” starring George Burns, Lee Strasberg and Art Carney.  I saw it just once when it opened in 1979, but the film’s seamless blend of comedy and end-of-life seriousness has hung strong in my memory for nearly four decades.

Minutes after watching the new “Going in Style” its memory already is fading.

Which is a shame, given that it features three Oscar-winning actors — Michael Caine, Alan Arkin and Morgan Freeman — whose combined thespian power should be enough to power a battleship.

Oh, there are flashes of genuine emotion here, but they are fleeting, buried under cheap laughs, grotesque improbabilities, and the jittery pacing of short-attention-span filmmaking.

Joe (Caine), Willie (Freeman) and Albert (Arkin) are Brooklyn neighbors and longtime workers at a steel plant.  Retired for a decade, they’re still best buds.

But getting old isn’t for sissies. The bank is taking the house Joe shares with his daughter and granddaughter.  Willie is dying of kidney disease.  Albert is terminally grumpy.

The final blow comes when their old employer is bought by a European outfit that closes down all American operations and terminates the pension fund upon which our protagonists rely for their survival.

After 50 years of living honest American lives, the three are indignant at this turn of events.  They decide to get even by robbing the bank overseeing the dismantling of the pension fund. That it’s the same institution foreclosing on Joe’s house only makes revenge that much sweeter. Continue Reading »

 

Dan Stevens (beneath the CGI) and Emma Watson

“BEAUTY AND THE BEAST” My rating: B (Opens wide on Nov. 17)

129 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Is Disney’s live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” as good as the old-style, hand-drawn 1991 original?

Nope. But it’ll do.

After a slow middle section, the film delivers the emotional goods. And along the way, it establishes Emma Watson, late of the Harry Potter franchise, as a name-above-the-title star.

This remake is the latest in Disney’s recycling of its classic animation library — see last year’s “The Jungle Book” and “Cinderella” the year before. The film, from director Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls,” “Chicago”), hits favorite familiar notes while introducing some new (and mildly controversial) elements.

Its strongest component remains Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman’s score from the first film, a collection of hummers that immediately please the ear and quickly take up residence in the head. Small wonder a stage version became a Broadway smash. (I found the the three new tunes written for the film by Menken and the late Tim Rice to be forgettable.)

The story is by now familiar to all. Belle (Watson) is too smart to fit into traditional girly categories, setting off suspicions among her provincial fellow villagers in 18th-century France.

When her father (Kevin Kline) is imprisoned in the enchanted castle of the Beast (Dan Stevens) — a vain and cruel prince working off a curse — Belle trades places with the old man. Over time she wins over the Beast’s staff, domestics who have taken the form of household objects and eventually gains the love of her grumpy host.

Meanwhile the villagers are being stirred up by Gaston (Luke Evans), the preening he-man who wants Belle for himself.

Following the nifty production number “Belle,” which introduces us to our heroine and her circumstances, “Beauty and the Beast” slows to a crawl, only to pick up an hour later when the Belle/Beast relationship starts to assert its romantic pull.

The problem is one of size. The cartoon “Beauty,” nominated for a best picture Oscar, ran for 84 minutes. It was taut and wasted nothing. Continue Reading »

kedi0224-4“KEDI” My rating: B

80 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Without cats the world loses part of its soul.”

That comment from a resident of Istanbul, Turkey, pretty much sums up the ethos of “Kedi (Cat),” a nonlinear documentary about that city’s vast population of semi-feral street felines.

Director Ceyda Torun’s film offers no scrolls of relevant statistics; no testimony by animal control officers, city fathers or health specialists; no fact-dispensing narration.

Instead we listen to everyday Istanbul residents talk about their relationships with the felines who share their lives. We marvel at some of the most amazing cat footage ever.

The tens of thousands of cats who live on Istanbul’s streets aren’t wild, exactly.  They may not have owners as such, but most have struck up lasting relationships with one or more humans.

The cats receive food, grooming and occasional medical care; the humans report a significant improvement in their lives. (One fellow claims his cat buddies cured him of mental illness; now he devotes big part of every day and a substantial chunk of his income to feeding them.)

These aren’t your stereotypical cat ladies.  They’re shop owners, cooks, fish mongers, pensioners, students and others who simply love living in a city where almost everywhere you look there’s a cat running, climbing, sleeping.

But the human/animal connections run deep. Says one young woman of her very first cat: “Let’s just say that if there’s an afterlife, I want to meet her again.  Not my grandmother.”

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Octavia Spencer, Taranji P. Henson, Janelle Monae

Octavia Spencer, Taranji P. Henson, Janelle Monae

“HIDDEN FIGURES” My rating: B+

127 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

A piece of  fact-based historical uplift that flirts with sappiness but never succumbs, “Hidden Figures” is a late addition to the 2016 awards race.

The story it tells — largely unknown until the film’s publicity drive kicked in a few weeks ago — is kinda jaw dropping. And the three lead performances instantly land on the list of Oscar contenders.

During the early days of the American space program — back when a mechanical computer took up an entire floor of an office building — NASA hired two dozen mathematically gifted African American women to perform  complex calculations using nothing more than their brains and slide rules.

These women were referred to as “computers” — that was their official job designation.

Despite being second-class citizens both on and off the job, they made possible John Glenn’s breakthrough orbital flight and gave the U.S.A. a fighting chance in the space race.

Writer/director Theodore Melfi (he was behind the sublimely funny Bill Murray starrer “St. Vincent”) balances the private stories of three of these women against the grand historic sweep of those years. The film works equally well as a satisfying celebration of personal triumph and as a symbol of national pride.

The screenplay (with Allison Schroeder) wastes no time in illustrating the times.  Three “computers” are on their long daily commute to their jobs in north Virginia when their car breaks down.  The white highway patrolman who investigates their stalled vehicle at first exhibits the overt racism of the times.  Only when he learns that the three are helping Uncle Sam beat the Commies to the stars does he drop the attitude and ensure they are sent safely on their way.

Once at work, the women must put up with more crap.  The space program (it wouldn’t take the name NASA for several years) and its white management practice what might be called “racism with a tight smile.”

The African American women work in their own building separate from everyone else. There is minimal interaction between them and the engineers and scientists who daily shower them with mathematical problems.  Like the field hands of a Southern plantation, they produce the wealth but get none of the credit.

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