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Catherine Deneuve, Catharine Frot

“THE MIDWIFE” My rating: B (Opens Aug. 18 at the Tivoli)

116 minutes | No MPAA rating

Two of France’s greatest actresses square off for the first time in “The Midwife,” delivering a quiet drama that engrosses without resorting to big “actorly” moments.

Claire (Catherine Frot, so terrific in last year’s “Marguerite”) is the title character of Martin Provost’s film, an employee at a Paris maternity clinic that soon will be shuttered to make way for a big corporate-run hospital.  She’s offered a job with the new outfit, but can’t abide the impersonal atmosphere of quota-run medicine. Which is a big problem…her work is the great joy of her life.

Mostly she lives a solitary, monkish existence. Her college-age son (Quentin Dolmaire) has quietly drifted away (there’s no mention of his father). And Claire is so health-conscious that she’s given up meat and wine (why live in France if you’re going to eat like an ascetic?).

Enter Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve), an aging party girl who has returned to France after years of jet setting. Back when Claire was a teen her father — a swimming champion — had an affair with Beatrice that broke up his marriage. After a few months Beatrice abruptly ended that relationship to gadabout the globe.

Now she’s come back to Paris to reconnect with the love of her life…only to be told by Claire that after being abandoned by Beatrice her brokenhearted father killed himself.

As far as Claire is concerned, after delivering that information she owes Beatrice nothing.  But the older woman reveals that she is dying of a brain tumor — not that she’s going to let a little thing like that cut into her lifestyle of good food and wine, smoking and gambling.

“The Midwife” is basically the story of how the vivacious, hard-living and unapologetically selfish Beatrice slowly transfers some of her values to the good, gray Claire.

That widening of Claire’s narrow horizon extends to a sweet affair with a truck driver (Olivier Gourmet) whose vegetable patch abuts her own.

There are no acting fireworks here.  Writer/director Provost has given us a drama that mostly adheres to the quiet rhythms of real life.

But these two effortlessly luminous actresses make the story compelling.

| Robert W. Butler

Jeremy Renner, Gil Birmingham

“WIND RIVER” My rating: B (Opens wide on Aug. 18)

*113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With his screenplays for “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water” Taylor Sheridan joined the ranks of our best storytellers of the contemporary American West.

He cements that reputation — though not without a couple of minor missteps — by writing and directing “Wind River.”

Set on the sprawling Wind River Indian Reservation in mountainous central Wyoming, this snowbound mystery is triggered by the death of an 18-year-old Arapaho girl. Apparently she ran for several miles barefoot through a blizzard before succumbing to sub-zero temperatures. But what — or who — was she running from?

Her body is discovered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a hunter for the wildlife service whose job is to eliminate wolves, cougars and other predators dining on domestic livestock. Soon he’ll be tracking down two-legged predators.

On one level “Wind River” is a buddy movie pairing the woods-smart Cory with Florida-reared Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), an FBI agent dispatched to investigate what appears to be a murder on tribal land. He knows every snowfield and ravine within hundreds of square miles; she shows up without so much as a pair of long johns.

But as seems always to be the case with a Sheridan film, just as important as the mystery is the milieu in which it’s set.

In this case it’s a world of natural beauty and aching poverty, dying traditions and doped-up  youth. Here white assumptions collide with Native American realities. Resentments and prejudices can surface at any time.

Renner’s Cory is the perfect guide through these conflicting cultures. Born nearby and as comfortable in a cowboy hat as a fur-lined parka, he’s divorced from an Arapaho woman with whom he has a young son. In short, he’s a man with one foot planted in the white world and the other in Indian country.

Sheridan’s screenplay provides plenty of thumbnail portraits of colorful characters.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article167604972.html

“WHOSE STREETS?” My rating: B+  (Opens Aug. 18 at the Tivoli)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The 2014 killing of unarmed Michael Brown by a Ferguson MO police officer was a watershed moment in American race relations, spawning the Black Lives Matter movement and creating widespread resistance among African Americans to social, economic and law enforcement inequality.

It’s one thing to talk about these issues.  It’s another to live them.

After  the Brown shooting,  filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis took their cameras to the streets of Ferguson to record the aftermath: protests, looting, rioting (whether by protestors or police depends on your political outlook) and grass roots organizing.

The result is “Whose Streets?”, an incendiary 90 minutes that doesn’t even attempt a conventional evenhanded analysis of the situation.

Folayan and Davis’ film jumps feet first into the action, recording events in the streets in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and, as months go by, examining the growing resistance within the black community.

“Whose Streets?” wants us to feel African American outrage and dismay. It does’t analyze it. It doesn’t provide commentary or counterpoint. It simply observes.

And in doing so this documentary allows viewers to feel  what it’s like to be a black person in Ferguson.

Continue Reading »

Alia Shawkat

“PAINT IT BLACK” My rating: C+ (Opens Aug. 18 at the Screenland Armour)

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With a title like “Paint It Black” you don’t expect a barrel of monkeys, nor do you get one with actress Amber Tamblyn’s directing debut.

Indeed, “Paint It Black” is a self-consciously artsy downer; not even a last-shot glimmer of hope is likely to rouse audiences out of their glum funk.

Which is not to say the film is terrible.  It’s got some terrific acting and creative visuals. But it lacks the emotional substance to make us care.

Current indie “it” girl Alia Shawkat stars as Josie, an artist’s model, black-out alcoholic and punk music groupie in pre-cell phone ’80s Los Angeles.

Early in the film (the screenplay is by Ed Dougherty and Tamblyn, adapting Janet Fitch’s novel) Josie receives news that her boyfriend Michael, who disappeared some time earlier, has committed suicide in a cheap hotel room.

In flashbacks we see how they met (she posed for nude studies in the class where he was an art student).  Their relationship, depicted in silent (save for music) snippets scattered throughout the film, is presented using Hallmark card visual shorthand (we see them discovering a junked upright piano, painting it together in their living room, spooning in bed etc.) .

They seem happy enough, though what a late-night carouser like Josie sees in the squeaky-clean Michael (Rhys Wakefield) is a mystery. Truth is, because he has only a few words of dialogue in the entire film, we get almost no sense of his personality.

Which makes Josie’s post-mortem obsession with Michael all the more unfathomable.

Turns out Josie isn’t the only one with Michaelmania.  His mother Meredith (the great Janet McTeer), a famous concert pianist, is also driven to the edges of madness by her grief and fury at having had to share her boy with this other woman.

The meeting of the two women is memorable — at Michael’s funeral Meredith tries to strangle Josie in front of the casket and a mortuary full of shocked mourners. Later Meredith raids the apartment where Josie and Michael lived, stealing all of his drawings, journals and personal effects.  Josie retaliates by sneaking into Meredith’s hilltop mansion and stealing back as much of the loot as she can carry.

We’re poised to see the story become a possibly violent test of wills between two women. But it never gets that far.

Continue Reading »

Brie Larson

“THE GLASS CASTLE” My rating: C+

127 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There are a few moments when “The Glass Castle” threatens to come to emotional life.

But they pass.

Heaven knows there’s a compelling story here.  Based on Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir of a wildly unconventional upbringing and a troubled maturity, this film describes a girlhood dominated by fiercely nonconformist parents who are always just a step ahead of the cops and the child services people. (This was a theme explored, with more success, in last year’s “Captain Fantastic.”)

But despite offering a hair-raising depiction of how not to raise children, Destin Daniel Cretton’s film plays more like a freak show — with one display of parental insanity following another — than the deeply moving drama it obviously aims to be.

New York City, 1989.  From a taxi window gossip columnist Jeannette Walls (Brie Larson, an Oscar winner for “Room”) spots a distressing and deeply personal vignette: An unkempt woman scrounges through a dumpster while her man rages at the passing traffic.

They are Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) and Rex (Woody Harrelson), Jeannette’s parents, who are squatting in an abandoned building and living hand to mouth.

This triggers a series of flashbacks to Jeannette’s nomadic and impoverished childhood and especially her relationship with Rex, a possibly brilliant man who is all ideas and no follow-through, a mean alcoholic and a charismatic ranconteur.

Rex is the kind of guy who, lacking money for Christmas presents, takes his kids outside to pick a star for their very own. (Awww.)  He’s also borderline abusive, teaching his terrified daughter to swim by throwing her in the deep end of the pool.

Rose Mary is only marginally more centered. She devotes herself to painting (without ever improving, apparently) and has no time for mundane stuff like feeding her offspring.  Continue Reading »

“STEP” My rating: A-

83 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

We live in demoralizing times.  All the more reason to check out “Step,” a spectacularly engaging documentary about youth, challenge and triumph.

Amanda Lipitz’s film (amazingly, her first) centers on the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, an institution designed to give at-risk girls and a shot at a rewarding future.  The institution takes pride in sending every one of its graduates on to a higher institution of learning.

Step is a competitive event in which young persons — predominantly African Americans — put on performances involving complex and often high-speed footwork, gymnastics and chanting.  The lyrics often reflect social issues. These routines are performed accapella — no musical backing — although the awesome sound of a dozen or more feet stomping out an irresistible beat is hypnotic in a most musical way.

It’s like a mashup of glee club and ROTC drill squad — minus the rifles and fueled by funk, sass and optimism. One participant describes it as  “making music with our bodies.”

“Step” follows a group of senior girls — the original class at BLSYW when it opened several years back — as they prepare for their last year of step competitions. That sounds like a formula for your basic sports documentary, but Lipitz casts a much wider net.  By film’s end we’re treated to a rich emotional experience that will leave more than few audience members groping for a Kleenex.

Three of these young women become the focus of the film.

The most charismatic is Blessin, a star-in-training who founded the step team and oozes charisma.  With an apparently inexhaustible collection of wigs and an outsized personality that takes over any room, she’s a force to be reckoned with. (The Marilyn Monroe poster in her bedroom says something about her aspirations.) Brimming over with confidence and energy (outwardly, anyway), Blessin could sell refrigerators to Eskimos.

She’ll need every bit of her drive, beauty and determination, for like most of her fellow students Blessin faces daily challenges that could easily derail her path to success. Her mother is loving but plagued by depression and anger issues — sometimes she can’t find the will to get out of the house to participate in counseling sessions about her daughter’s future.

And then there’s the issue of money. Like virtually all of her teammates, Blessin hasn’t the cash for a college education. Some sort of scholarship is her only hope. But a bad case of senioritis — marked by dropping grades and a quietly demanding boyfriend — makes that an iffy proposition.

Continue Reading »

Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn

“LANDLINE”  My rating: B-

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With “Obvious Child,” her 2014 feature writing/directing debut, Gillian Robespierre achieved the near impossible, delivering a bittersweet comedy/drama about a young woman who opts for an abortion.

Her sophomore effort, “Landline,” is equally ambitious, if not quite so successful.

The topic here is infidelity and its repercussions.  There’s some angst tossed around, yes, but this mostly low-keyed comedy keeps its eye on notion that sometimes marital trauma ends up being better for everyone. (Robespierre has said in interviews that both she and co-writer Elizabeth Holm saw their parents’ marriages break up because of adultery…but that in the long run everyone was better off for it.)

Set in the pre-cell phone ’90s,  the film centers on the four members of the Quinn family in New York City.

Father Alan (John Turturro) is a advertising copywriter who really wants to turn out great poetry and prose.  Mother Pat (Edie Falco) has her hands full with their 17-year-old daughter Ali (Abby Quinn), a bad-tempered rebel specializing in ditching classes, smoking dope and experimenting with sex.

Their oldest daughter, Dana (Jenny Slade, star of “Obvious Child”), has already moved out and is living with her fiancé. She seems to be as straight and uptight as Ali is angry and adventurous; when uncomfortable Dana erupts in helium giggles. Concerned that her life’s turning into a long slog, she suggests to fiance Ben (Jay Duplass) that they have sex during a hike in the woods. All they get for the effort is a bad case of poison ivy.

Continue Reading »

Will Poulter, Anthony Mackie

“DETROIT”  My rating: B

125 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t pull many punches.

In the fact-based “Detroit,” the Oscar-winning filmmaker explores a deadly 50-year-old incident from America’s racial past, an incident so distressing that in comparison it makes her “Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” seem like lighthearted matinee fodder.

That the film is powerful is beyond dispute. It’s so powerful, so excruciating that one must question whether audiences are willing to take it on.

Bigelow’s subject is the notorious Algiers Motel incident. In July 1967, during rioting (some have called it a rebellion) in Detroit’s black neighborhoods, three young men were killed — murdered by most accounts — when confronted by police at the aforesaid motel.

Employing a docudrama approach of the sort pioneered by Paul Greengrass (“Bloody Sunday,” “United 93”), “Detroit” tells its tale without much explanation. After an animated opening sequence exploring the sources of America’s racial crisis in the late 1960s, the film throws us into the action.

It begins when Detroit police raid an illegal after-hours club, and a crowd gathers. Bricks are thrown. Within hours a full-fledged uprising/riot is underway.

The screenplay by Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”) introduces a half dozen characters on both sides of the conflict.

When their performance at a big soul revue is canceled because of the rioting, Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore), members of the singing group the Dramatics (the group eventually would be signed by Motown Records), attempt to get home. They decide to hole up where a score of others have taken shelter, in the Algiers’ annex, a once-impressive house now divided up into individual rental rooms.

On the other side of the equation is a white cop, Krauss (Will Poulter), who claims to understand the plight of the urban underclass but who is clearly trigger-happy, weary from days of dealing with arson and looting. Earlier that day he had shot and killed a fleeing looter.

An Algiers tenant (Jason Mitchell) taunts approaching police and National Guard troops by firing a harmless starter pistol, unleashing a series of horrific events. Detroit cops, state police officers and guardsmen storm into the house, rounding up the tenants. Employing psychological terror and beatings, Krauss and company demand to know the whereabouts of the “sniper.”

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article164952047.html

Charlize Theron

“ATOMIC BLONDE”  My rating:  C+ 

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Leggy Lorraine Broughton, the nearly superhuman Cold War spy at the center of stylish “Atomic Blonde,” is all platinum hair, high fashion and fierce physicality.

The performance is barely skin deep. Good thing the skin belongs to Charlize Theron.

It’s hard to recall another recent movie in which the camera so obsessively and totally dwells on its leading lady. Theron,  one of the film’s producers, always has been an attractive screen presence (she won an Oscar for making herself ugly to play a serial killer in 2003’s “Monster”), but here she radiates an icy beauty that is overwhelming.

Even bruised, battered and bloody she is gorgeous.

That watchability is vital, for big chunks of “Atomic Blonde” — based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” — are narratively incomprehensible.

The story begins in 1989 London where Lorraine, looking as if she’s just gone 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali, is summoned to MI6 headquarters for a debriefing. One of her bosses (Toby Jones) and an American CIA bigwig (John Goodman) want details on her recent mission to Berlin. The bulk of the film unfolds in flashback.

In this retelling Lorraine is dispatched to Germany to retrieve “the list,” a directory of Western agents in the possession of an East German security official who wants to defect (Eddie Marsan). “The list” is a classic Hitchcock “Macguffin” — we never learn how it was compiled or by whom, only that both sides are desperate to lay their hands on it.

Leading the search is the Brits’ cynical Berlin station chief, Percival (James McAvoy), who has “gone native,” running a black market operation, moving back and forth over and under the Berlin Wall. In this setting, communism is on its last legs, with frustrated East Berliners holding massive protests.

There’s a French spy (Sofia Boutella of “The Mummy”) with whom Lorraine has an energetic roll in the hay (our heroine’s sexuality is quite fluid), and an assortment of thuggish Eastern Bloc assassins and torturers.

It’s all rather confusing. Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay is a jumble of tongue-twisting foreign names and clunky exposition interrupted by periodic outbursts of violence. Continue Reading »

“DUNKIRK”  My rating: B

105 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Largely jettisoning character development and conventional exposition in favor of a you-are-there immersion, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is clearly a descendent of “The Longest Day,” producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s massive 1962 recreation of the D-Day invasion.

It moves swiftly and explains little, weaving together three story lines in a chronologically jumbled narrative that covers a week’s worth of history as the British nation rallies to rescue more than 300,000 troops trapped by Germans on the French coast in the early years of World War II.

Nolan’s unconventional storytelling is simultaneously confusing and compelling.  It’s disconcerting to jump back and forth between a daytime aerial dogfight and a nighttime sea illuminated by fires and explosions. Don’t expect an explanation of what’s going on.

But by eschewing a linear narrative Nolan is able to ramp up the tension, zigging and zagging between cliffhanger moments as various characters fight to survive.

The first of these tales is set among the soldiers crowded on the beach, sitting ducks for the German pilots who seem to control the sky.

A British naval commander (Kenneth Branagh) desperately coordinates an evacuation that relies on the Mole, the sole pier in water deep enough to accommodate a large ship.

Most of this sequence centers on a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) who is desperate to save himself. He poses as a stretcher bearer, hoping to get aboard a medical ship being loaded with the wounded. He’s fortunate enough to take refuge in an evacuation ship, but it is torpedoed and he must return to shore. He eventually joins another unit taking refuge in the hold of a beached trawler…they’re hoping for high tide to take them to sea while the boat becomes a target for Nazi marksmen.

Continue Reading »

Kate Micucci, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza

THE LITTLE HOURS” My rating: C+ 

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.

Continue Reading »

Sally Hawkins

“MAUDIE” My rating: B 

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.

Continue Reading »

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 »

“TURN IT AROUND: THE STORY OF EAST BAY PUNK”  My rating C+ (Opens Aug. 12 at Screenland Tapcade)

155 minutes | No MPAA rating

Exhausting but nevertheless energetic, “Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk” contains more information  than most of us will never need to know about the rise of punk music in the San Franscisco area.

Corbett Redford and Anthony Machitiello’s polished documentary is clearly an act of love. They bring to the table an encyclopedic knowledge of the scene, the bands and players who made the music, the promoters who gave them places to perform, the underground media types who chronicled  and promoted the movement.

Narrated by none other than the great Iggy Pop, this massive opus (2 hours, 35 minutes) mixes clever animation, talking heads, old performance footage and vintage graphics to lay out the tale.

Over in posh San Francisco the fading hippie movement was still wallowing in its own musical decline (in this telling Fillmore Ballroom promoter Bill Graham comes off as a hopeless tool of the establishment). But across the bay in Berkeley and in a host of nondescript working-class cities the kids were creating their own sound, inspired by the British punk movement but with its own indelible American stamp.

The music was driving and relentless (guitar solos were sneered at) and the lyrics embraced teen angst and fierce opposition to the system. Any system.

The film does capture the us-vs.-them attitude that prevailed among young punk purveyors and  fans, and there’s just enough of the music on the soundtrack to give you a sense of the chaotic, liberating scene.

Drawbacks? Well there are maybe three dozen interviewees, ranging from minor players to major figures (Jello Biafra, Billy Joe Armstrong), and while it’s amusing to witness the plump middle age into which so many of  these snarling rebels have slid, most of them are limited to, like, two sentences of on-camera talk before something else fills the screen.

The audience for “Turn It Around” mostly will be limited to hard-core punk fans. But they will not be disappointed.

| Robert W. Butler