OSCAR-NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS  Overall rating: B+  (Opening Feb. 17 at the Tivoli) 

No MPAA rating

EXTREMIS” (USA, 24 minutes) 3 1/2 stars

Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter works in the ICU of Highland Hospital in Oakland CA. Her job is to help people die.

Dan Krauss’ “Extremis” provides almost unbearably intimate access to patients facing their final hours, their families, and the physicians who care for them.

At its heart is the agonizing decision to prolong a life with extraordinary and often painful extreme measures. The patients must make that decision; if they can’t, it’s up to family members.

It’s a gut-wrenching situation. And this doc explores profound questions with fly-on-the-wall immediacy.

Pleasant? No. But most of us one day will deal with this precise situation.

4.1 MILES”  (USA, 22 minutes) 4 stars

Today the words “humanitarian crisis” are so frequently invoked that they’ve almost ceased to have any power.

Daphne Matziaraki’s brutally powerful “4.1 Miles” reminds us of just what they mean.

Her film follows a Greek coast guard crew led by Kyriakos Papadopoulos. They patrol 4.1 miles of open sea between Turkey and the island of Lesbos.

The doc begins with the rescue of a boatload of Middle Eastern refugees swamped by high waves. Surrounded by wailing women and sobbing children who cover almost every inch of his deck, Papadopoulos works frantically to perform CPR on two children found floating with their mother.

(Do they survive? We don’t know…and neither does the coastguardsman. As soon as he delivers them to an ambulance on the pier Papadopoulos turns his boat seaward where more refugees are floundering.)

Basically he’s on 24-hour call. The Turkish smugglers who traffic in human misery don’t care about weather reports; they’ll take refugees out in the worst storms knowing that the Greek coast  guard will be there risking their own lives to effect rescues.

Papadopoulos is a man of action. But in reflective moments he’s a study in sorrow.

“When I look in their eyes,” he says of the refugees, “I see their memories of war.”

“This is a nightmare. This is agony.”

JOE’S VIOLIN”   (USA, 24 minutes) 4 stars

Get out your hankies. “Joe’s Violin” will have you in tears…but that’s a good thing.

Kahane Cooperman’s doc is about the violin owned by Joseph Feingold, a Polish Holocaust survivor who bought it at a German flea market after the war (he traded a carton of cigarettes for it).

Feingold moved to New York and played the violin intermittently over the years, then donated it to a musical instrument drive sponsored by a classical radio station.

It ended up in the hands of Brianna Perez, a seventh grader at a Bronx school for immigrant girls. She cherishes the instrument, not just for the beauty of its sound but for the story of hope and triumph it represents.

I’d write more about this terrific little movie, but I need to blow my nose.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article132867854.html


Luis Gnecco as Neruda

Luis Gnecco as Neruda

“NERUDA” My rating: B (Opens Feb. 17 at the Tivoli)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Pablo Larrain’s “Neruda” might be viewed as a chase movie.

It’s inspired the story of Chilean poet and Communist lawmaker Pablo Neruda, who for several months in 1948 eluded a nationwide manhunt before crossing the Andes and eventually escaping to Europe.

But “Neruda” is more than a slice of suspense. It’s a nifty character study of a talented, exuberant and deeply flawed man as seen through the eyes of the policeman who is chasing him.

As the film begins Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is running out of political rope. His far left politics and savage commentaries on Chile’s president have made him an outsider. Now the government has outlawed the Communist Party and is rounding up its members.

As perhaps the world’s most famous Communist (he’s right up there with Stalin and Mao), Neruda is a prime target.  An underground organization of leftists are working overtime to hide Neruda and his wife, always keeping them just a few steps ahead of the authorities.

That part of Guillermo Calderon’s screenplay is based on fact.

Total fiction, though, is the character of Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), the Javert-like police inspector in charge of the search.

Oscar serves as our narrator, and his fascistic view of Neruda is far less idealized than we’ve come to expect (remember the hit film “Il Postino”?).  In fact, the film drips with sarcastic dialogue at the expense of the “movement.”

Oscar has little tolerance for well-off intellectuals who claim to be concerned for the plight of the working poor.

“Communists hate to work. They’d rather burn churches. It makes them feel more alive.”

“If we had a Bolshevik revolution they [ party intellectuals ] would be the first to run away.”

Not that Oscar has many illusions about the flaws of the government he serves: “My president has a boss…the president of the United States.” Continue Reading »

darknight-theater“DARK NIGHT”  My rating: B- (Opens Feb. 17  at the Screenland Tapcade)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

Tim Sutton’s “Dark Night” is about a mass shooting at a shopping mall cinemaplex.

Sort of.

Unlike Gus van Sant’s 2003 “Elephant,” about a Columbine-style high school massacre, “Dark Night” never shows us the mayhem.

In fact,  the bulk of the picture’s 85-minute running time is devoted to depicting the activities of a handful of Floridians, most of them teens, as an average day wends its way toward night.

A young man walks his pit bull. A girl takes selfies of herself in her undies. People watch TV. Skateboard. We follow one gaunt, tattooed young man as he attends a support group for war vets with adjustment issues.

The acting from the cast of unknowns is so low-keyed and naturalistic that often “Dark Night” feels like a documentary.

There’s very little dialogue, most of it coming from a mother and twentysomething son who are giving a talking head interview to an unseen filmmaker. Why are they being interviewed? Sutton’s screenplay never explains.

Where is all this going?  There are hints, beginning with the film’s title.

“Dark Night” is a play on “The Dark Knight Rises,” the movie that was on the screen during the 2012 Aurora, Colorado multiplex massacre.  And early in this film a TV news show features a report on Aurora shooter James Holmes.

Scattered throughout are unspecific intimations of violence to come.  A trip to a shooting range.  A  young man cleans his collection of firearms. Kids play first-person shooter video games. A young man dyes his hair the same day-glo orange as Holmes did.  Teen girls race past the camera screaming…and then dissolve in laughter.

One of these characters is going to go on a shooting spree.  Which one?  Sutton gives us several candidates. (In modern America, he seems to be saying, potential murderers are everywhere.)

Continue Reading »

** (in Toni Erdman guise) and **

Peter Simonischek (in Toni Erdman guise) and Sandra Huller

“TONI ERDMANN”  My rating: B (Opens Feb. 17 at the Glenwood Arts and Tivoli)

162 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The key to comedy is snappy timing.

But Maren Ade, the writer and director of the Oscar-nominated (for foreign language film) “Toni Erdmann,” has given us a languid comedy with a running time of nearly 3 hours.

This is either genius or suicidal.

Turns out it’s a little of both.

The title character doesn’t even exist. He’s the goofy alter ego of Winifried (Peter Simonischek), a white-haired, bearded German piano teacher with a bizarre sense of humor  displayed in the first scene, when he meets a deliveryman at his door.

Winifried notes that the package is addressed to Toni Erdmann, whom he tells the delivery guy is his brother, a mad bomber just out of prison.  He wonders aloud  if the package contains explosives or porn, then vanishes to consult with his brother Toni. Yelling is heard from deep in the house.

Seconds later he’s back, this time in his Toni persona, a key element of which is a ragged set of humongous false teeth.

There’s a method to Winifried’s deadpan tomfoolery, a therapeutic way of mocking an increasingly joyless modern world.

For evidence of that joylessness he need look no farther than his own daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a thirtysomething petroleum industry consultant now living in Romania.

Ines is a committed career woman and desperately unhappy, although she won’t admit it. She sweats bullets over the demands of her job, daily negotiating the shark tank of corporate politics. She wants to be a major player, yet finds herself organizing shopping excursions for a client’s wife.

Her best friend is her smart phone. She’s engaged in a perfunctory affair with a co-worker. She can’t even relax with a massage, because it’s not brutal enough: “I’m not paying 100 Euros to be petted,” she fumes.

Continue Reading »

OSCAR-NOMINATED ANIMATED SHORTS  Overall rating: B  (Opening Feb. 10 at the Tivoli)

86 minutes | No MPAA rating

BORROWED TIME”  (USA, 7 minutes B

And Old West lawman revisits the site of a traumatic incident from his youth and recalls his part in the death of a colleague.

Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj’s all-but-wordless film has a few moments of spectacular action (a high-speed stagecoach wreck) but mostly it is a quiet, evocative meditation on grief, told through spectacular three-dimensional computer animation.

PEARL” (USA, 6 minutes B+

Remember the opening sequence of Pixar’s “Up” depicting the romance and marriage of the main character?  Patrick Osborne’s “Pearl” does something like that to depict the title character’s coming of age.

Pearl is a little girl traveling the country with her hippie/troubadour father, living out of a car. We see snatches from her childhood. Her father gives up his guitar dreams and settles down. There are father-daughter fights. Eventually a teenaged Pearl breaks away and launches her own rock band. In a sense her father’s dream has come full circle.

Again, with almost no spoken dialogue, “Pearl” is a sweet and sad yarn of generational aspiration told in a wildly original visual style.

PIPER” (USA, 6 minutes B

This Disney/Pixar effort — it played in theaters last summer with  “Finding Dory — is a wordless (naturally) story of a young sandpiper learning to fend for itself along a seashore.

In many regards it it classic Disney, a tale of an impossibly fuzzy young animal learning survival techniques through often comedic trial and error. The film’s depiction of out hero’s environment — sand, waves, sky — is astonishing realistic.

“Piper” often teeters on the edge of terminal cuteness, but the brilliant animation keeps it on track.

BLIND VAYSHA”(Canada, 8 minutes 3 stars

Theodore Ushev’s “Blind Vaysha” is a Slavic folk tale about a girl with an unusual condition. Her left eye shows her the past while her right eye displays the future.

Because she cannot see the here and now, Vaysha is for practical purposes blind. She finds herself wondering which is better…living in the comfort of the past or the dangers of the future.

Here’s what makes “Vaysha” special:  The entire film has been rendered in what appear to be animated woodblock prints. The effect is haunting.

PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES” (Canada and UK, 35 minutes 3 stars

Robert Valley’s animated first-person memoir about the life and death of an old friend is filled with so much specific detail that it must have been based on a real-life relationship.

The deadpan narrator describes his high school buddy Techno, a superb athlete and risk-taking daredevil who descends into debilitating alcoholism.

Cures, relapses, a stint in a Japanese hospital for a liver transplant…Techno’s downward spiral is depicted through artwork that looks like it was pulled from an innovative graphic novel.  Much of the film is in black and white, but splashes of color highlight important moments.

“Pear Brandy…” is about the links that hold old friends together even when common sense tells us it’s time to break away.

The film is 35 minutes long, but packs so much information it feels like a feature. (Note: “Pear Brandy and Cigarettes” contains adult language and situations and is not recommended for children.)

The animation program has been rounded out with three non-competing short films. They are:

“The Head Vanishes” (9 minutes), about a woman with dementia who is determined to make her annual train trip to the seaside.

Asteria” (5 minutes), follows two astronauts who make an unexpected discovery on a barren planet.

Happy End” (6 minutes) is described as “a black comedy about death…with a happy ending.”

is about the links that hold old friends together even when common sense tells us it’s time to break away.

The film is 35 minutes long, but packs so much information it feels like a feature. (Note: “Pear Brandy and Cigarettes” contains adult language and situations and is not recommended for children.)

The animation program has been rounded out with three non-competing short films. They are:

“The Head Vanishes” (9 minutes), about a woman with dementia who is determined to make her annual train trip to the seaside.

Asteria” (5 minutes), follows two astronauts who make an unexpected discovery on a barren planet.

Happy End” (6 minutes) is described as “a black comedy about death…with a happy ending.”

| Robert W. Butler


OSCAR-NOMINATED LIVE ACTION SHORTS  Overall rating: B+  (Opening Feb. 10 at the Tivoli)

130 minutes | No MPAA rating



SING”  (Hungary, 25 minutes) B+

You’re never too young to fight for what you believe is right.

That’s the upshot of Kristof Deak’s “Sing,” a touching tale of a mini revolution in a Hungarian elementary school.

Zsofi (Dorka Gasparfalvi) is the new girl at a school famous for its award-winning children’s choir.  Since it is school policy that any student can participate, she signs on.

But after the first rehearsal Zsofi is approached by the choirmaster, Miss Erika (Zsofia Szamosi), who advises her, ever so sweetly but firmly, that in the future she should only mouth the words.

Zsofi is crushed, so her new best friend, Lisa (Dorka Hais), one of the choir’s soloists, comes up with a sneaky plan to sabotage Miss Erika’s system and give everyone a chance to sing.

Terrific acting by the three principal players and an insightful screenplay add up to one deeply satisfying experience.

"Silent Nights"

“Silent Nights”

SILENT NIGHTS”  (Denmark, 30 minutes) B+

Set in frigid Copenhagen at Christmastime, Aske Bang’s “Silent Nights” is a heartbreaker about a brief love affair between a young woman volunteer at a soup kitchen and a homeless African immigrant.

Both of these flawed individuals has his and her own problems. Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) left Ghana to make money for his impoverished family. He finds that for all the liberality of Danish society, racism and prejudice are facts of life. Survival may mean stealing.

Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) is a quiet, unremarkable woman with an open heart and an alcoholic, racist mother.

Their relationship is simultaneously tragic and inspiring. Life changes, love comes and goes.  Take it while you can.

TIMECODE”  (Spain, 15 minutes) B+

Filmmaker Juanjo Gimenez Pena sure knows how to breath life into a dead-end, life-sucking job.

Luna (Lali Ayguade) is a uniformed security guard working the 12-hour day shift in a Madrid parking garage.  Hers is a boring gig. No wonder she never shows any emotion.

But then on video surveillance recordings she finds footage of her nighttime counterpart, Diego (Nicolas Ricchini), using the garage as his own private dance studio.

Leaving notes for each other indicating specific cameras and times, Luna and Diego initiate a romance that consists only of solo dances, recorded when nobody else is around, and meant only for each other.

It’s a delightful idea, done almost wordlessly, and the results are intoxicating.


“ENEMIES WITHIN” (France, 28 minutes 3 1/2 stars

The calm surface of Selim Aazzazi’s film cannot hide an almost volcanic anger and angst.

The Petitioner (Hassam Ghancy), an Algerian teacher who has lived all his life in France, has come to a drab government office to apply for citizenship. The film consists almost entirely of his tense conversation with the Interrogator (Najib Oudghiri), a young man who will study his case and make a recommendation.

What at first seems like standard procedure soon turns dark as the utterly unemotional Interrogator asks ever more intrusive questions about the Petitioner: his religion, his family history, and any links to terrorism. He demands  the names of the Petitioner’s friends from a mosque, threatening to reject the application and start deportation proceedings if they aren’t forthcoming.

“Enemies Within” delves deep into the Petitioner’s crisis of conscience. Should he inform on friends he believes are innocent? At the same time Aazzazi’s film lays bare the brute coercive power of the state.

Talk about timely.

LA FEMME ET LA TGV” – (Switzerland, 30 minutes4 stars

Timo von Gunten’s late-in-life romance is a bittersweet triumph about a lonely woman, Elise (Jane Birkin, once one of the iconic faces of ‘60s “Swingin’ London”) who lives along a railway near a provincial Swiss town.

Elise runs a once-famous bakery that is now down to one customer. Her only friend is her parakeet. And her greatest joy is waving a Swiss flag at the TGV train that every morning zips past her house at nearly 200 miles per hour.

This gentle film chronicles a long-distance/high speed romance between Elise and the unseen driver of the TGV train, a fellow named Bruno who tosses notes and gifts (usually homemade cheese) onto Elise’s lawn as he passes.

At a time when her son wants to put her in a retirement home, her correspondence with Bruno gives Elise a new enthusiasm for life.

It’s infectious.

| Robert W. Butler

and as the two Julietas

Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suarez as the two Julietas

“JULIETA” My rating: B

99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

No contemporary director has examined mother/daughter relationships with the consistency or insight of Spain’s Pedro Almodovar.

At one time his latest effort, “Julieta,” would have been described as a “women’s picture.” But that superficial label fails to take into account the panache Almodovar brings to all of his projects (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Volver”).

Romantic loss has been his frequent topic.  “Julieta” takes a different approach, being a saga about parental loss.

Drawn from three short stories by Canadian author Alice Munro, the screenplay opens with a chance encounter on a Madrid street between the 50-something Julieta (Emma Suarez) and Bea, the childhood best friend of her daughter Antia.

Bea reports that she recently ran into her old friend at Lake Como, where Antia was shopping with her children.

Julieta is stunned. A dozen years earlier the teenage Antia vanished into a cult. Bea’s report is the first real proof that her daughter is still alive and that Julieta is now a grandmother.

Overnight everything changes. Julieta scraps plans to relocate with her boyfriend to Portugal. She moves back into the same building where she once shared a flat with Antia, desperately hoping that her daughter will come looking for her there.

And she is compelled to write down important incidents from her past.

In these elaborate flashbacks we follow the steamy relationship of the young Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) with Xoan (Daniel Grao), a hunky fisherman. Their union produces Antia.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article129896079.html

| Robert W. Butler

Adam Driver.

Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani

“PATERSON”  My rating: A-

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Nothing much happens in “Paterson.”  Just life.

Turns out that’s more than enough.

The film — about a poetry-writing bus driver named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson NJ — feels like the movie Jim Jarmusch and his seriocomic minimalism have been working toward for decades.

Virtually devoid of conventional melodrama, “Paterson” is about life’s little moments. The most exciting thing that happens is a bus breakdown that forces the driver and passengers to wait at the roadside for an hour.

And yet by concentrating on the little things, the seemingly unremarkable ins and outs of just living, the deadpan hilarity of existence, Jarmusch makes a profound statement about average people living average lives.

The only other film to which I can compare Jarmusch’s latest is Bruce Beresford’s sublime “Tender Mercies,” another film that ignores “events” to observe the gentle unfolding of life.

Paterson (Adam Driver, who gets more out of less than we have any right to expect) has a routine.

Every morning he fixes breakfast and walks to the bus terminal where he climbs into a driver’s seat. Every morning his supervisor sends him off after grousing a bit about the unfairness of life.

Paterson spends his day driving around listening to the conversations of his passengers. He also seems to be a magnet for twins…identical siblings of all ages regularly cross his path.

At home he listens patiently and lovingly to the stream-of-consciousness patter of his beautiful wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), whose chiildlike eagerness defies common sense.

Continue Reading »

Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton

“THE FOUNDER”  My rating: B- 

115  minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“The Founder” is like a Big Mac concealing a piece of broken glass.

John Lee Hancock’s film about the creation of the world’s most successful fast food chain starts out as a playful story of capitalist innovation and gung-ho drive.

But it leaves us thinking that nobody rises to the top of the corporate heap without screwing over a good many people along the way.

We first meet Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) delivering his pitch directly into the camera.  Like most good salesmen he believes success is less dependent upon the peddled product (in this case industrial-strength milkshake makers) than on the personality and persuasion of the seller.

Except it isn’t working. Kroc spends his weary days traipsing across the Midwest of the mid-1950s, visiting Ma and Pa drive-in restaurants whose owners can’t see the point in a machine that makes six shakes at once.

But a side trip to San Bernardino, CA and the drive-in run by the McDonald brothers — Mac (John Carroll Lymch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) — is an eye opener.

Mac and Dick have created an operation capable of delivering an order of burger, fries and drink in just 30 seconds.

Everything is streamlined in a “symphony of efficiency.”

The McDonalds have instituted a kitchen assembly line that would make Henry Ford proud. There’s no dining room. No utensils or plates. Everything is wrapped in disposable paper. No girl on roller skates to deliver the food to your car (customers have to shlep up to the order window).

But the food is great and business is hopping.

Ray Kroc has seen the future.


Continue Reading »

Greta Gerwig, Annette Bening, Elle Fanning

Lucas Jade Zumann, Greta Gerwig, Annette Bening, Elle Fanning

“20th CENTURY WOMEN” My rating: B

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In his 2011 film “Beginners,” writer/director Mike Mills presented a fictionalized portrait of his father, who at age 75 announced that he had cancer and, by the way, was gay, too.

With “20th Century Women” he does a similar service for his mother, delivering a funny and emotionally substantive look at an unconventional household of feminists in the mid-20th century.

Much as Christopher Plummer won a supporting actor Oscar as the father in “Beginners,” Annette Bening is gaining awards buzz as the divorced matriarch in “20th Century Women.”

Set in the ’70s, the film centers on 55-year-old Dorothea (Bening) and her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann).

Dorothea is a curious case, a chain-smoking, mildly eccentric traditionalist in her personal life but a low-key crusader when it comes to social issues. (That conflict is reflected in the musical soundtrack, which pits the likable Talking Heads against the snarling punk of the Germs and Suicide.)

Dorothea lives in a big crumbling house undergoing perennial restoration. She’s got a hunky, laid-back boarder, William (Billy Crudup), who serves as carpenter, mason and auto mechanic.

There’s another renter, the henna-headed Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a blend of punk and hippie sensibilities who is undergoing a cancer scare.

And then there’s the young beauty Julie (Elle Fanning). Two years older than Jamie, she uses his bedroom as her refuge from an unhappy home life and a series of apparently joyless sexual couplings. At night she often enters through his second story window, scrambling up the construction scaffolding that surrounds the house.

Jamie is desperately in love with Julie (so are those of us watching the movie), but she keeps it platonic. She needs a friend and sounding board, not another young dude who wants to paw her. (“It was so much easier before you got so horny,” she sighs.) Continue Reading »

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.

Continue Reading »

Sunny Pawer

Sunny Pawer

“LION” My rating: B+

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Half Dickensian epic, half heart-wrenching domestic drama, “Lion” tells a real-life story so unlikely that it stretches credulity.

But it happened.

In 1986 five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawer, in one of the most astonishing performances by a young child ever captured on film)  was living with his widowed mother and two siblings in a rural area of central India.  His mother worked as a laborer (she literally lifted rocks all day); Saroo and an older brother stole lumps of coal from passing trains,  trading them for food.

On one nighttime outing, Saroo was separated from his brother and found himself locked inside an empty passenger train being driven more than 1,000 miles to Calcutta to be decommissioned.

Little Saroo didn’t know his family’s last name or the town he hailed from. Worse, he spoke only Hindi, while the Calcuttans spoke Bengali.

For months the child lived on the street — begging, stealing, avoiding capture by criminals seeking child prostitutes. After several close calls Saroo found himself in an orphanage where, miraculously enough, he was paired with an Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman).

Relocated to middle-class comfort in Tasmania, the lost boy seemed to have washed up in paradise.  Not even the addition to the family of his troubled adopted brother, Mantosh — like Saroo an Indian orphan but with severe emotional and social issues — could seriously erode the fairy-tale quality of Saroo’s good fortune.

(By the way, John and Sue seem pretty good candidates for sainthood.)

Continue Reading »

Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington

“FENCES” My rating: B+

138 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington has  never given — and may never again give — a performance as deep and revelatory as he does in “Fences.”

This screen adaptation of August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer-winning drama — directed by Washington — offers the ideal match of performer and part, allowing the actor to sink his teeth into a role so  perfectly  balanced in subtlety and grandiosity as to reduce most film acting to the level of cardboard cutouts.

The dialogue is rendered in a sort of mid-century black urban dialect, but the effect is nothing short of Shakespearean. In its power and complexity “Fences” feels like an African American “King Lear.”

Set in the late 1950s in a black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Wilson’s drama centers on Troy Maxson (Washington), a man fiercely determined to keep his dignity while fighting his own set of demons.

A minor star of baseball’s Negr0 leagues, Troy was too old to benefit from Jackie Robinson’s integration of the majors, and that missed opportunity still rankles him. Now he works as a city trash collector and is noisily wrangling for a position as a truck driver, a gig usually restricted to whites. Troy sees that discriminatory policy less as a social injustice than as a personal affront.

Smooth talking but essentially combative, Troy nurses old hurts that gnaw at his manhood. He can be outwardly friendly and garrulous, a raconteur and an entertainer. But he can turn on a dime if the wrong button is pushed, and then his belligerent, dark side flashes. Troy  invariably has a loquacious argument to justify his transgressions, but push him too hard and the dominating and intimidating side of his personality steps up to slap down his critics.

Wilson’s screenplay (actually it’s his stage play, with the addition of just one line of dialogue) provides Troy with an assortment of friends and family members who serve as his audience and occasional victims.

His wife Rose (a stunning Viola Davis) is a friendly, outgoing woman who  has learned how and when not to push her explosive spouse. Often they seem true equals; at other times it’s obvious that Rose must walk on eggshells around her man. Continue Reading »

LLL d 29 _5194.NEF

Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling

“LA LA LAND” My rating: B+

128 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

From practically its first frame “La La Land” announces that it’s not going to be your routine movie experience.

In one long, impossibly complicated moving shot, several hundred motorists — stranded by a traffic jam on an L.A. freeway — spontaneously break into dance, boogying on their car roofs, leaping, prancing and singing the new song “Another Day of Sun.”

Yes, it’s a musical.

Damien Chazelle, the 31-year-old auteur who displayed his love of both cinema and jazz with 2014’s stunningly intense”Whiplash,”  here attempts nothing more than to take on the long tradition of Hollywood musicals.

“La La Land” is a bittersweet romance, a valentine to jazz and our collective memories of classic movies, and a sterling example of state-of-the-art filmmaking. Small wonder it received a leading seven Golden Globe noms and is a front-runner for Oscar’s best picture.

Our guy is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a Miles-and-Coltrane-loving jazz pianist who dresses in ’50s retro Sinatra style, drives a pristinely restored land-shark convertible and dreams of running his own club.

For now, though, he miserably plinks out Christmas carols at a supper club, incurring the owner’s wrath by embellishing familiar tunes with bebop digressions.

“I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired,” he rationalizes.

Our girl is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who pours java at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot. Mia throws herself into dispiriting auditions, where her heartfelt emoting is often rudely interrupted by the casting director’s cellphone and gofers delivering lunch.

As with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they meet cute, dislike each other, meet again and click, their deepening relationship encapsulated in a couple of brilliantly choreographed (by “So You Think You Can Dance’s” Mandy Moore) numbers: an exuberant dance on a hillside drive in Griffith Park at sunset, and a gravity-free after-hours  pas de deux in the park’s famous observatory. Continue Reading »

rogue-one-at-act“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” My rating: C+

133 minutes | MPAA rating: R

After nearly 40 years of Wookies, Jedis and Imperial storm troopers, am I finally over the whole “Star Wars” thing?

The sad truth is that I was underwhelmed — sometimes flat-out bored — by “Rogue One,” the latest addition to the “SW” universe.

And here’s the thing…it’s  not a bad movie.  Certainly not bad like the three George Lucas-driven prequels were.

“Rogue One” is reasonably well acted and technically flawless. Moreover, it’s an attempt to make a more adult, racially-diverse “Star Wars” film, a stand-alone tale that is darker both thematically (it’s like an intergalactic Alamo where everyone goes down fighting) and visually.

Nevertheless, “Rogue One” is emotionally lifeless. I didn’t care.

Director Gareth Edwards and the producers and writers have worked so hard to hit familiar buttons of “Star Wars” mythology that the resulting film feels generic, as if it were directed by a committee rather than a single visionary individual.

The plot, for those who have been living in the spice mines of Kessel, follows the efforts of a team of rebel spies to steal the plans for the Death Star, an enterprise that will result in the destruction of said moon-sized weapon by Luke Skywalker in the original “Star Wars” movie.

Our heroine is Jyn (Felicity Jones), whose scientist father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was taken from her to develop the Death Star.  After years of crime and imprisonment, Jyn is given an opportunity by the Rebel Alliance. She will be part of a team tasked with finding Galen and getting those precious plans.

They’re a mixed bag of idealists and pragmatic warriors.

Foremost among them is Cassian (Diego Luna), the ostensible head of the team who, unbeknownst to Jyn, as been secretly ordered to assassinate her father, lest his genius bring the Death Star to completion.

Chirrut (Donnie Yen) is a blind swordsman who relies on The Force to battle enemies. A pretty obvious nod to a subgenre of samurai films, he’s got a grouchy partner (Wen Jiang) who fights with a monstrous hand cannon.

Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) is a pilot who knows his way around the Empire’s military outposts.

Best of the bunch is  K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a towering droid made by the Empire but reprogrammed to serve the Rebel Alliance.  Apparently K-2SO also was given a microchip for sarcasm and irony, which he exercises regularly at the expense of his human cohorts. Continue Reading »


Trevante Rhodes as the twenty something Chiron

“MOONLIGHT” My rating: B+ 

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Think of  Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” as an African-American variation on Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” It is an epic chronicle of childhood giving way to adolescence, and adolescence becoming a lonely adulthood.

The difference is that “Boyhood” was pretty much straightforward storytelling, while “Moonlight” is pure poetry. It is, in short, a genuine black art film, filled with beauty and horror, small comforts and big challenges.

Through the character of Chiron, a young Floridian played by three actors of different ages, writer/director Bennett gives us a deeply personal story which, without belaboring the point, can stand for the experiences of hundreds of thousands of young black men.

It’s not about drugs or poverty or gang life per se, and there’s no obviously political agenda (in fact white people are almost never seen), but “Moonlight” cannot help folding those socially relevant topics into its narrative.

At the same time the movie is less about facts (it’s filled with unanswered questions) than about feelings. It’s about a few seconds of blessed respite during a suffocatingly tense day, about water and sand and tropical heat, about activity fearfully captured out of the corner of one’s eye.

In one sense it’s practically documentary without the usual big dramatic speeches (the film’s protagonist is incapable of verbal grandstanding), but captured in a swirling riot of camera movement, color and conflicting sounds.

When we first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert), or Little as he’s called by just about everyone, he’s hiding in an abandoned apartment building, having been pursued by schoolyard bullies. As his name suggests, Little is small. Also shy, withdrawn, mistrustful and uncommunicative.

He’s rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood drug lord, who provides safe escort and takes the boy to his apartment and his nurturing girlfriend Teresa (KCK native Janelle Monae, making a seemingly effortless transition from pop stardom to film acting).

Over the course of weeks and months the cocaine slinger and his woman will become Little’s surrogate parents, providing food, shelter and — as weird as it may sound — examples of more-or-less responsible adulthood…something painfully lacking in Little’s relationship with his  increasingly drug dependent mother (Naomie Harris).

Ali (sure to be honored as a supporting actor Oscar nominee) makes of Juan a deeply complex figure. He’s a criminal, but his relationship with Little is one of selfless nurturing.  Countless films have prepared us for Ali to use the kid as part of his drug business, but that never happens.

Instead he takes the boy to the beach and gently coaxes him into learning to float on the rocking waves. When Little asks, “Am I a faggot?” Juan answers with profound sincerity that Little may be gay, but he’s no faggot.

Other life lessons follow.  “No place in this world ain’t got black people,” Juan declares.  “We were the first people here.”

And especially:  “At some point you gotta decide for yoursdrelf who you gonna be.” Continue Reading »

Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender

Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender


  132 minutes | MPAA rating:  PG-13

There’s a world of weeping on display in “The Light Between Oceans.”

The good news is that most of the sobbing is done by Alicia Vikander.  If you’ve got to stare for two hours at a tear-stained face, it might as well be that of this Oscar-winning actress. She makes suffering almost transcendent.

The not-so-good news is that in making its transition from best seller to big screen, M.L. Stedman’s story has lost a good deal of its power.

For all the lacerating emotions displayed by Vikander and co-stars Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz, relatively little of it is experienced by the viewer.

What was deeply moving on the printed page seems mechanically melodramatic when dramatized.  You want to be moved, but can’t shake the feeling that mostly you’re being manipulated.

After four years in the trenches of World War I, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) returns to his native Australia a hollow man. Seeking solitude and time to rediscover himself, he signs up as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Island, a windswept hunk of rock 100 miles from the nearest coast.

But he won’t be alone for long. In one of the most satisfying passages in Derek Cianfrance’s film, he meets, woos and weds Isabel (Vikander), a local girl who seems to relish life on the island. Their’s is a civilization of two…the only thing that could make it better would be a baby to share the experience.

Fate has other plans.  Isabel suffers a miscarriage (during a hurricane, no less) and later gives birth to a stillborn child.  Things are looking pretty glum.

And then a rowboat floats in on the tide. Inside is a dead man and a baby girl. Continue Reading »

Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson

Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson


99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

As much a sociological study as a conventional melodrama, “Trespass Against Us” unfolds among a band of “travelers.” That’s how the Brits refer to the nomadic gypsies who have lived for centuries on the fringes of society.

Our unconventional hero is  Chad Cutler (Michael Fassbender), a fearless master thief and taunter of police who, with the approach of middle age, is feeling the uncomfortable pull of responsibility.

Though Chad,  his wife Kelly (Lindsey Marshal) and their children Tyson (Georgie Smith) and Mini (Kacie Anderson) live a traditional gypsy life in a caravan (i.e., a trailer or mobile home), he’s beginning to want more  than a nonstop diet of carousing and crime interrupted by the periodic spells in stir.

The problem is Chad’s father Colby (Brendan Gleeson), the head of this particular band, who has no use for such posh niceties as literacy, conventional careers or societal approval.  Colby is more than just patriarchal — he’s practically Old Testament.

So even as Chad is laying secret plans to break away from the clan and set up a new life in an actual house, he still finds himself a reluctant participant in Colby’s criminal enterprises, including the burgling of a rural estate that nets a fortune in antiquities.

Despite some action sequences, “Trespass Against Us” is essentially a character study of two headstrong men positioning themselves for a colossal confrontation. And Fassbender and Gleeson, two of best actors in U.K. cinema, are clearly up to the challenge.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the film (the direction is by Adam Smith, the screenplay by Alastair Siddons). But in the end it’s somewhat underwhelming.

| Robert W. Butler