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Martin McCann

“THE SURVIVALIST”  My rating: B (Opens May 26 at the Screenland Tapcade)

104 minutes | No MPAA rating 

Nearly wordless and brutally unsentimental, the post-Apocalyptic world of “The Survivalist” looks a lot less like action-packed Mad Max territory than like Cormac McCarthy’s quietly desperate The Road.

In the wake of some sort of breakdown of civilization, the world is on a slow, quiet slide into obscurity.

The title character of Stephen Fingleton’s film is a thirtyish fellow (Martin McCann) who lives in a cabin deep in the Irish woods. He farms a small patch of land. He wastes nothing. (A stranger who stumbles upon his little domain is soon added to the compost pile.)

Mia Goth, Olwen Fouere

The film’s first 15 minutes simply follow the Survivalist as he executes his daily chores.

His solitude of seven years is broken by the arrival of the white-haired Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) and her adolescent daughter Milja (Mia Goth, looking like a young Shelley Duvall).

The newcomers ask for food. When it’s not forthcoming, they offer to trade some vegetable seeds in their possession. When that doesn’t work, Kathryn says it’s OK for the man to sleep with the girl. Just don’t come inside her.

The bulk of “The Survivalist” follows the uneasy alliance that follows. Are the two women content to stay on with the man — who has a shotgun but only two shells — as their protector?  (Periodically the forest encampment is picked over by hungry  raiders.) Is Milja a willing lover? Or are the visitors simply softening up their host, encouraging him to let down his guard so that they can kill him and take over his little plot of ground?

Eventually it becomes apparent that the Survivalist’s little patch cannot sustain three individuals. Something has to give.

Fingleton gives us a world in which our quaint notions of right and wrong are now hopelessly outdated. Staying alive is all that matters.

The film is shockingly grim (maggots wriggling in a wound, an abortion performed with a piece of wire, unabashed full-frontal nudity) but also weirdly compelling. The no-nonsense performances, Damien Elliott’s lush photography, and a music-free soundscape of natural noises come together to create an unsettling but perfectly believable environment.

| Robert W. Butler

Liev Schreiber as boxer Chuck Wepner

“CHUCK” My rating: B (Opens May 25 at the Glenwood Arts, Town Center and Barrywoods)

98 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Watching a familiar actor utterly lose him/herself in a role is one of the deep pleasures of moviegoing.

Liev Schreiber makes that transformation in “Chuck.” But then so do Naomi Watts (a.k.a. Mrs. Schreiber), Elizabeth Moss, Ron Perlman and Jim Gaffigan.

The subject of director Philippe Falardeau’s bracing little film (the screenplay is credited to Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael  Cristofer and Schreiber) is Chuck Wepner, the  New Jersey club fighter known affectionately/sardonically as the “Bayonne Bleeder” for his willingness to be beaten to a pulp.  (In fact, “Chuck’s” original title was “The Bleeder.” Wish they’d stuck with it.)

In 1975 the virtually unknown Wepner got a crack at taking away Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight belt in a bout conceived and advertised by promoter Don King as a blatant racial  confrontation.

Werner’s fight strategy was pretty simple: “I could’t hit  him. I figured I’d wear him down with my face.”

Wepner didn’t win, but he lasted for more than 14 bloody rounds against the world’s best, sending the champ to the mat once and losing by a TKO with only 19 seconds left in the fight.

Out in Hollywood a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone was so inspired by Wepner’s David-and-Goliath story that he wrote a screenplay called “Rocky.”

“Chuck” isn’t really a boxing film. Rather, it is simultaneously a fact-based yarn about the ever-widening fallout from the Ali-Wepner fight and a character study of a Palooka whose a brief brush with fame went straight to his head.

Schreiber’s Chuck, who narrates his story, is by most accounts a pretty average guy. He worked as a nightclub bouncer and as a debt collector for a loan shark, though his heart wasn’t in it. (“I was never good at roughing guys up. Too nice.”)

His wife Phyllis (Moss) is the family breadwinner, thanks to her gig with the U.S. Post Office. Chuck shows his appreciation by writing heartfelt doggerel about her virtues.

Eventually an admirer lands Chuck a liquor distributorship.  It’s an OK living, but it provides way too many opportunities to hang around bars and pick up other women. (It also provides an opportunity for a soundtrack filled with disco hits.)

The Ali fight provides Chuck with bragging rights and celebrity status.  Once “Rocky” becomes an Oscar-winning phenomenon, everyone assumes he must have sold his story to the  movies for big bucks.  In fact, Chuck didn’t earn a cent off the film.

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Jeremiah Tower

“JEREMIAH TOWER: THE LAST MAGNIFICENT” My rating: B- (Opens May 26 at the Glenwood Arts)

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Jeremiah Tower isn’t a household name…unless you’re a hard-core foodie.  In which case he is a god walking the earth.

Tower’s career as a chef goes back 40 years to the legendary Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, where with owner Alice Waters he pioneered the notion of local ingredients and a distinctive California cuisine.

Lydia Tenaglia’s documentary “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” covers its subject’s triumphs (the San Francisco hot spot Stars) and failures, his long period of exile in Mexico and his recent short-lived resurrection as the head chef at the Tavern on the Green in NYC (the place, apparently, where old chefs go to die).

Tower is an important and controversial figure in the world of American cuisine, at least according to  famous talking heads like Martha Stewart, Anthony Bourdain (a producer of  the film), Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali.

But Tenaglia’s film is perhaps most powerful in its efforts to understand a man regarded even by close acquaintances as unknowable.

Tower was the son of rich jet-setters who taught him by example how to live well. And that’s about all they taught him. One of the film’s more revealing anecdotes relates his hard-drinking parents’ surprise at learning that young Jeremiah had for months been living undetected in their mansion; each assumed the other had arranged for him to be sent to a boarding school.

He grew up charming, handsome, bisexual — and enigmatic. He had lovers and friends, but he reserved his true passions for food.

We see him wandering around Aztec ruins in Mexico, spouting philosophy. (Tower seems much more comfortable discussing ideas than feelings.)

The film’s final passages describe how Tower came out of retirement to take over Tavern on the Green, and how it all blew up in his face.

There are traces of bitterness in Tower’s comments about the debacle, but ultimately he’s a man who seems absolutely content just to be with himself.

| Robert W. Butler

Tracy Letts, Debra Winger

“THE LOVERS” My rating: B (Opens May 26 at the Tivoli)

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Spectacularly acted and deliciously dark, “The Lovers” is a breathtaking balancing act between comedy and drama.

Azazel Jacobs’ cinematic faceslap centers on the fiftysomething Michael and Mary (Tracy Letts, Debra Winger), a suburban  couple who  have been married for so long that they’ve given up searching for that old spark.

They’re more like roommates than spouses. Most of their conversations center on the mundane; they can coast a long way on “We’re out of toothpaste.”

But each is having a secret extramarital affair.

Michael is doodling with Lucy (Melora Walters), a  ballet instructor at least a decade his junior whose neediness is off the charts.

Mary is getting it on with Robert (Aidan Gillen, Littlefinger on “Game of Thrones”), a writer who’s given to lurking outside her place of work.

Both Lucy and Robert are absurdly vulnerable and emotionally naked.  They’re more like a couple of lovesick teens than adults, and Michael and Mary are exhausting themselves trying to please their lovers without giving away  the game at home.

It may be time to fish or cut bait.  Lucy and Robert are tired of the lies and excuses and each lays down the law:  End the marriage.  Now

Independently, Michael and Mary both promise that they’ll bring down the curtain  during an upcoming reunion with their college-age son.

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Johnny Depp

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES”  My rating: C- (Opens wide on May 26)

129 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

At this late stage audiences for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” should know better than to expect any surprises.

Like all of its predecessors, “Dead Men” is as shiny and polished as a hand-blown glass Christmas ornament — and just as empty.

The plot (the screenplay is credited to Jeff Nathanson) is predictably incomprehensible.

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the grown son of series regular Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, who has maybe 90 seconds of screen time), is determined to save his father from eternal enslavement on the sunken ship the Flying Dutchman. (Thwaites is such a bland screen presence that he achieves the near impossible by making Bloom seem dynamic.)

To break that spell Henry will have to obtain several powerful talismans:  a pirate diary containing a hidden map, a compass with mystical properties,  Poseidon’s trident.

He bickers with a young woman, Carina (Kaya Scodelario), who is so much smarter than the oafish and superstitious men around her that she’s repeatedly condemned as a witch. Wanna bet they’re going to move past bickering and fall in love?

The series regulars — among them Geoffrey Rush as the dour Captain Barbossa and the crew members of the Black Pearl — give their usual one-note performances. Most of these characters were set in stone four movies ago and haven’t evolved one whit.

That goes especially for star Johnny Depp, whose Captain Jack Sparrow remains an unchanging and buffoonish blend of swash and swish. For this viewer, anyway, the charm wore off several films back.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW, VISIT THE KANSAS  CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article152366797.html

Antonio Banderas, Piper Perabo

“BLACK BUTTERFLY” My rating: C+ (Now on Pay Per View)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Brian Goodman’s “Black Butterfly” is a moderately effective thriller with several “gotcha!” twists…until it delivers one gotcha twist too many.

Paul (Antonio Banderas) is a once-promising novelist and screenwriter now fallen upon hard times. He sits in his remote cabin home in the Rockies (actually, the film was shot in Italy) pecking aimlessly at his typewriter, drinking heavily and hoping for inspiration. It isn’t forthcoming.

Meanwhile a serial killer has been terrorizing the neighborhood, snatching young women who are never seen again.

During a confrontation at a local diner with a bad-tempered trucker, Paul is defended by Jack (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a mysterious drifter. Thankful for the intervention, he invites Jack to stay a few days at his home.  Jack agrees to make some repairs to the place, which the financially-strapped Paul must reluctantly sell.

But there’s something a bit off about this guest.  Jack keeps in his backpack newspaper clippings about the missing women. He can be surly and suspicious.

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Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle as the Dickinson sisters

“A QUIET PASSION” My rating: B 

125 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like most of Terence Davies’ films, “A Quiet Passion” moves at a glacial pace that taxes an audience’s patience.

Stick with it, though, and you’ll get Cynthia Nixon in the performance of a lifetime.

As poet Emily Dickinson, Nixon (most of us will always know her as the red-headed Miranda on HBO’s “Sex and the City”) plays a physically passive character.  About the most exciting thing Emily Dickinson does is leisurely walk through her family’s 19th-century garden beneath a parasol.

But beneath that civilized, socially-acceptable exterior there beats an angry heart, and periodically it surges to the forefront with dazzling results.

Davies’ screenplay follows Emily from her graduation from a girls’ school (in early scenes she’s played by Emma Bell) to her death in 1886 at age 55. With the exception of an opening scene set at the school, Davies film unfolds entirely in the Dickinson family home in Amherst, Massachusetts — fittingly so, since by middle age Emily was something of a recluse who devoted herself to her ailing mother.

She also devoted herself to her writing,  though Dickinson  died before her work was widely distributed.  Today, of course, she’s regarded as one of best poets this country ever produced, but during her lifetime she saw only about a dozen poems printed in local newspapers.  And those were heavily tinkered with by editors who disapproved of her creative punctuation and other eccentricities.

Film biographies of writers are usually odd affairs.  Nothing terribly interesting in a person scribbling with a pen or pecking at a typewriter.  Davies includes a few shots of Emily writing, but mostly he uses Nixon’s voice-over narration to read relevant Dickinson works.

What the film is really about are Emily’s interactions with her family and friends, and how they reveal her mind and personality. Some of these confrontations are genteel and measured, others volcanic.

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Meredith Hagner, Alex Karpovsky, Wyatt Russell

“FOLK HERO  & FUNNY GUY” My rating: C+

88 minutes | No MPAA rating

A moderately diverting buddy/road movie, “Folk Hero &  Funny Guy” isn’t incisive enough to capture our imaginations. But it isn’t awful, either.

Jeff Grace’s comedy stars Alex Karpovsky (a regular on HBO’s “Girls”) as Paul, a professional standup comic whose career has hit a creative wall.  Basically he’s been repeating his material for so long that he’s been bypassed by the modern era. (I mean, the guy still tries to get mileage out of a joke about e-vite invitations.)

Turns out Paul’s best friend from childhood, Jason (Wyatt Russell), is a nationally known folk rocker with a burgeoning career.  Jason suggests that Paul accompany him on his new solo tour as an opening act.

Paul needs the work and the exposure.  Jason wants to re-bond with his bud. What could go wrong?

Enter Bryn (Meredith Hagner), a guitar-strumming gal whom they encounter at an open-mic night.  Jason impulsively asks her to join the tour (after impulsively taking her to bed).

Except that schlubby Paul also has the hots for this newcomer, who seems to be doing a pretty good job of keeping both men at arm’s length.

And that, folks, is pretty much it.

You can say this for “Folk Hero & Funny Guy”…it feels right.  Paul’s comedy is sometimes wince-inducing, but it has enough sparks of wit to let us know he’s capable of more.

Russell and Hagner’s musical passages are, well, pretty freakin’ great.  In most movies like this the musical performances are never good enough to convince you that the  audience in the movie is genuinely  going nuts for the concert. Here you believe.

| Robert W. Butler

Richard Gere

“NORMAN”  My rating: B

118 minutes | |MPAA rating: R

You don’t have to like Norman Oppenheimer, the fast-talking character played by Richard Gere in “Norman,” to appreciate his energy and drive.

Norman is a hustler and a schmoozer, an arm twister and a facile liar. When necessary he can be a party crasher and a stalker.

He appears to be a businessman (his card vaguely reads “Oppenheimer Strategies”) who specializes in putting together deals. More accurately, he puts together people far more capable than himself who can put together deals. With luck Norman gets a cut of the action.

One of the wonders of Gere’s performance (just when did he become such a terrific actor?) is that even while Norman remains a mystery, a cypher, he’s strangely compelling.

(The movie has a secondary title: “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” That right there tells you what we can look forward to.)

In the early scenes we see Norman pestering casual acquaintances and heavy hitters on the New York financial scene (among the players are Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens, Josh Charles and Harris Yulin). Outwardly Norman oozes confidence and professionalism. He’s impeccably dressed and groomed.

But beneath that show of casual affluence you get a whiff of angst from a minor player desperate to be part of the big game. Norman is usually broke; he pops Tic Tacs in lieu of meals. He can’t afford an office, conducting all his business over his cell phone.

Writer/director Joseph Cedar’s film turns on Norman’s courting of an Israeli deputy minister visiting the Big Apple for a conference. Eshel (an excellent Lior Ashkenazi) is a bureaucratic  nobody grateful that this apparent go-getter of an American wants to befriend him. Norman even treats him to the city’s most expensive pair of men’s shoes.

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Charlie Hunnam

“KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD” My rating: D+ (Opens wide on May 12)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Having shrunk the great Sherlock Holmes to fit the limited palette of short attention span theater (more Vin Diesel than Conan Doyle), filmmaker Guy Ritchie has now unleashed his reductive skills on the Arthurian legend.

Predictably, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is visually elephantine and dramatically stunted.

Know from the start that this “Arthur” has about as much in common with Malory or Tennyson as “Clash of the Titans” did with Bulfinch. Basically it’s a big shapeless slice of sword-and-sorcery, CG battles and quirky humor (providing you find it at all amusing).

In a prologue the kingdom of Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is seized during a great battle (war elephants the size of battleships…in England) by his scheming brother Vortigern (a sneering Jude Law, who portrays Watson in Ritchie’s Holmes franchise).

Before dying Uther sends his young son Arthur off to safety.  The boy grows up to be hunky Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”), raised in a brothel and unaware of his royal origins. He’s protective of the harlots who sheltered him, and regularly attends classes at a dojo run by an Asian martial arts master. (Seriously, there’s dialogue referring to “kung fu.” In Medieval London.) Continue Reading »

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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