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Juliette Binoche

“LET THE SUNSHINE IN” My rating: B+

94 minutes | No MPAA rating

Movies about privileged people who can’t stop moaning about their boring, unfulfilled lives generally give me a throbbing keister ache.

Claire Denis’ “Let the Sunshine In” is the exception, a profile of unhappiness delivered with such care, insight and actorly magnificence that you can forgive the self-absorption exhibited by most of the characters.

We stick with the ironically titled “…Sunshine…” because it’s an almost perfect vehicle for Juliette Binoche, one of France’s greatest actresses, here at the peak of her powers.

A confession: I’ve always admired Binoche’s thespian skills, but have long been perplexed by her status as a great beauty.  I  never saw it…until now. The older Binoche gets, the sexier she becomes. Go figure.

Here she plays Isabelle, a middle-aged artist (abstract expressionism, naturally) who in the wake of a divorce has been cast upon emotional and sexual shoals. Denis’ screenplay (written with Christine Angot) follows Isabelle’s ever-rebounding relationships with a half dozen men, none of whom seem capable of providing what she wants.

Of course, Isabelle may not know what she wants. There’s more than a little neurotic neediness in Binoche’s performance…after a while you may come to the conclusion her unmistakeable neediness is a big part of the problem. (Even her clothing sends weird messages…she’s big on mini-skirts, go-go boots and plunging necklines that have a hookerish feel.)

As the film starts she’s breaking off her affair with Vincent (Xavier Beauvoir), a burly banker who bitches about his dull world of commerce and finds her artistic endeavors quite erotic. “You charm the pants off me,” he says, though it’s likely he’d lose the trousers whether Isabelle  was charming or not. Problem is, Vincent can’t help exhibiting the alpha-male assholery that is key to his profession.

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Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams

“DISOBEDIENCE” My rating: B 

114 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Disobedience” is being described as a lesbian love story. Admittedly, it’s shot through with erotic yearnings

But that label is too limiting. This latest effort from Chilean auteur Sebastian Lelio (whose “A Fantastic Woman” won the foreign language Oscar this year) is more accurately about breaking away from an unfulfilling past to face a future of uncertain possibilities.

Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) has already made that break.  The only child of the rabbi of an uber-orthodox Jewish community in London, Ronit years earlier fled that insular world and the likelihood of an arranged marriage, moved to New York, changed her name to Ronnie Curtis and launched a career as a fine arts photographer concentrating on society’s fringes.

Upon receiving the news that her widowed father has died, Ronit goes to a nightclub, drinks and dances and ends up having sex with a man in the restroom.

Everyone grieves in their own way.

Flying to London, Ronit is met with varying degrees of compassion and suspicion. Some members of the religious community shun her; the newspaper obit states that her father “had no children.”  But she’s given a room by her father’s long-time student/disciple David (Alessandro Nivola) and his wife Esti (Rachel McAdams). The three were friends during their teenage years.

Ronnie begins to question the wisdom of returning. Her father’s will gives all his possessions, including his house, to the synagogue. And she’s perturbed that Esti, who as an adolescent shared her dissatisfaction with life in a strict religious community, is now the wife of the man who stands to become the new leader of that community.

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Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen

“BOOK CLUB”  My rating: C+

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The advertising for “Book Club” tells us exactly what to expect. This vehicle for four fine actresses of a certain age (Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen) is basically “The Golden Girls” with Viagra. Don’t wait for surprises…there aren’t any.

The good news is that despite the self-congratulatory, nudge-nudge/wink-wink humor employed by director Bill Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms,  “Book Club’s” cast — not just the female leads but the male supporting actors as well — are solid enough that even a curmudgeonly viewer can take comfort in basking in the glow of so much collective talent.

The premise finds four women, pals since college days, who meet regularly to discuss a new book. They are:

The recently widowed Diane (Keaton), who is contending with the smothering attentions of her two grown daughters (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton). They want to move Mom from L.A. out to their home in Arizona.

The vivacious Vivian (Fonda), a wealthy businesswoman and hotel owner who has never married and in fact refuses to sleep with men. Literally…she’ll bonk their brains out, but she won’t sleep with them, as that implies an intimacy she’s always avoided.

Sharon (Bergen) is a long-divorced federal judge more than a little peeved that her geeky ex-husband (Ed Begley Jr.) is now engaged to a braindead twentysomething blonde. She hasn’t had a date in 18 years.

Finally there’s Carol (Steenburgen), a successful restauranteur whose once-passionate marriage to Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) has hit the doldrums. Recently retired, he’s now more interested in servicing his old motorcycle than his wife. Continue Reading »

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

“RBG”  My rating: B+

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Even if you fail to notice that the opening credits of “RBG” overwhelmingly feature women’s names, it will take only a few minutes to recognize this doc as possibly the most feminist movie of all time.

It comes with the territory.  At age 84 its subject, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is, for many of us, the voice of open-minded sanity on the U.S. Supreme Court. This diminutive grandmother has become a cultural icon with a funny (but dead serious) rapper nickname: The Notorious RBG.  Her elfin features appear on coffee cups, T-shirts and bumper stickers.

For millions of women, Ginsberg is the ultimate role model. Interviewee Gloria Steinem calls her “the closest thing to a superhero that I know.”

Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s film might be dismissed as hagiography — though the film opens with right-wing talk radio soundbites excoriating Justice Ginsberg, thereafter nary a discouraging word is heard. Apparently to know RBG is to love her.

And that’s pretty much how audiences will leave “RBG”…with love, respect and awe.

The film works on two levels. First there’s the public person, whose  class at Harvard Law featured  more than 500 students, only nine of whom were women. She taught gender law at Rutgers, then got involved in arguing cases (often before the Supreme Court) that changed the legal parameters of female rights.

But if she argued for abortion rights — maintaining that “freedom” was a cruel illusion if women were denied reproductive rights — and represented a woman denied entry to the all-male (and state-funded) Virginia Military Institute, she was also willing to challenge a Louisiana law that allowed women to opt out of jury duty. Equal is equal, after all.

The talking heads  assembled for this film — among them journalist Nina Totenberg, grandchildren and a slew of Ginsberg’s fellow attorneys — credit her with creating a legal landscape that case by case led to greater sexual equality.

And that was before Bill Clinton named her to the Supreme Court. Continue Reading »

John Carroll Lynch, Matt Bomer

“ANYTHING” My rating: C

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

John Caroll Lynch, the bald character actor whose face everybody recognizes but whose name nobody knows (he was Frances Mcdormand’s waterfowl-painting hubby in “Fargo”), finally gets a shot at a leading man role in “Anything.”

He’s pretty good, but he’s fighting an uphill battle against writer/director Timothy McNeil’s stunningly heavy-handed script.

In the opening scenes things seem to be unfolding effectively.  Small-town Mississippi insurance agent Early Landry (Lynch)  is dealing with the traffic accident death of his beloved wife. The guy has two speeds: stoic and inconsolable.  Small wonder he ends up in the tub with his wrist slit.

His businesswoman sister from L.A. (Maura Tierney), sweeps in to take charge, relocating her Early to her family’s spacious home. But after a period of maladjustment — and a $500,000 insurance settlement —  he rents his own apartment in a rather dicey part of Hollywood.

Here’s where McNeil’s screenplay starts to go off the rails. For nobody within blocks, it seems, leads  anything like a normal life.

The unseen fellow who lives in the downstairs apartment gets boozed up and sings off key all night long. He, too, is mourning a lost spouse.

Brianna (Margot Bingham) spends most of the day sitting on the stoop smoking and awaiting the arrival of her ne’er-do-well musician boyfriend (Micah Hauptman), who cheats on her regularly…and sometimes in her presence. As a result Brianna exhibits a degree of mean cynicism unknown in Mississippi.

But, then, everyone in L.A. is afflicted with a form of sardonic sadism, according to this movie. Compared to the locals Early is as innocent as a baby.

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Diane Krueger

“IN THE FADE”  My rating: B+

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“In the Fade” may get a bit fuzzy around the edges, but its center is as solid as an anvil.

German actress Diane Kruger is utterly compelling  in writer/director Fatih Akin’s  tale of a woman attempting to come to terms with the terrorist killing of her husband and son. Even when the film threatens to bog down in courtroom cliches, Krueger’s fierce/fragile performance holds us in its grasp.

Small wonder the role won her best actress honors at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival. (“In the Fade” also won a Golden Globe as best foreign language film, which raises the question of why it hasn’t gotten a theatrical run here in Kansas City…but that’s another story.)

The picture begins with cellphone footage of the German prison wedding of convicted drug dealer  Nuri (Numan Acar) to party-girl hottie Katja (Kruger).

It then cuts to the couple’s post-prison life.  Years later we find them blissfully wed,  parents to six-year-old son Rocco (Rafael Santana), and operating a thriving small business in Homburg. Nuri’s criminal past is a distant memory. They appear to be model citizens. Continue Reading »

Emily Blunt

“A QUIET PLACE” My rating: B

90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

A big idea will take you farther than a big budget. That was the lesson of last year’s “Get Out” and, on a somewhat more modest scale, of the creepily claustrophobic “A Quiet Place.”

Co-written and directed by John Krasinski, who stars with real-life wife Emily Blunt, “Quiet…” is an intimate post-apocalyptic tale that examines the dynamic of a besieged family. It was made with limited resources; happily talent was not one of the rationed goods.

We first meet the clan — I don’t believe their names are ever mentioned — as they quietly pillage through the remains of an abandoned town.  Emphasize the “quietly” part.

Some sort of alien invasion or government experiment gone bad has unleashed nasty spider-like creatures (we don’t get a good look at them until late in the proceedings) who have an insatiable appetite for mammalian blood.  Only three months after these creatures made their appearance, the human race is teetering on the edge of extinction.

This particular family — Mom (Blunt), Dad (Krasinski), Big Sister (Millicent Simmonds) and Little Brother (Noah Jupe) —  have survived in large part because Big Sister is hearing impaired and the other family members are fluent in sign language. They are able to silently communicate with their hands (what conversation the film offers is rendered in subtitles) and this has allowed them to elude the marauding invaders, who are sightless but have  a finely developed sense of hearing.

After a jarring prologue we find the characters living on a farm, spending much of their time in a basement bunker. They don’t wear shoes (bare feet make less noise) and move with slow deliberation.  They have laid paths of sand around the farmstead…sand absorbs the sound of footsteps. Continue Reading »

John Cena, Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz

“BLOCKERS” My rating: C+

102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A bit of Apatow lite with a heavy load of raunch, “Blockers” mixes parental paranoia and adolescent randiness.  Despite a few flat passages, it mostly works…which is to say it’ll make you laugh even if you’re ashamed to.

This feature directing debut from veteran comedy writer/producer Kay Cannon (the “Pitch Perfect” franchise, “30 Rock,” “New Girl”) centers on a trio of hovering parents who discover that their three adored daughters have signed a pact to lose their virginity on prom night.

The film’s title (the script is by Brian and Jim Kehoe) is short for “cock blockers,” and that bit of information says a good deal about the sort of lurid laughs audiences can expect.

Mitchell (John Cena), Lisa (Leslie Mann) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) meet while dropping their daughters off for the first day of  elementary school.  The little girls bond almost immediately.

More than a decade later the three young ladies are facing high school graduation as virgins…and decide to do something about it. When the parental units intercept texts and emails detailing the planned deflorations, the oldsters go into full anxious mode and set out to prevent any such sexual encounters.

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“READY PLAYER ONE” My rating: B
140 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

That most films based on video games suck mightily should come as no surprise…video games are all about dishing visceral thrills, not building dramatic momentum or developing characters.

This is why Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is such a remarkable achievement. Instead of attempting to wrestle the video gaming experience into a standard dramatic format, this surprisingly entertaining entry is really just one long video game, albeit a game with so much pop-culture name dropping that geeks will spend countless hours documenting all the visual and aural references.

Think “Tron” to the nth degree.

Don’t go looking for the usual plot developments or relatable characters. The strength of  “Ready Player One” lies in its ability to create an totally plausible fantasy world that operates by its own rules.  At times the audience’s immersion in this universe is total and totally transporting.

The screenplay by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (based on Cline’s novel) unfolds in the year 2045.  Economic and environmental disasters have left the working class chronically unemployed.  They live in “stacks,”  mini-high rises made of mobile homes resting on metal frameworks. In this world video games are the opiate of the masses — when they’re not eating, sleeping or taking bathroom breaks, the citizenry are experiencing virtual realities through 3-D goggles.

This is the world of Wade (Ty Sheridan of “Mud,” “Joe” and the X-Men franchise), a shy teen whose on-line avatar is the game-savvy Parzival.  Wade/Parzival is a devotee of The Oasis, a massive video game developed by the late programming guru Halliday (played by Mark Rylance in flashbacks) and so complex and challenging that in the years since its inception no player has come close to beating it. But millions log in daily in an attempt to find three hidden keys that will unlock Halliday’s fantasy world and grant the winner ownership of the unimaginably wealthy Oasis empire.

The challenge attracts not just individual gamers like Parzifal and on-line buddies like the hulking giant Aech or the samurai warrior Daito.  The IOI corporation and its Machiavellian director Sorrento (Ben Mendelssohn) has its own army of players who compete for the prize.   The person — or business — that solves the game’s many puzzles will in effect become one of Earth’s dominant forces.

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Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Jason Isaacs as Zhukov

“THE DEATH OF STALIN” My rating: B+

 107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Cold War-bred baby boomers may be perplexed to discover that Nikita Khrushchev  — the Soviet bigwig who infamously pounded his shoe on a desk at the United Nations and proclaimed that “We will bury you” — is the hero of “The Death of Stalin.”

Just goes to show: History makes for strange bedfellows.

Make no mistake: Khrushchev, played here by a balding, pudgied-up Steve Buscemi, is presented as a hustling, scheming political climber.  But compared to the forces he’s battling, he’s one of the angels.

Unfolding over several days in 1953, “The Death of Stalin” is history retold as a black comedy.  It was written and directed by Armando Iannucci, the Scottish filmmaker who in 2009 gave us the brilliant sendup of Bush-era idiocy, “In the Loop.”

If anything, “…Stalin” surpasses that effort with its toxic/weirdly entertaining mix of terror, paranoia and manic broken-glass satire.

Iannucci and his co-writers (David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows) waste no time in laying out the miseries of Stalin-era USSR.  In a brilliantly edited opening sequence, we hopscotch around Moscow on a chilly March  night.

At Radio Moscow an official (Paddy Considine) freaks out when he gets a phone call from Stalin asking for a recording of that night’s live Mozart concerto. Problem is, the program wasn’t recorded.  The doors are barred, the nervous audience members told to return to their seats (“Don’t worry, nobody’s going to get killed”) and a guest conductor is snatched from his apartment in his pajamas to replace the original maestro, who has knocked himself unconscious by taking a header into a fire extinguisher.

The Radio Moscow man knows that people have been shot for less than failing to produce a recording for the glorious leader.

Meanwhile in the Kremlin, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is busy hobnobbing with his security chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale), whittling down a list of “enemies” to be arrested and disposed of that very night.

“Cracks me up, this one,” Stalin chortles, pointing to one of the names.

Nearby, Communist Party leaders like Khrushchev, Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Molotov (Michael Palin) trade vodka shots are behaving like boorish frat boys, recycling war stories and trying not to piss off Stalin. (After each meeting with the head honcho, Khrushchev goes over every comment so as to avoid in the future any topics that Stalin finds distasteful.)

The next day Stalin is found lying on the floor, barely alive, the victim of a stroke.

His cohorts are paralyzed by indecision. They can’t even agree on whether to call in medical assistance: “All the best doctors are in the gulag…or dead.” Continue Reading »

“BLACK PANTHER” My rating: B- 

134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Some films are noteworthy for their artistry.

Others earn a niche in the history books for their cultural footprint, for staking out sociological territory at just the right moment, for tapping into the zeitgeist.

Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” leans heavily toward the second category.

Narratively this is a  typical Marvel release, a superhero origin story that, as all Marvel movies must, ends with an extended fx-heavy smackdown.

But  there’s far more to “Black Panther.”  The first Marvel movie starring a black superhero, featuring a predominantly black cast and backed by with a heavy presence of African Americans in key creative roles,  the picture arrives at a moment when America’s oppressed groups — galvanized by an onslaught of alt-right rhetoric and rampant assholism — are asserting themselves with renewed determination.

Last year  “Wonder Woman” introduced a whole slew of female issues into the superhero universe; in retrospect it feels like a calling card for the “Me Too” movement.

“Panther” does pretty much the same thing for African Americans.  Think of it as Black Pride on steroids.

Based on the character created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the yarn introduces us to Wakanda, an African nation that to all outward appearances is pretty much your Third World backwater.

Ha.

Thanks to the nation’s supply of vibranium — an element brought to Earth in a meteor — Wakandans live in a high-tech paradise.  The clothing, artwork and architecture may be right out of “The Lion King,”  but behind the scenes vibranium provides unlimited energy, healing power and weaponry. Invisible aircraft, even.

What’s more, in conjunction with tribal spirituality, vibranium imparts to the Wakandan king  superhuman abilities, transforming him into the all-but-invincible Black Panther.

All these wonders are hidden behind a shimmering energy wall which protects Wakanda from the outside world  (also the case with the Amazonian homeland in “Wonder Woman”). By keeping to themselves the prosperous and happy Wakandans ensure that  vibranium never falls into the hands of weapons-crazy Westerners who, it’s obvious, are their inferiors in just about every category worth measuring. Continue Reading »

Sonia Warshawski

“BIG SONIA” My rating: B+

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

At first glance there’s nothing particularly big about Sonia Warshawski.

If anything, Sonia is tiny…though she does make an impression way out of proportion to her diminutive size.  Maybe it has something to do with her penchant for animal print fabrics and bright red lipstick.

In any case, one need watch the new documentary “Big Sonia” for only a few minutes to realize we’re dealing here with a major-league personality. In part it’s because of how the Polish-born Sonia handles the English language (she describes a situation as “bog-mindling”); a big chunk of it is her energy, remarkable for a woman who in her 90s int still running the tailor shop founded by her late husband decades earlier.

But mostly it’s her back story, that of a Holocaust survivor who carved out a new life in Kansas City, raising a family, starting a business and, with the fullness of time, becomes a  conduit to the past by giving public talks about the horrors of her youth.

“Big Sonia” — made by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and co-director Todd Soliday — covers a lot of territory.

It examines how Sonia’s tailor shop — the last surviving store in the now-razed Metcalf South Mall — became a dash of European chic amid all our Midwestern drabness. One longtime customer describes it as “a neighborhood bar &  grill without the booze.” It becomes clear that many of Sonia’s customers are as interested in hanging out with her as they are in having their hems adjusted.

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“GHOST STORIES”  My rating:  (Opens May 5 at the Screenland Armour)

“Ghost Stories” is a three-part Brit feature that starts out with a bone-chilling bang and then gradually loses much of its mojo.

Inspired, one imagines, by the classic 1945  horror anthology “Dead of Night” (or the more recent “Creepshow”),  this effort from the writing/directing duo of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman (who originally mounted it as a successful stage production) offers three horror short stories wrapped in a framing device.

To the extent that the film has a central character it is Philip Goodman (Nyman), a rumpled professor whose TV program examines supernatural events.  Goodman takes almost sadistic pleasure in exposing these claims as the result of human gullibility (“The brain sees what it wants to see”) and/or outright deception.

Then he’s contacted by Cameron, who back in the ’70s did his own share of psychic debunking. Goodman has long regarded Cameron as a role model and is disturbed when the aged fellow admits that thanks to three perplexing cases he’s now a believer. He challenges Goodman to try to solve them.

The first — and by far the best — yarn-within-a-yarn involves a former security guard (Paul Whitehouse) with a tragic past now enjoying an alcoholic retirement.  The night watchman relates to Goodman — we see it as a flashback — the night he experienced creepy things in the long-abandoned mental institution where he was posted. The segment is massively creepy and features a couple of shock effects that will make the hair on your arms stand up and take notice.

In the second story a young man (Alex Loather) motoring through a foggy forest has a hit-and-run incident with some sort of demonic creature.

And in the third segment Goodman visits a fellow (Martin Freeman, the only “name” in the cast) with poltergeist issues.

The big “gotcha” in Nyman and Dyson’s screenplay comes in the surrounding story, which delves into a tortured incident from Goodman’s own boyhood and shows him to be the subject of a cruel conspiracy.  By that time, though, “Ghost Stories” has bitten off more than it can comfortably gnaw.

Still, the film has been very well made and acted.  Connoisseurs of horror will find much to satisfy.

| Robert W. Butler

Itzhak Perlman

“ITZHAK” My rating: B 

82 minutes | No MPAA rating

Less a biography than a personality study, “Itzhak” follows violinist Itzhak Perlman over several weeks.

For a classical music genius, he appears to be a pretty relatable guy.

When we first see him he’s navigating  a motorized scooter through the bowels of Shea Stadium (a polio victim, he can walk only with crutches). He’s wearing a Mets jersey and preparing to play the national anthem before the game.

Perlman appears to be as giddy about being among athletes as a 12-year-old kid. In fact, the Israeli-born musician is a baseball geek.

Joy and enthusiasm radiate from this film, largely because director Alison Chernick has such an overwhelmingly charismatic subject.  While the film does employ archival footage (like the 14-year-old Perlman’s American TV debut on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night show) and a few instances of talking-head reportage, the film mostly eavesdrops on the man as he goes about the business of both music and life.

Very nearly as important to the film as Perlman is his wife, Toby, an adorably energetic and enthusiastic individual who admits that she proposed to her future husband.  They appear to be intellectual equals whose mutual fondness cannot be shaken even by rigorous criticism (Toby has no qualms about picking at performances which aren’t up to the high bar Itzhak has set for himself).

Whether sitting in with Billy Joel’s band or trading childhood stories with old friends, riveting audiences in the concert hall or holding a master class for young players, Perlman comes off as utterly approachable, friendly and pleased (not smug) when it comes to his life.

We should all be so lucky.

| Robert W. Butler