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Amanda Seyfried, Shirley MacLaine, AnnJewel Lee Dixon

“THE LAST WORD”  My rating: C+ (Opens March 24 at the Glenwood Arts, Cinemark Palace and AMC Barrywoods)

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Any film that sends you out to your car humming The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset”cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Still, an aura of uneasy familiarity clings to “The Last Word,”a dramedy  that plays like a second-class “A Man Called Ove” from a female perspective.

Shirley MacLaine portrays 81-year-old Harriet, a grouchy, judgmental woman who radiates disdain for the lesser mortals around her.

Harriet is, of course,  a variation on the character MacLaine has played so often (“Guarding Tess” and “Bernie,” for starters) that she could do it in her sleep.

Sensitive about both her mortality and her legacy, Harriet pulls strings to have the local newspaper’s obituary writer, Anne (Amanda Seyfried), write her death notice in advance.  She even provides a list of acquaintances Anne should interview.

Problem is, not one of these individuals has anything good to say about Harriet.  According to Anne,  the old lady “puts the bitch in obituary.”

At this point Stuart Ross Fink’s screenplay starts turning squishy.  To restore her image, and so that Anne will have something positive to put in the obit, Harriet becomes mentor to the foul-mouthed Brenda (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), an at-risk African American child who is so precocious and self-possessed that she hardly seems at risk at all.

Harriet also volunteers to work as a deejay at a local community radio station, snowing the station manager (Thomas Sadoski) with her knowledge of obscure ’60s pop and even orchestrating a romance between the fellow and obit-writer Anne.

Late in the proceedings she takes Anne and Brenda on a road trip for a long-delayed reunion with her grown daughter (Anne Heche).

None of this is in the least bit original — though it’s been carefully calculated to squeeze the tear ducts for a bathetic sendoff.

The good news is that MacLaine keeps finding new angles on what long ago became one of her stock characters.

That and the strong supporting cast assembled by director Mark Pellington (Philip Baker Hall, Tom Everett Scott, Gedde Watanabe, Sarah Baker), who find ways to make more of the material than it deserves.

| Robert W. Butler

Charlotte Rampling, Jim Broadbent

“THE SENSE OF AN ENDING” My rating: B

108 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Most of us struggle with some aspect of our pasts.

A relationship that ended badly.  Behavior we regret. Guilt. Loss.

“The Sense of an Ending” is about one man’s attempts to reconcile his present with what came before, and the rationalizations and self-delusions that allow him to finally come to terms.

Ritesh Batra’s film, adapted from Julian Barnes’ award-winning novel by Nick Payne (author of the trippy stage drama “Constellations”), unfolds simultaneously both in the present and nearly a half century earlier.

In the here and now Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) operates a hole-in-the-wall camera shop specializing in antique Leicas. He’s a semi-curmudgeonly divorced man, but he has a civil if mildly confrontational relationship with his ex, Margaret (Harriet Walter), and with their daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), a single mother-to-be (Tony accompanies her to birthing classes).

His rather dull life is enlivened by a mystery from his past. Tony receives legal notice that he’s been named a beneficiary in the will of a woman he hasn’t seen in 50 years.

In flashbacks we see how young Tony (Billy Howle) fell for rich girl Veronica (Freya Mavor) and was treated to a long weekend at the home of her family. There he met Veronica’s rather flamboyant (and possibly predatory) mother, Sarah (Emily Mortimer).

Anyway, Tony broke up with Veronica, who rebounded by starting up with Tony’s friend and classmate Adrian (Joe Alwyn).  Not long into that relationship the sensitive Adrian mysteriously killed himself.

It is Adrian’s diary which the late Sarah has bequeathed to Tony.  Why did she cling for decades to the journal of her daughter’s dead boyfriend?

And why is her daughter Veronica (played as an adult by the sublime Charlotte Rampling) unwilling to turn over Adrian’s diary despite the threat of legal action?

Goodness. What bombshells might reside on its pages? Continue Reading »

 

Dan Stevens (beneath the CGI) and Emma Watson

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

129 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

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

Nope. But it’ll do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kedi0224-4“KEDI” My rating: B

80 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading »

** ,

Tarten Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini

“THE SALESMAN”  My rating: B 

125 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Revenge is anything but sweet in the Oscar-winning (in the foreign language category) Iranian film “The Salesman.”

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi makes movies (“A Separation,” “The Past”) without the villains that usually fuel Hollywood melodrama. He doesn’t need villains; there are enough dark corners in even his most virtuous characters to keep us off guard and guessing.

His protagonists here are a husband and wife, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who perform in amateur theater. Their current effort is Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” with Emad as Willy Loman and Rana as his wife, Linda.

The film opens with what passes for an action sequence in a Farhadi film. In the dead of night Emad, Rana and other residents of their apartment complex are awakened and told to evacuate. Heavy construction next door has undermined their building, cracking windows and sending spiderweb fissures spreading across the walls.

Scrambling to find temporary housing, the pair end up in a nearby vacant apartment. The previous tenant, they learn, was a woman with many male friends — in other words, a prostitute. (The world’s oldest profession endures even in puritanical Iran.)

One night, Emad returns from running an errand to learn that Rana has been attacked in the shower and neighbors have taken her to the hospital.

Emad and Rana agree they won’t go to the cops. She didn’t see her assailant’s face. Besides, the whole experience is too humiliating to relive before strangers.

The emotional toll of the incident, though, is profound. Rana is weepy and fearful, and Emad is frustrated and maddened by his inability to say or do the right thing: “At night I can’t come near. In the day it’s ‘Don’t go!’”

Naturally enough, his thoughts turn to revenge against Rana’s attacker. Emad figures the culprit could have been one of the prostitute’s clients and launches his own investigation. Continue Reading »

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

“I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO”  My rating:  A-

95  minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“I Am Not Your Negro” is among the most powerful documentaries ever made about race in America.

Much of that power is to be found in the eloquent voice of the late James Baldwin. When the author died in 1987, he had completed only 30 pages of a proposed book about his relationships with three martyred civil rights icons: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has taken those 30 pages and fleshed them out with archival photos and footage, vintage and contemporary music, clips of Baldwin’s many TV appearances, scenes from Hollywood movies and visually stunning original footage employed for transitional passages.

Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s words.

The results are transformative.

Early on there’s an old clip from the Dick Cavett TV show.  Baldwin is asked if he has much hope for the Negro’s future in America. Not much, he replies. Then the screen fills with still photos of the recent Ferguson protests.

Despite that, he seems to have been a pessimist who could not entirely tamp down his sense of hope.

Baldwin writes (and Jackson reads) of being in France and seeing photographs of a black teenage girl, surrounded by screaming whites, as she walked to her first day of class at a formerly segregated high school in the American South.

“Everybody was paying their dues,” he recalled. “It was time I went home and paid mine.”

His years in tolerant France, though, had lulled Baldwin into a comfortable place.  Back in the USA he experienced a rude awakening. Racism was everywhere, no less in the North than in the South.

This is very much a personal story.  Baldwin describes a childhood in which he simply assumed that all heroes were white, and then extrapolates what that meant for an entire race of people.

Never a joiner, he saw his role as that of a witness, bringing to the world the thoughts and emotions triggered by what he had seen and heard. Happily, he had the mournful/incendiary prose to get the job done.

“There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and your future in it…I’m terrified of the moral apathy, at the death of the heart that is happening in my country.”

By refusing to face up to racial injustice, America was becoming “a nation of moral monsters.”

And in limning his friendships with Evers, King and Malcolm, Baldwin reveals how despite their initial antagonism (Malcolm found King’s nonviolence to be contemptible),  these men all slowly mutated in the same direction.

Buoyed by masterful editing and brilliant sound design, “I Am Not Your Negro” unfolds less as a history lesson than as one man’s fiercely-felt ruminations.

It’s hard to imagine anyone — right, left, whatever — walking away unchanged by this Oscar-nominated triumph.

| Robert W. Butler

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 »

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 »

20s

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

“THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS”  My rating: C+ 

  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 »

Huisman,

Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmer

“THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT” My rating: C

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“The Ottoman Lieutenant” flirts with heavy-duty subject matter — the onset of World War I, the origins of the Armenian genocide — but at heart it’s basically a romance novel of no particular distinction.

Lillie (Hera Hilmer) was born to a wealthy Philadelphia family, but she can’t wait to leave her privileged life behind. Against her parents’ wishes she has studied nursing.

Now, after attending a fund-raising lecture by an American MD (Josh Hartnett) operating a clinic in a far-flung region of Turkey, she finds the inspiration to travel across the ocean to dedicate herself to serving the poor of the Anatolia region.

Since the road from Constantinople is unsafe for a lone woman, Lillie is given a military escort, a dashing young lieutenant, Ismail (Michiel Huisman, a Danish actor familiar from the HBO series “Treme” and “Game of Thrones”). After a few close calls she is delivered to the remote clinic, where she is welcomed by Jude, the physician whose speech so inspired her.

A rather less hearty greeting is provided by the cranky and disillusioned Dr. Woodruff (Ben Kingsley), who doubts the usefulness of a moneyed American girl…at least until Lillie proves her worth in the wards and operating room.

Continue Reading »

Ike Uwais in action

Ike Uwais in action

“HEADSHOT”  My rating: B-

118 minutes | No MPAA rating

With its macho-drenched title, “Headshot” has much to live up to.

Mostly, this Indonesian actioner delivers.

It’s not like the movie is particularly original, but writer Timo Tjahjanto and his co-director, Kimo Stamboel, have the good sense to steal from the best.

At various times this exhausting film — at least half of its two-hour running time consists of amazingly choreographed fights and shootouts — references the early cinema of John Woo, Chan-wook Park (especially the prison break in “Oldboy”), “The Bourne Identity” (an amnesiac hero who doesn’t realize where his killer fighting skills come from), the original “Terminator” (a police station massacre) and even Oliver Twist (a Fagin-like character raises stolen children to become uber-violent gangsters).

A young man (Iko Uwais), shot in the head, washes up on a beach.  He lies for days in a coma, and awakens with no memory of his earlier life.

His young doctor, Ailin (Chelsea Islan), dubs him Ishmael (she’s reading Moby Dick) and reintroduces him to life.

But Ishmael’s past comes looking for him. He’s stalked by ruthless killers who kidnap Ailin.  It all leads to an astoundingly high body count and a final showdown with the master criminal Lee (Sunny Pang).

Silly? Yep. Superficial? Definitely.

But, damn, the action is amazing. Several complicated fight scenes have been filmed in one long take in real time  (a nod, perhaps, to the hospital shootout in Woo’s “Hard Boiled”?).

It’s bloody and super violent, teetering  somewhere between absurd overkill and visual poetry.

Don’t go for the acting (although Pang’s utterly reprehensible crime lord is weirdly compelling) or the half-hearted stab at romance between Ishmael (played as blankly as the character’s whitewashed brain) and his young M.D.

Go for the action. You won’t be disappointed.

| Robert W. Butler