Archive for the ‘Art house fare’ Category

Haley Lu Richardson, Elizabeth McGovern

“THE CHAPERONE” My rating: C+

103 minutes | No MPAA rating

A pall of old-fashioned made-for-TV mediocrity hangs over much of “The Chaperone,” a Masterpiece Theatre production based on a highly-regarded novel by Lawrence resident Laura Moriarty, adapted by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey,” “Gosford Park”) and featuring a more-than-solid cast.

Blame veteran TV director Michael Engler and a stingy budget for fumbling the ball here.

At first glance one might assume that this is the story of the young Louise Brooks, who in the 1920s went from Wichita to a starring role with a top New York dance troupe and then on to international stardom as the ultimate flapper and sex symbol of silent film.

Not really.  Brooks (played here by Haley Lu Richardson) certainly has a role in this yarn, but its real focus is a middle-aged Kansas  housewife and mother  (Elizabeth McGovern) who agrees to chaperone the young hellion during her Big Apple sojourn. In  the process the older woman finds her own world exploding and expanding.

Norma (McGovern) first lays eyes on 15-year-old Louise at a Wichita dance recital where she is mightily impressed by girl’s flamboyant Isadora Duncan-ish flouncing. Norma is a stolid Midwestern matron, stuck in a sexless marriage (that’ll be explained later) to a lawyer (Campbell Scott); they have twin college-bound sons.

When she learns that Louise has won a coveted spot with the famous Denishawn modern dance company in NYC, and that the girl’s parents are looking for an appropriate chaperone to accompany their daughter to the big city, she volunteers. Heck, she needs some adventure.


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“PETERLOO” My rating: C

154 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” is less a film drama than it is an illustrated history lesson.

That’s a problem.

Leigh, who always has had a thing for life’s underdogs, here turns his attention to a notorious bit of British history. The 1819 massacre at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, found His Majesty’s sword-waving cavalry riding into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators protesting for political reform.

The violence doesn’t rear its ugly head until late in this 2-hour, 33-minute effort.  Most of Leigh’s screenplay is devoted to eavesdropping on  a dozen or so characters who represent various attitudes and political viewpoints in the months before the bloody incident.

Thus we follow a shellshocked trumpeter from the Battle of Waterloo (David Moorst) who returns home to Manchester to find jobs are scare and respect for a former soldier nonexistent. We sit in on long, talky meetings in which various agitators rail against miserable working conditions, low pay, and  a political/economic system designed to grind the country’s have-nots into the ground while enriching the altready-haves.

(Karl Marx was only a year old at the time, but he undoubtedly grew up aware of the the Manchester massacre.)

We witness a mother and wife haggling over the price of a few eggs with which to feed her family. We observe men slaving in a steam-driven textile factory where one misstep can mean a crushed limb. And  journalists debating how to convey to the common reader what the government’s suspension of habeas corpus means to the individual.


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Rachelle Vinberg

“SKATE KITCHEN” My rating: B

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Some of us are  lucky enough to experience one adolescent summer of near  total freedom.  No job, no school, no responsibilities.

Just hanging out with your friends and trying — without too much angst — to figure out who you are.

That’s the situation offered in “Skate Kitchen,” Crystal Moselle’s docudrama-ish  study of female teen skateboarders whiling away the hot months on the streets of NYC.

The film is practically unplotted, drifting from one episode to another, this encounter to the next, without a whole lot of rhyme or reason. But as an immersive experience, one that puts you into the sneakers of its young protagonists, the film has few equals. It feels utterly, totally alive.

Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) is not looking forward to a summer cooped up in the Queens apartment she shares with her hospital worker single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez). The pair are almost always at odds over Camille’s love of skateboarding, which Mom views as dangerous; Camille has come up with all sorts of ingenious ploys to cover up how she’s actually spending her days.

Left to her own devices, Camille goes exploring, taking the train across the East River (clutching her skateboard the whole time) and probing the byways of Manhattan. She soon finds skateboard parks where others her age are doing their acrobatic stunts; little by little she is accepted by a group of girls who are as unfettered by convention as she is.


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125 minutes | No MPAA rating

Crime story and folklore entwine in “Birds of Passage,” Colombia’s nominee for this year’s foreign language film Oscar.

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerre’s decades-spanning saga, which follows the creation of that country’s drug trade in the late 1960s by indigenous peoples, blends stark realism with magic realism for an experience that plays less like “The Godfather” than “Days of Heaven.”

Initially the film resembles a documentary about the Wayúu tribe occupying a remote, desert-like stretch of northern Colombia. A celebration is in progress, a sort of bat mitzvah to welcome the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes) to her status as a grown woman.  She’s now available for marriage and almost immediately she is claimed by Rapayet (Jose Acosta), a handsome young man from a neighboring family.

Zaire’s mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez), the clan’s matriarch, isn’t impressed with Rapayet’s credentials and sets an impossibly high dowry for her daughter’s hand. Rapayet doesn’t know how he’ll find the resources…until he runs into a couple of young Peace Corps volunteers looking to score weed.

Rapayet has some friends who grow the stuff up in the mountains, and with his colorful bud Moises (Jhon Narvaez) starts a distribution business that not only brings him Zaire’s hand but unanticipated riches.  Eager gringos scoop up Rapayet’s marijuana and fly it to the U.S.; before long Rapayet and Zaire are living in a very modern new mansion (which, weirdly enough, is situated on a vast, dried-up mud flat — I kept wondering about water and sewage issues).

But Rapayet’s business corrupts not only himself but an entire way of life. Steeped in tradition and devoted to ideas of honor and sacrifice, the Wayúu quickly succumb to the get-rich-quick, trigger-happy mentality that spreads like a cancer throughout the tribe.


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Tom Shilling

“NEVER LOOK AWAY”  My rating: B

188 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Never Look Away” is so many things at once that it takes a good chunk of its three-hour running time for it to settle down and take shape.

It is the latest from writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose 2006 “The Lives of Strangers” (set in the repressive world of the East German secret police) won the Oscar for foreign language film.

This new effort is at various times  a history of modern Germany, a family saga, a personal odyssey and, ultimately, a story of finding one’s voice in a world determined to tell us what to think, feel and express.

It begins in Nazi Germany at the notorious exhibition of “degenerate” modern art. An insufferably pompous guide describes how in their paintings artists like Picasso and Kandinsky promote “madness and mental illness.”

But among the gallery visitors are the beautiful Elisabeth (a screen-dominating Saskia Rosendahl) and her young nephew Kurt (Cai Cohrs), who though a child is already drawing like an adult. “Don’t tell anybody,” Aunt Elisabeth whispers in his ear, “but I like it.”

The first hour of “Never Look Away” follows Kurt’s boyhood.  Aunt Elisabeth is lively and charming…and also schizophrenic. One day Kurt follows the sound of piano music to find Elisabeth sitting nude at the keyboard. He’s both appalled and fascinated.

“Never look away,” she tells him.

In Hitler’s Germany, alas, mental illness is something to be eradicated rather than treated. Kurt’s beloved aunt is hauled off by men in white coats and vanishes into a medical system that, if she’s lucky, will only sterilize her.

Meanwhile Kurt’s family suffers; his father loses his teaching job after declining to join the Nazi Party; eventually he relents. Then, after their town is “liberated” by the Russians, he is told his party membership will keep him from ever teaching again. Menial labor is all that’s left.

In the second hour Kurt (now a young man played by Tom Schilling) hand-paints signage, is admitted to an art training program, and finds himself forced to adhere to a soul-numbing socialist realism style as doctrinaire as anything embraced by the Third Reich (peasants with scythes staring bravely into the future). One bright spot: he falls for a fellow student (Paual Beer) who is not only named Elisabeth but physically resembles his lost aunt.

The downside  is Elisabeth’s father, Carl (Sebastian Koch), a famed (and arrogant) gynecologist who once embraced Nazi eugenics, managed to elude trial as a war criminal, and now is a vocal supporter of Communism. Carl doesn’t view a struggling artist as good son-in-law material. (Turns out that Carl and young Kurt have a connection that neither is aware of…I won’t give it away here.)


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Mads Mikkelsen

“ARCTIC” My rating: B

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The man-in-the-wilderness survival drama “Arctic” probably didn’t need a world-class actor.

After all, there’s almost no dialogue and the star of the show spends half the time with his features hidden behind a parka hood. Just about any able-bodied thespian could have handled it.

Even so, give thanks that the great Mads Mikkelsen signed up for this nail-biting bit of outdoor adventure.

Joe Penna’s film begins with a man in a red parka using crude tools to shovel away the white snow to reveal the black rocks beneath.  An overhead shot shows him to be making a huge SOS sign that can be seen by passing aircraft.

Our protagonist (Mikkelsen) has already been stranded in the snowy wastes for days. He survived the wreck of his airplane, which remains intact enough to serve as a shelter. He’s dug holes in the ice and is catching fish, eating some raw and freezing the rest.

And then, rescue!  A helicopter appears and attempts to land. But a gust of wind sends it tumbling. The sole survivor is the pilot (Maria Thelma Smaradottir), a young woman rendered unconscious by the impact.

The man takes her to his plane and sees to her wounds.  But she does’t wake up.  Only the fluttering of her eyelids suggests an inner life.


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Yalitza Aparicio

“ROMA” My rating: B+ 

135 minutes | MPAA rating” R

A personal memoir set against a moment of national trauma, “Roma” is the most overtly artistic of Alfonso Cuaron’s films.

Unlike the bulk of his resume (“A Little Princess,” “Children of Men,” “Gravity” and a “Harry Potter” installment), it has nothing to do with science fiction, fantasy or the future.

Instead it is like a perfectly composed snapshot of a time gone by. (It’s even been filmed in eye-pleasing widescreen black and white).

The central figure of “Roma” (that’s the upper middle class neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuaron grew up) is Cleo (first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio), a maid in the household of Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a physician, and his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira).

It’s obvious from Cleo’s broad features and dark skin and hair that she is not only of Indian descent, but is a late comer to the big city. She speaks Spanish but in conversation with her fellow workers she still employs her native tongue; she seems out of place in busy urban settings.

Cleo is quiet, efficient and unassertive. Still, she’s a loving companion to Antonio and Sofia’s four young children (one of whom, we assume, is based on Alfonso Cuaron).  Cleo long ago drifted across the line that separates employee from family member.

So when Antonio leaves town — ostensibly for a medical seminar — and never returns, Cleo’s place as a caregiver and low-keyed moral center of the household becomes even more important. Sofia’s parenting responsibilities are neglected in favor of a massive jilted-wife meltdown, the biggest victim of which is the family sedan. The car is slowly  being demolished one fender at at time. (These are among the few overtly comic moments in the movie, and smack of something that actually happened.)

Even as the family attempts to come to term with Antonio’s absence, Cleo faces her own crisis.  She finds herself pregnant by Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a friend of a cousin who seduced the apparently virginal maid and whose idea of post-coital cuddling is a naked bedroom demonstration of martial arts moves.

Cleo even follows Fermin to a training camp in the sticks where he and hundreds of other young men are engaging in martial exercises; confronted with his impending fatherhood Fermin threatens Cleo and beats a hasty retreat.


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Mary Elizabeth Winstead

“ALL ABOUT NINA” My rating: B-

97 minutes | MPAA rating: *

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has been on the brink of stardom for a long time.

She’s delivered some terrific TV work (“Braindead,” “Fargo”), sometimes in lead performances, but most of her movie roles have fallen into the supporting category.

“All About Nina” should change that. Written and directed by Eva Vives, “Nina” provides Winstead with perhaps her juiciest role to date.

Nina Geld is a standup comic whose fiercely rude act (menstruation, noncommittal sex) reflects her own angry essence.  She’s perennially pissed because comedy is such a boy’s club; in her private life she avoids intimacy.

Emotional intimacy, anyway. Sex is something else…Nina’s a tart-tongued man-eater who picks up strangers and leaves them whimpering for more.

Despite her tough talk and swagger, Nina is weirdly vulnerable.  After a set — even a wildly successful one — she stumbles offstage and invariably pukes in an ice bucket or other suitable receptacle.  On some level her art hurts.

“All About Nina” follows her from NYC to Los Angeles, where her agent has wrangled her an audition for a TV show. But at the film’s real core is her relationship with Rafe (Common), a contractor who senses the pain beneath Nina’s rough exterior and decides to go slow. (It may be one of the movies’ rare instances of a guy turning down sex.)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Common

Vives’ screenplay has its ups and downs. The depiction of the comedy world — especially backstage at a showcase where woman comics are competing for the same gig — feels absolutely right.

And the slow-burning Nina/Rafe relationship is sweet and sexy despite the landmines with which Nina’s past is littered.

But there’s a big reveal here about our  heroine’s childhood that will shock many viewers (though it retrospect it probably shouldn’t)…it’s not that the film shouldn’t have gone there so much as Vives hasn’t quite figured out how to finesse it.

“All About Nina” is a minor film but as a showcase for Winstead it delivers in spades.

More, please.

| Robert W. Butler

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Benjamin Dickey as Blaze Foley

“BLAZE” My rating: B- (Opens Sept. 28 at the Tivoli, Screenland Armour and Glenwood Arts)

128 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Ethan Hawke’s “Blaze” is unlike any other music biz film biography I can think of. Its closest competition in its nontraditional approach would  be 2015’s “Miles Ahead” with Don Cheadle playing the great jazz trumpeter in a narrative-tossed-salad retelling.

The ostensible subject of “Blaze” is Blaze Foley, a Texas musician and songwriter who hung out with country/folk music’s “outlaw” wing until his untimely death by gunshot in 1989 .

Hawke’s film (he  directed and adapted the memoir by Foley’s wife Sybil Rosen) follows no particular chronology. It’s all over the place. As a framing device he has given us a radio interview with fellow folkie Townes Van Zant (Charlie Sexton); scenes from Foley’s life play out as Van Zant provides a running commentary.

Foley (Ben Dickey) is a bearded, burly good ol’ fella.  He can be charming in a down-home way. He can also be a drunken maniac.

A Foley concert might be sublime, or it might be a slog, given the musician’s tendency to rap endlessly when the customers only wanna hear some tunes.  A few of his songs were recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett and John Prine, but he was never a household word or a major player.


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“McQUEEN”  My rating: B-  

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

That designer Alexander McQueen was an artistic genius is beyond debate.

The question posed — and only partially answered — by the new documentary “McQueen” is: “Just how screwed up was he?”

McQueen hanged himself in 2010 on the eve of his mother’s funeral. During his two decades in fashion he had gone from impeccably tailored Saville Row suits for men to bizarre runway shows that often were more about performance art — and indulging his own  obsessions — than about creating a sellable line.

He was a rebel and a disruptor. One of his most notorious shows — 1995’s Highland Rape — featured disheveled models who seemed to have stumbled away from a sexual assault. The fashion world was appalled and many condemned the young designer as a misogynist.

Ian Bonhomie and Peter Ettedgul’s film dispels that notion — women were among McQueen’s best friends and most loyal collaborators — but it never does nail the sources of their subject’s neuroses and inspirations.


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