Archive for the ‘Art house fare’ Category

Annette Bening

“THE SEAGULL” My rating:B-

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the new movie version of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull”…save that it is a movie.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe Chekhov was meant to be seen on the stage, where the only thing between the audience and the storytellers is air.  By its very technological nature, film has a way of distancing us from the immediacy of Chekhov’s characters.

That said, this “Seagull,” directed by Michael Mayer and featuring an impressively strong cast, will serve as an introduction — a  limited introduction that hints at the greatness revealed when one views this play in the flesh.

Set on a wooded Russian estate at the turn of the last century, Chekhov’s tale studies a handful of individuals engaged in a round robin of romantic frustration.

Irina (Annette Bening) is a famous stage actress whose current lover, Boris, is a rising literary star a couple of decades her junior.  Vain, pompous and absolutely terrified of aging, Irina is nearly undone by Boris’ obvious attraction to Nina (Saoirse Ronan), the fresh-faced daughter of a nearby landowner who has her own thespian ambitions.

Nina, meanwhile, is loved by Irina’s neurotic son Konstantin (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright and short story writer so sensitive that he appears to be in a constant state of depression or anger.

Konstantin is worshipped from afar by Masha (Elisabeth Moss), who wears black because “I’m in mourning for my life” (she’s a real barrel of monkeys) and nips steadily from a tiny flask.

Masha is loved by Mikhail (Michael Zegen), an impoverished local school teacher.

Then there’s the good-hearted Doctor Dorn (John Tenney), who has long carried a torch for Irina; he’s the unattainable love object of the housekeeper Polina (Mare Winningham).

In other words, just about everyone in sight is in love with someone who doesn’t return the sentiment.

There are other characters blessedly free of the these romantic entanglements, especially Irina’s aging bachelor brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and the chatty estate foreman Shamrayev (Glenn Flesher). (more…)


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Ethan Hawke

“FIRST REFORMED” My rating: B+

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“First Reformed” doesn’t always work, but even as a partial failure it packs more mind- and soul-shaking punch than any other film yet released this year.

This simultaneously beautiful and desolate drama from Paul Schrader isn’t shy about borrowing from its antecedents, foremost among them Ingmar Bergman’s early ’60s religious trilogy (“Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light,” “The Silence”) and Robert Bresson’s 1951 “Diary of a Country Priest.”

But thanks in large part to what may be Ethan Hawke’s finest performance, “First Reformed” finds its own voice, one that uncomfortably weighs conformity against concern for God’s creation.

Our protagonist, Reverend Toller (Hawke), is pastor of First Reformed Church in a picturesque New England Town.

Established before the American Revolution, First Reformed has hardly any parishioners; its doors are kept open through the financial support of a local megachurch whose ambitious and charismatic preacher (an excellent Cedric the Entertainer) views it as a curiosity, a sort of historic religious theme park.

It’s immediately obvious that Toller has hit bottom. A former military chaplain, he urged his son to enlist; when the boy died in combat Toller’s wife left him.

Now he spends his days writing sermons nobody hears and scribbling in a journal — he calls it “a form of prayer” –that he hopes will provide insight into the tailspin that has become his life (“When writing about oneself one should show no mercy.”)

Physically he’s slowly becoming a wraith, thanks to digestive issues — cancer? — which limit him to a diet of bread and broth.

Occasionally, though, he actually does a bit of ministering. He’s approached by a young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who requests counseling for her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger).  Mary is pregnant and Michael wants her to abort the baby.


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Toni Collette

“HEREDITARY” My rating: B 

127 minutes | MPAA rating: R

No one expects world-class acting from a horror movie. So when you get precisely that, it comes on like a sucker punch.

“Hereditary” is a ghost story — I think — featuring Toni Collette in an emotional performance that will leave audiences limp and exhausted.

Writer/director  Ari Aster’s film is hard to pin down…it may be about ghosts, or it may be a psychological study of mental and spiritual anguish manifesting in very creepy ways.

As the film begins Annie Graham (Collette) is burying her mother, from whom she was estranged for years before finally taking in the old lady at death’s door. Annie isn’t sure whether to react with sobs or cartwheels…Mom was a notoriously difficult personality.  (In her eulogy, Annie says she’s gratified to see so many new faces…she didn’t know this many people cared about her mother. It’s the film’s first subtle clue that Mom had a secret life.)

In the wake of the funeral Annie and her family try to get back to normal.  Husband Steve  (Gabriel Byrne) is an understanding intellectual type. Son Peter (Alex Wolff) is a teen pothead. Daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is something else again, an elfin misfit who, unlike other members of the family, really loved her grandma. In fact, she starts seeing apparitions of the dear departed.

One cannot say much about the plot of “Heredity” without ruining some major surprises.  Let’s just say that Grandma’s death is only the first tragedy to befall the clan; a far more traumatic one is yet to come.

And in the wake of that an emotionally shattered Annie finds herself turning first to a grief support group and then to a fellow mourner (the great Ann Dowd) who claims to have found a way to communicate with the dead.

Aster plays his cards very carefully,  dealing big plot points so matter of factly that it’s only in retrospect that we understand their importance.  There’s no big reveal until the end (and even then it’s a bit ambiguous); mostly he builds a nerve-wracking tension from small moments and observations. (Although there is a dramatic seance scene guaranteed to make every hair on your body stand up and salute.)


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“THE RIDER” My rating: B 

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With “The Rider” it’s nearly impossible to say where real life ends and art begins.

In Chloe Zhao’s film Brady Jandreau portrays Brady Blackburn, a South Dakota rancher’s son who has suffered a near-fatal head injury during a rodeo competition.

Basically Jandreau is portraying himself…he suffered precisely that sort of head injury when thrown by a bucking bronc. His real-life father and sister (Tim and Lily Jandreau) portray his cinematic father and sibling.

And his real-life best friend, quadriplegic former bull rider Lane Scott, plays himself.

You can’t say this film lacks authenticity.

We first meet Brady just hours out of the hospital, where he spent a week in a coma before awakening and checking himself out against all medical advice. He’s got a new plate in his head and a set of stitches worthy of Frankenstein’s monster.  Frustrated, he uses a pair of pliers to pull the medical staples out of his skull.

The scar will eventually heal.  More problematic is what Brady will do with himself.  He’s been told that just riding a  horse — much less  climbing onto 600 pounds of angry bronco — could prove fatal.

His widowed, hard-drinking, barmaid-chasing father tells him to tough it out: “Play the cards you are dealt. Let it go.”

But Brady — who looks a bit like Josh Hartnett’s country cousin — feels utterly incomplete without his legs wrapped around a horse. Essentially “The Rider” is about whether for the sake of staying alive he can give up an essential part of himself.


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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. (more…)

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James Gandolfini, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

James Gandolfini, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

“ENOUGH  SAID”  My rating: B+ (Now showing at the Tivoil)

93 minutes |MPAA rating: PG-13

 Romance movies are supposed to leave viewers feeling that, like the characters on screen, we have just fallen in love.

This is easier when your characters are young, beautiful, and oozing sex appeal.

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener takes a more difficult – but in many ways more rewarding – approach in “Enough Said,” a middle-aged romantic comedy that is unrelentingly wise, witty and, well, wonderful.

We should expect as much. Holofcener (“Walking & Talking,” “Lovely & Amazing,” “Friends with Money,” “Please Give”) specializes in modestly-budgeted, superbly-acted seriocomedies usually set in the world of Los Angeles thirty- and fortysomethings.

Many if not most of her characters are on their second marriages or between relationships. They are basically decent, intermittently foolish individuals. You end up wishing they were your friends.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Eva, a divorced single mom and professional masseuse. In several brief, sharply limned scenes, we follow Eva through a day’s work, lugging her massage table (which gets heavier with every passing year) in and out of the homes of people rich enough to pay for her services.

In addition to providing a massage, Eva finds herself in the role of reluctant psychotherapist – why won’t these people just shut up, relax, and let Eva’s hands do what they do best?

In the company of her best friend, the psychiatrist Sarah (Toni  Collette, playing the shrink as engagingly neurotic), Eva attends a swanky party where she meets two people who will become important to her.


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Lake Bell main photo

“IN A WORLD” My rating: B- (Opening Sept. 13 at the Tivoli)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Model/actress Lake Bell recently posed for the cover of New York magazine wearing only body paint. But don’t hate her because she’s beautiful.

Because Bell is also a filmmaker with a wicked sense of humor. She makes her feature writing/directing debut with “In A World,” a screwball comedy set in contemporary Hollywood, specifically in the seething  subculture of voiceover actors.

Lake Bell...cover girl

Lake Bell…cover girl

As if her duties behind the camera weren’t enough, she also stars in the film.  Bell is something of an anomaly – a very attractive woman who seizes every opportunity to make herself look dorky and drab. Her self-effacing mien doesn’t seem to be a studied pose. From what I can gather she’s genuinely  goofy, a modern-day Carol Lombard whose screen presence can dish high-octane satire while remaining absolutely lovable.

Here Bell plays Carol, a child of Hollywood who conducts voice classes. Among her clientele are  a few actors and a lot of helium-voiced professional women whose careers have stalled because they sound like sexy infants.


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