Archive for the ‘Deep thoughts…maybe’ Category

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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So-You-Think-You-Can-Dance-Recap-Top-8-Ellen-DeGeneresI’m a huge fan of TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” which recently ended its current season.

Not the whole show, just the dancing. The dancing is so terrific that I find myself choking up two or three times in every broadcast because I’ve just seen something that so seamlessly blends movement, emotion and intellectual content that it’s like a crash course in esthetics.

It’s just so goddam…beautiful.

The Fox show itself gives me a bit of an ass pain.  I’m not terrifically interested in SYTYCD as an “American Idol”-type competition that begins with weeks of tryouts in cities across the country and starts properly with 20 elite dancers, two of whom (one man, one woman) are eliminated each week until we end up with a season champion.

I don’t like the voting process and never participate.

As with “Idol,” TV viewers cast their ballots by phone or text at the end of each episode. The following week the dancers receiving the least votes must perform a solo “dance for your life” routine before the judges. Each show ends with two of these kids going home.

I dislike the voting process because most Americans have the all  taste of a Busch Lite. They vote less for talent than for cuteness. They’re almost as bad as the studio audience, who are encouraged to cheer particularly spectacular steps and lifts as if they’d just seen a singularly violent hit during an NFL game.

Dance as spectator sport.


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You know how librarians and literature professors are always coming up with lists of the books you must have read to be a well-rounded, literate individual?

Well, the Kansas City Public Library is doing the same thing for movie literacy.

“Movies That Matter” is a 20-film free film series featuring masterpieces of world cinema. They will be presented at 1:30 p.m. on Sundays from September 2012 to May 2013 in the Truman Forum, a 220-seat auditorium in the basement level of the Plaza Branch Library at 4801 Main Street.

The movies range from silent comedies to hard-hitting dramas, samurai flicks, existential Swedish costume epics, Hollywood screwball hilarity, an MGM musical and the first-ever animated feature.

“Movies That Matter” was programmed by yours truly. I’ll also be doing five-minute illustrated  introductions before each film and a recap after each screening.

I’ll admit up front that this is a very personal, subjective list of movies. These are films that, above all,  matter to me. Mo matter how often I see them, they remain entertaining, thought provoking, deeply moving.

A few of them, I believe, have actually changed my life…or at least the way I look at life.

Great filmmakers – like great painters or poets or composers – use their art to share with us their perceptions of existence. When all the pieces come together (and in the complex and collaborative world of film it doesn’t happen all that often), the results can lift us out of ourselves and transport us to brave new worlds.

These movies  matter precisely because of their ability to open up our eyes, our ears, our minds, and our emotions. Each has its own personality, and these personalities are as unique as those of our friends and family members.

Once you’ve met them, they don’t go away. They’re with you forever.

| Robert W. Butler


CITIZEN KANE (USA; 1941) Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012

The greatness of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” comes at the viewer from every direction.

Technically it is a masterpiece of inventive filmmaking, employing dramatic lighting and sound effects, seemingly impossible camera angles and movements, deep focus, and more special effects than any Hollywood picture up to that time.

Narratively “Kane” is a puzzle, depicting the life of a famous and powerful man through the often-contradictory memories of those who loved or despised him.

It offers Orson Welles – only 24 when he co-wrote, starred in, and directed the movie – in the performance of a lifetime, playing a character from the age of 25 to nearly 80.

And the story of the film’s creation – and its near destruction by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose career and private life inspired the character of Charles Foster Kane – is one of the great behind-the-scenes tales in all of Hollywood history.

THE GENERAL (USA: 1926) Sunday, September  16, 2012

Upon its release Buster Keaton’s “The General” was dismissed as a critical and commercial failure. (more…)

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Generally speaking, August sucks.

It’s hot and humid. My lawn dies.

But August does have one thing going for it. It’s the best month of the year for watching movies.

Granted, this wasn’t planned. In fact, it’s kind of like one of those experiments where a lab geek is trying to develop a new hemorrhoidal jelly and ends up discovering a cure for cancer.

If you’re into big, expensive (and dumb) popcorn pictures, you might want to stick to May, June and July.

If your taste runs to portentous Oscar hopefuls then November and December will be your months.

August is my favorite movie month by default.

It just sort of happened. I realized that so far this month we’ve seen the debuts of “Another Earth,” “Sarah’s Key,” “The Help,” “One Day” and “The Trip.”  Not to mention “Crazy Stupid Love,” “Project Nim,” and “The Double Hour,” all of which opened on July 29 and so in a sense are actually August releases.

In some months I wait in vain to see even one reasonably smart film. That’s not a problem in August.

That’s because Hollywood views August as the dog’s-ass end of the movie year. The big summer releases have already opened. The kids are getting ready for school and won’t be packing the megaplexes any more.

And so by default August has become the month when the industry unloads all the films they weren’t sure how to market, the films in which they have no faith.

The serious dramas. Movies with downbeat elements. Smart films. Subtitled films.

In other words, good films.

So, thank you, August. And thank you, Hollywood, even though you had no idea what you were doing.

| Robert W. Butler

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“ANOTHER EARTH”  My rating: B+  (Opening Aug. 12 at the Tivoli and Glenwood)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The unassuming, modestly budgeted “Another Earth” offers the best of both worlds.

It works wonderfully as a piece of speculative fantasy fiction;  it’s equally effective as a moving human drama.

Here we’ve a film that grabs you while you’re watching it and keeps you talking about it long after the lights come up.

Basically we have two stories, one playing out in the public arena and the other in the intensely private.


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"Men of a Certain Age": R.I.P.

The TV networks spend millions each year on market testing to determine which shows are likely to survive and which to flounder.

I could save them a whole lot of money.

If the Missus and I get hooked on a series, then it’s doomed. Pretty simple.

The latest casualty of the Butler Curse is “Men of a Certain Age,” the superb series about three boyhood friends (Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher) uncomfortably working their way toward 50.

The show was everything you could want– terrifically acted, screamingly funny, unexpectedly touching and always realistic.

Of course it didn’t have a chance. (more…)

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Every now and then one of the big exhibition chains decides it wants to get into the art film business.

The truth is that they really don’t want to — it’s way too much work for too little money — but they insist on doing so, anyway.

And usually botch the job.

In Kansas City it’s typical for an artsy title to debut at one of our long-established indy theaters — the Tivoli or one of the Fine Arts or Screenland outlets — and if it draws a huge crowd on opening weekend, then the big chains will take notice and demand a run on one of their screens for the second or third week.

Otherwise the exhibition gorillas really don’t have much use for cinema esoterica. They’re selling Big Macs, not handcrafted chocolates.

Still, they continue to make halfhearted stabs. Maybe they’re afraid of being thought of as mercenary cinema philistines and want to be able to say, “Look, we’re showing a classy movie here.”

Naaaaaaah. (more…)

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A balloon the size of a football stadium will lift the BLAST telescope array above Earth's atmosphere to photograph deep space.

The science is hands on and way out there in two recent documentaries just out on DVD:

“BLAST!”:  The title stands for “balloon-bourne large aperture submillimeter telescope” which, I’ll grant you, doesn’t sound all that sexy.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Paul Devlin’s documentary is about a group of astrophysicists who hope to photograph deep space by using a massive balloon — it’s the size of a football stadium — to lift a sophisticated telescope above our atmosphere. There it can drift for several days, taking pictures of parts of our universe never before seen.

Most of the team members — professionals and grad students — hail from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Toronto.

Devlin’s film follows months of preparation as the telescope is hand crafted. Then his cameras tag along (more…)

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I have met Terrence Malick.

I’ve talked to Terrence Malick.

In a manner of speaking, I interviewed Terrence Malick…to my knowledge, I’m the only journalist ever to have done so.

Flashback to 1979:

Malick, whose “The Tree of Life” is currently in theaters dividing audiences like a hot knife through a stick of butter, was attending Show-A-Rama, a gathering of movie exhibitors and studio reps that for more than 20 years was held in Kansas City. (It subsequently evolved into ShowWest and moved to Las Vegas).

That year the relatively unknown Malick was named Show-A-Rama’s Director of the Year and showed up to claim his plaque. (At this May’s Cannes Film Festival he declined to make an appearance to collect his Palme d’Or for “Tree.”) (more…)

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“THE TREE OF LIFE”  My rating: A-

138 minutes | MPAA rating:  PG-134

“The Tree of Life” is a sublime, transcendent movie experience.

“The Tree of Life” is like watching your car rust.

That both of the above statements are true only goes to show the uniqueness of the latest effort from the reclusive Terrence Malick.


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