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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

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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? (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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.”

(more…)

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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.

(more…)

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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

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** ,

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. (more…)

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