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Anna Gunn

Anna Gunn

“EQUITY” My rating: C ( (Opens Sept. 2 at the Glenwood Arts and Cinemark Palace)

“Equity” arrives on theater screens with a promising and unusual pedigree.  This female-centric financial thriller was produced, written and directed by women.

That’s nice. If only it were a better film.

Written by Amy Fox and Sarah Megan Thomas, “Equity” wants to tap some of the same emotional/intellectual/political  buttons hit so deftly in “Margin Call,” “Arbitrage,” and “The Big Short” — only with a feminist perspective.

Well, it’s got the woman’s angle, all right. But on most of the other counts it’s lightweight stuff.

Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn of “Breaking Bad” fame) is a hot shot at a huge investment bank. Her job is to put together big IPOs that can bring in millions if not billions of bucks. Currently she’s putting together a campaign for a Silicon Valley outfit that specializes in internet security.

But Naomi isn’t feeling the love she should. Her boss has passed her over for a big promotion and she’s still sore after her last IPO went belly up. She’s told she may be too aggressive (something nobody would use as a negative were she a man).

Small wonder she spends much of her down time pounding away at a heavy bag.

At least there’s a man in her life, a coworker, Michael (James Purefoy), who manages investors’ portfolios. But Michael is a mixed blessing. Loverboy isn’t above milking Naomi for information on upcoming deals that he can use to his advantage — information that once leaked  could land her in criminal court.

In the meantime she advises a meeting of younger women that she’s in it for the money and the feeling that success provides. “Don’t let money be a dirty word!” she tells them.

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 ** as Roberto Duran

Edgar Ramirez as Roberto Duran

“HANDS OF STONE” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Aug. 26)

105 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Hands of Stone” is  “Raging Bull” lite — a boxing biopic minus the genius of Martin Scorsese.

But it does have Robert DeNiro.

Written and directed by Venezuelan Jonathan Jacubowicz, the film takes on the troubled life and career of Roberto Duran, the Panamanian pugilist whose ring experiences were as much a product of his dysfunctional childhood and Third World resentments as they were of hard sweat and tremendous innate talent.

In a decade of championship fighting, Duran held the lightweight belt, engaged in a long-running war of words (and blows) with American champ Sugar Ray Leonard, and sometimes  behaved in private and in the ring like a spoiled child.

“Hands of Stone” feels like an attempt not to excuse that behavior but to put it in perspective.

Early scenes establish Roberto as the son of an American soldier who impregnated his mother and then vanished, setting  up in the future boxer a lifelong antipathy toward the United States.  That fury was only stoked by political upheaval in Panama over efforts to take back the Canal Zone from the gringos (the American-run canal, guarded by U.S. soldiers, effectively divided the country in half).

We see the young and charming (also unschooled and illiterate) Roberto (played as an adult by Edgar Ramirez) wooing a wealthy blonde schoolgirl, Felicidad (Ana de Armas), and starting a family even as his career is taking off.

In a sense “Hands of Stone” is a dual biography, its second subject being boxing trainer Ray Arcel (DeNiro).

When in 1971 he first saw Duran fight, Arcel had been out of boxing for nearly 20 years. In the early ’50s he had incurred the wrath of the mobsters (represented here by John Turturro) who ran the boxing business. He barely survived an assassination attempt and was allowed to live only if he steered clear of the fight game.

But he’s so moved by Duran’s potential that he gets the Mafia’s permission to train the kid with no pay.

Roberto is cocky and tough and at first resents the discipline Arcel demands. But slowly he begins to see his trainer’s genius, especially when it comes to mapping out the strategies that can win or lose a fight.

 

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** and

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyer

“SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU”  My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Aug. 26)

83 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Sight unseen, “Southside with You” sounds like a really bad idea…or at least one with a booby trap around every corner.

The subject of writer/director Richard Tanne’s feature debut is the early relationship of Barack and Michelle Obama.

This is the sort of project one might expect 20 years after the Obamas leave the White House. By that time history will have had a chance to sort things out.

It’s certainly not what one anticipates while the man is still sitting in the Oval Office.

But put those misgivings aside. “Southside with You” is a terrific film — funny, romantic, respectful without being stuffy and, yes, inspiring.

Every time it looks like things will bog down in discourse, politics or hagiography, this well-acted effort gracefully sidesteps the crisis.

Set in 1989, the film begins with Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) in her parents’ Chicago home getting gussied up for an appointment. Meanwhile young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyer) is doing the same thing in a haze of cigarette smoke.

A Harvard law student, Barack is a summer intern at a big Chicago law firm where second-year associate Michelle is his adviser. He’s asked her to accompany him to a community meeting on the city’s South Side. (Her mama teases her about spending time with “another smooth-talking brother.”)

Michelle is less than impressed when Barack picks her up in a rattletrap sedan filled with cigarette butts. She must straddle a rusty hole in the passenger-side floorboards.

And she’s indignant when she discovers that their meeting is several hours away, that Barack hopes to fill the time with date-like activities like a museum visit and lunch.

“We work together,” she protests. “A date would be inappropriate.”

Michelle explains that it’s hard for a young black woman in a big law firm to be taken seriously.  Dating the summer help is out of the question.

“It’s not a date until you say it is,” Barack concedes. But we all know that before the day is over it’s going to be something bigger than that.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article97555617.html

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Chris Pine, Ben Foster

Chris Pine, Ben Foster

“HELL OR HIGH WATER” My rating: A- 

102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Hell or High Water” is about two brothers on a crime spree. But David Mackenzie’s film has a lot more on its mind than mere suspense and thrills.

Imagine the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” filtered through the sensibilities of a Bruce Springsteen ballad about sibling tensions and economic alienation, enacted by players who in some instances are giving their best perfs ever, and set against a bleak West Texas landscape so carefully rendered you may find yourself trying to spit out the dust.

And although it was filmed a year ago, it  damn near serves as an ethnological study of Trump voters.

The film begins with a bank heist.  Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) pull on ski masks and barge into a branch of the Texas Midlands Bank in an oil spot of a rundown town. Brother Tanner is clearly enjoying his power over the employees and customers — a bit too much, actually. He has to be admonished by his sibling after pistol whipping a slow-moving bank employee.

Because Ben Foster has so often played eye-rolling loonies, we assume that his ex-con Tanner is the criminal mastermind behind the unfolding series of bank robberies. Actually it’s the low-keyed Toby who came up with the plan to steal  money from the same bank threatening to foreclose on the family’s run-down ranch.

Estranged from his wife and two teenage sons and way behind on his alimony, Toby hopes to pay off the mortgage with the bank’s own money. At least he’ll be able to leave the family spread to his boys. Heck, there may even be black gold under it.

The brothers have a system, hitting different branches at off hours, then burying the getaway cars out on the back 40. They launder the stolen cash by gambling at an Indian casino up in Oklahoma.

But it’s a given that at some point the hair-trigger Tanner will deviate from the plan and throw the entire enterprise into jeopardy.

Because there’s a relentless lawman on their trail. Jeff Bridges is Marcus, a crusty old Texas Ranger facing an uneasy retirement. Marcus has been catching crooks for so long that he thinks like them; he’s just waiting for one little screwup.

In the meantime he passes the time making politically incorrect observations about the heritage of his long-suffering half-Commanche partner (Gil Birmingham).

That’s the plot.  But the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (who most recently gave us the first-rate drug war saga “Sicario”) is noteworthy for all the other stuff going on just below the surface. (more…)

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Mike Bersaglia, Keenan

Mike Berbiglia, Keenan-Michael Key

“DON’T THINK TWICE”  My rating: B+

92 minutes |MPAA rating: PG-13

Fledgling authors are advised to write about what they know.

Filmmaker Mike Berbiglia has taken that message to heart. While other new directors are bent on referencing other movies and duplicating long-established genres (horror, crime, raunchy comedy), Berbiglia makes movies about what he knows.

And he’s getting really good at it.

A standup comic, Berbiglia made his directing debut in 2012 with “Sleepwalk With Me,” a semi-autobiographical comedy based on his own career, relationship issues and especially a life-threatening sleep disorder.

His followup feature, “Don’t Think Twice,” is also set in the world of professional comedy. It feels so awesomely authentic you just know almost everything in it has actually happened to Berbiglia.

Loosely plotted — to leave room for tons of character development — “Don’t Think Twice” observes the six members of The Commune, a struggling improv group in New York City.

These  comics work menial jobs so that they can devote the weekend to putting on shows in a falling-down theater before small but generally appreciative audiences. They’re improv purists who rely on the ticket buyers to pitch ideas which they instantaneously turn into comedy gold.

They live for their hour a week in the spotlight. And for vindication on a larger stage.  Maybe, just maybe, they can land a gig on “Weekend Live,” the “SNL”-ish network powerhouse capable of turning unknowns into household names.

They’re a motley bunch.  Allison (Kate Micucci) is a big-eyed waif.  Lindsay (Tami Sagher) is mostly big — with a hefty trust fund that allows her to live in her own nice apartment while everybody else shares a ratty flat.

Bill (Chris Gerhard) is so timid-looking you wonder he has the guts for improv.  Samantha and Jack (Gillian Jacobs, Keenan-Michael Key) are an item; she’s a team player, while he’s perfectly willing to grandstand.

In charge (if that’s the right word) is Miles (Berbiglia), who’s been doing improv the longest and whose chances of stardom peaked years earlier. Now he teaches comedy classes and halfheartedly sleeps with his female students.

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Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

Simon Helberg, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

“FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS”   My rating: B+ (Opening wide on Aug. 12)

 110 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

The human capacity for self-delusion has long been fodder for dramatists. Usually it’s the stuff of satire or tragedy.

“Florence Foster Jenkins,” though, has it both ways.

Written by Nicholas Martin (his first feature after a long career in Brit TV), directed by Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “Philomena,” “The Queen” ) and starring Meryl Streep in a prime slice of Oscar bait, this real-life yarn encourages us to laugh uproariously at the human foibles on display but sends us away in a somber mood.

It’s the rare film that discovers dignity in foolishness.

The title character was a real person, a New York heiress (1868-1944) who became famous — or infamous — for her out-of-tune renditions of operatic arias.

Frears’ film unfolds in the last year of Jenkins’ life. Our guide to Florence’s oddball world is Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), a scrawny, struggling pianist who as the film begins is hired as Florence’s accompanist and discovers to his horror that he’s backing one of the century’s worst voices.

What’s more, he’s now immersed in Florence’s bizarre household.

Streep’s Florence has more money than good sense. A lover of classical music, she has devoted much of her fortune to private recitals at which she is the main attraction.

A zaftig dowager (Streep wears a convincing fat suit) with alarming taste in fashion and the stage presence of an eager child, Florence honestly believes that she has a great voice.

This delusion is encouraged by the blue-haired biddies who are her devoted fans and by her common-law husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield (an excellent Hugh Grant).

Bayfield is a failed Shakespearean actor — one of those hammy thesps whose delivery is all about the words but rarely about their meaning — who for three decades has been sponging off the Jenkins fortune.

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Steve Gleason

Steve Gleason

“GLEASON”  My rating: A- 

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Gleason” will leave you a wreck…but in a good way.

A simple description of this documentary — it’s about a young man who is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and must face the likelihood of an early and ugly death — is enough to scare most of us away from the movie theater.

I felt that way, too. But for all the pain, fear, anxiety and depression it contains, “Gleason” is an uplifting, life-affirming experience.

Despite being too small for the NFL, Steve Gleason became a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints. He was, according to his wife Michel, “A superhero athlete but super smart — the best of both worlds.”

Gleason became the special teams captain, playing with balls-to-the-wall fury. In the Saints’ first home game after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Gleason blocked a punt. The play became a symbol of the city’s comeback and elevated him to celebrity status in the Big Easy.

He retired in 2008. In 2011 he was diagnosed with ALS. A month later Michel learned she was pregnant.

The film that became “Gleason” started as a videoblog for the couple’s unborn child: “A gift for you, my child, whom I have not yet met.  My intention is to pass on as much as I can of who I am to you.”

Meanwhile two local filmmakers — David Lee and Ty Minton-Small — began documenting the Gleasons’ lives, practically moving in with the couple and recording nearly 1,200 hours of intimate, heart-breaking footage.  Three years into their subject’s illness they turned their footage over to documentary maker Clay Tweel (“A Fistful of Quarters: The King of Kong,” “Finders Keepers”), who whittled it down and shaped it into a two-hour feature.

Steve Gleason...on the field with the NFL's Saints

Steve Gleason…on the field with the NFL’s Saints

There is stuff in here that will make you laugh. You’ll also wince, get angry, and tear up.

Despite receiving a death sentence, Steve Gleason declares that “It’s not going to crush my life even if it crushes my body.”

“Gleason” depicts in often harrowing detail how the neurological condition rapidly strips the once superb athlete of the ability to walk and eventually robs him of speech. The physical deterioration is terrifying.

But so are the lacerating emotional moments. At times Steve becomes furious at the hand fate has dealt him: “I want to punch something but I can’t.  All I can do is scream.”

 

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