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Nine years ago, when I was laid off by the Kansas City Star after 41 years, I found an ally in Facebook.

I could post my movie reviews with a good chance of connecting with like-minded (think Boomer) readers.
But this is my last Facebook post for the foreseeable future. I no longer want to be a facilitator for Mark Zuckerberg’s greed.
When “The Social Network” came out in 2010 I actually thought the film’s depiction of Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook was inherently unfair.
Now I think it was some sort of whitewash.
In the name of “fairness” Zuckerberg has decreed that any post — no matter how patently false, misleading or prejudiced — will get the hands-off treatment from Facebook. Let the reader beware.
Except that Zuckerberg is getting fabulously rich by allowing disinformation to inundate his web site, threatening our democracy, our freedoms and our humanity. Fuck his bullshit moral qualms; this is all about getting even richer. (Just how rich is enough, and at what cost, is a discussion for another time and place.)
Anyway, I’ll no longer be posting on Facebook. If you still want to read my reviews, check out ButlerFilm on Twitter (better still, click on the SUBSCRIBE button on this page and it’ll automatically send an email link to my new reviews).
It’s been interesting.
| Robert W. Butler

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Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan

“THE TRIP TO GREECE” My rating: B-

104 minutes | No MPAA rating:

In a major break with tradition, neither Steve Coogan nor his comedy partner Rob Brydon do a Michael Caine impersonation in “The Trip to Greece.”

In all other regards, however, the fourth film in the series (after “The Trip,” “The Trip to Italy” and “The Trip to Spain”) hits its expected marks. Fans will find ample diversions, even if it seems that this time around the concept is running afoul of the law of diminishing returns.

The format, for those who’ve been living in a cave, finds the two British comedic actors once again playing lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. Coogan has been assigned to write a travel/food piece for a major publication; he and his bud Brydon get to traipse around the Greek countryside, stopping at quaint (and sometimes spectacularly fancy) eateries to sample the cuisine.

It’s not a bad way to travel: boats, islands, ancient ruins and 370-Euro lunches on an expense account.

Director Michael Winterbottom captures some scrumptious scenery and pays mouth-watering visits to the kitchens of the restaurants Coogan and Bryden patronize.

But the big attraction, as always, is the improvised comedy one-upmanship practiced by the leading men, whose hilarious star impressions and withering putdowns fuel the enterprise.

A discussion of Alexander the Great leads to the opinion that he was a ruthless gangster and a dead-on Brydon impression of Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.”

Brydon also sings the theme song from “Grease,” despite Coogan’s protests that the song is spelled differently than the country they’re traveling. This leads to innumerable falsetto Barry Gibbs/BeeGees impersonations.

A discussion of Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman’s work in “Marathon Man” segues into a rapid-fire series of scenes from Hoffman movies, with Brydon nailing the actor’s delivery in “Midnight Cowboy” (“I’m waaawwwkin’ here”) and “Tootsie,” finally returning to “Marathon Man” and the scene in which a sadistic Olivier bores a hole in the captive Hoffman’s incisor (our boys imitate the sound of a high-speed dental drill).

A discussion of the first Olympics inspires Coogan and Bryden to hum/whistle/clluck their own version of Vangelis’ theme to “Chariots of Fire.”

And of course there are riffs spawned by Greek history: “Spartan women had a reputation as the most beautiful women in the world. Yet the men were gay. Go figure.”

For all the laughs, the series has a history of dabbling in life’s darker undercurrents. The divorced Coogan has an ongoing sexual arrangement with the female photographer sent to snap illustrations for the article, and in one of the films family-man Bryden succumbed to the double-whammy temptations of travel and female companionship.

This time there’s a brief visit to a refugee camp (“Well, that was sobering”), and Coogan gets regular updates from his grown son back in England on the status of his father, who is in hospice. The film ends with a lovely little interlude in which Brydon and his wife are reunited for a long weekend on a Greek beach.

Does it add up to much?  Nah, but it’s an enjoyable 104 minutes even if this fourth iteration smacks of deja vu.

| Robert W. Butler

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Jean Dujardin

“DEERSKIN” My rating: B

77 minutes | No MPAA rating

When we first encounter Georges,  the protagonist of Quentin Dupleux’s deliciously nasty “Deerskin,” he looks like a college professor…crisp shirt, salt-and-pepper beard,  brown corduroy sports coat.

Georges (Jean Dujardin, the Oscar-winning star of  “The Artist”)  is driving to the French Alps in response to a personal ad. The object of his quest is a vintage deerskin jacket bedecked with fringe; the aging hippy who is selling it tosses in an almost-new camcorder for free.

Georges’ nice corduroy jacket goes in the trash (more precisely, he stuffs it down the toilet in a highway rest stop).  You see, Georges’ life is falling apart — his wife has left him and his credit card has been cancelled — and so he is pouring all his attention into the deerskin jacket; he cannot pass a reflecting surface without admiring his new look, often wiggling his shoulders to make the fringe fly.

“Killer style,” he proclaims.

In truth, the jacket is all wrong for him.  Georges is about three inches too tall and 30 pounds too heavy to make it work; there’s a good two inches of shirt visible between the bottom of the jacket and the waist of his slacks.

But he is a man possessed. He takes up residence in a rustic inn and mans a barstool at the local tavern where he is sure that everyone is envious of his jacket.

Denise the barmaid (Adele Haenel, of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) is unimpressed by Georges’ sartorial efforts but is intrigued by the camcorder.  When he tries to pass himself off as an experimental filmmaker, she volunteers to edit his footage.

(more…)

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Sam Elliott

“THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT” My rating: B

98 minutes | No MPAA rating

When it comes to pulpy promise, it’s hard to beat a title like “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot.”

But what’s unsettling about this debut feature from writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski is the way it defies almost all audience expectations while giving us Sam Elliott in one of his greatest performances.

In fact, one cannot imagine “The Man Who Killed Hitler…” working without the presence of the 75-year-old Elliott, a white-haired warrior of such potent screen charisma that I would gladly watch him absentmindedly scratch his ass for 90 minutes.

We meet Calvin Barr in the late ’80s or early ’90s, occupying a bar stool in a tavern in the quaint Norman Rockwell-esque town he’s called his home for more than seven decades. Calvin is quiet and cryptic, a man who exudes a certain angst but would never talk about it.

Still, he’s obviously not your typical senior citizen.  He makes mincemeat of a trio of punks who try to hijack his car late one night.

The first 45 minutes of Krzykowski’s screenplay follow Calvin in both the present and the past, interspersing his unremarkable daily routine with flashbacks to his service in World War II. We see glimpses of young Calvin (Aiden Turner) being sent behind enemy lines disguised as a Nazi officer. His assignment is to put a bullet in Der Fuerher.

Other flashbacks take him to the pre-war years when he worked in a shop on Main Street and wooed a pretty school teacher (Caitlin FitzGerald); he was sent to war before they could wed or even consummate their affair. That loss will haunt him to his dying day.

Which could be soon. Forty-five minutes into the film our hero is paid a visit by a federal agent (Ron Livingston) who announces that Calvin’s country once again desperately needs his help.  It seems that an ever-widening area of  Canadian forest is being ravaged by a mysterious influenza that is being spread by none other than Bigfoot.

Blood tests have shown that Calvin is one of the few humans immune to the virus; now he’s being sent up North to stalk  the hairy creature: “If we cannot contain the beast, if we cannot destroy it and it escapes, this could be the end.”

I’ll say this about Krzykowski…whatever his talents as a filmmaker they are vastly surpassed by his abilities as a prognosticator.  Basically this film predicts the pandemic we’re now experiencing. (more…)

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Otamara Marrero, Sydney Sweeney

“CLEMENTINE” My rating: C+

90  minutes | No MPAA rating

There’s something to be said for an erotic slow burn.

“Clementine,” though, may burn too slowly for its own good.

In the wake of her shattered relationship with an older woman, Karen (Otamara Marrero, a dead ringer for a young Rosario Dawson) flees Los Angeles and breaks into the Oregon lake home owned by her one-time paramour.

Her lover (played by Sonya Walger, though for most of the film we only hear her voice in phone conversations), a well-known artist, cheated on her;  that’s justification enough for the embittered Karen to smash a window and take up residence.

Her sojourn is interrupted by Lana (Sydney Sweeney), who claims to be 19 and says she lives on the other side of the lake.  Lana is an enticing/plerplexing blend of teen eroticism, youthful naïveté and percolating ulterior motives. About the only thing she says that can be trusted is her intense desire to become an actress; she’s already putting on a show.

Karen is intrigued but cautious…she doesn’t believe for a moment that the babyfaced Lana is a legal adult.

Stir into the cauldron a young handyman, Beau (Will Brittain), who looks after the place in the owner’s absence. Lana flirts with him while an irritated Karen looks on. Her mood is not  improved when she discovers that Beau has been sending reports back to her ex.

(more…)

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Lucas Jaye, Brian Dennehy

“DRIVEWAYS” My rating: B+

83 minutes | No MPAA rating

Andrew Ahn’s “Driveways” sneaks up on you.  Instead of wowing us with look-at-me style it quietly seduces us with its substance and deep appreciation for its characters.

That it also features  one of the last screen appearances of the late great Brian Dennehy only makes this gently emotional effort that much more affecting.

Single mom Kathy (Hong Chau) and her eight-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye) have driven for several days to settle the estate of Kathy’s sister Alice.  Upon arriving at Alice’s home (the film was shot in upstate New York) they discover  her dwelling crammed floor to ceiling with junk. Unbeknownst to Kathy, Alice was a serious hoarder.

The electricity has been turned off (there’s a back bill of $900). Oh, yeah…there’s also a dead cat decaying in the second-floor bathtub.

Instead of putting the house on the market and getting out of Dodge, the pair are stuck with a Herculean cleanup effort. They end up sleeping on a screened-in porch. Kathy spends every day hauling away the detritus of her sister’s life; Cody slowly gets to know Del (Dennehy), the semi-grumpy widower living next door.

Someone with a short attention span might argue that not all that much happens in Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s screenplay.  No, not much. Just life.

“Driveways” is less about plot than about its characters.  Chau’s Kathy is something of a tiger mom when it comes to protecting Cody, who suffers from the double whammy of being both incredibly sensitive (he throws up a lot) and way too smart to connect with other kids (his mother calls him “Professor”).

Which is not to say she’s that tough. After a few days of cleanup Kathy sneaks off to spend an hour or two in a local tavern. She just wants to feel like an adult for one evening.

(more…)

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Amber Havard, Rob Morgan

“BULL” My rating: B 

105 minutes | No MPAA rating

Fourteen-year-old Kris (Amber Havard) acts out.   A lot.

With her single mom in prison, Kris radiates abandonment and anger and quiet defiance.  She hangs with the older kids in her small town outside Houston, drinks and smokes.  And when she realizes that her neighbor Abe (Rob Morgan) spends most of his weekends on the road, she invites the other kids to party in his house, leaving the place a shambles.

After Abe returns to a trashed home, Kris’ grandma convinces the angry victim to not press charges. Instead the sullen teen will more or less become Abe’s slave, cleaning up the mess she made.

That’s how Kris learns that Abe is a former champion bull rider with countless mended bones and a drawer full of painkillers.  But he still makes a living on the rodeo circuit as a clown whose acrobatic antics keep angry bulls from stomping or goring their thrown riders.

To Kris this all looks like an exciting way of escaping her rut. There’s no reason why a girl can’t be a bull rider, right?

Most filmmakers would turn this plot into a heart-warming tale of forgiveness and renewed hope, a rodeo version of “The Karate Kid.”  Throw into the mix issues of race — Abe is black and Kris is white — and you can see “uplift” written all over it.

But writer/director Annie Silverstein isn’t having any of that crap. Her characters are too damaged for nice tidy resolutions and happy endings. Which somehow makes “Bull” all the more affecting.

(more…)

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Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney

“BAD EDUCATON” My rating: B 

108 minutes | TV-MA

In the world of public education Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is a rock star.

The superintendent of the Roslyn School District in a posh corner of Long Island, Frank has over a decade ratcheted up his district’s reputation. Currently the high school he oversees is rated as the fourth best in the country; Frank promises his cheering fans that he won’t stop until Roslyn is Number One.

Moreover, Frank melds educational excellence with personal charisma. His wardrobe is right out of GQ. As are his daily ablutions. Like a veteran pol, he knows the names of innumerable students, their parents and civic supporters. He’s charming and selfless and handsome…small wonder this widower periodically must gently turn aside the romantic ministrations of newly divorced soccer moms.

His teachers and staff adore him and the city fathers are no less enthusiastic.  Like school board member Big Bob Spicer (Ray Romano), a real estate broker who knows that a top school district is a magnet for rich, upwardly mobile families looking to buy in the ‘burbs.

And behind closed doors with his confidants — especially business administrator Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) — he enjoys a good cussing session.

In short, Frank Tassone is too good to be true.  And you know where that can lead.

Scripted by Mike Makowsky (who was a Roslyn student during Tassone’s celebrated tenure) and directed by Cory Finley, “Bad Education” emerges as a black comedy so seductive that, like most of the folks in his orbit, we don’t want to believe that Frank Tassone could be anything but the white knight he appears to be.

(more…)

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Kelsea Bauman, Will Dennis

“VANILLA”  My rating: B

87 minutes | No MPAA rating

If Elliott (Will Dennis) was ice cream he’d be vanilla.

His shirts are always buttoned tightly around his neck. He carefully charts out each day’s schedule (most days the big entry is “Lunch”).

Elliott spends many hours mooning about the girlfriend who got away. In his remaining time he is developing an app that will allows hungry users to literally scream for ice cream into their cell phones; a delivery man will be dispatched with the desired cones, scoops, toppings and other accoutrements.

Elliott is such a boring, lame-o character that one cannot imagine him holding down a feature film all by his lonesome. Happily he shares the screen with Kimmie (Kelsea Bauman), a sort of sarcasm-steeped gamine who hopes to become a standup comic. Between the two of them they make “Vanilla” a low-keyed, off-beat pleasure.

Making this all the more remarkable is that Dennis, who also wrote and directed the film, and Bauman have no feature film experience.  Until recently he was a product design consultant; “Vanilla” is his feature debut and while it isn’t earth-shaking, it’s kinda huggable.

The central premise has Will and Kimmie joining forces to drive his old van (it’s white, naturally) from NYC to New Orleans, where his ex, Trisha (Taylor Hess) is a P.A. on a film shoot and desperately needs an old beat-up white van for a stunt.

(more…)

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“ELEPHANT” My rating: C+

86 minutes | MPAA rating: G

Yes, there’s some terrific nature photography on display is Disney’s “Elephant.” And, let’s face it, elephants are astonishingly compelling creatures.

But this nature documentary, directed by Mark Linfield and Vanessa Berlowitz, is as frequently irritating as it is inspiring.

When Walt Disney introduced his series of “True Life Adventures” (beginning in 1948 with “Seal Island” and continuing with nearly a dozen other titles like “The Vanishing Prairie,” “White Wilderness” and “The Painted Desert”) he almost immediately caught flak. Commentators admired the documentaries’ spectacular images and wealth of information, but protested that the films shamelessly anthropomorphized their animal subjects.

Film critic Bosley Crowther complained of Disney’s “playful disposition to edit and arrange…so that it appears the wild life is behaving in human and civilized ways…all very humorous and beguiling.  But it isn’t true to life.”

Some things never change.

When it’s showing, “Elephant” is fine.  But most of the time it’s telling.

The credits for “Elephant” do not list a screenwriter.  Perhaps that’s protective camouflage, because the film has been painfully and clumsily overwritten.

Narrated by Meghan Markle (merely adequate…there’s no authority in that voice, royal affiliations notwithstanding), “Elephant” tells a compelling story of a 1,000-mile annual migration of the big beasts across Africa’s Kalahari Desert in search of water and sustenance.

Almost immediately we learn that our central character is one-year-old Jomo, whose mother Shani is the sister of the herd’s matriarch…which makes her a sort of vice-president. (Yeah, yeah, in the wild animals don’t have names.  This is the movie’s way of identifying the various characters.)

On one level the film concentrates on Jomo’s determination to cavort with every creature he encounters (sometimes the intercutting of unrelated images to create a “story” is all too evident). A secondary plot has Shani assuming the burden of leadership and continuing the journey to safety in faraway wetlands.

All this is presented with maddening cuteness…cute musical passages, cute dialogue (Markle occasionally speaks for one of the animals)…I was tempted to turn off the sound and just go with the visuals.

Okay, okay…kids will probably love “Elephant” for the same reasons I’m irritated. They’ll no doubt be entertained and pick up some useful information about Earth’s biggest land mammal. In other words, they’ll learn a few things.

Hmmm…now I’m reminded of a song from another Disney movie.  Something about a spoonful of sugar.

| Robert W. Butler

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