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Louis Armstrong

“JAZZ ON A SUMMER’s DAY”  My rating: B (Available Aug. 14 through the Tivoli at the Nelson-Atkins Gallery of Art)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

There’s no shortage of reasons to catch the current reissue of 1959’s “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,”  with superb music and spectacularly good photography at the top of the list.

But at a time when most of us are spending way too many hours sequestered in our homes, Bert Stern and Aram Avakian’s record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival also hits an achingly romantic note,  taking us back to an era when it was safe for hundreds of us to assemble to hear music played by racially integrated bands.

1969’s Woodstock Fest may have been billed as “three days of peace and music,” but the Newport event a decade earlier delivered pretty much the same vibe…minus, of course, public nudity and drug sampling.

The performances captured here (the film spawned a best-selling soundtrack LP back in the day) provide a sort of Who’s Who of ’50s jazz.  They range from the New Orleans-steeped blowing of Louis Armstrong to the white-girl scatting of Anita O’Day (a knockout in black dress, feathered hat and white gloves), from the intellectually-rich piano stylings of Thelonious Monk to the early-rock glory of a duck-walking Chuck Berry. There’s even a touch of gospel glory courtesy of Mahalia Jackson.

(Of interest to KC area jazz fans:  Look for local boys Bob Brookmeyer, Buck Clayton and Basie alumnus Jo Jones playing with various configurations.)

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Seth Rogen…and Seth Rogen

“AN AMERICAN PICKLE” My rating: B- (Now available on HBO Max)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Before bogging down in a flabby middle section, HBO’s “An American Pickle” (aka “In A Pickle”) establishes itself as a gonzo comedy with more than a little soul.

The time-travel fantasy offers Seth Rogen in non-stoner mode as both a turn-of-the-last-century Eastern European Jew and as his modern great-great grandson.

Putting aside the complexities of filming this double performance (it was shot in two phases to give Rogen a time to grow a luxurious Tevye-type beard), “American Pickle” shows the slacker funny man has some serious acting chops.

In a beautifully filmed prologue (using a square-frame format and pastel palette that evokes the earliest color photography) we witness the early life of Herschel (Rogen), a Jewish ditch digger in some Eastern European backwater circa 1919.

In a sweetly comic passage Herschel woos and weds Sarah (Sara Snook of HBO’s “Succession”); they then hop a boat to America where Herschel gets a job killing rats in a pickle factory and looks forward to the birth of their first child.

He dies in an industrial accident, falling into a vat of brine. Before anybody notices that Herschel is gone, the factory is shuttered.  One hundred years later he awakens, perfectly preserved by the pickle juice.

What follows is both a fish-out-of-water yarn and a sort of dysfunctional family reunion. Herschel is united with his one living relation, great-grandson Ben (Rogen again), a dweeby app developer whose lack of success flies in the face of Herschel’s longheld belief that their family is destined for greatness.

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ACLU attorney Dale Ho before the U.S. Supreme Court

“THE FIGHT” My rating: B+ (On Demand as of Aug. 7)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The cynic in me acknowledges that the new documentary “The Fight” comes awfully close to being a recruiting ad for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Except that this effort from co-directors Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg is a hugely engrossing, intellectually stimulating achievement that will leave viewers torn between hope and despair.

“The Fight” follows the efforts of the ACLU to battle four of the more draconian steps taken by the new Trump administration.

We see ACLU lawyer Dale Ho take on Trump’s order that the 2020 census contain a question about the respondents’ citizenship…a development that would undoubtedly keep non-citizens from participating and so skew the numbers that determine, among other things, how many representatives each state gets in the U.S. House.

Brigitte Amiri, a litigator for women’s rights, takes on the plight of a 17-year-old woman who, having been detained as an illegal alien, discovered she was pregnant and was denied the abortion she requested.

Lee Gelernt tackles the issue of child separation along the Border.

Joshua Block builds a case against the banning of transgender persons from the military. He’s assisted by young attorney Chase Strangio, who is himself transgender.

The common thread in all of these cases, as well as with Trump’s notorious Muslim ban, is the suppression of human rights for certain classes of people.

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Lyricist/author Howard Ashman on the off-Broadwday  set of “Little Shop of Horrors”

“HOWARD” My rating: B+ (Debuts Aug. 7 on Disney Plus)

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Howard” is a laughter-through-tears emotional powerhouse that will leave you convinced that when Howard Ashman died of AIDS in 1991, we lost a musical theater genius.

As the lyric-writing partner of composer Alan Menken, Ashman was largely responsible for the off-Broadway hit “Little Shop of Horrors” and then went on to rejuvenate a dying Disney animation division with monsters like “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast.” (The fact that those films went on to spawn wildly successful theatrical versions only adds lustre to his accomplishments.)

Don Hahn’s documentary begins with a recording session for “B&B” in New  York City.  As Hahn’s narration informs us, nobody at the time knew that within nine months Ashman would be gone.  He never got to see the finished film.

On the visual side Hahn (a producer of “Beauty…” and director of the doc “Waking Sleeping Beauty”) exploits a treasure trove of home movies from throughout his subject’s life.  There’s so much material, in fact, that the film needn’t rely on talking-head inserts.  The many contributors to this film (among them Menken and Jeffrey Katzenberg) are heard in voiceover but not seen, leaving center stage to Ashman.

The earliest glimpse into Ashman’s creativity comes from his sister, who recalls her brother turning his bedroom into an elaborate designed theater in which individual toys became players in a vast adventure.  Before long he was organizing neighborhood kids into giving backyard performances.

Young Howard had little interest in sports, but wrote poems for every occasion.

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Johnny Depp, Mark Rylance

“WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS” My rating: C (Begins streaming on  Aug. 7)

112 minutes | No MPAA rating

Not even the usually-comforting presence of Mark Rylance or a hammy performance from Johnny Depp can save “Waiting for the Barbarians,” a literary adaptation that probably should have stayed on the printed page.

Adapted by J.M. Coetzee from his novel and directed by Ciro Guerra, the film struggles to find a balance.  Its production design suggests  an old Foreign Legion movie like “Beau Geste” — except that “…Barbarians” lacks any sense of satisfying adventure.

Moreover, Coetzee’s subject is one individual’s moral struggle, an interior drama not easily depicted dramatically — even when you’ve got someone like the Oscar-winning Rylance assuming top honors.

Rylance plays The Magistrate, a bookish fellow toiling in a dusty desert town on the far-flung edge of an unspecified late 19th-century empire (French, Belgian, German?). Though he’s supposed to be in charge of local government, not to mention a garrison of bored soldiers, The Magistrate prefers to spend his time in archaeological digs, with occasional nocturnal visits to a local prostitute.

Then he’s paid a visit by Colonel Joll (Depp), a black-clad martinet with eccentric sunglasses who radiates quiet menace.  Bigwigs in the distant capital are convinced that the nomadic tribesmen who populate the desert are planning a revolution; Joll’s job is to collect intelligence on these “barbarians.”

To The Magistrate’s horror, tribal visitors to the town are randomly snatched and tortured, some fatally. But being a bit of a milquetoast, he’s powerless to do much more than sputter ineffectually.

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Gillian Jacobs

“I USED TO GO HERE”  My rating: C+ (On Demand Aug. 7)

80 minutes | No MPAA rating

We’re told that you can’t go home again.

You probably shouldn’t go back to school, either.

In “I Used to Go Here” writer/director Kris Rey gives us a heroine who is finding adult life problematical and plops her down in the college environment she left 15 years earlier.

Actually, lots of us nurture a secret back-to-school fantasy; “I Used to Go Here” suggests we should be careful what we wish for.

Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is a mess, thrown into turmoil and depression by the double whammy of being ditched by her fiancé and realizing that her first published novel is headed for the remainder bin. While her gal pals are married and procreating, Kate lives alone in Chicago, stewing  in her own self-pity.

So when an old college professor invites her back to campus to give a reading from the novel, Kate jumps at the chance.

Initially it seems as if her old college town has hardly changed at all.  But when she starts hanging with a scraggly bunch of kids  now living in the off-campus dive where she spent her senior year, Kate is hit full force with knowledge that she is now a middle-aged woman.

What to do?  Well, if reality sucks, make your own reality. Kates starts acting like the mostly carefree college student she once was. This leads her to a nighttime  raid on the home of her old creative writing teacher (Jemaine Clement in full pompous-professor mode) and striking up a quickie romance with a baby-faced undergrad (Josh Wiggins).

Nothing of real import happens in “I Used to Go Here,” but nevertheless the trip is largely pleasant one.  For this we can credit the screen presence of Jacobs (she was a regular on TV’s “Community”), who hits just the right mix of comic neurosis and romantic yearning.

| Robert W. Butler

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David Myers Gregory, Vinnie Jones

“THE BIG UGLY”  My rating: C+ (Begins streaming July 31)

106 minutes |MPAA rating: R

Dramatically, there’s nothing special about “The Big Ugly,”  a crime/revenge yarn that hits the usual plot points without adding much to the genre.

What this melodrama from writer/director Scott Wiper does have going for it is its look.  The cinematographer is Jeremy Osbern, a Kansas Citian who has cut his teeth on shorts, a Kevin Willmott feature (“The Only Good Indian”) and is now breaking into the big time.

His work on “Big Ugly” is exemplary — as close to a classic noir look as color will allow.  At least half the film unfolds at night, in dimly-lit bars and bedrooms, and Osbern’s provocative use of shadow and silhouette is absolutely first rate.

The plot finds English tough guy Neelyn (Vinnie Jones) flying to America with his mob boss Harris (Malcolm McDowell). Neelyn is accompanied by his longtime girl Fiona (Leonra Crichlow), a good soul who loves him despite his drinking and murderous employment.

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Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond

“SUMMERLAND” My rating: B (Available July 31 on Amazon Prime and various cable/streaming services)

99 minutes | MPAA rating:PG

One of literature’s more enduring themes — that of a misanthrope redeemed by the love of a child (Silas Marner, anyone?) — gets a clever reworking in Jessica Swale’s “Summerland.”

In her quaint cottage on the Dover seashore, Alice (Gemma Arterton) has pretty much managed to avoid the  unpleasantries of the world war taking place on the other side of the channel. A middle-aged recluse regarded by the local kids as some sort of witch (they stuff dirt and sticks into her mail slot), Alice immerses herself in her scholarly study of British folklore. She just wants to be left alone.

So she’s more than a little miffed when told that like many other residents of this rural area, she is expected to take in a child evacuated from London and its nightly air raids. Frank (Lucas Bond) is already traumatized at being separated from his soldier father and government-worker mother; things aren’t improved when Alice gives him a chilly reception and immediately launches an effort with the local schoolmaster (the venerable Tom Courtenay) to have the youngster reassigned to another home.

Swale’s screenplay follows one familiar trajectory, but manages to change things up with a couple of novel twists.

The cranky woman and the innocent child eventually will warm to one another.  This goes without saying.

Frank’s relationship with a another displaced child (Dixie Egerickx) feels fairly predictable as well.

But in a series of flashbacks we see young Alice  having an affair — her only sexual encounter, apparently — with a fellow university student, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Their idyllic flapper-era romance ends when Vera opts for conventional marriage and children over a mixed-race lesbian relationship (which, in  late 1920s Britain, was a far dicier premise than it is today).

This soul-shattering disappointment explains Alice’s intervening years of surly solitude. Having been badly burned, she’s not keen on forming relationships of any depth.  Which makes the presence of curly-haired Frank all the more problematic.

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“REBUILDING PARADISE”  My rating: B (Begins streaming on July 31)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The first 10 minutes of Ron Howard’s “Rebuilding Paradise” employ TV news footage, cell phone videos and audio communications between emergency workers to recreate the notorious Camp Fire that in  2018 consumed the northern California town of Paradise, killing more than  80 citizens.

No horror film of recent years is as terrifying as this masterfully edited depiction. You’ll watch with your mouth open in disbelief…that is, if you’re not already reduced to tears.

The ghastliness of those opening minutes are reinforced by the immediate plight of the fire’s survivors. Citizens quite literally got away with only their lives. Everything else — homes, possessions — has been reduced to smoking cinders.

“Rebuilding Paradise” chronicles the first year or so following the disaster, as individuals and the overall community come to grips with the extent of their loss and make tentative first steps toward returning to some kind of normalcy.

It’s not an easy process…or an easy one to watch.  But Howard’s film is at its core a paen to the resiliency of the human spirit (or, if you’re jingoistically inclined, to can-do Americanism)…which means that you leave the experience with a deep appreciation of and a sort of elation about the possibilities we all share.

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Rosamund Pike as Madame Curie

“RADIOACTIVE” My rating: B (Debuts July 24 on Amazon Prime)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Not content with the limitations of a conventional biopic, Marjane Satrapi’s film about Marie Curie blows up the form, not just depicting the life of a great scientist but exploring what over the decades her discoveries have meant to the world.

As suggested by the piece’s unconventional title — “Radioactive” — the fallout (pun intended) of Curie’s groundbreaking work is not entirely life-affirming.

Satrapi,  who first came to fame with her graphic novel Persepolis (about growing up in and then fleeing post-revolutionary Iran) and the 2007 animated feature based on it, has a lot of her mind here.  Perhaps too much for tidy presentation.

Happily she has as her lead Rosamund Pike,  whose work in recent years — especially “Gone Girl” and “A Private War” — has catapulted her into the first ranks of film actresses. Even when “Radioactive” threatens to fly out of control, Pike keeps things centered.

Beginning late in the 19th century and extending past Curie’s death in 1934 (poisoned by all the radioactive material she had handled over a lifetime), the film hits the usual biographical landmarks: Marie’s meeting and marriage to fellow physicist Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), her discovery of the elements radium and polonium, the death of Pierre and her years as a widow still devoted to scientific research. During World War I she traversed the front in a truck outfitted with primitive X-ray equipment that allowed military doctors to locate the bullets and shrapnel in the bodies of wounded soldiers.

But Jack Thorne’s screenplay (based on Lauren Redniss’ graphic novel Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout) also leans heavily  on the feminist aspects of Curie’s story, especially her fights with a chauvinistic scientific establishment (embodied by Simon Russell Beale’s university bigwig) and her resentment of Pierre, who accepted their Nobel Prize while Marie stayed at home with the kids (“You stole my brilliance and made it your own”).

The film devotes considerable time to one of the more controversial parts of Curie’s story, her post-Pierre affair with a married co-worker (Aneurin Barnard). The relationship created an uproar: this Polish “harlot” was besmirching the sacred institution of French marriage.  (I know, I know…the French have a long history of besmirching marriage.)  Don’t recall that incident even being mentioned in the sanitized 1943 Greer Garson version of the yarn.

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