The outcasts of Table 19 The outcasts of Table 19 (left to right):

The outcasts of Table 19 (left to right): Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, June Squibb, Stephen Merchant, Anna Kendrick, Tony Revolori

“TABLE 19”  My rating: B-

90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

If you can get past a few improbabilities (not difficult, given the solid cast), “Table 19” offers a sneakily compelling blend of farce and realism.

The setup could have been pulled from almost any TV sitcom: Six individuals have been invited to a wedding but at the reception find themselves seated at the furthest table from the action. It’s pretty clear that they’ve been assigned to wedding Siberia.

Our protagonist is Eloise (Anna Kendrick, who has the knack of making a crying scene both touching and hilarious). Until  two months ago she was the designated maid of honor and the long-time squeeze of the bride’s brother, Teddy (Wyatt Russell).

But Teddy dumped her (via email, for crissakes) and now, after retreating into a funk, Eloise has shown up to claim her seat — at far-flung Table 19.

Her fellow exiles include a bickering couple (Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson) who are only there because of a distant business connection with the bride’s father; the bride’s former nanny (June Squibb); the groom’s socially inept cousin (Stephen Merchant), a former jailbird (for embezzlement) now living in a halfway house; and a teen dweeb (Tony Revolori…he was the bellboy in “Grand Budapest Hotel”) desperate to lose his virginity in what he has been told is the sexually-charged atmosphere of a wedding party.

“Table 19” works not only because of the deliciously droll performances, but because director Jeffrey Blintz (who hit the documentary sweet spot with 2002’s “Spellbound” before turning to TV’s “The Office”) and co-writers Jay and Mark Duplass (“The Puffy Chair,” “Baghead,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” HBO’s “Togetherness”) are so sneaky about giving us broadly comic characters and then methodically revealing the humans underneath.

The film sets us up to expect standard-issue plot developments, then yanks out the rug with unexpected twists and character issues.

Don’t want to build up “Table 19” too much…its pleasures are modest ones. Yet  the ability to leave audiences hovering somewhere between a snort and a sob should not be dismissed.

Especially in the armpit months of the film release calendar.

| Robert W. Butler

rednkyymie5s0u1emqeb0el4vlna2f“THE RED TURTLE” My rating: B+

80 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Even viewers who have a hard time with Japanese anime (I can’t be the only one) will be blown away by the Oscar-nominated “The Red Turtle,” an achingly beautiful fable about a shipwrecked man that without one word of dialogue creates a fully credible world.

Produced by Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli and written and directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, “Turtle” opens spectacularly with a storm at sea — it’s like a Hokusai woodblock print come to life. Almost lost among the foam and towering waves is a human form, a man struggling to stay afloat.

Like Robinson Crusoe, our unnamed, unspeaking hero finds himself stranded on an uninhabited island. Little by little he learns the tricks of survival, eating fish and fruit, clothing himself in sealskin, drinking fresh water from an inland pool surrounded by a lush bamboo forest.

De Wit places much emphasis on small but exquisitely rendered details: A soundtrack filled with natural noises. Studies of the creatures who share the island with the man (curious crabs, birds, millipedes, insects).

Almost immediately our hero begins thinking about escape. He constructs a series of rafts which are inexplicably destroyed by some unseen sea creature apparently bent on keeping him on the island.

Finally the culprit is revealed … a huge red sea turtle.

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James Baldwin

James Baldwin

“I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO”  My rating:  A-

95  minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“I Am Not Your Negro” is among the most powerful documentaries ever made about race in America.

Much of that power is to be found in the eloquent voice of the late James Baldwin. When the author died in 1987, he had completed only 30 pages of a proposed book about his relationships with three martyred civil rights icons: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has taken those 30 pages and fleshed them out with archival photos and footage, vintage and contemporary music, clips of Baldwin’s many TV appearances, scenes from Hollywood movies and visually stunning original footage employed for transitional passages.

Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s words.

The results are transformative.

Early on there’s an old clip from the Dick Cavett TV show.  Baldwin is asked if he has much hope for the Negro’s future in America. Not much, he replies. Then the screen fills with still photos of the recent Ferguson protests.

Despite that, he seems to have been a pessimist who could not entirely tamp down his sense of hope.

Baldwin writes (and Jackson reads) of being in France and seeing photographs of a black teenage girl, surrounded by screaming whites, as she walked to her first day of class at a formerly segregated high school in the American South.

“Everybody was paying their dues,” he recalled. “It was time I went home and paid mine.”

His years in tolerant France, though, had lulled Baldwin into a comfortable place.  Back in the USA he experienced a rude awakening. Racism was everywhere, no less in the North than in the South.

This is very much a personal story.  Baldwin describes a childhood in which he simply assumed that all heroes were white, and then extrapolates what that meant for an entire race of people.

Never a joiner, he saw his role as that of a witness, bringing to the world the thoughts and emotions triggered by what he had seen and heard. Happily, he had the mournful/incendiary prose to get the job done.

“There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and your future in it…I’m terrified of the moral apathy, at the death of the heart that is happening in my country.”

By refusing to face up to racial injustice, America was becoming “a nation of moral monsters.”

And in limning his friendships with Evers, King and Malcolm, Baldwin reveals how despite their initial antagonism (Malcolm found King’s nonviolence to be contemptible),  these men all slowly mutated in the same direction.

Buoyed by masterful editing and brilliant sound design, “I Am Not Your Negro” unfolds less as a history lesson than as one man’s fiercely-felt ruminations.

It’s hard to imagine anyone — right, left, whatever — walking away unchanged by this Oscar-nominated triumph.

| Robert W. Butler

Sennia Nanua

Sennia Nanua


111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The Holy Grail for the makers of cult films is to come up with an original twist on the zombie thriller.

Netflix has a real contender with its new comedy “The Santa Clarita Diet.”  Another, much more serious candidate is “The Girl with All the Gifts,” which provides a big dose of in-the-moment chills and splatter, but even more importantly builds its own satisfying mythology.

Colm McCarthy’s film (the unexpectedly thoughtful script is by Mike Carey, based on his novel) begins in an underground prison somewhere in Britain. Here unfailingly polite 10-year-olds are kept in cells, fed live worms and guarded by armed soldiers who each day cart them off to their classroom strapped into wheelchairs like mini Hannibal Lecters.

We’re introduced to this world through the experiences of Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a bright, thoughtful and eager-to-please child despite her status as  a prisoner.

Each day the kids are taught by Helen (Gemma Arteton), whose curriculum leans heavily on science, though as  a reward for hard work she reads to her captive students from the Greek legends.

Melanie really relates to those fables.  Especial the one about Pandora. And she likes to think of Helen as the mother she never knew.

Not everybody in this prison is so nice to the children. Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) loudly refers to them as “freakin’ abortions” and warns his soldiers to never get too close. Meanwhile Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) is vivisecting the youngsters one by one.

You see these kids, in the womb when the zombie apocalypse  hit, are half human and half “hungry” (that’s what the flesh-gnawing resurrected are called in this rendition).  They may represent mankind’s only chance for a vaccine to fight the fungoid disease that brought civilization to its knees a decade earlier.

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No MPAA rating

EXTREMIS” (USA, 24 minutes) 3 1/2 stars

Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter works in the ICU of Highland Hospital in Oakland CA. Her job is to help people die.

Dan Krauss’ “Extremis” provides almost unbearably intimate access to patients facing their final hours, their families, and the physicians who care for them.

At its heart is the agonizing decision to prolong a life with extraordinary and often painful extreme measures. The patients must make that decision; if they can’t, it’s up to family members.

It’s a gut-wrenching situation. And this doc explores profound questions with fly-on-the-wall immediacy.

Pleasant? No. But most of us one day will deal with this precise situation.

4.1 MILES”  (USA, 22 minutes) 4 stars

Today the words “humanitarian crisis” are so frequently invoked that they’ve almost ceased to have any power.

Daphne Matziaraki’s brutally powerful “4.1 Miles” reminds us of just what they mean.

Her film follows a Greek coast guard crew led by Kyriakos Papadopoulos. They patrol 4.1 miles of open sea between Turkey and the island of Lesbos.

The doc begins with the rescue of a boatload of Middle Eastern refugees swamped by high waves. Surrounded by wailing women and sobbing children who cover almost every inch of his deck, Papadopoulos works frantically to perform CPR on two children found floating with their mother.

(Do they survive? We don’t know…and neither does the coastguardsman. As soon as he delivers them to an ambulance on the pier Papadopoulos turns his boat seaward where more refugees are floundering.)

Basically he’s on 24-hour call. The Turkish smugglers who traffic in human misery don’t care about weather reports; they’ll take refugees out in the worst storms knowing that the Greek coast  guard will be there risking their own lives to effect rescues.

Papadopoulos is a man of action. But in reflective moments he’s a study in sorrow.

“When I look in their eyes,” he says of the refugees, “I see their memories of war.”

“This is a nightmare. This is agony.”

JOE’S VIOLIN”   (USA, 24 minutes) 4 stars

Get out your hankies. “Joe’s Violin” will have you in tears…but that’s a good thing.

Kahane Cooperman’s doc is about the violin owned by Joseph Feingold, a Polish Holocaust survivor who bought it at a German flea market after the war (he traded a carton of cigarettes for it).

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Luis Gnecco as Neruda

Luis Gnecco as Neruda

“NERUDA” My rating: B

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Pablo Larrain’s “Neruda” might be viewed as a chase movie.

It’s inspired the story of Chilean poet and Communist lawmaker Pablo Neruda, who for several months in 1948 eluded a nationwide manhunt before crossing the Andes and eventually escaping to Europe.

But “Neruda” is more than a slice of suspense. It’s a nifty character study of a talented, exuberant and deeply flawed man as seen through the eyes of the policeman who is chasing him.

As the film begins Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is running out of political rope. His far left politics and savage commentaries on Chile’s president have made him an outsider. Now the government has outlawed the Communist Party and is rounding up its members.

As perhaps the world’s most famous Communist (he’s right up there with Stalin and Mao), Neruda is a prime target.  An underground organization of leftists are working overtime to hide Neruda and his wife, always keeping them just a few steps ahead of the authorities.

That part of Guillermo Calderon’s screenplay is based on fact.

Total fiction, though, is the character of Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), the Javert-like police inspector in charge of the search.

Oscar serves as our narrator, and his fascistic view of Neruda is far less idealized than we’ve come to expect (remember the hit film “Il Postino”?).  In fact, the film drips with sarcastic dialogue at the expense of the “movement.”

Oscar has little tolerance for well-off intellectuals who claim to be concerned for the plight of the working poor.

“Communists hate to work. They’d rather burn churches. It makes them feel more alive.”

“If we had a Bolshevik revolution they [ party intellectuals ] would be the first to run away.”

Not that Oscar has many illusions about the flaws of the government he serves: “My president has a boss…the president of the United States.” Continue Reading »

darknight-theater“DARK NIGHT”  My rating: B- 

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

Tim Sutton’s “Dark Night” is about a mass shooting at a shopping mall cinemaplex.

Sort of.

Unlike Gus van Sant’s 2003 “Elephant,” about a Columbine-style high school massacre, “Dark Night” never shows us the mayhem.

In fact,  the bulk of the picture’s 85-minute running time is devoted to depicting the activities of a handful of Floridians, most of them teens, as an average day wends its way toward night.

A young man walks his pit bull. A girl takes selfies of herself in her undies. People watch TV. Skateboard. We follow one gaunt, tattooed young man as he attends a support group for war vets with adjustment issues.

The acting from the cast of unknowns is so low-keyed and naturalistic that often “Dark Night” feels like a documentary.

There’s very little dialogue, most of it coming from a mother and twentysomething son who are giving a talking head interview to an unseen filmmaker. Why are they being interviewed? Sutton’s screenplay never explains.

Where is all this going?  There are hints, beginning with the film’s title.

“Dark Night” is a play on “The Dark Knight Rises,” the movie that was on the screen during the 2012 Aurora, Colorado multiplex massacre.  And early in this film a TV news show features a report on Aurora shooter James Holmes.

Scattered throughout are unspecific intimations of violence to come.  A trip to a shooting range.  A  young man cleans his collection of firearms. Kids play first-person shooter video games. A young man dyes his hair the same day-glo orange as Holmes did.  Teen girls race past the camera screaming…and then dissolve in laughter.

One of these characters is going to go on a shooting spree.  Which one?  Sutton gives us several candidates. (In modern America, he seems to be saying, potential murderers are everywhere.)

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