Meredith Hagner, Alex Karpovsky, Wyatt Russell

“FOLK HERO  & FUNNY GUY” My rating: C+

88 minutes | No MPAA rating

A moderately diverting buddy/road movie, “Folk Hero &  Funny Guy” isn’t incisive enough to capture our imaginations. But it isn’t awful, either.

Jeff Grace’s comedy stars Alex Karpovsky (a regular on HBO’s “Girls”) as Paul, a professional standup comic whose career has hit a creative wall.  Basically he’s been repeating his material for so long that he’s been bypassed by the modern era. (I mean, the guy still tries to get mileage out of a joke about e-vite invitations.)

Turns out Paul’s best friend from childhood, Jason (Wyatt Russell), is a nationally known folk rocker with a burgeoning career.  Jason suggests that Paul accompany him on his new solo tour as an opening act.

Paul needs the work and the exposure.  Jason wants to re-bond with his bud. What could go wrong?

Enter Bryn (Meredith Hagner), a guitar-strumming gal whom they encounter at an open-mic night.  Jason impulsively asks her to join the tour (after impulsively taking her to bed).

Except that schlubby Paul also has the hots for this newcomer, who seems to be doing a pretty good job of keeping both men at arm’s length.

And that, folks, is pretty much it.

You can say this for “Folk Hero & Funny Guy”…it feels right.  Paul’s comedy is sometimes wince-inducing, but it has enough sparks of wit to let us know he’s capable of more.

Russell and Hagner’s musical passages are, well, pretty freakin’ great.  In most movies like this the musical performances are never good enough to convince you that the  audience in the movie is genuinely  going nuts for the concert. Here you believe.

| Robert W. Butler

Richard Gere

“NORMAN”  My rating: B

118 minutes | |MPAA rating: R

You don’t have to like Norman Oppenheimer, the fast-talking character played by Richard Gere in “Norman,” to appreciate his energy and drive.

Norman is a hustler and a schmoozer, an arm twister and a facile liar. When necessary he can be a party crasher and a stalker.

He appears to be a businessman (his card vaguely reads “Oppenheimer Strategies”) who specializes in putting together deals. More accurately, he puts together people far more capable than himself who can put together deals. With luck Norman gets a cut of the action.

One of the wonders of Gere’s performance (just when did he become such a terrific actor?) is that even while Norman remains a mystery, a cypher, he’s strangely compelling.

(The movie has a secondary title: “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” That right there tells you what we can look forward to.)

In the early scenes we see Norman pestering casual acquaintances and heavy hitters on the New York financial scene (among the players are Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens, Josh Charles and Harris Yulin). Outwardly Norman oozes confidence and professionalism. He’s impeccably dressed and groomed.

But beneath that show of casual affluence you get a whiff of angst from a minor player desperate to be part of the big game. Norman is usually broke; he pops Tic Tacs in lieu of meals. He can’t afford an office, conducting all his business over his cell phone.

Writer/director Joseph Cedar’s film turns on Norman’s courting of an Israeli deputy minister visiting the Big Apple for a conference. Eshel (an excellent Lior Ashkenazi) is a bureaucratic  nobody grateful that this apparent go-getter of an American wants to befriend him. Norman even treats him to the city’s most expensive pair of men’s shoes.

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“CHASING TRANE” My rating: B

99 minutes |No MPAA rating

Most practitioners of the arts seek a compromise between vision and commerce.  Your art may be pure, but what does that matter if it doesn’t sell?

The saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-’67) seems not to have been concerned by matters of money or of popularity. As the new documentary “Chasing Trane” makes clear, he followed his muse wherever it took him, sometimes into aural landscapes that continue t0 perplex even his biggest fans.

John Scheinfeld’s “Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary” wastes no time making its case that the legendary jazz man was an artist of the first order, comparable to Beethoven or Shakespeare.

A staggering array of fellow musicians (Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson…just for starters), Coltrane biographers, his children and stepchildren, even a former Presdient of the United States testify not only to his talents but to the spirituality which fueled Coltrane’s musical adventurousness. He was so adept at channelling his emotions into his playing that listeners report being moved to tears without understanding how or why.

The facts of Coltrane’s career are cleanly laid out before us:  His childhood as the grandson of a minister, his work in the 1950s with the Miles Davis Quintet during its most productive period (his playing on the classic album “Kind of Blue” made him a household name among jazz fans) and later with Dizzy Gillespie.  His heroin addiction, which threatened to derail his career until he heroically kicked the habit cold turkey.

In 1961 Coltrane had a Top 40 hit with his instrumental take on “My Favorite Things” from the white-bread Broadway musical “The Sound of Music.”

In response to the 1963 bombing of a black Birmingham church in which four little girls died, Coltrane wrote and recorded the tune “Alabama,” described by former president and part time saxophonist Bill Clinton as a prime example of  Coltrane’s creativity and depth. It is, Clinton says with uncharacteristic poetry, a work “screaming with pain, undergirded by love.” Continue Reading »

Catherine Walker

“A DARK SONG” My rating: B

100 minutes | No MPAA rating

It’s easy enough to scare audiences with shocker editing and gross-out special effects.

But a film that gets under your skin and gnaws away at your nerve endings from the inside out…well, that’s something special.

“A Dark Song” is a horror movie, yes, but it’s also much more.

It’s a docudrama about the preparations for an Aleister Crowley-style summoning of demons and angels.

It’s a two-handed acting extravaganza that demands tremendous subtlety from stars Catherine Walker and Steve Oram.

And it’s an unexpectedly uplifting morality play that toys with shock film cliches but ultimately transcends them.

Liam Gavin’s film opens in a long-unoccupied manor house in Wales.  Sophia Howard (Walker) is being shown the place by a realtor. Apparently she has very specific requirements as to the remoteness of the property and the number of rooms. She agrees to lease the place for a year.

She’s then visited by Solomon (Oram), a balding, bearded, pudgy occultist with whom she’s been in contact. Gradually the nature of what they’re up to becomes clear.

Sophia wants Solomon to lead her through an elaborate ritual that will result in the appearance of her guardian angel. This exercise may take half a year, during which time Sophia must follow Solomon’s instructions to the letter.  She’s already abstained from sex and alcohol for several months. She’s purchased weeks’ worth of food. Once the ritual begins neither can leave the premises without dire consequences.

Now this may seem like so much fantastic b.s., but Gavin and his players are so good at establishing their characters and setting a slowly tightening mood of suspense and dread that an audience can’t help but buy into it.

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Ashleigh Cummings

“HOUNDS OF LOVE”  My rating:  

108 minutes | No MPAA rating

The temptation is to dismiss “H0unds of Love” as seedy exploitation, a bit of torture porn.

Except that Ben Young’s debut feature won’t allow us that easy way out. It is too well made — and especially too well acted — for us to simply turn our backs on its unpleasantness.

Loosely inspired by David and Catherine Birnie, a real life couple in Perth, Australia, who in the ’80s abducted and killed four young women, this creepy nail biter pits a surprisingly resilient teenage girl against a pair of serial killers.

John and Evelyn White (a spectacularly good Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) live in a nondescript suburb of Perth.  They’re not particularly popular with their neighbors, who would be horrified to learn what goes on in their utterly ordinary-seeming house.

The two snatch and imprison young women.  These victims are terrorized and abused and finally killed by John, who buries the bodies in a nearby forest.

Their latest prize, Vickie (Ashleigh Cummings), is a high schooler embittered over the recent divorce of her parents and acting out by sneaking away at night to party with her friends.  She’s walking to one of these shindigs late at night when the Whites pull up in their car and offer her a lift and a joint.

As writer and director Young doesn’t dwell on the brutality inflicted on Vickie.  The really awful stuff happens behind closed doors, out of sight (if not out of hearing).

What makes “Hounds…” so compelling is the psychological lay of the land.

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Rami Maleck

“BUSTER’S MAL HEART”  My rating: B- (Opens May 12 at the Alamo Drafthouse)

96 minutes | No MPAA rating

Rami Maleck pretty much cornered the market on bizarre/brilliant manic depressives with his Emmy-winning performance on cable’s “Mr. Robot.”

“Buster’s Mal Heart,”  shot before “Robot” began production, allows the young actor to mine several alternate personalities. He’s good at all of them.

Written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith (“The Midnight Swim”),  “Buster’s Mal Heart” offers an out-of-chronology history of its title character.

When we first meet Buster he’s racing up a wooded mountainside, a posse of lawmen on his tail.

But we also see him with long hair and beard in a remote tourist cabin and in  a lifeboat afloat at sea.

Most of the screen time, though, is devoted to his life as a husband and father in the Pacific Northwest.

Clean-cut and polite, Buster seems disarmingly normal.  He’s kind and gentle with the wife (Kate Lynn Shiel) and appears to be a model employee of the semi-posh hotel where he’s the night desk clerk.  Continue Reading »

Charlie Hunnam

“KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD” My rating: D+ (Opens wide on May 12)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Having shrunk the great Sherlock Holmes to fit the limited palette of short attention span theater (more Vin Diesel than Conan Doyle), filmmaker Guy Ritchie has now unleashed his reductive skills on the Arthurian legend.

Predictably, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is visually elephantine and dramatically stunted.

Know from the start that this “Arthur” has about as much in common with Malory or Tennyson as “Clash of the Titans” did with Bulfinch. Basically it’s a big shapeless slice of sword-and-sorcery, CG battles and quirky humor (providing you find it at all amusing).

In a prologue the kingdom of Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is seized during a great battle (war elephants the size of battleships…in England) by his scheming brother Vortigern (a sneering Jude Law, who portrays Watson in Ritchie’s Holmes franchise).

Before dying Uther sends his young son Arthur off to safety.  The boy grows up to be hunky Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”), raised in a brothel and unaware of his royal origins. He’s protective of the harlots who sheltered him, and regularly attends classes at a dojo run by an Asian martial arts master. (Seriously, there’s dialogue referring to “kung fu.” In Medieval London.) Continue Reading »