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** (in Toni Erdman guise) and **

Peter Simonischek (in Toni Erdman guise) and Sandra Huller

“TONI ERDMANN”  My rating: B

162 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The key to comedy is snappy timing.

But Maren Ade, the writer and director of the Oscar-nominated (for foreign language film) “Toni Erdmann,” has given us a languid comedy with a running time of nearly 3 hours.

This is either genius or suicidal.

Turns out it’s a little of both.

The title character doesn’t even exist. He’s the goofy alter ego of Winifried (Peter Simonischek), a white-haired, bearded German piano teacher with a bizarre sense of humor  displayed in the first scene, when he meets a deliveryman at his door.

Winifried notes that the package is addressed to Toni Erdmann, whom he tells the delivery guy is his brother, a mad bomber just out of prison.  He wonders aloud  if the package contains explosives or porn, then vanishes to consult with his brother Toni. Yelling is heard from deep in the house.

Seconds later he’s back, this time in his Toni persona, a key element of which is a ragged set of humongous false teeth.

There’s a method to Winifried’s deadpan tomfoolery, a therapeutic way of mocking an increasingly joyless modern world.

For evidence of that joylessness he need look no farther than his own daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a thirtysomething petroleum industry consultant now living in Romania.

Ines is a committed career woman and desperately unhappy, although she won’t admit it. She sweats bullets over the demands of her job, daily negotiating the shark tank of corporate politics. She wants to be a major player, yet finds herself organizing shopping excursions for a client’s wife.

Her best friend is her smart phone. She’s engaged in a perfunctory affair with a co-worker. She can’t even relax with a massage, because it’s not brutal enough: “I’m not paying 100 Euros to be petted,” she fumes.

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Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson

Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson

“TRESPASS AGAINST US”  My rating: B- 

99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

As much a sociological study as a conventional melodrama, “Trespass Against Us” unfolds among a band of “travelers.” That’s how the Brits refer to the nomadic gypsies who have lived for centuries on the fringes of society.

Our unconventional hero is  Chad Cutler (Michael Fassbender), a fearless master thief and taunter of police who, with the approach of middle age, is feeling the uncomfortable pull of responsibility.

Though Chad,  his wife Kelly (Lindsey Marshal) and their children Tyson (Georgie Smith) and Mini (Kacie Anderson) live a traditional gypsy life in a caravan (i.e., a trailer or mobile home), he’s beginning to want more  than a nonstop diet of carousing and crime interrupted by the periodic spells in stir.

The problem is Chad’s father Colby (Brendan Gleeson), the head of this particular band, who has no use for such posh niceties as literacy, conventional careers or societal approval.  Colby is more than just patriarchal — he’s practically Old Testament.

So even as Chad is laying secret plans to break away from the clan and set up a new life in an actual house, he still finds himself a reluctant participant in Colby’s criminal enterprises, including the burgling of a rural estate that nets a fortune in antiquities.

Despite some action sequences, “Trespass Against Us” is essentially a character study of two headstrong men positioning themselves for a colossal confrontation. And Fassbender and Gleeson, two of best actors in U.K. cinema, are clearly up to the challenge.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the film (the direction is by Adam Smith, the screenplay by Alastair Siddons). But in the end it’s somewhat underwhelming.

| Robert W. Butler

OSCAR-NOMINATED ANIMATED SHORTS  Overall rating: B 

86 minutes | No MPAA rating

BORROWED TIME”  (USA, 7 minutes B

And Old West lawman revisits the site of a traumatic incident from his youth and recalls his part in the death of a colleague.

Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj’s all-but-wordless film has a few moments of spectacular action (a high-speed stagecoach wreck) but mostly it is a quiet, evocative meditation on grief, told through spectacular three-dimensional computer animation.

PEARL” (USA, 6 minutes B+


Remember the opening sequence of Pixar’s “Up” depicting the romance and marriage of the main character?  Patrick Osborne’s “Pearl” does something like that to depict the title character’s coming of age.

Pearl is a little girl traveling the country with her hippie/troubadour father, living out of a car. We see snatches from her childhood. Her father gives up his guitar dreams and settles down. There are father-daughter fights. Eventually a teenaged Pearl breaks away and launches her own rock band. In a sense her father’s dream has come full circle.

Again, with almost no spoken dialogue, “Pearl” is a sweet and sad yarn of generational aspiration told in a wildly original visual style.


PIPER” (USA, 6 minutes B

This Disney/Pixar effort — it played in theaters last summer with  “Finding Dory — is a wordless (naturally) story of a young sandpiper learning to fend for itself along a seashore.

In many regards it it classic Disney, a tale of an impossibly fuzzy young animal learning survival techniques through often comedic trial and error. The film’s depiction of out hero’s environment — sand, waves, sky — is astonishing realistic.

“Piper” often teeters on the edge of terminal cuteness, but the brilliant animation keeps it on track.


BLIND VAYSHA”(Canada, 8 minutes 3 stars

Theodore Ushev’s “Blind Vaysha” is a Slavic folk tale about a girl with an unusual condition. Her left eye shows her the past while her right eye displays the future.

Because she cannot see the here and now, Vaysha is for practical purposes blind. She finds herself wondering which is better…living in the comfort of the past or the dangers of the future.

Here’s what makes “Vaysha” special:  The entire film has been rendered in what appear to be animated woodblock prints. The effect is haunting.

PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES” (Canada and UK, 35 minutes 3 stars

Robert Valley’s animated first-person memoir about the life and death of an old friend is filled with so much specific detail that it must have been based on a real-life relationship.

The deadpan narrator describes his high school buddy Techno, a superb athlete and risk-taking daredevil who descends into debilitating alcoholism.

Cures, relapses, a stint in a Japanese hospital for a liver transplant…Techno’s downward spiral is depicted through artwork that looks like it was pulled from an innovative graphic novel.  Much of the film is in black and white, but splashes of color highlight important moments.

“Pear Brandy…” is about the links that hold old friends together even when common sense tells us it’s time to break away.

The film is 35 minutes long, but packs so much information it feels like a feature. (Note: “Pear Brandy and Cigarettes” contains adult language and situations and is not recommended for children.)

The animation program has been rounded out with three non-competing short films. They are:

“The Head Vanishes” (9 minutes), about a woman with dementia who is determined to make her annual train trip to the seaside.

Asteria” (5 minutes), follows two astronauts who make an unexpected discovery on a barren planet.

Happy End” (6 minutes) is described as “a black comedy about death…with a happy ending.”

is about the links that hold old friends together even when common sense tells us it’s time to break away.

The film is 35 minutes long, but packs so much information it feels like a feature. (Note: “Pear Brandy and Cigarettes” contains adult language and situations and is not recommended for children.)

The animation program has been rounded out with three non-competing short films. They are:

“The Head Vanishes” (9 minutes), about a woman with dementia who is determined to make her annual train trip to the seaside.

Asteria” (5 minutes), follows two astronauts who make an unexpected discovery on a barren planet.

Happy End” (6 minutes) is described as “a black comedy about death…with a happy ending.”

| Robert W. Butler

 

OSCAR-NOMINATED LIVE ACTION SHORTS  Overall rating: B+  

130 minutes | No MPAA rating

"Sing"

“Sing”

SING”  (Hungary, 25 minutes) B+

You’re never too young to fight for what you believe is right.

That’s the upshot of Kristof Deak’s “Sing,” a touching tale of a mini revolution in a Hungarian elementary school.

Zsofi (Dorka Gasparfalvi) is the new girl at a school famous for its award-winning children’s choir.  Since it is school policy that any student can participate, she signs on.

But after the first rehearsal Zsofi is approached by the choirmaster, Miss Erika (Zsofia Szamosi), who advises her, ever so sweetly but firmly, that in the future she should only mouth the words.

Zsofi is crushed, so her new best friend, Lisa (Dorka Hais), one of the choir’s soloists, comes up with a sneaky plan to sabotage Miss Erika’s system and give everyone a chance to sing.

Terrific acting by the three principal players and an insightful screenplay add up to one deeply satisfying experience.

"Silent Nights"

“Silent Nights”

SILENT NIGHTS”  (Denmark, 30 minutes) B+

Set in frigid Copenhagen at Christmastime, Aske Bang’s “Silent Nights” is a heartbreaker about a brief love affair between a young woman volunteer at a soup kitchen and a homeless African immigrant.

Both of these flawed individuals has his and her own problems. Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) left Ghana to make money for his impoverished family. He finds that for all the liberality of Danish society, racism and prejudice are facts of life. Survival may mean stealing.

Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) is a quiet, unremarkable woman with an open heart and an alcoholic, racist mother.

Their relationship is simultaneously tragic and inspiring. Life changes, love comes and goes.  Take it while you can.


TIMECODE”  (Spain, 15 minutes) B+

Filmmaker Juanjo Gimenez Pena sure knows how to breath life into a dead-end, life-sucking job.

Luna (Lali Ayguade) is a uniformed security guard working the 12-hour day shift in a Madrid parking garage.  Hers is a boring gig. No wonder she never shows any emotion.

But then on video surveillance recordings she finds footage of her nighttime counterpart, Diego (Nicolas Ricchini), using the garage as his own private dance studio.

Leaving notes for each other indicating specific cameras and times, Luna and Diego initiate a romance that consists only of solo dances, recorded when nobody else is around, and meant only for each other.

It’s a delightful idea, done almost wordlessly, and the results are intoxicating.

 

“ENEMIES WITHIN” (France, 28 minutes 3 1/2 stars

The calm surface of Selim Aazzazi’s film cannot hide an almost volcanic anger and angst.

The Petitioner (Hassam Ghancy), an Algerian teacher who has lived all his life in France, has come to a drab government office to apply for citizenship. The film consists almost entirely of his tense conversation with the Interrogator (Najib Oudghiri), a young man who will study his case and make a recommendation.

What at first seems like standard procedure soon turns dark as the utterly unemotional Interrogator asks ever more intrusive questions about the Petitioner: his religion, his family history, and any links to terrorism. He demands  the names of the Petitioner’s friends from a mosque, threatening to reject the application and start deportation proceedings if they aren’t forthcoming.

“Enemies Within” delves deep into the Petitioner’s crisis of conscience. Should he inform on friends he believes are innocent? At the same time Aazzazi’s film lays bare the brute coercive power of the state.

Talk about timely.


LA FEMME ET LA TGV” – (Switzerland, 30 minutes4 stars

Timo von Gunten’s late-in-life romance is a bittersweet triumph about a lonely woman, Elise (Jane Birkin, once one of the iconic faces of ‘60s “Swingin’ London”) who lives along a railway near a provincial Swiss town.

Elise runs a once-famous bakery that is now down to one customer. Her only friend is her parakeet. And her greatest joy is waving a Swiss flag at the TGV train that every morning zips past her house at nearly 200 miles per hour.

This gentle film chronicles a long-distance/high speed romance between Elise and the unseen driver of the TGV train, a fellow named Bruno who tosses notes and gifts (usually homemade cheese) onto Elise’s lawn as he passes.

At a time when her son wants to put her in a retirement home, her correspondence with Bruno gives Elise a new enthusiasm for life.

It’s infectious.

| Robert W. Butler

and as the two Julietas

Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suarez as the two Julietas

“JULIETA” My rating: B

99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

No contemporary director has examined mother/daughter relationships with the consistency or insight of Spain’s Pedro Almodovar.

At one time his latest effort, “Julieta,” would have been described as a “women’s picture.” But that superficial label fails to take into account the panache Almodovar brings to all of his projects (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Volver”).

Romantic loss has been his frequent topic.  “Julieta” takes a different approach, being a saga about parental loss.

Drawn from three short stories by Canadian author Alice Munro, the screenplay opens with a chance encounter on a Madrid street between the 50-something Julieta (Emma Suarez) and Bea, the childhood best friend of her daughter Antia.

Bea reports that she recently ran into her old friend at Lake Como, where Antia was shopping with her children.

Julieta is stunned. A dozen years earlier the teenage Antia vanished into a cult. Bea’s report is the first real proof that her daughter is still alive and that Julieta is now a grandmother.

Overnight everything changes. Julieta scraps plans to relocate with her boyfriend to Portugal. She moves back into the same building where she once shared a flat with Antia, desperately hoping that her daughter will come looking for her there.

And she is compelled to write down important incidents from her past.

In these elaborate flashbacks we follow the steamy relationship of the young Julieta (now played by Adriana Ugarte) with Xoan (Daniel Grao), a hunky fisherman. Their union produces Antia.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEBSITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article129896079.html

| Robert W. Butler

Leslie Man, Robert DeNiro

Leslie Man, Robert DeNiro

“THE COMEDIAN”  My rating: D

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

While I can’t definitively say that “The Comedian” is the worst film of Robert DeNiro’s career, I can safely pronounce it one of the least enjoyable.

An alternately irritating and alienating effort that threatens to trash the reputation of everyone involved — and we’re talking lots of big names — “The Comedian” finds DeNiro playing Jackie Burke, a comic whose best days are long behind him.

Jackie’s claim to fame is a ‘70s TV sitcom called “Eddie’s Home.” Nearly a half-century later he’s still besieged by fans who call him Eddie instead of Jackie.  He’s got a thin skin — which is how he comes to punch out a heckler at a regional comedy club, followed by 30 days in the hoosegow.

Jackie is a pain in the ass to be around. An insult comic on the stage, he’s not much better in his personal life. He’s combative, angry and royally pissed at the miserable state of his career.

Now that might be palatable if we thought Jackie had some real talent. But this is one of those films where the comics in the movie tell jokes that would never get them a gig in the real world. And Jackie is the least among them.

Once out of stir, Jackie must fulfill 100 days of community service in a soup kitchen. There he meets  the ditzy Harmony (Leslie Mann), who is paying off her debt to society for assaulting her ex’s new girlfriend.

Their relationship…well, it’s not exactly love, but it’ll have to do.

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Adam Driver.

Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani

“PATERSON”  My rating: A-

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Nothing much happens in “Paterson.”  Just life.

Turns out that’s more than enough.

The film — about a poetry-writing bus driver named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson NJ — feels like the movie Jim Jarmusch and his seriocomic minimalism have been working toward for decades.

Virtually devoid of conventional melodrama, “Paterson” is about life’s little moments. The most exciting thing that happens is a bus breakdown that forces the driver and passengers to wait at the roadside for an hour.

And yet by concentrating on the little things, the seemingly unremarkable ins and outs of just living, the deadpan hilarity of existence, Jarmusch makes a profound statement about average people living average lives.

The only other film to which I can compare Jarmusch’s latest is Bruce Beresford’s sublime “Tender Mercies,” another film that ignores “events” to observe the gentle unfolding of life.

Paterson (Adam Driver, who gets more out of less than we have any right to expect) has a routine.

Every morning he fixes breakfast and walks to the bus terminal where he climbs into a driver’s seat. Every morning his supervisor sends him off after grousing a bit about the unfairness of life.

Paterson spends his day driving around listening to the conversations of his passengers. He also seems to be a magnet for twins…identical siblings of all ages regularly cross his path.

At home he listens patiently and lovingly to the stream-of-consciousness patter of his beautiful wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), whose chiildlike eagerness defies common sense.

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