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“I KILL GIANTS” My rating: C  

106 minutes | No MPAA rating

Technical brilliance and narrative muddiness wrestle to a draw in “I Kill Giants,”  director Anders Walter’s feature debut after a career in shorts.

Based on the graphic novel by Joe Kelly (who wrote the screenplay) and Ken Nimura, “Giants” melds Spielbergian adolescent fantasy with “Donnie Darko” pessimism. The results look terrific but feel phony.

Barbara (Madison Wolfe) is a teen outsider whose eccentricities may have passed beyond the endearing to the pathological.

With her oversized spectacles, unkempt blond mop and fuzzy rabbit ears (does she know she looks like a pedophile’s wet dream of a Playboy Bunny?), she’s the very image of a young adult  oddball.  A dungeons and dragons geek, she spends her spare hours stalking the woods near her picturesque seaside home and creating poisons and folk art talismans in a hidden lab.

Barbara is convinced that it is her job to protect her town from the giants that roam the countryside.  She has created Rube Goldberg-ish snares for these hulking monsters, and carries in an overdecorated purse a war hammer with which to battle the intruders.

Kelly and Walter establish early on that this is no charming childhood fantasy.  Barbara believes every bit of her trauma-inducing giant-slaying scenario, and devotes her life to the cause.  As a result she is tormented by a classroom bully (Rory Jackson) and spends an inordinate amount of her day in the office of the understanding but frustrated school psychologist (Zoe Saldana).

Thing is, she’s very, very smart.  Barbara can out-insult both adults and her fellow students (with her stinging wit she oozes contempt for “normal” kids), describes her towering foes as “total dicks” and radiates the weary seen-it-all attitude of a veteran warrior suiting up for yet another bloody campaign.

Her self-imposed ostrasization is dented only by the arrival of Sophia (Sydney Wade), a recent British import to the community, who befriends Barbara in spite of the latter’s loner attitude.

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Josh Hartnett, Shinobu Terjima

“OH LUCY!” My rating: B- 

95 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Oh Lucy!” begins on a Tokyo subway platform with a man throwing himself in front of a train.  It ends on the same platform with two very lonely people sharing a hug.

What goes on between those points is a bit difficult to describe.

Atsuko Hirayanagi’s film is a character study, certainly, with Shinobu Terjima giving a quietly touching, occasionally comic performance as a middle-aged, unmarried office drone whose life is turned upside down by an English lesson.

But “Oh, Lucy!” is also a road movie, much of which takes place in California. And it’s a romance, too.

Setsuko (Terjima) is in her late 30s and living a life of quiet desperation. She’s considered a loser at work and still smarts over the fact that her sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) stole and married the one man Setsuko ever loved.

That union didn’t last, but it produced Netsuke’s cute/flighty niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), a waitress in a cafe where the help all dress like French maids.

Early in the film Setsuko reluctantly agrees to take over the English lessons for which Mika signed a contract but now cannot pay. Her instructor, John (Josh Hartnett), has some weird ideas about teaching — he gives his students English names (Setsuko becomes Lucy), makes them wear wigs, and because he’s teaching “American English” insists that conversations be punctuated with regular hugs.

Even that much physical contact is enough to make the love-starved Setsuko swoon. She’s soon fantasizing about her new teacher.

But not for long. Turns out John and Mika were an item. Now they’ve run off to Los Angeles, with the two bickering sisters — mother and aunt — in hot pursuit.

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Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Jason Isaacs as Zhukov

“THE DEATH OF STALIN” My rating: B+

 107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Cold War-bred baby boomers may be perplexed to discover that Nikita Khrushchev  — the Soviet bigwig who infamously pounded his shoe on a desk at the United Nations and proclaimed that “We will bury you” — is the hero of “The Death of Stalin.”

Just goes to show: History makes for strange bedfellows.

Make no mistake: Khrushchev, played here by a balding, pudgied-up Steve Buscemi, is presented as a hustling, scheming political climber.  But compared to the forces he’s battling, he’s one of the angels.

Unfolding over several days in 1953, “The Death of Stalin” is history retold as a black comedy.  It was written and directed by Armando Iannucci, the Scottish filmmaker who in 2009 gave us the brilliant sendup of Bush-era idiocy, “In the Loop.”

If anything, “…Stalin” surpasses that effort with its toxic/weirdly entertaining mix of terror, paranoia and manic broken-glass satire.

Iannucci and his co-writers (David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows) waste no time in laying out the miseries of Stalin-era USSR.  In a brilliantly edited opening sequence, we hopscotch around Moscow on a chilly March  night.

At Radio Moscow an official (Paddy Considine) freaks out when he gets a phone call from Stalin asking for a recording of that night’s live Mozart concerto. Problem is, the program wasn’t recorded.  The doors are barred, the nervous audience members told to return to their seats (“Don’t worry, nobody’s going to get killed”) and a guest conductor is snatched from his apartment in his pajamas to replace the original maestro, who has knocked himself unconscious by taking a header into a fire extinguisher.

The Radio Moscow man knows that people have been shot for less than failing to produce a recording for the glorious leader.

Meanwhile in the Kremlin, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is busy hobnobbing with his security chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale), whittling down a list of “enemies” to be arrested and disposed of that very night.

“Cracks me up, this one,” Stalin chortles, pointing to one of the names.

Nearby, Communist Party leaders like Khrushchev, Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Molotov (Michael Palin) trade vodka shots are behaving like boorish frat boys, recycling war stories and trying not to piss off Stalin. (After each meeting with the head honcho, Khrushchev goes over every comment so as to avoid in the future any topics that Stalin finds distasteful.)

The next day Stalin is found lying on the floor, barely alive, the victim of a stroke.

His cohorts are paralyzed by indecision. They can’t even agree on whether to call in medical assistance: “All the best doctors are in the gulag…or dead.” Continue Reading »

“NOVEMBER” My rating: C+ 

115 minutes | No MPAA rating

“November” walked away with top cinematography honors at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and just minutes into this Estonian production you’ll understand why.

This is one astonishingly beautiful movie, a black-and-white evocation of a ghostly, semi-primordial past filled with haunting images. Director of photography Mart Taniel has created a visual masterpiece.

In other regards “November” is a rough slog.

Based on the book by Andrus Kivirahk — the biggest-selling novel by an Estonian writer in the last two decades — the film unfolds in a rural community in what appears to be the early 19th century. It’s a world of unwashed peasants, decaying hovels, mist-shrouded landscapes and everyday interactions between humans and the supernatural.

The novel was less a fully plotted story than a series of vignettes revealing the life (and afterlife) of a particular neighborhood over the course of one wintry month, and in transferring the narrative to the screen writer/director Rainer Sarnet has been unable to provide an emotionally engaging through story.

The film is a collection of sometimes arresting moments, but after a while the weirdness gets a bit numbing. In this regard it resembles the bizarre efforts of famed Chilean cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky (“El Topo”).

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Vicky Krieps, August Diehl, Stefan Konarske

“THE YOUNG KARL MARX” My rating: C+

118 minutes | No MPAA rating

Few things are as noncinematic as a bunch of intellectuals arguing economic theory — which puts the makers of “The Young Karl Marx” on the defensive from the get-go.

Their solution is a sort of mutation on “Shakespeare in Love” in which Marx and his cohort Friedrich Engels rail at the status quo while outrunning the police and creditors, finding time to vigorously roger their ladyfolk. Along the way they establish the international Communist movement and get to work writing Capital.

Raoul Peck’s film (his last outing was the excellent James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”) begins in the early 1840s with unfortunate peasants being routed by cudgel-waving horsemen for having the effrontery to pick  up fallen tree limbs for firewood on a private estate.

Then we cut to young Marx (August Diehl) arguing with the writers and editors of their recently-banned newspaper; he criticizes his colleagues both for intellectual laziness and for a lack of resolve in opposing the establishment. (The film finds  Marx often insufferably arrogant…but he’s arrogant because he’s right.)

The scene ends with the entire newspaper staff hauled off to prison.

Meanwhile in Manchester England Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske) is appalled at the inhuman conditions imposed by his father on workers at the family’s textile mill. When the proles protest by damaging a loom, Engels Pere fumes that “Machines are expensive…not like labor.”  His son leaves in disgust.

“The Young Karl Marx” is about how these two giants of economic reasoning got together, discovering their shared styles and common interests.  We also meet Marx’s wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day Lewis’ love interest in “Phantom Thread”), a member of the French aristocracy who gave it all up for love and the workers of the world.  Then there’s Engel’s squeeze Mary (Hannah Steele), an Irish factory lass who takes no guff from anyone.

There are, of course, endless discussions of Marxist theory.  Some of these get heated when the talk turns to the boys’  sincere belief in  violent revolution.

“The Young Karl Marx” is about as well acted as it can be…it’s just that it plays more like a history lesson than a viable drama.  Good production values, though…even if most of what we see are gloomy garrets, dirty factory floors and dimly-lit taverns.

| Robert W. Butler

Sam Keeley

“THE CURED” My rating: C+

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The new Holy Grail — at least as far as the makers of horror films are concerned — is a fresh take on zombies.

In recent years titles like “Maggie,” “Life After Beth,” “The Girl with All the Gifts” and “Warm Bodies” have sought with varying degrees of success to refresh the whole undead flesheater bit.

“The Cured” offers some intriguing ideas, but can’t sustain the drama when things fall back into the same-old same-old.

At the heart of David Freyne’s Ireland-lensed effort is the idea that zombies can be cured.  Whether or not that’s a good thing is basically what the movie’s about.

Months before the beginning of the film a bug called the Maze Virus swept Europe, turning everyday folks into snarling cannibals.  A vaccine has been developed that brings the infected back to their normal state…with the downside that they can recall all the ghastly things they did while under the virus’ influence.

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Daniela Vega

“A FANTASTIC WOMAN” My rating: A- 

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

What Daniela Vega delivers in the Oscar-winning (for foreign language film) “A Fantastic Woman” is less a case of acting than of being.

As a trans woman portraying a trans woman in a film scripted for her by director Sebastian Lelio and co-writer Gonzalo Maza, the Chilean actress so blurs the line between fiction and fact that the picture unfolds in a rarified realm of  ultra-realism (this despite a few moments of deliberate magic realism).

In a tale bursting with emotion and meaning,  Vega doesn’t have to push her performance. Simply by being here and reacting honestly to the screenplay’s situations she delivers a devastating, deeply moving message.

Marina (Vega) is a waitress with a part-time gig singing in a Santiago night spot. As the film begins she and her older lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), are preparing to celebrate with a bit of foreign travel.

But it’s not to be.  In the middle of the night Orlando has a stroke and falls down a flight of stairs.  Marina rushes him to a hospital, but it’s too late.

Most of “A Fantastic Woman” unfolds in the week leading up to Orlando’s funeral, when Marina must deal not only with her own grief but with the indignities heaped upon her by an uncaring system and Orlando’s disapproving family.

 

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