Posts tagged with Scene Stealers

The best movies and TV shows coming to Netflix instant in April

From indie horror gems to "Hot Fuzz" to a new Marvel TV show, film critic Eric Melin recommends the movies and TV shows you should add to your Netflix streaming queue this April.


‘Mr. Turner’ not the usual paint-by-numbers biopic

Early-19th-century artist J.M.W. Turner is now regarded as an innovator, elevating landscape and maritime paintings to high art. But by the time of his death in 1851, his work had fallen out of favor for being too abstract.

Director Mike Leigh’s biopic of Turner isn’t exactly abstract, but it’s definitely hard to pin down because it so carefully avoids the pitfalls of the genre. Rather than the standard series of career highlights and easy motivations told in flashbacks, “Mr. Turner,” now playing at Liberty Hall, is almost a pure character piece. The facts of his life must often be inferred while everyday moments that are seemingly inconsequential to the “plot” of the movie build a rich portrait of a man full of contradictions.

Timothy Spall plays Turner, a waddling middle-aged chipmunk of a man who speaks mostly in grunts. His passion — which excludes all other pursuits in life — is capturing natural light and the sublime beauty of nature on canvas.

Turner lives a simple life with his beloved father (Paul Jesson), who makes sure he’s in constant supply of paint and canvas, and a soft-spoken housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), whom he casually takes advantage of sexually when the mood strikes him.

He neglects his former lover and their kids, brushing them off with the same indifference that he gives to art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), who is actually an enormous supporter of Turner’s work.

“Mr. Turner” covers 25 years of the contradictory painter’s life, and it often feels like it, moving at a languorous pace over its two-and-a-half hours. Like it’s subject, however, the film has an irascible charm. Leigh strips away the myth of the vaunted artist; the highly evolved being with special knowledge that sees into the souls of others. He also avoids the clichés that come with portraying an artist of Turner’s stature.

In London’s snobbish Royal Academy of Arts, Turner toys with the chattering gossip hounds and his fellow Romantic painters. Craving approval, his compatriots swirl around the great halls — filled to the brim with works of art — while Turner relishes his position of standing. With one tiny yellow speck of paint dust, added to one of his masterpieces on the spot, he silences them all.

Leigh’s unusual screenplay strategy is well documented, and it pays dividends here once again. He and his actors research and rehearse extensively without a script to place them in the characters’ present. Through these improvisations, a narrative is formed. All the actors have an unassuming naturalistic acting style per usual, but it’s also clear that Leigh did his own extensive research on Turner’s life, incorporating very specific and personal details, right down to the painter’s last words.

In contrast to the understated acting, the cinematography is expansive and stirring. Director of photography Dick Pope received a completely deserved Oscar nomination for his ravishing work on “Mr. Turner,” which emulates and achieves the rich, dramatic colors of its subject’s paintings.

For all of his gruffness and contradictions, Turner is a man who revels in the sublime beauty of art. An early scene in “Mr. Turner” encapsulates his paradoxes. At a party, Turner is so moved by a girl playing a Purcell aria on a harpsichord that he stops to sing along. It’s a moment that mirrors his place in the art world, as Turner’s voice is scratchy and off, even as his deep appreciation for the music is so finely tuned.

“Mr. Turner” is rated R for decidedly unsexy groping and awkward, mostly consensual sexual situations.

Birdman, or (The Entirely Expected Ego of Hollywood)

Well, the 87th Academy Awards are now in the record books, and the big winner of the night was Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman." If you missed it the first time around, the movie is back this week at Liberty Hall for a second run.

Deservedly lauded for its daring technical achievement, this magical realist examination of ego should be seen by any serious film fan, even if its kicks are merely surface-level. It's a shame that its win came at the expense of "Boyhood," a deeply resonant film that will go down as a classic. Watch me refuse to let it go:


Hoffman’s last great lead performance, and local vampires in Paris!

Shades of sadness and defeat simmer just below the surface of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s subtle performance in “A Most Wanted Man,” opening today at Liberty Hall. Knowing the late actor’s personal troubles while he was filming the spy thriller, it’s hard not to wonder how much of that informed his character.

Either way, it’s Hoffman who anchors this John le Carré adaptation and makes it compelling, even when the film’s rambling tendencies threaten to derail it.

Hoffman plays a rumpled German intelligence agent named Günther Bachmann. He’s tracking the whereabouts of a Chechen refugee who recently entered Hamburg and is also looking at the money trail surrounding a prominent Muslim professor for possible terrorist connections.

British and American agents circle the investigation, and possible interference from them looms big in the background, especially since American involvement caused Günther’s last big operation to fail. He lost friends in the process, and was left questioning the larger context of his job.

The movie, and more so the 2008 novel, is a critique of aggressive post-9/11 intelligence policies that trample human rights, but it hinges on Hoffman’s ability to play this struggle out internally. Smart and confident in his own intuition, Günther proceeds the way he sees fit — something that isn’t always encouraged by the higher-ups. His experience and insight don’t allow him to see the people he’s spying on as one-dimensional bad guys, and it’s this gray area that isn’t considered enough by the power players in his community.

“A Most Wanted Man” is stylishly put together by director Anton Corbijn, whose color palette is somber and focused. The script, adapted by Andrew Bovell, doesn’t pump up a lot of sequences for big action thrills, but rather revels in throwing examining the clouded motivations and conflicts of its many supporting characters, including characters played by Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams and Robin Wright, all turning in solid performances.

In other words, “A Most Wanted Man” is a slow burn and it meanders a bit. The movie is not as impenetrable, however, as the 2011 le Carré adaptation “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” which starred Gary Oldman as a similarly vexed British agent. The key to understanding the subtleties of the plot are all in Hoffman’s performance: If the exposition gets too dense, the plot’s signposts are written all over his expressive face and body.

The weight of Günther’s responsibility to his country and his agents are in every frame of “A Most Wanted Man,” and a sense of loss pervades the entire movie. Hoffman’s character wrestles with the expendable nature of human life and the costs of his job in this modern age, but the tragedy of the actor’s untimely death also looms large.

His last lead performance is filled with exasperation at a world that refuses to see things the way he does, and Hoffman gives profound voice to this commonality amongst us all.

Kansas City musician-turned filmmaker Joey Skidmore will premiere his campy horror movie “Kiki Meets the Vampires” at 9 p.m. Friday at the Screenland Armour. The film was shot in equal parts Paris and Kansas City, and stars plenty of local actors as well as French punk/ska icons Les Fossoyeurs (which translates appropriately to The Gravediggers).

The low-budget feature was conceived over three years ago by Skidmore, who has been friends with the band since 1991 and cast lead singer Eric "Kiki" Clam in the lead.

"Even with the language barrier, I was impressed how he is the funniest person I've ever met. both onstage and off," Skidmore says. "I always thought he should have a career as a character actor or stand-up comic, as well as a musician."

Like Ringo Starr in The Beatles film "Help!", Kiki is clueless about all the fuss being made around him, as the Vampire Queen targets the hapless fall guy and hilarity ensues. Skidmore lists Peter Sellers and Charlie Chaplin as influences for the film's gags and tone, but there's also plenty of B-movie nudity and gore as well.

The movie is timed with the release of Skidmore's new album "Joey Skidmore Now!", which includes the theme song "Kiki Meets the Vampires," recorded with Les Fossoyeurs, and a cover of "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)" featuring Jim Dandy of Black Oak Arkansas.

“Kiki Meets the Vampires” will be preceded by three local horror-inflected short films and followed by a Q&A session with Skidmore and many of the local cast members.


Why the Blu-ray format is essential to film literacy, and a local ‘Triumph’

At no other time in the last hundred years have there been more movies available to the general public as there are right now. Thanks to streaming video, hundreds of thousands of movies from the dawn of film to today can be accessed and played back on all kinds of HD-ready devices.

So why is it that the last bastion of film literacy is still in the hands of a physical format that you can actually hold in your hand and put on a shelf?

The answer is simple: The Blu-ray format can hold enough information for not only the highest-quality film transfer but also a large amount of supplemental content that functions as a sort of instant film school. I like streaming a movie as much as the next person, but when I want to dig deeper, I look to extra features. Nobody is putting out better Blu-rays right now than The Criterion Collection, and three of its newest releases illustrate this point perfectly.

To the casual moviegoer, it may not seem like there’s any point in going back to check out old films, but in fact, it’s a great way to trace the lineage of current filmmakers and trends and discover where the new movies you love came from.

Fans of Oscar-winning visionary director Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) can see an earlier mastery of genre-defying in “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” a 2001 road-trip movie starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna as teenagers who fall under the spell of a beautiful older woman. What could have been a simple teenage sex comedy instead becomes a coming-of-age film with startling emotional depth and complexity, set against the backdrop of class differences in Mexico.

Besides the treat of seeing Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography in a 2K digital film transfer, there are 50 excellent minutes of interviews and making-of material put together in 2014 for this release, a 9-minute feature from author and philosophical thinker Slavoj Zizek about the film’s themes, and a host of other extras.

If this sounds too heady and boring, it’s not. I mean, this isn’t “Armageddon” (which, weirdly, also has a Criterion release). There’s a lot to ponder and negotiate with “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” A couple hours of back-patting and chatty hi-jinks with Bruce Willis and Michael Bay would get old real soon, but with in-depth pieces like the ones on this Blu-ray/DVD dual-format combo, you can deepen your film knowledge and appreciation for the work, sending your mind off in all kinds of fascinating directions.

The Criterion re-issue of 1997’s “Insomnia” has an instant link to the present as well. The last five years in Scandinavian television is widely seen as a Renaissance, with Nordic noirs like “The Killing” and “The Bridge” pushing boundaries and inspiring American remakes. It’s easier to point to “Insomnia” as an opening shot in the genre, especially after re-watching it in this beautiful 4K restoration on Blu-ray.

Stellan Skarsgard plays a hotshot Swedish detective tracking down a killer in Norway. A series of bad choices lead him down a dark path (though the constant summer sun never relents), and he begins to lose his grip on right and wrong. “Insomnia” is a paranoid noir thriller in broad daylight, and Skarsgard inhabits his role so naturally that when he starts going off the rails, it’s as disorienting as it is disturbing.

A new conversation reuniting Skarsgard with director Erik Skjoldbjærg shows the amount of collaboration that was involved in this seminal movie. Like the influential Scandinavian TV dramas of today, “Insomnia” was re-made for American audiences in 2002 by no less a director than Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”), and it starred Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank.

A haunted 1970s film revolutionary if there ever was one, Paul Schrader wrote “Taxi Driver” and co-wrote “Raging Bull.” He introduces the Criterion dual-format Blu-ray/DVD of Robert Bresson’s 1959 film “Pickpocket” by talking about how the French filmmaker inspired him to make movies. Non-actors are used regularly these days on TV, and to some extent, the movies, but usually as part of some “reality” show or to approximate reality for a docudrama feel.

Bresson’s strategy was to employ non-actors and stylize their actions in a very specific way to reveal something deeper about their characters. In “Pickpocket,” a professional magician performs the slight-of-hand tricks of the main character and his cohorts as they prey upon the people of Paris, but it’s the strange quality of non-actor Martin LaSalle that sets the film apart. Is he as dead inside as he appears to the outside world? His criminal existence alienates him from the people he cares about even as he continues to pursue it.

“Pickpocket” is certainly dated, but it’s so dated, it almost feels fresh. A commentary track by film scholar James Quandt points out even more of the film’s oddities, while Bresson himself is featured on a 1960 TV show, and the “actors” get their due in two features. Illusionist Kassagi, who consulted on the movie, is featured in some amazing excerpts from a 1962 TV appearance.

So while everyone else is flipping through VOD listings to find the latest Nicolas Cage-Morgan Freeman thriller that wasn’t good enough to warrant a theatrical release, I’m more than happy to spend a weekend afternoon with a classic movie and a ton of extra content that gives me a wider perspective. There’s more to movies than escapism, and I love exploring how films were made and how they affected the world.

A local “Triumph”

A local script about a high-school wrestler with mild cerebral palsy is gaining some traction, thanks to reported interest in the lead role from RJ Mitte (“Breaking Bad”).

Screenwriter and co-director Mike Coffey has started a Kickstarter campaign to fund “Triumph,” which would be produced and shot in Lawrence.

Financing is still up in the air but the project, in tandem with local Through A Glass Productions, aims to start shooting in October over four weeks, but if Coffey can keep talent like Mitte, Jonathan Lipnicki, Graham Greene and Charles Dutton, as well as Lawrence actress Laura Kirk, on board he could have quite the project on his hands.

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A predictable ‘I Origins,’ and a look back at the greatest movie of all time

Nothing kills a movie that’s coveted a slow, methodical buildup more than a heavy dose of convenient plotting and characters that over-explain the film’s central idea.

Thanks very much, Michael Pitt, but I already knew that your new sci-fi inflected drama “I Origins” was about the eternal science vs. spirituality debate, I didn’t need your character to spell it out for the third and fourth time.

It’s a shame, because writer/director Mike Cahill’s last movie, “Another Earth,” explored emotional devastation as a way into an interesting sci-fi concept. This time out, he’s using the same formula to lesser effect.

Pitt plays Ian, a cocky young scientist who says up front that he’s looking to debunk the idea of intelligent design by looking for patterns in the human eye, so you know right away that he’ll be in for some kind of surprise. His new lab assistant Karen (Britt Marling) is obviously smart and driven, so you know there will be a discovery soon.

While you wait for the inevitable plot to kick in, Cahill spends a lot of time on the relationship between Pitt and a beautiful model named Sofi played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey. Although this part of the plot has its fare share of conveniences, it’s almost forgivable because Sofi seems to exist on another plane entirely, so if there’s some sort of mystical force at work in the world, Sofi is tuned into it.

Ian and Sofi look cute together, and spend a lot of time in bed, but as the initial power of their unique meet-cute (which involves one of them wearing a mask and some spontaneous bathroom sex) wears off, many of their conversations are maddeningly trite. The actors hold it together, though, and make some of the dialogue easier to overlook.

When “I Origins” shifts away from their relationship, the movie really starts to feel forced. You can feel Cahill’s hand leading you down the path toward another “discovery,” and you can only hope the end will justify the means. Put simply, it doesn’t. A third-act quest to India is full of eye-rolling moments, and the situation itself brings up all kinds of other socio-economic issues the film isn’t equipped to handle.

“I Origins,” at Liberty Hall now, is a miss, but Cahill shows an innate ability to create an air of mystery and coach naturalistic performances out of his actors. If he can get out of the way of his own story, his next film could be revelatory.

This is 30 Years of Spinal Tap

On Monday, Liberty Hall will turn the amps up to 11 for a 30th anniversary screening of the greatest movie ever made.

You read that right, Rob Reiner’s classic mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap,” about a fictitious British heavy metal band in decline, is the greatest film of all time.

It wasn’t necessarily the first mockumentary (some consider that to be Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run”) and isn’t even the first rock mockumentary (that distinction goes to Eric Idle’s “The Rutles — All You Need is Cash”), but it perfected the form and its influence is felt today.

"This is Spinal Tap"

"This is Spinal Tap" by Eric Melin

Before I tell you this story, let me just preface it: I was young and impressionable and mockumentaries weren’t the staple of filmed entertainment that they are today. They were virtually nonexistent.

When I was a kid, I rented “This is Spinal Tap” on VHS. I was just starting to learn about the history of metal bands and was wearing out every Def Leppard, Scorpions and Judas Priest cassette I could get my hands on.

I had heard about Spinal Tap from Circus magazine — whether it was an add for the soundtrack or a straight-faced interview with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer in character as members of the band, I can’t remember — and it seemed like they had a deep, rich history.

As “This is Spinal Tap” parodied mop-headed early-'60s pop (“Gimme Some Money”) and late-'60s flower power rock (“Listen to the Flower People”), I was enthralled. Spinal Tap has really grown as a band over the decades, I thought.

As they toured America in support of their “black” album “Smell the Glove,” it was fascinating to see how the music industry worked, from a you-are-there perspective. I hated laughing at them when they got lost underneath the stage in Cleveland, or when a 3-foot-high Stonehenge stage prop was lowered from the ceiling onstage, because I felt bad for them. They may have lost some brain cells along their two-decade career, but these are likeable blokes — and these tunes aren’t bad either!

After the credits rolled on the documentary that I was sure to watch over and over again, a blue screen came up with some bright onscreen text for people like me who hadn’t figured it out yet:

“The band Spinal Tap is fictional. And there’s no Easter Bunny, either!”

Whaaa? I immediately raced to the VCR and hit rewind. Sure enough, this band I had just fallen in love wasn't real. They were actors. They wrote and performed these songs themselves. Never mind that I had already sat through an end-credit sequence that explained all that! I was watching the outtakes rather than reading the actor’s names, otherwise I might have recognized David Letterman bandleader Paul Schaffer as the local radio PR guy. It's a testament to how real the film feels that I didn't.

Not only was “This is Spinal Tap” ahead of its time, but it is full of truth. Having played in bands pretty much all my life since my teenage years, I can tell you that Spinal Tap moments happen all the time, especially when you’re on tour.

I’ve been lost underneath the stage before. I’ve seen lots of stage mishaps like the ones in the film. The three main personalities in the band are picture-perfect send-ups of real-life band dudes, and I can safely say that there are plenty of rock-star types way more self-centered and delusional than the ones in Spinal Tap.

In addition to being riotously funny and oh-so-clever, “This is Spinal Tap” is rooted in real emotion. The lifelong friendship of lead singer David St. Hubbins (McKean) and lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Guest) is truly tested. The movie takes a melancholy turn. The attention to detail in these situations is matched by the amount of care that went into hitting all the character beats, not to mention the improvisational genius of the supporting cast.

In terms of innovation, influence, and eminent re-watchability, “This is Spinal Tap” measures up with the best. Is it the “Citizen Kane” of mockumentaries? No doubt. But it’s more than that.

Thirty years on, it’s easier now to call it a post-modern classic in every sense of the word — and with that perspective, I’m hereby proclaiming “This is Spinal Tap” the greatest movie of all time.

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An interesting ‘Ida,’ and I loathe ‘Lucy’

There is a stigma associated with foreign films, especially ones that are shot in black and white and set in a historical period that most Americans are unfamiliar with: That they are long and boring and nothing ever happens.

I’ll be the first to admit it: It’s hard to get psyched about seeing a movie about an orphaned young woman getting ready to take her vows in a convent in early 1960s Poland.

But director Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” now playing at Liberty Hall, is an 80-minute road-trip movie filled with plenty of plot and surprising revelations, not to mention fascinating lead characters who couldn’t be more different from each other.

The chaste and sheltered 18-year-old title character (Agata Trzebokowska) is a bit of a blank slate, wearing her poker face at all times and holding tightly to her teachings. Her world is turned upside down following the news that her real name is Ida, not Anna, and that she’s Jewish and her parents were killed during World War II.

It’s her one known relative Aunt Wanda (Agneta Kulesza) who delivers this bomb, and she relishes the moment. An angry former prosecutor for Poland’s Communist party, “Red Wanda” now spends time assuaging her guilt with booze and one-night stands.

Like everything else in “Ida,” the complicated social and political backdrop of post-war Poland is filled in naturally as the movie progresses. There’s no onscreen titles or omniscient narrator to explain the film’s context and setting. It’s easy enough to glean this information from the complicated feelings of its characters.

What is fascinating is how Pawlikowski reveals so much by simply sticking with Ida and Wanda and acutely observing their behavior.

The visual strategy is as striking as Pawlikowski’s efficient storytelling. Shot in the square aspect ratio of yesteryear, it has a rigid quality that reflects Ida’s upbringing.

Cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal employ a camera that’s eternally still, and often keeps its subjects smaller in the frame or partially obscured, as if some larger force were bearing down on them. The soundtrack is austere as well, featuring music that only occurs in the reality of the film, save for the quietly powerful last shot.

“Ida” is a study in contrasts, from its stark black and white presentation to its diametrically opposed characters, each of them representing aspects of their country at a complicated juncture.

A dark cloud hangs over Poland in the film. The population is haunted by the recent past, and Wanda’s resentful attitude is obvious. (Kulesza is a particular standout certainly worth remembering come Oscar time.) Ida represents the country’s tough road forward, confronting not only her family history and everything she’s been taught but also modernization and shifting social mores.

If the movie still sounds a little too much like doing your homework, it’s not. You’ll just have to trust me.


For every complex social issue at play in “Ida,” there is an equally fascinating quasi-philosophical question to match it in Luc Besson’s action-movie “Lucy.” Unfortunately, these questions are answered in the most reductionary of ways by a filmmaker who has neither the patience nor the interest in actually engaging intelligently with the material.

The core idea of “Lucy” is a tantalizing sci-fi premise, exploring what would happen if a human were able to access the 90 percent of brain function that is currently unavailable to us. Scarlett Johansson is the woman who gets this ability suddenly (and by accident), and the disappointing answer has his film falling into lazy superhero tropes and many of the same action clichés that Besson’s been pumping out in the Euro trash action flicks he’s been producing for years.

The prospect of instant evolution and a sudden massive intellect is foreshadowed by the appearance of a hairy Neanderthal at the film’s opening. The fact that the CGI cavewoman is named Lucy and an exact physical replica of her somehow resides in a natural history museum in the present-day is the first sign that “Lucy” is going to be corny as heck.

Besson goes on to squander a tense, thriller-style opening where Johansson shows considerable spark and makes Lucy someone worth rooting for. The actress also shines in an emotional phone call to her mother as long-forgotten childhood memories flood her mind. But the more she becomes like a supercomputer and is distanced from what makes her human, the less interesting the movie becomes.

Poor Morgan Freeman is here collecting a paycheck as a researcher who lectures on the subject of the brain’s capacity and hypothesizes that someone like Lucy will eventually come along. It’s too bad that he delivers this exposition in an actual lecture, which Besson keeps cutting back to in an extended scene that feels like it’s using about 1 percent of the brain.

Despite all of the interesting ideas that it brings up, “Lucy” is unimaginatively scripted and staged. Although Lucy has a constantly expanding consciousness, she mostly uses it to turn into Magneto and swat bad guys away with her mind.

Besson wants to show he’s got bigger issues on his mind, but he relies on CGI sequences inside her brain that look like animated screen savers from 2004, as well as wide shots of the planet Earth as seen from space.

“Lucy” wants to be a thinking man’s action movie with strains of “The Tree of Life,” but it’s really a by-the-numbers revenge movie for people who thought Ashton Kutcher's “The Butterfly Effect” was profound.


Ebert documentary examines ‘Life Itself,’ and the library ain’t afraid of no ghosts

The new documentary “Life Itself” opens with a quote from beloved late film critic Roger Ebert: “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."

For the following two hours, “Life Itself” (opening at the Tivoli Theater in Kansas City and now playing on iTunes and VOD) generates not only empathy, but admiration for the man who exposed so many unknown films and filmmakers to the world at large.

The movie was directed by one of those filmmakers — Steve James — whose remarkable 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” became a hit almost solely on the recommendation of Ebert and his former onscreen reviewing partner, Gene Siskel.

Adapting Ebert’s 2011 memoir, James juggles multiple facets of Ebert’s life — his formative years as a journalist, his early alcoholism, his complicated relationship/rivalry with Siskel, his marriage, and his effect on the movie industry in general. All of these stories are framed within the bigger story from which the film (and book) derives its title. Like the book, “Life Itself” achieves a quiet peace about the specter of death.

Interspersed with footage shot from Ebert’s hospital room, where he spent a lot of time fighting thyroid and salivary gland cancer — and multiple surgeries that left him without a lower jaw — the movie documents not only Ebert’s courage in his final years, but also his eventual acceptance that his life was winding down.

James narrates the film, and punctuates it with revealing email Q&As that slowly become more difficult for the normally enthusiastic writer to respond to. This framing device gives the entire movie a reflective tone and makes Ebert’s story even more poignant.

I think Ebert would be proud of the even-handed treatment he’s given as a movie character. While “Life Itself” makes clear the influence Ebert had on generations of filmgoers, writers and thinkers (myself included), it also spotlights his irascible side.

His and Siskel’s passion for film and obsession with being “correct” led to petty arguments (many of them hilarious, caught in outtakes from their TV shows). And although Ebert says that his blog (which contained some of his most open-hearted writing) became his voice after losing the ability to speak, his frustration often swells at the state of his health, and James doesn’t shy away from tense moments.

Besides being an invaluable primer on the life of a man who was omnipresent in any discussion about movies for over 40 years, “Life Itself” has a surprising amount of raw emotion. There’s no doubt that to achieve that, James had to sacrifice more in-depth examination of Ebert’s most cherished written content (he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize), but the resulting film is more cinematic for it.

Plato says that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and this touching documentary makes a powerful statement about a rich life lived at the movies, examining life.

Dinner and a Movie

“Dinner and a Movie” is a free movie series that’s taking place on the lawn of the new Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St., on Saturday, July 26, and Thursday, Aug. 7, and it’s a great Lawrence tradition. There’s nothing quite like spending a relaxing night out with your community, enjoying a film together.

The screwball sci-fi comedy “Ghostbusters,” which still holds up 30 years after its release, shows next Saturday, while the live-action/animated mashup “Space Jam,” starring Michael Jordan and classic "Looney Tunes" characters, shows Aug. 7.

The movies start after 9 p.m., but the “dinner” portion of the evening starts at 7 p.m. with free popcorn and local food vendors — or you can bring a blanket and some food from home and make your own dinner picnic. Before the movies begin, there’s also live entertainment and prize giveaways from local businesses.


Great ‘Apes’ and Guestploitation at Liberty Hall

When a new technological breakthrough happens in the realm of motion-picture visual effects, it’s often the best thing about the movie. Sometimes it’s the only thing worth remembering. How many times have you walked away from a mediocre film and said, “Well, the special effects were good”?

So it is with much admiration that I can say that Matt Reeves’ “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” makes a huge technological leap, and it’s all in service of the story.

Three years ago, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” rebooted the late '60s/early '70s B-movie franchise with a combination of motion-capture technology and actor performance that created completely CGI apes with facial expressions that read like human beings. But human beings still anchored most of the story.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” one-ups the need for believable CGI apes because most of its 130-minute running time is spent with apes, and they are the far more interesting characters.

Andy Serkis and a skilled team of motion-capture artists give life to Caesar, the hyper-intelligent ape that was dosed with an experimental drug and raised by biotech scientist Will Rodman (James Franco). Ten years after leading an ape revolution in San Francisco, the “simian flu” has taken over the globe, and only small populations of human survivors that are immune to the virus remain.

When a group of humans (led by Jason Clarke as Malcolm) stumble upon Caesar and his clan in the woods, the idea of a peaceful coexistence seems like a possibility — at least for some.

News flash for newcomers to the series: the “Planet of the Apes” movies are not about apes fighting humans. They’re about humans fighting humans.

The enduring appeal of these movies (excluding Tim Burton’s atrocious 2001 remake) is that they can be metaphors for any simmering powder-keg conflict across the history of the world. In 1968, for example, the original “Planet of the Apes” tackled issues of racism (which one powerful scene in “Dawn” makes unflinching reference to.) If anything, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a sly comment on gun control, because one gun in the hands of an idiot — be it human or ape — is the source of all misunderstandings between the races in this movie.

The screenplay (from Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) has a traditional western setup, featuring two diametrically opposed leaders on each side: one who favors peace and another who favors war.

One weakness of the film is that there isn’t a lot of color outside of this simple characterization. None of the human characters are drawn in three dimensions*, not even Gary Oldman as the trigger-happy leader of the human survivors. Great pains, however, have been taken to draw parallels between Caesar and Malcolm, two fathers who just want a brighter future for their kids.

Beyond the amazing CGI rendering and depth of human-like emotion in the Caesar character, Reeves (“Let Me In,” “Cloverfield”) himself isn’t much of a visual stylist. He’s a meat-and-potatoes story-oriented kind of director, which is why “Dawn” works so well. The action scenes are serviceable, and after a while, you don’t notice the special effects because they have become the reality of the movie — and isn’t that the greatest compliment of all?

  • Speaking of three dimensions, the 3-D version of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is utterly useless and does nothing to bring depth — visually or thematically — to the film.

Waiting for the Guestploitation finale

Christopher Guest has always at the forefront of improvisational comedy, and as co-writer and star of Rob Reiner's "This is Spinal Tap," he helped define an entire genre of mockumentary-style comedy.

In 1997, he branched out on his own in this genre with "Waiting for Guffman," another film that combines hilarious song parodies and utilizes his talented group of improv geniuses to great effect. On Thursday, Liberty Hall closes out its three-film Guestplotation series with a showing of "Guffman," the most riotous of the bunch.

What all of Guest's films have in common is that they focus on a hyper-niche group of people who consider their one true passion to be the most important thing in the world. In "A Mighty Wind," it's folk music. In "Best in Show" it's the dog-show circuit. In "Waiting for Guffman," it's theater.

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of theater people will find hundreds of inside jokes and references in the movie, which hilariously skewers the big-time attitude and aspirations of wannabe director Corky St. Clair (Guest) as he puts on an anniversary pageant in small-town Missouri, but acts like he's on Broadway.

"Guffman" is one of those films that can only be enhanced by seeing it with a big crowd of like-minded people laughing their collective asses off, so if you missed "A Mighty Wind" and "Best in Show" this month, you won't want to miss this one!


All aboard for ‘Snowpiercer,’ and series spotlights classic WWII films

The really great action movies are all about urgency — that life-and-death situation where the stakes couldn’t be any higher and the main character doesn’t have any other choice but to forge ahead. The new multinational co-production “Snowpiercer” has urgency in spades, but it also accomplishes something that’s even more rare.

It feels fresh.

Ostensibly, “Snowpiercer,” now playing at Liberty Hall, is a science-fiction tale that takes place in 2031, after a failed attempt at stopping the global warming crisis leaves the Earth in a permanent state of well-below-freezing temperatures. The only survivors of the planetwide disaster stay alive by remaining in constant motion on a train that circles the globe once each year.

Although it sounds like a post-apocalyptic Noah’s Ark tale crossed with “Speed,” “Snowpiercer” (loosely adapted from a French graphic novel) manages to feel exciting while being about something. Partially, this is because South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Mother”) is so skilled at defying expectations.

We’ve seen films about runaway trains before, and it’s a great suspense-building device, but Bong isn’t as concerned about things like logic and plot as he is energy and surprise. “Snowpiercer” alternates between sudden violence, high camp and heavy-handed political allegory with breakneck speed, and even when its disjointed plot mechanics seem a little too convenient, it’s brimming with new cinematic technique.

Herky-jerky action scenes have become the norm in Hollywood, thanks to the adoption of handheld cameras and their natural tendency of mirroring real-life stressful experiences. Let’s call Bong’s style “focused herky-jerky” then, because it zooms in on strategic interactions, maintains the urgency, while also highlighting the cause-and-effect of bodies in motion.

The other reason it feels fresh is because its sense of outrage is matched by the era. The haves vs. have-nots storyline is in the water these days. It taps into real outrage.

Even with broad comic portrayals like Tilda Swinton’s uppercrust school marm parody, “Snowpiercer” stays firmly in the realm of a class-warfare psychodrama.

It’s Chris Evans who grounds the film, as he leads a team of disgruntled "nobodies" on a car-by-car takeover of the train while discovering the massive disparity in wealth and living conditions.

Even in a nothing-to-lose premise like this, however, it often feels like Hollywood movies are just delivering what’s expected. Bong is so off-kilter in his presentation that anything seems possible, and this well-worn genre feels like the first time.

Downtown Classic Film Series Continues

Three of the most famous and awarded American films of all time and one little-seen curiosity from a legendary classic film director will be shown during the two-day World War II Film Festival on July 12 and 13 at the Lawrence Arts Center.

Presented and curated once again by Footprints shoe store, this new installment of the Downtown Classic Film Series gives modern audiences an opportunity to experience classic films on the big screen the way people did when they were released.

Saturday starts at 3 p.m. with Bob Fosse’s stylish 1972 WWII musical “Cabaret,” starring Liza Minnelli as a singer in Berlin who puts on blinders and Oscar winner Joel Grey, who plays an emcee with shifting loyalties.

At 7 p.m., it’s time to return to “Casablanca,” the doomed love story of all doomed love stories. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman utter some of the medium’s most memorable lines, and Michael Curtiz directs it all with a no-nonsense approach that allows the subtext to shine through beautifully.

“Five Graves to Cairo” isn’t usually mentioned in the same breath as acknowledged Billy Wilder masterpieces like “The Apartment,” “Some Like it Hot,” “Double Indemnity” or “Sunset Boulevard,” which makes me very curious actually.

This 1943 film, which will be shown at 3 p.m. Sunday, stars Franchot Tone as a British officer stuck behind enemy lines and silent film maverick Erich von Stroheim as head Nazi baddie Rommel.

Sunday night at 7 p.m. is 1946 best picture winner “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which was hugely popular in its time and remains a well-told, multi-layered story about damaged veterans coming home and struggling to fit in.


‘Transformers’ exports corn-fed Americana to China

“Transformers: Age of Extinction” isn’t so much a movie as it is a 165-minute propaganda film made to appeal to the widest demographic possible (it's full of gorgeous people running from gorgeous explosions set to the new single by Imagine Dragons) — but mainly for China. And when Michael Bay is the man in charge of the message, you know exactly what you’re going to get.

Because this fourth “Transformers” film is the longest of the ever-declining series, that means more low-angle, swirling camera, Bay-style U.S.A. propaganda than ever.

Dividing this typically bombastic outpouring of Bay’s over-testosteroned male psyche into two halves, let’s tackle the introduction of new characters in the first. There’s no mention of nerd-turned-stud Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) from the first three films, but there’s an equally clichéd iconic American type in his place. Mark Wahlberg plays Cade Yeager (yes, you read that name right), a muscle-bound everyman who has more American flags in his barnyard shop than all of Arlington National Cemetery.

Amber waves of flag

Amber waves of flag by Eric Melin

Cade embodies the true American spirit, in that he’s an inventor who wants to make a difference. No really, the buff dude with the handsome rugged looks who could bench-press a couple hundred easy is an inventor. Because he wears glasses — glasses that he doesn’t need later when he’s shooting giant alien-made laser guns at Decepticons.

He’s also an over-protective widowed dad who doesn’t want anyone ogling his beautiful teenage daughter with the short shorts (Nicola Peltz), as Bay’s camera ogles said short shorts over and over again.

The sun-drenched Texas plains where fields of corn grow high is a great place for a modern country music video, which also makes it perfect for some traditional American mythmaking. When Cade stumbles upon an old, beat-up truck and it turns out to be the missing and wanted Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced again by Peter Cullen), he does the honorable thing and sticks up for him while evil government agents try to destroy the misunderstood Transformer.

Still from "Transformers: Age of Extinction" or new Lady Antebellum promo shot?

Still from "Transformers: Age of Extinction" or new Lady Antebellum promo shot? by Eric Melin

Optimus Prime, as we all know by now, is a freedom-loving protector of humans. And as a poster on the wall in the CIA reads, “Freedom isn’t free,” which means that shadowy U.S. intelligence power player Kelsey Grammer wants to kill the freedom-loving Transformers and make his own — to keep America free and make himself rich.

There’s plenty of product placement (“I drive for Red Bull!” says another impossibly good-looking character) and the expected one-upping of Transformer-on-Transformer violence, but it’s the second half of the movie that really drives home the point.

Corn-fed Americana is Bay’s chief export, but our country’s market is minuscule compared with the money that will be made by this film in China. So when “Transformers: Age of Extinction” literally moves to China (to qualify as a co-production and give it more play there), it’s not that unexpected. It’s just really tasteless. A factory for mass-producing human-made Transformers is discovered — and guess where its located?

The rest of the film is a tired, humorless (although weak attempts at humor are made) slog of actors debasing themselves (poor Stanley Tucci) and at least four different clans of Transformers and “Creators” (huh?) destroying tenements and skyscrapers in Beijing and Hong Kong.

Amidst a plot that spirals completely into incoherence, Cade Yeager does the honorable thing again and again, proving to Optimus Prime that these puny humans are worth saving — especially the ones from Texas.