SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: PG for mild thematic elements
Modest in scale at 81 minutes, Ethan Hawke’s directing debut is a warm, revealing biographical portrait of sought-after Manhattan musical virtuoso Seymour Bernstein. A piano prodigy by his teen years, he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and won fame for giving concerts at the front lines. In later years he performed internationally and became a New York City music teacher of great renown. Now 88, the power of his mind is as undiminished as Bernstein’s worship of his art. The film explores his charming, fey personality, deliciously refined apartment, and almost supernaturally sensitive hearing, capable of finding in seconds the best and worst concert grands at the Steinway showroom.
It’s clear why Hawke, who met Bernstein at a party, fell under the spell of this small, idiosyncratic Buddha. His guidelines about how to behave honorably are as stimulating as his clinical lectures on two-handed keyboard choreography. Like a touching master class on living correctly, listening to the charming Bernstein will have you changing keys.
KILL ME THREE TIMES
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: R for bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity.
Simon Pegg is a genius at satire. He’s wonderful spoofing zombie movies with “Shaun of the Dead,” buddy-cop action flicks with “Hot Fuzz,” spy and space pictures in the “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Trek” series. While this Australian murder comedy, mocking standard elements of crime capers, isn’t as consistently funny, Pegg’s rare ability to create intelligent idiocy liberates scene after scene.
Kriv Stenders’ film, trying very hard to be madcap, lets us know early and often that we’re in weird territory. As we follow a half-dozen desperados hoping to liquidate each other, their cars frequently race past the same roadkill wallaby, shown in close-up, no less. Pegg plays a calculating English hitman hiring his services to a bar owner who is eager to lose his wife as fast and fatally as possible. As the title suggests, it’s just one portion of the local oddballs’ overlapping assassinations, most startlingly brutal, all of them played for laughs. The story line moves ahead, backward and sideways in three separate chapters that generally set up enough surprises to give viewers, and the characters, banana-peel concussions.
Good work by veteran Aussie star Bryan Brown as the immoral police chief, and breathtaking Teresa Palmer as the town dentist’s even more corrupt wife, demonstrates there’s only so much in James McFarlend’s would-be Tarantino script that can be rescued. Not-so-good work by Luke Hemsworth as a hunkish but lunkheaded car mechanic helps little. Still, it features gorgeous seaside scenery and offers a tasty first course of Pegg to stimulate the palate before the bountiful “Mission: Impossible 5” is served in July.
THE HUNTING GROUND
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for language and disturbing thematic material involving sexual assault.
In this documentary on sex crimes in college campuses, the violations themselves are only part of the misdeeds. Director Kirby Dick’s film finds it arguably even worse that many institutions’ authorities are reluctant to act against sexually aggressive students. The film follows Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, who were both students and rape victims at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When they learned of their common stories and shared frustration at being ignored by the school’s bureaucrats, they joined forces to cast light on the widespread problem. Their efforts moved a variety of victims to share their experiences on camera. Campus sexual attacks are now drawing attention because of a year-old Rolling Stone article, associating a University of Virginia fraternity house with rape, that was discovered to be unfounded. The more important viewpoint isn’t that some reporters may get such stories wrong, it’s that too few women (and men) have too little chance to share their stories. Dick’s film is a valuable spotlight.
⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: R for violence and language.
Theater: Mall of America.
Having directed countless episodes of the priceless cable comedy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and the finale of FX’s impressive “Fargo” series, Matt Shakman aims for the big time. Here he helms a talent-studded rural suspense film, a crime burlesque on hyperactive energy drinks. Hey, nothing’s perfect.
Starring veterans Bruce Dern, Billy Bob Thornton and John Malkovich, Australian visitors Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer (she’s also seen in this week’s oddly parallel backwoods crime takeoff “Kill Me Three Times”), and Michael Stuhlbarg, the lead of the Coens’ “A Serious Man,” this opens with the sort of promise that hurts all the harder when it misfires. Roberto Patino’s script offers little more than a pastiche of clichés from old small town shoot-’em-ups.
A quiet Montana backwater becomes the site of the town mailman’s murder, the biggest act of violence the town has ever had. It upsets the sheriff (Malkovich in wonderful form), who feels violent indigestion about “the most disappointing day in my life.” Stuhlbarg puts on Coke-bottle eyeglasses to play a mystery man willing to do anything to get the package the postman was set to deliver him. Especially if the death is not really what the onlookers thought they saw. Which is not to say that the characters are who they seem, either. In this sort of film, plenty of characters hope to get out of their small-time town, while viewers hope to get out of the theater.
⋆½ out of four stars
This somber, second-rate drama, loosely adapted from fact, bears no likeness to anything in the real world but previous dull films. Growing up in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Afshin Ghaffarian (Reece Ritchie) is an angelic runt mad about footwork thanks to his parents’ banned DVD of “Dirty Dancing.” That enthusiasm is his lone characteristic; this film allots each character one token attribute. As a Teheran college student Afshin trains underground. When the Ayatollah’s violent anti-footwork thugs discover him defiantly pirouetting in secret for ballet lovers in the desert, they beat him up, a turn of events that seems to preoccupy his four dance partners as much as the Iran-Iraq War did an earlier generation. Freida Pinto appears as the daughter of the deposed Shah’s ballet star, easing her heartbreak with her platonic friendship with Afshin, their duets, and lots of drugs. The saga’s events, as depicted in director Richard Raymond’s movie, simply don’t coalesce into a raw, urgent whole. With its overdrawn characters and hackneyed dialogue, it’s a politicized “Billy Elliot.”
⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for thematic situations involving violence.
Theater: Eden Prairie.
The early days of Liberia’s long civil war provide the backdrop to a modestly budgeted odyssey about Mormon missionaries caught up in a country overrun with armed, trigger-happy teenagers. Abubakar (Henry Adofo) is charged with helping the young Mormon elders escape to neighboring Sierra Leone. Garrett Batty’s “inspired by a true story” film is most at home capturing a country descending into chaos. But the film dawdles, the acting ranges from passable to wooden, and the biblical allegories (one elder denies his tribe) are a trifle heavy-handed.
ROGER MOORE, Orlando Sentinel