Box Office: “Christmas Party” opens healthy, “Miss Sloane” bombs — “Moana” rules

moana1An interesting in-between weekend at the box office, as the animated juggernaut “Moana” wins another week, besting the raunchy R-rated comedy “Office Christmas Party.”

But it was close, with “Moana” clearing $18 million ($145 million overall, not a world beater, but it will surpass “Trolls” by Monday’s first shows). “Party” will flirt with $17 by midnight Sunday.

“Nocturnal Animals” goes into wide release and cracks the  Top Ten.

“Hacksaw Ridge” is plowing along, now over $60 million, with enough awards buzz to suggest it’ll flirt with $85 million when all is said and done.

“Miss Sloane,” a Jessica Chastain political thriller with limited Oscar buzz, opened wide and didn’t even manage to reach the Top Ten. $2.1 million.

Awards bait limited releases “La La Land,” “Lion” and “Jackie” have opened in less than half a dozen theaters each and are doing spectacular business in those. Oscar buzz will make their Jan. openings healthy.

 

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Kirk Douglas turns 100 — worth a flashback

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Today, as Kirk Douglas celebrates his 100th birthday, I thought I’d track back and re-post an interview/profile I did eight years ago, on the occasion of his “last” book, Let’s Face It. Here it is.

Screen legend Kirk Douglas is 92 years old, and not just “still alive and kicking,” either. He’s still writing. He discovered a gift for memoirs with The Ragman’s Son, Climbing the Mountain and My Stroke of Luck. His latest, Let’s Face It (Wiley Press, $14.95), is about “90 years of living, loving and learning,” and he dedicated it “to the younger people, because let’s face it, the world is in a mess, and they will inherit that mess, so we should do everything we can to help them.”

He says it will be his last book, but we’ll have to see about that. And if so, he’s going out with good reviews. “Douglas is upbeat, engaging and full of sharp observations,” enthuses Publisher’s Weekly. I’d second that.

Douglas is a stroke survivor, which is why it’s easier to interview him by e-mail, where he passed on his thoughts about life, surviving the death of his son Eric, surviving a stroke, and just plain surviving. “My advice is to try to avoid depression by concentrating on other people — try to help them; this will lessen your depression.”

A ‘Spartacus’ story

Let’s Face It is filled with that sort of pluck and good sense, with chapters on the Middle East (“Both Semites”), love (“Romance Begins at Eighty”), death and dying and religion (“Don’t Be Too Religious”). That last chapter heading flies in the face of the book he’s reading now, Faith Matters, by Rabbi David Wolpe. “It’s his answer to atheists,” Douglas quips.

His 60 years in show business give Douglas a unique perspective on the movies and celebrity. This rugged leading man and screen tough guy has outlived his peers, most by decades. He says he doesn’t look at each new generation to see which actors might be the most “Kirk-like.” Of the current crop, he admires Ed Harris, John Malkovich and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

One bit of film history from the book is Douglas’ account of how the late film director Stanley Kubrick, who always disowned “Spartacus,” the sword-and-sandals epic he made with Douglas, tried to steal writing credit for the film from blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Kubrick biographers claim that the star and producer (Douglas) exercised such control over the film that Kubrick vowed to never again cede authority to an actor. Douglas tells it differently. Douglas and the director had worked together on Kubrick’s World War I classic, Paths of Glory, but when the time came to stand up to the Hollywood blacklist with Spartacus, Douglas was willing to challenge that blacklist. Kubrick saw a chance to swipe a credit.

“Maybe if I had granted Kubrick’s request that he take credit, he might have included “Spartacus” in his list of pictures,” Douglas says. “It was silly for Kubrick to suggest we use his name as a writer, and I never considered it.”

Laughter = longevity?

But Douglas, a three-time Oscar nominee (for “Champion,” “The Bad and the Beautifu”l and “Lust for Life”), father of an Oscar-winner, father-in-law of another (Catherine Zeta-Jones) didn’t make it to 92 by holding grudges.

“I think laughter is connected to longevity,” he says. “When you laugh, you relax your whole system, and your mind is thinking positive thoughts.”

His latest positive thought? Eighteen years ago, the American Film Institute honored him with a lifetime achievement award. Last month the AFI announced it will honor his son, Michael.

“What took them so long?” Douglas jokes.

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Movie Review: Could Portman steal Amy Adams’ Oscar with”Jackie”?

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Maybe this is what we need, at the tail end of America’s “annus horribilis” — a really good cry.

But “Jackie,” the new bio-pic built around Jacqueline Kennedy’s days of grief, shock and utter horror following the murder of her husband, doesn’t let us off that easily.

Star and certain Oscar nominee Natalie Portman brings everything the First Lady must have felt in those moments, days and months after JFK’s assassination, his shattered head falling into her lap that day in Dallas.

There’s shock — “He had the most wonderful expression on his face.” And revulsion — “There was blood, everywhere. I tried to hold his head together.”

And then there’s the quiet fury of a mousy-voiced “silly debutante” imposing her will on her fiery brother-in-law, Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), the bluff new president, Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch of “Zodiac”) and indeed America. No, she will NOT change her pink Chanel suit, even though it’s covered in blood.

“Let them SEE what they’ve done,” she practically spits at Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant).

Portman lets us feel the way Jackie’s loss utterly empties her life of meaning and purpose. But Chilean director Pablo Larrain (“The Club”) lets little John Jr. (Aiden and Brody Weinberg) provide the heart-wrenching release, just as he did back at that state funeral in 1963. 

Larrain and screenwriter and “Today” show veteran Noah Oppenheim frame this story in the most blandly conventional way — in the form of an interview with “The Journalist” — Billy Crudup playing someone meant to be Life Magazine’s Theodore White.

But writer, director and cast make the interview a brittle, biting piece of journalistic combat. He is there at her request, so she can “tell her story.” He can sass her, try to bait and joke about her manipulations of her late husband’s image. She’s not having it.
Demure or not, she knows how to put someone in his place. She still has control, final edit, and she’s not above reminding him of that any time something too personal or injurious to her image or her husband’s legacy.

“Don’t think for ONE moment I’m going to let you print that,” she hisses in that regal, dainty whisper of hers.

The film is built around confessions from the interview, and from post-assassination talks with Bobby, her de facto lady-in-waiting (Greta Gerwig) and a priest (John Hurt).

Jackie, who brought in a historian to help her restore the White House to its historic glory, has the presence of mind to bring him (Richard E. Grant) back when hastily planning a funeral. Don’t think Garfield or McKinley, she says. No, think Lincoln.

The script swallows the “Camelot” myth even as it casts a jaundiced eye on how Jackie cultivated it. And Portman captures the stunning solitude of a woman totally alone with the whole world assaying her grief, threatened from all sides. And she shows the steely resolve of a widow ready to play the widow card as she changes her mind about the scope of the funeral — intimate to epic.

The best of those tussles? With LBJ aide and future Motion Picture Association of America chief Jack Valenti — struggling to be tactful, bordering on testy (as indeed LBJ supposedly was), helpless when Jackie defiantly demands a walking procession to the funeral through the gun-filled streets of a nation that just shot her husband with a mail-order rifle. Max Casella ably plays Valenti as wily, determined and every bit as brusque as his boss, but no match for the Widow Kennedy.

I love the way Larrain and his crew mimic grainy video and TV film footage of the era, filling in the background with TV reality as the young Dan Rather tells the nation the latest on the tragedy, Jackie flashes back to her famous White House Restoration tour for TV reporter Charles Collingwood (played by a look-alike, with the real Collingwood’s questions and interjections) and Lee Harvey Oswald is shot on live TV.

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Larrain went for a JFK look-alike as the president (Caspar Philipson, too short) and a great actor as his brother (Sarsgaard, too tall and making no effort to match the Kennedy twang).

But the emotional distance and dramatic parameters of the story they chose to tell lift “Jackie” above similar films attempting to capture the tragedy of iconic beauties such as Princess Diana and Grace Kelly.

And Portman, holding the film together with the force of her gaze and the quiet of her whispers, holds us as well. She delivers an impersonation that punches through the cultivated veneer to show a real woman dealing with the unspeakable, struggling every second with the weight of tragedy and the expectations of history as she does. There was steel and calculation behind those sunglasses the world grew to mock, and a grace that went beyond fashion icon, priestess of high culture and the national monument to mourning we wanted her to be.

3half-star

MPAA Rating:R for brief strong violence and some language

Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Richard E. Grant, John Hurt, Max Casella, John Carrol Lynch

Credits:Directed by Pablo Larraín , script by Noah Oppenheim. A Fox Searchlight release.

Running time: 1:39

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Movie Review: “Man Down”

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Say what you will about the not-late/far-from-great filmmaker Uwe Boll, but he never for one second in all his awful movies thought he was Martin Effing Scorsese.

Dito Montiel can’t say the same. A delusional hack who must have the silkiest pitch in all of film — How else do you explain how he keeps working, and how good actors keep signing up? — he treats every C-picture he pumps out as if it was “Goodfellas.”

And actors from Robert Downey Jr. and Rosario Dawson (“A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”) to Dwayne Johnson (“Empire State”) and Robin Williams (“Boulevard”) fall under his spell — or for his spiel.

“Man Down” is his latest lurid, manipulative hackwork “epic,” and Shia LaBeouf and Kate Mara are the latest suckers to hear his siren’s call.

Big moments drown in a soundmix of sappy muzak. Violence is graphic, characters are tested ritualistically, little lives are writ large. And good actors are wasted, left and right. Classic Montiel.

“Man Down” is about a Marine (LaBeouf) whom we meet in an urban wasteland, searching America on one last mission — to find his wife (Mara) and son (Charlie Shotwell). And from the first flashback — taking us back to Gabriel Drummer’s basic training — we know where this is headed.

man2Five minutes in. That’s got to be a new cinematic record. We don’t have to see “Gabe” sit down with a shrink (Gary Oldman), see other flashbacks to his home life or revisit “the incident” in Afghanistan that set him off.

We don’t have to waste one moment that we could spend staring at our phone or checking our watch pondering what role Gabe’s “battle brother” (Jai Courtney) plays in this melodrama.

It’s that obvious.

We get a dose of Gabe’s taste in TV Middle East propaganda (Fox’s Bill O’Reilly) and his politics from just a single line — about a Coca-Cola.

“That cane sugar. Mexicans do it right, don’t they?”

He loves his son so much that he gives them a code-phrase so that his classmates won’t tease him when he says “I love you” dropping him off at school.

“Man Down.”

The training sequences are generic, though Tory Kittles impresses as a drill instructor.

The Middle Eastern combat scenes are nothing we haven’t seen 124 times over the past dozen years.

And the scenes in the fictional “present,” with a wild-eyed Gabe hassling the homeless (Clifford Collins, Jr.) as he hunts for his kid? Nothing that throw us off the scent.

Which is more an odor, in this case. I’m not a LaBeouf hater. See “American Honey” if you need a reminder that he has the goods.

But Montiel? Believe it or not, this isn’t his worst movie. And most shocking of all, it’s not his last. He has some probable abortion titled “The Clapper” already in the can.

Uwe Boll, lest we forget, knew when to call it quits. But then, he never thought he was the New Scorsese.

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MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing violence, and language throughout

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Kate Mara, Gary Oldman, Jai Courtney, Clifford Collins Jr.

Credits:Directed by Dito Montiel , script by Adam G. Simon and Dito Montiel. A Lionsgate release.

Running time: 1:32

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Movie Review: “Office Christmas Party”

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Not to be a prude or anything, but what the hell has Hollywood done to Christmas comedies?

Sure, “Bad Santa” was jarring and against the grain — a little dash of sweet, a whole bottle of dirty dysfunction. “The Night Before” took things to nasty night before Christmas extreme.

But this year? “Bad Santa 2,” the upcoming “Why Him?” and now “Office Christmas Party” make one long for the sentimental slop of “Christmas with the Cranks.”

It’s not an awful idea, building a hard-R rated “Hangover” clone out of that no-longer-P.C. corporate tradition — the annual bacchanal-blowout in the place where you work.

“Office Christmas Party” throws Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston back together for a farce with him as the mild-mannered company man and her as an assassin in stilettos, out to lay much of a Chicago tech firm off right around the holidays.

That’s another Chicago holiday tradition, BTW. Actually, a nationwide one in corporate America — holiday layoffs.

But this pull-out-all-the-stops one-last-desperate party picture tries WAY too hard, which works against Bateman’s slow-burn strengths. It leans on the gorgeous Olivia Munn, who is no Olivia Wilde when it comes to comedy.

And it all It hangs on the comic stylings of big-oaf T.J. Miller, who is much better in small doses (“Deadpool,””Silicon Valley”). He plays Clay Vanstone, the childish, drunken heir of Zenotech, running his daddy’s company into the ground while his nasty CEO sister (Aniston) would like to put him out of business.

He’s more concerned with explaining the allure of the “Fast and Furious” movies to his second in command, “play it safe” Josh (Bateman).

“They only get MORE ‘Fast. And MORE ‘Furious!'”

Josh is newly divorced, crushing on his tech-genius underling (Munn), indulgent of the rest of the firm, where everybody’s got their “thing.”

Jeremy (Rob Corddry, at his unfunniest) is the angriest customer service chief you ever met. Joel (Sam Richardson) harbors secret party DJ fantasies. Kate McKinnon is the anal retentive HR chief who posts “H.R. is WATCHING YOU” posters everywhere, and renames the party a “Non-denominational holiday mixer,” to be safe, ordering any office “Hook-ups” must take place in the parking lot, off company property.

And her fellow “SNL” star Vanessa Bayer is a lonely single mom secretary who keeps boss out of trouble even as she’s quick with the threats to her feckless ex.

“I will ‘Gone Girl’ you SO HARD!”

Enter Carol (Aniston), wreaking snowy havoc, canceling the party and killing all the joy. Josh and Clay have a “Hail Mary” in mind. If they can land this one tech buyer (they build servers), they could save everybody’s jobs. And when he (Courtney B. Vance) turns out to value a warm, fun corporate “culture,” they invite him to the party hellbent on winning him over by partying so hard that everybody there forgets their impending doom.

It takes a good — OK, not good at all — thirty minutes for the movie to really find its rude and raunchy comfort zone. The party has to be invaded by a hooker. Cocaine has to blow into the night air, eggnog has to be dispensed from — well, wait until you see it.

And I never thought I would ever type this line into a movie review. You have never seen Courtney B. Vance like this.

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“Office Christmas Party” turns giddy, for just a few minutes. The giddy kicks in once or twice before the finale, maybe when everybody has to pile into Kate McKinnon’s mini van for a car chase. Is this the right vehicle for a snowy sprint through downtown Chitown?

“It’s a Kia, what GOD would drive!”

Jillian Bell from “The Night Before” sparks a little as a pimp who emphasizes a pleasant customer service experience — in addition to the usual threats. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is the plump take-no-prisoners security guard who would have been funnier in a better picture.

And Randall Park of “The Interview” takes a shot at playing an Asian accountant with mommy issues.

That’s a whole lot of characters, many of them interpreted by usually hilarious people, in a cluttered, ham-fisted farce that pulls its punches so often that it never pops, a meandering mess that never gets up to the speed one needs to achieve “romp.”

1half-star

MPAA Rating:R for crude sexual content and language throughout, drug use and graphic nudity

Cast: Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Munn, Kate McKinnon, T.J. Miller, Courtney B. Vance, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Rob Corddry, Randall Park

Credits:Directed by Josh Gordon, Will Speck , script by Justin Malin, Larau Solon, Dan Mazer. A Paramount release.

Running time: 1:45

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Movie Review: “Abattoir”doesn’t live down to its title

When you title your horror movie “Abattoir” you’re building in certain…expectations.

Lots of blood, for starters. And while there’s plenty of it in this adaptation of a comic book, there isn’t exactly a slaughterhouse full of it.

Director Darren Lynn Bousman (assorted “Saw” sequels) toys with the idea of a lurid, stylistic “faithful” comic adaptation here. He works from a script that clings to the pungent, minimalist zingers that stand out on the page, giving the voice over narration (not enough of it) to the villain, hurling all manner of design and effects flourishes into an impressive finale.

And hanging your picture on veteran Scottish character player Dayton Callie (“Sons of Anarchy,” “Deadwood”) is a solid choice. He plays a small town hustler/preacher with a sideshow barker’s spiel, a man who dresses out of his time and yet who has conned the village of New English into some sort of deal with the Devil.

“He went to Hell. He brought back its SECRETS!”

But the movie is let down by a meandering story and two good-looking but uninteresting and out-of-their-depth leads.

Jessica Lowndes

Crone’s “secrets involve Preacher Jebediah Crone (LOL) tracking down, buying and flipping houses where awful murders take place. His “Revelation Holdings” strips the “murder room” out of each house before it is resold, an old trick if you’ve ever watched an HGTV show on folks who flip for a living.

Intrepid reporter Julie (Jessica Lowndes) resents the fact that her newspaper won’t let her do crime reporting. “Doug’s on crime,” her salty editor (Bryan Batt) hisses. “He’s got scars. You’ve got ambition and perfect skin.”

But she also has a source, a sometime beau/cop played by Joe Anderson. And when her sister’s family is slaughtered, Det. Grady and Julie start looking into why their house resold so quickly, and why the blood-spattered “murder room” is missing.

ab2Their search leads them to this Revelation Holding front, and then into the boondocks, where sleepy New English is filled with scary characters. Of course horror dowager Lin Shaye is one of them.

“You SCARED me!”

“I have that effect on people.”

Will out two diggers find the answers they seek, or is this dead-end dump literally the end of the road for them?

This Louisiana production feels somewhat unstuck in time and geography. Costumes of different eras, cars of various vintages, topographical establishing shots that muddy up the locale, a “ghost town” that just looks like an abandoned cement factory — with a few cute bungalows somehow around the edges — all give it that comic book “Everyworld/Days of Future Past” look.

Callie rattles through his mesmerizing sermons/come-ons.

 

The germ of an interesting idea was here, and the collection of murder rooms makes for a dazzling third act setting.

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But the movie flatlines every time a chewy supporting player (Michael Pare is another) isn’t on the screen. The leads are dull and so rattled in some line-readings as to make you wonder if English is their second language.

Lowndes has some quips about “Glengarry Glen Ross” real estate hustlers (J. LaRose) that sound as if she’s just been handed them on a note card, and doesn’t understand what she’s saying.

Anderson is similarly clumsy with the Mother Tongue. An elm tree becomes “el-um” and “Realtor” — well, heck kids, what ARE you spending your movie money on if not housing?

1half-star

MPAA Rating: graphic violence, profanity

 

Cast:Jessica Lowndes, Joe Anderson, Dayton Callie, Lin Shaye, Michael Pare

Credits:Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman script by Christopher Monfette, based on the Radical comic book series. An eOne/Momentum release.

Running time: 1:38

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Movie Review: “Incarnate” –an Exorcist, by any other name

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His chewy supporting role as a has-been fight trainer in “Bleed for This” had us hoping that we’d seen the last of Aaron Eckhart slumming in horror’s “Poverty Row” productions.

But no. “I Frankenstein” was but one paycheck picture. “Incarnate” is another.

Man’s gotta eat, Christmas is coming, etc.

“Incarnate” is an exorcism movie where they invent a “scientific ” style of demonic removal — traveling into the brain of the possessed to rescue them from the illusion that the “parasitic entities” control them.

“I don’t DO exorcisms! I EVICT them, from the INSIDE!”

Talk about pointless. If you’re going to do an exorcism movie, you need the Catholic Church, the old priest and the young priest, the crucifixes “the green vomit,” as one character jokes, “the whole head spinning around, that stuff.”

But if you’re the screenwriter of the 2008 ghost flop “Passengers” trying to find something to do with a revived corner of horror, anything for a laugh and a buck. I guess.

Eckhart is Dr. Ember, a “cutting edge” researcher, confined to a wheelchair, chasing an evil spirit named “Maggie” through the skulls of assorted folks who have been touched and thus possessed by her.

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A little boy (Emjay Anthony) is the latest. His concerned mother (Carice Van Houten of “Black Book,””Race” and “Valkyrie”) calls The Church. And the Vatican sends Catalina Sandino Moreno of “Maria Full of Grace” to acquire Dr. Ember’s services.

“I don’t CLOCK IN for the Vatican!”

But if this case helps him nail his nemesis, so be it.

Breanne Hill and Keir O’Donnell are the scientific assistants/pretty set dressing for “The Boss.” Tomas Arana is a rival “incarnate” living large “on Vatican money.”

There’s a new nomenclature — “arch demons” who can be defeated by “a Truth.” And there’s a crucifix or two.

Mainly, this is just Eckhart, unshaven and unkempt, strapped and writhing in a wheelchair  in a darkened room or — when he’s chasing “a parasitic entity” inside somebody — cleanshaven, groomed and troubled as he tries to lead the possessed out of danger in whatever fantasy world the demon has lured the victim into.

Dullness “Incarnate,” in other words.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images, brief strong language, sensuality and thematic elements

Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Carice Van Houten, Emjay Anthony, Breanne Hill

Credits:Directed by Brad Peyton, script by Ronnie Christensen. A High Top release.

Running time: 1:31

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Movie Review: “A Kind of Murder” kind of bores

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The late mystery novelist Patricia Highsmith has long been a Hollywood favorite. Her novels became such cinema classics as “Strangers on a Train,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (and French film “Purple Noon”), “The Two Faces of January” and “Carol.”

She wrote smart thrillers with a shiny veneer and troubling (for her era) sexual subtexts, and that has drawn filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Anthony Minghella to Todd Haynes to, now, Andy Goddard.

The “Downton Abbey” vet takes a shot at Highsmith’s “A Kind of Murder,” and misses — cleanly, bloodlessly and without any mess.

It’s a moderately intricate mystery along the lines of “Strangers on a Train,” (“Once You Meet a Stranger” is the source novel’s title).

A woman has died at a bus stop/roadhouse in upstate New York. Her bookseller husband (Eddie Marsan) is the sole suspect, a man dogged by Det. Corby (Vincent Kartheiser of “Mad Men”). But as the newspapers remind us, he’s got no case. Yet.

And this intrigues rich, successful architect Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson). He’s unhappily married to a suspicious, disturbed and icy beauty — Clare — played by Jessica Biel. Their fights have a 1960 film formality to them.

“I guess we had a one good year. Is that it? One good year?”

“For God’s sake, Clare. Don’t be so melodramatic.”

Simple divorce should suffice. But that might be costly, and the Stackhouses have just moved into a designer showcase of Walter’s design. Clare has a hint of the “suicidal” about her.

So our interest is piqued when Walter starts driving his Corvette convertible to the provinces to look in on this bookseller Kimmel, see what makes him tick, figure out his crime.

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Sure, Walter’s a part-time crime novelist and this could just be “research.” But we suspect otherwise. And when Clare doesn’t survive one of her frequent bus rides to visit her ailing mother out of town, the detective suspects otherwise, too.

There’s something very right about Kartheiser’s cop blurting out, “I want you to know that nobody’s smart than me.” Dramatically? That line’s foreshadowing could not be more obvious.

The versatile character actor Marsan has played just enough villains for his Kimmel casting to feel a tad on the nose. Beetle-brow tucked behind glasses, there’s not much mystery to him. We simply wonder how dangerous he truly is, and if Stackhouse is in danger or his wife was merely another Kimmel victim.

Wilson does that “looks guilty” thing as well as any leading man in the movies. But there are all these guilty elements in Stackhouse’s character. Yes, he’s taking up with a sultry younger jazz singer (Haley Bennett). He keeps lying to the police about his whereabouts, his contacts and possible motives. These add up to a character who can’t be guilty. It just seems too obvious, right?

Biel, a limited actress who has been good on occasion, is uninteresting in the extreme here, playing a melodramatic cliche.

“A Kind of Murder” botches the mystery, even as it recreates a lush version of the late ’50s/early ’60s that Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven,””Carol”) would envy.

But as its quickly stumbles through its crimes and clues, “A Kind of Murder” leaves you with the uneasy feeling that a promising mystery has simply been designed to death.

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MPAA Rating: R for language and some violence

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Jessica Biel, Haley Bennett, Eddie Marsan, Vincent Kartheiser

Credits:Directed by Andy Goddard, script by Susan Boyd, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:35

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Documentary Review — “The Bug: Life and Times of the People’s Car”

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There’s probably not a whole lot the car crowd will learn from a documentary about the history and allure of the VW Beetle. But there are fresh facts and dollops of charm in Damon Ristou’s “The Bug: Life and Times of The People’s Car.”

Jalopnik.com gearhead Jason Torchinsky sets us straight about its origins. Hitler didn’t “invent it,” nor did Ferdinand Porsche. The order of things was that Hitler decreed that an affordable vehicle be made for the masses, and Porsche, working from a design put forth by one Josef Ganz, created it.

Ganz? He was an auto journalist and designer whose “Standard Superior” was the prototype for the Beetle, Hitler’s notion of a “people’s car.” Ganz was a Hungarian Jew. So enough with the “Hitler’s car” hooey.

“People’s car” (volkswagen) was tossed about in a variety of usages before it became the company name for the firm than made Beetles. The cars were brought to life in the British occupation zone after the war, an export-ready business ready to be put on its feet and revive the now-divided German state.

Others talk about the design’s people friendly “curvilinear” shape, that friendly “face,” with the big eyes, the rounded edges — “like a breast’.” Yeah, it’s primal, instinctual to find a VW Beetle “cute.” The Beetle, one wag opines, is so organic “It looks like it created itself.”

The dazzling ad campaigns that made the car a smash in the US are sampled.

Testimonials come from a variety of owners and drivers, most prominently, the actor Ewan McGregor (below) whose first car was a Beetle.

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Long before he made his round the world motorcycle trips (in documentary form), before stardom or any of it, McGregor owned a Beetle, “the honest car,” a simple 20,000 piece jigsaw puzzle that required you to pay attention, to “drive” and not be fiddling with radios, girlfriends and whatever other distractions the world offered when the Beetle was king.

Want to learn about car maintenance? An air-cooled, easy-access rear-engine compact that you and your friends could literally lift and tote off the road is a great place to start. And since it had its electrical/mechanical issues, you didn’t learn to fix them by choice.

“It almost has good days, and bad days — like I do,” McGregor remembers with a laugh.

Of less interest is the film’s framing device, a “barn find” VW that one veteran restorer-hobbyist puts back on the road.  There are plenty of car restoration shows on youtube or cable, and this is humdrum stuff. And the inevitable “Love Bug” clips only point to one way the lovable cars’ burned themselves into the zeitgeist.

But taken at face value, as a film that explains the car’s “softness” and sentimental appeal and history to a new generation of potential owners and restorers, “Life and Times” — like the car itself — does what it’s supposed to do. It gets you there, with no frills, and makes you learn a few things about cars in general and this car in particular along the way.

 

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MPAA Rating: unrated, mild profanity

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jason Torchinsky, Andrea Hiott

Credits:Directed by Damon Ristau . A Firecracker release. Running time: 1:20

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Box Office: “Moana” skates ahead of “Frozen,” “Incarnate” bombs, Beatty’s a bust

boxDisney’s “Moana” only has Disney’s “Frozen” for ready comparison, as far as holiday animated blockbusters go, and it’s besting that Pixar-busting smash by 22% thus far in its run, according to Deadline.com. 

The Polynesian “Moana” is over $122 million after 12 days, a bright spot in a generally tepid holiday season at the box office.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is over $180 million, and not running out of steam.

This weekend’s widest new release, an Aaron Eckhart starring horror also-ran titled “Incarnate,” didn’t even crack the top ten. But at least it earned over $2 million.

Look at Warren Beatty’s career-ender, “Rules Don’t Apply.” On 23-240o screens, and barely half a million at the box office. Over and out.

“Manchester by the Sea” is riding good notices and awards buzz into the top ten. “Hacksaw Ridge” looks like it will finish up with about $70 million, a “comeback” for Mel Gibson that could extend to awards season honors.

“Bad Santa 2” turned out to be a bust, “Arrival” is creeping along — awards buzz will help — and is over $70 and could stick around long enough to clear $100. Amy Adams and Natalie Portman now look like the Oscar best actress favorites.

“Lion” is doing good business in limited release, Portman’s turn as “Jackie” is doing better.

 

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