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Alice Through the Looking Glass

There is no magic, no wonder, just junk rehashed from a movie that was itself a rehash of Lewis Carroll, tricked out with physically unpersuasive…

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Holy Hell

The story of a cult as told by a filmmaker assigned to glorify it; intriguing but superficial.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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Life beyond Rationality and Compassion

May Contain Spoilers

Have you ever been hit so hard that you've been left in a permanent daze? I'm speaking of a defining event that, in a matter of moments, changes everything for you, permanently. Maybe it's a collision. Maybe a life event like a tragedy or a divorce. You're at the epicenter of the calamity. The destruction hits you right between the eyes. And while you make sense of what hit you, if you ever do, your loved ones bear the brunt of the hurricane that you become. Like a set of ripples, it realigns everything you do. Peter Weir's "Fearless" 1993 shows us the effect of a plane crash, and tells us that when we get hit with such cataclysms, no single way resolves the trauma.

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Return: It's (not so) good to be home

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"Return" (97 minutes) is available Feb. 28 via most major on-demand platforms including cable, satellite, iTunes and Amazon Instant.

When the most intense experiences of daily life are repeated across generations, they become the historical touchstones of our cultural identity. By natural progression they're woven into our movies, where dreams and nightmares are etched in light.

The returning soldier (a subject previously examined here in the HBO documentary "How to Fold a Flag" and the 1956 Paul Newman drama "The Rack") has been a mainstay in film since the earliest days of the silent era. When you consider upcoming changes in the ranks of the American military, more and more of those soldiers are now likely to be female. And since independent film is where social progress typically finds its earliest, least compromised expression, we're now seeing more richly observant films like "Return," a sensitively rendered drama that marks a promising debut for writer-director Liza Johnson, in rewarding collaboration with underrated actress Linda Cardellini.

Cardellini won hearts with her appealing role on the beloved, short-lived TV series "Freaks and Geeks" (1999-2000) and deepened her range over 126 episodes of "ER" (2003-09). She's perfectly cast here as Kelli, a National Guard reservist and married mother of two. Still young but spiritually exhausted, she's just returned home after what she later suggests was a routine deployment in the Middle East. Iraq or Afghanistan -- it doesn't matter which, and the movie never specifies. Either way, there's no such thing as a routine deployment, and Kelli returns to her previous life in struggling, small-town Ohio, adrift in a state of neurasthenic limbo. War changes you, even if Kelli claims that "other people had it a lot worse." Kelli may be suffering from some degree of PTSD, but she's getting no apparent help from military counselors.

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Cab Calloway: The Hi-De-Ho Man

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"Cab Calloway: Sketches" premieres at 10 p.m. ET/PT Monday, February 27 on PBS's "American Masters" (check local listings), and PBS on demand after that.

When I was 10, I snuck into my first R-rated movie and caught my first glimpse of Cab Calloway. Mind you, I'd heard him numerous times, as my folks had "Minnie the Moocher" on a 45. But much like the young audience who flocked to "The Blues Brothers" in 1980, I'd never actually seen him before. Until his musical number, Calloway looked like a nice old man. But once the strains of "Minnie the Moocher" started playing, he became something astonishing. He was hypnotic, dressed to the nines, with dreamlike movements and straight hair he shook like no Black person I knew. He was delivered to me the size Cab Calloway should always be delivered: On a big movie screen. I was in awe. 31 years later, I attended a midnight screening of "The Blues Brothers" at the IFC Center in New York City. Despite my familiarity with Calloway's appearance and his other movies, I had the same reaction to seeing him on the big screen. That film remains the only time I've seen him in those dimensions, and he'd lost none of his allure.

Calloway's appearance in "The Blues Brothers" features in the final act of "Cab Calloway: Sketches," Gail Levin's documentary for PBS's "American Masters." Director John Landis and the Memphis musicians who made up the Blues Brothers band discuss their time with the self-proclaimed "Hi-De-Ho Man." Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Lou Marini speak of Calloway's constant dapperness and the aura any living legend carries around. He told them stories, had a good time with the actors, and scared the hell out of his director during a recording session of the song Calloway pressed to vinyl in 1930. "Sketches" covers the origins of both Calloway and his leading lady, Minnie.

"Sketches" begins B.M., that is, before "Minnie the Moocher," with Cab Calloway at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The Savoy was where people went stompin'--it was the biggest Black dance club in town. They called it "The Land of Happy Feet." If you played there, you'd arrived (at least to Black folks you had). Calloway appears with his band, the Alabamians, who, according to historian Gary Giddins, "had nothing to do with Alabama. " Upon arrival, Cab and company got into a "Battle of the Bands" with Savoy favorites, The Missourians. "They got their asses beat, " says Giddens, and Calloway, here in clips from an interview he conducted in his later years, seconds that notion. "But when the Missourians were looking for a new leader, they remembered me, " says Calloway. His career immediately got a boost.

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A lifetime in five minutes

May Contain Spoilers

Streaming free on Amazon Prime.

When I watch Roger Donaldson's "The World's Fastest Indian," (2005) it makes my day. Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) is a contented New Zealand eccentric tinkering with a motorcycle that he dreams of racing in the Bonneville Salt Flats. It's the story of a man trying to be the fastest motorcyclist in history. He has had the fortitude to fiddle with his bike for over 40 years until it is finally ready. Forty years. More than that, it's a true story about a square peg poking his way through a world of circles and triangles, discovering all the different Americas. It's a romantic comedy, for monks. Like me.

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"The Artist" and "Hugo": A very French Oscars

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It was like an episode from "The Twilight Zone." The Academy Award for best picture went to a silent film in black and white. The unstoppable "The Artist," which had nothing going for it but boundless joy, defeated big-budgeted competitors loaded with expensive stars because … well, because it was so darned much fun. Its victory will send Hollywood back to its think-tanks.

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The Pursuit of Powerlessness

May Contain Spoilers

One man. Three acts. Three stories. First, he is an aggressive corporate manager, racing against seconds and minutes to do his work and live his life. Second, he is a quiet man in a peaceful land, where time moves in seasons and years. Third, he is a bewildered man at home, where time has slipped passed him, making him miss the most important events of his life, including his own death. This is Robert Zemeckis' great "Cast Away" (2000). If this were a foreign language film or an independent film with a no-name cast, I am sure it would have received tremendous acclaim. As an American film by a major American director featuring two powerhouse actors (Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt), however, it has been left underrated.

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The Pursuit of Power

May Contain Spoilers

Josh Trank's "Chronicle" is the kind of film that curious teenage boys dedicate their hopes and dreams to, before succumbing to thoughts about health insurance and car payments. It advertises itself as a small movie about a few giggling, frowning high schoolers. The movie starts out as a curious plastic toy. Along the way, however, it carefully reveals itself as a colossal amusement park of screams and shouts. Don't let anyone spoil this movie for you, because it is the cult film of its generation.

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The delightful Mr. Pepys

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Realizing I would never read his great book, I got the audiobook and entered the world of the charming Mr. Pepys. Ambitious, lustful, a gossip, well-connected, he witnessed the Great London Fire, the Black Plague and Shakespeare's plays at court, buried gold in his back yard, became Secretary of the Admiralty, seduced servant girls.

Branagh's reading is conversational, confiding and funny. The prose can appear daunting on the page, but he makes it conversational. Pepys' voice comes through, as if he's confiding the low-down on things.

This is good for listening to in the car, because each daily entry is brief, so you don't get stranded in the middle of a long chapter when you have to park. The "home page" of Pepys' Diary. Tweets rhymes with Pepys. Samuel Pepys on Twitter.

Drawing by Richard Levine from the New York Review of Books.

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Raising Renee: Her sister's keeper

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"Raising Renee" premieres on HBO2 Wednesday, February 22 and is available on-demand at HBO on Demand and HBO Go thereafter.

"Raising Renee" is an accommodating look at the relationship between an award-winning painter, Beverly McIver, and one of her two older sisters, Renee. Although Renee is in her forties, she has the mindset of a third-grader. After their mother dies, Renee goes to live with Beverly and Beverly spends about six years "Raising Renee."

This is the third look at a family facing life-changing problems from the husband and wife filmmaking team Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher. Their first was the personal 1995 "Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern," in which Jordan's own family attempts to save their Iowa farm. Given the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance, it was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature.

Their second, "So Much So Fast," looked at the then 29-year-old Stephen Heywood who discovered he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), a paralyzing neurodegenerative illness. Despite his diagnosis, Heywood gets married to Wendy; they have a child. Heywood died in 2006, but the self-taught architect inspired his brothers to co-found a website for ALS patients and an institute for research into treatment, the ALS Therapy Development Institute.

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