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Guardians of the Galaxy

In many respects, “Guardians,” directed and co-written by indie wit James Gunn, and starring buffed-up former schlub Chris Pratt and Really Big Sci-Fi Blockbuster vet…

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War Story

Director Mark Jackson’s drama is a chilly study in grief starring Catherine Keener as a war-zone photographer shattered by her experiences in Libya.

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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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The Captains: The Shat talks Trek

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"The Captains" is available on Netflix, EpixHD.com, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu and DVD. It will screen on HBO Canada March 21.

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What made "Star Trek" the most "durable and profitable franchise" in entertainment history? In his documentary, writer-director-producer William Shatner makes a convincing argument that it was "The Captains" -- they set the tone and they brought the theatricality and Shakespearean linguistic grace to TV.

"The Captains," appeared in October, 2011, in Canada, had one-night screenings here and there across North America, and helped launch EpixHD.com. That all seems in keeping with Shatner's impressive role as a new-media barnstormer. No, he's not making political speeches, but he's on Google+ and Facebook, and he's traveling around North America promoting and preserving what may be his most lasting legacy, his role as Captain James T. Kirk. He's even returned to Broadway in a one-man show covering his career before, during and beyond "Star Trek." (Yes, "returned.")

In Hollywood, people joke about the William Shatner School of Acting. He's corny. He's melodramatic. And he has a sizable ego. But he's really not a bad actor. We forget that before "Star Trek," Shatner seemed destined to become a fine stage actor. He first made the trip to Broadway from his native Canada in 1956 with a small part in "Tamburlaine the Great" in 1956. The production had two Tony nominations. He scored the starring role in "The World of Suzie Wong," which ran for two years. Both he and the female lead won Theatre World Awards for their work. In 1962, he was one of the main performers in "A Shot in the Dark," for which Walter Matthau won a featured actor Tony. All that momentum got sidetracked when he went Hollywood.

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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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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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Tim and Eric Mediocre Movie, Great Job!

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"Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" is available for streaming/download on iTunes, Amazon Instant, Vudu and YouTube. In theaters March 2.

"Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" is a lot like "Tim and Eric's Awesome Show, Great Job!." They're both experimental video art posing as sketch comedy. In them you can see DNA from Ernie Kovacs, John Waters, the Kuchar brothers, Robert Downey, Sr., Tom Rubnitz, early Beck music videos, Damon Packard, Aqua Teen Hunger Force (and every other Adult Swim psychotic episode) and Harmony Korine, to name just a random few. But it's likely that actor-writer-directors Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim took inspiration from none of these freaks.

The duo's work seems to flow directly from three sources: Bad corporate promotional and instructional videos, absurd local TV programming and assaultive blockbuster films. Their collages of chopped-and-screwed sounds with spastic motion graphics and sloppy green screen don't seem much different (in effect, if not production values) from what's on cable any given Sunday. It's just that they put unattractive, demented-seeming people in front of the green screen instead of the usual telegenic emoters. They spout nonsense where platitudes and corporate messages usually go. When celebrities appear on the show, they flub and stutter like robot hologram versions of themselves. It's as if the show's editor was a spam bot.

Whether any of it is funny is almost beside the point. The creeping surrealism often takes away your ability to blink, especially, I suspect, when, like me, you have no history with the show.

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Bill Clinton: A sinner redeemed

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"Clinton" premieres in two parts: Monday, February 20th and Tuesday, February 21st on PBS's "American Experience" (check local listings for showtimes) and will be available thereafter via PBS on demand. Also on DVD and iTunes.

by Jeff Shannon

I should probably state up front that I was, and always will be, a Clinton supporter. Like our 42nd president, I grew up in a home where John F. Kennedy had been revered as a young, dynamic force of change and hope for the future. When you admire a politician's core conviction, it's at least somewhat easier to overlook, if not forgive, their foibles and shortcomings. As a young quadriplegic in 1991, I saw candidate Clinton as an impressive-enough carrier of JFK's torch, a protector of the disadvantaged who had inherited Jack and Bobby Kennedy's concern for those who found the American dream elusive or entirely out of reach.

That concern was clearly demonstrated by the defining moment of Clinton's presidential campaign. It's one of many pivotal moments captured in the two-part, four-hour documentary "Clinton," the 16th episode of PBS's "American Experience" presidents series. At the second presidential debate in Virginia in 1992, a young African-American woman in the audience asked candidates Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, and incumbent president George H.W. Bush a question that was then on the minds of struggling Americans everywhere:

"How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives, and if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them?"

That question could easily be recycled as a present-day jab at Mitt Romney, but let's stick to history: Bush simply didn't understand the question, and Clinton seized the opportunity to ensure his victory. Stepping toward the audience in a characteristic display of the sincerity that had propelled his fast-moving career, Clinton demonstrated a concise, compassionate grasp of the question's meaning, and his answer (a reference to the poverty and middle-class struggle he witnessed while campaigning for Congress and Governor in his native Arkansas) left Bush with a classic expression of election-losing dismay.

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The Loving Story: A romantic interracial landmark

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"The Loving Story" premieres on Valentine's Day, February 14, at 9 p.m. on HBO (check local listings), and is available via HBO On Demand and HBO Go thereafter.

"The Loving Story" is as modest and taciturn as its subject, an interracial couple who, in 1958 rural Central Point, Virginia, just wanted to be left alone. For the most part, they were, and that was the problem as much as it was their fervent wish. When the local sheriff busted into their bedroom at 4 am and hauled them off to jail for violating the Racial Integrity Act, there was no national audience, in contrast to the fire hosings, bombings and other acts of racist terror that couldn't help but make the evening news at the time. The whole world was not watching. It's hard to fathom why after seeing the luminous 16mm footage uncovered in "The Loving Story." Documenting many pivotal moments in the case, it adds a dash of something rarely seen in the grand narrative of the American Civil Rights struggle: romance.

In the footage and iconic photographs, the Lovings appear to be deeply in love. Richard is a silent, barrel-chested Ed Harris lookalike; Mildred is shy and beautiful, the essence of poised intelligence. How could a story this simple and universal, with two photogenic romantic leads captured in a Life magazine feature, get lost in the Civil Rights shuffle?

The Loving case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court, and all along the way, the couple insisted upon discretion and privacy. Only a small documentary crew -- filmmaker Hope Ryden and cinematographer Abbot Mills -- gained access to their home, but they made the most of it. The photography is as discreet but watchful as Mildred herself. When she, well, lovingly buckles her little daughter's suede shoe as they prepare for an outing, the camera isolates the mother's slender brown arm steadying her child's pale leg. In the film's context, as assembled by producer-director Nancy Buirski, moments like this one simply cry out, "Why on earth would a decent person want to disrupt this beautiful life?"

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Gnarr: Send in the clown

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"Gnarr" (85 minutes) is now available via most major on-demand platforms including cable, satellite, iTunes and Amazon Instant.

by Jeff Shannon

The United States could sure use a guy like Jon Gnarr right about now. Just take a look at the sorry state of our presidential campaigns and then consider what Gnarr achieved in his native Iceland: In January 2010 Gnarr, Iceland's most popular and controversial comedian, began to campaign for the office of Mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland's capital and largest city. What began as a joke snowballed into a seriously funny, but still very serious, protest vote that turned the tide of history.

Earning coverage in The New York Times, Gnarr's campaign was a referendum on the unchecked corruption, cronyism and incompetence that turned the richest country in Europe into the morally and financially bankrupt victim of a nationwide depression. Gnarr's campaign momentum was made possible by a climate of disgust and frustration with a political system that was broken beyond repair. In the wake of financial disaster on an unprecedented scale, Gnarr rode a wave of backlash against a gridlocked establishment.

As the playful yet firmly grounded documentary "Gnarr" unfolds, Americans can easily view the film as a reflection of our current political climate. Accounting for differences in scale (Iceland's entire population is slightly less than that of Wichita, Kansas), Gnarr's mayoral campaign, and the media circus surrounding it, is strikingly relevant to the political and economic woes of the world's top-ranking superpower. Watching the film, you can't help thinking, "What if...? "

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Raccoon Nation: The hep cats of the 'hood

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"Raccoon Nation" premieres on PBS's Nature series Wednesday, Feb. 8, at 8 p.m., 7 p.m. Central. Coming on DVD/Blu-ray March 13.

Let's be frank: People watch nature documentaries because they want to see wild animals doing the Wild Thing. This can be shown on regular TV because, as Bea Arthur's Maude famously said, "animals making love is rated G. People making love like animals--that's R " An animal documentary serves to showcase how its subjects survive, hunt, eat, play, and yes, get their freak on. There's a reason the sexiest piece of music Elmer Bernstein ever wrote used to play over footage of animals gettin' bizzy on "National Geographic." A Barry White soundtrack would have been way too hot for TV.

Alas, "Raccoon Nation" is a relatively chaste animal documentary, which is unusual but no less interesting. Its focus is on another popular topic of nature non-fiction: man's effect on the animal kingdom. Our species is usually depicted as destructive, and rightfully so. Forests and wooded areas are disappearing, leaving animals homeless and upsetting the natural balance by misplacing both predator and prey. "Raccoon Nation" takes a different approach, however, suggesting that humans may be responsible for the continued survival of the misplaced animal. The more we try to get rid of raccoons, the smarter they get. It's side hustle disguised as adaptation.

As more and more development occurs, the animals start living closer to us. The urban jungle is now literally a jungle. Deer have been spotted in my hometown, and 10 miles away, Irvington, New Jersey saw an episode of "Bearz N The Hood" when a city block's trashcans were set upon by ursine visitors. My current neighborhood is overrun with rabbits, foxes, possums, squirrels and birds who are decidedly NOT pigeons. I walked out of my house this summer, and there were so many animals in my yard I thought I was in "Song of the South."

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Legend of the Millennium Dragon: Epic anime

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"Legend of the Millennium Dragon" is available on DVD/Blu-ray and via iTunes and Amazon Instant. In Japanese with English subtitles.

When a movie jumps from one culture to another, especially one with a different language, expect some things to be lost in translation. If you're not up on Japanese history and folklore, you might be a bit mystified by director Hirotsugu Kawasaki's 2011 "Legend of the Millennium Dragon." Based on a two-book novel by Takafumi Takada (with screenplay by Naruhisa Arakawa and Hirotsugu Kawasaki), this engrossing animation with beautifully detailed background paintings whisks us into an ancient war between gods in Heian Japan.

Names are important in this quick-moving adventure. Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but his historical tragedies would hardly make any sense to one who thinks the "War of the Roses" involves Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. "Holinshed's Chronicles and "Bulfinch's Mythology" won't help you here. Much of what happens in "The Legend of the Millennium Dragon" harks back to two ancient tomes: "Kojiki" and the "Nihonshoki."

The original title, "Onigamiden," means "Legend of the Demon God," but dragons are probably more attractive to an English-speaking audience than demons. A dragon does appear, but the story involves finding courage and a sacred sword. Then there's that age-old question: Just who are the demons?

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