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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  Overcast
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For starters
Sundance Cinemas opens with a strong slate of films
A good-time gal among the Nazis.
A good-time gal among the Nazis.

How about dinner and a movie?

That's the question I kept asking myself when I first heard about Sundance Cinemas 608, the newly opened movie theater/restaurant/coffee shop/art gallery/gift store/hangout at Hilldale Mall. Did I really want to have "an experience," or did I just want to see a flick, like I've always done? An inveterate movie-goer, I hark back to a time when, at the press of a button, a Styrofoam cup would drop onto a metal grille, if not onto the floor, and a viscous black substance passing itself off as coffee would fill the cup halfway, then mysteriously stop, then start up again, this time missing the cup by a crucial half-inch. Tackiness and sticky shoes were part of "the experience" back then. Was I now ready for a freshly brewed cup of Peet's?

Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! Thanks to Robert Redford and the folks at Sundance, those of us who love "specialty" films have finally been dropped into the lap of luxury. With its flowing lines, its muted palette, its use of natural materials (I especially like the row of birch branches screening the entrance to the restrooms), the Sundance interior is both chic and homey. I don't know if it'll become a "great good place." Only time will tell that. But the elements are there.

As for the theaters themselves, I'm told I was the first person to watch a movie in one of them - Black Book, which is reviewed below. And it was quite a test drive, like being behind the wheel of a Ferrari. The chairs, which still have that new-car smell, are so comfortable that somebody's going to have to come around regularly and pinch me to keep me from wandering off to Dreamland. And the sound is crisp and clean, yet warm and rich. Bravo! That Sundance has made this kind of investment at a time when movie-going itself could be surrendering to home-entertainment centers is either the height of folly or a stroke of genius. Here's hoping it's the latter. Now will someone please pinch me, because I must be dreaming.

Revising World War II

If ever there was a war with good guys and bad guys, surely World War II was it. That's why we call it "The Good War." But Paul Verhoeven not only wants to bury that notion, he wants to dance on its grave. Black Book, which was written by Verhoeven's longtime collaborator, Gerard Soeteman, is set in Holland, the country that offered a hiding place to Anne Frank. But as Verhoeven recently pointed out, Holland was also the country that betrayed Anne Frank, sent her off to a concentration camp. And that seems to have eaten away at him over the years. Returning to the land of his birth, Verhoeven, who's responsible for such socially conscious projects as Basic Instinct and Showgirls, takes your average World War II film and turns it on its head. Some of the Nazis aren't half-bad, and some of the Resistance leaders are less than half-good. Holland, in other words, is a cesspool of moral relativism. And floating through it, trying to keep her head above water, is Ellis de Vries (Carice van Houten).

That's not her real name. It's the name she goes with when she infiltrates the Gestapo headquarters by attracting the attention of Hauptsturmfuhrer Müntze, played by Sebastian Koch, the sensitive playwright in The Lives of Others. Koch's Gestapo head is sensitive as well - a stamp collector, among other things. And maybe that's why Ellis falls for him, but she never lets her crush interfere with her mission. A bit of a good-time gal, Ellis, who's Jewish, was a singer before the war. And she can't help but hike up her skirt when some German soldiers passing by whistle at her. But she's just watched her family get slaughtered while trying to escape to Belgium, and she knows that war, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows. Ellis is, in short, a born survivor. And with the glamour of a 1940s movie star, van Houten has us pulling for her no matter what she gets herself into. In fact, Ellis is nearly killed so many times you start to wonder whether she's immortal, the Jewish spirit as embodied by Jean Harlow.

Black Book often plays like an old Jean Harlow movie - sassy, sexy, ready to have a good time. Plot-wise, it's all ambushes and escapes, the Nazis continually busting in and spraying everybody with machine-gun fire. And you sense that Verhoeven likes the adventurousness, the romance of war, not to mention the romance of war movies. It would be easy to accuse him of trivializing what people went through as victory was being pried from Germany's hands and everybody started scrambling around, jockeying for position. But maybe that's the way he's chosen to get across his larger point about how, in the fog of war, no one's a complete hero and no one's a complete villain. And no one can swim against the tide of history. After the liberation, Ellis' situation just gets worse. And the Resistance movement, as it went after former collaborators, turned out to be as fascistic as the Nazis. Or so we're told. That Ellis survives it all is a tribute to her luck, her pluck and her lovely way with a song.

Hits and misses

Hard to believe, but for every crappy show on TV there are dozens upon dozens of even crappier shows that didn't make it onto the air - pilots that never received the stand-by for takeoff. And writer-director Jake Kasdan has built a whole movie around the process by which creative ideas are refined and re-refined until all that's left is pabulum. The TV Set isn't the full-frontal attack that 1976's Network was, nor does it have that movie's fiery brilliance. But Kasdan, who grew up within the industry, knows his way around a studio. And he has a fine ear for the way Hollywood types can destroy a project while only trying to make it better. They don't hate what you've done, they love it to death.

Looking a little thick around the middle, and with a beard that hasn't been seen in La La Land since Charlton Heston auditioned for The Ten Commandments, David Duchovny plays Mike Klein, a writer-producer who's trying to make lemonade out of lemons by turning his brother's suicide into the premise for a dramedy called The Wexler Chronicles. Strangely enough, the network likes the idea. "They just have a few concerns," Klein's manager, winsomely played by Judy Greer, says. First of all, does it have to be suicide? (Downer!) Second of all, does it have to be the brother? Couldn't it be the mother? Third, ix-nay on the itle-tay. Chronicles? Who watches chronicles? Shakespeare? How about going with Call Me Crazy! instead?

Many of those suggestions - notes, as they're called in the business - come straight from the mouth of Lenny, the head of programming at the PDN Network, whom Sigourney Weaver endows with just enough intelligence to qualify as human. If there's anything funnier than a total flake, it's a total flake with power, and Weaver gets off some great lines - utter inanities that Lenny tries to pass off as Zen koans. And you can see how a sad-funny show about suicide might not have a chance against such a rube of the boob tube, especially after Slut Wars, the network's cash cow, pulls a 19 share in the ratings. Yes, Slut Wars, which Kasdan appears to consider a satiric jab at just how low TV will stoop to conquer.

Truth be told, The TV Set seems less a satire than kitchen-sink realism. The actors only slightly overplay, and the storyline seems entirely too plausible. The movie basically follows the template laid down by Christopher Guest's The Big Picture, where Kevin Bacon played an up-and-coming movie director who sold his soul one script change at a time. But Bacon's Faust figure went to hell with a smile on his face, whereas Duchovny's bears the stigmata of having made a pact with the devil. First his back gives out, then his mind. And if Kasdan never quite gets us to feel his pain, it's certainly good for a few laughs. At times, The TV Set itself seems like a pilot episode - a little rough in places, slightly underdeveloped, but quite promising.

The ties that bind

You may remember Mads Mikkelsen from Casino Royale, where he played Le Chiffre, an arch-villain whose glacial composure was undermined by the blood that would drop, tear-like, from one eye. Once again, Mikkelsen puts his Nordic reserve to good use in After the Wedding, Susanne Bier's Danish drama about the ties that bind, no matter how much time has gone by. Set mostly in Copenhagen, the movie opens in Bombay, India, where Mikkelsen's Jacob has just spent 20 years playing Mother Teresa to a struggling orphanage. But the promise of a big fat donation that would save the orphanage sends him back home, where the billionaire in question, Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), is now married to Jacob's old flame Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen). And it turns out that their daughter, Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), whose wedding is coming up, doesn't know who her real father is. Who will walk her down the aisle?

Out of such a soap-sudsy premise Bier and scriptwriter Anders Thomas Jensen have crafted a movie that, by carefully doling out its emotional highs and lows, seems both drunk and sober. It's Days of Our Lives directed by Ingmar Bergman.

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