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Movie Review: ‘The Hunting Ground’

In 2012 filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering made “The Invisible War,” a documentary about the horrific epidemic of military sexual assault. The film helped crystallize a heretofore hidden and underreported issue and catalyze a movement to address it, within the Pentagon and beyond.

One can only hope that the team’s new film will go even further.

“The Hunting Ground” continues Dick and Ziering’s lucid and infuriating investigation of sexual violence, in this case the crime of campus rape and the scandalous lack of response on the part of college administrators and local law enforcement. From its first moments, compiled from YouTube videos of ecstatic high school seniors getting their acceptance letters, “The Hunting Ground” makes clear that its message isn’t just intellectual, legal and political, but deeply emotional. In a series of harrowing interviews, young women — and a few young men — recount in sickening detail how they were attacked, raped, threatened and discounted on the very campuses that should have been safe harbors for their learning and personal growth.

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Unlike the military assaults Dick and Zierling uncovered in “The Invisible War,” campus rape isn’t a secret.

But as the filmmakers convincingly maintain, that’s not for lack of trying by university brass who, in desperate competition for tuition dollars and alumni contributions, have gone out of their way to talk students out of reporting assaults or obfuscate their own poor records. “The Hunting Ground” chronicles the efforts of campus rape survivors Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, who can be seen literally connecting the dots to reveal the breadth and depth of campus rape culture, and who have shrewdly reframed it as a violation of female students’ rights under Title IX.

As inspiring as these efforts are, “The Hunting Ground” is still most effective as an emotional experience and, with luck, as a galvanizing one. Viewers will note that the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity — whose initials, according to some in the film, have been known to stand for “sexual assault expected” — is the one whose members made the news this week for singing a racist chant. With its unflinching portrayal of cynical school officials and their corrupt symbiosis with the sports teams and Greek systems to which they’re beholden, “The Hunting Ground” is, at its most basic, a damning indictment of entitlement and impunity.

★ ★ ★

PG-13. Contains disturbing thematic material involving sexual assault, and profanity. 90 minutes.

Movie Review: ‘Cinderella’

Perhaps the best-known fairy tale of all time has been given a lush, if lifeless, production in “Cinderella,” an opulent reimagining that spares nothing in the way of color, texture and rich visual value, but rarely manages to quicken its own pulse or that of the audience.

The solemn-looking Lily James plays the title character, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and his delicate wife. In a magical land similar to 19th-century Britain, she grows up talking to animals, charming her parents and striving to fulfill her devoted mother’s wishes that she display courage and, above all, be kind. “There is power in kindness,” the older woman says wisely. When tragedy befalls the family and her father remarries, the new blended family — including a style-conscious stepmother and her two vain and silly daughters — is enough to put even Cinderella’s most faultless virtues severely to the test.

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Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz clearly have tried to bring the old story into line with 21st century feminist values: Far from a passive victim waiting to be saved by the handsome prince, their Cinderella is a paragon of quiet integrity and insight. But the lovely and fundamentally uninteresting James is no match for the fire and elemental venom exuded by Cate Blanchett’s evil stepmother, who is by far the film’s most interesting character. With her chartreuse and green wardrobe, scarlet gash of a rictus grin and darting fits of cruelty, she seems to have beamed into “Cinderella” as if from a 1950s Douglas Sirk melodrama into a cozy Merchant Ivory period drama.

Branagh tries his best to infuse “Cinderella” with energy, from having his characters compulsively swirl and spin in otherwise static scenes to the palace intrigue and power plays that take the place of conventional romance. He even tries to inject some humor (yes, that’s Rob Brydon in a cameo role, and Helena Bonham Carter hiding behind a hideous pair of prosthetic teeth), but to no avail. For all its gossamer, gauze, filigree and refinement, “Cinderella” drags when it should skip as lightly as its title character when she’s late getting home from the ball.

★ ★

PG. Contains mild thematic elements. 112 minutes.

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY BEST-SELLERS - 03.08.15

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1. “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead)

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3. “The Assassin” by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott (G.P Putnam’s Sons)

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Movie Review: ‘Accidental Love’

The latest film from David O. Russell is something of a Frankenstein’s monster. Shut down at least four times during the 2008 shoot because of money problems, the $26 million comedy, boasting a sterling cast, languished for years until it was finally resuscitated in a bizarre business deal last year.

Make no mistake: “Accidental Love” is no horror film, although there are moments that may elicit groans of despair from fans of the director’s much lauded “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.”

Filmed under the working title “Nailed,” and based on a novel by former “Saturday Night Live” and “Futurama” writer Kristin Gore — the former vice president’s daughter — the film is a broad satire of health-care policy. It’s about a woman (Jessica Biel) who is shot in the head with a nail gun and then denied surgery because she is uninsured, and it features performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Hader, Catherine Keener, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan and Paul Reubens. After sitting on the shelf, the unfinished footage was cobbled together by producer Kia Jam, who managed to find a distributor.

The finished product, finally available on demand and scheduled for a limited theatrical release later this month, is credited to director “Stephen Greene,” a pseudonym, and for good reason. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to anything by Russell, who negotiated an agreement with the Directors Guild of America to remove his name — if not every whiff of his prestige — from the credits.

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The tale centers on Biel’s Alice, a Midwestern waitress whose condition causes her to lose sexual inhibition (and occasionally to speak Portuguese). After traveling to Washington, Alice embarks on an affair with Gyllenhaal’s corrupt congressman while lobbying for a bill that would provide medical coverage to people with catastrophic health issues. The other unsubtle poster children for her cause are a man (Morgan) with a distended rectum and a minister with a constant, painful erection (Kurt Fuller).

While such heavy-handed gags might work in cartoon or sketch-comedy form, they mostly fall flat here. Even the political humor, while sharper, comes across as silly. Keener, for instance, plays a congresswoman with a pet project to build a military base on the moon.

Although the acting isn’t bad, the film looks and sounds unpolished, with an intrusive, slapdash score and an over-reliance on weirdly tilted camera angles. They lend the film a psychological instability, rather than, as probably intended, a funhouse feel.

The curiosity factor here is not negligible, because of Russell’s original participation in the project and his talented cast (which once included James Caan, who walked off the set and was subsequently replaced by James Brolin as the House Speaker). Washington audiences may also get a kick out of watching even such a gross caricature as this.

But they’d better be prepared for a blunt instrument. As Marsden’s character remarks to Alice, his fiancee, about the romantic restaurant which unfortunately is undergoing renovations as they’re eating there: “The ambiance is a little . . . nail-gunny.”—M.O.

PG-13 Contains crude language and sensuality. 100 minutes. Available through Amazon Instant, Google Play, Sony Entertainment Network, Vudu, and YouTube.

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