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story.lead_photo.caption Michael Shannon, Taissa Farmiga, Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner and Robert Forster play members of a Chicago family dealing with dementia in Elizabeth Chomko’s directorial debut What They Had.

The weeklong Kansas International Film Festival takes place on the ground floor of a strip mall in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park that's only nine miles from my home.

I've been covering it since it started in 2001, and I've had a lot of great experiences there. The festival has attracted stop-motion special effects master Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts), the eccentric Canadian auteur Guy Maddin (Careful, My Winnipeg), zombie movie pioneer George A. Romero, Kansas City native Edward Asner and Time critic Richard Schickel.

Harryhausen brought one of the Coke can-size skeletons that pursued Jason and Sinbad and commented on his movies as they screened. Romero didn't bring any zombies, but the now-demolished Metcalf South mall where he held court a decade ago looked like a location for one of his films. (The new strip mall is an upgrade.)

This year's festival featured a concert by musician Stephen Kellogg, who was promoting an Amazon Prime documentary about him; and a panel on mentorship that featured BlacKkKlansman screenwriter Kevin Willmott, who teaches at the nearby University of Kansas; and producer Mel Jones (Dear White People). Most of the films previewed below will open in Arkansas before the end of the year.

Everybody Knows 4.5/5 -- Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has aroused the ire of people across the political spectrum, sometimes through no fault of his own. The ayatollahs who run Iran aren't happy about the way his movies The Salesman and A Separation have depicted the country's serpentine and fitfully effective bureaucracy. Conversely, they were pleased when both films won best foreign language Oscars. Farhadi couldn't pick up his second little gold man because, as an Iranian, he was subject to a travel ban. His latest movie is set in Spain and plays more like a thriller.

When Laura (Penelope Cruz), a mother of teenagers, returns to her childhood home in Spain from Argentina for a wedding, kidnappers abduct her oldest daughter. Law enforcement in her old village is ineffective, and the kidnappers have threatened to kill the girl if the police get involved. Desperate, Laura turns to her former boyfriend Paco (Javier Bardem, Cruz's real- life husband) for help. It's expected that Bardem and Cruz will do great work, but casting them as former lovers with a history is inspired. The two gaze at each other with hints of longing that will never be fulfilled. Ricardo Darin (Nine Queens, The Secret in Their Eyes, Wild Tales), who has apparently starred in every Argentine film in the past 20 years, is terrific as Laura's troubled husband. Farhadi's deliberate pacing is an asset because his story has a lot of characters and the village has a detailed history that wouldn't make sense if the film had a faster pace. As a result, when he reveals his plot twists they have more impact. He also has a knack for creating powerful stories regardless of the spoken language on screen.

What They Had 4/5 -- Chicago-raised Elizabeth Chomko's directorial debut covers familiar ground, but her sharp dialogue and able cast consistently make What They Had seem credible and involving. Two siblings (Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon), who haven't been in touch for years, reunite in the Windy City when their mother's (Blythe Danner) struggle with Alzheimer's takes a turn for the worse. While it's obvious she can't stay in the family condominium anymore, her stubborn husband (Robert Forster) refuses to institutionalize her. Having spent decades with her, he understandably has trouble leaving her in the hands of others, even if she occasionally drinks holy water at church. Chomko, despite being a novice feature director, ably juggles moments of humor with harrowing moments of domestic dysfunction. Even if the matriarch were mentally sound, there are problems with this family that a holiday weekend can't resolve.

Maria by Callas 3.5/5 -- Director Tom Volf has collected an impressive series of performance clips, home movies, personal letters (read by singer Joyce DiDonato) from the life of opera vocalist Maria Callas. The end result is that the diva -- who died in the mid-1970s -- is able to tell her own story. In Maria by Callas, she emerges as someone who entered music reluctantly but who also thought that opera was a calling instead of a profession. Having her own perspective helps paint a fuller picture of her. During the 1950s, she angered Roman audiences by quitting in the middle of a performance. Apparently the fans weren't willing to let her off the hook because she had bronchitis. At other times, we're merely told that she had difficulties with someone, and then the matter is dropped. Her long relationship with Aristotle Onassis is covered, but it's hard to see what the two saw in each other. Thankfully, there's a generous sampling of her performances, so you can tell why audiences waited in line for days days to see her. Hearing and seeing her bring Bizet's Carmen to life helps explain why reporters followed her like hungry dogs.

Leimert Park 4/5 -- Mel Jones (a producer on Dear White People) makes an assured directorial debut with this Web series that is scheduled to run on Refinery29.com. Leimert Park involves three black women struggling to find love and careers in Los Angeles' Leimert Park neighborhood. Jones sets a brisk pace, and the voice-overs and references to social media don't get in the way of the laughs. Apparently, finding carnal satisfaction is difficult, even if you and your partner look good and live in a culturally vibrant but potentially dangerous neighborhood.

"Women are made to be societally where we are supposed to please men. What happens if we want to feel good? Because we do in real life," said Jones after the Kansas International Film Festival screening. "With black women, we hardly ever get to be the stars of the show and then with Girls, they were kind of frienemies. I wanted to create a feeling of sisterhood that exists with tons of women."

MovieStyle on 10/26/2018

Print Headline: Kansas festival offers peek at year-end movies

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