“SHADOW” My rating: C+ (Opens May 24 at the Screenland Armour)

116 minutes | No MPAA rating

There was a time, children, back in the primordial 1990s, when Chinese director Yimou Zhang was on the cutting edge of cinema.

Never mind that he was working in an artistically repressive Communist society — Yimou excelled at turning out thought-provoking period dramas like “Red Sorghum,” “Ju Dou” and “Raise the Red Lantern.” Turning to a modern setting he delivered the sublime “The Road Home.”

Then Yimou discovered kung fu and since then has been devoted to lavish chock-sockey extravaganzas like “Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers,” and the execrable Matt Damon spectacle “The Great Wall.” Forget the intimate drama; he’s now painting on a massive and messy scale.

His latest, “Shadow,” is typical of the new Yimou.

For starters it is an absolute triumph of cinematic design, telling an ancient tale through sets and costumes reduced to the simplest black and white. The only touches of color are provided by human flesh and copious splatters of gore.

The story?  Sheesh, I was afraid you’d ask about that.

Well, there’s this kingdom, Pei, ruled by a handsome but utterly corrupt young idiot (Ryan Zheng) who comes off as the Asian equivalent of Jeoffrey Baratheon.

The king’s success lies largely with the prowess of his general, Zi Yu. Except that Zi Yu isn’t who he seems.

Okay, listen carefully. I’m not going through this twice.

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Oleg Ivenko as Rudolph Nureyev

“THE WHITE CROW” My rating: B- (Opens May 24 at the Glenwood Arts)

127 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Early on in  Ralph Fienne’s “The White Crow” a character observes that Rudolph Nureyev’s dancing is rarely technically perfect but that he compensates with personality and passion.

Ironically, personality and passion are what is lacking in this biopic about Nureyev’s early life.

David Hare’s screenplay adopts a jumbled narrative that leaps between the dancer’s impoverished childhood in the Soviet Union during World War II, his training at Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet and a long visit to Paris that  ends with his defection to the West.

All the makings are here for a compelling real-life tale of an iconoclast (a “white crow” in idiomatic Russian) whose emotional makeup and outsized talent were a poor fit with the do-what-you’re-told culture of Soviet-sponsored arts (“Ballet is about obedience”).  And yet despite a few compelling moments, the film occupies a sort of generic middle ground.

Needless to say, the real Nureyev was anything but generic.

In the end the film’s successes and failures come down to leading man Oleg Ivenko, a dancer talented enough to simulate Nureyev’s astounding leaps (though dance scenes in the film are few and far between) but too limited as an actor to fully inhabit his character.

The film is bookended by the 1961 residency of the Kirov at Paris’ Garnier Opera House. Almost immediately Ivenko’s Nureyev is established as a loner who gets up early to visit the Louvre (just so he can have a few precious minutes of alone time with Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa”) and insists on breaking away from the other Kirov members to explore the city’s vibrant night life with the young French dancers who are the Soviets’ hosts.

His willful flaunting of the rules does not go unnoticed; invariably he is tracked on his nightly perambulations by menacing KGB types who sit dourly at nearby tables sipping the house’s cheapest drinks.

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Sanya Malhora, Nawazuddin Siddiqui

“PHOTOGRAPH” My rating: B- (Opens May 24 at the Studio 28)

110 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

For most American moviegoers the Indian cinema is defined by the conventions of Bollywood: song and dance, silly plots, sexless romance.

Rites Batra’s “Photograph” is a reminder that this is a narrow view. Here’s a melancholy study of lives that, if not in crisis, are at a sort of crossroads. And there isn’t a dance routine in sight.

Rafa (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) takes photos of visitors to Mumbai’s tourist traps. He’s come to the big city from a faraway village with the intention of earning enough to buy back his family’s ancestral home.  But it’s an uphill climb. He lives in a metal-roofed loft with four other provincials scrambling to survive on the mean streets. At least his roomies are fun-loving and entertaining; Rafi does little more than brood.  When he delivers half a grin it’s an event.

Miloni (Sanya Malhora) is the second daughter of a solidly middle-class family. She’s studying to be an accountant, takes no girly interest in clothing or boys, and while she’s not exactly plain, she doesn’t stand out in a crowd, either.

“Photograph” relates how these two inarticulate strangers meet (Rafi takes Miloni’s picture) and become confidants, each using the other to fend off their families’ insistent attempts at matchmaking. They don’t realize it, but they’re as close to soulmates as they’re likely ever to find.

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Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever

“BOOKSMART” My rating: B (Opens wide on May 24)

112 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Booksmart” is being described as a female-centric version of “Superbad.” Well it is…but it’s more.

For her feature directorial debut actress Olivia Wilde (with the assistance of four screenwriters) has given us one of those teen-age all-nighter comedies, with all the raunch, substance sampling, and sexual awakening the genre implies.

The difference, of course, is that instead of giving us horny adolescent boys we follow a couple of graduating senior girls who have spent their entire high school careers toeing the line and are now ready to party down.

Molly (Beanie Feldstein, whose brother Jonah Hill starred in ‘”Superbad”) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have done everything right.  Great grades, lots of activities, student government, the whole deal.  And it has all paid off with Molly’s admission to Yale and Amy’s plan for a gap year of charity work in Africa.

Initially the two feel superior to their party-hearty classmates who will undoubtedly be heading for military service or the local junior college. But when Molly and Amy learn that many of those slackers have themselves landed in great college situations, they question everything.

I mean, why do everything right if it doesn’t give you leg up on the animals? Realizing they have pretty much wasted their youth on the quest for scholastic greatness, the best buds decide to hit their classmates’ rowdy night-before-graduation bacchanal.

They are, of course, ill prepared to party down. They never really got to know their fellow students in any depth, and their efforts to blend in are hopelessly klutzy.

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Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern

“TRIAL BY FIRE” My rating: B (Opens May 17 at the Town Center 20)

127 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Familiarity breeds contempt. But given the right circumstances, it can breed compassion and understanding as well.

Edward Zwick’s “Trial by Fire” is a fact-based film inspired by the story of Todd Willingham, who was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three young daughters and executed by the state.

As protagonists go, Willingham is at first a hard man to care about. But by the time this gut-wrencher has come to its conclusion that proposition will be turned inside out.

The film opens in 1991 with Willingham (Jack O’Connell) crawling from his burning house in small-town Texas. He grabs a  jack from the trunk of his car and uses it to break the window of his daughters’ bedroom.  For his efforts he is very nearly incinerated by an erupting fireball.

Wellingham is arrested on the drive back from his childrens’ funeral.  The experts say the fire was deliberately started. Which makes this a case of murder.

And, frankly, the portrait of Willingham that emerges only cements his guilt.  For he is one unlikeable individual, a sort of white trash poster boy who beat and cheated on his wife Stacy (“The Deuce’s” Emily Meade), who drank and brawled and was known to have lied to the cops in the past.

His court-appointed attorney mounts not even a half-hearted defense, and in short order he’s on Death Row.

Geoffrey Fletcher’s screenplay (based on David Grann’s New Yorker article) dispenses with the nuts and bolts of the case in the first half hour.  The bulk of the film depicts how while awaiting execution Willingham finds his better self.

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Haley Lu Richardson, Elizabeth McGovern

“THE CHAPERONE” My rating: C+

103 minutes | No MPAA rating

A pall of old-fashioned made-for-TV mediocrity hangs over much of “The Chaperone,” a Masterpiece Theatre production based on a highly-regarded novel by Lawrence resident Laura Moriarty, adapted by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey,” “Gosford Park”) and featuring a more-than-solid cast.

Blame veteran TV director Michael Engler and a stingy budget for fumbling the ball here.

At first glance one might assume that this is the story of the young Louise Brooks, who in the 1920s went from Wichita to a starring role with a top New York dance troupe and then on to international stardom as the ultimate flapper and sex symbol of silent film.

Not really.  Brooks (played here by Haley Lu Richardson) certainly has a role in this yarn, but its real focus is a middle-aged Kansas  housewife and mother  (Elizabeth McGovern) who agrees to chaperone the young hellion during her Big Apple sojourn. In  the process the older woman finds her own world exploding and expanding.

Norma (McGovern) first lays eyes on 15-year-old Louise at a Wichita dance recital where she is mightily impressed by girl’s flamboyant Isadora Duncan-ish flouncing. Norma is a stolid Midwestern matron, stuck in a sexless marriage (that’ll be explained later) to a lawyer (Campbell Scott); they have twin college-bound sons.

When she learns that Louise has won a coveted spot with the famous Denishawn modern dance company in NYC, and that the girl’s parents are looking for an appropriate chaperone to accompany their daughter to the big city, she volunteers. Heck, she needs some adventure.

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Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir

“WOMAN AT WAR” My rating: B

101 minutes | No MPAA rating

A middle-aged choir director maintains a double life as an eco-terrorist in “Woman at War,” an Icelandic film that despite its heavyweight themes maintains a surprisingly airy tone.

At 49 Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) lives what appears to be an unremarkable life in Reykjavik.  On her weekends, though, she loads up a backpack and heads deep into the country’s rugged, treeless interior where she wreaks havoc on the electrical grid.

Halla’s motives and how she came by them are never fully explained in the screenplay by director Benedikt Erlingsson and Olafur Emilsson.

Apparently she opposes an Icelandic/Chinese consortium dedicated to beefing up heavy industry, which Hanna believes will destroy the environment. She employs technology as basic as a bow and arrow and as sophisticated as military-grade explosives to bring down high-tension transmission towers, cutting off the juice to a large foundry she regards as a particularly odious polluter.

She’s a one-woman wrecking crew and the authorities employ everything from satellites to heat sensors, drones and flying squads of military commandos in an effort to put an end to Hanna’s activities.  She is surprisingly good at avoiding detection, though it’s pretty clear her days are numbered.

Now a yarn like this could be played for polemic drama, but director Erlingsson instead opts for whimsy.

There is, for instance, the musical score, performed by six musicians (pianist/accordianist, drummer, tuba player, and three women singers) not just on the soundtrack but in the film itself.  Thus as Hanna treks across a volcanic landscape she passes the musicians, who have set up their instruments in the wide open spaces. Occasionally the players — invisible to everyone save the audience — will react (wordlessly) to the scenes being played out in front of them.

Then there’s a semi-comic subplot about a bicycle-riding South American tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) who is always at the wrong place at the wrong time and is arrested repeatedly on suspicion of being the terrorist. Worst vacation ever.

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Lupita Nyong’o

“US” My rating: B+

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Humor and horror are strange bedfellows. Usually one negates the other.

But in “Us,” writer/director Jordan Peele’s followup to the spectacular “Get Out,” finds just the right balance between the goofy and the ghastly. The result is a horror movie quite unlike anything we’ve seen, one that mixes a family survival tale with supernatural elements and wraps it all up in a mind-boggling apocalypse.

All while leaving you chuckling.

The story begins in the mid-80’s when little Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders away from her parents at a beachside amusement park in Santa Cruz. She finds her way to a creepy mirrored funhouse where she encounters her own doppleganger…a little girl who looks exactly like her.

Jump to the present, where the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is vacationing with her family — husband Gabe (Winston Duke), teen Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and little Jason (Evan Alex) — at her late grandmother’s semi-remote house in the forest outside Santa Cruz.

After the creepiness of the prologue Peele plunges into a family comedy.  Dad is a big friendly doofus, the sort of guy who is always humiliating his adolescent daughter, who rarely looks up from her smart phone. Little Jason is a weird kid who goes through life wearing what looks like a snarling gorilla mask.

As for mother Adelaide…well, she does the usual mom stuff. But being so close to the scene of her childhood trauma — after which she didn’t speak for months — has her cringing.  A trip to the beach finds her suppressing hysteria despite the presence of old friends Kitty and Josh (Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker) and their twin teen daughters.

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David Dastmalchian, Karen Gillan


91 minutes | No MPAA rating

Filmed mostly in Kansas City, Collin Schiffli’s “All Creatures Here Below” reminds of a 21st-century retooling of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Its background is not the Great Depression but rather the hardscrabble world of the contemporary underclass. In lieu of the childlike giant Lenny it offers a young woman of similar simplicity, though her mental/emotional fragility is born less of genetics than a ghastly past.

And like Steinbeck’s novel,  David Dastmalchian’s screenplay is rooted in a fatalism that offers only brief flickers of stubborn — and elusive — hope.

The good news is that the piece has been so well acted by its two leads that it keeps us involved long after our logical sides tell us it’s time to bail.

Gensan (Dastmalchian) and Ruby (Karen Gillan) are a young couple living hand to mouth in Los Angeles.

In the film’s first few minutes he is laid off from his job making pizzas (corporate is trimming the work force) and she is let go from her gig on the cleaning crew of a megachurch…apparently Ruby can’t keep from hanging around the nursery, which she has been told is off limits to her. (In Mice… Lenny has a thing for rabbits; Ruby obsesses about babies.)

Desperate for cash, Gensan wagers his severance paycheck on an illegal cockfight. He loses big but in the ensuing chaos of a police raid manages to make off with a stolen car and a wad of cash from the betting table. He gets word to Ruby to meet him away from their apartment; they have to get out of Dodge.

She shows up as directed, only she has with her the infant daughter of their neighbor. Ruby has found the child unattended and decided that she’d be the better mother.

Now the frantic — and let’s face it, not very bright — Gensan must navigate a drive across half the country with the maddeningly illogical Ruby and a crying baby who needs diapers, a child car seat, and nourishment (Ruby is so clueless she attempts to breast feed; even Gensan knows you have to be pregnant before that works).

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Molly Shannon, Susan Ziegler


84 minutes | MPAA rating

“Wild Nights with Emily” is such an awesome idea that I wish I liked the film more than I do.

When Emily Dickinson died in 1886 in Amherst, Mass., she left behind nearly 2,000 unpublished poems which would lead future generations to regard her as America’s greatest poet.

For most of the ensuing 130 odd years Dickinson has had the reputation of a recluse, a woman incapable of interacting with others. But if that’s the case, if her personal life were so limited, if she never enjoyed human intimacy, how did she come by the ideas and emotions so brilliantly expressed in her writing?

Seizing on recent research into and discoveries about Dickinson, writer/director Madeleine Olnek has given us a film that presents Emily Dickinson not so much as a recluse as a dedicated artist who, by the by, had a lifelong sexual relationship with the woman who would become her sister-in-law. We’re talking some good old-fashioned lust.

Moreover, Olnek presents her yarn as a comedy in which Dickinson’s vastly superior intellect and talents go head-to-head with the doofuses who run the male-dominated literary world of the 1800s. These bozos are so gobsmacked by her poetry that  all they can do is complain that it doesn’t rhyme.

Olnek’s screenplay time jumps from Dickinson’s mature years and her affair with her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler) back to her adolescence when the two first fell in love (the girls are played as teens by Dana Melanie and Sasha Frolova).

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