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Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Viggo Mortensen

“THIRTEEN LIVES” My rating: A (Netflix)

147 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Thirteen Lives” may be the most engrossing, satisfying film of Ron Howard’s career.

It’s a virtual masterclass in dramatic construction and emotional massaging; moreover it is one of the few films I can think of that contains not one misstep, one wrong performance, one phony moment.

Howard’s recreation of the 2018 rescue of 12 Thai soccer players and their coach from a flooded cave (the screenplay is by William Nicholson and Don MacPherson) manages simultaneously to be a deeply emotional experience and a clear-eyed recreation of actual events. 

 It is modest to a fault, tempering overwhelmingly dramatic material through the lens of a measured docudrama style. Clearly, Howard’s recent forays into documentaries (“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week,” “Pavarotti,” “Rebuilding Paradise,” “We Feed People”) proved invaluable in finding just the right approach for this massive effort.

The payoff is nothing short of spectacular.

In many regards Howard’s 1995’s “Apollo 13” provided the model for this sort of fact-based historic recreation; “Thirteen Lives” is even more successful in capturing the tension between individual human drama and big, overwhelming events.

Though the film features Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton as cave rescue specialists from the UK, there’s no actorly showboating, no obvious star turns.  Everyone seems to be foregoing their moment in the spotlight in favor of a group dynamic.

In this the performances reflect Howard’s overall message that while there certainly were heroes at work (including two Thai Navy Seals who died in the rescue efforts), this is  a tale of literally thousands of individuals who came together to accomplish the impossible.

Howard has never been a director who flexed his stylistic muscles; his approach here is straightforward, even impersonal. This allows us to concentrate on the story itself, which has been presented with marvelous economy and insight.

In the film’s opening minutes we meet the kids and their coach on the practice field.  They decide to treat themselves to a visit to the nearby Tham Luang, a spectacular cave nearly four miles long.  We see them park their bikes at the entrance and eagerly race into the darkness.

We won’t see them again for another hour, or 10 days in real time.  They go missing, their bikes are discovered, and immediately the authorities launch a rescue effort.

Tham Luang completely floods during the monsoon season, and the boys have been unlucky enough to enter the cavern just as an early storm is pouring millions of tons of water into the subterranean system.  It is presumed that they have been trapped by rising waters and forced to retreat ever deeper into the darkness.

While Thai military divers search for them in a labyrinth of submerged stalactites and passages so narrow they must remove their oxygen tanks, an army of volunteers descend on the mountain above the cave with shovels, pumps, pipes and chutes fashioned from split bamboo in an effort to divert water off the hillside and away from the cave.

on Howard

Local officials meet with local farmers to explain the process.  Will their crops be ruined when their fields flood? a woman asks.  Yes they will.  The farmers exchange glances and nod. Those 13 lives come first.

The cave rescue specialists played by Farrell and Mortensen arrive on the scene virtually without portfolio and by virtue of their independent status (they’re not part of the Thai military or government) have the freedom to take extraordinary risks. 

But discovering the boys alive doesn’t end the crisis.  The rain that trapped them was only a preview; within two weeks the full-fledged monsoon will fill every air pocket in the cave with water for several months.  They cannot wait out the weather; they must find a way out.

Several experienced divers have almost panicked and drowned in the treacherous waters.  There is virtually no safe way to guide the boys through several kilometers of cloudy runoff; none of the children have used scuba equipment and several cannot swim.  

That’s where Edgerton’s character comes in.  In addition to being a cave rescue diver, he’s an anesthesiologist; maybe they can suit the children up in scuba gear, knock them out with drugs and pull them to safety? 

“They’re packages,” one of the rescuers explains. “We’re just delivery guys.”

The second hour of “Thirteen Lives” is a step-by-step look at how the rescuers pulled it off. This is an exquisitely timed, bite-your-nails adventure that will have viewers shaking their heads in disbelief.

By film’s end audiences will feel nearly as battered and worn out as the kids and their saviors.  But it’s a good ache.

| Robert W. Butler

Patton Oswalt, James Morosini

“I LOVE MY DAD”  My rating: B- (Glenwood Arts) 

96 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Is “I Love My Dad” clever/charming or just plain creepy?

Reactions will run the gamut for filmmaker James Morosini’s second feature, an autobiographical slice of parent/child dysfunction that flits nervously between comedy and tragedy.

Middle aged Chuck (Patton Oswalt) has proven such a disappointment to his estranged teenage son Franklin (writer/director Morosini) that the kid has severed all lines of communication.

Chuck lives hundreds of miles from his son and ex-wife (Amy Landecker) and has missed most of Franklin’s adolescence, including the boy’s recent stint with a support group for high schoolers with suicidal tendencies.

Franklin, you see,  is an emotional mess and for this he blames good old Dad, a font of moral bankruptcy and selfishness.

But Chuck now finds himself desperately looking for connections with the child he’s pretty much ignored, and he comes up with a mind-bogglingly inappropriate scheme.

He’ll catfish Franklin by creating an online presence, disguising himself as a teenage girl who will exhibit a romantic interest in the lonely kid.  That way he can pry into Franklin’s life in the guise of another teen.

Remember, Franklin has been undergoing counseling for suicidal thoughts.  What could go wrong?

Chuck uses as his model the cute young waitress (Claudia Sulewski) who serves him breakfast at his local diner.  Without her permission he raids her online accounts, downloading her collection of selfies and building a fictional profile.

Morosini’s screenplay (it won the 2020 Screencraft competition) makes a big leap when it employs fantasy sequences to depict encounters between Franklin and his dream girl.  In reality they’re simply typing back and forth on their computer keyboards, but in Franklin’s mind this beautiful, funny, charming woman is right there in front of him, waiting to be kissed.

Claudia Sulewski, James Morosini

For his part, Chuck must keep scrambling to answer Franklin’s demands for a real honest-to-God telephone conversation with his long-distance paramour.  He recruits the help of his bed buddy and boss (Rachel Dratch) who immediately screws everything up by agreeing to a face-to-face meeting. 

Despite some overtly comic moments, the mood of “I Love My Dad” is one of every-growing anxiety. After all, Franklin is a fragile young man, and Morosini’s screenplay keeps digging an ever-deeper hole that will make his rude awakening to the truth all that more traumatic.

Saving the day (because I’m not sure I buy the “happy” ending Morosini supplies) are the performances.  

Oswalt is of course a great funnyman, but in recent years he’s successfully made the jump to dramatic roles; here he balances parental angst with an almost childlike eagerness to love and be loved.

Director Morosini radiates bruised soulfulness as Franklin and, despite being 31 years old when he shot the film, makes us believe he’s a teen.

And Sulewski — making her acting debut after a successful career as a YouTube and Instagram influencer — is dynamite in dual roles, both as the luscious “dream” girl and as the down-to-earth real-life waitress. 

| Robert W. Butler

Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman

“THE LAST MOVIE STARS” (HBO MAX)

As the title suggests, HBO MAx’s “The Last Movie Stars,” is about Hollywood.

But even more, it’s about marriage.

Actor Ethan Hawke, here donning his directing cap, fashioned this six-part documentary series at the request of the family of movie royalty Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. 

The famous couple’s children revealed that some 30 years ago their father began interviewing just about everyone the Newmans knew: directors, fellow actors, housekeepers, family members, close friends.…even the first wife Newman left for Woodward.

 Those interviews were captured on audio tapes which Newman (who died in 2008) subsequently burned (no explanation of why). But transcriptions of the sessions still exist.

Would Hawke like to use that written material to create a doc on the couple?

Well, YEAH.

“The Last Movie Stars” may be unique among show-biz documentaries for its innovative narrative approach.

A good chunk of the series is Zoom footage of Hawke (like everyone else, stuck at home during the pandemic) talking with the actors who would provide the voices of the interview participants. 

Initially this struck me as self-indulgent…the whole thing carries the whiff of how-I-made-a-documentary.  But before long it became apparent that by having Newman and Woodward’s fellow actors comment on their lives and films, we were getting an invaluable look into the couple’s professional world…an insider’s look.

(For the record, George Clooney reads Newman’s words while Laura Linney voices Woodward’s.  Other participants include Sam Rockwell, Billy Crudup, Steve Zahn, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sally Field, Rose Byrne, Mark Ruffalo…and that’s just scratching the surface.)

There are, of course, a ton of clips from the actors’ films, with special emphasis on the ones in which they played opposite each other (their last such collaboration was the Kansas City-lensed “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge”). 

What you soon realize is that Woodward was a great actor, while Newman was a great star (indeed, in some of the old color footage the actor’s eyes are so stunningly blue that you find yourself looking for signs of digital enhancement.)

“Mr. and Mrs. Bridge”

Whereas Woodward appears to have arrived on screen fully formed and a master of the medium, Newman took a while to find his acting chops.  In the meantime his physical beauty and unforced sex appeal would keep the roles coming.

So, yes, we get a lot of clips from films like “Hud,” “Hombre,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Paris Blues,” “The Stripper,” “The Long Hot Summer,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” — enough to make you want to seek out those treasures for fresh viewings.

But behind the glitz “The Last Movie Stars” is about a man and a woman who managed, against the odds, to stay married for half a century in a business notorious for chewing up and spitting out relationships.

How did they persevere?  As the doc shows, it wasn’t always the idyllic partnership the fan magazines depicted.

Although the series hints (so delicately that you might miss it if you step out for a glass of water) that Newman had an extramarital dalliance our two,  the man didn’t take seriously his sex symbol status.  He was ironic and self-effacing, thankful to be accepted by a woman whom he considered his superior professionally and personally. 

At one point Woodward banned him from the house for a period of weeks. He did penance by sleeping in his car in the driveway.

Meanwhile Woodward (who at age 93 is suffering from dementia) could be ruthlessly honest about putting her work on hold to raise the couple’s three children (and to be stepmother to Newman’s three kids from his first marriage).  She had to play the “little woman: while  her husband’s career — both as actor and race car driver — steamed ahead unchecked.

Woodward actually tells one TV interviewer that if she had it to do over again, she doesn’t know if she’d have children.

Even so, the testimony of her offspring and of family friends suggest that she was a terrific mother who never let those misgivings get in the way of her parental obligations.

In the end, “The Last Movie Stars” becomes an engrossing emotional experience.  One might question whether the series needed to be six hours long, but over time you find yourself sucked into the lives of these two.

In the last episode it is revealed that after he received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, Newman secretly crept into the attic and placed in his wife’s Christmas stocking the last present he would ever give her, a present she would not discover until months after his passing.

I’d call that love.

| Robert W. Butler

Ryan Gosling

“THE GRAY MAN” My rating: C (Netflix)

122 minutes | MPAA: PG-13

“The Gray Man” is so generic its makers could have forgone a title and opted instead for a universal product code.

It would be fitting for a movie whose hero is known only as Six.

The latest from directing siblings Anthony and Joe Russo (Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise) is an international spy thriller that aspires to “Bourne”/”Mission: Impossible”-level intensity but ends up looking like a wannabe.

Apparently mediocrity doesn’t come cheap. “The Gray Man” is allegedly the most expensive original film yet made by Netflix. Maybe they should have spent some of the pyrotechnic budget on a script.

In the first scene a prison inmate (Ryan Gosling) is recruited by CIA operative Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), who offers to train him as a super secret agency assassin. He will become part of the shadowy Sierra program…in fact, we will know him only as Sierra Six.

Fifteen years later Six is in Bangkok on assignment. He’s been given an agency handler, Miranda (Ana de Armas) and instructions to attend a big New Year’s bash and eliminate a fellow who is peddling CIA secrets to the highest bidder.

Thing is, he discovers that the target is one of his fellow Sierra assassins.

The MacGuffin here is a memory stick crammed with evidence of wrongdoing by an agency bigwig (“Bridgerton’s” Regé-Jean Page), who sends the smarmy/ruthless Hansen (Chris Evans) to retrieve it. Hansen’s plan is to get to Six by kidnapping the now-retired Fitzroy and his 15-year-old niece (Julia Butters) — the only two people on earth with whom Six has any sort of relationship.

Chris Evans

Well, the story takes us all over Asia and Europe. Inevitably Hansen’s minions catch up with Six, who always slips away — but not without numerous casualties among the local cops and citizenry.

The action scenes come with preplanned regularity and are busy without really making much of an impression…perhaps because the filmmakers were aiming for a PG-13 rating and couldn’t get really lowdown and dirty.

Gosling — admittedly one of our best actors — really doesn’t have a character to play here. Six is pretty much a blank page.

Faring much better is Evans, who is a shamelessly gleeful villain. With a tight haircut and pencil mustache he looks like the leading man in a ’30s porn short. All that’s missing are the black socks and garters. It may be ham, but it’s the most flavorful thing on screen.

Thornton and de Armas don’t have to do much emoting, and reliable performers like Alfre Woodard and Shea Whigham barely make an impression in brief supporting roles.

Technically the film is OK, and it practically serves as a primer for the use of drone footage…the camera is always zooming through the air, bobbing along the sidewalks and floating over and under structures.

In retrospect “The Gray Man” is a natural for a streaming service…it isn’t good enough to warrant the price of a ticket at the cineplex.

| Robert W. Butler

Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis

“PERSUASION” My rating: C (Netflix)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The Jane Austen purists are hating the new Netflix adaption of Austen’s Persuasion. They object to the many rom-comish liberties screenwriters Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow and director Carrie Cracknell have taken with the novel.

But then the Austen hardcores also hated the 2005 Kiera Knightley “Pride and Prejudice,” which I found quite swoonworthy.

Rather more shocking are the reactions of the mainstream British press: “A travesty.” “Torture.” “At no point do you ever get the sense that anyone’s actually read Persuasion.”

A critic for The Guardian declared it the worst movie ever made, and offered similar thoughts about American actress Dakota Johnson’s lead performance…which suggests to me that the reviewer has only recently come to the job.

Well, this “Persuasion” isn’t very good. It’s not that the filmmakers shouldn’t be free to toy with the source material…just that in almost every case they fail to make their case.

The plot centers on Anne Elliott (Johnson) who several years earlier rejected the love of the Naval officer Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis); friends and family members argued persuasively that he was beneath her. Now officially a spinster, Anne rues that decision.

But wait…Wentworth has returned. He is now the wealthy is captain of his own ship and in the market for a bride. Torn between shame at her earlier behavior and a slow-simmering longing, Anne doesn’t know what to do. This is Regency England after all…individuals are not encouraged to break social norms by speaking their minds.

Then there’s Anne’s wealthy cousin, Elliott (Henry Golding), who comes a-courting but seems, well, disingenuous.

Those who have seen the 1995 “Persuasion,” which took Anne’s predicament as a source of near-tragedy, may be shocked to see how much the new film yuks up the material.

Dakota’s Anne may tell us she fears a life of solitude, but she sure as hell doesn’t act like it. She’s sassy and witty…it’s impossible to feel sorry for her, especially when she spends so much time chugging red wine and stroking her pet bunny. She’s like your fun auntie.

Moreover, Anne treats the camera as her confidante, talking directly to the audience and often rolling her eyes in our direction when members of her family act stupidly, which is always.

The surrounding cast members (in keeping with other post-“Bridgerton” period pieces, they represent a variety of races) offer little support. Most of the women are encouraged to overplay their comic roles (one commentator has suggested the whole thing might benefit from a TV laugh track) while the men are uninteresting stiffs. (The exception is Richard E. Grant, delightfully shallow as Anne’s pompous spendthrift Papa.)

Weirdly enough, after messing ruthlessly with the tone of the piece (surely this is the first time we’ve been treated to the sight of an Austen heroine squatting in the woods to pee), the filmmakers have taken pains to faithfully recreate the costuming and decor of the early 19th century. It’s all been nicely captured by cinematography Joe Anderson, who polishes every image as if it was meant to be framed.

I didn’t hate this Persuasion. I almost wish I did…that would be better than my utter indifference.

| Robert W. Butler

“Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” My rating: B ()

80 minutes | No MPAA rating

One can say with some confidence that virtually every important American of 20th century arts and letters has spent time in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, either as an overnight guest or as a long-term resident.

The roster of artists, writers and musicians who have slumbered (and sometimes partied) under its roof range from Brendan Behan, Salvador Dali and Virgil Thomson to the Sex Pistol’s Sid Vicious and the impossible-to-top young lovers Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Heck, Leonard Cohen wrote a song about the joint.

But do not go to “Dreaming Walls: Inside theChelsea Hotel” expecting a litany of the famous and depraved. Documentarists Maya Duverdier and Amelie van Elmbt have given us something more akin to a tone poem than your traditional nonfiction feature. The best approach is simply to let it wash over you.

Early on one of the Chelsea’s octogenarian inhabitants hobnobs in the hallway with a construction worker who has spent much of the last decade renovating the venerable structure for its new incarnation as a boutique hotel. The young laborer admits while on the job he has sensed the presence of ghosts.

In a sense, Duverdier and Elmbt’s camera becomes one of those ghosts, drifting silently through halls and apartments, some now stripped down to the studs. Periodically the faces of famous Chelsea residents of yore are projected onto the peeling walls…spectres from a colorful past.

Here’s where the Chelsea is right now…the renovations are half completed, but are being held up by long-time habitués who, embracing the New York City equivalent of squatter’s rights, are doing all they can to slow the march of progress. Some have been moved to newly redone (and much smaller) apartments. Others refuse to vacate their homes of longstanding.

The tenants’ association has undergone a bitter division between those who — despite the attendant noise, dust and chaos — welcome progress and those who stubbornly oppose it (one curmudgeon refers to the whole process as “a slow-motion rape”).

Clearly the management recognizes that only death will loosen the grip of some of these old-timers. Work crews have installed a new elevator that will take them and their walkers to an exit at the rear of the building, thus sparing the hotel’s new young, hip and moneyed clientele the trauma of seeing poorly dressed wraiths inching their ways through the lobby.

Lacking any narration or titles to tell us what’s going on, we must get the lay of the land by listening to the residents talk. Happily, they are an interesting bunch, ranging from dancer/choreographer Susan Kleinsinger to artist Skye Ferrante, who fashions exquisite three-dimensional portraits of his fellow Chelseans using only pliers and wire.

There’s a smattering of old films taken at the Chelsea, including an appearance by the late Stanley Bard, for decades the hotel’s manager and probably the person most responsible for nurturing the building’s bohemian atmosphere (he was that rarest of creatures, a businessman who put esthetics on an equal footing with income).

One resident refers to the Chelsea as being like “a grand old tree, chopped down but rooted deep…there’s still life in there.”

“Dreaming Walls” is not encyclopedic and doesn’t want to be. But it gives a tantalizing taste of a grand old institution and the inevitability of change.

| Robert W. Butler

Freida Pinto, Sope Dirisu

“MR. MALCOLM’S LIST” My rating: C (In theaters)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The borderline insufferable “Mr. Malcolm’s List” owes its existence almost exclusively to “Bridgerton,” the Netflix Regency-era bodice ripper that melded multi-racial casting with Jane Austen-ish sensibilities and a good dose of heavy breathing.

Screenwriter Suzanne Allain (adapting her novel) and director Emma Holly Jones (the two also collaborated on a 2019 short film drawn from the book) have given us one of those costume-heavy romances of manners so popular with fans of Anglo-centric entertainment.

The gimmick — not that it’s much of a gimmick in the wake of “Bridgerton” and the recent Dev Patel “David Copperfield” — is that the many characters, from snooty aristocrats to household retainers, are played by a diverse cast representing many races.

Thus our heroine — the sweet, sensible, honest and basically broke Selina — is played by Indian star Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame; her comically scheming, nose-in-the-air cousins are portrayed by Zawe Ashton (whose mother is Ugandan) and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (generic white guy, natch).

The Mr. Malcolm of the title — a fabulously wealthy gent who keeps a list of all the qualities he demands from a potential wife — is played by Sope Dirisu, who is of Nigerian descent.

There’s considerable talent on display given the credits of the many cast members, but all have been undone by the simpering, artificial tone imposed by the writing and directing. The players assume a sort of comic exaggeration that reeks of high school theatrics. I didn’t believe a minute of it.

Moreover, the film never took me by surprise. The plot appears to be strictly by the numbers…I say “appears” because I could only take about 45 minutes of “Mr. Malcolm’s List.” In the unlikely chance that the film utterly redeems itself in the last three reels, I hereby offer my apologies.

Production values are okay, but most of us are past the point where we’ll happily leave the theater whistling the gowns.

| Robert W. Butler

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley

“ELVIS” My rating: B (Theaters)

159 minutes \ MPAA rating: PG-13

Sixty years on it may be difficult for young people to truly fathom the earth-shaking phenomenon that was Elvis Aaron Presley.

Now, thanks to Biz Luhrmann’s monumental “Elvis,” a new generation can relive the madness and wonder of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll.

At its best “Elvis” is a kinetic fever-dream fantasia on rock’s most enduring icon, with newcomer Austin Butler portraying The King in such convincing style that there are moments when I wasn’t sure if I was watching an actor or old footage of the real man.

At other times the film presents as an overlong saga that bogs down in the unchanging relationship between Elvis and his creator/nemesis, Colonel Tom Parker, played by a prosthetics-heavy Tom Hanks as a sort of mumbling Jabba the Hutt.

Presley’s story is not without controversy. He was a natural performer whose sexual charisma flowed effortlessly, but he also seems to have been lazy, self indulgent and weak willed. He played other people’s songs (did he write any of his hits?) and was accused of hijacking the work of black performers. In latter years he was an addict whose bloated form had to be squeezed into those sequined jumpsuits.

But do not expect a revisionist approach in the screenplay by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce. If anything the film is borderline hagiographic (enough so that it carries glowing endorsements from Elvis’ former wife and daughter). What criticism it dishes is aimed squarely at Parker, who boosted his client’s career with brilliant marketing innovations like a Las Vegas residency and satellite concerts while, we’re told, smothering Elvis’ creative impulses through micromanagement.

Remember, this is a Baz Luhrmann movie, one that exploits all the tricks the Australian has perfected over a quarter century of Rococo filmmaking: swooping camera work, insistent rapid-fire editing, variations in film and video stock, animation…the complete contents of Luhrmann’s noggin seem to be splashed across the big screen. It’s such a staggering display that questions and objections fall by the wayside.

“Elvis” works best in its first half, when we get caught up in the giddy, dizzying whirlwind of first-generation rock. We see Elvis as a boy torn between the gutbucket blues he hears in a Mississippi roadhouse and the Gospel celebrations witnessed in a revival tent.

To those fertile elements young Elvis introduced a pelvis-pumping sexual braggadocio. It may have been a calculated act (initially he’s a bit embarrassed by it all), but by God did the girls (and not a few of their mothers) ever respond. These moments are sexy, funny and utterly captivating…after all these jaded years it still seems wholly fresh and original.

“Elvis” is narrated by Colonel Parker…who was neither a colonel nor a Parker but rather a Dutch con artist (he proudly proclaims himself a “Snow Man”) who entered the U.S. illegally and managed to live much of his life off the grid, promoting country music shows. Hanks adopts a near-indecipherable European accent (quite a shock if you’re expecting a good-ol’-boy drawl) that must work its way around an ever-present cigar.

So on top of this being the story of Elvis, we get a heaping helping of Parker apologetics, with the Colonel defending himself from charges that he kept Elvis from realizing his full potential. (For instance, Elvis never realized his dream of a world tour because Parker vetoed the idea. At the time nobody realized that the Colonel didn’t have a passport and couldn’t get one without facing deportation.)

And that’s a problem because Hanks’ Parker is a repellant character. I wanted to spend less time with him and more with Elvis.

More to the point, the Colonel is an unreliable narrator, self-serving and sly. (Luhrmann has fun cinematically name-dropping in the opening scene, referencing Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” as Parker suffers a heart attack in his memorabilia-crammed home — briefly we see that event through the cloudy atmosphere of a snow globe).

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

Basically this is a two-character drama. Oh, there are plenty of peripheral characters — Elvis’ parents (Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh), his child bride Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), not to mention fellow musicians like Little Richard (Alton Mason), Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh),Sister Rosetta Thorpe (Yola), Hank Snow (David Wenham) and B.B. King (Kevin Harrison Jr.).

But most of these characters are little more than window dressing (or, in the case of the black performers, a way of deflecting charges of cultural appropriation). Aside from Elvis and the Colonel, nobody here seems to have a whole lot of gravitas.

Which means there’s much resting on the young shoulders of Butler. Well, out of costume the kid doesn’t look all that much like Elvis but manages — with the help of makeup and wigs — to absolutely nail Presley’s onstage essence, from the gyrating hips to the slightest cock of his cocky head. Like I said, there are moments — especially a late scene in which an on-his-last-legs King croons “Unchained Melody” to a legion of fans) when Luhrmann seems to be cutting between original Elvis footage from 50 years ago and newly filmed material with Butler. Which is which? Damned if I know.

It’s a high wire act. Butler must suggest the darker side of Elvis, must make a nod to the drugs and women and dissipation without undermining the film’s worshipful attitude toward the man’s capacity to entertain and enchant. In a weird way “Elvis” is as important for what it leaves out as what it keeps in, but through it all Butler somehow keeps this big ship steady through sheer force of his screen persona.

It’s a phenomenal movie debut.

Hanks no doubt captures the essence of the Colonel, but I found myself on edge every time the big creep appears.

So to sum up: Butler is a great Elvis. Luhrmann’s kitchen-sink style mostly proves the perfect way to present the King’s story. But in its final third the film runs out of steam…more importantly, when it’s not recreating one of those iconic concert moments “Elvis” becomes emotionally muted, perhaps the result of the filmmakers’ efforts to present its legendary subject in the best possible light.

It’s not a whitewash, exactly, but it comes close.

| Robert W. Butler

Chris Hemsworth

“SPIDERHEAD” My rating: C (Netflix)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A promising premise goes nowhere in “Spiderhead,” a si-fy-ish melodrama that at least allows Chris Hemsworth to play something not of the Marvel Universe.

Scripted by George Saunders, Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese (on whose short story it is based), the film unfolds in a futuristic concrete edifice perched on the edge of an island.

Inside it looks like maybe a posh-if-sterile spa melded with a swingers’ resort. There are video games for the residents to play, good food and apparently a hands-off attitude when it comes to romantic connections between the participants.

But we soon discover that this is actually a high-tech prison dedicated to medical experiments. The residents/subjects are inmates from the mainland who have volunteered to be guinea pigs in return for a more relaxed environment: no armed guards, no bars, no locked doors. Moreover, most of the men and women are non-violent offenders.

We learn about the place through Jeff (Miles Teller), who was convicted of vehicular manslaughter. Most of the time he cohabits with Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), who serves as chef in a well-equipped kitchen.

But periodically Jeff is called to the Spiderhead, a testing center run by Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth), a bespectacled brainiac who is clearly working hard to exude an aura of frat-bro affability. He treats his inmate/subjects like buddies…until it no longer serves his purposes.

Steve is a pharmaceutical wiz who has formulated a wide array of mood-altering drugs. His subjects — all volunteers, remember — never know what they’ll be dosed with when they start a session. It might be potion that makes them laugh uproariously at even the lamest joke. For that matter, under the influence thy will find even human suffering hilarious.

There’s a drug that makes two strangers fall almost instantly and carnally in love…although when the effect has worn off there are no residual feelings of romance or lust.

The worst tests, though, involve Darkenfloss, which plunges the subject into the deepest imaginable depression.

That’s where Jeff has issues. He is expected to collaborate with Steve on who gets Darkenfloss and the dosage to be administered…and he’s deeply disturbed at seeing his fellow human beings in the throes of crippling, even suicidal, downers.

A contest of wills develops between Jeff and Steve…at which point Steve shows his true fascistic colors.

The notion of drugs that can drastically change a person’s mood — almost like a hypnotic suggestion — should be fertile ground for some interesting scenes — everything from comedy to tragedy.

And yet “Spiderhead” — which was directed by Joseph Kosinski of “Top Gun: Maverick” fame — never really takes advantage of the possibilities. In a lot of ways it’s a standard-issue mad-scientist flick.

Let’s give some credit, though, to Hemsworth, who seems to have de-bulked for his role (he never takes his shirt off) and offers a physical vulnerability that is in sharp contrast with his Thor persona. He does a good job of nailing Steve’s malevolent scheming while hiding behind the guise of an apologetic and sympathetic sort.

| Robert W. Butler

Juancho Hernangomez, Adam Sandler

“HUSTLE” My rating: B- (Netflix)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Even Adam Sandler haters should have a good time with “Hustle,” a warm-hearted sports drama that taps into the acting chops Sandler demonstrated in “Uncut Gems” without the attendant angst and anger.

Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a globe-trotting scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. A former college player who screwed up his hand in a car accident, Stanley worships the game of basketball. But years of nearly nonstop travel checking out far-flung potential players have taken their toll…Stanley has spent a big chunk off his life away from his wife (Queen Latifah) and tweener daughter (Jordan Hull).

And then there’s his unfulfilled ambition to become a coach. The team’s aged owner (Robert Duvall) is amendable, but his dickish son and heir (Ben Foster, at his dickishest) wants to keep Stanley exactly where he is. This arrogant tool doesn’t care if Stanley always misses his kid’s birthday parties.

Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ screenplay centers on Stanley’s discovery in Spain of towering amateur player Bo Cruz (real-life NBA pro Juancho Hernangomez), who shows up on the public courts wearing clunky work boots and humiliates all comers.

“It’s as if Scottie Pippen and a wolf had a baby,” Stanley marvels.

On his own dime Stanley brings Bo back to the States, only to find that his bosses don’t see the same potential he does. The plot has Stanley underwriting Bo’s total-immersion training regimen in preparation for an appearance at the NBA draft combine, where hopeful players get to strut their stuff before team owners and coaches.

“Hustle” is packed to the gills with sport-flick cliches. There’s coach/player bonding, an extended (too extended, in fact) training montage, and the usual roadblocks that threaten to derail Bo’s journey to the pros.

But under Jeremiah Zagars’ direction and thanks to a supporting cast of real-life NBA legends (Julius Erving, Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal — it’s like a sports-themed edition of “Where’s Waldo”), “Hustle” feels authentically lived in.

Indeed, one gets the impression that everyone involved in this project absolutely loves the game, and that affection wraps the enterprise in a warm glow.

The seriocomic interplay between Sandler’s and Hernangomez’s characters feels absolutely authentic…maybe Hernangomez is just playing himself, but he seems utterly at ease in front of the camera.

The result is two hours of feel-good that goes down easily. For basketball fans the whole experience should prove borderline orgasmic.

| Robert W. Butler

Emma Mackey, Romain Duris

“EIFFEL” My rating: B- (In theaters)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Is “Eiffel” an historic epic posing as a romantic soap opera? Or the other way around?

In the end it may not matter. This French entry about the building of the Eiffel Tower mixes equal parts engineering/historic geekiness with a bittersweet love yarn that may be largely fictional…and the results are imminently watchable.

Martin Bourboulon’s film (the screenplay is by Caroline Bongrand, Thomas Bidegain and Natalie Carter) begins in New York City where French engineer Gustave Eiffel (Romain Duris) is being feted for his part in erecting the Statue of Liberty. Eiffel did not design the statue, but the steel framework he created for its interior ensures that the great lady will survive centuries of wind and water.

Back in Paris the architect becomes involved in a competition to create a visual landmark for the upcoming International Exposition of 1889. Other teams have proposed towers, but Eiffel deems all their designs “ugly.” He envisions something graceful and sweeping, a skyward soaring monument that appears to defy gravity.

Basically what we have here are two movies. In one the engineer struggles to bring his creation into being.

There are scenes set in the sweaty caissons sunk into the sloppy banks of the Seine which allow workers to prepare the ground in pressurized underwater chambers. There are labor issues. There are a host of design challenges. We see the tower at various stages…one assumes it’s all done with CG but it looks pretty dang convincing.

And then there’s the love story. One of the government officials overseeing the project is Eiffel’s old college buddy Antoine de Rustic (Pierre Deladonchamps); the widowed Eiffel (he has four children) gets the shock of his life when he meets Antoine’s beautiful wife Adrienne (Emma Mackey)…she is none other than the great love of his early years.

A fair chunk of “Eiffel” is devoted to a flashback set 20 years earlier when Eiffel, just starting his career, designed a provincial bridge and fell hard for the spoiled daughter (Mackey, mais oui) of a local bourgeoise. Their secret affair uncovered, the lovers were torn apart. Feeling betrayed, Eiffel got on with his life and career.

But seeing Adrienne again gets those juices flowing and the two once again become lovers, though fate is no kinder the second time around.

Aside from what he accomplished, Gustave Eiffel does not appear to have been a terrifically interesting personality; good thing, then, that Duris oozes quiet charisma. Newcomer Mackey, on the other hand, radiates a the sort of beauty and appeal one associates with Italian actresses like Claudia Cardinale or maybe even Gina Lollobrigida.

But the real star of the show, it’s safe to say, is cinematographer Matias Bouchard, whose images of a bygone era are picture postcard perfect.

| Robert W. Butler

“DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA” My rating: B (Theaters)

125 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The chickens — every last one of them — have come home to roost by the time “Downton Abbey: The New Era” wraps up the saga of the Grantham clan.

Seriously, folks, there are at least a dozen or so mini-plots playing out against the two main narratives in Julian Fellows’ screenplay…just about every character gets his/her moment in the spotlight before bringing down the curtain.

On one level it’s ridiculous…like watching a stage juggler keep a dozen balls in the air while doing a tap dance on one leg and singing “Old MacDonald” in Farsi. At the same time you have to admire the craftsmanship that keeps it all from descending into pure chaos.

Fans of the PBS series and the previous film entry will be beside themselves.

The film begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral. By the time it’s over just about every character is domestically settled (if not in a conventional marriage then in an appropriate arrangement for the personalities in question).

Two big plots here. No. 1: Downton Abbey becomes a movie studio. No. 2: Half the clan heads off to the South of France to explore a new addition to the family holdings and poke around in unexplored Grantham history.

First, the movie narrative. Seems Downton has a very leaky and expensive roof to repair. When movie director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) proposes spending a small fortune for the right to film a motion picture at the abbey, the Granthams swallow their uneasiness about actors (you know, women plastered in makeup and men just plastered) and assent.

Michelle Dockery, Hugh Darcy

At the same time, dowager Violet (Maggie Smith) is informed that a French gentleman she knew as a young bride (we’re talking 1864…the Lincoln administration) has died and left her his estate on the Riviera. So a delegation of family and staff invade the Continent…they can check out the new digs while avoiding the chaos generated by those “movie people” back home.

So basically you’ve got two films that come together at the end.

The one set in England is a riff on “Singin’ in the Rain.” The movie crew are shooting a silent feature, but “The Jazz Singer” has just opened and halfway through filming the movie must convert to sound. (The time appears to be 1928…the Great Depression has not yet reared its ugly head.)

This poses problems for the movie-in-a-movie’s leading lady, Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), who dominates the screen with her cool beauty but in real life is an angry/insecure diva who speaks in a Cockney bray. At this point Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who has stayed behind to hold the fort, discovers she has a talent for voiceover work. At the same time cinema-crazed former footman Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) uses his previously useless knowledge of literature to knock out desperately needed original dialogue for the actors.

Oh, yes, the male lead of the movie being shot is swashbuckling star Guy Dexter (Dominic West), who takes a shine (ahem) to the chief butler, Mr. Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who we learned in the earlier “Downton” movie bats for the other team.

And I haven’t even mentioned the simmering attraction between Dancy’s character and Lady Mary, whose husband (a race car driver played in the previous film by Matthew Goode) is off gallivanting abroad and never seen.

Meanwhile in France, Robert Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) begins to suspect that he is the offspring of an illicit dalliance between his mother and that now-deceased French fellow, whose widow (the great Nathalie Bay, here criminally underused) is incensed about losing her winter palace to a pack of stuffy Brits. But her son (Alex Skarbek) is more welcoming; he believes that Robert is his half brother.

Whoo-hooo! Dirty family laundry!

There are also minor (very minor) conundrums among the abbey staff and various far-flung Grantham relations and acquaintances.

To ensure lots of screen time for everyone in the massive cast (many of whom saw their story arcs resolved in the last movie and have little to do in this one), director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn,” “Woman in Gold”) breaks even the most banal conversation into a series of quick-cut reaction shots so as to register the faces of surrounding cast members. That way everyone gets screen time. It’s like “My Dinner with Andre” filmed like an action sequence.

Silly? Yes. Are we painfully aware of all the seams and cut-and-paste moments in the narrative? Yep.

Does it matter? Probably not. “Downton Abbey: The New Era” is like attending a reunion with people we all know well and whose company, foibles and all, we relish.

Not to mention the costumes and castles.

| Robert W. Butler

Rakel Lenora Flottum, Sam Ashraf

“THE INNOCENTS”: My rating: B (On Demand)

117 minutes | No MPAA rating

Most of us are sentimental slobs when it comes to kids, telling ourselves that children are — up to a certain age, anyway — blemish free. They’ve not yet discovered the possibility of evil.

The ironically-titled “The Innocents” isn’t having any of that.

This weriting/directing effort from Eskil Vogt (screenwriter of the Oscar-nominated “The Worst Person in the World”) makes a case that the demons of cruelty and destruction inhabit even the youngest of us.

It’s not a comforting thought, but it makes for a majorly creepy movie, thanks to four astonishing performances by child actors.

Little Ida (Rakel Lenora Flottum), her parents and her profoundly autistic older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) have just moved into a high-rise apartment building in the wooded suburbs of a Norwegian city. The speechless Anna requires so much attention that the unsupervised Ida is left to her own devices.

Almost immediately she finds a new playmate in Ben (Sam Ashraf), a boy several years her senior.

Ben apparently has no friends his own age; indeed, he’s regularly bullied by older kids hanging around the complex.

But he does have unusual skills. Ben demonstrates his ability to move small objects — a bottle cap, for example — using only his mind. Of course he also has a thing for torturing and killing animals.

Apparently he’s not alone in having unusual powers. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), another girl Ida’s age, has her own eerie skill set. Whereas Ben exhibits a sadistic streak, Aisha exudes charity. She silently focuses on Ida’s big sister Anna, who subsequently shows signs of breaking out of her catatonic bubble and actually communicating with the world beyond her head.

To a large extent “The Innocents” takes Ida’s point of view. She matter-of-factly accepts these supernatural events without comment or analysis; she makes no moral judgment on Ben’s clearly psychotic behavior.

But at a certain point the boy’s powers increase to match his pathology; he’ll move from tormenting animals to attacking the older kids and adults who have made his life miserable. What’s a little girl to do?

Vogt doesn’t attempt to explain how these children developed weird skills. Why they developed them, though, may be inferred from their status as victims. Ben and Aisha are dealing with bullying and racial bigotry (both are of Middle Eastern descent in a world of pink-cheeked blondes), and all three have reason to resent their parents.

Grownups here are viewed mostly as background figures…we’re halfway through the film before one of them is seen in closeup. And the adults have no idea of the black magic unfolding around them.

I mean, these are just kids, right?

| Robert W. Butler

Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren

“THE DUKE” My rating: B (In theaters)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

For all of their perceived stuffiness, the British do love their eccentrics. And in Kempton Bunton — portrayed in Roger Michell’s funny/stirring “The Duke” by the great Jim Broadbent — they had one of the best.

In 1961 Bunton, a 60-year-old taxi driver (among other gigs…the man couldn’t hold a job), was tried for stealing from the National Gallery a portrait of the Duke of Wellington by the great Spanish artist Goya.

A few weeks after the painting went missing Bunto strolled into the museum with the stolen artwork wrapped in brown paper, handed it to a guard and promptly admitted to the theft.

His defense was that the government had, to prevent the painting being returned to Spain, spent 140,000 pounds to purchase the portrait (which, most everyone agreed, wasn’t particularly good even if it did depict a British hero), and that all that money could have been better used to promote the common welfare.

Like, for instance, paying the TV tax of poor English families. From the late 1940s through 2000 British TV owners paid an annual tax meant to underwrite the operations of the BBC. Bunton was on a personal crusade against what he saw as an unfair and regressive tax; in fact he’d briefly gone to prison for failing to pay his own TV tax. (His novel defense was that he’d disabled his set so that it could pick up commercial stations but not the BBC, and therefore he didn’t owe the government a farthing.)

Scripted by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman and directed by Roger Michell (his last film, finished shortly before his death last year), “The Duke” starts out as a study in oddball populism and gradually picks up weight and substance until it’ll damn near have you choking back tears.

Broadbent was clearly born to play Bunton, a character of Dickensian dimensions. A perennial writer of letters to the editor, a critic of the Brit class system and an ambitious but unperformed playwright, the man is always getting into trouble.

But here’s the thing…Kempton Bunton is wildly entertaining. You can’t tell if he’s deliberately giving the middle finger to decorum and propriety, or whether he’s a sort of political/social idiot savant. He delights court watchers with his rapid-fire comebacks (asked where he was born, Bunton replies without missing a beat: “The back bedroom”). At one point the judge cautions that he’s not auditioning for a musical.

Matthew Goode

If Bunton is a rising folk hero in the Old Bailey, he’s in the doghouse at home.

His wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren, dowdied down to the nines) has just about had it with him. While her husband loses job after job she slogs away as a cleaning lady for rich folk. Moreover, she blames him for the death a few years before of their teenage daughter (the movie never really makes clear why she would think that, but there it is).

And, she notes, Kempton is a terrible role model for his two boys, especially the younger, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), who soaks up his pa’s antiestablishment attitudes. (Indeed, as things progress Jackie, in a nifty plot twist, becomes a pivotal figure in his father’s fate.)

Matthew Goode has a juicy supporting role as Bunton’s defense attorney, who has the good sense to simply let his client be himself on the stand, thus winning the hearts of Englishmen everywhere.

“Torn from the headlines” usually indicates a tragedy in the offing. In case of Kempton Bunton it means head-shaking delights.

| Robert W. Butler

Julian Richings as Homunculus

“STANLEYVILLE” My rating: C+ (In theaters)

89 minutes | No MPAA rating

The bizzaro Canadian satire “Stanleyville” might best be described as a  Poverty Row variation on “Squid Game.”

 In this debut feature from writer/director Maxwell McCabe-Lokos a group of dissatisfied individuals are invited to compete in a series of contests, with the winner driving away in a ”habanero-orange compact sport utility vehicle.”

But there’s more at stake, according to the event’s convener, who promises nothing less than “authentic personal transcendence.”

Maria (Susanne Wuest) has a dead-end office job, a couch potato husband and a surly teenage daughter.  So she’s receptive when at a shopping mall a painfully thin man who identifies himself as Homunculus (Julian Richings) approaches here with the news — he’s haltingly reciting an obviously memorized script —  that she’s been specifically chosen to participate in a top secret contest.

It’s not the idea of winning a car that appeals to Maria; rather it’s the challenge. Anything to throw a monkey wrench into her humdrum existence.

Soon she finds herself in competition “pavilion,” actually a space in an old office building that looks and feels like a church social hall…or maybe the faculty lounge at an underfunded public school. 

Homunculus is there to read the convoluted contest rules from a clipboard.  If anybody tries to leave the room before the game is over, nobody wins.

The games themselves range from the mundane (who can blow up and explode the most balloons using only lung power?) to the wacko.  For one challenge contestants are given several hours to build from a junkyard assortment of odds and ends “a functioning telecommunications device.”  Maria’s invention is a conch shell outfitted with wires and antennae that throbs with hot pink illumination and actually plucks ghostly voices from the ether.

McCabe-Lokos and cowriter Rob Benvie populate this limited world with contestants who represent various attitudes reflective of our modern times.

There’s an angry young black woman (Cara Ricketts), a musclebound guy (George Tchortov) constantly slurping protein drinks while trying to rope the other players into his health supplement pyramid scheme; an incredibly fey and goofy “actor” (Adam Brown), and a pompous go-getter (Christian Serritiello) whose open contempt for the other players cannot hide the fact that he’s all windup and no delivery.

Early on the contestants are advised that the game’s most important rule is “do whatever it takes to win.” Add a pistol to the mix and bad things happen.

“Stanleyville’s” cryptic title apparently refers to the photograph on the pavilion wall of Henry Morton Stanley, the Victorian journalist who successfully penetrated the “Dark Continent” to find the missing explorer David Livingstone. Although exactly what we’re to make of this historic reference escapes this reviewer.

Some clever stuff here, but even at a tidy 89 minutes “Stanleyville” runs out of steam after a promising start, leaving us with far more questions than answers. 

“TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: NEW ORLEANS”  My rating: B+ (In  theaters)

115 minutes | No MPAA rating

I cannot even count how many times during “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” I found myself literally bawling with pleasure.

Martin Shore’s documentary love letter to Big Easy musicians (it’s a followup to 2014’s “Take Me to the River,” which probed the Memphis sound) may not be encyclopedic (no one movie could hope to encompass the width and breadth of New Orleans’ musical heritage), but it’s pretty damn staggering nonetheless.

I mean, any film that can enthusiastically embrace Irma Thomas, Snoop Dogg, the Neville Brothers, Ani DiFranco and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (for starters) has got a hell of a reach.

Shore’s approach is simple.  He sets up recording sessions featuring the city’s players — everyone from superstars to working stiffs and even high school students — and lets their creativity run wild. He also revels in pairing music’s elder statesmen with their up-and-coming young counterparts. The results are sublime.

Thus we get blues dowager empress Irma Thomas duetting with Ledisi on “I Wish Someone Would Care.”  The late Dr. John (in one of his last filmed performances) teams with Davell Crawford for “Jock-A-Mo.”  Aaron Neville and the Dirty Dozen Jazz Band rip the place up with the stomping “Street Parade.”  Snoop, G-Eazy and William Bell collaborate on a rap/blues reinterpretation of the classic “Yes We Can Can” (I’ve never cared much for rap, but this number blew me away).

In all there are two dozen performances on display. Not a ringer in the bunch.

And between those there are documentary digressions about the city’s Indian tribes (like the legendary Wild Tchoupitoulas), Preservation Hall,, the second line tradition, the late Allen Touissaint and the continuing fallout from Hurricane Katrina, which displaced scores of musicians, many of whom have been unable to return to Orleans.

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

| Robert W. Butler

Thandiwe Newton, Chris Pine

“ALL THE OLD KNIVES” My rating: C+ (Amazon Prime)

101 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Give the makers of “All the Old Knives” props for delivering a cerebral spy yarn, one free of gunfire, car chases, explosions and the usual trappings of the post-Bond espionage thriller.

There’s more John LeCarre than Michael Bay on display in director Janus Metz’s yarn. Nice change of pace.

Still, it’s a bit underwhelming.

Unfolding simultaneously in several time frames, Olen Steinhauer’s screenplay (based on his novel) begins with the highjacking of a commercial jet liner in Europe.  The terrorists are holding hostage a hundred or so passengers and crew on a runway of Vienna’s international airport.

Spooks at Vienna’s CIA station monitor the situation. They include station chief Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne),  second-in-command Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce) and agents Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison(Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton), who are not only co-workers but lovers.

Eight years after that incident ended tragically, Henry finds himself pulled back into the ugly past with an unwelcome assignment.  It now appears that someone at the Vienna station was in cahoots with the highjackers; boss Vick thinks it was either Bill or Celia, both now retired from the game.

Henry’s first stop is in London to grill Bill; then it’s on to Big Sur country where Celia has married and started a family.  

Much of the story is told in flashback as Henry and Celia share a dinner at a picturesque seaside restaurant.  It’s a curious dance of nerves and insinuation. Ostensibly it’s just a meeting of old friends, but they (and we) know better …for one thing we discover that a fellow diner is in fact an agency hit man waiting for Henry’s nod to move in on Celia.

So it’s kinda tense. Henry and Celia both recognize that despite the friendly small talk with which the meal begins, the episode could end with arrest and imprisonment…if not termination with extreme prejudice.

And then there’s the issue of unrequited love…these two were never so alive as when in each other’s arms and working together on a mission.

Essentially this is a two-handed drama with brief digressions into the past. It’s a chance for Pine and Newton to flex their acting muscles without a lot of cinematic razzle dazzle.

And the plot delivers a satisfying last-minute “gotcha.”

Still, there’s something missing.  We’re told that Henry and Celia were a hot item, but we don’t necessarily feel it. As a result “All the Old Knives” is more a knotty puzzle than a gripping cinema experience.

| Robert W. Butler

“COW” My rating: B- (On Demand)

94 minutes | No MPAA rating

If there is an agenda buried within Andrea Arnold’s “Cow,” I can’t find it.

This documentary from the Oscar-winning maker of “Fish Tank,” “Wuthering Heights,” the Kansas City-lensed “American Honey” and HBO’s “Big Little Lies” follows the life of a cow on an English dairy farm.

There is no narration, no on-screen titles, no real dialogue from the few humans who slip in and out of the frame.

Mostly the film is about a cow, beginning with its birth and ending with…well, I’m not going there.

The doc’s brief glimpses of humans suggest working folk going about their business.  They’re not sentimental about the animals, but then neither are they overtly cruel.

Our bovine heroine — the production notes identify her as Luma — is separated from her mother just days after birth. By necessity she  learns to nurse from a bucket with a rubber nipple (which doesn’t stop her from shoving her nose at the netherparts of her fellow calves in a pathetic search for her mama’s warm udders).

As she grows her horns are burned off and her hooves filed down with an electric grinder (neither procedure appears to cause pain…but who knows?). Each day she goes out with the other cows to graze; in the evening they obediently return to the barn where they will be milked by suction-powered machines.

Magda Kowalczyk’s handheld camera effectively captures the grittiness (not to mention mucus) of animal husbandry, though there are too many moments of “Blair Witch” blurriness and nauseous jiggling.

Whatever emotions a viewer takes away from “Cow” will be, I suspect, the emotions they bring to the experience, since Arnold isn’t showing her cards.

If you’ve grown up on a farm this will all seem pretty ho-hum. Farm animals are a commodity, after all. Grow ‘em, use ‘em, eat ‘em.

If you’re an animal rights activist you’ll probably see Luma’s life as one of forced servitude and the film as a vegan call to arms.  It’s not like this gentle creature has any say in the daily grind or the trajectory of her existence.

Going in, I was half afraid that after watching “Cow” I’d be forever unable to chow down on a burger or plate of ribs.  Not the case.

But it does raise the question of just what Arnold wants us to feel.

| Robert W. Butler

Andy Warhol

“THE ANDY WARHOL DIARIES” My rating: B+ (Netflix)

After viewing the six one-hour episodes that make up Netflix’s “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” I’m not sure I’m any closer to knowing Warhol as a person.

But I’m a lot closer — invested, even — in the mystery.

Let’s say from the outset that this Andrew Rossi-directed documentary series is not a survey course on all things Warhol.  If you’re an art newbie wanting to know what all the fuss was about in an easily digested format, look elsewhere.

You’ll  see lots of his paintings, of course, but this show doesn’t take the art-history approach. Music geeks should note that there’s  no mention of Warhol’s involvement with the seminal rock group the Velvet Underground. Nor is there an attempt to analyze his cinematic output.

The focus here is on Warhol’s interpersonal relationships as revealed in his posthumously published (in 1989) diary, which covered approximately the last decade of his life. One assumes (hopes) that Warhol was being honest in these entries, but there are moments — usually traumatic — when he simply says he’s not going to write about that.

The diary entries are read here by actor Bill Irwin, whose voice has been electronically augmented to mimic Warhol’s.  The results are eerily realistic. Irwin’s approach is appropriately  deadpan; he often ends a sentence on a rising note that suggests a tentative question mark.  Anyway, it sounds just like Andy.

There are dozens of interviews with Warhol friends and associates, critics and others.  And the series offers an unbelievable collection of Warhol film, video and still photos.  Despite his professed shyness,  the man was a publicity whore who over years fashioned his own oddball persona and played the media masterfully.

And yet when it’s all over, Andy Warhol eludes our attempts to pin him down.

Take, for example, the matter of Warhol’s sexuality.  He was queer, but not openly so (he grew  up Catholic in a Slavic enclave in 1940s Pittsburgh; conditioned with nagging inhibitions, he wasn’t  about to go public with his homosexuality).  One assumes that he engaged in sexual relations…but we cannot be sure.  He once dismissed sex as “too messy” to be bothered with.  He shared a bedroom with one of  his lovers, but for all we know it may have been a chaste arrangement.

Throughout the series we witness Warhol being pulled in two directions.  On the one hand, he was reluctant to open himself up emotionally, and this reticence seems to have led to a major breakup.  On the other, the diaries reveal a painfully lonely individual who partied all night at Studio 54, then retreated to the loneliness of his bed. Like just about everyone else, Andy Warhol wanted to be loved.

The first episode in the series lays out the broad strokes of Warhol’s life and career.  The next two center on two men he loved.

Jed Johnson was boy-next-door handsome and met Warhol when he made a delivery to the artist’s famous Factory in NYC; he ended up doing odd jobs around the place and eventually moved in with his boss.

“Nice guy” doesn’t begin to cover Johnson’s positive attributes. He was tremendously loyal to Warhol and had a calming effect on the artist; everyone who knew him seems to have loved him. He started his own interior design business and became a huge success.  Apparently, though, he wanted more from the relationship than Warhol was willing to give.  He became the artists’s great lost love.

Then there’s Jon Gould, a movie studio executive. He, too, was very handsome, and much younger than Warhol.   Again, an all-around nice guy, though apparently more interested in Warhol as a friend than a lover.

Tragically, he died of AIDS at age 33, shortly after abandoning Warhol and life in New York.

Weird note:  Both Jed Johnson and Jon Gould have identical twin brothers who are interviewed for the doc.

Another episode centers on Jean-Michel Basquiat, the young cutting-edge artist befriended by Warhol and with whom he enjoyed a productive artistic collaboration.

Given that Warhol’s essence seems perennially out of reach, is it worth devoting six hours to an epic case of head-scratching? To a mystery with no answer?

Yeah, “The Andy Warhol Diaries” isn’t for everybody. But I don’t regret a minute of the time devoted to watching the documentary. As a time machine into 70s and 80s Manhattan the enterprise is hugely seductive, and in the end I found myself viewing Warhol with unexpected affection.

There’s plenty of eye-catching art here, but in the end, Warhol was his own greatest creation. 

| Robert W. Butler 

Abubakar Salim, Amanda Collin as an interplanetary Adam and Eve

“RAISED BY WOLVES” (HBO Max)

“Raised by Wolves” gets high marks for its ability to inspire navel-gazing and metaphysical thumb-sucking.

Problem is, I watched the first two seasons of this Ridley Scott-produced sci-fier without feeling anything.  Not once. Nada.

Yeah, the series created by Aaron Guzikowski  is teaming with interesting ideas.  But I cared not one whit about any of the characters, their fates or the overall narrative.

Plus the actors are all saddled with the worst hair styles ever seen on television.

Initially the series sets up an intriguing premise.  

In the future Earth has become uninhabitable in a civil war between true believers and atheists (sound familiar?).  Things have gotten so bad that both sides make for a distant planet capable of supporting human life.

Several story threads unfold.

In the central one, a female android called Mother (Amanda Collin) and her assistant, Father (Abubakar Salim), travel to this new Eden. Once there they follow their programming given them by their atheist creator and start raising a family: human children who have gestated in Mother’s body. 

More than a mere caregiver, Mother is a mighty weapon, a so-called Necromancer who has an arsenal of tricks worthy of Superman: heat-ray vision, the ability to fly, unmatched strength. She’ll use them to protect her offspring and to ensure the survival of rational godlessness.

Then there’’s the married couple,  Marcus and Sue (Travis Fimmel, Niamh Algar)  who have been carrying on a losing fight as atheist soldiers.  They escape Earth by undergoing surgery so that they can replace (after assassinating) two high-ranking deists.

Thing is, the man Marcus has replaced is regarded as a prophet.  It isn’t easy keeping one’s secret atheism when surrounded by believers who kowtow to your every whim; before too long Marcus undergoes a fundamental shift in thinking.  Adoration goes to his head and he becomes a convert to the religion he once despised.

Parenting is a big issue here.  Mother and Father must cope with the growing pains of their children and find ways to finesse the emotions that they themselves lack. Meanwhile Marcus and Sue become attached to the son of the couple they are impersonating.  

Niamh Algar, Travis Fimmel

In both cases we have individuals not inclined toward maternal and paternal feelings forced into positions of caring. So the series is very much about discovering one’s nurturing abilities.

And of course it’s also about faith and science, superstition and rationality, feeling and cold, hard calculation.

Yeah, all that’s in there, plus some really spectacular production design and top notch special effects.

But after the first three episodes — which promise epic things to come — “Raised by Wolves” wafts into emotional and narrative oblivion. 

Plus we’re saddled with a really irritating bunch of child actors.

And, apparently, in the future humor no longer exists.

| Robert W. Butler

Celine Held, Zhaila Farmer

“TOPSIDE” My rating: B (In select theaters and on demand)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

Most films today start strong and run out of gas.  

I blame the need to push a script past a phalanx of indifferent gatekeepers. Screenwriters cram all their good ideas in the first few pages so as not to lose the reader; alas, this desperate front loading makes for some pretty awful third acts.

The indie effort “Topside” takes the opposite tack.  It starts slow — too slow, for my taste — but ends on a haunting note.  It’s that rarity…a movie that gets better as it goes along.

Directed and written by Logan George and Celine Held, this festival favorite (it won major awards at SXSW and Venice) hovers somewhere between urban fairy tale and gritty docudrama.

Our main character — at least for the first half — is five-year-old Little (Zhaila Farmer). She lives in NYC, but not the Big Apple we’re familiar with.  Little is part of a community of outsiders residing in the labyrinthine tunnels that make up the subway system.  She may never have seen the full light of day.

The film’s first half hour establishes Little’s environment.  She’s not entirely deprived…there are electric lights here and there, an even a handheld video game player.  She runs and plays and daydreams like other kids, and lives in a hovel decorated with dangling folk art items.

But it’s a life fraught with danger.  Periodically maintenance crews will penetrate this netherworld, leveling subterranean homesteads and sending the residents scurrying for darker corners.

And then there’s Little’s mother Nikki (played by writer/director Held), a single mom with a drug problem.

Nobody in this film discusses why they have chosen a life underground. No doubt economic issues and personal psychosis play major roles.

The turning point of George and Held’s script finds Little and Nikki dispossessed and forced to the surface.  The light, wide open spaces and bustling street life are disorienting — terrifying, even — for Little. Nikki knows her way around this “topside,” and desperately works to keep Little warm and fed while steering clear of the authorities.

They briefly take refuge in a church-run shelter, but cannot avoid drawing attention.  It’s unsafe to stay in one place too long.

“Topside’s” third act shifts almost entirely to Nikki, and it is here that it hits a humanistic high note.  Nikki strives to be a good mother despite her addiction. Nothing matters more to her than her child, and when the two are separated she launches a desperate search that end with a throat-grabbing act of sacrifice.

Before “Topside” George and Held made documentaries about homelessness; their earlier efforts undoubtedly inspire and inform this fictional feature.

But their training in non-fiction cinema is obvious; despite the semi-fantastic setting “Topside” unfolds with an almost documentary honesty and lack of pretension. The visual details, cinematography and unforced performances exude a deeper reality

|Robert W. Butler

“BLACK CRAB: My rating: C+ (Netflix)

114 minutes | No MPAA rating

The Swedish “Black Crab” is really two movies.

The first — the good one —is an icy “lost patrol” adventure steeped in an end-of-the-world angst reminiscent of  Cormack McCarthy’s The Road.

The other movie resembles the finale of any number of James Bond films…complete with mad scientists operating in a hollowed-out mountain stronghold.

The emotional/intellectual distance between the two is enough to cause whiplash.

We  meet Caroline (Noomi Rapace) and her teenage daughter Vanja (Stella Marcimain Klintberg) in a car in a traffic jam. Up ahead there’s shooting. Desperate people run past. Bullets whiz by. The women hunker down in the back seat beneath a blanket and hope they’re not noticed.

The next time we see Caroline she’s about 20 pounds lighter (nobody does emaciated like Rapace) and carrying a military-grade rifle.  It’s the middle of a brutal Scandanavian winter. Stockholm is a bombed-out ruin. (Can’t see this stuff without thinking of Ukraine.)

Moreover, the war is all but lost.  We sort of assume that from the fact that Caroline — a middle-aged housewife — has been given a uniform and pushed into service.

Turns out that she’s uniquely qualified for a special operation that may end the war.  She and a half-dozen fellow soldiers will penetrate enemy lines and deliver a Top Secret package to a laboratory 100 miles to the north.

The enemy (never identified) controls the skies, so they’re to go on foot — or rather, on skates, using the frozen ocean as their highway (the ice is too thin for vehicles, too thick for boats). 

This “Black Crab” is a suicide assignment, but Caroline has special motivation. She’s been told that her daughter awaits her at mission’s end. 

Written and directed by Adam Berg (with a screenplay assist from Aliette Opheim and David Dencik), “Black Crab” is stingy on exposition.  Little is explained…we’re just thrown into the mission.  

Noomi Rapace

One by one the little unit is whittled down.  There are so many ways one can die out here…drowning, hypothermia, gunfire.

From casual conversations we pick up a little about Caroline’s comrades (portrayed by Jakob Oftebro, Dar Salim, Ardalan Esmaili, Aliette Opheim and Eric Enge), but they are painted in broad strokes. 

 The main question — the only one that matters — is who will be next to bite the big one?

And then there’s the nature of the mysterious parcel they are to deliver. 

As a taut tale of survival, “Black Crab” grabs us early.  There’s a fatalistic pall hanging over the proceedings, and the production design (along the way the soldiers take shelter in abandoned houses, an icebound ferry, a wrecked WWII-styled pillbox) reflects the weirdly beautiful but miserably hostile environment. 

It’s only when Caroline and one surviving teammate reach their destination that “Black Crab” falls apart.  Up to that point the story’s gaping holes have been kept at bay through the sheer effectiveness of the direction, design, action sequences and performances.

Now, with much-anticipated answers at hand, all we get is a major intellectual letdown.

| Robert W. Butler

Desi Arnaz, L:ucille Ball

“LUCY AND DESI” My rating: B+ (Amazon Prime)

103 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

By virtue of its having arrived three months after “Becoming the Ricardos,” there will be a tendency to view the documentary “Lucy and Desi” as a sort of supplement to Aaron Sorkin’s fictionalized approach to showbiz power couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Actually, it should be the other way around.

“Lucy and Desi,” directed by Amy Poehler, covers much the same territory as “…Ricardos,” but its impact is vastly more emotional and its aim much more focused.

This is a real-life love story that many of us — thanks to our familiarity with the iconic “I Love Lucy” TV show — will approach as shared family history.  That it has more than a few elements of tragedy only makes it more a more piquant experience.

Superbly scripted by veteran documentarian Mark Monroe, the film was made with the cooperation of Lucy and Desi’s daughter, actress Lucie Arnaz,  and draws from a treasure trove of home movies, “I Love Lucy” clips and archival films and photos.

Especially effective is a collection of never-before-heard audio interviews in which the two stars speak with remarkable candor about their lives and careers.  

Lucie Arnaz also provides numerous talking-head moments, and she appears to be a straight shooter, a woman who loved her parents but doesn’t attempt to whitewash their story.

Other celebrity contributors include Bette Midler, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear and Charo who, like Desi, honed her performing chops at the feet of Latin music legend Xavier Cugat. Curiously the Arnaz’s son, Desi Arnaz Jr., has virtually no presence here, despite the fact that the “I Love Lucy” episode about his birth was the most-watched program of its era.

While I enjoyed Sorkin’s film, I found much new information in Poehler’s effort. Of course we all recognize Lucille Ball as a comedy genius.  Especially revelatory, though,  is the case the documentary makes for Desi Arnaz’s role as a television giant and innovator.

Before this I didn’t realize that he invented the summer rerun…to placate fans who demanded a “Lucy” episode every week…even if they’d already seen it.

And then there was his stewardship of Desilu Studios, which in addition to the “Lucy” show was the home of “The Andy Griffith Show” and its spinoffs, “Star Trek,” “The Untouchables” and a seemingly endless stream of boob tube  classics.

Ironically it was the pressure of running a studio that broke up the Ricardos’ marriage — Desi turned increasingly to drink, which undoubtedly led to bad decisions in the out-of-marriage sex department (not that Desi was unfamiliar with infidelity; for the first five years of their marriage, after all, he led the life of a touring musician).

There are dark elements to this yarn, but “Lucy and Desi” is far from being a downer.  As their daughter notes, the two went on to happy second marriages that lasted much longer than the Lucy/Desi pairing.

And yet we leave the doc with the unmistakeable impressions that Lucy and Desi were the great loves of each other’s lives, and with the sobering knowledge that sometimes even great loves cannot go the distance.

| Robert W. Butler

Hayley Bennett, Peter Dinklage

“CYRANO” My rating: B (In theaters)

124 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like the works of Shakespeare, Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” is imminently adaptable; stage directors and filmmakers can revel in its timelessness while bending and stretching the material to match the current zeitgeist.

Every generation seems to get its own version of the swashbuckling warrior insecure in love because of his monstrous nose; past Cyranos include Jose Ferrer, Gerard Depardieu and, in a comedic updating, Steve Martin.

The new “Cyrano” from director Joe Wright is the same animal — but different. It stars Peter Dinklage, so memorable as Tyrion Lannister in “Game of Thrones,” and while this Cyrano excels at swordsmanship he is crippled romantically not by his big schnozz but by his diminutive size.

Oh, and did I mention that this is a musical?

Based on a stage production scripted by Dinklage’s spouse, Erica Schmidt, and featuring songs by Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Matt Berninger and Carin Besser (of the rock band The National), this lavishly mounted movie version takes a bit of getting used to.

In fact, it took a good 45 minutes for me to feel comfortable with its ambitious conceits.

Initially the uber-realistic 18th-century settings (it was filmed in gorgeous Noto, Italy, which apparently hasn’t changed in centuries) and sometimes graphic violence are a weird fit for a pop musical. And then there’s the nontraditional casting (lots of black faces) that may prove jarring for those expecting historical accuracy.

By film’s end, though, audiences will have been sucked in, thanks primarily to Dinklage’s riveting performance, an inspired blend of physical swagger and emotional reticence, tempered by a savage wit coexisting with a poetic soul.

The story remains pretty much the same. Cyrano has long been in love with childhood friend Roxanne (Hayley Bennett), but has never expressed his yearning, certain he would be rejected for his physical peculiarities. When Roxanne falls for his comrade-in-arms Christian (Kevin Harrison Jr.), Cyrano provides the attractive but tongue-tied fellow with romantic poems and sweet nothings (better to woo Roxanne once removed than not at all).

“I will make you eloquent,” our hero advises Christian, “and you will make me handsome.”

Meanwhile our three protagonists must stymie the machinations of the entitled aristocrat De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), who not only has eyes for Roxanne but is Cyrano and Christian’s commanding officer.

Kevin Harrison Jr. as Christian

The essential “Cyrano” story remains as seductive as ever, and the performances are spot on.

Dinklage may have the greatest hangdog eyes in movie history, and he perfectly captures the character’s conflicting emotions (a cocksure cavalier when it comes to battle, a swooning romantic who is fearful of announcing his love). He’s less a singer than a Rex Harrison-styled reciter of lyrics…but it works.

Bennet nicely captures both Roxanne’s beauty and her childlike superficiality, while offering the production’s best singing voice; Harrison walks a fine line between Christian’s sincerity and his, er, intellectual limitations.

As a musical “Cyrano” is a tad half-hearted. There are only a half dozen numbers, and many of them feel more like fragments of songs than full-blown compositions.

At its best the score has a sweeping pop feel that reminds of early Kate Bush with a dash of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The highlight is the late-in-the-show “Heaven Is Wherever I Fall” in which three soldiers (one played by “Once’s” Glen Hansard) prepare for a fatal charge by writing letters to faraway loved ones. The tune’s throat-stopping blend of heroic fatalism, yearning, and lost possibilities is simply drop-dead gorgeous.

There’s relatively little real dancing here; Wright opts mostly for carefully staged crowd and camera movement. An exception is a number unfolding in a fortress where a regiment of sword-wielding soldiers perform a grand waltz (there’s even some break dancing dropped in).

| Robert W. Butler

“MIL COLMILLAS” My rating: B (HBO Max)

Among my current guilty pleasures is HBO Max’s “Mil Colmillos,” a Colombian TV series that slices and dices several strains of popular sci-fi and action flicks to create its own heady cocktail of mayhem and horror.

Is it good?  Not sure. After all, in English the title is “A Thousand Fangs,” which pretty much announces its pulpy intentions.

What I do know is that I gobbled up its first seven episodes and am now anxiously awaiting the arrival of Season 2.

A squad of Columbian special forces soldiers are sent on a secret assignment into the jungle of a neighboring country.  Since their presence there is completely illegal, they cannot rely on outside help…they’re on their own.

But each episode also contains a mini-episode set in the 1500s in which conquistadores and their Indian scouts go searching in this same jungle for treasure…and stumble across countless horrors.

Both the modern soldiers and the matchlock-toting Spaniards are picked off one by one by the jungle and its denizens.

Just what they’re up against is never made clear.  There are, it goes without saying, fanged humanoids looking for a snack.  But there are also masked locals whipped into a frenzy by a charismatic leader; one entire episode is devoted to the commandos’ defense of a long-abandoned factory compound besieged by hundreds of these fearless, faceless killers.

There are hints of an ancient Indian curse, and possibly a psychotropic drug loose in the environment that can turn a well-trained soldier into a murderous drone.

And it’s pretty obvious that the big brass back at the base know stuff they haven’t shared with the boots on the ground.

There are dark caves and tunnels. Crumbling ruins. Thick vegetation that could be hiding…anything. 

A cynical little voice in the back of my head tells me that that the creators of “Mil Colmillos” cannot possibly find a logical way to sort out all the elements they are throwing at us, that ultimately the series is going to collapse beneath the weight of its pretentions.

And yet on an episode-by-episode basis this is terrific stuff, a survival fantasy in which the characters are reduced to a couple of salient traits (just so we can tell them apart) and simply staying alive becomes their reason for being.

The series borrows shamelessly. “Predator,” zombie flicks, the Kurtz sequence of “Apocalypse Now,” plague melodramas and just about every “lost patrol” movie ever made are sampled and mined for high-tension possibilities.

Yeah, the big payoff may never materialize.  But at the very least “Mil Colmillos” is a happy waste of time.

| Robert W. Butler

“LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM” My rating: B+ (On demand)

110 minutes | No MPAA rating

The familiar trope about the pompous city slicker who falls for the simple charms of the sticks gets an innovative reworking in the Oscar-nominated “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.”

This quiet heart-tugger from the Himalayan nation of Bhutan (It’s been nominated in the foreign language film category) opens in the tiny country’s capital city where twenty something Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) dreams of rock stardom, hopefully in Australia. The closest he’s gotten to fame, though, is open mike night at a local club.

In fact, Ugyen is a bit of a spoiled slacker, resentful that he still has a year to go on his national service contract as an elementary school teacher. He’s even less thrilled when he’s assigned to finish out the year in the mountain town of Lunana, the most remote burg in Bhutan and, by extension, site of the the most remote school in the world.

It takes a long bus ride and a week of uphill walking to even get to the place, and Ugyen almost immediately announces to the town’s headman, Asha (Kunzang Wangdi), that he wants to get back to civilization like, yesterday. The place is cold, the homes are heated with burning yak dung, and there’s no way to recharge Ugyen’s precious iPod (forget about cell phone service).

The school itself is basically four walls, a couple of unsteady tables. No supplies. No paper. No blackboard.

Screw this.

Except…there are the people. Like Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup), Ugyen’s mountain guide, exuding uncluttered decency and charity from every pore. Or Saldon (Keldon Lhamo Gurung), serenading her herd of yaks, singing traditional songs with the voice of an angel. And especially Pem Zan (Pem Zan), a jawdroppingly adorable little girl thrilled to learn at the feet of this worldly guy from the big town.

Ugyen Norbu Lhendup, Pem Zan, Sherab Dorji

The deal is sealed when Saldon lends the teacher her favorite yak, Norbu, who takes up residence in the classroom (where it’s relatively warm) and supplies Ugyen with yak patties for the stove.

Little by little, our man gets sucked into life at the top of the world. And we along with him.

Writer/director Pawo Choyning Dorji manages to avoid all the predictable cliches to deliver a hugely satisfying movie experience. This is all the more amazing when you consider that “Lunana…” has no plot to speak of…no big dramas, no swooning romance. Yet it modestly expands to fill and feed the viewer’s soul.

Special nod to cinematographer Jigme Tenzing, whose images effectively capture both the lush forests of the lower slopes and the semi-barren mountain crests surrounding Lunana. Like almost everything about this movie, they are effortlessly poetic.

| Robert W. Butler

“LOTAWANA” My rating: B (VOD on AppleTV, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Vudu)

90 minutes | No MPAA rating

How best to describe “Lotawana,” Trevor Hawkins’ low-budget, locally-made feature shot mostly in the Kansas City ‘burb of Lake Lotawana?

Maybe “Malick-lite.”

In myriad ways the film comes off as an homage to the idiosyncratic works of Terrence Malick, both in its offhand approach to narrative (like Malick, Hawkins seems to have shot lots of footage and then found his story in the editing room, almost as an afterthought) and in its cosmic/transcendental appreciation of the natural world around us.

The plot — to the extent that “Lotawana” has one — follows the relationship between Forrest (Todd Blubaugh, looking uncannily like folkie Eric Andersen as a young man) and Everly (Nicola Collie), two societal dropouts who find each other and fall in love.

Forrest lives on a sailboat on a Midwestern lake, going ashore mostly to ride his motorcycle at breakneck speed and to hike/camp in the Missouri woods. How this modern-day Thoreau can afford a boat and a bike with no employment is never explained (well-to-do parents?).

Everly’s past is just as vague. She mentions not getting along with her mother and she talks with a hard-to-pin-down accent (Maybe she’s a Brit. Or Australian).

Not much happens in the first half hour. Then Everly announces she’s pregnant. The couple argue, reconcile, plan for a baby with what meager resources they can muster, and undergo a tragedy that almost drives them apart.

In the film’s latter stages we find Everly coping with the emotional turmoil by burgling lakeside vacation homes. The closer she gets to being discovered, the more exciting it is for her. Forrest isn’t so sure. (There are echoes here of the young lover-criminals in Malick’s “Badlands.”)

But then conventional plotting isn’t on Hawkins’ agenda. Scenes don’t so much play in real time as fragment into film snippets; the dialogue is mostly small talk (certainly there are no big quotable speeches).

Serving as his own cinematographer Hawkins concentrates on natural moments — birds, insects, sunsets, fluttering leaves. Forrest and Everly seem to view themselves as unspoiled, semi-civilized inhabitants of this idyllic world.

Happily the movie doesn’t swallow that story without a bit of chewing. Hawkins clearly recognizes the delusional nature of his characters. Why else would he name Forrest’s boat Lorelei after the mythological siren who lures sailors to their doom?

And then there’s the fact that Forrest and Everly, despite their naive ambition to achieve absolute freedom, are bobbing in a relatively small body of water from which they cannot escape.

Some viewers will be seduced by the film’s poetic evocations; others will conclude that the ship is awash with pretentions.

I found myself torn between those two extremes, simultaneously fascinated by Hawkins’ atypical storytelling and visual panache and mildly irritated by the film’s refusal to give us any sort of backstory that would tell us how our protagonists came to be the people they are.

Hawkins — who has nearly 30 shorts under his belt, many of them in the travel/nature genre — shot the film with a crew of only a dozen (most of them friends and family members) and financed the production by mortgaging his house on Lake Lotawana. And he simultaneously produced “At the Helm, the Making of Lotawana,” a documentary about the struggle to complete the film.

| Robert W. Butler


f

Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan

THE TENDER BAR” My rating:  B (Amazon Prime)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Will the real Ben Affleck please stand up?

I cannot think of another major actor — okay…Nicolas Cage — whose public persona ranges so widely between genius and ass-hat smirk monkey. 

One cannot dismiss successes like Affleck’s Oscar-winning “Argo”; at the same time the man’s personal and romantic ups and downs are a publicist’s nightmare and a constant inspiration for late-night talk-show monologues.

I’m happy to report that Affleck gives one of his best performances — hell, one of the best performances of the year — in “The Tender Bar,”  George Clooney’s knowing adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s coming-of-age memoir.

Affleck is essentially a supporting player here but his work is so subtle, insightful and charismatic that all the tabloid baggage falls away and we are left in the thrall of an actor connecting perfectly with his character.

The rest of the film is no slouchfest, either. 

Early on young JR (played to perfection by first-timer Daniel Ranieri) and his mom (Lily Rabe) are forced by economic necessity to return to Mom’s blue-collar home town on Long Island. There they take up residence with crusty Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd), quiet Grandma (Sondra James) and especially JR’s uncle, Charlie (Affleck).

JR is essentially fatherless — his biological sire is a  boozing, womanizing, peripatetic radio deejay several years behind on the child support checks.  Under the circumstances one understands why the kid gravitates to his effortlessly suave uncle.

Charlie runs a working man’s bar filled with garrulous regulars.  Like young JR, Charlie is a huge consumer of good literature. At the same time, he never comes off as effete or uber-intellectual; he’s beloved by his dirt-under-the-nails customers for his arid irony, unforced toughness and down-to-earth humanism.

In effect Charlie and his barflies become JR’s adopted father figures, dispensing whiskey-fueled wisdom and (sometimes intentionally, often not) important life lessons.

Chsitopher Lloyd, Daniel Ranieri

The film wafts back and forth between JR’s boyhood and his young adulthood as an Ivy League university student bent on a literary career (he’s played at this age by Tye Sheridan).

We eavesdrop on his doomed love affair with an upper-middle-class fellow student (Briana Middleton); she’s the child of mixed-race parents who clearly think this proletarian yahoo isn’t nearly good enough for their daughter.

We follow him on his first foray into big-city newspapering.

And the film reaches a dramatic crescendo with a rare meeting of JR and his absent father (Max Martini) in which whatever dreams the kid may have of reconnection are dashed once and for all.

“The Tender Bar” is less a film of big dramatic moments than a gently unfolding idyll of self-discovery and familial nurturing. It’s wistful, warm and wise.

Affleck, Ranieri and Sheridan are terrific.  Also deserving of special notice is Lloyd, whose scraggly Grandpa turns out to be an incredibly smart guy hiding out in a seedy, grumpy-old-man exterior.  You can see where Uncle Charlie got his mojo.

| Robert W. Butler

Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand

“THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH” My rating: B+ (At the Screenland Armour, AMC Town Center)

105 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Has there ever been a more visually ravishing “Macbeth” — or any Shakespeare film, for that matter — than this new version of “the Scottish play” from Joel Coen (half of the famous Coen Brothers in his first solo outing)?

Here’s a case where every element — from acting to the drop-dead gorgeous black-and-white cinematography to the brilliantly conceived production design — come together to reinforce the play’s haunting themes of human desire, fate and inevitability.

Denzel Washington makes a fine Macbeth, while Frances McDormand (aka Mrs. Joel Coen) is even better as his force-of-nature-manipulative Lady.
The lesser roles have been precisely cast and captured for the screen.

But a character unto itself is the brilliant look of the production.  Filmed by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel in a 1:33:1 frame ratio (the classic “Academy aperture”), with settings by Stefan Dechant and costumes by Mary Zophres, the film manages to be simultaneously stripped down and abundantly evocative.

The influence of great German expressionist films like the silent “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is found everywhere.  The yarn unfolds in a sort of nonspecific Medieval world, but one presented with a minimum of period detail.  

The castle walls are looming, smooth and white; there’s none of the grime and wear-and-tear of a realistic rendering. When late in the film the cold hard lines of Macbeth’s throne room are softened by fallen leaves blowing across the stones, the contrast delivers an almost visceral shock.

Like one of those Busby Berkley musical extravaganzas that ostensibly take place in a nightclub (a nightclub that would have to be the size of a football field with an Olympic-sized swimming pool tossed in), this “…Macbeth” might be a gigantic stage production unhampered by the limitations of an actual theater. 

The perfect artificiality of the presentation actually emphasizes and amplifies the play’s dramatic elements; against these stark backdrops human faces take on additional power. 

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail as to plotting. I figure if you’re reading this you’re familiar with the basics (oh, OK…Macbeth and the Missus conspire to kill the king and take his crown, then have to keep murdering to keep it).

But Coen’s screenplay does work a few interesting changes.  For example, the character of Ross (here played by the impossibly slender and slinky Alex Hassell) is typically a spear carrier with a few lines.  Coen has made him a semi-sinister Machiavelli whose allegiance is always in question.

Kathryn Hunter

The biggest departure is in the depiction of the “three weird sisters,” the trio of witches who predict Macbeth’s rise to power.  At the beginning of the film there is but one witch, a twisted crone (Kathryn Hunter) whose old bones contort into a human knot that moves like a crab. In one dazzling shot her image is reflected in a pool of water…but not one image: Two.  So now we have three of her.

Hunter’s performance is scary and riveting.  At times she resembles a fallen bird; at others she dons a cloak and hood, looking a lot like Death in Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”  Of all the images seared into my brain by this movie, Hunter’s gnarled form is the most haunting.

Indeed, a case can be made that this “Macbeth” is more satisfying visually than verbally. That’s not a knock against Washington, McDormand and their co-stars (among them familiar faces like Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Ineson, Harry Melling and Stephen Root as the drunken porter).

It’s just that the picture is such an overwhelmingly visual experience.

| Robert W. Butler

Simon Rex (and friend)

RED ROCKET” My rating: B (Theaters)

128 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Filmmaker Sean Baker sure loves his losers.

His debut feature, “Tangerine,” was a screwball comedy about a transsexual prostitute on Skid Row; his Oscar-nominated “The Florida Project” unfolded amongst the societal outcasts living in a shabby motel in the shadow of Walt Disney World.

It’s a logical progression to his latest, the phallo-centric “Red Rocket,” about an “adult film” actor with a heart of…well, not gold, exactly. Maybe brass. Okay then, tin.

Journeyman actor Simon Rex gives a career high perf as Mikey Saber (as porn names go, this one is actually kind of subtle), who one morning washes up penniless and bruised in the Texas Gulf Coast burg he left two decades earlier.

Clearly, Mikey is trying to outrun something or someone.

He makes his weary way to the home of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her chain-smoking, tubercular-looking mother, Lili (Brenda Deiss, a hoot in her acting debut).

The women want nothing to do with Mikey, who sets up camp on their porch until they change their minds.

Here’s the thing about Mikey: Despite his present miserable circumstances, he talks a good fight. He always has a show-biz story to relate (frequently about the porn biz; his matter-of-factness and professionalism in describing hair-raising physical acts somehow makes it all seem normal), and he’s overflowing with plans for the future.

He’s nothin if not upbeat. Faced with one humiliation after another, he squares his shoulders and tries again.

Little by little he works his way into the house and into Lexi’s bed; he also begins selling for a surly family of ganga dealers, earning enough to pay the monthly mortgage on Lexi and Lili’s home.

Simon Rex, Suzanna Son

But then he spots teenage Strawberry (Suzanna Son) working at a donut shop in the shadow of the oil refinery. She’s red haired and freckled and cute as a button, and Mikey is smitten. Yes, he’s twice her age and then some (she’s barely legal, according to Lone Star law), but his love is pure. So pure that envisions a future with Strawberry in porn.

He’ll return to Los Angeles in triumph and pick up where he left off.

This is all very tacky, but the marvel of Rex’s performance (which is racking up all sorts of nominations this awards season) is the way he humanizes this silly, shallow, delusional yet somehow endearing character. Face it…the potential for creepiness is off the charts, yet Rex slides effortlessly through the needle’s eye.

| Robert W. Butler

Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman

“LICORICE PIZZA” My rating: B (Theaters)

133 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The name Paul Thomas Anderson on a movie (“Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood,
“Boogie Nights,” “The Master”)  usually portends a good dose of  anger, angst and a journey through the underbelly of human experience.

But “Licorice Pizza” is something else entirely — a lighthearted cultural memoir of ‘70s teen life in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. 

So lightly plotted as to be weightless, the film is a celebration of youthful energy and ambition. I’ve no idea how much of it is true memoir and how much fiction, but Anderson has absolutely nailed the essence of its setting in much the same way George Lucas did with “American Graffiti”.

Basically this is a love story…or more accurately a study of long-suffering adolescent lust.

Alana (Alan Haim, of the rock sister trio Haim, for which Anderson has directed several music videos) is in her mid-20s and working for a handsy  photographer who shoots portraits for high school yearbooks.  

They’re snapping mugs at a local school when she’s glommed onto by Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a vaguely pudgy 15-year-old (he looks uncannily like the “Mr. Tambourine Man”-era David Crosby) with the self confidence of a veteran grifter.

Gary wastes no time establishing his celeb bona fides.  He’s a child actor (well, former child actor) still recognized for his recurring role in a TV sitcom. He still goes out for auditions, but mostly his energy is devoted to entrepreneurial efforts…the kid has a never-ending supply of get-rich ideas.

For all his bravado — he appears to be on a first-name basis with every maitre’d in town — Gary is also quite obviously a virgin.  

Alana — whose life to date has been unremarkable — is amused by Gary’s chutzpah. Moreover, the kid actually does have several business concerns going; she could do worse than hook her star to this go-getter.

And so she becomes Girl Friday to a teenage Sammy Glick. 

As for the romantic thing…well, there’s a decade between them, though Gary is clearly the adult in the equation. Of course, under the law he is jail bait, which sets off the queasy meter whenever Alana (or those of us watching) contemplate the possibility of something physical between them.

Anderson’s screenplay finds this duo — often accompanied by a small tribe of tweener hustlers attracted by Gary’s grown-up schemes (they’re like human versions of the Minions) — going through a series of misadventures.

Bradley Cooper, Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim

The most sustained of these has Gary marketing that new invention the water bed. In one jaw-dropping episode he installs a new bed in the posh home of real-life hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters, played by Bradley Cooper as a coked-up maniac late for a date with girlfriend Barbra Streisand.

There are other bizarre encounters, like the one with an over-the-hill action star (Sean Penn) who picks up  Alana  at a restaurant and, at the urging of a drunken movie director (Tom Waits), attempts a jump over a bonfire on a souped-up motorcycle.

And the yarn finds time to plumb Alana’s home life (her disapproving parents and  sisters are portrayed by the actress’s real family members) and her brief fling with a young actor who alienates the clan by admitting he is no longer a practicing Jew.

Astoundingly enough, neither Haim nor Hoffman has ever acted before (although she’s done the rock ’n’ roll thing and he is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Their performances work precisely because they’ve not been over-polished…there’s just a touch of endearing amateurism lurking about, one reinforced by the duo’s look — neither is movie-star handsome/beautiful, and this makes them all the more embraceable.

| Robert W. Butler

Filippo Scotti, Teresa Saponangelo, Tony Servillo

“HAND OF GOD” My rating: B (Netflix)

130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

First things first:  Whenever you get a chance to watch Toni Servillo in a movie — and I don’t care if it’s a cameo in a bad Italian slasher flick — jump at it.

Servillo may be the greatest living cinema actor.  Doesn’t matter the role…he just is.

In the goofy/rapturous “The Hand of God” Servillo once again teams up with writer/director  Paolo Sorrentino (“The Consequences of Love,” “Il Divo,” “The Great Beauty,” “Loro” and the Servillo-less “Youth”) to deliver a filmic memoir of Sorrentino’s boyhood.

Servillo isn’t the star of the show — in fact his character disappears halfway through — but even as member of an ensemble he oozes energy and life., electrifying everything and everyone around him.  

Set in Naples int he 1980s, “Hand…” is a two-part yarn.  The first is an almost Fellini-esque study of a roiling, raunchy Neapolitan family, a band of eccentrics so memorable and entertaining you may want to hang out with them forever.

Our protagonist is teenage Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), probably the most introverted member of his clan. Papa Saverio (Servillo) is a wise and witty jokester who approaches life with a wry grin.  Mom Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) is a live wire who peps up family reunions by juggling oranges. 

They’re such a perfect couple that we — like young Fabietto — are dismayed to learn that away from his family Saverio is a womanizer.

There’s also big brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert), an impossibly handsome kid who naively believes that good looks are all he’ll need for an acting career.  Accompanying his sibling to auditions, Fabietto gets an inkling of what the film biz (his future career) is all about.

There’s a load of wild-hair aunts, uncles and cousins swirling around the family…it’s like something out of “Amacord.”  

The most arresting of these is Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), married to Saverio’s brother and oozing sexuality and neurosis in equal measure.  Fabietto has a huge crush on Aunt Patrizia (who doesn’t think twice about sunbathing nude in front of everyone). But he’s seen enough of her emotional and mental crackups to have his adolescent lust tempered by adult pity.

Luisa Ranieri

The film’s first half is a deep dive into plotless family dynamics, and it is often rudely, riotously funny.

Then tragedy strikes and the tone shifts dramatically. Young Fabietto finds himself working through grief and anxiety. He loses his virginity (not to a girl his age but to the dowager living in the upstairs apartment, who apparently sees him as a sexual charity case). 

Fabietto takes comfort in his soccer obsession and the drama of whether his team will be able to sign a premium player who can turn everything around.

And late in the film he has an all-night chat with a veteran movie director (real-life filmmaker Antonio Capuano, who was a mentor to young Sorrentino), who lays out the path to the kid’s career in movies.

“The Hand of God” is so specific in its depiction of people, places and situations that we understand instinctively that much if not all of the film was pulled from Sorrentino’s personal memories.  This is a movie that really feels lived in.

And the neat thing is that for a couple of hours we get to live in it, too.

| Robert W. Butler

Bradley Cooper

“NIGHTMARE ALLEY” My rating: C+(In theaters)

150 minutes | MPAA rating: R

That Guillermo del Toro is one of our great film craftsmen isn’t in question.

An astonishing degree of attention has been lavished on every image in his “Nightmare Alley”; expect Oscar nominations in virtually all the technical categories: effects, cinematography, costuming, production design.

That said, the film as drama left me…well, indifferent.  

Adapted by del Toro and Kim Morgan from William Lindsay’s novel, this is really two movies.

In the first drifter Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) hobos around the Depression-era U.S. We’ve seen Stanton set fire to a house in which he has placed a body…it’s probable that he’s on the run from the law.

On the verge of starvation, Stanton gets a gig doing manual labor for the operator (William Dafoe) of a sleazy traveling carnival, the kind of shady operation that is always a step ahead of the local moralists and the cops.  (One of their disreputable attractions is “the Geek,” a hairy animalistic wraith who lives in darkness, emerging only to bite the heads off live chickens for the entertainment of the rubes).

For the newcomer the eerie carnival (think “Something Wicked This Way Comes”) offers not only shelter and a paycheck, but a chance to learn a new trade.  Stanton shacks up with Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), learning the tricks of her fake mind-reading act. 

Meanwhile he is drawn to Molly (Rooney Mara), the young beauty who allows herself to be strapped into an electric chair and zapped with thousands of lightning bolts.

The second half of “Nightmare Alley” takes place a couple of years later.  Stanton and Molly have fled the carnival and established themselves as a top mentalist act, performing in posh nightclubs.  Stanton has transformed himself from ragged drifter to swank sophisticate.

Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper

But he’s still a crook at heart, and with the help of a high society shrink (Cate Blanchett) he plans his biggest grift, taking on an impossibly rich captain of industry (Richard Jenkins) who is tormented by his evil past and seeks some sort of metaphysical forgiveness.

Stanton is supremely confidant, but one suspects he is biting off way more than he can chew.

Lindsay’s novel, published in 1946 (and filmed the next year with Tyrone Power in the lead), is a classic noir effort that has been described as “a portrait of the human condition…a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece.”

The main problem with the movie, I think, is that over the last 70-plus years film, television and literature have borrowed shamelessly from Lindsay’s opus.  His ideas have been recirculated with such regularity that del Toro’s film struggles beneath a smothering blanket of been-there-seen-that.

The problem is magnified by the film’s languid running time (2 and 1/2 hours) and the fact that despite the first-rate cast (I haven’t even mentioned Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Mary Steenburgen, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson and Holt McCallany), I found the film emotionally remote. The viewer is left on the outside looking in.

And still…del Toro masterfully creates an overwhelming aura of corruption and exploitation. 

We’ll have to be satisfied with that.

| Robert W. Butler

Dakota Johnson, Olivia Colman

“THE LOST DAUGHTER” My rating: B (In theaters)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Many a man has bailed on his family and kept his social status…but let a woman exhibit indifference toward her children and the pillars of civilization start to crumble.

“The Lost Daughter,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s impressive writing/directing debut, is about a bad mother. At least that’s what a traditional moralist would say.

But things aren’t nearly that cut and dried in this smart, thought-provoking adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s  novel. 

This is a deeply ambivalent, jaw-droopingly subtle effort that eschews the usual big dramatic exposition (“…this is why I did what I did…”) in favor of showing us, building its story (and its case) through the slow accumulation of images and information.

Leda (Olivia Colman) is vacationing alone on a Greek island.  She’s a college professor, a Brit by birth but working in America, and she’s going to spend her summer sitting in the sun and researching her next book.

She tolerates the scuzzy American ex-pat (Ed Harris) who manages the vacation home she rents.  And she’s amused by Will (Paul Mescal), her eager-to-please cabana boy. They enjoy a chaste flirtation.

But Leda is absolutely mesmerized — and appalled — by the family with whom she shares the beach.  They’re a loud, obnoxious bunch.  The head of the clan seems vaguely shady;  he’s got a pregnant trophy wife half his age.

The real object of Leda’s fascination, though, is the man’s daughter-in-law, Nina (Dakota Johnson), who has a handsome but pushy husband and a pretty but spoiled young daughter. 

Lena appears obsessed with the tiny interactions between weary, frustrated mother and willful child. When the little girl goes missing the family is thrown into a panic. Leda finds the child and returns her to the fold…but not without secretly claiming a souvenir of the encounter that will come back to haunt her.

“The Lost Daughter” is being described as a “psychological thriller.” Actually, “psychological jigsaw puzzle” seems more accurate.

Through casual conversation — Gyllenhaal’s dialogue is amazingly unforced and natural — we learn that Leda has two daughter, now in their 20s, who live with her ex.  Apparently she rarely sees them.

Peter Sarsgaartd, Jessie Buckley

In flashbacks we see her as a young mother (played now by Jessie Buckley), struggling to balance family and career, and engaging in an affair with a much-admired professor (Peter Sarsgaard, Guyllenhaal’s spouse) that will push her further away from her conventional existence.

Most women have days in which they would just as soon dump the husband and kids and strike out for parts unknown.  Leda is the rare individual who actually kicks motherhood aside in the hope of discovering a different sort of fulfillment. 

But one does not achieve that sort of liberation without paying a huge emotional price, and the wonder of Colman’s performance is how she tells us everything about what Leda is feeling without actually ever saying anything. 

A lesser filmmaker might make excuses for her heroine’s choices, providing her with explanatory monologues, poking at every little shred of guilt clinging to Leda’s consciousness.

There’s no need for that when you have a leading lady with Colman’s range.

Is Leda a heroine or a villainess?

Why not neither? Or both?

| Robert W. Butler

Kodi Smit-McPhee, Benedict Cumberbatch

“THE POWER OF THE DOG” My rating: B (Netflix)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

I’m not sure that “The Power of the Dog” totally adds up, but its individual equations are often so riveting as to carry us along on a wave of pure creativity.

Based on Thomas Savage’s late-60s novel, the latest from writer/director Jane Campion  (“The Piano”) is less a conventional Western than an incisive dissection of four distinct and often contradictory personalities.

It’s also one of the year’s most visually splendid efforts, so spectacularly framed and shot (by Ari Wegner) that at times it takes on the depth of a masterwork painting.

Bachelor brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons) own a sprawling Montana ranch in the 1920s.  Their substantial wood-paneled home, crammed with expensive furniture and a world-class collection of stuffed wildlife, speaks of massive riches.

And yet the brothers seem indifferent to their wealth.  Phil is the brains and muscle of the outfit, a lanky cowboy who calls the shots and — despite an Ivy League education — is most comfortable on horseback.  He and George inherited the ranch, but Phil learned how to run it at the feet of a near-mythical character called Bronco Henry, who has been dead for some years.

George is, well, kind of useless.  He’s a round-faced cipher who dresses like a banker even on a cattle drive; he has pretty much handed the reins to Phil, who openly addresses  him as “Fatso.”

Jesse Plemons, Kristen Dunst

Conflict arrives with George’s unexpected marriage to Rose (Kirsten Dunst, Plemmons’ real-life spouse),  operator of a boarding house in the small rail center where the Dunbars deposit their herd. 

Phil openly accuses Rose of being a gold digger.

Adding even more tension is Rose’s teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an impossibly thin, lanky kid with an artistic bent (he fashions exquisite flowers from scraps of paper). Phil immediately labels Pete a “Nancy boy” and takes sadistic pleasure in tormenting the newcomer, inviting the other cowpokes to get in on the fun.

It doesn’t take a psych degree to see that the effeminate Peter is stirring up Phil’s own long-suppressed homoerotic tendencies.  Yet “The Power of the Dog”  is far from a traditional coming-out tale.

While there’s genuine sweetness in the thick George’s love of his new wife; that’s not enough to keep Rose from seeking solace in a bottle.  A  Montana ranch is lonely for a woman; Phil’s sneering putdowns make it even worse.

Meanwhile young Peter slowly emerges as the most complex character in sight.  Far from trying hide his “otherness,” he flaunts it.  His posture, his manner of talking, his clothing choices…all seem to be calculated as a silent affront to the cowboy machismo surrounding him.  

In the film’s latter stages it almost seems as if the hard-hearted Phil is undergoing a positive transformation. He slowly takes Peter under his wing, teaching him to ride and rope, and is pleasantly surprised to discover that he and the boy may be on the same aesthetic and philosophical wavelength.

But that is only the setup for a betrayal so devastating that it turns inside out what we think we know about at least two of these characters.

“Power of the Dog” is not a copacetic experience;  it seethes with anger and unhqppiness.  

But it unfolds in an environment of austere beauty. It was filmed in Campion’s native New Zealand, and the nearly bare hills and brown palette create a Western landscape unlike anything I’ve seen before.

The performances are pretty much off the charts, especially from Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee — the former a bully who slowly reveals his sensitive side, the latter a seeming sissy who in reality harbors a methodical and implacable core of steel.

| Robert W. Butler

Ansel Elgort as Tony, Rachel Zegler as Maria

“WEST SIDE STORY”  My rating: B (In theaters)

156 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s really no point in remaking “West Side Story” if you’re only going to recreate the 1961 version. Which was, after all, pretty damn definitive.

And so Steven Spielberg’s  daring re-imagining of this classic — my favorite piece of musical theater, rivaled only by Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” — consistently takes its audience by surprise. You may think you know the show inside out; just wait until the master filmmaker  lays a modern sensibility over the story’s late ‘50s ambience.

In this “WSS” the Puerto Rican characters deliver many of their lines in Spanish without subtitles (not that you’ll need them…you can tell by the performances what’s going on).

Moreover, where appropriate the film has been cast with Latinx performers…no lily white actors trying to pass for ethnics.

Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner, adapting the Arthur Laurents/Ernest Lehman script, have shaken things up, shifting the order of the musical numbers and in some cases giving songs to characters who didn’t sing them in the original.

Of course the dancing (not pure Jerome Robbins but close enough to generate goosebumps), the memorable Leonard Bernstein melodies and those brilliant orchestrations (jazz meets mainstream) remain potent enough to generate tears of aesthetic gratitude.

And the core story of star-crossed lovers seeking fulfillment in a world of hatred and strife is as strong as ever (hey, it’s Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”…borrow from the best.)

But perhaps the filmmakers’ biggest reach is to pump up the material’s psychological and social realism to a near breaking point. It is for this effort that Spielberg’s film has been generating off-the-charts praise — and yet I’ve got to admit to a lot of ambivalence.

Ariana DeBose (in yellow) as Anita, David Alvarez as Bernardo

We understand that the film is taking on some big ideas from the first shot, a flyover of a Manhattan neighborhood falling under the wrecking ball. The few tenement walls still standing are surrounded by piles of rubble and abandoned bathtubs. A billboard announces that this will be the future home of Lincoln Center. 

Of course, when the livable turf is reduced, the remaining inhabitants must duke it out for possession of what’s left.

“West Side Story” has always had an undercurrent of social commentary (just listen to Sondheim’s caustic lyrics for “America”) and an aura of liberal awareness. But this new version brings those concerns front and center, then hammers away at them.

In this retelling Riff (Mike Faist) and his Jets view themselves as the last white men standing against a brown tidal wave. The cynical police detective Schrank (Corey Stoll) taunts the Jets as “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians,” in effect goading them into continual warfare with the just-off-the-boat Puerto Ricans.

That the Jets are nativists has always been an element of “West Side Story,” but never before has that idea been banged on so relentlessly.  No one in the film utters the words “Proud Boys,” but you’d have to have spent the last few years in a cave not to see the racial signifiers.

Simultaneously the film paints a vibrant picture of Latin culture, depicting a neighborhood where huge Puerto Rican flags are painted on walls and the locals can effortlessly turn a block of storefronts into a bubbling ethnic festival. (Indeed, the show-stopping “America” is here performed not at night on a rooftop but in bright sunshine on a busy city street.)

“I Feel Pretty,” a song that has always seemed vaguely out of place, gets a major transformation. Instead of being performed by Maria (Rachel Zegler), Anita (Ariana DeBose) and friends in a modest dress shop, the number unfolds after hours in the department store where the immigrant women fill the ranks of the cleaning crew.  They deliver the lyrics while surrounded by mannikins posed in vignettes drawn from majority white culture…what up to now has been a hummable but thematically thin song suddenly is crawling with wry political/social commentary.

Kushner’s script also pumps up what we know about the characters.  Thus we learn that our Romeo stand-in, Tony (Ansel Elgort), is on parole after spending a couple of years in prison for nearly killing another young man in a brawl. Once one of the Jets’ fiercest fighters, he’s now steering clear of conflict.

Anybody’s, the girl who desperately wants to be one of the Jets, is usually portrayed as a tomboy.  Here, though, she is played by non-binary actor Iris Menas, bringing a whole new level of sexual politics and sexual ambiguity into the mix.

Characters that were basically placeholders in earlier incarnations get a major reworking.

Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James), usually depicted as  a hapless flatfoot, comes off as a decent if weary bloke who’d like to see everybody get along.

Perhaps the biggest character expansion falls to Chino (Josh Andres Rivera), Maria’s gang-approved suitor, who is anything but a thug…he’s going to night school and wants to become a CPA. This bespectacled brainiac is the hope of his community, so much so that Bernardo (David Alvarez) and the Sharks work to keep him out of their conflict with the Jets.

But all that is merely a prelude to the big whopper, the casting of Rita Moreno (she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film) as the widow of Doc, operator of the local pharmacy/candy store.  

Doc, inspired by “Romeo and Juliet’s” Friar Lawrence, never had much of a presence in earlier “WSS” incarnations.  But Moreno emerges as a major character, Tony’s employer and moral backup; she even gets to sing the haunting “Somewhere,” a number traditionally performed by Tony and Maria.

Here’s the thing…all these augmentations and observations had the effect of taking me out of the central romance.

Oh, there were some terrifically romantic moments. Tony and Maria’s meeting at the community dance here unfolds beneath the bleachers, a very nice touch.  And songs like “Maria” and “Tonight” absolutely nail the swooning universal yearning for a love capable of changing the world.

But at a certain point I found the ever-thickening patina of commentary got in the way. A marvel of traditional musical theater is the way in which one-dimensional characters expand through song, finding their true humanity through the synthesis of melody and lyric.

This “West Side Story” gave me so much information, so much detail that I felt I was being force fed rather than discovering.

It’s at moments like this when your faithful critic wonders if I have at long last reached the ranks of grumpy old men.

| Robert W. Butler

Lady Gaga, Adam Driver

“HOUSE OF GUCCI” My rating: C (In theaters)

167 minutes | MPAA rating: R

We’re all familiar with cinematic sagas of backstabbing among the filthy rich. Entire TV series have grown around that idea.

In fact, we’re so accustomed to the wealthy misbehaving that any example of the genre trying to capture our time and attention had best come up with something — an approach, an edge, an attitude — that sets it apart.

This is precisely what Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” fails to do.

This is a multi-character epic of greed and power that is intermittently intriguing but which overall suffers from a bad case of meh

The screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna (based on Sara Gay Forden’s nonfiction book) lacks a point of view or even an obvious purpose.  The story is based on facts, but the telling is satire- and irony-free, a bland recitation of events with no attempt to analyze or interpret.

In a shorter film this might have been finessed, but “…Gucci” runs for more than 2 1/2 hours…by the halfway point a viewer’s attention span starts to wander as it becomes clear we’re not going anywhere.

And director Scott’s heart clearly isn’t in it.  This effort lacks even his trademark visual pizzazz. 

The film is strongest in its early passages, when we’re introduced to Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), who works as a secretary for her papa’s Milanese trucking company.  Gaga once again establishes her bona fides as a genuine movie star…here she seems to be channelling Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobridgida, a potent mixture of sex and sassiness. 

Out partying  one night Patrizia bumps into a rather shy but charming young man who introduces himself as Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver).

He describes himself as a humble law student, but Patrizia recognizes that this is one of the heirs to the Gucci fashion empire.  She starts stalking Maurizio, plotting an “accidental” meeting.

Is she a gold digger?  Well, Maurizio’s uber-cultured father (Jeremy Irons) certainly thinks so, but the film declines to pass judgment.  Patrizia is in some ways solidly plebeian (she doesn’t like reading) but she’s no shortage of ambition, something that gratifies her to Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), who runs the Gucci empire from a New York high rise.

Under his new wife’s insistent prodding the laid-back Maurizio is slowly sucked into the firm’s management, undergoing a bit of a personality change in the process.  Power corrupts, don’t cha know?

In fact, Patrizia makes such a pest of herself, meddling in Gucci business, that divorce rears its ugly head. In a plot development that beggars the imagination (but which actually happened), she befriends a TV psychic (Salma Hayek) and together they put together a hit on hubby.

That’s the main plot thread of “House of Gucci,” but it’s only one of many.  

Jared Leto

The film jerks to life every time Jared Leto makes an appearance as Aldo’s son Paolo, a wannabe designer utterly lacking in taste and talent who owns a big chunk of Guggi stock but is considered an idiot by one and all.  

Leto is unrecognizable beneath bald pate, scraggly hair and double chin…his Paolo is like a parody of every hapless loser you’ve ever met.   You’re almost tempted to feel sorry for him, but the guy is so clueless and irritating we practically take pleasure in his humiliations.

(Some smart grad student in psychology is going to do a thesis on why one of the most handsome actors in Hollywood insists in role after role on uglying himself up beneath layers of grotesque makeup and prosthetics.)

There is no shortage of betrayals here.  Patrizia and Maurizio learn that Uncle Aldo has been cheating on his America taxes and turn him in so they can take over the company.  Then they must face a coup engineered by the CEO of Gucci America (Jack Huston).  

While Patrizia stews in divorcee hell, Maurizio cavorts with a thin French friend (Camille Cottin).

Damn, but these rich folk push the envelope.

Truth be told, most of the performances here are just fine.  It’s the storytelling that lets us down, keeping us at arm’s length and ultimately leaving us without any character to care about.

| Robert W. Butler

Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy

“THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN”  My rating: B+ (Amazon Prime)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Whimsical charm and heartbreaking tragedy achieve a life-affirming reconciliation in “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” a mostly-factual biopic in which Benedict Cumberbatch gives one of his most memorable performances as a true English eccentric.

In his prime Louis Wain (1860 – 1939) was one of England’s most popular illustrators, a sort of artistic idiot savant who could churn out artwork at an amazing pace, painting or drawing using both hands simultaneously. 

His subject matter was equally odd — he specialized in portraits of cats,  often anthropomorphizing them. (You know the poker-playing dog paintings? Same idea, only with felines.) Before Louis Wain the British public regarded cats not as pets but as working animals whose job was to control the rodent population; his widely disseminated artwork turned that notion inside out.

At the onset of Will Sharpe’s film  (Sharpe also co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Stephenson) we find  Louis (Cumberbatch) working part time for a London newspaper editor (Toby Jones) who appreciates the artist’s keen eye and speed in producing drawings of country life, especially animals like bulls, sheep and fowl. (This was before newspapers could reproduce photographs.)

Beyond his skills as an illustrator,  Louis is a tad wacko.  He has theories about undetected electrical currents permeating all existence. (Later in life he would lecture that cats would evolve into superhuman creatures and turn blue in the process.)

He’s an emotionally constipated  social misfit in a late-Victorian world that is all about propriety. He’s a loner who does not play well with others…not that we can blame him. He lives with and provides the only financial support for his mother and five sisters (the most domineering and critical of his siblings is portrayed by the chameleonic Andrea Riseborough). Can’t blame the guy for zoning out in his own bubble.

But then the family hires Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) as governess for the youngest sisters, and Louis is smitten.  In her own way Emily is an outsider, too. They’re made for each other and ere long have moved to a storybook cottage in the countryside. (Erik Wilson’s astounding cinematography is like a pastel-dominated, hand-colored Daguerrotype and employs a square frame format; it’s sort of like watching a magic lantern show from that period.)

The couple adopt a kitten found mewling in a downpour. They take in this creature and treat it both as a child and as an equal.  

Jeeze…what a happy little family.

Except after only a few blissful years Emily sickens, leaving a distraught Louis once again in the demanding arms of his womenfolk.

There’s a bit of good news…the cat portraits he executed for the ailing Emily have morphed into a full-time avocation.  Suddenly he’s wildly popular.  (Not that this materially helped the Wains…Louis — always more an impetuous enthusiast than a calculating businessman —neglected to copyright any of his illustrations and now they’re being exploited while he receives not a penny.)

As it follows Louis’ long life (he died in a mental hospital at age 78) the film alternates between passages of enchanting oddness and moments of crushing sadness. This repetitive first-you’re-up-then-you’re down pattern might be offputting if not for Cumberbatch’s weirdly compelling performance.

In fact, one is tempted to declare Louis Wain the character Cumberbatch was born to play.   With his big, childlike noggin and ability to perfectly project the sense of a man caught up in private reveries, Cumberbatch embodies this oddball in ways that no conventionally handsome actor could.

There are moments here when the actor moves the viewer to tears; at the same time there’s an almost frightening clinical approach to the character.  After watching this performance you’ll understand why Wain fans still argue over whether he was truly schizophrenic (as he was diagnosed at the time) or instead occupyied his own special niche on the spectrum.

“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” has been sumptuously mounted as it follow its subject from the 1880s to the eve of World War II, and the keen-eyed viewer will spot some sly guest appearances by notables like Taika Waititi and singer Nick Cage. The great Olivia Colman provides the slightly wry narration.

| Robert W. Butler

Jude Hill

“BELFAST” My rating: A- (In theaters)

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The first moments of Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” announce that we’re on the cusp of greatness.

And over 90 minutes Branagh’s heartfelt writing/directing effort delivers one of the year’s supreme movie experiences.

The film opens with Chamber of Commerce-style color footage of modern Belfast; then the screen reverts to black and white.

The year is 1969 and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ camera wanders breathlessly among the denizens of a bustling residential street. At the center of the action is 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), all freckles, buck teeth and peach fuzz. He’s an explosion of youthful energy, slaying invisible dragons with a wooden sword.

And then playtime is suddenly over. Buddy freezes while the camera spins around him, revealing at one end of the street — slightly out of focus, making it all the more terrifying — a mob of Protestant rioters who proceed to smash the windows of Catholic houses.

Buddy stands petrified in horror; he’s plucked from the chaos by his mother (Catriona Balfe), who drags him and his teenage brother Will (Lewis McAskle) into the relative safety of their home. As nominal Protestants they’re not targets, but in the chaos anything could happen.

Catriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan

The scene is breathtaking…horrifying yet weirdly beautiful, and it establishes from the outset that the peaceful lives of Buddy and his kin are now forever changed. Religious intolerance and political anger have come to their little corner of Belfast; when next we see Buddy he’s negotiating barbed-wire checkpoints and barricades of abandoned furniture that seal off either end of the street.

“Belfast” references the sectarian civil war that raged in Northern Ireland for decades, but it’s not about history per se. Rather, this is Branagh’s attempt to conjure up his own childhood; it’s a memory play in which very personal moments play out against a looming background of potential violence. There’s not much discussion of politics or Irish history; that’s way over young Buddy’s head.

He’s more concerned with personal issues, like the little Catholic girl at school on whom he has a killer crush, or the threats directed at his father (Jamie Dornan) for refusing to join the Protestant militia (“There’s no ‘our side’ or ‘their side’ on our street.”)

He interacts with his crusty but loving grandparents (Ciaran Hinds, Judi Dench, both shoo-ins for Oscar nominations). He observes his parents’ relationship, the obvious sexual pull between them (in one intoxicating scene they dance in the street to blasts of radio-powered rock ‘n’ roll) and the tensions generated by his father’s work in England (he’s a construction carpenter) and gambling habit.

Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds

And he is reduced to fearful tears when his parents introduce the idea of moving to London, away from danger and everything young Buddy has known.

The film is crammed with eccentric neighbors and memories of TV shows: Raquel Welsh in fur bikini in “One Million Years B.C.”, John Wayne’s comforting machismo in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” episodes of “Star Trek,” and especially “High Noon” (Buddy can’ help but see his own father as a Gary Cooper character faced with a deadly choice).

And there’s the terrifying sermon delivered by a spittle-spewing preacher that has a worried Buddy drawing up eschatological maps that he hopes will guide him away from hell and into the arms of the holy.

Throughout Branagh and his players maintain a careful balancing act between the deeply personal and the achingly universal; every few minutes the film delivers an emotional coda that will leave audiences reeling.

The acting is impeccable (the best ensemble cast in recent memory) and the technical production jaw-dropping beautiful. The framing of individual shots is a model of effective storytelling; it’s not deep focus, exactly, but every shot is so crammed with detail that you’d swear you could smell individual scenes.

Tie it all up with a killer soundtrack of songs by Belfast native Van Morrison, and you have 2021’s best film.

| Robert W. Butler

“FINCH” My rating: B (Apple +)

115 minutes | MPAA:PR-13

Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks could probably sell refrigerators to Eskimos.

That’s what he does, metaphorically speaking, in “Finch,” a post-apocalyptic science fantasy that is equal parts Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road,” Pixar’s “Wall-E” and Hanks’ “Cast Away.”

If that sounds like an unweildy mashup of unlikely bedfellows…well, it is. But Hanks is such a watchable presence that he makes this one-man show worthwhile.

Fitch (Hanks) lives alone in an industrial bunker beneath the ruins of St. Louis. A decade earlier a sonic flare wiped out modern civilization and left Earth scorched by deadly ultraviolet rays.

Most days Fitch suits up in protective gear to search for supplies. He leaves back in the safety of the bunker the only other living creature in his life, a dog named Goodyear on whom he lavishes affection.

The narrative of Miguel Sapochnik’s feature (the script is by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell) centers first on Finch’s constructing a humanoid-ish robot and programming it to learn more or less like a human child.

This creature, who will eventually name itself Jeff, begins by stuttering static but over time learns to talk (Jeff is voiced by Caleb Landry Jones). It is curious, just like a child, which means that it sometimes gets into trouble.

But it is also loyal to its creator/father and understands that its purpose is to take care of Goodyear should anything happen to Finch. Which seems likely, given the bloody cough he’s developed.

The bulk of the film takes place on the road as Finch loads up Jeff and the pooch into an ancient recreational vehicle in an attempt to outrun the killer storms that are racking the Midwest. They head out West; Finch has it in his head that he’d like to see the Golden Gate Bridge.

There are dangers, both natural and manmade. But “Finch” isn’t so much about reaching a destination as experiencing the possibilities of one’s humanity along the way.

Tom Hanks and “Jeff”

As mentioned earlier, this is pretty much a one-man show. Good thing that man is Hanks, who is able to plumb all sorts of levels without ever pushing too hard, developing his character’s crushing loneliness, his need for companionship, his parental instincts, his fears, his hopes and, finally, his resignation to his fate.

Of course he gets immeasurable help from the designers and animators of Jeff, a creation of metal and plastic that develops a personality before our eyes. I can’t tell you how much of Jeff is puppetry, how much CG, but the results are utterly convincing. Rarely does a human actor get the chance to express a character’s personality through physical performance; it’s rarer still to pull it off with a mechanical contraption.

But that’s what production designer Tom Meyer and his crew have achieved here. Jeff may be all nuts and bolts, but he’s also disarmingly human. This is no small accomplishment.

“Finch” is jammed with improbabilities and explains virtually nothing about Finch’s past or how he came to be in this situation.

But here again Hanks compensates just by being, well, Tom Hanks. His essential “Hank-ness” gently expands to fill the gaps. Watching, we understand that we’re in good hands.

| Robert W. Butler

Danielle Deadwyler, Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz

“THE HARDER THEY FALL” My rating: C+ (Netflix)

130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If “The Harder They Fall” is a thematic and narrative mess, at least it’s a moderately entertaining mess.

Jaymes Samuel’s film aspires to Leone-level mythology while delivering an all-black (or mostly black) Western adventure.

Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin have come up with a wholly fictional (and wholly implausible) plot, but they’ve populated it with historic figures…or at least characters who bear the names of real African American noteworthies like Bill Pickett, Stagecoach Mary Fields, Cherokee Bill and Jim Beckworth.

Those names are the most realistic thing about the film. The characters are paper thin (they sometimes accrue a simulacrum of substance through the sheer charisma of the performers) and nothing like psychological realism rears its head.

Similarly, the physical production is impressive without ever really being convincing.  This is an oddly spic-and-span version of the West…the horses bleed when shot but apparently they don’t defecate, given the pristine state of the streets.  The wardrobe choices — especially for the women characters — are quite wonderful in their eccentricity, but at the cost of constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie.

Indeed, the model for “The Harder They Fall” is less the traditional Western than a Marvel movie.  Instead of a crew of specially-gifted superheroes we get two competing crews of specially-gifted and peculiarly-costumed gunfighters.

In a prologue we see outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) invade a remote farmhouse, shoot the husband and wife and terrorize their young son.

Years later that child has grown to be Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), an outlaw gang leader whose specialty is preying on other outlaws.  You see, Nat thirsts for revenge on Rufus, but that killer is serving a life sentence in prison. So he occupies himself with bothering the still-active remnants of Rufus’ gang.

But wouldn’t you know it…Rufus pulls strings and gets himself freed from stir to run amok once again.  You know it’s all going to end with a big shootout that will reduce a frontier town to rubble and a mano-a-mano confrontation between Nate and his nemesis.

The film is packed with terrific actors on both sides of the feud:  Ed Gathegi, Damon Wayans Jr., Lakeith Stanfield. Regina King is too good an actress to be stuck with a cardboard villainess like Trudy Smith, but by God she looks great in her all-black outfit topped by a bowler hat.

Regina King, Idris Elba, LaKeith Stanfield

Zazie Beetz is an alluring explosion of hair as saloon owner Mary Fields, who is also hero Nate’s love interest.

And two members of the Love Gang just about steal the show:  Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, a cross-dressing diminutive saloon bouncer and R.J. Cyler as Beckworth, one of those mouthy, pistol-spinning wannabe gunfighters who exude more bravado than common sense.

Oh, and let’s not forget Delroy Lindo as grizzled lawman Bass Reeves, who teams up with one band of outlaws to defeat an even worse bunch.

This is an Old West where white faces are peripheral at best. Most of the action unfolds in all-black burgs, and while one assumes this milieu would have been rife with racism, the film really isn’t interested in making a social statemtent. 

(Although there’s one elaborate visual joke: the black outlaws decide to rob a bank in a white town…and when I say “white” I mean really white.  The whole place — houses, storefronts, hitching posts, boardwalks — have been painted bright white. You’d have to shade your eyes on a cloudy day.)

Samuel gets playful with the soundtrack, employing bits of Morricone mischief but relying mostly on reggae.  

On the downside there are several moments of pure sadism that leave a bad taste. And the screenplay features a couple of long monologues that really only prove how much better Tarantino is at this sort of thing.

But, hey, the film looks great. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography lovingly dwells on both the Western landscape and the faces of the players.

If it all never really comes together coherently, at least there’s plenty to look at.

| Robert W. Butler

Matthias Schweighofer

“Army of Thieves” My rating: B- (Netflix)

127 minutes | No MPAA rating

The heist-in-zombie-plagued-Las Vegas title “Army of the Dead” was, to me, anyway, a big bloated bore.

Weirdly, I kinda love “Army of Thieves,” a prequel that provides the back story of Ludwig Dieter, the squirrelly safecracker from the first movie.

Combining the whimsey and visual panache of “Amelie” with the well-worn cliches of a caper flick (with, yeah,  zombies lurking in the distant background), this effort from director Matthias Schweighofer (who also stars as the nimble-fingered Dieter) manages to be consistently diverting.

In large part it’s because Schweighofer is so good as Dieter, a safe-obsessed German nerd who in moments of crisis shrieks like a schoolgirl. He’s anything but heroic…in fact, the sorts of manly characters who usually dominate action films are here portrayed as villains.

Dieter has a little-watched YouTube series in which he rhapsodizes about a safe designer from the early 1900s who produced four impenetrable bank vaults inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

They’ve got names like Siegfried and Valkyrie and each has a specific design guaranteed to discourage any robbery attempts.

Apparently Dieter has one steady viewer. He’s contacted by the gorgeous Gwendoline (“GoT’s” Nathalie Emmanuel) who wants him to join her team of bank robbers.  Her plan is to hit the Ring Cycle safes in various banks across Europe, then move on to the final objective, the massive Gotterdammerung beneath a Las Vegas casino.

(News broadcasts scattered throughout the film inform us that there’s a zombie outbreak in Vegas.  The plague is yet to cross the Atlantic.)

Other members of the team include a master computer hacker (Ruby O. Fee), a skilled if overly-chatty getaway driver (Guz Khan) and the preening Brad (Stuart Martin), an imposing physical specimen who’s a dead-ringer for Hugh Jackman in Wolverine mode.

Turns out the intimidating Brad is also Gwendoline’s current squeeze, a situation that poses additional dangers as our dweeby protagonist finds himself falling ever more deeply for his boss lady’s charms. (Hard to blame him…Gwendoline is pretty charming.)

Shay Hatton’s screenplay (he also penned “Army of the Dead”) is jammed with amusing wordplay (whereas the earlier film was jammed with over-the-top mayhem) and the heist sequences have been paced and edited for maximum tension.

“Army of Thieves” ends pretty much where “Army of the Dead” began…but its pleasures don’t require any knowledge of the earlier movie.  It’s just fun.

| Robert W. Butler

Catherine Keener, Charlie Heaton

“NO FUTURE” My rating: B- (Amazon Prime)

89 minutes | No MPAA rating

A young man has a love affair with his best friend’s mom.

Sounds like not-very-original porn.

Well, “No Future” isn’t porn, at least not in the conventional sense.  Some viewers may find its singleminded obsession with dead-end lives a form of pornography.

What we’ve got in Andrew Irvine and Mark Smoot’s feature (they share both writing and directing credits) is a dour drama about a recovering addict struggling to stick to the straight and narrow and consumed with guilt about the bad stuff he did while under the influence.

Will (“Stranger Things’” Charlie Heaton, who possesses the saddest set of eyes this side of an abused Bassett Hound) lives in what appears to be a small Texas town.  He’s been going regularly to AA meetings, has an attentive and loving girlfriend (Rosa Salazar).

But he’s haunted by his past.  His widowed father (Jackie Earle Haley) can barely tolerate his son…seems that when Will’s mom was dying of cancer the kid pilfered her pain meds.

Will’s past comes back to haunt him in even more immediate fashion with the unexpected arrival of his childhood friend Chris (“Yellowstone’s” Jefferson White), fresh out of prison and falling back into his old ways.  Will was largely responsible for Chris becoming a junkie; now his old bud’s presence threatens Will’s recovery.  He tells Chris they can’t associate.

Chis resignedly accepts this fact, then goes home and overdoses. Accident or suicide? That’s the question that torments his mother Claire (Catherine Keener), who discovers the body.

Despite the 30 or more years separating them, Will and Claire find themselves in a secret physical relationship that oozes grief, guilt and loss. Maybe they somehow assume their affair will make them feel better.

Nope.  A shroud of desperation and doom envelops “No Future”…hell, the title alone should raise red flags.

To their credit, the filmmakers don’t dwell on the sexual nature of this pairing.  Their approach is utterly sincere, soberly non exploitative. 

And the performances — especially from Keener in full anti-glamour mode — are the stuff of heartbreak.

And yet “No Future” is so unrelentingly glum that it’s a struggle to sit through.  Ultimately the experience is so devoid of hope that some may leave the film feeling that recovery is an impossibility.

Surely that’s not the message we’re supposed to take away.

| Robert W. Butler

Zendaya, Timothee Chalamet

“DUNE” My rating: B (In theaters and HBO Max)

155 minutes | |MPAA rating: PG-13

In making his new version of “Dune,” director  Denis Villeneuve has followed his own version of the Hippocratic oath.

Rather than “First, do no harm,” his mantra has been “Above all, do nothing stupid.”

And he hasn’t. 

 Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling 1965 sci-fi epic is consistently smart, effectively acted  and  spectacularly well designed.

 If its slow pacing will irritate some and its emotional distance prove problematic, at least there are none of the wince-worthy moments that marred David Lynch’s 1984 version.

Fans of the novel should be overcome with gratitude that a world-class director took on this material with respect and insight.  It’s an astoundingly faithful film adaptation; whatever narrative issues the film possesses are those of the novel.

First things first…even at 2 hours and 35 minutes this is only half the “Dune” story.  It ends with young Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) a fugitive from the brutal Harkonnen  clan who have killed his father and seized control of the desert planet Arrakis and its vast wealth of spice. When last we see him he’s been taken in by the Fremen, the cave-dwelling locals.

Spice — for any reader who somehow managed to avoid the book as a young person —  is a hallucinogen mined from the sand dunes of Arrakis; its properties make space navigation possible and will fuel the mystical revolution that will undoubtedly dominate a second “Dune” movie. 

But here’s the deal:  I’m not even going to try here to delve into all the story’s plot points: the betrayals, the minor characters,  the allegorical parallels (Paul’s universe-spanning revolt, carried out by religious fanatics from the desert, smacks of our own issues with Islamic fundamentalism).  

I’m gonna assume most of you know the book and want to know how it works as a film.

Well, it works just fine.  Going in I feared that the reedy Chalamet would be just too damn wimpy for the key role of Paul, but you can feel the character grow and mature from scene to scene.

We barely get to spend any time with Zendaya as Chani, the girl-warrior who will become Paul’s paramour (though seen throughout in Paul’s visions, she doesn’t show up as an actual character until the last 15 minutes); but she looks great and exudes the appropriate don’t-screw-with-me desert attitude.

Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac

There are so many characters here that few get much screen time.  Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson have real presence as Paul’s parents, while players like Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Charlotte Rampling and Javier Bardem barely get a chance to register.

A happy exception is Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, Paul’s military mentor and friend; I don’t know if it’s good acting or if I just like watching Momoa, but he really makes an impression.

(BTW: Look for Kansas City-reared actors Stephen McKinley Henderson and David Dastmalchian in supporting roles.)

Production quality is off the charts (I was particularly taken with the “dragonfly” aircraft employed on Arrakis) and the costuming hugely effective.

The big battle scenes feel a little generic…the violence is PG-13 and I was a tad underwhelmed.

And while I was never bored by this “Dune,” I was never really moved, either.  It’s a good ride, but I wasn’t blown away.

Still, I’m ready for Part II. The sooner the better.

| Robert W. Butler

The Velvet Underground…and Nico

“THE VELVET UNDERGROUND”  My rating: B (Apple +)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Todd Haynes’ new documentary about The Velvet Underground is a movie made by a fan for other fans.

It presumes a certain amount of shared musical history on the part of viewers. It is most definitely NOT “Velvet Underground 101.”  

It’s not interested in dragging out scholarly arguments about the Velvet Underground’s contribution to punk culture or in laying out a careful chronology of the band’s birth and demise.  There’s no analysis of the place of Velvets Lou Reed and John Cale as formidable  solo artists. Heck, I don’t think even one of the band’s songs is played from beginning to end…mostly we get tantalizing snippets. 

Instead Haynes (who has a history of music-themed films like “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” “Velvet Goldmine” and the Dylan-centric “I’m Not There”) strives to give us a broad  impressionistic view of the personalities behind the Velvets and the early-‘60s Bohemian New York milieu which spawned them.

He draws heavily on archival footage of Andy Warhol’s Factory, with its heady mishmash of visual artists, actors, poets, dancers and musicians, creating hallucinogenic montages — including tons of split-screen effects — that look for all the world like one of those early rock concert light shows.

He interviews the two surviving members of the original Velvets (the viola-playing Welshman Cale and the androgynous drummer Maureen Tucker) and draws extensively on audio recordings of the late Lou Reed talking about his time with the band.

Fellow musician Jonathan Richman, a Velvets acolyte back in the day, pops up frequently to discuss why, in his estimation, the band mattered.

There is, of course, a chunk of the film devoted to the late Nico, the neurasthenic German blonde hand-picked by Warhol to be the band’s coolly sexy talisman and, hopefully, their introduction to the commercial mainstream. (Keep dreaming, Andy…not in a million years.)

On some levels “The Velvet Underground” is maddeningly superficial.  The rift between Cale and Reed that led to the latter secretly “firing” the former is written off as a personality clash.  Well, yeah, but how about some details?

And Reed’s notorious bad behavior (often drug-fueled) at various stages of his career is pushed aside and glossed over.

But to watch this doc is to be plunged into the heady world of early art rock with all its dissonance and angst.  It’s a time machine really, and for Velvet fans it’s a nostalgic trip back to the creation of a band that regarded nostalgia as the purview of losers.

| Robert W. Butler

Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimptgon

“MASS” My rating: B+ (AMC Town Center)

110 minutes | MPAA: PG-13

There’s no way “Mass” should work.

Or even if it works, the very premise sounds so unbearable that only masochists would show up for it.

But here’s the thing: Fran Kranz’s feature writing/directing debut (up to now I’ve know him only as the actor who nailed the comically stoned Marty in 2011’s “Cabin in the Woods”) is not only supernaturally well-written, but offers performances of jaw-dropping depth.

The squirm-worthy setup: Two couples meet in a nondescript church parlor to discuss a tragedy more than a decade old. One pair are mourning the death of their son in a school mass shooting. The other are the parents of the killer. This is the first time they’ve spoken to each other without the presence of cameras and reporters and lawyers.

The film’s first 20 minutes are a tease of sorts. Kranz devotes much time to the efforts of two church volunteers (Breeda Wool, Kagen Albright) to prepare a space for the meeting. A rep (Michelle N. Carter) of an agency that deals with this sort of reconciliation makes an inspection and offers suggestions (she’s concerned that the sound of a choir practice elsewhere in the building may drift into the room; also, a table full of refreshments makes it look too much like a party).

We meet the first couple, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton), sitting in their car outside. They’re not sure they can go through with this.

At this point in the proceeding we’re not sure if they’re the parents of the killer or of one of his victims: in fact, that uncertainty lingers for several minutes after the arrival of the other couple, Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney). It takes some uncomfortable small talk before they get down to discussing what haunts them all and we figure out who’s who.

Over the course of 90 real-time minutes they move from wary politeness to bitterness, fury, regret and eventually a sort of mutual conciliation borne of shared pain.

For while Jay and Gail finally have the opportunity to rail at Linda and Richard for ignoring the signals that their loner son was homicidal, it becomes clear that far from being neglectful, Linda and Richard watched their boy, got him therapy, and were relieved when it appeared (falsely) that he had finally found his place in high school society.

Ann Dowd, Reed Birney

And in the wake of all that horror, Linda and Richard have been dunned with lawsuits, hounded by the media. Their marriage has fallen apart. They’re so sorry, but don’t know what else they might have done.

A lesser writer than Kranz would have penned all sorts of declarative passages to delineate where these characters are coming from. Not here. We pick up most of the details of that tragic day and its aftermath tangentially, assembling a big picture from small reveals.

Watching this all unfold on a single set, one assumes “Mass” is an adaptation of stage play. Nope. Kranz wrote it for the screen. But even then he doesn’t gussie things up cinematically. His camera is mostly stationary (a couple of pans between speakers), there’s no musical track to speak of…the emphasis is on the characters.

And, Holy Shit, do his four lead players come through.

Isaacs nails the American male who nurses his pain within a shell of outward masculinity (you’d never know he was a Brit); Plimpton brilliantly traverses her character’s journey from resentment to generosity.

But the show is stolen by Dowd and Birney as the parents of the killer. Dowd will forever be known as one of the great villains for her turn as the tormenting Aunt Lydia on “The Handmaid’s Tale”; here she is devastating as Linda, pathetic in her attempts to please and crippled by grief and guilt.

And Birney (the least known of the four major players despite a Tony, an Obie and 45 years as one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors) damn near steals the show as Richard, a white-collar conservative (he shows up in suit and tie) whom many will initially see as perennially in denial. But just wait; before it’s all over Richard will reveal anguish to match that of anyone else.

Hard to believe this Kranz’s first turn behind the camera. I’m dying to see what he gives us next.

|Robert W. Butler

Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr.

“NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK” My rating: C (VOD on Oct. 15)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Time travel love stories — the ones that work, anyway — convince us of the inevitability of two souls finding each other across temporal and spacial eternities.

Basically you’ve got to leave one of these flicks feeling that the love relationship depicted is so earth-shakingly right that it must have been preordained by the fates.

John Ridley’s “Needle in a Timestack” aims for that sort of certainty in love…but comes up short.

It’s not for want of trying. The film has been very well cast; the performances are solid.

And yet it never quite works. Mainly, I think, because it doesn’t believe it’s own line of b.s.

Ridley’s screenplay (based on Robert Silverberg’s short story) unfolds in a near future that looks pretty much like ours. The big difference is that the world now is plagued with “time shifts,” waves of distortion that move across the landscape like a liquid wall.

In their wake some people’s realities are altered. They now have different spouses or jobs…and they have no memory of their previous lives.

Moreover, time travel is now a luxury available to the very wealthy. Despite rules to prevent the retro-retooling of the present, some of these high-tech vacationers do go into the past in order to fiddle with the future.

How did these “time shifts” come to be? Experiment gone bad? Interplanetary collision? COVID vaccine side effects?

The film doesn’t explain. Which is the first strike against it.

Anyway, Nick and Janine (Leslie Odom Jr., Cynthia Erivo) are deeply in love. So they tell us…I never once felt it.

But in the wake of a particularly disruptive time shift, Nick becomes uneasy, convinced that Janine’s ex, the fabulously wealthy tech industrialist Tommy (Orlando Bloom), is using time travel to alter the past so as to reclaim Janine.

Maybe Nick is just paranoid. Or maybe not…his own sister (Jadyn Wang) has gone deep into debt in order to travel back in time to prevent the accidental death of her best friend.

In flashbacks (are they flashbacks, really, or an alternative reality depicting a different time line?) we witness Nick’s doomed romance with Alex (Freida Pinto)…doomed because without him realizing it, he’s fated to end up with Janine.”Fated” may be the wrong word. As Ridley’s dialogue insists on telling us at every opportunity, time is a circle. No beginning, no end, just an eternal round and round and round.

Now that’s a nifty concept, one thoroughly examined in countless pot-fueled late-night sessions in college dorm rooms. But “Needle in a Timestack” never makes its case emotionally. It’s more like a schematic for a Ted Talk.

Ridley, a cinematic jack of all trades (numerous producing credits, a mess of screenplays — “Three Kings,” “Red Tails,” “12 Years a Slave” — and a ton of TV) gets props for eschewing the usual fx-heavy trappings (when late in the film Nick becomes a time traveler, the tech is absurdly low) and concentrating instead on the human issues.

But something has gone wrong. At film’s end my reaction was less “aaaahhhhhh” than “uuuuuuuhhhh?”

| Robert W. Butler

Mary Elizabeth Winstead

“KATE” My rating: B (Netflix)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” and the noir classic “D.O.A.” had a baby, it would look a lot like “Kate,” a lean, sleek female-centric actioner from director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan that arrives with a bang, knocks your socks off for 90 minutes, and leaves you limp but weirdly invigorated.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead portrays our title character, an orphan (think “La Femme Nikita”) trained in the arts of assassination by an untrustworthy father figure (Woody Harrellson) and turned loose to do the dirty work of the Yakuza families of Tokyo.

Early on Kate passes out while driving; she awakens in a hospital where (like Edmund O’Brien in “D.O.A.”) she’s informed that she has ingested a lethal dose of radioactive material. She’s got maybe 24 hours.

She’ll use that time to ruthlessly hunt down her poisoner, a high-ranking gangster who believes she knows too much to be allowed to retire. Along the way she’ll kidnap the guy’s teenage granddaughter (Miku Patricia Martineau), who over the course of a long night morphs from entitled brat to Kate’s Girl Friday and avenging mini-angel.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Miku Patricia Martineau

“Kate” doesn’t require an actress as talented as Winstead (check out her exemplary work on the second season of “Fargo” and the criminally underappreciated political/horror spoof “BrainDead”). Mostly she has to look good with a gun…mission accomplished.

But Winstead imbues her relentless killer with very human moments and frailties. After a while it’s positively painful to watch her radiated body fall apart before our eyes; yet our girl always finds the superhuman strength to take on one more bad guy.

And the fight scenes…wow. They come with clockwork regularity and have the furious intensity of a John Wick confrontation. Guns, knives, swords, feet, knuckles…Kate employs them all to leave behind a long trail of dead Yakuza.

The film is crammed with little homages to other movies: “Kill Bill” (a nightclub with an all-girl band, a duel with samurai swords, a deadly schoolgirl), “Aliens” (Kate chops off her hair into a mayhem-friendly Ripley ‘do), “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (the adolescent sidekick) and a slew of others.

Plus the Japanese players have been cast for their unique facial features. Talk about a passle of memorable mugs.

Director Nicolas-Troyan is the guy behind the “Snow White” franchise, which I’ve found visually interesting and dramatically inert. But here he boils things down to pure movement — there’s a nighttime shootout involving dozens of gunmen, all armed with laser-equipped automatic weapons, and the ballet of zig-zagging light beams, bloody eruptions and shattering glass is like nothing I’ve seen before.

“Kate” doesn’t go deep, but it is unquestionably the most satisfying of the recent crop of tough-girl action films. Just enjoy the ride.

| Robert W. Butler

Evangeline Lilly, Jason Sudeikis

“SOUTH OF HEAVEN” My rating: C (Glenwood Arts and VOD)

120 minutes | No MPAA rating

Thanks to the awards magnet known as “Ted Lasso,” 2021 is going down as Jason Sudeikis’ year. Not even a misstep like “South of Heaven” will change that.

What we’ve got here is a multiple-personality crime yarn about an ex-con who gets caught up in ugly (and wildly improbable) events.

We first meet Jimmy (the KC-reared Sudeikis) at his parole hearing in a Texas prison.  He tells the board that after serving 12 years of a 15-year sentence for bank robbery, he’s ready to return home and nurse his childhood sweetheart, who is dying of cancer.

“Lasso” fans may be struck with deja vu.  Jimmy has more than a little in common with the Kansas-bred coach.  There’s no ‘stache, but he shares with Ted a laconic nice-guyness and an innate sweetness. (In fact, Jimmy seems way too copacetic to be a career crook; eventually we’ll learn that the botched bank job was his only foray into crime.) 

Moreover, both characters have that aw-shucks Midwestern way of talking. The big difference is that Ted is bent on amusing us, what with all his witty literary and cultural namedropping. Jimmy, on the other hand, isn’t deliberately funny and doesn’t have all that much to say.

Initially Aharon Keshales’ film (co-written with Kai Mark and Navot Papushado) presents itself as a tear-jerking love story.  The paroled Jimmy returns to his gal Annie (Evangeline Lilly with a blond pixie cut); he’s devoted to making her last months count.

But staying straight ain’t easy.  Jimmy’s parole officer, Schmidt (Shea Whigham, a fine actor here shamelessly overacting), is a creep who threatens to send Jimmy back to prison if he doesn’t serve as a mule in Schmidt’s mini crime syndicate.

On Schmidt’s behalf our reluctant hero finds himself running afoul of both a Hispanic drug lord (Amaury Nolasco) and an African-American gangster (Mike Colter).  (Why are the heavies minorities? Just curious.) At one point the latter kidnaps Annie because he believes Jimmy has made off with a half million of his ill-gotten gains.

Mike Colter

A desperate Jimmy responds by snatching the gangster’s entitled tweener son (Thaddeus J. Mixson).

Yeah, there’s way too much plot here, all of it ending in a most unromantic blood bath.

The screenplay alternates between moments of ghastly violence and sadism and genuinely thoughtful interludes, like the odd friendships that develops between Annie and the gangster and Jimmy and the gangster’s kid. 

If Jimmy seems a sort of dry run for Ted Lasso,  Colter’s erudite gangster is a reprise of his recurring character in TV’s “The Good Wife.” 

Sudeikis gives it the old college try, but I so love his gentle comedy that I felt like he was playing an ex-con in an “SNL” skit…you know, just a second away from donning a silly track suit and doing a goofy dance. It’s hard work reconciling the actor’s affable essence with the avenging angel he becomes in the last reel — like watching Mary Poppins mutate into Steven Segal.

| Robert W. Butler 

A slaughterhouse operating in an oversized child’s playhouse…that’s the overriding image of “Squid Game,” a South Korean mini-series that melds the cult-classic mayhem of “Battle Royale,” the winner-take-all ruthlessness of “The Hunger Games,” the cutthroat strategies of “Survivor” and “Big Brother” and the dour social/political underpinnings of “Parasite.”

Written and directed by Dong-hyuk Hwang, this seven-episode mind-blower (reportedly it’s on track to be Netflix’s most popular series ever) envisions a hidden island arena where the has-beens and wannabes of Korean society are given a chance to win millions of dollars by playing childhood games (red light/green light, tug of war, marbles) on a king-sized playground.

The only problem: Lose the round and you also lose your life.

Our protagonist is Seong Gi-hun (Jung-jae Lee), a middle-aged loser who’s been out of work for a decade. A degenerate gambler, he’s deep in debt to murderous loan sharks; like a junkie, he steals from his impoverished mother to finance his days at the track.

Gi-hun has a daughter he adores and an ex-wife who plans on taking the little girl to the U.S. The guy’s desperate.

So when he’s approached on a subway platform by a stranger who engages him in a children’s game and then offers a business card for game playing on an even bigger scale, Gi-hun figures he’s got nothing to lose.

Picked up by a van and sedated by gas, Gi-hun awakens in a vast dormitory filled with bunk beds and more than 400 other desperate contestants. They all find themselves wearing teal-blue sweatsuits; each player has a number instead of a name.

The contests are overseen by a seemingly endless staff wearing hot pink jump suits and mesh masks that sport symbols delineating their ranks: a square (a boss), a triangle (an armed soldier) or a circle (a common worker).

The entire operation is overseen by the masked Front Man, whose all-black outfit makes him look like the love child of Darth Vader and “G.I. Joe’s” Cobra Commander.

Park Hae-soo, Jung-jae Lee and Jung Ho-yeon

A typical episode of “Squid Game” centers on a competitive event that bloodily halves the number of participants. These thrilling nail biter segments are bookended by what goes on in the dorm between games — the contestants form alliances, plan double crosses, try to undermine the competition.

That may mean staying up all night lest you be murdered in your sleep.

Just as insidious, the whole setup is designed to force the players to question whatever notions of morality or decency they may have had in the outside world. It’s on this level of the narrative that Gi-hun becomes more or less heroic — his conscience appears to have the longest self life of any in the place.

“Squid Game” finds lots of time to get into the other players. Sang-woo (Hae-soo Park) is Gi-hun’s childhood friend, a guy who became a business school star but now faces indictment for squandering his clients’ money.

There’s also an old man (Yeong-su Oh) who seems way too decrepit for this competition; ironically, as someone who grew up analog he’s a walking encyclopedia of strategies for the old-school games the island’s masterminds are updating.

A low-level gangster (Her Sun-tae) who stole his boss’s money now forms his own posse of killers to terrorize the other players. A tart-tongued harridan (Halley Kim) uses sexual favors to prolong her survival. A sad-eyed North Korean defector (Jung Ho-yeon) wants to win the game so that she can get her little brother out of an orphanage.

And then there’s the police detective (Hae-soo Park) who in search of his missing brother has infiltrated the island and is hiding inside one of those pink jump suits. From his perspective we’re allowed a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.

“Squid Game” is an audacious piece of work. But it’s not perfect.

The Grand Guignol grotesqueries are often at odds with the playful production design, and by series’ end you’ll still have major questions about who’s behind this and how they’ve been able to keep such a massive undertaking a secret from the rest of the world. (It’s not just the hundreds of faceless employees…what about the construction workers who built the place and fabricate the gigantic game pieces?)

And late in the series things turn painfully heavy handed with the arrival of VIP millionaires who have paid to watch the finalists game each other to the death. These creeps all wear gold animal masks (the most reprehensible is, quite literally, a fat cat), talk in American English and with cigars and bubbly lounge about like Romans betting on the gladiators.

Gotta tell you: the dialogue Dong-hyuk Hwang has provided for these wealthy creeps is embarrassingly bad; the delivery is worse. Ouch.

Still, “Squid Game” is a rousing, disturbing, candy-coated, brain matter-splattered experience steeped in societal ennui. An American remake seems a certainty.

| Robert W. Butler