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Stanley Tucci, Colin Firth

“SUPERNOVA”  My rating: B+ (Opens Jan. 29 at the Barrywoods, Parkway, Studio and Town Center theaters)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Sam and Tusker (Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci) have been a couple for so long that they talk in shorthand.

Sam, a concert pianist now more-or-less retired, is the fussy, responsible one.

Tusker, a novelist, is a sarcastic wit with little use for propriety; he impishly ridicules his lover’s obsessions.

As Harry Macqueen’s film begins the two are cruising Britain’s back roads in an RV, accompanied by their flatulent dog.

They bicker about travel routes, about what to play on the radio, about Sam’s painfully slow driving. The mood is reasonably light.

Until, that is, they stop for groceries and Tusker wanders off with the pooch.  He manages to perambulate a mile or so down the road before a frantic Sam catches up and gently leads his bewildered best friend back into their ride.

It doesn’t take long for a viewer to grasp the dimensions of Sam and Tusker’s dilemma. Tusker is slipping into early onset dementia; they’re on a sort of farewell tour to visit Sam’s sister and brother-in-law (Pippa Haywood, Peter MacQueen) and other old acquaintances before Tusker’s lights go out altogether.

First, it should be noted that while Firth and Tucci are playing a gay couple, gayness has next to nothing to do with the overall setup.  There’s not a hint of societal disapproval here. no Celtic rednecks to look disapprovingly on the relationship. No stiff-necked family members.

No, these are just two people who have been essential parts of each other’s lives for years trying with varying degrees of of success to cope with a horrible situation.

Problem is, Tusker and Sam aren’t on the same page.

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Shia LaBeouf, Vanessa Kirby

“PIECES OF A WOMAN” My rating: B (Netflix)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Pieces of a Woman” announces itself with such an overwhelmingly dramatic and technologically challenging sequence that the rest of the film seems like an afterthought.

For nearly 30 minutes at the very beginning of Komel Mundruczo’s almost unbearable drama we are in the Montreal apartment of a young couple, Martha and Sean (Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf), as she undergoes childbirth.

The process is captured in one uninterrupted shot, from the first labor pains to the arrival of a midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), and on the the birth of the child.

It is so realistic, so perfectly acted, so audacious in its blend of naturalism and hyper-theatricality that one could end the movie right there and stagger out overwhelmed by the wonder and mystery of one human’s arrival in this world.

Thing is, there are still another 90 minutes to go, and while “Pieces of a Woman” features some impressive acting and soul-scorching angst, the rest of the film falls well short of matching the impact of that brilliant introduction.

There’s only so much one can reveal about the plot (the screenplay is by Kata Weber) without a major spoiler alert.

Let’s just say that the happy event does not long remain in that state, and that in its wake Martha and Sean’s marriage is shaken perhaps beyond repair.  Each party — he’s a construction worker, she occupies a corner office in a major firm — must deal with grief in their own way.

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Gal Gadot

“WONDER WOMAN 1984” My rating: C (HBO Max)

151 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Perhaps the most telling commentary on “Wonder Woman 1984” has come from a critic who observed that the only way to enjoy the movie is to imagine that it is actually a relic from 1984.

Yeah, that works.  Kinda.

Had we seen this movie back in the Reagan years we’d have been blown away by the special effects — WW’s sinuous glowing lasso, that suit of golden armor in which she confronts the bad guy at the end, the flying, etc.

Pedro Pascal

And we’d have forgiven its grievous dramatic shortcomings — the utter lack of psychological realism, the plot holes big enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier, the ever-meandering and overly complicated narrative — because 30 years ago superhero/comic book movies were, for the most part, pretty awful. We didn’t expect anything better.

(Although, the first Christopher Reeve “Superman” from 1978 remains imminently watchable…not for the eye candy but for its wit, its celebration of a cultural icon and the genuine affection it exudes for its hero and his world.)

Anyway, this latest from director Patty Jenkins is most noteworthy for its utter lack of style.  There’s no edge, no real humor aimed at anything that matters (we’re supposed to get off on Chris Pine’s wardrobe  of ghastly ’80s fashion).

Which comes as a surprise since 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” also helmed by Jenkins, oozed style and attitude.

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Clockwise from upper left: Steven Yeun, Youn Yuh-jung, Yeri Han, Noel Cho, Alan S. Kim

“MINARI” My rating: B (VOD)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like the young characters in “Minari,” writer/director Lee Isaac Chung grew up as the offspring of Korean immigrants in rural Arkansas in the 1980s.

Based on that knowledge it can be safely said that big chunks of this excellent family drama are autobiographical.

But even if we knew nothing about Chung’s background, “Minari” is a so crammed with moments of overwhelming specificity that you’d immediately identify it as having been pulled from real-life experience, particularly the experiences of a child now looking back with adult eyes.

Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) are a Korean couple who, after years on the West Coast, have relocated to rural Arkansas.

Jacob is tired of his job sexing chicks for a poultry producer (basically he spends all day staring at the nether regions of fluffy yellow creatures; the males are destroyed for being of no commercial value). He has uprooted Monica and their children David and Anne (Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho) and deposited them in a rather rundown doublewide trailer in the middle of a pasture.

Jacob is bent on realizing his American dream; to be precise, he wants to produce Korean vegetables for his many fellow countrymen now living in the USA and craving a taste of home.

Monica is dubious.  She’s not thrilled with their shabby  new digs. Jacob’s entrepreneurial quest strikes her as more selfish than practical. She frets that little David, who has a heart murmur (he’s always being told not to run, and always does, anyway) is an hour away from emergency medical care. These tensions will put no little strain on the marriage.

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Helena Zengel, Tom Hanks

“NEWS OF THE WORLD” My rating: B+ (Theaters Christmas Day)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Not merely a celebration of our mythic past, Westerns have usually been a way of looking ahead.

The frontier, settlements, Western expansion, laying rails, driving cattle, overcoming obstacles (be it the weather, Native Americans or outlaws)…these are elements of an inherently optimistic outlook, of a nation on the march.

“News of the World,” though, is that rarest of creatures, the melancholy Western.

While sporting many of the elements of classical oaters (especially John Ford’s “The Searchers”), Paul Greengrass’ effort  is more about loss than a triumphant taming of the wilderness. It is far more concerned with the ache of human suffering and a society in turmoil than in gunplay.

Tom Hanks stars as Jefferson Kidd, a former printer and Confederate officer now living off the back of a horse as he circulates among  Texas towns  to bring his fellow citizens the latest news of 1870.

He’s something of a showman, sporting a black frock coat and spectacles to pore over a stack of recent newspapers, delivering quietly dramatic reports of droughts and floods, plagues and politics.  He’s always on the lookout for human interest stories that connect his listeners to the larger world and its inhabitants (“These are men and women very much like you”). Think of him as a wandering town crier with humanistic tendencies.

It’s a solitary life, at least until he comes across a looted wagon and a hanged man.  Nearby Kidd discovers a white girl (Helena Zengel) — blonde hair, blue eyes, freckles — wearing a fringed buckskin dress.

She speaks no English: papers found nearby identify her as Johanna, who lost her family to a Kiowa war party six years earlier. The kidnapped girl was only recently liberated by soldiers who eradicated her adopted clan. (Orphaned twice, Kidd notes.) The hanged man, her government escort, was a Negro. A handwritten sign on his body announces that blacks are not welcome in the neighborhood.

The only decent thing to do, Kidd concludes, is to bring the girl to an Indian agent who can get her to an aunt and uncle living in south Texas. Of course, government ineptness and the tenor of the times — Indians are hated and feared by the general population — make this a difficult proposition. And so, for the time being, Kidd and the kid become traveling companions (the film was shot in New Mexico and is beautiful without romanticizing the environment).

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Carey Mulligan

“PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN” My rating: B+ (Theaters Christmas Day)

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A heady mashup of female revenge melodrama,  black comedy and ruthless personality study, “Promising Young Woman” will leave audiences laughing, wincing and infuriated.

Writer/director Emerald Fennell (also an actress, she plays Camilla Parker Bowles in the current season of Netflix’s “The Crown”) displays such a firm command of her medium that it’s hard to believe this is her first feature.

When we first see Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) she is slumped splayed legged on a leather bench in a noisy dance club. A twentysomeything guy (Adam Brody) accepts a dare from his  friends to rescue this drunken damsel from her vulnerable position.  He gives her a ride back to his house, pushes more drink on her, deposits her on his bed more or less unconscious, and proceeds to pull down her panties.

And then she sits up, totally sober, and asks him just what the hell he thinks he’s doing.

This, we learn, is Cassie’s M.O.  She pretends to be wasted, allows some jerk to get her in a compromising position, and then forces him to confront his own creepiness.

Funny how quickly a guy can turn from lust to panic.

Fennell’s screenplay carefully rations its revelations as it follows several narrative paths.

In one Cassandra continues her vengeful quest, choosing as her targets not only random predatory men (she has an apparently inexhaustible wardrobe of come-hither fashions, wigs and makeup) but also individuals who were involved in an sexual assault scandal dating back to her college years. Among those who run afoul of her fiendish (though not usually violent) machinations are a college dean (Connie Britton), an old classmate (Alison Brie) and a lawyer (an uncredited Alfred Molina) whose specialty is defending men charged with sex crimes.

Turns out our heroine is really good at dreaming up Fu Manchu-level sadism.  You gotta wonder if she’s a genuinely psycho.

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George Clooney, Caoilinn Springall

“THE MIDNIGHT SKY” My rating: B (Netflix)

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

End-of-the-world movies are invariably downers.

“The Midnight Sky” is “The Road” and “Melancholia”-level depressing.

So it’s a testament to the directing and acting chops of George Clooney that this long slow journey to extinction not only hooks us early but keeps us on the line as things just keep getting worse.

Clooney’s achievement is doubly impressive when you consider that “Midnight Sky” relies on a “Six Sense”-ish last-reel revelation that may leave some viewers feeling just a tad violated.

Mark L. Smith’s screenplay (adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight)  begins in 2049 with the evacuation of a polar observatory.  The 200 or so residents of this snowbound outpost are being helicoptered out because of “The Event,” an unexplained phenomenon that is spreading a cloud of death around the planet.

Just one man, the grizzled Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), will remain behind. He’ll have enough food and fuel to last for months, but probably won’t need them. He’s undergoing chemotherapy; what he’s got isn’t going away.

Augustine has a mission. He’s determined to contact a manned spacecraft returning from one of Jupiter’s moons.  Decades earlier the young Augustine (played in flashbacks by Ethan Peck) identified said moon as likely to sustain human life. He was right; the five astronauts returning to Earth found a welcome environment on that distant orb.

These interstellar travelers must be warned of Earth’s fate so that they can return to Jupiter orbit and, hopefully, start the human race all over again.

Problem is, the crew (Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, Tiffany Boone) are been unable to hail their contacts on Earth.  We know it’s because of The Event, but the astronauts assume their communication equipment has a glitch.

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Mads Mikkelsen

“ANOTHER ROUND” My rating: B (VOD)

117 minutes | No MPAA rating

The middle-aged male psyche takes a thorough beating in Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round,” which acts like a black comedy before flirting with tragedy.

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) teaches upper level  high school history at a private school in Denmark. He’s pretty much on autopilot, droning through his lessons to kids who are more interested in checking their cell phones and talking about last weekend’s binge.

Things aren’t much better at home. His teenage sons view him as  a slight embarrassment; he hardly sees his wife (Maria Bonnevie), who works nights.

“Have I become boring?” he wonders.

Martin’s only close human relationships, apparently, are three coworkers:  Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), the phys ed instructor; Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), who teaches psychology; and Peter (Lars Ranthe), the music director.

All four gentlemen are stuck in the midlife doldrums. They desperately need a change.

Over a birthday dinner Nikolaj brings up the work of a scientist who maintains that the average person’s blood alcohol content is about .05 % below optimum operating levels.  This great mind (or is he a quack?) recommends a steady but controlled intake of alcohol throughout the working day, with nothing consumed after 8 p.m.

Hey…it worked for Ulysses S. Grant, Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill.

The four friends decide to make a scientific study with themselves as the guinea pigs. The goal is to achieve “optimal professional and personal performance.” They’ll keep a detailed journal; call it “collecting evidence.”

What could go wrong?

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Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze

“MISS JUNETEENTH” My rating: B (VOD on Prime)

99 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Miss Juneteenth” is simultaneously a heartbreaking character study, a domestic drama and an almost documentary look at a specific community.

It is fueled by a subtle and unforced script by director Channing Godfrey Peoples, utterly believable supporting performances and a riveting lead turn from actress Nicole Beharie, who after a decade guesting on TV series makes her case for movie stardom.

Peoples has set her debut feature in an environment with which she is intimately familiar — a black community in Ft. Worth TX. It’s a world of black cowboys and barbecue and the annual Miss Juneteenth pageant, in which one beautiful and talented young African American woman will be crowned and handed a tuition-free scholarship to the black college of her choice.

In 2004 Turquoise Jones (Beharie) wore that victorious tiara, hoping to join the ranks of lawyers, doctors and educators who were past winners.

It didn’t quite work out. Today she is a waitress/janitor at a bar and rib joint, a job that just barely keeps a roof over her head and that of her 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze).

But Turquoise dreams — intensely if not realistically — that Kai will succeed in not only winning the title of Miss Juneteenth but in realizing the life her mama missed out on.

A lesser film would have made the movie a tragedy about the mother trying to force her offspring into a situation in which the child has no interest.  Kai is your average teen; she dreams of joining her schools’ booty-bumping dance squad, and can only roll her eyes at the demure, old-school beauty pageant behavior demanded by the Miss Juneteenth organizers.

Indeed, Turquoise is so controlling that she won’t let her daughter venture forth in shorts and T-shirt lest “somebody from Juneteenth see you like that.”

Kai could be forgiven for going rebel on her mother.  Thing is, the love between these two women  is so intense that despite her reservations (and the limits of her talents and poise), Kai slogs through the indoctrination and rehearsals out of sheer loyalty to Mama.

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Andrew Rannells, Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman

“THE PROM”  My rating: B+ (Netflix)

130 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Sabre-toothed cynicism and squishy-hearted sentiment are unusual bedfellows, but they get it on quite swimmingly in “The Prom,” Ryan Murphy’s winning screen adaptation of the gay-centric Broadway musical.

Here’s a movie I’d pay to see in a theater.  And I say that from the depths of my pandemic-panicked heart.

Simultaneously a celebration/sendup of show-biz hamminess and a touching coming-out story, “The Prom” depicts how a handful of Broadway has-beens and wannabes descend upon a tiny Indiana burg to champion the cause of a teenage lesbian named Emma (a winning Jo Ellen Pellman) who only wants to take her gal to the high school prom.

That simple desire is complicated. First, because the PTA president Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) would rather cancel the prom than let a gay couple attend; second because Emma’s squeeze is none other than Mrs. Greene’s daughter Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), who is yet to come out to her mom.

Meanwhile in New  York, Broadway diva Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) has been trashed for  her new musical about Eleanor Roosevelt.

“What didn’t they like?” asked co-star Barry Glickman (James Corden), who plays FDR. “Was it the hip hop?”

Actually, no.  The critics find Dee Dee and Barry to be insufferably narcissistic. They need an image makeover, something that will let them “love ourselves but appear to be caring human beings.”  Hey, what if they help out that little gay girl in Indiana?

They are joined on their mission  by Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), who after 20 years in the biz is still stuck in the chorus, and actor/bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), whose career high point is his degree from Juilliard.

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Jamie Dornan, Emily Blunt

“WILD MOUNTAIN THYME” My rating: B- (In Theaters and On Demand on Dec. 11)

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

I was prepared to dislike “Wild Mountain Thyme” as a collection of hoary old cliches about the Irish. Indeed, the movie is crammed with said cliches.

But about halfway through John Patrick Shanley’s film something  kicked in and my irritation  gave way to a luxurious wallow in romantic sentimentality.

I am ashamed of myself, dear reader, but there you have it.

Shanley, whose career high point remains the Oscar-winning screenplay to 1987’s “Moonstruck” (though one should not dismiss his work a writer/director of 2008’s “Doubt”), attempts here to give us his own “Quiet Man.”

“Wild Mountain Thyme” is a romance crammed with eccentric characters, lots of eye-calming greenery, lilting folk music (especially the haunting title tune), a dispute over farmland and two protagonists who, despite living in the  21st century, appear to have retained their virginity into their mid-30s.

Over aerial views of coastal Ireland a narrator (Christopher Walken) introduces himself as one Tony Reilly, adding “I’m dead.”

Well, death has never stopped an Irishman from talking. From the hereafter the late Tony relates the tale of his son, Anthony (Jamie Dornan), and the girl on the next farm over, Rosemary (Emily Blunt).

Flash back a year. Tony (still alive at this point) is more or less retired. Anthony has been running their farm…badly. He’s a sweet guy but painfully shy and majorly unfocused. How else can you explain living in close proximity to the astounding Rosemary without once picking up a sexual vibe?

As it turns out, Anthony and Rosemary have spent their entire lives in denial that they love one another.  Or they know they yearn for each other but won’t admit it.

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Shane MacGowan

“CROCK OF GOLD” My rating: B (On Demand)

124 minutes | No MPAA rating

Even in an arena given to personal excess, Shane MacGowan has few peers.

MacGowan, who achieved fame in the ’80s as the singer of the Irish folk/punk band The Pogues, is regarded by not a few fellow musicians as one of the century’s great songwriters.

That achievement is almost eclipsed by his legendary self-destructive behavior.

Julien Temple’s new biographic documentary  “Crock of Gold”  finds MacGowan confined to a wheelchair (he suffered a broken pelvis some years back) but fundamentally unchanged.

He was never handsome — in early performance footage he presents as a bug-eyed human rat with a mouth like a pioneer graveyard — and now, at age 62, MacGowan seems perennially perched at the edge of a grave, with a whispy gray beard, a slack jaw and eyes that seem to be staring blearily off into infinity. He looks exactly like a stroke victim. (On the plus side, he picked up dental implants along the way; now when he grimaces it’s not nearly so scary.)

Temple chose to interview his subject in a series of barrooms, a decision fraught with peril. MacGowan went off the sauce a few years ago but here seems always to have a glass or bottle close at hand. In any case, he seems more or less on his best behavior, meaning that while he bitterly resents answering questions (he much prefers a casual conversation), he is mostly even keeled.

At some point Temple  had the bright idea of filming MacGowan as  he interacts with well-known admirers like actor Johnny Depp (a producer of the doc) and former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Under these circumstances MacGowan opens up.

“Crock…” begins at the beginning, with MaGowan’s birth on Christmas Day in 1957. He was, he modestly claims, “chosen as a little boy to save Irish music.”

His first home was a Tipperary rental where people got their water from a street spigot and “pissed out the front door.” He and his parents then moved to the farm run by his Uncle John (“Uncle John never said much…He only ever said ‘Fuck’.”)

Young Shane was allowed to pretty much run amok.  He was adored by his Aunt Monica, who plied him with booze and cigarettes (he was an alcoholic by age 5) and taught him his catechism.

Indeed, MacGowan’s love/hate relationship with religion could be a movie unto itself.  Until age 11 he was determined to become a priest (“The Roman Catholic Mass is one of the most beautiful experiences a human being can be subjected to”) and today, after numerous lapses (a big one, at age 12, came after reading Marx and Trotsky), he still wears a large cross on a chain around his neck.

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Riz Ahmed

“SOUND OF METAL” My rating: B (Amazon Prime)

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) lives for music.

He tours in a two-person heavy-metal band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke); she sings and plays screeching guitar;  he pounds the drums.

They live in an RV that also serves as a recording studio. Life is good.

At least until the gig when, in the middle of setting up their CD sales table at a venue, the conversations around Ruben go muffled and indecipherable. He’s able to get through the gig on sense memory, but it’s clear that something is seriously wrong.

Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” is about coming to terms with a change so complete and final that it traumatically divides a person’s life into before and after segments. This film is  often painful to watch; it’s also deeply moving, thanks to a couple of killer performances.

A trip to the audiologist confirms that Ruben is rapidly losing his hearing. Whether the cause is his and Lou’s eardrum-shredding music or something more organic really doesn’t matter.  There’s not much that can be done.

Ruben’s crisis heightened by his being a recovering addict. Lou senses — probably rightly — that he’s likely to turn to drugs as a coping mechanism.  That’s why she gets online to find a rehab program aimed specifically at deaf people.

And so Ruben finds himself enrolled in a community operated by Joe (Paul Raci, absolutely incredible), a deaf man who offers a crash course in sign language while keeping his clients clean. Ruben is welcome…but like a G.I. in boot camp he must send Lou away and dump his cell phone. He has to learn a lot in a limited time.

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Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz

“MANK” My rating: A- (Now on Netflix)

131 minutes | MPAA rating: R

David Fincher’s “Mank” is both a work of genius and a foolhardy gamble, a backstage-Hollywood epic that, for maximum effectiveness, requires its audience to be intimately familiar with Orson Welles’  “Citizen Kane.”

Great. I watch “Kane” a couple of times a year; I’ve even played it on slo-mo so as to appreciate every little nuance of its visual splendor (though one needs to set aside a full 12 hours for that act of devotion).

But I’m not sure how your average 2020 moviegoer is going to react to Fincher’s effort, since “Mank” is literally crammed to the gills with visual, aural and thematic references to “Kane.”

For this viewer, at least, it is two hours of cinematic heaven.

As presented in the screenplay by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, “Mank” is not about the filming of “Citizen Kane” or about the controversy generated by the finished film. (In fact, I’m not sure the words “Citizen Kane” are even uttered here until the last five minutes.)

Rather it centers on the writing of the screenplay in 1940. Orson Welles, the boy wonder director of “Kane” (Tom Burke, who sounds like Welles even if he doesn’t much look like him), is here little more than a walk-on character.

The film’s “hero” is Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a Hollywood screenwriter who has worn out his welcome at the studios thanks to his boozing and bitterly dismissive attitude toward Tinseltown’s power structure.

As played by Oldman, Mank is adept at wrapping his verbal poison pills in the soothing charm of a born  ranconteur. He’s just this short of being openly contemptuous of his studio bosses, but even they cannot hate him.

Although he is a miserable SOB, there’s something about Mank that inspires devotion and loyalty. His wife (Tuppence Middleton) — known universally as “Poor Sara” —  wearily cleans up after his boozing and insane gambling habit.

Now Mank’s been hired by Welles — the wiz kid’s been given carte blanche by RKO to make his first movie — to come up with a screenplay about a newspaper tycoon inspired by real-life media mogul William Randolph Hearst.  Mank, nursing a broken leg, has been installed in a bungalow in remote Victorville CA, far away from temptation.

He’s accompanied by producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton), who is to edit his daily pages, and by a somewhat stiff British lady (Lily Collins) who is expected to see to his physical care and keep him off the sauce…although before long he’s made her his collaborator in mischief.

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Frances McDormand

“NOMADLAND” My rating: A- (In theaters Dec. 4)

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“I’m not homeless,” protests Fern (France McDormand) in a key moment from Chloe Zhao’s haunting “Nomadland.”

“Just houseless.”

There’s a significant difference, at least according to Fern and the countless other Americans spending their so-called Golden Years living out of their vans, RVs and cars.

Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book about “the end of retirement,”  “Nomadland” straddles the line between fiction and documentary.

McDormand, of course, is one of our greatest actors; here she’s joined by the always-reliable  David Strathairn.

But most of the “players” in this film are real nomads, folk who follow the changing seasons (Texas in winter, the Dakotas in the summer) supporting themselves with seasonal gigs (working services jobs as cooks and cleaners, manning a sprawling Amazon fulfillment center during the Christmas rush).

By portraying themselves they give Zhao’s film a reality that seeps into the viewer’s bones. This film is less acted than lived in; as a result it is sad and beautiful and achingly human.

McDormand’s widowed Fern has been on the road for several years. She was more or less cast out into the desert when Empire NV,  the company burg in which she had lived her entire adult life — became an overnight ghost town with the closing of its gypsum mine.

Zhao’s unhurried screenplay follows Fern over the course of a year. There’s no plot to speak of; the film is a series of encounters with other wanderers. Fern attends a huge gathering of the houseless on BLM land out in the desert (the convenor, the bearded, barrell-chested Bob Wells — playing himself — holds seminars on nomad survival strategies).

She works in the kitchen of the famous Wall Drug Store tourist trap near the Black Hills. Her fellow nomad Dave (Strathairn) is a part-time ranger at the nearby Badlands National Park.

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Kate Winslet,Saorise Ronan

“AMMONITE” My rating: C+

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Kate Winslet is a great actress. No argument.

And I would happily sit in awe as Saorise Ronan read translated-from-the-Korean assembly instructions.

But despite the presences of these two acting giants, “Ammonite” is a bore. Albeit a bore punctuated with a heavy-breathing woman-on-woman sex scene .

Francis Lee’s film is inspired by historic fact.

Paleontology, the study of the fossil record, was all the rage In the early Victorian era.  The science itself was still in an embryonic stage, but the dream of uncovering the remains of some prehistoric marvel motivated many a wealthy gentleman (the sort of chaps who had way too much money and time on their hands) to become amateur diggers.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) may be the best of them, a self-taught fossil sleuth who studies the eroded cliffs along the Lime coast where she lives and has a knack for big discoveries.

Not that she gets any credit for her genius.  A single woman who is the sole support of her elderly mother (Gemma Jones), Mary sells her finds to well-heeled men who then submit them — under their names, not Mary’s — to museums and scientific organizations.

So, yeah, Mary has a chip on her shoulder.

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Sarah Paulsen, Keira Allen

“RUN” My rating: B-

90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Essentially “Run” is a two-hander about an overprotective mother and a disabled child.

But there’s considerable nastiness percolating just below the surface of Aneesh Chaganty’s new Hulu thriller.  Over the course of 90 minutes we — along with the film’s teenage protagonist — undergo a shocking education in the excesses of the human heart.

For as long as she can remember Chloe Sherman (Kiera Allen)  has been confined to a wheelchair. She’s home schooled by her doting mother Diane (Sarah Paulson) and while not precisely a shut-in (they’ll go shopping in their small town and spend an occasional night at the movies) Chloe’s first-hand experience of the world has been severely limited.

Which is why she’s pumped to be sending out college applications.  Finally, she’ll expand her horizons.

It becomes obvious pretty early on in the screenplay by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian that Mama Diane isn’t  thrilled to be losing her little girl. In fact, her maternal needs are leading to a full-fledged meltdown.

Actually, that train left years ago, as we’ll learn when a curious Chloe begins really examining  her life, the weird medications her mother keeps pushing on her and a locked drawer of papers leading back to her birth.

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“ZAPPA”  My rating: B

129 minutes | No MPAA rating

Alex Winter’s “Zappa” is the first film about the iconoclastic musician to have access to its late subject’s vault of never-released tapes, performance videos, home movies and personal correspondence.

Fans of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (present company included) will have plenty to drool over here.

But “Zappa” left me only partially satisfied.  The film chronicles Zappa’s life from suburban teen to his death of prostate cancer in 1993 at age 52.  There are lots of juicy details I didn’t know about.

At the same time, “Zappa” is very much about the man, not his music. Sure, there are snippets of Zappa in performance, snatches of his songs on the soundtrack, but the overriding emphasis here is on the man’s personal story.

And — perhaps it’s because director Winter (yes, the guy who stars opposite Keanu Reeves in the “Bill & Ted” franchise) worked so closely with Zappa’s late widow and executor Gail Zappa in mining the treasure trove —  the film often borders on hagiography.

Would Frank have wanted that?

Whatever. “Zappa” makes the case that Francis Vincent Zappa was one of the 20th century’s most remarkable and accomplished musicians, a guy whose career spanned doo-wop, r&b, rock, jazz and classical idioms, all the while dishing vicious satire against the phoniness he saw all around him: politicians, Flower Power, censorship, consumerism, drug abuse.

Zappa’s father was a chemist who worked in a defense plant producing nerve gas; everyone in the neighborhood was required to have gas masks close at hand in case of a leak. Small wonder that gas masks crept into Zappa’s work as an adult.

The teenage Frank dabbled in homemade explosives. His life turned around when he was turned on to a recording by the atonal composer Edgard Varese. His first band took heat because it was racially integrated.

Frank’s first artistic love was film editing; the doc chronicles a bizarre passage in which young Frank was entrapped into making a “porn” movie (it was a total goof; there was nothing overtly sexual in it), resulting in a criminal conviction.

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Ibrahima Gueye, Sophia Loren

“THE LIFE AHEAD” My rating: B- (Netflix)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The pleasure of watching Sophia Loren’s return to the screen (still charismatic at 86) is somewhat tempered by the so-so execution of “The Life Ahead.”

Written (with Ugo Chiti and Fabio Natale) and directed by Edoardo Ponti (Loren’s son), this effort offers all sorts of potential for heartstring tugging. The plot, after all, centers on an orphaned boy and an old lady who takes him in.

And yet I was left hoping for more.

Madam Rosa (Loren) is a former prostitute who now takes care of the children of other hookers in her Naples apartment. She dishes tough love when required, and is paid for her services, but clearly cares for the kids in her charge.

Enter Momo (newcomer Ibrahima Gueye), a Senegalese immigrant whose mother has died. Rosa reluctantly takes on the moody, defiant tweener at the behest of a doctor who serves their slum community.

Momo is rebellious and profane and tries to bully the other boy (Iosif Diego Privu) living with Rosa.  Before long the streetwise little punk has landed a gig peddling drugs.

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Greta Thunberg

“I AM GRETA” My rating: B+

97 minutes | MPAA rating:

She’s only 15. She’s autistic.

Yet in just two years Sweden’s Greta Thunberg has become the inspiration for an international movement.

She has become a self-educated expert on climate change (or at any rate, she knows more about it than most elected leaders) and is not shy about kicking the collective asses of the grownups who, in her opinion, are selling out humanity’s future for a petroleum fix.

Documentarist Nathan Grossman picked Greta as his subject more than two years ago when she was waging a one-girl protest outside Sweden’s house of parliament.  Talk about good instincts!

This child — who admits to liking animals more than humans and has little tolerance for chitchat and socializing — had decided to go on strike from her school every Friday in order to sit on a sidewalk passing out home-made flyers.

In a telling exchange, a woman passerby asks why she isn’t in class. Greta’s answer: “Why get an education if there’s no future?”

Since then she has inspired other young people to protest their governments’ failure in dealing with climate change. She’s addressed UN diplomats, met with presidents and prime ministers.

Despite the occasional “down” day and nagging doubts that the human-fueled destruction of our planet can be reversed in time, Greta plugs away at her message. It’s equal parts inspirational and heartbreaking.

We learned that young Greta was so traumatized by a climate documentary that she stopped eating and talking for months.  This on top of abuse and/or indifference from schoolmates weirded out by her high-functioning Asperger’s.

Somehow she came out of her funk, driven by her inner spirit to draw attention to the plight of the planet. She started with her own suburban Stockholm family, pushing them to a vegan diet and an electric car.  With the help of a photographic memory (and an obviously high IQ…how many teens are fluent in Swedish and English, with a smattering  of French?), she crafted her arguments and began making her case.

As much as this is Greta’s story, “I A Greta” is also about her father, Svante Thunberg, who serves as her primary protector on their many travels (mom Malena and a little sister remain in Sweden). It’s his job to make sure his willful daughter eats (her mind is racing so fast simple sustenance is an afterthought), gets rest and has a shoulder to lean on when the weight of responsibility and isolation becomes too much.

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Diane Lane, Kevin Costner

“LET HIM GO”  My rating: C

114 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There are moments early on when “Let Him Go” seems to be a thoughtful examination of a long marriage between a couple with fundamental differences about how the world works.

That Thomas Bezucha’s film stars Kevin Costner (one can usually feel safe whenever he’s wearing a cowboy hat) and Diane Lane (OMG: the eternally beautiful one-time child star is now portraying a grandmother!!!) generates even more hope that this might be a keeper.

Uh…no.

Before it’s all over “Let Him Go” will have descended into a quagmire of cult film wackiness and action/revenge melodrama, wasting a promising cast along the way.

Set in the early 1960s, the yarn begins on the Montana ranch of retired lawman George Blackledge (Costner), his wife Margaret (Diane Lane) and their son James (Ryan Bruce).  James has a wife, Lorna (Kayli Carter), and an infant boy. They’re just one big happy multigenerational family.

A riding accident leaves Lorna a widow and the story suddenly jumps several years into the future where we see her remarrying. Her new hubby is Donny Weboy (Will Brittain), who turns out not to be a nice person at all. (Why did Lorna fall for a creep, even while she’s still living with the sheltering George and Margaret?  Well, that would take some explaining, so Bezucha’s screenplay doesn’t even try.)

And then one day the little family vanishes without a trace.

The  emotion-driven and fiercely maternal Margaret is determined to mount a pursuit to rescue her grandson Jimmy — wherever it is that Donny may have taken Lorna and the boy.

Husband George, the sort of guy who says little and then only after considerable rumination, is morosely pragmatic. His life has been ruled by the law, and he knows they haven’t a legal leg to stand on.

But the stubborn Margaret announces she’ll go on the quest by herself if needs be. What’s a guy supposed to do?

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Left to right: Sam Swainsbury, James Purefoy, David Hayman, Dave Johns

“FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS”  My rating: B- (Netflix)

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

With its seaside locale, eccentric characters and general sense of whimsey, the Brit “Fisherman’s Friends” bears not a little resemblance to Bill Forsyth’s sublime “Local Hero.”

Not that it’s nearly as good as that 1983 classic. But when you’re stuck at home during a pandemic, this little movie might be just the spirit lifter required.

Chris Foggin’s film was inspired by real events…and it’s sometimes painfully obvious which aspects of the yarn (it was written by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft)  were rooted in reality and which in Screenwriting 101. Nevertheless, it will be a churlish sod indeed who fails to respond to the movie’s charms.

Here’s the poop: A decade ago a bunch of Cornish fisherman rose to the top of the UK charts with a record of authentic sea chanties sung in impeccable 10-part harmony. This film purports to tell us how they were discovered and made the unlikely journey to pop stardom.

Music industry hustler Danny (Daniel Mays) has come to quaint Port Isaac, Cornwall, as part of a bachelor party for one of his co-workers. There the wise-ass city boys come across a gang of singing fisherman;  as a practical joke Danny’s colleagues order him to sign these blue-collar troubadours to a record deal.

What starts as a joke turns into a quest for Danny, who falls under the spell of the music, the town’s ambience, the garrulous seamen and especially the young divorced mother (Tuppence Middleton) in whose B&B he takes up temporary residence.

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Anna Taylor-Joy

“THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT”  My rating: A- (Netflix)

Anya Taylor-Joy has been an indie “it” girl ever since 2015’s “The Witch”; she cemented her reputation with this year’s “Emma” (and took a half-step back with the widely reviled “New Mutants”).

But true blow-out mainstream stardom now has arrived for her in the form of “The Queen’s Gambit,” a personality study masquerading as a sports movie (well, sort of…the sport here is chess).

Scott Frank’s seven-part Netflix series (he directed and wrote or co-wrote every episode) allows the 24-year-old Taylor-Joy to exploit everything in her acting arsenal, from her eerie looks (those HUGE eyes, those rosebud lips) to explosive physicality to a sort of studied inscrutability that is her character’s dominant trait.

Along the way the series (adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel) tackles issues of feminism and paternalism, Cold War tension, substance abuse and Sixties hedonism.  Oh, yeah…and  you’ll learn an awful lot about the world of competitive chess.

The first chapter introduces us to young Beth Harrison (played as a child by Isla Johnston) in the wake of the suicidal car wreck that killed her single mother (Chloe Pirrie, who keeps popping up in flashbacks scattered throughout the episodes).

Little Beth is consigned to a church-sponsored orphanage where she’s fed a steady diet of religion and tranquilizers (the beginning of lifelong addiction issues), is befriended by the older malcontent Jolene (Moses Ingram) and finds an unlikely mentor in the school’s reclusive janitor (the great Bill Camp) who in the dingy cellar introduces her to the game of chess — at which she excels. 

“The Queen’s Gambit” follows two distinct but frequently intersecting paths.

The first is Beth’s rise to the highest ranks of international chess, starting with state competitions (she knows the game, but is indifferent to the attendant proprieties), through state championships and on to the nationals. Frank and team pull out the stops in recreating the milieu of chess fantacism.  By the time you’re finished you’ll have been given a crash course.

The second plot is a more personal one. It’s about Beth as damaged goods, a loner who gets by on ego, skill, booze and pills;  a teen who seems unable to establish the  usual connections and friendships.

Beth is adopted by a couple whose motives for becoming parents are mixed at best;  the father almost immediately bails, leave Beth to deal with his depressed, alcoholic and delightfully loquacious wife, Alma (Marielle Heller). You can say this for Alma…despite the constant drinking she’s knows how to monetize Beth’s chess skills; before long the teenager is popping up on the covers of magazines. Continue Reading »

Rashida Jones, Bill Murray

“ON THE ROCKS”  My rating: B (Apple +)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Bill Murray and his gleefully smarmy insouciance have been part of our collective unconscious for so long — more than four decades now — that it’s easy to forget that he is one formidable actor.

And to prove that point one need look no further than Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” a father/daughter road trip that chugs along without a misstep, providing along the way many an opportunity for Murray to do his glorious thing.

The premise is simple enough. Approaching 40, with two young children to care for and a writing career that appears stalled, New Yorker Laura (Rashida Jones) is a envious of her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), an entrepeurial type working on a big project that requires much travel, usually in the company of his team of young go-getters.

Laura’s doubts about herself and her marriage go from lukewarm bath to slow-simmer when her father, famous art dealer and inveterate womanizer Felix (Murray), puts a bug in her ear.  Could Dean be having a fling with one of his young helpers?

Felix, after all, is a past master of marital deception; he knows the signs of a cheating husband and doesn’t want his little girl blindsided in the same way as when he broke up with Laura’s mother decades earlier.

Or could it be that in maturity he’s desperate to connect with the child he once almost drove away? That he has an agenda beyond Dean’s presumed infidelity?

Basically what we’ve got here is a comic mystery in which father-and-daughter sleuths go searching for proof of Dean’s fooling around. It’s a quest that will have them crashing swank Manhattan  soirees and even a Mexican resort.

Mostly, though, it provides a series of opportunities for superbly written and performed verbal exchanges.

Jones is terrific as a woman whose faith in her marriage is tested but never shattered. Her attitude toward Felix — equal parts loving admiration and clear-eyed suspicion — is precisely limned. And she has a great third-act monologue in which she tells off her old man for his selfishness.

But of course Laura is the straight-man role. Murray’s the one who gets one standout moment after the other.  In one marvelous scene he talks his way into the good graces of a NYPD cop who has pulled him over for racing his red convertible through Soho: “Are you Tommy Callaghan’s kid?” he asks after reading the officer’s name tag. “I don’t know why I didn’t make you right away. You’re a dead ringer.”

Before it’s over he has not only sweet talked his way out of a traffic ticket, but he gets the city’s finest to provide a running jump start for his temperamental roadster.

Just about every woman who encounters this sad-eyed Lothario seems to get a buzz off him. Laura is no exception.  The guy is remarkably entertaining.  In one instance Felix has her  walk backwards through a cocktail party — that way the hostess won’t realize they’re leaving early.

And at a posh Mexican resort where Dean is attending some sort of business deal, Laura finds her father serenading the other guests with a pretty righteous rendition of “Mexicali Rose.”

Coppola provides her leads with a late confrontation in which Laura reveals the many times she’s been hurt by her father, and Felix tries to explain how a mistress gave him the “glow” his wife no longer bestowed.

With its love of the big city “On the Rocks” sometimes feels like a long-lost Woody Allen effort, but Coppola is very much her own auteur; it’s doubtful that Allen or any male writer/director could have so succinctly captured Laura’s predicament.

The result is an amusing film that ultimately delivers a few deep lessons.

| Robert W. Butler

Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman

“THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7” My rating: A- (Netflix)

129 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In the year’s most fortuitous marriage of filmmaker and subject matter, Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” delivers a superbly scripted and acted mini-epic torn from recent American history.

Along the way it proves conclusively that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” natch) and based on real events of 1968-69, “Trial…” is packed with great moments and knockout perfs. Awe-inspiring in its ability to take a complex subject and examine it from myriad points of view, the film will leave viewers amused, infuriated and inspired.

That it also deals heavily in themes of  official misbehavior only makes it more relevant to a time in which the tools of government are routinely twisted to serve the corrupt whims of the White House.

Sorkin, who both scripted and directed, kicks things off with a kaleidoscopic sequence that explains, in superb cinematic shorthand, the philosophical differences among the various rabble rousers who will come to be known as the Chicago 7.

Middle-aged David Dellinger(John Carroll Lynch) is a suburban family man and literal scoutmaster preparing to go to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago to protest the Vietnam War.  He’s so totally into non-violence that one of his legal team later admits: “You’re a conscientious objector who sat out World War II.  Even I want to punch you.”

In a similar vein, youthful activists Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis (Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp) plan peaceful protests in Chicago. They want to change society through the ballot box.

Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong of HBO’s “Succession”)  take a more anarchistic view. If punched, they claim, they’ll punch back. In the meantime, they’ll mock authority.

Finally there’s Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who tells us: “Martin’s dead. Malcolm’s dead. Bobby (Kennedy) is dead. Jesus is dead.  They tried it peacefully. We gonna try something else.”

One of Sorkin’s flashes of genius is to not show us the Chicago riots until later in the film, when we see them in flashbacks as testimony is delivered.

Instead the film jumps from the preparations for Chicago to the convention’s aftermath, when Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) orders U.S. attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to indict the leading agitators for conspiring to cross state lines to incite riots against.  Schultz is a reluctant participant; though he has little in common with the men he will prosecute, he doubts the legitimacy of the government’s case. Nevertheless, he forges on.

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Luca Marinelli

“MARTIN EDEN”  My rating: B-

129 minutes | No MPAA rating

Most of us know Jack London for  his perennially popular adventure yarns The Call of the Wild and White Fang.

But London scholars — and the author himself — have always gravitated to the 1909 novel Martin Eden as the ultimate Jack London statement.

In this semi-autobiographical story an impoverished young man educates himself, emerges as a writer of note,  and ultimately kills himself when he finds hollow the success he has always sought. (The novel has been viewed by some as a prediction of London’s mysterious death in 1916).

The book was set in turn-of-the-last-century Oakland.  Director Pietro Marcello and co-writer Maurizio Braucci have transplanted the yarn to Naples.  The change isn’t just geographical…this “Martin Eden” unfolds in two phases, the first a non-specific early 20th century milieu, the second an apparently modern one.

The resulting film is gripping in its first hour, thanks largely to star Luca Marinelli, who oozes early Sam Shepard machismo/sensitivity. The second half, though, bogs down in political navel gazing.

We encounter Martin first as a sailor working on a freighter. He’s a charming fellow, popular with the ladies, and exhibits a good heart, as when he rescues a young man from a brutal dockside security guard.

That act of kindness leads to his introduction to the wealthy Orsini family and their beautiful daughter, Elena (Jessica Cressy). Even Elena’s bourgeoise parents are charmed by this hunky proletarian — especially when he reveals behind his workingman exterior a probing mind, eager for education.

Bent on self-improvement, Martin takes on Elena as his tutor.   Romantic attraction follows — though the movie is coy about whether the relationship is overtly sexual.

All this takes place in a setting that could be anywhere from the 1920s to the early ’50s…the costumers and production designers are intriguingly nonspecific.

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Sidse Babett Knudsen, Pilou Asbaek

“BORGEN” (Netflix)

If like me you are inclined to view contemporary American politics as a terrifying shitstorm, there’s some comfort to be had in the excellent Danish series “Borgen,” a sort of “West Wing” for a multi-party society.

Take comfort in the knowledge that things could be even crazier.

The central character of this 2010-2013 series (its two seasons are now streaming on Netflix; a third reportedly is on the way)  is Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen…she played “Westworld’s” top exec in that series’ first season).

Birgitte is a forty something politician, wife and mother whose centrist party grabs enough parliamentary seats in an election to form a new government. That means she is poised to become her country’s first female prime minister.

Thing is, Denmark (like most European nations) relies on coalition governments made up of representatives of two or more parties.  Whereas Americans have only to choose between Democrats and Republicans, Danish voters have a slew of ideologies to select from.

If you’re going to rule in Denmark, you’ll spend much of your time compromising with smaller fringe parties — like the Greens —  in exchange for their support. This is achieved by handing out plum assignments in the various ministries.

And while performing these in-house acrobatics, a leader like Birgitte must fend off the advances  of far right-wing parties currently out of favor.

Complicated? Yeah, but show runner Adam Price and his writers are so good at setting up the lay of the land that it’s easy to pick up on the subtleties of Danish politics.

Just as important, “Borgen” (that roughly translates as “the Castle,” the Danes’ nickname for the building in Copenhagen holding the country’s executive, legislative and judicial branches) is packed with terrific characters to whom we get mightily attached.

Knusden’s Birgitte is a fantastically compelling figure, a whip-smart politician struggling — not always successfully — to balance her duties at the Castle with her family life. Not to mention the near-constant pressure to stuff her ideals and act out of sheer convenience.

Cracks soon appear in her seemingly rock-solid marriage to Phillip, a professor of economics (Michael Birkkjaer). Equally frustrating is the toll her job is taking on the couple’s children, a teenage daughter (Freja Riemann) who slips into depression and an angelic tweener son (Emil Poulsen) who inexplicably begins bed wetting.

Essentially “Borgen” asks if it is possible to hold positions of great power without compromising one’s principles or doing irreparable damage to those you love.

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Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer

“THE BOYS IN THE BAND” My rating: B ( Netflix)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Gotta be honest…the first half hour or so of Netflix’s “The Boys in the Band” is not terribly promising.

Based on Mart Crowley’s ground-breaking 1968 play (it was first filmed in 1970), this new version pretty much sticks to the original script.

In doing so Joe Mantello’s film clumsily displays its theatrical roots, not just in its claustrophobic single setting but also in the dialogue-heavy way it tells us (rather than shows us) what its characters and their predicament are all about. Especially in the early going the talk seems forced and artificial in its efforts to set up the situation.

But once it kicks in, once all the celebrants to a gay man’s birthday party in late-60s NYC show up and start interacting, “Boys…” finds its voice and its power.

What’s really driven home here is the realization that while the conditions under which gay people live have improved over the last 50 years, the human condition pretty much remains the same.

Here’s the setup: Michael (Jim Parsons), a witty and somewhat dictatorial fellow, has invited several of his closest friends to his apartment (Greenwich Village?) for a birthday celebration. Over the course of an increasingly drunken evening they will thrash out relationships, hopes, dreams and fears.

The birthday boy is Harold (Zacharay Quinto), pock-marked, cynical and carrying a substantial load of self-loathing.

Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins) are a couple…at least for now. Randy Larry has a wandering eye (and other body parts), while staid Hank — who has an ex-wife and a couple of kids — takes comfort in monogamy.

Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) is a black man who, before the evening is over, will erupt over Michael’s barely-disguised race baiting. Continue Reading »

Julianne Moore

“THE GLORIAS” My rating: B (Amazon Prime)

139 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias” isn’t your conventional biopic.  Often it seems to be less about Gloria Steinem the person than about the Women’s Movement as seen from Steinem’s perspective.

The results are hugely informative (and required viewing for all young women) but, for most of the film’s long running time, emotionally remote. Only in the  final inspiring moments (featuring footage of the real Steinem addressing the “Pink Pussy” women’s march on Washington early in the Trump presidency) does the enormity of Steinem’s contributions hit home.

Based on Steinem’s autobiography My Life on the Road,  the film is nevertheless classic Julie Taymor.  The story is told with a shuffled chronology with four actresses (Lulu Wilson, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore) portraying Steihem at various stages of life.  Occasionally the older Gloria will share the screen with her younger selves in a series of interior dialogues.

There are animated sequences and lots of cinematic sleight of hand; the images shift from black-and-white to color (and sometimes just a splash of color in an otherwise b&w palette).

As is usually the case with Taymor, these inventions are arresting, sometimes shockingly dramatic, and provide sly commentary on the action.  Yet I can’t help but wonder if in the end they tend to push us away from her subject; “The Glorias” may be too busy for its own good.

But we do learn a lot about Steinem.  Like her childhood of near constant travel with a father (Timothy Hutton) who was a sort of benign con man (“If you don’t know what happens tomorrow, it could be wonderful”) and, later, her adolescence as caregiver to her emotionally fragile mother (Enid Graham).

There’s her lifelong love of tap dancing, presented here as a musical number unfolding in a black barber shop in the 1950s.

We see her post-college sabbatical in India, where young Gloria (now played by Vikander) is sensitized to the harsh lot of women.

Her writing career flourishes despite the myopic outlooks of her male editors. She becomes a household name for donning a Bunny suit to report on the lives of women working in the Playboy Club; thereafter she must endure being cast as the movement’s resident sex object. In fact, she fights for most of her life not to be viewed as the movement’s voice. Ironically, in the early days she was terrified of public speaking.

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Milie  Bobby Brown, Helena Bonham Carter

“ENOLA HOLMES” My rating: B (Netflix)

123 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Netflix’s “Enola Holmes” would be a welcome diversion at any time.

That it also confirms young Millie Bobby Brown (you know…the bald one from “Stranger Things”) as a major star is but frosting on the scone.

The premise of Harry Bradbeer’s film (Jack Thorne adopted from Nancy Springer’s YA novel) is that the great detective Sherlock Holmes had, in addition to his brother Mycroft, a little sister named Enola.

Raised by her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) to be an independent, inquisitive, self-asserting young woman (instead of crocheting and piano 16-year-old Enola was trained in archery and karate), this youngest Holmes is shattered when one morning her dear Mama vanishes.

Big brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin), a pompous and unyieldingly chauvinistic government bigwig, is Enola’s legal guardian — though he hasn’t seen her for a decade. Now Mycroft arranges for her to be shipped off to the smothering finishing school run by the fascistic Miss Harrison (a gloriously scenery-chewing Fiona Shaw).

In the meantime, sibling Sherlock (Henry Cavill) will try to sleuth out what happened to their mother.

But Enola has a head start.  Cannily picking up on clues Eudoria deliberately left behind, Enola disguises herself as a boy and hits the road. Along the way she befriends a runaway adolescent nobleman, Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), who is being stalked by a bowler-hatted assassin (Burn Gorman).  Upshot: Violent confrontations and a teen crush.

She also discovers that her mother and her fellow suffragettes may have been involved in a bomb-making plot. And she runs afoul of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade (Adeel Akhtar), hot on the trail both of Enola and Tewkesbury.

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Carrie Coon, Jude Law

“THE NEST” My rating: B

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The opening scene of “The Nest” contrasts images of moneyed American domesticity — Dad playing soccer with his kids, Mom training horses — against a menacing musical score right out of a horror film.

“The Nest” isn’t a horror entry per se, but over the  course of a downwardly-spiraling 107 minutes it does reveal the horrors lurking just below the surface of what looks like an ideal household. It’s a great topic for writer/director Sean Durkin’s followup to his dark 2011 thriller “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”

And it provides an acting tour de force from Jude Law and Carrie Coon.

Early on the British-born Rory (Law) informs wife Allison (Coon) that he’s been approached by a former boss to return to the U.K. for a prestigious position in acquisitions and mergers. Allison is at first reluctant to leave the States (she’s a Yank), but gradually gives in to the promise of more money and a change of scenery.

When she and the kids — Samantha (Oona Roche), her teenage daughter by a previous marriage, and 10-year-old Ben (Charlie Shotwell) — arrive in London they are driven out into the burbs to a huge Georgian mansion Rory has rented for them. Despite the home’s storied history (apparently members of Led Zepplin lived there for a spell), its full-size soccer field for Ben and space in which to build a stable for their horses, Allison is turned off by the place.  It’s too big, too dark, too pretentious.

Rory, though, is on a hubristic roll, full of plans to get rich. To prove his newfound status, he presents Allison with a full-length fur coat.  Though she makes snide remarks about Rory’s sharkish fellow employees and their posh, social-climbing wives, she still finds excuses to pull on that expensive wrap.

It doesn’t take long for cracks to appear.

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“MY OCTOPUS TEACHER” My rating: A- (Netflix)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

No nature documentary you’ve ever seen will quite prepare you for “My Octopus Teacher,” a heart-gripping tale of a friendship (one might even call it a romance) between a human and a mollusk.

This film is a transcendent experience.

Craig Foster is a South African maker of nature docs who several years ago underwent an unspecified professional and personal crisis and retreated to the oceanside vacation home in which he had spent his boyhood summers nearly three decades earlier.

Craig Foster

He found himself drawn to an offshore kelp forest and its aquatic denizens. Despite the chilly water Foster declined to wear a wet suit in his explorations as it interfered with his sensory connection with this watery world; for the same reason he eschewed heavy scuba gear in favor of a simple snorkel, which required him to resurface regularly to take a fresh breath.

It was on one of his casual floats through this environment that Foster came across an octopus. He was initially drawn to this creature because it had used its eight tentacles to collect and grasp an assortment of empty shells, thus camouflaging itself either for protection from predators or because it hid her (the animal was female, though the film never tells us how you sex an cephalopod) from her intended prey.

In any case, Foster was intrigued enough by this sophisticated behavior (a mollusk employing tools?) to seek out the octopus on subsequent dives. He found her den beneath a rock shelf and decided to return every day to study this magnificent alien creature.

Just as important, he was moved to pick up his underwater camera and record these adventures.

Other documentarists have obsessed over the astonishing properties of octopi…for instance, their ability to instantaneously change the color and texture of their skin to blend in with their environment, or to compress their bodies to slip through tiny cracks. Or their multiple brains (a couple in the head, others in the arms).

But for Foster, who recalls his experiences in an awed whisper that suggests some sort of religious conversion, this becomes much more than a case of detached scientific observation.  At one point the octopus — he never gives it a name, thank God — becomes so accustomed to Foster’s presence that it sends out a slender tentacle to wrap around his finger, eventually clutching/stroking his limbs in a case of exploration that soon evolves into, well, a friendship.

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“ALONE” My rating: B

96 minutes | No MPAA rating

The woman-in-peril plot has been so overdone that we’re due for an industry-wide embargo.

Before that happens, though, I’m happy to have seen “Alone,” John Hyams’ superior thriller that with a minimum of fuss leaves the nerves tingling.

We meet Jessica (Jules Willcox) packing up her belongings in a U-Haul trailer. She’s leaving Portland; her destination isn’t disclosed, not even to her parents who dun her with phone calls. Basically she heads northeast, into the wilderness.

The first hint that things might not go well comes on the first day when she is nearly run off the road by a jerk in a Jeep.  (Echoes of Spielberg’s “Duel.”)

Next morning, as she’s preparing to pull out from the motel where she spent the night, Jessica is approached by a stranger (Marc Menchacha) who announced he wants to apologize.

This doofus-looking dude (sandy Fu-Manchu ‘stache, oversized aviator glasses) tries to start up a friendly conversation but Jessica wisely isn’t having any of it. She’s suspicious even of the sling in which he keeps one of  his arms.

But getting rid of the guy is a problem. In the wee hours he shows up at a highway rest stop where she’s taking a break; when she gets back on the road she discovers that one of her tires has been slashed.

Nervous yet?

All this has been pulled off by director Hyams and screenwriter Mattias Olsson with a minimum of dialogue. In fact, with the exception of a few voices on the telephone this is a two-person movie.

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Bill Skarsgard (left)

“THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME” My rating: B- (Netflix)

138 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Some people are born just so they can be buried.”

That glum observation, spoken by a corrupt lawman, pretty much sums up “The Devil All the Time,” a slow-bubbling stew of old-time religion and blue-collar mayhem.

Imagine a partnership of Flannery O’Conner and Jim Thompson. It’s pretty unpleasant…but has been acted and produced with enough brio to keep us hanging on.

Directed by Antonio Campos (“Christine,” TV’s “The Sinner”) and scripted by Campos and his brother Paulo (from the novel by Donald Ray Pollock), this is a  saga covering 20 years and three generations of a family (two families, actually) living in southern Ohio and nearby West Virginia.

Tom Holland

It’s a world populated by devotees of Ol’ Time Religion, feral and/or delusional preachers, dirty cops and a couple of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers.

The whole thing is narrated by novelist Pollock, who has just the right down-home voice (half sincerity, half deadpan sarcasm,  hint of a twang) to pull it all together.

The story?  Where to begin…”The Devil All the Time” is all over the place.

It starts in 1945 with the return from combat of Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard), still haunted by what he experienced and rebelling at God. It then follows Willard’s son Arvin (Tom Holland) through a traumatic childhood.

For both father and son religion is more a burden than a comfort, in large part because of the hypocrisies so lavishly displayed by clergymen like the bombastic Roy Laferty (Harry Melling in  spectacularly hypnotic/creepy form) or the snakily seductive Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), who preys on the naive young things of his congregation.

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Sergio Chamy, Romulo Aiken

“THE MOLE AGENT”  My rating: B+

84 minutes | No MPAA rating

The opening of the charming/devastating documentary “The Mole Agent” finds dozens of graying gents in Santiago, Chile, responding to a help-wanted ad for “elderly men between 80 and 90.” (Face it — there aren’t many job opportunities for that particular demographic.)

The ad was placed by Romulo Aiken, the head of a private detective agency, who after a series of semi-comic interviews finally hires 83-year-old Sergio Chamy. Sergio is informed that he will spend the next three months undercover in a nursing facility.  The  daughter of  a resident suspects elder abuse by employees and has launched an elaborate scheme to expose these alleged crimes.

Not only will  Sergio have to learn the ins and outs of an iPhone (so that he can file daily reports with Romulo), but he’s given a pair of high-tech spectacles and a writing pen equipped with mini-cameras with which to record any nefarious goings-on.

Even more amazing, Romulo and filmmaker Maite Alberdi have already infiltrated the retirement home with a camera crew, ostensibly  to do a documentary about elder care but strategically placed to follow Sergio while he interacts with the residents and sleuths out the truth of the situation.

What starts out as a sort of mystery, though, quickly emerges as something else — a funny, heartbreaking examination of aging filled with colorful characters and enough choked-back sobs that wise viewers will keep a box of tissues within easy reach.

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Trai Byers

“THE 24th” My rating: B+

101 minutes | No MPAA rating:

An overlooked landmark in both black history and military history gets a compassionate/angry examination in “The 24th,” the latest from KC-area filmmaker Kevin Willmott.

The subject is the 1917 “riot” of black soldiers in Houston TX. After months of abuse from  both white citizens and the local police department and fearing they were about to be attacked by a white mob, the soldiers went on a late-night killing spree.  By the time the sun rose 11 civilians, five police officers and four soldiers were dead.

The upshot was the largest murder trial in American history, with 156 soldiers of the Third Battalion of the all-black 24th Infantry facing homicide and mutiny charges.

In capable hands of the Oscar-winning Willmott (“C.S.A.,” “Jayhawkers,” “Destination Planet Negro”…as well as the screenplays for recent Spike Lee efforts) the story of the 24th becomes an intimate epic, filled with suppressed fury and perfectly balancing personal moments against the sweep (one almost wants to say inevitable sweep) of history.

Astoundingly, this is accomplished on a bargain basement budget, with filming limited to less than three weeks.

Yet the movie never looks cheap; neither are its sentiments.

We meet the members of the 24th as they show up to provide security for the building of Camp Logan outside Houston.  There’s a war in Europe, and the men are anxious to prove their worth on the battlefield; the Army, though, cannot see them as anything but uniformed ditch diggers and night watchmen.

Our protagonist is William Boston (Trai Byers, co-writer of the screenplay with Willmott), who as a graduate of the Sorbonne is better educated than any of the white officers calling the shots. This is not lost on the regiment’s commanding officer, Col. Norton (Thomas Haden Church), who unsuccessfully urges Boston to sign up for officer training in Des Moines.

Boston is an idealist out to prove that colored soldiers are second to none; alas, his intellectual interests (in his spare time he reads!) and his light complexion make him suspect, especially to the  perennially angry Pvt. Walker (Mo McRae).

And then there’s Sgt. Hayes (Mykelti Williamson), the scarred black NCO who boasts of charging up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt but has spent the last 20 years in an alcoholic funk  kowtowing to a system that respects none of his sacrifice.  He cannot even look a white officer in the eye; occasionally he takes out his frustrations on his men.

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“BOYS STATE” My rating: B+ (Apple +)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

After watching the spectacularly engrossing documentary “Boys State” I don’t know wether to celebrate our democracy or mourn its death.

Boys State, of course, is a week of politically-charged make-believe in which high school seniors, representing their schools and towns, gather in their capitol city to create political parties, draw up platforms and hold mock elections for various state offices.

Dick Cheney went to Boys State. So did Corey Booker. (BTW: Girls State does the same thing for young women.)

This elaborate exercise is sponsored by the American Legion, which despite its reputation for jingoism attempts to level the playing field by randomly dividing the participants into two parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists.  What each party stands for will be determined by its members during the course of a week.

A stated goal of Boys State is to advance civil discourse. We’ll see about that.

Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s film unfolds in Austin, TX, where 1,100 boys have gathered. Initially one searches in vain for a face of color — this is one majorly white group — but it’s remarkable how many minority faces rise to prominence in just seven days.

The hero of “Boys State” is Steven, whom we meet on the bus ride to Austin. The Hispanic son of a one-time illegal immigrant, Steven doesn’t spew  teen testosterone like some of his fellows. He’s quiet, soaking up the vibes, tentatively making acquaintances.  He’s smart to cautiously feel out the mood of the other kids, because Steven is an unabashed liberal surrounded by gun-owning good ol’ boys (actually, good ol’ young boys).

Before it’s all over Steven improbably will be running as his party’s nominee for governor.  He may not agree entirely with the platform adopted (he’s for gun control and a woman’s right to choose), but he so exudes  basic human decency that even the kids who see things differently are impressed by his integrity.

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Lyricist/author Howard Ashman on the off-Broadwday  set of “Little Shop of Horrors”

“HOWARD” My rating: B+ (Disney Plus)

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Howard” is a laughter-through-tears emotional powerhouse that will leave you convinced that when Howard Ashman died of AIDS in 1991, we lost a musical theater genius.

As the lyric-writing partner of composer Alan Menken, Ashman was largely responsible for the off-Broadway hit “Little Shop of Horrors” and then went on to rejuvenate a dying Disney animation division with monsters like “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast.” (The fact that those films went on to spawn wildly successful theatrical versions only adds lustre to his accomplishments.)

Don Hahn’s documentary begins with a recording session for “B&B” in New  York City.  As Hahn’s narration informs us, nobody at the time knew that within nine months Ashman would be gone.  He never got to see the finished film.

On the visual side Hahn (a producer of “Beauty…” and director of the doc “Waking Sleeping Beauty”) exploits a treasure trove of home movies from throughout his subject’s life.  There’s so much material, in fact, that the film needn’t rely on talking-head inserts.  The many contributors to this film (among them Menken and Jeffrey Katzenberg) are heard in voiceover but not seen, leaving center stage to Ashman.

The earliest glimpse into Ashman’s creativity comes from his sister, who recalls her brother turning his bedroom into an elaborate designed theater in which individual toys became players in a vast adventure.  Before long he was organizing neighborhood kids into giving backyard performances.

Young Howard had little interest in sports, but wrote poems for every occasion.

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