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“ALONE” My rating: B (Available on demand on Sept. 18)

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- (Now on 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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Liu Yifei

“MULAN” My rating: B (Begins streaming Sept. 3 on various platforms)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Disney’s new live-action “Mulan” occupies a precarious sweet spot that is hard to establish and perhaps harder to keep.

The film is simple enough (and inoffensive enough) for children, yet possesses ample thematic depth and technical imagination to engage adults.

Well, most adults, anyway. Certainly those adults who will end up watching it with their offspring.

The story is already familiar to many of us, thanks to several centuries of Chinese folklore and numerous film adaptations, especially the 1998 animated Disney version.  The premise finds a young woman, Mulan, disguising herself as a man and taking her aged/injured father’s place in the Emperor’s army in a fight to repel ruthless invaders.

It hardly needs pointing out that the yarn’s feminist credentials remain timely. Moreover, director Niki Caro has made a career of female empowerment with titles like the sublime “Whale Rider” and the gut-punching “North Country.” She knows her way around the subject.

But she also brings to this incarnation martial arts action reminiscent of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and a David Lean-worthy sense of place and space (although with Lean you knew  those spectacular sunsets and sand dunes were the real deal; here they may have sprung from a computer program).

And in young Chinese star Liu Yifei the film has a heroine able to suggest her character’s inner drive and thoughts while presenting a manly — i.e., emotion-smothering — face to the outside world. (Has there ever been a lead female role with so little smiling?)

This “Mulan” forgoes the musical numbers of the animated version, not to mention the goofy dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy. Instead it emphasizes visual beauty and battle (albeit PG-13 battle…these soldiers die bloodlessly).

The villain here is Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the scarred, long-haired barbarian leader seeking revenge for the death of his father years before. With an army of gravity-defying ninjas, Bori Khan is relentlessly marching into China, intent on personally slaying the aging Emperor (Jet Li).

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Sergio Chamy, Romulo Aiken

“THE MOLE AGENT”  My rating: B+ (Begins streaming on Sept. 1)

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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Classic ’60s clothing by Pierre Cardin

“HOUSE OF CARDIN” My rating: B+ (Now available for streaming through Loft Cinema:  loftcinema.org)

95 minutes | No MPAA rating

With only a little hyperbole, an admirer of Pierre Cardin tells the makers of “House of Cardin” that virtually everyone on earth knows the Cardin name.

Apparently, though, nobody knows the man.

Early on in P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes’ documentary, one of Cardin’s cohorts is asked to describe the great designer on a basic human level…and can muster only a blank and helpless look.

In old interview footage Cardin (he’s now 98 years young) admits to having “no sense of self…it’s not me, it’s the brand.”

Indeed, we’re three fourths of the way through this movie before the topic turns to something as fundamental as its subject’s sexuality…and even then it’s more a case of suggestion than assertion.

But if the Cardin personality is elusive, his accomplishments are not.  “House of Cardin” will prove a real eye-opener for those of us (this writer included), who pretty much assumed he was a Parisian fashion designer, period.

The doc’s format mixes filmed interviews Cardin has done over the decades, recent footage of the man still at work and holding court (he’s charming without ever revealing too much), archival photos and footage and tons of reminiscences by the likes of rocker Alice Cooper (Cardin was responsible for bringing Cooper’s Grand Guignol stage show to Paris in the early ’70s), actress Sharon Stone and model Naomi Campbell.

But some of the most informative stuff comes from his colleagues, the people who have worked with him for years and regard him as the benevolent if often exacting father of their big family. The guy couldn’t be a total cipher and elicit that sort of love.

The film deals with the basic biographical stuff up front.  Cardin is Italian, not French.  His family fled Mussolini’s fascist state when Pierre was a boy. During the war he worked for the French Red Cross in Vichy.  With the peace he came to Paris and, with unbelievable good luck, immediately began working in the haute couture fashion houses (Paquin, Dior) to which he aspired.

This self-taught clothing maker was soon collaborating with heavy-duty artistic types like filmmaker/poet Jean Cocteau and actor Jean Marais.  “I was a very good-looking young man,” the white-haired Cardin recalls.  “So everyone wanted to sleep with me.”

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“DRIVEN TO ABSTRACTION” My rating: B- (Available for streaming on Aug. 28)

84 minutes | No MPAA rating

Aside from guns and drugs, the world of fine arts may be the biggest unregulated industry on earth.
“Driven to Abstraction,” Daria Price’s documentary about the fall of the nation’s oldest continuously operating commercial art gallery, makes it pretty clear that for all the high-falutin’ airs of the art world, on the business end it’s a Wild West show as often as not run by riverboat gamblers and con artists.
In 2011 New York’s Knoedler Gallery — in operation since 1846 — abruptly closed.  Speculation soon turned to disbelief — the Knoedler’s operator, Ann Freedman, one of the most reputable dealers in the biz,  was being sued for having sold forgeries as genuine works  by Mark Rotko, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Richard Diebenkorn and Frank Stella, among others.
Turns out that for at least 20 years Freedman had been selling modern “masterpieces” ostensibly plucked from the vast private holdings of a European collector.  Oddly enough, there was no record of these particular paintings; Freedman said she had been told the collector bought them directly from the artists before they went on the market or were even photographed for posterity.
But there were  red flags.  Scientific analysis showed that in some instances the paint used  was not available until years after the death of the artists involved.  And then there’s the little issue of the Jackson Pollock painting in which the artist misspelled his own last name in signing the work.
“Driven to Abstraction” chronicles the saga of the Knoedler Gallery and the biggest scandal in the history of art in such labyrinthine detail that a flow chart would come in handy.
Freedman claimed that she was a victim here, too,  that the works in question were sold to her by  Glafira Rosales, operator of a small-time gallery on Long Island. Rosales claimed to be the agent of the mysterious European collector unloading these masterpieces. Freedman maintains she never doubted the paintings were genuine. Continue Reading »

Ethan Hawke as Nicola Tesla

“TESLA” My rating: C+ (Available On Demand on Aug. 21)

102 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The engineer and inventor Nicola Tesla (1856-1943) is one of history’s most fascinating characters…and one of the most elusive .

A scientific genius who pioneered alternating current electrical systems, he was a terrible businessman who died broke. He was also a hermit who avoided human intimacy and a lifelong virgin.

Moreover, even his biographers have found it hard to pin down the guy’s personality.  The man is  an engima.

When he has been portrayed on film — for instance by David Bowie in “The Prestige” (2006) and Nicholas Hoult in “The Current War” (2017) — he’s a supporting character.   The guy just wasn’t leading man material.

Which meant that Overland Park-born filmmaker Michael Almereyda had his work cut out for him in filming “Tesla,” a project which he has been dabbling with for more than 20 years.

Even with the tremendously skilled Ethan Hawke in the title role (Hawke starred in Almereyda’s modern-dress version of “Hamlet” back in 2000) it must be reported that there’s a hole in the middle of “Tesla” where the lead character should be.

Almereyda anticipated this obstacle, and has attempted to compensate with an expansive filmmaking language that throws curve after curve at his audience (and which, not coincidentally, can be achieved with a modest budget).

The resulting film delivers plenty of factual information about Tesla and his work, including the acknowledgement that more than a century ago he was doing stuff with electricity that scientists today cannot yet explain (like transmitting electrical current through the earth to light up a Colorado town many miles away).

The downside is that “Tesla” often plays more like a series of tableaus  than a coherent narrative.

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Wreckage of U.S. aircraft in wake of failed Iran hostage rescue

“DESERT ONE” My rating: B (In theaters and virtual cinemas Aug. 21)

107 minutes | No MPAA rating

A demoralizing bit of recent American history comes vividly to life in “Desert One,”  Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple’s richly detailed retelling of this country’s failed attempt in 1979 to rescue our citizens being held hostage by the new revolutionary Irani regime.

To say that Kopple has cast a wide net in researching this story is an understatement. Giving first-person testimony are not only Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale (then the U.S. president and vice-president) and members of the commando team that undertook the mission, but also Iranis who guarded the American prisoners, the hostages themselves, surviving family members of the men who died in the effort, and journalists like Ted Koppel who covered the event.

The actual raid doesn’t begin until nearly 40 minutes into the documentary. Kopple wisely spends much time explaining (or rather, having others explain…there’s no narration) the tortuous history of U.S.-Iran relations, our propping up of the dictatorial rule of the Shah of Iran and his long reign of terror waged against his country’s dissidents.

The revolt by Islamic fundamentalists is harrowingly recreated through vintage news footage and the testimony of the then-young Marine guarding the gate of the U.S. Embassy when the hordes descended upon it.

The life of the hostages is described in sometimes uncomfortable detail.  One American recalls having his hands cuffed in front of him for weeks at a time, which meant that after defecating he could not clean himself. And despite Irani claims that the prisoners were being treated humanely, there’s that notorious midnight episode in which prisoners were stripped to their underwear and led to a yard where they faced a mock firing squad. (Throughout the doc, Kopple employs animated sequences to depict scenes for which there is no archival footage.)

The hostage crisis stymied President Jimmy Carter, who was rebuffed in his efforts to negotiate with the Irani.  He reluctantly gave the OK to plan a rescue.  Specially skilled fighters from all areas of the military were chosen to train for the raid. Some may have been gung ho about the whole business; one fighter now says he never thought they could pull it off: “Too many moving parts.”

Indeed, this was a hugely ambitious and somewhat improbable effort.  A half dozen helicopters from American warships would fly into the Irani desert at night to meet two transport planes filled with fighters. They would then drive to Tehran, attack the prison, blow a hole in the wall to allow the hostages to escape, then regroup in a nearby sports stadium where U.S. ‘copters would lift them out.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.  Two choppers ran into a desert dust storm and returned to their ship.  The landing site was close to a rarely traveled road which — wouldn’t you know it? — was uncharacteristically busy that night.  The Americans soon found themselves babysitting (at gunpoint) a bus chartered by an extended Irani family (great testimony from a passenger who was only a child at the time).

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Trai Byers

“THE 24th” My rating: B+ (Opens Aug. 21 at the Screenland Armour and on streaming services)

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+ (Streaming Aug. 14 on AppleTV)

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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Louis Armstrong

“JAZZ ON A SUMMER’s DAY”  My rating: B (Available Aug. 14 through the Tivoli at the Nelson-Atkins Gallery of Art)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

There’s no shortage of reasons to catch the current reissue of 1959’s “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,”  with superb music and spectacularly good photography at the top of the list.

But at a time when most of us are spending way too many hours sequestered in our homes, Bert Stern and Aram Avakian’s record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival also hits an achingly romantic note,  taking us back to an era when it was safe for hundreds of us to assemble to hear music played by racially integrated bands.

1969’s Woodstock Fest may have been billed as “three days of peace and music,” but the Newport event a decade earlier delivered pretty much the same vibe…minus, of course, public nudity and drug sampling.

The performances captured here (the film spawned a best-selling soundtrack LP back in the day) provide a sort of Who’s Who of ’50s jazz.  They range from the New Orleans-steeped blowing of Louis Armstrong to the white-girl scatting of Anita O’Day (a knockout in black dress, feathered hat and white gloves), from the intellectually-rich piano stylings of Thelonious Monk to the early-rock glory of a duck-walking Chuck Berry. There’s even a touch of gospel glory courtesy of Mahalia Jackson.

(Of interest to KC area jazz fans:  Look for local boys Bob Brookmeyer, Buck Clayton and Basie alumnus Jo Jones playing with various configurations.)

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Seth Rogen…and Seth Rogen

“AN AMERICAN PICKLE” My rating: B- (Now available on HBO Max)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Before bogging down in a flabby middle section, HBO’s “An American Pickle” (aka “In A Pickle”) establishes itself as a gonzo comedy with more than a little soul.

The time-travel fantasy offers Seth Rogen in non-stoner mode as both a turn-of-the-last-century Eastern European Jew and as his modern great-great grandson.

Putting aside the complexities of filming this double performance (it was shot in two phases to give Rogen a time to grow a luxurious Tevye-type beard), “American Pickle” shows the slacker funny man has some serious acting chops.

In a beautifully filmed prologue (using a square-frame format and pastel palette that evokes the earliest color photography) we witness the early life of Herschel (Rogen), a Jewish ditch digger in some Eastern European backwater circa 1919.

In a sweetly comic passage Herschel woos and weds Sarah (Sara Snook of HBO’s “Succession”); they then hop a boat to America where Herschel gets a job killing rats in a pickle factory and looks forward to the birth of their first child.

He dies in an industrial accident, falling into a vat of brine. Before anybody notices that Herschel is gone, the factory is shuttered.  One hundred years later he awakens, perfectly preserved by the pickle juice.

What follows is both a fish-out-of-water yarn and a sort of dysfunctional family reunion. Herschel is united with his one living relation, great-grandson Ben (Rogen again), a dweeby app developer whose lack of success flies in the face of Herschel’s longheld belief that their family is destined for greatness.

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ACLU attorney Dale Ho before the U.S. Supreme Court

“THE FIGHT” My rating: B+ (On Demand as of Aug. 7)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The cynic in me acknowledges that the new documentary “The Fight” comes awfully close to being a recruiting ad for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Except that this effort from co-directors Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg is a hugely engrossing, intellectually stimulating achievement that will leave viewers torn between hope and despair.

“The Fight” follows the efforts of the ACLU to battle four of the more draconian steps taken by the new Trump administration.

We see ACLU lawyer Dale Ho take on Trump’s order that the 2020 census contain a question about the respondents’ citizenship…a development that would undoubtedly keep non-citizens from participating and so skew the numbers that determine, among other things, how many representatives each state gets in the U.S. House.

Brigitte Amiri, a litigator for women’s rights, takes on the plight of a 17-year-old woman who, having been detained as an illegal alien, discovered she was pregnant and was denied the abortion she requested.

Lee Gelernt tackles the issue of child separation along the Border.

Joshua Block builds a case against the banning of transgender persons from the military. He’s assisted by young attorney Chase Strangio, who is himself transgender.

The common thread in all of these cases, as well as with Trump’s notorious Muslim ban, is the suppression of human rights for certain classes of people.

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

“HOWARD” My rating: B+ (Debuts Aug. 7 on 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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Johnny Depp, Mark Rylance

“WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS” My rating: C (Begins streaming on  Aug. 7)

112 minutes | No MPAA rating

Not even the usually-comforting presence of Mark Rylance or a hammy performance from Johnny Depp can save “Waiting for the Barbarians,” a literary adaptation that probably should have stayed on the printed page.

Adapted by J.M. Coetzee from his novel and directed by Ciro Guerra, the film struggles to find a balance.  Its production design suggests  an old Foreign Legion movie like “Beau Geste” — except that “…Barbarians” lacks any sense of satisfying adventure.

Moreover, Coetzee’s subject is one individual’s moral struggle, an interior drama not easily depicted dramatically — even when you’ve got someone like the Oscar-winning Rylance assuming top honors.

Rylance plays The Magistrate, a bookish fellow toiling in a dusty desert town on the far-flung edge of an unspecified late 19th-century empire (French, Belgian, German?). Though he’s supposed to be in charge of local government, not to mention a garrison of bored soldiers, The Magistrate prefers to spend his time in archaeological digs, with occasional nocturnal visits to a local prostitute.

Then he’s paid a visit by Colonel Joll (Depp), a black-clad martinet with eccentric sunglasses who radiates quiet menace.  Bigwigs in the distant capital are convinced that the nomadic tribesmen who populate the desert are planning a revolution; Joll’s job is to collect intelligence on these “barbarians.”

To The Magistrate’s horror, tribal visitors to the town are randomly snatched and tortured, some fatally. But being a bit of a milquetoast, he’s powerless to do much more than sputter ineffectually.

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Gillian Jacobs

“I USED TO GO HERE”  My rating: C+ (On Demand Aug. 7)

80 minutes | No MPAA rating

We’re told that you can’t go home again.

You probably shouldn’t go back to school, either.

In “I Used to Go Here” writer/director Kris Rey gives us a heroine who is finding adult life problematical and plops her down in the college environment she left 15 years earlier.

Actually, lots of us nurture a secret back-to-school fantasy; “I Used to Go Here” suggests we should be careful what we wish for.

Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is a mess, thrown into turmoil and depression by the double whammy of being ditched by her fiancé and realizing that her first published novel is headed for the remainder bin. While her gal pals are married and procreating, Kate lives alone in Chicago, stewing  in her own self-pity.

So when an old college professor invites her back to campus to give a reading from the novel, Kate jumps at the chance.

Initially it seems as if her old college town has hardly changed at all.  But when she starts hanging with a scraggly bunch of kids  now living in the off-campus dive where she spent her senior year, Kate is hit full force with knowledge that she is now a middle-aged woman.

What to do?  Well, if reality sucks, make your own reality. Kates starts acting like the mostly carefree college student she once was. This leads her to a nighttime  raid on the home of her old creative writing teacher (Jemaine Clement in full pompous-professor mode) and striking up a quickie romance with a baby-faced undergrad (Josh Wiggins).

Nothing of real import happens in “I Used to Go Here,” but nevertheless the trip is largely pleasant one.  For this we can credit the screen presence of Jacobs (she was a regular on TV’s “Community”), who hits just the right mix of comic neurosis and romantic yearning.

| Robert W. Butler

David Myers Gregory, Vinnie Jones

“THE BIG UGLY”  My rating: C+ (Begins streaming July 31)

106 minutes |MPAA rating: R

Dramatically, there’s nothing special about “The Big Ugly,”  a crime/revenge yarn that hits the usual plot points without adding much to the genre.

What this melodrama from writer/director Scott Wiper does have going for it is its look.  The cinematographer is Jeremy Osbern, a Kansas Citian who has cut his teeth on shorts, a Kevin Willmott feature (“The Only Good Indian”) and is now breaking into the big time.

His work on “Big Ugly” is exemplary — as close to a classic noir look as color will allow.  At least half the film unfolds at night, in dimly-lit bars and bedrooms, and Osbern’s provocative use of shadow and silhouette is absolutely first rate.

The plot finds English tough guy Neelyn (Vinnie Jones) flying to America with his mob boss Harris (Malcolm McDowell). Neelyn is accompanied by his longtime girl Fiona (Leonra Crichlow), a good soul who loves him despite his drinking and murderous employment.

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Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond

“SUMMERLAND” My rating: B (Available July 31 on Amazon Prime and various cable/streaming services)

99 minutes | MPAA rating:PG

One of literature’s more enduring themes — that of a misanthrope redeemed by the love of a child (Silas Marner, anyone?) — gets a clever reworking in Jessica Swale’s “Summerland.”

In her quaint cottage on the Dover seashore, Alice (Gemma Arterton) has pretty much managed to avoid the  unpleasantries of the world war taking place on the other side of the channel. A middle-aged recluse regarded by the local kids as some sort of witch (they stuff dirt and sticks into her mail slot), Alice immerses herself in her scholarly study of British folklore. She just wants to be left alone.

So she’s more than a little miffed when told that like many other residents of this rural area, she is expected to take in a child evacuated from London and its nightly air raids. Frank (Lucas Bond) is already traumatized at being separated from his soldier father and government-worker mother; things aren’t improved when Alice gives him a chilly reception and immediately launches an effort with the local schoolmaster (the venerable Tom Courtenay) to have the youngster reassigned to another home.

Swale’s screenplay follows one familiar trajectory, but manages to change things up with a couple of novel twists.

The cranky woman and the innocent child eventually will warm to one another.  This goes without saying.

Frank’s relationship with a another displaced child (Dixie Egerickx) feels fairly predictable as well.

But in a series of flashbacks we see young Alice  having an affair — her only sexual encounter, apparently — with a fellow university student, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Their idyllic flapper-era romance ends when Vera opts for conventional marriage and children over a mixed-race lesbian relationship (which, in  late 1920s Britain, was a far dicier premise than it is today).

This soul-shattering disappointment explains Alice’s intervening years of surly solitude. Having been badly burned, she’s not keen on forming relationships of any depth.  Which makes the presence of curly-haired Frank all the more problematic.

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“REBUILDING PARADISE”  My rating: B (Begins streaming on July 31)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The first 10 minutes of Ron Howard’s “Rebuilding Paradise” employ TV news footage, cell phone videos and audio communications between emergency workers to recreate the notorious Camp Fire that in  2018 consumed the northern California town of Paradise, killing more than  80 citizens.

No horror film of recent years is as terrifying as this masterfully edited depiction. You’ll watch with your mouth open in disbelief…that is, if you’re not already reduced to tears.

The ghastliness of those opening minutes are reinforced by the immediate plight of the fire’s survivors. Citizens quite literally got away with only their lives. Everything else — homes, possessions — has been reduced to smoking cinders.

“Rebuilding Paradise” chronicles the first year or so following the disaster, as individuals and the overall community come to grips with the extent of their loss and make tentative first steps toward returning to some kind of normalcy.

It’s not an easy process…or an easy one to watch.  But Howard’s film is at its core a paen to the resiliency of the human spirit (or, if you’re jingoistically inclined, to can-do Americanism)…which means that you leave the experience with a deep appreciation of and a sort of elation about the possibilities we all share.

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Rosamund Pike as Madame Curie

“RADIOACTIVE” My rating: B (Debuts July 24 on Amazon Prime)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Not content with the limitations of a conventional biopic, Marjane Satrapi’s film about Marie Curie blows up the form, not just depicting the life of a great scientist but exploring what over the decades her discoveries have meant to the world.

As suggested by the piece’s unconventional title — “Radioactive” — the fallout (pun intended) of Curie’s groundbreaking work is not entirely life-affirming.

Satrapi,  who first came to fame with her graphic novel Persepolis (about growing up in and then fleeing post-revolutionary Iran) and the 2007 animated feature based on it, has a lot of her mind here.  Perhaps too much for tidy presentation.

Happily she has as her lead Rosamund Pike,  whose work in recent years — especially “Gone Girl” and “A Private War” — has catapulted her into the first ranks of film actresses. Even when “Radioactive” threatens to fly out of control, Pike keeps things centered.

Beginning late in the 19th century and extending past Curie’s death in 1934 (poisoned by all the radioactive material she had handled over a lifetime), the film hits the usual biographical landmarks: Marie’s meeting and marriage to fellow physicist Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), her discovery of the elements radium and polonium, the death of Pierre and her years as a widow still devoted to scientific research. During World War I she traversed the front in a truck outfitted with primitive X-ray equipment that allowed military doctors to locate the bullets and shrapnel in the bodies of wounded soldiers.

But Jack Thorne’s screenplay (based on Lauren Redniss’ graphic novel Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout) also leans heavily  on the feminist aspects of Curie’s story, especially her fights with a chauvinistic scientific establishment (embodied by Simon Russell Beale’s university bigwig) and her resentment of Pierre, who accepted their Nobel Prize while Marie stayed at home with the kids (“You stole my brilliance and made it your own”).

The film devotes considerable time to one of the more controversial parts of Curie’s story, her post-Pierre affair with a married co-worker (Aneurin Barnard). The relationship created an uproar: this Polish “harlot” was besmirching the sacred institution of French marriage.  (I know, I know…the French have a long history of besmirching marriage.)  Don’t recall that incident even being mentioned in the sanitized 1943 Greer Garson version of the yarn.

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Dolph Lundren, Grace Jones…photo by Helmut Newton

“HELMUT NEWTON: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL” My rating: B (Available July 24 on Kino Marquee)

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

As with few other photographers (Ansel Adams and Robert Mapplethorpe immediately come to mind) the late Helmut Newton’s images cannot be mistaken for those of any other artist.

Newton (1920-2004) worked in fashion  and his most regular employer was Vogue magazine. But even when his stated assignment was to capture on film some item of apparel he still managed to work his sexual preoccupations and perverse sense of humor into the equation.

Though he frequently photographed the famous (Margaret Thatcher, David Bowie), Newton’s main fame rests on his nudes.  Though they’ve been classified as erotica, many find them anything but enticing.

No come-hither looks. No languid poses.

Newton’s women usually present themselves to us in-yer-face naked from top to high-heeled bottom, appproaching the camera defiantly and largely indifferent to the viewer’s gaze. This is the nude body as chilly, intimidating bulwark.

Elements of sado-masochism are not uncommon.

Some critics (Susan Sontag, famously) found his work essentially misogynistic; others, including many of the young women who were his models, regard their time with Newton as empowering.

Getting to the root of that conundrum is the underlying thread of “Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful” by documentarian Gero von Boehm, whose six-part “A Brief History of the World” is one of the highest rated documentaries ever on German television.

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Petr Kotlar as The Boy

“THE PAINTED BIRD”  My rating: B (Streaming July 17 on most digital and cable platforms)

170 minutes | MPAA rating:

As horrifying as “The Painted Bird” is, I don’t regret the three hours spent watching it.

Like a few other films — I’m thinking particularly of the Soviet “Come and See” — Polish filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosiriski’s 1965 novel tests a viewer’s capacity to absorb the terrors of war (in this case World War II on the Eastern Front).

Not that there’s much in the way of battlefield mayhem. The violence here is directed at civilians and, even worse, at one young boy. War or no war, this movie seems to be saying, superstitious, thick-headed humans will go out of their way to torment each other.

The protagonist of the yarn is The Boy (Petr Kotlar), who is presumably Jewish. Separated from his family, he leads a nomadic existence, wandering through fields and forests, barely surviving  thanks to the “kindness” of strangers, who as often as not abuse him physically, sexually and emotionally.

Harvey Keitel

When we first meet him he’s being chased through the woods by three boys who beat him and set fire to his pet ferret. Sort of sets the tone for the whole enterprise.

The boy is living with an old woman he calls “Auntie” (whether they’re actually related is doubtful). Upon her death he stumbles into a village where an old matriarch declares him a “vampire” and orders him  killed. He survives this threat — and all of the others that will test him — less by his wits than by pure luck.

At one point The Boy flees his pursuers by jumping into a river and being carried downstream on a fallen tree branch, only to be delivered into yet another hellish predicament.  This becomes a metaphor for his life; drifting helplessly from one crisis to the next.

All of this is unfolds with a minimum of dialogue and little or no psychological insight into the characters.  That goes as well for The Boy himself, who has been so numbed by his experiences that only acute physical pain can rouse him from his emotional lethargy. Continue Reading »

Charlize Theron

“THE OLD GUARD” My rating: C+ (Debuts July 10 on Netflix)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Netflix’s “The Old Guard” is almost instantly forgettable…but no movie that gives us Charlize Theron in kick-ass mode can be easily dismissed.

Adapted by directed by Greg Rucka from his graphic novel and competently directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “…Guard” stars Theron as Andy, a formidable warrior woman who runs a four-man team of freelance commandos (Marwan Kenzari, Matthias Schoenaerts,  Luca Marinelli).

When we first meet them they are “hired” by a former CIA guy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to travel to Sudan to rescue schoolgirls kidnapped by a predatory militia. Andy and team show up armed to the teeth not only with modern automatic weapons but also with much Medieval cutlery.  No bulletproof vests…but then it turns out they don’t need them.

Because the members of this crew are immortal.  Andy is the oldest, having lived for at least 3,000 years.  The others were picked up over the centuries; apparently each is a genetic/metaphysical freak who for unknown reasons suddenly was endowed with rapid healing and near-instant resurrection.

Betrayed on their mission and left for dead (death doesn’t last long in this instance), the crew clean up the mercenaries who laid the trap (the kidnapped schoolgirls scenario was merely a ruse) and lick their rapidly healing wounds.

Andy, who has devoted her never-ending life to righting wrongs and getting rid of bad guys, has reached the point where she wonders if she’s doing any good any more. “The world isn’t getting any better,” she laments. “It’s getting worse.”

Then all four dream simultaneously about a U.S. Marine, Nile (Kiki Layne), who suffers a seemingly deadly wound in Afghanistan yet recovers within hours. Clearly, she is meant to be the next member of the team, although she greets that news with mixed emotions.  Yeah, living forever and healing instantly is pretty cool; on the other hand, remaining the same age while loved ones wither away is just plain demoralizing.

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“TALES FROM THE LOOP” My rating: B+ (Now streaming on Amazon Plus)

Television has had no shortage of sci-fi/fantasy anthologies (going as far back as the original “Twilight Zone” and continuing today with streaming hits like “Black Mirror”), so when you find an example of the genre that feels fresh and invigorating you’ve got to pay attention.

“Tales from the Loop” on Amazon Plus is a surprisingly potent blend of technological pipe dream and essential human longing for connections.  Though it debuted in April, I’d heard almost nothing about it until stumbling across it while web surfing. This one sticks with you.

Inspired by the paintings of Swedish artist Simon Stalenhag, the series’ superb art direction mixes small-town Americana with futuristic (actually retro futuristic) trappings.

The Ohio burg in which the show is set looks utterly normal…except that a field outside town is dominated by three huge concrete silos, the only visible part of The Loop, a massive underground research facility (the circular corridors suggest a particle accelerator) that is the region’s biggest employer.

An old red barn is pierced by a crescent-shaped metal superstructure (it looks a bit like the wrecked spaceship in “Alien”) and some homes are outfitted with tentacle-like ductwork (shades of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”). Moreover, the nearby woods and fields are littered with the fantastic carcasses of decaying machines, Loop experiments that apparently didn’t work out and were left to rust. (As we soon discover, many are still functional, though their original purposes remains a mystery.)

In fact, pinning down just when “Tales from the Loop” takes place is problematical.  The setting is pre-digital…no cell phones or flat screens.  Home phones are of the rotary variety; computers still use floppy discs.  The costumes and set dressings have a timeless quality…if I had to guess I’d say it all happens in the late ’70s, though that’s really not important.

What is important is how the  scripts (by show runner Nathaniel Halpern and Stalenhag) create an all-inclusive world and a sustained mood.  Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (clearly an inspiration), “…Loop” presents us with numerous characters who move in and out of each other’s stories, taking the lead in one, serving as an extra in others. Each episode examines the interaction of residents with the Loop’s abandoned detritus.

In one instance, teenage boys  (Daniel Zoighadri, Tyler Barnhardt) find a rusting bathysphere-like globe which allows them to inhabit each other’s bodies.  What could go wrong?

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Catherine Deneuve

“THE TRUTH” My rating: B (Available July 3 on Video on Demand)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The character played by Catherine Deneuve in “The Truth” is reprehensible.

Except that she’s played by Catherine Deneuve, which means her reprehensibleness is actually kind of awesome.

In the latest from  Hirokazu Koreeda (a Japanese director making a French movie…talk about cross-cultural pollination) Deneuve plays Fabienne Dangeville, a great beauty of the French cinema who, now well ensconced in her 70s, has just published a memoir called “La Verite” (“the Truth”).

Fabienne has been a star for so long, has spent so much of her life being fawned over, that she has an iron-clad if overinflated sense of her own wonderfulness.  She expects people to cater to her every whim, and has a wickedly sharp tongue with which she lacerates friend and foe alike.

Imagine a Maggie Smith character coupled with world-class sex appeal.

Koreeda’s screenplay follows Fabienne on two fronts.  Professionally she’s taken a supporting role on a low-budget science fiction film starring young actress Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel), who’s being touted as the next Fabienne Dangeville. You can imagine Fabienne’s dim view of that assertion.

On a personal level, Fabienne is dealing with a visit from her semi-estranged daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a New York-based screenwriter who’s returned to her childhood home with her actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their precocious bilingual daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier).

When little Charlotte exclaims that Grandma’s house looks like a castle, Lumir glumly notes, “Yes, and there’s a prison just behind it.”  True.  The family manse abuts a maximum security facility, and it’s pretty obvious that in Lumir’s mind the two properties are interchangeable.

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Rep. John Lewis

“JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE”  My rating: B- (Begins streaming on demand on July 3)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

How do you not like John Lewis?

The man has an unblemished 60-year history of social activism and public service. He stood elbow-to-elbow  with Martin Luther King Jr. and was beaten on the march from Selma to Birmingham; he’s represented Georgia in Congress for more than 30 years.

And now, at age , he’s been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Small wonder Dawn Porter’s new documentary practically crowns Lewis with a halo.  The guy appears to be a pillar of decency and compassion, free of the usual political bombast.

And he’s been one of the most eloquent analysts of the dark side of human nature proffered by Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” is too much of a good thing.  Though Porter draws from a treasure trove of archival footage from the Civil Rights era and has subjected Lewis to several sit-down interviews, my interest in the film began to wane at the one-hour mark.

Clearly, Porter admires her subject and wants to do him justice.  But she’s made a film so routine and by-the-numbers that despite the compelling subject matter, indifference begins to set in.

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” would probably hit the spot as a one-hour effort.  But at 90-plus minutes it wears out its welcome.

| Robert W. Butler

Edgar Ramirez

“WASP NETWORK” My rating: C+ (Now available on Netflix)

127 minutes | Rated: TV-MA

There’s some interesting history on display in “Wasp Network,” the latest from veteran French auteur Oliver Assayas. But as drama this one’s a head scratcher.

The film begins in the late 1980s in Cuba, with Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez) bidding farewell to his wife Olga (Penelope Cruz) and their young daughter and heading out for another day of piloting planes for the Castro regime.

Except that Gonzalez steals an aircraft and heads to Florida, where he claims political asylum. Before long he’s been hooked up with anti-Castro insurgents, flying dangerous missions to Cuba and elsewhere.  Some of those assignments involve carrying loads of narcotics which are financing plans to destabilize or even overthrow the island’s Communist government.

Meanwhile back in Cuba Olga must live with  the fallout of being the wife of a traitor.

Wagner Moura

Enter a new Cuban character, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), who risks sharks and rip tides to swim into Guantanamo Bay where he defects to authorities at the U.S. base there. Soon Juan Pablo, who has a taste for the high life, is rubbing elbows with expatriate bigwigs in Miami, wooing the gorgeous daughter (Ana de Armas) of Cuban exiles, and flashing a Rolex.

Yet a third plot emerges with the appearance of Gerardo Hernandez (Gael Garcia Bernal), a Cuban operative who informs poor Olga that her husband, far from being a traitor, has been sent to spy on anti-Castro groups in Miami.

At one point there’s a digression to follow a Venezuelan “tourist” (Nola Guerra) who plants bombs in Havana hotels in an effort to destroy Cuba’s fledgling tourism industry.

Assaya’s screenplay plays it coy for the first hour. It’s not until the Hernandez character appears that we realize Gonzalez and Roque are not defectors but undercover agents.  This delayed reveal is meant to build suspense but mostly it leaves us mystified.  Why are we supposed to care about these two? What are their motivations?

Adapted from Fernando Morais’ nonfiction book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, “Wasp Network” reeks of authenticity.  It was shot largely in Cuba featuring a slew of familiar Latin American actors. 

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Miles Teller

I’m not sure I like Amazon Prime’s “Too Old to Die Young,” but I’m damned if I can stop watching it.

Of course, you could say that about any effort from the supremely downbeat Nichoas Winding Refn.

Over the last 20 years Refn has gone from nihilistic Danish productions like the “Pusher” series, “Bronson” (Tom Hardy) and “Valhalla Rising” (Mads Mikkelsen)  to nihilistic American productions like “Drive” (Ryan Gosling) and  the much-despised “Only God Forgives” (Gosling again), with a sidestep into nihilistic pop culture in “The Neon Demon” (Elle Fanning).

Note the recurring word “nihilistic.” Get used to it.

“Too Old…” is Refn on steroids, a 10-part crime drama (each episode is about 90 minutes) that takes all the things people love (and hate) about his  oeuvre and pumps them up to the exploding point (though it rarely explodes; mostly it simmers).

Augusto Aguilera, Cristina Rodlo

Our protagonist (hero is way too strong a word) is Martin Jones (Miles Teller), a deputy with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.  Martin is, to put it bluntly, corrupt (but then so is just about every law enforcement officer depicted here).  He has a side job as an an enforcer/assassin for a Jamaican gang. Also, he’s dating a high-school senior, Janey  (Nell Tiger Free), whose creepy billionaire  father (William Baldwin in a career-high perf) can barely communicate through a bad case of the cocaine sniffles.

Martin’s nemesis is Jesus (Augusto Aguilera), the son of a beautiful cartel queen Martin assassinated before the series begins. The entire second episode is devoted to Jesus’ sojourn with his mother’s family in Mexico, where he gets steeped in the clan’s culture. He returns to the U.S. with his new wife (and adopted sister/cousin) Yaritza (Critina Rodlo), who claims to be a powerful witch. Naturally they’re sworn to exact revenge on Martin.

In the fourth or fifth episode we’re introduced to Viggo (John Hawkes), a terminally ill former FBI agent now devoted to vigilantism. He gets his targets from woo-woo woman Diana (Jena Malone), who as a counselor for victims of crime has a long list of child rapists and other offenders who require elimination.

Eventually Martin decides to stop killing mere gangsters and join Viggo in going after the real monsters. Continue Reading »

Kevin Bacon, Avery Essex

“YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT” My rating: C+ (Now streaming on Amazon Priime)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Written and directed by David Koepp and starring Kevin Bacon, 1999’s  “Stir of Echoes” was a ghost story that stuck with you.  Twenty years away from my only viewing of that movie, I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

Koepp and Bacon reteam for “You Should Have Left,”  a haunted house yarn that, alas, has nothing like that staying power.

The setup is  familiar: Family seeks to leave their troubles behind by pulling up roots and renting a house where weird things start happening.

The backstory provided by Koepp’s screenplay offers plenty of familial woes percolating beneath a seemingly placid exterior.

Financial guru Theo (Bacon) has a pretty trophy wife, Susanna (Amanda Seyfried), who is a couple of decades his junior. They live in Hollywood where she is an actress.

They have an adorable daughter, Ella (Avery Essex), who loves her Daddy something fierce.

Daddy, though, has issues.  For one, he’s sensitive about being so much older than his wife (people want to know if he’s Susanna’s father). He’s having a hard time handling his simmering jealousy, especially when he visits a movie set on the same day Susanna has to perform an intimate romantic scene with another actor.

Moreover, Theo is still trying to live down the scandal surrounding the death of his first wife, who drowned in the bathtub in a drug haze. To this day  lots of folks think Theo murdered her.

So you can hardly blame him for hauling the family off to the UK where the couple have rented a big place in the Welsh countryside.  It’s a very modern, austere home built on the foundations of an old farmhouse where bad things may have happened…at least according to the vaguely threatening locals. Continue Reading »

Robert W. Butler Sr. 1921-2020

Most children — the lucky ones, anyway — stand in awe of their fathers.

Until I was a teenager I took it for granted that my father, Robert W. Butler Sr., who passed away June 12 at age 98, had the superhuman ability to fix anything.

Washing machines, auto engines, electrical wiring, even the collapsing concrete-block foundation of our Prairie Village home…Dad just rolled up his sleeves and fixed it.

By trade he was an electrical engineer…by habit he fixed things.  

He did it as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. He tutored grade schoolers in the Shawnee Mission District. He stocked shelves  at the food bank run by Village Presbyterian Church, where he was an usher and deacon.  For several years he  dressed  up  to help my mother  run  a  booth  at  the Renaissance  Festival  selling  the output  of  the  church’s  printmaking  guild.

He was a Stephens Minister who counseled and comforted members of the church.

After the death of my mother Dad moved into Aberdeen Village in Olathe  KS (he was a member of the original “freshman class”) where over two decades he served as president of the resident’s council and each year did the income taxes of anyone who asked. He passed out his homemade banana bread and summer sausage.

That was typical. Dad, my mother used to joke, never got his tank filled without making friends with the station attendant. 

And the other night as we sat at his death bed, my sister Jan observed that she had never heard a bad thing said about our father; nor had we ever heard him say anything unkind about another person.

In many ways we were opposites…he was a left-brain fixer and I was a right-brain dreamer.  His futile attempts to coach me in seventh grade algebra must have shaken his belief in heredity.  At the same time, I suspect he was mystified at the process by which I watched movies and wrote critical pieces about them.

(Although…in his mid-90s he took up painting with all the eagerness and lack of pretension of an eight-year-old.)

Dad was born on Aug. 9, 1921 in Franklin, NE.  He attended the University of Nebraska (he was a lifelong fan of Cornhusker sports and was still paying dues to the Nebraska Alumni Association when he passed). He received a degree in electrical engineering; the U.S. Navy paid for his further studies at Harvard, M.I.T. and Bowdoin College.

He served as radar officer on the U.S.S. Dayton in the Pacific;  he was in a combat situation only once, when the Dayton was one of dozens of ships shelling the Japanese mainland.

Ironically, Dad was responsible for the only shot to hit his ship.  Assuming his duties as the officer of the day he was handed a .45 automatic, which discharged, blowing a hole in the teak deck.

While still in uniform he met and married my mother, Ardys Arlene Anderegg, a teacher from Iowa.  Their civilian life together began in Fort Wayne IN, where dad worked for Farnsworth Electronics (Philo Farnsworth is credited as the inventor of television). That’s where I was born.

Shortly thereafter the couple moved to Roeland Park KS. In the 1950s and ’60s Dad worked for the Bendix Corporation.  We never knew what he did, although one time he left his official I.D. at home and was sent back to get it before the guards would let him into his office.

 Years later I took him to see “The Abyss”; watching the scene where Navy Seals remove nuclear warheads from a sunken submarine, Dad leaned over and whispered “They look just like that.”

Turns out he was in charge of quality control for ICBM guidance systems. Nightmares of nuclear holocaust notwithstanding, the Cold War was good to the Butler clan.

Dad was active in the American Society for Quality Control and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, often delivering technical papers at their conferences. In retirement he and another group of engineers toured China.  Even after that he kept pronouncing “Mao” like the condiment.

He also went to night school to earn an M.A. in Business from the  University of Missouri.

In 1955 the family moved to Prairie Village; in 1969 Dad, my mother, my brother Dick and sister Jan moved to Fort Lauderdale FL where Dad worked for Milgo Electronics.

Mom and Dad returned to KC in 1974 when he took a job in quality control for the Allis-Chalmers plant in Independence. The job required him to crisscross the Midwest, troubleshooting issues farmers were having with their agricultural equipment.  Coming from Nebraska and having married into a family of Iowa farmers, he talked their language.

After retiring he and Mom spent winters in Florida with my brother Dick. Dad helped plan reunions of the U.S.S. Dayton’s crews — at least until he was the only one left to attend.

He leaves behind three children, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

He also left the world a better place.

| Robert W. Butler

Painting by Robert W. Butler Sr., 2019

Marisa Tomei, Pete Davidson

“THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND” My rating: C (Available June 12 on Video on Demand)

136 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Viewers who make it to the third act of “The King of Staten Island”  will find that this Pete Davidson starrer actually has a heart beneath its smarmy exterior.

Getting to that point, though, is a slog.

Directed by Judd Apatow (according to the credits, anyway…there were moments when I wasn’t sure anyone was in charge) and co-written by “SNL” star Davidson as a tribute to his fireman father who died on 9-11, “The King of Staten Island” is a comedy/drama that never really satisfies on either count.

When we first meet Davidson’s Scott Carlin, the 24-year-old is in his mother’s car speeding down a freeway with his eyes closed.  Maybe it’s a suicide attempt; in any case, like just about everything else in Scott’s life, he manages to screw it up, doing more damage to bystanders than to himself.

Scott is instantly recognizable as a variation on the stoner/slacker persona that is Davidson’s trademark character on “Saturday Night Live,” a dopey guy who has the emotional and intellectual range of a pet gecko. The difference this time around is that we’re supposed to see him as a damaged individual as the result of losing his fireman father at age 7.

That’s the backstory.  In the present, though, Scott  comes off as ignorant, maddeningly self indulgent and given to Adam Sandler-level eruptions of anger.

He’s got a girlfriend (Bel Powley) who soon has had enough of him.  He lives on Staten Island with his widowed mother (Marisa Tomei) and a younger sister (Maude Apatow) who, by virtue of having been too young to experience the trauma of losing her dad, is now a beacon of normalcy.

Scott hangs with a pack of meat-headed, pot-fried friends from high school (Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson, Moises Arias) who are devoting their lives to chilling,  video games and singularly inept criminal enterprises.

Scott frequently behaves like an utter asshole (attempting to practice his nascent tattooing skills on a grade-school kid), which makes it all that much more difficult to root for him.

Continue Reading »

“THE VAST OF NIGHT” My rating: B+ (Now streaming on Amazon Prime)

89 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The low-budget “The Vast of Night” is like the best episode ever of “The Twilight Zone.” With a dose of “American Graffiti” tossed in.

Unfolding on on fall night in the late 1950s in the tiny burg of Cayuga NM, Andrew Patterson’s film delivers a big dose of weirdness made all the more unsettling by its roots in banal reality.

It’s a Friday night and at the local gymnasium the high school basketball team is getting ready to kick off their season. Everett (Jake Horowitz), a twenty something who operates the local radio station, is setting up a tape recorder so that one of his colleagues can do a play-by-play of the game.

(Actually, the game tape won’t be broadcast until  the next day.  As Everett observes, nobody listens to find out who won — they already know — but to hear the names of their sons spoken through the ether. It’s an example of the minute details exploited so effectively in Patterson and Craig W. Sanger’s screenplay.)

Everett, who is so nerdy he’s actually cool in a Buddy Holly kind of way, won’t watch the game. He has to return to the station for that night’s program of recorded music and call-in commentary.

He’s accompanied on the walk across town by Fay (Sierra McCormick), a 16-year-old in cats-eye spectacles, pony tail and poodle skirt who is Cayuga’s nighttime telephone operator. (For the callow  youths reading this:  There was a time when a phone call to your neighbor required an operator poking wires into sockets on a huge circuit board; naturally a small-town operator knew the dirt on just about everybody.)

Fay is a science nerd who chatters enthusiastically about the articles she’s been reading in popular magazines (one predicts the development of telephones with tiny TV screens; another self-driving cars.)  Everett enjoys playing the role of big-brother/mentor.  They briefly refer to the Soviet Union’s recent success with Sputnik (Cold War paranoia wafts throughout).

Sierra McCormick

Once downtown Fay and Everett settle into their respective chairs and prepare for another boring night.  Heck, virtually every Cayugan is at the game.

And then Fay gets a call…well, not a call so much as a weird mechanical/electrical noise.  This coincides with reports of strange lights in the sky. She transfers the call to Everett, who puts it on the air.

He gets a call-in from Billy (the unseen but excellent Bruce Davis), a former soldier who in a long monologue tells of building a hangar in the desert for some sort of top-secret aircraft.  He recognizes the weird audio signal being aired by Everett as accompanying the strange craft.

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Hiam Abbass, Ramy Youssef, Amr Waked

Like most boomers, I grew up on half-hour TV dramas. They once roamed the airwaves like herds of bison.

Maybe back then the entertainment industry didn’t think the fledgling television public had sufficient attention spans to endure a full hour of heavy dramatic lifting. Perhaps the studios were still trying to find the right balance between production costs and on-air quality, and a half-hour show minimized risk.

Whatever.  My generation came of age watching Westerns in which characters were introduced, a situation established and resolved (usually through gunplay) in a terse 25 minutes. (Plus five minutes for commercials.)

Not just Westerns.  Legal dramas and crime shows as well.

By the early ’60s the half-hour drama had given way to 60-minute productions which provided creators a chance to stretch a bit, dabble in nuance without the need to get in and out in record time.

Which is why I was surprised to discover that two of my new favorites — the Hulu series “Ramy” and “Normal People” — are half-hour dramas.

Yeah, yeah, technically “Ramy” is a comedy — this year its creator and star, Ramy Youssef, won the Golden Globe for best actor TV musical or comedy   — but as will soon be explained, the new second season of “Ramy” is essentially dramatic.

And as for “Ordinary Humans,” you don’t get much more intense than this tale of two Irish kids whose sexual/romantic relationship is followed over several years.

Okay, first “Ramy.”

Youssef stars (basically he’s playing  himself, or at least the self he presents in his standup routines) as Ramy, twenty something son of Egyptian immigrants who wants to be a good Muslim but also wants to be a normal American millennial.  He manages to avoid alcohol, but sex is his Achilles heel…he loves the ladies and whacking off to porn.

Season One sets up Ramy’s world and its inhabitants. His father Farouk (Amr Waked) is some kind of white-collar drone; mom Maysa (the sublime Hiam Abbass) is a homemaker and busybody with endless advice for Ramy (get a job, marry a nice Muslim girl) and his rebellious but still virginal sister Dena (May Calamawy).

Ramy’s running buddies are Mo ,(Mohammed Amer), who operates a diner and is always encouraging Ramy’s libidinous behavior (married, Mo lives vicariously through his friend), and the physician Ahmed (Dave Merheje), a nerd forever attempting to steer his pal along paths of righteousness.  Basically Ahmed and Mo are a good angel and a bad angel, each perched on one of Ramy’s shoulders and delivering hilariously contradictory advice.

A third pal is Steve (Youssef’s real-life best friend Steve Way), who has muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair from which he hurls world-class insults.

Another important character — and one who generates huge laughs in Season One — is Uncle Naseem (Laoth Nakli), who is also Ramy’s boss at a Manhattan jewelry store (the family lives in New Jersey). Broad, hairy, proudly chauvinistic and fiercely opinionated, Nasseem is an Arab version of a redneck who apparently agrees with Trump on everything except Muslim policy. Archie Bunker seems benign by comparison.

The debut season finds Ramy in various romantic entanglements (including an affair with a Jewish girl), but huge chunks of the season are devoted to exploring his world. This includes the daily schedule of Muslim prayer (Ramy is less than diligent), dietary and cleanliness laws (Ramy is reluctant to pray if he has recently farted) and prejudices within the Muslim community (Arabs aren’t so sure about their black American brethren).

In Season Two, which just debuted, things get considerably darker.

For starters, Ramy often takes a back seat as entire episodes are devoted to one character.  Maysa has been augmenting the family income as a Lyft driver; when she is suspended over a bad customer comment, she is sure the complainer is a trans woman, a recent fare.  She boneheadedly (but without malice) begins stalking the rider in an attempt to set things right.

Sister Dena, who at one point almost gives it up to a charming young man she meets on campus, finds herself in a deep depression when her glorious head of hair (no wraps for this girl) starts falling out in clumps.

Most of all there’s the episode devoted to the Uncle Naseem, whose bullish exterior hides a heart-breaking inner life.

These segments are essentially dramatic…there may be a chuckle or two, but they’re aiming at targets bigger than laughs.

The season is anchored by the great Mahershala Ali as Ramy’s new spiritual leader, a Sufi who cuts through all the chatter in Ramy’s head with his deep faith and psychological awareness.  This leads to Ramy’s romance with the Sheik’s daughter; the season ends with a betrayal by Ramy that makes us wonder if he’s really the nice goof we’ve always thought or simply too dense and selfish to warrant our affection.

Throughout the 30-minute format provides enough time to get the story told without lollygagging…”Ramy” will jump from one scene to the next almost before you can get the laugh out. Yet it rarely seems hurried.
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Nine years ago, when I was laid off by the Kansas City Star after 41 years, I found an ally in Facebook.

I could post my movie reviews with a good chance of connecting with like-minded (think Boomer) readers.
But this is my last Facebook post for the foreseeable future. I no longer want to be a facilitator for Mark Zuckerberg’s greed.
When “The Social Network” came out in 2010 I actually thought the film’s depiction of Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook was inherently unfair.
Now I think it was some sort of whitewash.
In the name of “fairness” Zuckerberg has decreed that any post — no matter how patently false, misleading or prejudiced — will get the hands-off treatment from Facebook. Let the reader beware.
Except that Zuckerberg is getting fabulously rich by allowing disinformation to inundate his web site, threatening our democracy, our freedoms and our humanity. Fuck his bullshit moral qualms; this is all about getting even richer. (Just how rich is enough, and at what cost, is a discussion for another time and place.)
Anyway, I’ll no longer be posting on Facebook. If you still want to read my reviews, check out ButlerFilm on Twitter (better still, click on the SUBSCRIBE button on this page and it’ll automatically send an email link to my new reviews).
It’s been interesting.
| Robert W. Butler

Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan

“THE TRIP TO GREECE” My rating: B-

104 minutes | No MPAA rating:

In a major break with tradition, neither Steve Coogan nor his comedy partner Rob Brydon do a Michael Caine impersonation in “The Trip to Greece.”

In all other regards, however, the fourth film in the series (after “The Trip,” “The Trip to Italy” and “The Trip to Spain”) hits its expected marks. Fans will find ample diversions, even if it seems that this time around the concept is running afoul of the law of diminishing returns.

The format, for those who’ve been living in a cave, finds the two British comedic actors once again playing lightly fictionalized versions of themselves. Coogan has been assigned to write a travel/food piece for a major publication; he and his bud Brydon get to traipse around the Greek countryside, stopping at quaint (and sometimes spectacularly fancy) eateries to sample the cuisine.

It’s not a bad way to travel: boats, islands, ancient ruins and 370-Euro lunches on an expense account.

Director Michael Winterbottom captures some scrumptious scenery and pays mouth-watering visits to the kitchens of the restaurants Coogan and Bryden patronize.

But the big attraction, as always, is the improvised comedy one-upmanship practiced by the leading men, whose hilarious star impressions and withering putdowns fuel the enterprise.

A discussion of Alexander the Great leads to the opinion that he was a ruthless gangster and a dead-on Brydon impression of Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.”

Brydon also sings the theme song from “Grease,” despite Coogan’s protests that the song is spelled differently than the country they’re traveling. This leads to innumerable falsetto Barry Gibbs/BeeGees impersonations.

A discussion of Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman’s work in “Marathon Man” segues into a rapid-fire series of scenes from Hoffman movies, with Brydon nailing the actor’s delivery in “Midnight Cowboy” (“I’m waaawwwkin’ here”) and “Tootsie,” finally returning to “Marathon Man” and the scene in which a sadistic Olivier bores a hole in the captive Hoffman’s incisor (our boys imitate the sound of a high-speed dental drill).

A discussion of the first Olympics inspires Coogan and Bryden to hum/whistle/clluck their own version of Vangelis’ theme to “Chariots of Fire.”

And of course there are riffs spawned by Greek history: “Spartan women had a reputation as the most beautiful women in the world. Yet the men were gay. Go figure.”

For all the laughs, the series has a history of dabbling in life’s darker undercurrents. The divorced Coogan has an ongoing sexual arrangement with the female photographer sent to snap illustrations for the article, and in one of the films family-man Bryden succumbed to the double-whammy temptations of travel and female companionship.

This time there’s a brief visit to a refugee camp (“Well, that was sobering”), and Coogan gets regular updates from his grown son back in England on the status of his father, who is in hospice. The film ends with a lovely little interlude in which Brydon and his wife are reunited for a long weekend on a Greek beach.

Does it add up to much?  Nah, but it’s an enjoyable 104 minutes even if this fourth iteration smacks of deja vu.

| Robert W. Butler

Jean Dujardin

“DEERSKIN” My rating: B

77 minutes | No MPAA rating

When we first encounter Georges,  the protagonist of Quentin Dupleux’s deliciously nasty “Deerskin,” he looks like a college professor…crisp shirt, salt-and-pepper beard,  brown corduroy sports coat.

Georges (Jean Dujardin, the Oscar-winning star of  “The Artist”)  is driving to the French Alps in response to a personal ad. The object of his quest is a vintage deerskin jacket bedecked with fringe; the aging hippy who is selling it tosses in an almost-new camcorder for free.

Georges’ nice corduroy jacket goes in the trash (more precisely, he stuffs it down the toilet in a highway rest stop).  You see, Georges’ life is falling apart — his wife has left him and his credit card has been cancelled — and so he is pouring all his attention into the deerskin jacket; he cannot pass a reflecting surface without admiring his new look, often wiggling his shoulders to make the fringe fly.

“Killer style,” he proclaims.

In truth, the jacket is all wrong for him.  Georges is about three inches too tall and 30 pounds too heavy to make it work; there’s a good two inches of shirt visible between the bottom of the jacket and the waist of his slacks.

But he is a man possessed. He takes up residence in a rustic inn and mans a barstool at the local tavern where he is sure that everyone is envious of his jacket.

Denise the barmaid (Adele Haenel, of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) is unimpressed by Georges’ sartorial efforts but is intrigued by the camcorder.  When he tries to pass himself off as an experimental filmmaker, she volunteers to edit his footage.

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Sam Elliott

“THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT” My rating: B

98 minutes | No MPAA rating

When it comes to pulpy promise, it’s hard to beat a title like “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot.”

But what’s unsettling about this debut feature from writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski is the way it defies almost all audience expectations while giving us Sam Elliott in one of his greatest performances.

In fact, one cannot imagine “The Man Who Killed Hitler…” working without the presence of the 75-year-old Elliott, a white-haired warrior of such potent screen charisma that I would gladly watch him absentmindedly scratch his ass for 90 minutes.

We meet Calvin Barr in the late ’80s or early ’90s, occupying a bar stool in a tavern in the quaint Norman Rockwell-esque town he’s called his home for more than seven decades. Calvin is quiet and cryptic, a man who exudes a certain angst but would never talk about it.

Still, he’s obviously not your typical senior citizen.  He makes mincemeat of a trio of punks who try to hijack his car late one night.

The first 45 minutes of Krzykowski’s screenplay follow Calvin in both the present and the past, interspersing his unremarkable daily routine with flashbacks to his service in World War II. We see glimpses of young Calvin (Aiden Turner) being sent behind enemy lines disguised as a Nazi officer. His assignment is to put a bullet in Der Fuerher.

Other flashbacks take him to the pre-war years when he worked in a shop on Main Street and wooed a pretty school teacher (Caitlin FitzGerald); he was sent to war before they could wed or even consummate their affair. That loss will haunt him to his dying day.

Which could be soon. Forty-five minutes into the film our hero is paid a visit by a federal agent (Ron Livingston) who announces that Calvin’s country once again desperately needs his help.  It seems that an ever-widening area of  Canadian forest is being ravaged by a mysterious influenza that is being spread by none other than Bigfoot.

Blood tests have shown that Calvin is one of the few humans immune to the virus; now he’s being sent up North to stalk  the hairy creature: “If we cannot contain the beast, if we cannot destroy it and it escapes, this could be the end.”

I’ll say this about Krzykowski…whatever his talents as a filmmaker they are vastly surpassed by his abilities as a prognosticator.  Basically this film predicts the pandemic we’re now experiencing. Continue Reading »

Otamara Marrero, Sydney Sweeney

“CLEMENTINE” My rating: C+

90  minutes | No MPAA rating

There’s something to be said for an erotic slow burn.

“Clementine,” though, may burn too slowly for its own good.

In the wake of her shattered relationship with an older woman, Karen (Otamara Marrero, a dead ringer for a young Rosario Dawson) flees Los Angeles and breaks into the Oregon lake home owned by her one-time paramour.

Her lover (played by Sonya Walger, though for most of the film we only hear her voice in phone conversations), a well-known artist, cheated on her;  that’s justification enough for the embittered Karen to smash a window and take up residence.

Her sojourn is interrupted by Lana (Sydney Sweeney), who claims to be 19 and says she lives on the other side of the lake.  Lana is an enticing/plerplexing blend of teen eroticism, youthful naïveté and percolating ulterior motives. About the only thing she says that can be trusted is her intense desire to become an actress; she’s already putting on a show.

Karen is intrigued but cautious…she doesn’t believe for a moment that the babyfaced Lana is a legal adult.

Stir into the cauldron a young handyman, Beau (Will Brittain), who looks after the place in the owner’s absence. Lana flirts with him while an irritated Karen looks on. Her mood is not  improved when she discovers that Beau has been sending reports back to her ex.

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Lucas Jaye, Brian Dennehy

“DRIVEWAYS” My rating: B+

83 minutes | No MPAA rating

Andrew Ahn’s “Driveways” sneaks up on you.  Instead of wowing us with look-at-me style it quietly seduces us with its substance and deep appreciation for its characters.

That it also features  one of the last screen appearances of the late great Brian Dennehy only makes this gently emotional effort that much more affecting.

Single mom Kathy (Hong Chau) and her eight-year-old son Cody (Lucas Jaye) have driven for several days to settle the estate of Kathy’s sister Alice.  Upon arriving at Alice’s home (the film was shot in upstate New York) they discover  her dwelling crammed floor to ceiling with junk. Unbeknownst to Kathy, Alice was a serious hoarder.

The electricity has been turned off (there’s a back bill of $900). Oh, yeah…there’s also a dead cat decaying in the second-floor bathtub.

Instead of putting the house on the market and getting out of Dodge, the pair are stuck with a Herculean cleanup effort. They end up sleeping on a screened-in porch. Kathy spends every day hauling away the detritus of her sister’s life; Cody slowly gets to know Del (Dennehy), the semi-grumpy widower living next door.

Someone with a short attention span might argue that not all that much happens in Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s screenplay.  No, not much. Just life.

“Driveways” is less about plot than about its characters.  Chau’s Kathy is something of a tiger mom when it comes to protecting Cody, who suffers from the double whammy of being both incredibly sensitive (he throws up a lot) and way too smart to connect with other kids (his mother calls him “Professor”).

Which is not to say she’s that tough. After a few days of cleanup Kathy sneaks off to spend an hour or two in a local tavern. She just wants to feel like an adult for one evening.

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Amber Havard, Rob Morgan

“BULL” My rating: B 

105 minutes | No MPAA rating

Fourteen-year-old Kris (Amber Havard) acts out.   A lot.

With her single mom in prison, Kris radiates abandonment and anger and quiet defiance.  She hangs with the older kids in her small town outside Houston, drinks and smokes.  And when she realizes that her neighbor Abe (Rob Morgan) spends most of his weekends on the road, she invites the other kids to party in his house, leaving the place a shambles.

After Abe returns to a trashed home, Kris’ grandma convinces the angry victim to not press charges. Instead the sullen teen will more or less become Abe’s slave, cleaning up the mess she made.

That’s how Kris learns that Abe is a former champion bull rider with countless mended bones and a drawer full of painkillers.  But he still makes a living on the rodeo circuit as a clown whose acrobatic antics keep angry bulls from stomping or goring their thrown riders.

To Kris this all looks like an exciting way of escaping her rut. There’s no reason why a girl can’t be a bull rider, right?

Most filmmakers would turn this plot into a heart-warming tale of forgiveness and renewed hope, a rodeo version of “The Karate Kid.”  Throw into the mix issues of race — Abe is black and Kris is white — and you can see “uplift” written all over it.

But writer/director Annie Silverstein isn’t having any of that crap. Her characters are too damaged for nice tidy resolutions and happy endings. Which somehow makes “Bull” all the more affecting.

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Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney

“BAD EDUCATON” My rating: B 

108 minutes | TV-MA

In the world of public education Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is a rock star.

The superintendent of the Roslyn School District in a posh corner of Long Island, Frank has over a decade ratcheted up his district’s reputation. Currently the high school he oversees is rated as the fourth best in the country; Frank promises his cheering fans that he won’t stop until Roslyn is Number One.

Moreover, Frank melds educational excellence with personal charisma. His wardrobe is right out of GQ. As are his daily ablutions. Like a veteran pol, he knows the names of innumerable students, their parents and civic supporters. He’s charming and selfless and handsome…small wonder this widower periodically must gently turn aside the romantic ministrations of newly divorced soccer moms.

His teachers and staff adore him and the city fathers are no less enthusiastic.  Like school board member Big Bob Spicer (Ray Romano), a real estate broker who knows that a top school district is a magnet for rich, upwardly mobile families looking to buy in the ‘burbs.

And behind closed doors with his confidants — especially business administrator Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) — he enjoys a good cussing session.

In short, Frank Tassone is too good to be true.  And you know where that can lead.

Scripted by Mike Makowsky (who was a Roslyn student during Tassone’s celebrated tenure) and directed by Cory Finley, “Bad Education” emerges as a black comedy so seductive that, like most of the folks in his orbit, we don’t want to believe that Frank Tassone could be anything but the white knight he appears to be.

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Kelsea Bauman, Will Dennis

“VANILLA”  My rating: B

87 minutes | No MPAA rating

If Elliott (Will Dennis) was ice cream he’d be vanilla.

His shirts are always buttoned tightly around his neck. He carefully charts out each day’s schedule (most days the big entry is “Lunch”).

Elliott spends many hours mooning about the girlfriend who got away. In his remaining time he is developing an app that will allows hungry users to literally scream for ice cream into their cell phones; a delivery man will be dispatched with the desired cones, scoops, toppings and other accoutrements.

Elliott is such a boring, lame-o character that one cannot imagine him holding down a feature film all by his lonesome. Happily he shares the screen with Kimmie (Kelsea Bauman), a sort of sarcasm-steeped gamine who hopes to become a standup comic. Between the two of them they make “Vanilla” a low-keyed, off-beat pleasure.

Making this all the more remarkable is that Dennis, who also wrote and directed the film, and Bauman have no feature film experience.  Until recently he was a product design consultant; “Vanilla” is his feature debut and while it isn’t earth-shaking, it’s kinda huggable.

The central premise has Will and Kimmie joining forces to drive his old van (it’s white, naturally) from NYC to New Orleans, where his ex, Trisha (Taylor Hess) is a P.A. on a film shoot and desperately needs an old beat-up white van for a stunt.

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Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder

“NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS”  My rating: B 

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

A hot-button issue gets minimalist treatment in Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.”

Yet despite the austerity of Hittman’s effort, this is a film that hooks us emotionally and intellectually.

Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a high schooler in small-town Pennsylvania. When we first meet her she’s singing at a local open-mic showcase.

After the performance she and her family (her mom is played by Sharon Van Etten, the singer; her vaguely indifferent stepdad by Ryan Eggold) decamp to a local restaurant. At an adjacent table a group of teenage boys are hanging out.   Autumn takes offense at something they’re doing and tosses her drink on one of them.

What’s that all about?   We follow Autumn to a clinic where she’s told she’s 10 weeks pregnant and treated to an anti abortion video.  She learns that as a minor in Pennsylvania she must get a parent’s permission before having an abortion.

And so in the dead of night Autumn and her supportive cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) grab a bus to the Big Apple where there are fewer restrictions.

What is supposed to be a one-day trip turns into something rather more complicated.  The Planned Parenthood doctor tells Autumn she’s more like 20 weeks gone; that’ll mean a two-day procedure and a longer stay in NYC.  Strapped for money the girls will basically have to spend a night bumming around the city. Continue Reading »

Amy Ryan

“LOST GIRLS” My rating: B (Now on Netflix)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Anger radiates from “Lost Girls” like steam from a boiling pot.  It swirls around us; we inhale it; we burn with it.

Liz Garbus’ film is about the decade-old (and still unsolved) case of the Long Island serial killer, believed responsible for the deaths of at least 10 young women.

But it’s not a police procedural. More like a study of official indifference and incompetence.

The victims, you see, were call girls. No big loss, right?

The point of view taken by the filmmakers (Michael Were adapted Robert Kolker’s non-fiction book) is not that of a dedicated cop finding answers but of a grieving mother, wracked with uncertainty and played with extraordinary fierceness by Amy Ryan.

Mari Gilbert (Ryan) lives in a small town in upstate New York.  She’s a single mother (no mention of any man in her life, past or present) making ends meet with blue-collar gigs (waitressing, driving heavy construction equipment) and struggling with domestic issues.

One daughter, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie of “Jojo Rabbit” and “Leave No Trace”), has a bad case of late-teen resentfulness. The second, tweener Sarra (Oona Laurence), is bi-polar, jerked between phases of defiance and crushing melancholy.

There’s another daughter whom we never really get to meet. Shannan, we learn, hasn’t lived with her mother since  puberty; she was raised by the state in foster homes. Now she resides in New Jersey, returning home on rare occasions but regularly contributing money to support her mother and siblings.

Shannan is a prostitute who uses Craig’s List to troll for customers. Mari undoubtedly knows this; she just won’t say it out loud.

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“BLOW THE MAN DOWN” My rating: B- 

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Easter Cove, Maine, is just as picturesque as the name implies.

Lots of boats, weather-worn houses, gray winter skies, residents bred of  tough New England stock…hell, the commercial fishermen even punctuate their daily grind by singing sea chanties directly to the camera.

But beneath the quaint facade things are rotten. At least according to Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s noir-ish “Blow the Man Down.”

Our protagonists are sisters Pris and Mary Beth Connolly (Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor), who as the film begins are burying their mother and discovering that Mom’s retail seafood shop is on life support and the mortgage on the house is way past due.

Their current economic crisis only exacerbates the differences between the two young women. Priss is the “good” sister who runs the shop and toes the line. Mary Beth is a bit of a wildcat, resentful that she had to suspend college to care for her dying mother and desperate to leave Easter Cove behind.

Which is why the night after the funeral Mary Beth goes bar hopping (actually, there’s only one bar in town), picks up a scuzzy and vaguely threatening fisherman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and ends up defending herself with an old harpoon.  (Murder by harpoon…you don’t get more New England than that.)

The panicked sisters opt not to talk to the cops. Instead they stuff the body in a big styrofoam ice chest (some dismemberment required…a fish filleting knife comes in handy), weigh it with an old anchor and toss it off a cliff into the roaring sea.

Oh, yeah…in the dead man’s shack they discover a plastic bag with a small fortune in cash. Continue Reading »

Daniel Craig…Southern fried private eye

“KNIVES OUT” My rating: B (Opens wide on Nov. 27)

130 minutes | MPAA rating:

The genteel drawing-room murder mystery gets roughed up but emerges more or less intact in “Knives Out,” the latest from “it” director Rian Johnson (“Looper,” “The Last Jedi”).

What you’ve got here is a dead man, a house full of suspects (played by some very big names),  a Southern-gentleman detective who seems to have been dipped in molasses — and a gleefully satiric sense of humor.

Plus a lot of snarky attitude when it comes to privileged white folks.

The film begins with the housekeeper for famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) discovering her employer’s corpse.  His throat has been cut.

Apparently the crime (if it is a crime…it might be a very bizarre suicide) took place shortly after Harlan’s 85th birthday party, an event attended by a pack of relations crammed into the old man’s semi-spooky turn-of-the-last-century mansion (described by one cop as “practically a Clue board”). Apparently the evening (which we see in flashbacks) was marked by some discord — old Harlan was no pushover and he loved rubbing his family’s noses in their inadequacies.

The local officer in charge of the investigation (LaKeith Stanfield) has his hands full with the various children, in-laws and others, all of whom seem to have some motive for killing their Sugar Daddy and a bad attitude when it comes to dealing with authority. So he’s mildly relieved when a famous private eye, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), mysteriously shows up.

Benoit, who talks with a slow drawl so thick it drips sorghum, has been hired by an anonymous client to look into the case. He won’t stop until he gets answers. Think Matlock on Thorazine with a cannabis chaser.

Murder mysteries in this  vein (“Murder on the Orient Express,” “Gosford Park”) rely on a large cast of eccentrics to keep us engaged and guessing. “Knives Out” has a colorfully hateful bunch.

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