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Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez

“HUSTLERS” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Sept. 13)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Hustlers” arrives on a wave of fest-generated hype: It’s one of the year’s best!!!  Jennifer Lopez is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination!!!

Uh, sorry, but I don’t see it.

Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s film is ambitious, certainly, telling the fact-based story of a group of exotic dancers who in the decade after the big market meltdown reacted to economic challenges by luring, drugging and ripping off wealthy men, sometimes for as much as $50,000 a pop.

It offers a charismatic and glamorous turn from Lopez, who is compellingly watchable as the nurturing (until she isn’t) pole dancer/housemother of this group of female marauders. Even more of a revelation is Constance Wu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) as the new girl at the strip joint through whose eyes we witness it all.

But despite its welcome depiction of mutually supportive sisterhood, Scafaria’s film becomes bogged down in sticky moral entanglements.  Even more problematic, this is an emotionally chilly yarn exhibiting little warmth or open compassion for its characters.

Given that the few men depicted here are unsalvageable swine and the ladies are equally predatory…who are we supposed to root for?

The story begins in 2006 with Destiny (Wu) struggling to get into the swing of things at a noisy, dark, raunchy NYC exotic dancing club.  She’s quickly taken under the wing of Ramona (Lopez), who gives her an impressive tutorial of pole moves (I particularly liked “the table”) and coaches her in the art of squeezing money out of arrogant Wall Street sphincters.

But in the wake of the big crash the high rollers aren’t rolling much.  Ramona cooks up a special drug cocktail — it makes its victims gleefully happy while erasing their short-term memories — and with Destiny and a small crew of out-of-work dancers targets and rips off moneyed fat cats.

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Keira Knightley

“OFFICIAL SECRETS” My rating: B- (Opens wide on Sept. 13)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There are moments when “Official Secrets” doesn’t seem to know just whose story it is telling; others when the dialogue sounds more like speechifying than regular conversation.

Still, there’s something so vital about the material it covers — the British government’s complicity in the Bush White House’s half-assed plan to invade Iraq — that Gavin Hood’s fact-based docudrama demands to be seen.

In 2003 Katharine Gun, an analyst with Her Majesty’s spy service, received an unexpected email.  In this message — also received by all of her co-workers — the American CIA urged everyone to be on the lookout for dirt that could be used to force recalcitrant members of the United Nations Security Council into voting for a US/British invasion of Iraq.

Gun was both surprised that she received the email — her regular gig was translating intercepted Chinese telephone communications — and appalled that the Yanks and her own people were so nonchalantly encouraging the entire apparatus of British intelligence to participate in a blackmail scheme for the purpose of rushing into an unjust war.

So she surreptitiously copied the email and gave it to an anti-war activist friend, who passed it on to a newspaper reporter, who with his colleagues spent months verifying the truth of the communication.

Eventually the story was published, but not without some unexpected blowback.  Before it hit the printed page, an unsuspecting editor ran the copy through Spell Check, which changed all the American spellings in the CIA email to British, thus leading to accusations that this was a British-generated fake document.

Spell Check strikes again.

As scripted by Hood, Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein (from Marcia Mitchell and Thomas  Mitchell’s book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War), “Official Secrets” is essentially a procedural docudrama populated by an A-list British cast.

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“FIDDLER: A MIRACLE OF MIRACLES” My rating: B (Opens Sept. 13 at the Studio 28)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Since it debuted on Broadway in 1964, not a day has passed when “Fiddler on the Roof” was not being performed somewhere on Earth.

The universal appeal of this musical about life in a Jewish village in Czarist Russia is examined every which way in “Fiddler” A Miracle of Miracles,”  Max Lewkowicz’s documentary summation of the show, its creators and its lingering appeal and influence.

Drawing as its starting point two recent NYC productions of “Fiddler,” one that ran on Broadway for two years and a second performed entirely in Yiddish, the film dips into the creation  of this most unusual effort. Scenes from these revivals — as well as clips from the 1971 movie version — hammer home once again just how spectacularly good the work is.

We’re talking goosebumps moments.

Happily, the geniuses behind the show — composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, playwright Joseph Stein and producer Hal Prince — lived to ripe old ages and before their deaths (Prince left us only last month) sat down for insightful interviews on how the show came together.  (Jerome Robbins, the brilliant director, passed in 1998).

The film is part history, part testimonial, with actors, directors and others who have been associated with the musical — Lin-Manuel Miranda, Austin Pendleton, the Israeli actor Topol — commenting on its life-changing power.

Actor Joel Gray offers a common analysis when he says that “it works in so many languages — and everyone thinks it’s about them.”

Author Stein recalls attending a Tokyo production where an audience member asked him: “Do they understand ‘Fiddler’ in America? It’s so Japanese.”

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Linda Ronstadt then

“LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE” My rating: B+ (Opens Sept. 13 at the Glenwood Arts)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

This seems to be the season for music documentaries (“Echo in the Canyon,” “David Crosby: Remember My Name”) but the hands-down winner when it comes to pure musical pleasure is “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” which will send you away convinced that its subject was the greatest pop female vocalist of all time.

Ron Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film is covers Ronstadt’s life in straightforward fashion, beginning with her grandparents (her father’s people hailed from Mexico despite the Germanic-sounding name), her childhood in Tucson with a musical family, her move to LA as an 18-year-old, her brief stint as lead singer with the Stone Ponies…and then 30-some years of recording and performing greatness.

Ronstadt narrates the film — we don’t see her as she appears today until the very end — but the story is told from a variety of perspectives:  her fellow musicians (Jackson Browne, Dolly Parton, Don Henley, Rhy Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris), her producers and managers (David Geffen, Peter Asher), her one-time lover J.D.Souther and journalists who covered her (Cameron Crowe, Robert Hilburn).

This is the story of an immensely talented woman who often doubted her own abilities, yet nevertheless challenged herself to new heights…not only in pop fame but on Broadway (starring in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”), as a purveyor of Sintra-ish torch songs (arranged by Nelson Riddle, no less), in a country trio with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and with traditional Mexican musicians (Ronstadt’s is the best-selling trad Mexican LP of all time).

Along the way she established an image (not that it was in any way calculated) as a playful, sexy, smart woman who went her own way.  She was a matter-of-fact feminist; no stridency, just effectiveness. (One source says that in her prime Rondstadt was “the Queen…like Beyonce is now.”)

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“TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID” My rating: B 

83 minutes | No MPAA rating 

Combining the grittiness of Luis Bunuel’s 1950 landmark “Los Olivdados” with the psychological fantasy pioneered in recent years by Guillermo del Toro, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” plunges into the life-and-death struggles of orphaned children  on the mean streets of a contemporary Mexican metropolis.

The young actors starring in Issa Lopez’ brooding and violent drama were never shown a script. The film was shot in sequence, so that the players didn’t know what was coming next; their reactions are more-or-less genuine.

The resulting film is equal parts documentary realism and  nightmarish fairy tale.

Estrella (Paola Lara) and Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) are at the heart of a “family” of children who do what it takes to survive. They sleep in makeshift tents, or in abandoned buildings, on rooftops and in alleys.

As we see in flashbacks, most of these kids once had normal lives: parents, school, a permanent address.

But now they are on their own, their mothers and/or fathers murdered or “disappeared” in the roiling drug war  that has claimed 160,000 Mexican lives over the last two decades. They spend a good part of each day outsmarting members of the Huascas gang, local drug lords who would shanghai the the boys as runners and soldiers and pimp out the girls.

It’s a grim life, and as a survival mechanism young Estrella — through whose eyes the story is told — imagines herself allied with fantastic creatures.  Traumatized by her mother’s sudden disappearance, she’s convinced that a fierce tiger graffiti-sprayed on a wall comes to life to protect her. At other times she imagines that a flowing trickle of blood follows her, climbing stairs and zig-zagging across walls and ceilings.

She also hears eerie whisperings — ghosts giving her warnings.

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Jillian Bell

“BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON” My rating: B 

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The title character of “Brittany Runs a Marathon” does indeed participate in the famous 26.2-mile run through New York’s five boroughs…but Paul Downs Colaizzo’s film isn’t really about running.

Rather this comedy/drama, alternately hilarious and emotionally abrasive, is about the slow journey to self acceptance.

That may sound like a slog, but — like training for a marathon — it pays off in unexpected ways.

Brittany (Jillian Bell) is a 28-year-old Queens resident with a lifestyle that is slowly killing her.  She subsists on junk food, she gets drunk regularly, she dispenses b.j.s in a nightclub men’s room.

According to her physician, Brittany’s  body mass index qualifies her as obese (she indignantly accuses him of fat shaming); meanwhile her blood pressure is soaring and her liver isn’t looking so good.

Brittany is a lonely mess, although she works to hide that with buckets of self-deprecating and/or aggressive humor.  lf she can’t be loved (she’s never been in an actual relationship) she might as well be amusing.

Sometimes, though, all she can do is bawl.  One of her wailing sob sessions draws the attention of her upstairs neighbor, Catherine (Michaela Watkins), a middle-aged photographer Brittany usually ridicules as a bourgeoise poseur.  But Catherine ignores the abuse and in a display of compassion invites Brittany to join her  weekend running group.

Our girl’s first attempt at jogging is hilariously terrible — at least she can share her shame and frustration with another newbie, Seth (Micah Stock), a funny gay guy running to fulfill a promise to his husband and their young son.

But with the support of Catherine and Seth — and encouraged by the loss of a few pounds — Brittany devotes herself to loping through the mean streets of NYC. The trio make a pact: they’ll run in next year’s New York Marathon. Continue Reading »

“THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON” My rating: B

93 minutes | PG-13

So adept are the makers of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” at provoking laughter and tears that it may take a few hours for the rosy glow to wear off, at which point the viewer realizes he has fallen for a narrative con job.

But it’s such an effective con that most of us will shrug off any flickers of resentment in order to prolong the experience’s many satisfactions.

This feature debut from the writing/directing team of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz opens in a retirement home where one resident stands out.

Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is 22-year-old with Downs syndrome.  Recently orphaned and deemed incapable of caring for himself, this unfortunate ward of the state (in this case, Georgia) has been warehoused among  dementia-plagued seniors.

Sounds grim, but the screenplay and direction immediately announce that it’s okay to laugh. Early on Zak elicits the cooperation of his fellow “inmates” to stage a jail break.  It’s short lived because even running at top speed Zak is hopelessly slow.

Meanwhile Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) mans a one-man fishing boat working the Outer Banks. He’s a bearded outcast not above raiding the crab pots of other fishermen; after starting a fire that destroys a rival’s precious equipment, Tyler finds himself on the lam.

“…Falcon” throws together  Zak — who has run away wearing only a pair of tidy whities and dreams of becoming a professional wrestler  — and the fugitive Tyler, who slowly warms to his new companion’s hilarious innocence.

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Viveik Kalra

“BLINDED BY THE LIGHT” My rating: B+

117 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Blinded by the Light” is a valentine to Bruce Springsteen and his music.

But it’s a whole lot more.

Based on Sarfraz Manor’s memoir of growing up in provincial Britain, the latest from director Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”) is infused with the Boss’s art and ethos, but it is also a surprisingly moving coming-of-age story.

And in newcomer Viveik Kalra the film has a sweet, absolutely huggable hero whose dreams and travails become our own.

Life sucks for Javed (Kalra), whose immigrant Pakistani family lives in a characterless burg outside London.

His domineering, traditionalist father, Malik (Gulvinder Ghir), works in an auto plant; his mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) operates a tailoring shop out of the home. Jared’s two sisters glumly await the day their father will pick a husband for them.

At school Javed is viewed as a nerd hardly worthy of contempt…even so he finds himself subjected to the roiling anti-immigrant hatred brewing on the streets of Thatcher-era Britain (the setting is the mid-1980s).

In short, Javed is ripe for a major transformation when his equally uncool Sikh buddy Roops (Aaron Phagura) hands over to him two Springsteen tapes (“Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “The River”) with the admonition that Javed’s life is about to change.

No shit.

Ben Smithery’s camera zeroes in on Javed’s features as he gets his first listen to the Boss, and what passes across Kalra’s face can only be described as religious ecstacy. Springsteen’s music speaks directly to our man; songs about being an outsider, about the desperate need to escape a suffocating present, about finding redemption in cars and girls and rock ‘n’ roll.

Chadha ups the ante with a fantastic visual fillip: The actual song lyrics appear on the screen, enveloping Javed like a halo of words.  And throughout “Blinded…” she employs projections of Boss lyrics on walls, clouds…what had once been dreary slice of working-class England now seems charged with possibilities.

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Tracy Edwards (left), skipper of The Maiden

“MAIDEN” My rating: B

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Grab your daughters and granddaughters and make a family outing of “Maiden,” an awe-inspiring documentary about a bunch of young women who defied institutional sexism to risk their lives in an around-the-world sailing competition.

For that matter, bring along your sons and grandsons. They could probably use what “Maiden” is selling.

Alex Holmes’ film centers on Tracy Edwards, a young English woman who out of sheer chutzpah raised the money to buy a yacht, assembled an all-woman crew and entered the 1989 Whitbread Around the World Race, a harrowing and life-threatening enterprise executed in five distinct legs for a total of more than 30,000 miles.

“You have to be a bit crazy,” one interview subject observes of the long-distance sailors.

Amazing, old home movie footage going back to Edwards’ childhood exists, and among her Whitbread crew was a woman who kept a film record of the epic voyage. This means that Holmes is able to tell this story cinematically using archival sources, with regular digressions to talking-head interviews of the women today.

Profoundly affected by the death of her father and her mother’s futile struggle to maintain control of his hi-fi business — not to mention Mom’s second marriage to an alcoholic —  Edwards left home early.

Long a lover of the sea and ships, she got a gig crewing on a luxury rental yacht.  One of the boat’s customers was King Hussein of Jordan, who befriended the young woman and, learning of her fascination with sailing, got her a job as a cook on an otherwise all-male boat.

In fact, the yachting world was one big boy’s club, at best patronizing, at worst openly hostile. While she doesn’t report any overt sexual harassment, Edwards says she was clearly an unwelcome outsider. That’s when she came up with the idea of an all-female Whitbread crew.

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Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Al Pacino

“ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD”  My rating: B+

161 minutes |MPAA  rating: R

Crammed with alternately bleak and raucous humor, a palpable affection for Tinseltown’s past and peccadilloes, and enough pop cultural references to fuel a thousand trivia nights, “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” is a moviegoer’s dream.

Here writer/director Quentin Tarantino eschews his worst tendencies (especially his almost adolescent addiction to racial name-calling) and delivers a story that despite many dark edges leaves us basking in the sunny California sunshine.

Each scene has been exquisitely crafted with every element — art direction, costuming, cinematography, editing, acting — meshing in near perfection.

In the process Tarantino rewrites history, blithely turning a real-life tragedy into a fictional affirmation of positivity. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

The heroes (??) of this 2 1/2-hour opus are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a star of TV westerns who now (the time is 1969) sees his career circling the crapper, and his stunt double, the laconic tough guy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who not only steps in to perform dangerous feats on the set but serves as Rick’s best bud, Man Friday and chauffeur (Rick’s had one too man DUIs).

Tarantino’s script finds the  alternately cocky and weepy Rick (DiCaprio has rarely been better) lamenting his fading status in the industry (he’s been reduced to playing villains in episodic TV) and contemplating the offer of a semi-sleazy producer (Al Pacino) to make spaghetti Westerns in Europe.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate

Cliff, meanwhile, picks up an underaged hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) who takes him to one of his old haunts, the Spahn ranch, an Old West movie set now occupied by one Charles Manson and his family of hippie misfits.

Newly arrived at the home next to Rick’s on Cielo Drive is director Roman Polanski and his beautiful actress wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Tate is a sweetheart, an all-American beauty radiating an almost angelic innocence and positivity. But we can’t help twitching in anxiety…after all, everybody knows that in ’69 she and her houseguests were the victims of a horrific murder spree by Manson’s brainwashed minions.

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“THE LION KING” My rating:  B-

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The original 1994 “Lion King” was classic Disney animation featuring hand drawn backgrounds and characters — or if  computers sometimes were used, at least the final product appeared to be hand drawn.

A quarter century later we get a “Lion King” redux done in a live-action format…though one cannot begin to figure out what (if anything) is live and what rendered through the ones and zeroes of digital animation.

There are moments, especially early on, when Jon Favreau’s updating of the beloved yarn offers such a sumptuous  visual feast that the eye and mind struggle to take it all in.

Against an absolutely believable African landscape lifelike lions, elephants, impalas, hyenas and other creatures do their things.  Your senses tell you that these are real animals filmed in action (after all, the great Caleb Deschenal — “The Black Stallion,” “The Right Stuff,” “The Passion of the Christ” — is credited as cinematographer)…except that invariably these creatures do something no animal ever could.

A lion tamer with years to refine his act could never get actual big cats to hit their marks, strike perfect poses and execute complicated action sequences. Not to mention move their mouths to utter dialogue in human voices.

Indeed, I have no idea how this was done. Were live animals filmed and then digitally diddled to make them do the impossible?  Do the backgrounds even exist? Or were they built entirely in the computer?

Let it be said up front that “The Lion King” is one of the most amazing-looking films of all time. The work Favreau did a couple of years back on the similarly-rendered  “Jungle Book” looks a bit  primitive by comparison.

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Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever

“BOOKSMART” My rating: B 

112 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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David Crosby now

“DAVID CROSBY: REMEMBER MY NAME” My rating: B-

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

As a founder of the Byrds and a long-standing member of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young,  David Crosby can claim to be rock ‘n’ roll royalty.

His musical accomplishments, though, are overshadowed by a personal history that features three heart attacks, a liver transplant, diabetes and epic drug addictions which in 1983 earned him a five-years sentence in a Texas prison.

Now 78 years old, estranged from his former bandmates  and still touring to keep a roof over his family’s head, Crosby looks back on his life and career in “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” the first feature documentary from director A.J. Eaton.

The film has a solid first hour, then loses focus and sort of drifts off in its final 30 minutes.

Still, there is much to admire here, for this is no warm dip into fuzzy nostalgia. The white-haired Crosby comes off as brutally honest about his failures: “Big ego. No brain.”

He was, he admits, a massive jerk.  Only after his legal comeuppance forced him to go cold turkey in a jail cell did he get his life in order; he reports that until his stint in prison he had never performed straight.  Not once.

In matters of sex, he recalls, “I was a caboose to my dick…there are borders I’ve crossed you’ve never heard of.”

The son of Hollywood cinematographer Floyd Crosby (“High Noon”), young David grew up in an emotionally stifled environment.  Rock music was his salvation.

The doc features vintage footage of the mid-60s Byrds in performance; Crosby’s main contribution was an unerring ear for vocal harmonies.

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