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Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen

“PALMER”  My rating: B (Apple +)

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

An paroled con returns to his Louisiana hometown and becomes the best friend and protector of a 10-year-old trans kid.

That’s the plot of “Palmer,” a film that pretty much delivers exactly what you expect.  Once it sets up its  premise the screenplay (by Cheryl Guerriero) really hasn’t any surprises up its sleeve.  It proceeds along the anticipated lines.

But if “Palmer” carries a high degree of predictability, that in no way limits its pleasures.  As directed by Fisher Stevens and performed by a first-rate cast the film is low-keyed, sincere, humanistic and occasionally shockingly tough.

One-time local football hero Palmer (Justin Timberlake) has spent a decade in stir for a beating up a man during a home burglary.  Despite the violence of his crime, he’s now something of a gentle soul — though he still likes the occasional bender.

Anyway, he moves in with the grandma (June Squibb) who reared him, eventually finds a job as a grade school custodian, and little by little is drawn into the life of Sam (Ryder Allen), a kid living in a doublewide adjacent to Granny’s place.

Sam has a drug-addled floozie Mama (Juno Temple).  He’s also obsessed with fairy princesses, wears a beret in his  hair, favors  shorts and cowboy boots and views the world through bottle-bottom spectacles.

The kid, Palmer announces, is weird. Doesn’t he know he’s a boy?

When Sam’s mom vanishes on one of her month-long benders, Sam washes up on Palmer’s doorstep. Reluctantly the parolee becomes the kids’ ex-officio guardian. A bond grows.

Like I said, predictable.

Nevertheless, the film succeeds. Timberlake delivers what may be his most nuanced and heartfelt work yet. Meanwhile young Allen seems to be simultaneously channeling Jonathan Lipnicki from “Jerry Maguire” and Abigail Breslin from “Little Miss Sunshine.”  The kid’s blend of unaffected innocence and preternatural braininess sticks with you.

While “Palmer” touches upon anti-trans prejudice, that really isn’t the film’s driving force.  This is a sort of love story between a needy boy and an equally needy man.

| Robert W. Butler

Robin Wright

“LAND” My rating: B- (Select theaters)

89 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Who hasn’t harbored a dream of retreating to a mountainside home far from the hassles, fears and frustrations of civilization?

Americans seem particularly prone to this Thoreau-esque  fantasy; undoubtedly it has something to do with our shared consciousness of pioneers coming to terms with the wilderness.

It’s all very romantic…until it isn’t.

“Land,” actress Robin Wright’s film directing debut, unfolds in a primitive cabin  where a city dweller, working through an unnamed grief, has taken up residence.

It’s a minimalist effort — very little dialogue, no plot to speak of — that attempts to compensate for its dramatic thinness with gorgeous outdoor cinematography (the d.p. is Bobby Bukowski). If it sometimes seems there’s actually less here than meets the eye…well, at least the eye candy is first class.

Early on we see Edee (Wright) consulting a psychologist and arguing with a woman (Kim Dickens) — her sister? — about her desperate need to get away.

Next thing you know she’s rented a car and a trailer, loaded up on foodstuffs and essentials, thrown away her cell phone and relocated to rural Wyoming.  Basically she’s bought a property — no electricity, no running water — about as far away from other humans as she can get.

To ensure her isolation she hires someone to return the rental car…that way she can’t bail at the first sign of trouble.

As Edee gets used to her new environment she is subjected to visions of a man and young boy (her late husband and son, we assume).  Occasionally, in the midst of breathtaking beauty, she breaks down in helpless tears.

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Foreground: Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Fred Hampton; background: LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal

“JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH”  My rating: B (HBO Max)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The title of “Judas and the Black Messiah” smacks of folklorish hyperbole, but then Shaka King’s film about the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton is positively overflowing with Biblical  allegory.

The Black Messiah, of course, is Hampton, a rising star in black activism who was targeted for elimination by the FBI and shot to death in his bed during a raid in Chicago in 1969. Hampton is here given the hagiographic treatment…after this you half expect the Catholic Church to start stamping out medallions with his likeness.

Whether Hampton was the sinless knight errant portrayed here is a matter for the historians to parse; what’s not in doubt is that Brit actor Daniel Kaluuya sells this interpretation with such conviction and certainty that — while you’re watching the movie, anyway — you absolutely buy into its premise that this guy could really have become the black messiah. Comparisons to Bobby Kennedy seem apt.

Of course, saints aren’t nearly as interesting as devils.  The Judas of this yarn is Bill O’Neal, a crook and con artist recruited by the feds to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Panthers, rise within its ranks, report on what he saw and eventually set up the circumstances under which Hampton would be murdered.

O’Neal is played by LaKeith Stanfield as a man of few or no moral convictions, a survive-at-any-cost scrambler blackmailed into informing and, once in place, perfectly willing to reap the perks of his position.  Does he feel guilt? Remorse?

Hard to say.  What’s obvious, though, is that Stanfield perfectly captures the desperation and creative scheming of a lowlife being squeezed from both directions.  The authorities will send him to prison if he fails to cooperate; his Panther colleagues would no doubt kill him if they knew of his betrayals.

In a weird way we find ourselves rooting for him to squirm his way through this minefield of treachery.

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Lars Mikkelsen

“HERRENS VEJE (RIDE UPON THE STORM” (Netflix)

Being a member of the  clergy is a 24/7 tightrope walking act. Worshipers  expect their holy leaders to be fully human without exhibiting the usual human screwups.

The family of priests in the Danish series “Herrrens Veje” (it translates as “The Lord’s Ways” but Netflix is calling it “Ride Upon the Storm”) have screwups galore.  But, boy, they are truly human. And then some.

Lars Mikkelsen (older brother of fellow actor Mads) stars in this two-season drama as Johannes, a ninth-generation vicar serving a congregation in Copenhagen.

Johannes is outwardly a man at peace with his life and work.  After all, he is fulfilling the important role assigned his family over several centuries, and he’s determined that his own sons carry on the tradition.

Inside though, Johannes carries the scars of his own strict and borderline abusive upbringing. As the series begins (it’s from the same folks who gave us the brilliant “Borgen” about Danish politics) he loses an election for bishop to a female priest, who embodies all the wishywashy qualities which, in his mind, have set the Church of Denmark on the road to obscurity.

Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Lars Mikkelsen

Johannes’ bitterness at this rejection drives him to alcohol abuse and an affair with a member of his staff…although the more we get to know him the more we’re convinced that his particular brand of toxic masculinity eventually would have taken him down those dark paths.

Yeah, this is a troublesome character.  But Mikkelsen brings so much charisma and inner fire to the proceedings that we understand why Johannes’ parishioners and his employees stick with him. At his best he’s a genuinely dynamic leader. (BTW: Mikkelsen won the 2018 International Emmy for his performance here.)

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Jamal Khashoggi, Hatice Cengiz

“THE DISSIDENT” My rating: B+ (Amazon Prime)

119 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

By now the world is pretty unanimous in its conviction that on Oct. 2, 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered while visiting his country’s embassy in Istanbul, Turkey.

Furthermore, it is widely accepted that the execution was carried out at the behest of Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who was furious at Khashoggi’s criticism of his regime in stories in The Washington Post and other news outlets.

Given all this, it’s doubtful that Bryan Fogel’s scathing documentary “The Dissident” is going to change many minds.  Most of us are already on board.

And yet here’s the thing:  This documentary is still capable of setting us back on our heels with gut-clutching revelations.

There is, for example, a transcript of the sound recording (uncovered by Turkish police) of Khashoggi’s real-time murder (he was strangled and suffocated in an embassy meeting room).  Earlier on the same tape a member of the hit squad imported from Saudi Arabia — a forensics expert — jokes that he’s never had to dismember a body on the floor before.  Even hunters, he notes, hang their prey upright for butchering.

And how about the revelation that in the days before the murder the embassy purchased 80 pounds of meat,  meat that investigators believe was barbecued to cover the smell of burning human flesh?

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At top:  Carey Mulligan, Archie Barnes; below: Ralph Fiennes

“THE DIG” My rating: B- (Netflix)

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“The Dig” may be little more than motion picture comfort food…but right now comfort food is what we want.

Though inspired by real events — the discovery in 1939 of the Sutton Hoo site, a 6th-century Anglo-Saxon boat and priceless burial artifacts found  in an English pasture — this Masterpiece-ish effort from director Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini gets most of its momentum from the  melodrama (much of it made up) surrounding the enterprise.

I mean, excavating ancient treasures one tiny trowel scoop at a time isn’t exactly scintillating cinema. Bring on the heavy breathing.

Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) is a self-taught “excavator” (he wouldn’t presume to call himself an archaeologist) whose nose for buried wonders has been proven on various sites around his native Suffolk.  He’s crusty and cranky — in large part because his efforts are undervalued by the hoity-toity academic types with whom he must often work. (This was an era when archaeologists wore neckties and tweed jackets to dig.)

Now he’s been invited to the estate of widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan); she has an ancient mound out in the north forty she’d like to excavate. Basil would actually get to be the boss of the dig.

Along the way the childless fellow will become a father figure to Edith’s young son Robert (Archie Barnes) and befriend Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn), who is brought in to help with some of the heavy lifting.  All this warm fuzzy stuff later will become important when it’s revealed that Edith has major health issues.

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Denzel Washington, Rami Malek

“THE LITTLE THINGS” My rating C (HBO Max on Jan. 29)

Running time:  127 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Were there an Oscar for frustrated expectations, John Lee Hancock’s agonizingly moody “The Little Things” would clearly take home a statuette.

I mean, the elements audiences expect from a police-hunt-a-serial-killer drama are not only denied us in this instance, but obfuscated in a haze of existential navel-gazing.

Good thing the film features three — count ’em, three — Oscar-wining actors. The star power provided by Denzel Washington, Rami Malik and Jared Leto keeps us watching long after that nagging voice kicks in wondering where this sucker is going.

Following a prelude in which a teenage girl is stalked along a highway by an apparently murderous stranger, the film cuts to a northern California burg where Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) serves as a uniformed deputy.  At the outset he’s sent by his boss down to Los Angeles to pick up some evidence needed for a case.

Deke is reluctant to make the trip. He was once a celebrated detective in the big city, but left five years ago after some sort of breakdown that ended his marriage and his career.  Apparently he went a little bonkers trying to solve the case of a killer preying on young prostitutes.

By some fantastic coincidence, he arrives in LA in the midst of a new murder spree apparently perpetrated by the same never-apprehended fiend. In charge of the case is Jim Baxter (Malek), a dedicated cop and family man who has hit nothing but dead ends.

Figuring the killer Jim is looking for is probably the same one that got away from him years earlier, Deke decides to take a little vacation time to unofficially poke around the investigation.

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Stanley Tucci, Colin Firth

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

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shia LaBeouf, Vanessa Kirby

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

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gal Gadot

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

151 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

Yeah, that works.  Kinda.

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

Pedro Pascal

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

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

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

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

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

“MINARI” My rating: B (VOD)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Helena Zengel, Tom Hanks

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

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carey Mulligan

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

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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George Clooney, Caoilinn Springall

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

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mads Mikkelsen

“ANOTHER ROUND” My rating: B (VOD)

117 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

“Have I become boring?” he wonders.

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

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

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

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

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

What could go wrong?

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Frances McDormand

“NOMADLAND” My rating: A-

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

“Just houseless.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

This film is a transcendent experience.

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

Craig Foster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sergio Chamy, Romulo Aiken

“THE MOLE AGENT”  My rating: B+

84 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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