Thomasin Mckenzie, Ben Foster

“LEAVE NO TRACE” My rating: A- (Opens July 20 at the Tivoli, Glenwood Arts and Town Center 20)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Literature tells us.

Cinema shows us.

And few films are better at showing us than “Leave No Trace,” Debra Granik’s second feature (after 2010’s flabbergastingly good “Winter’s Bone”).

There’s little dialogue in this film, and most of that is of a matter-of-fact nature. Situations that other movies would take pains to explain here  go unaddressed.

But far from diminishing the experience, this oral reticence makes  “Leave No Trace”  a rewardingly rich viewing experience.  Nobody tells us what’s going on; we simply watch…and then we know.

As the film begins 15-year-old Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father Will (Ben Foster) appear to be on a camping trip. They’re foraging for food, cooking over a campfire, sleeping under a tarp.

But at certain points Will announces that they’re having a drill. Dropping everything, Tom races into the thick forest undergrowth.  If her father can find her, she’s flunked.

Clearly,  this is no suburban father and daughter on a weekend retreat. The two are living in the woods, evading hikers and a groundskeeping crew of prison convicts. Periodically they go into town — they’re squatting in a park just outside Portland — where Will picks up his cocktail of psychotropic drugs from the V.A. and resells them to other veterans in a hobo town.

How did father and daughter end up hiding out in the woods?  What happened to Tom’s mother? What is the nature of Will’s mental illness? (A big clue is the way he involuntarily flinches whenever he hears a helicopter.) And is he dangerous?

The screenplay by Granik and regular collaborator Anne Rossellini (based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment) lets those questions hang. But no worries…everything we need to know about these fugitives is there if we pay attention.

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David Kellman, Eddy Galland and Bobby Shafran

“THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS” My rating: B+ (Opens July 13 at the Tivoli)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

What if you learned — as an adult — that you were one of three identical triplets?  What if you could not only meet your long-lost siblings but become part of their lives?

Pretty neat, huh?

At first, yeah. But Tim Wardle’s doc “Three Identical Strangers” moves inexorably from “Gee wiz” to “Oh, shit.”

It begins with Bobby Shafran, now in his mid-50s, relating how he went off to college in 1980 and was surprised at how friendly everybody was.  Total strangers patted him on the  back and gave him the high five. Girls he didn’t know walked up and hugged him.

People he’d never met called him Eddy.

Turns out Bobby had a doppleganger, a guy who looked exactly like him and had attended classes a year earlier before dropping out. This guy, Eddy, was beloved by one and all. Bobby drove two hours to meet him.

“As I reach out to knock on the door, it opens, and there I am,” he tells us.

Eddy Galland was more than Bobby’s lookalike. Comparing notes they realized they had the same birthday.  Both young men had been raised by adoptive parents who got them through the same Jewish adoption agency.

Newspaper reports followed…and the revelation that there was a third brother, David Kellman.

“Oh, my God, they’re coming out of the woodwork!” said one of the stunned adoptive mothers.

Not only did the brothers look exactly alike, they moved the same way, smoked the same brand of cigs  (Marlboro), had identical tastes in music and women.

They became celebs, opened a trendy SoHo restaurant called Triplets, and were party hearty regulars at Studio 54 and other ’80s hot spots.

Great story, huh?

Don’t get too comfortable. As it unfolds “Three Identical Strangers” reveals a psychological experiment worthy of Dr. Mengele.

This shadowy long-term study, put into motion before the boys were born and terminated only with the publicity surrounding their unexpected reunion, apparently was meant to answer the question of whether we are driven more by genetics or by our individual upbringings.

To make it happen the researchers deliberately  broke up newborn triplets and twins (the official explanation was that it was difficult to find adoptive parents for twins, much less triplets). Moreover, the boys each were placed in a family that already had an adopted daughter. (Why? Don’t know.) Their parents were not told that their new adopted sons were part of a multiple birth, although they agreed that the children would undergo periodic mental and physical testing.

The perfidies get even more ghastly when it’s revealed — thanks largely to an investigation by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright –that the boys’ birth mother had mental issues. All three had troubled childhoods that required psychiatric counseling. Could they have inherited a form of manic depression?

What the hell was going on here?

“Three Identical Strangers” raises plenty of issues but cannot come up with many answers. All the research done in the study was given to Yale University with the understanding that it not be made public until 2066, by which time all the subjects would be dead.  A final credit tells us that because of publicity surrounding the making of the documentary, the brothers finally are receiving some heavily redacted material from the archive.

What makes Wardle’s film so compelling is not just that it’s a fantastic story and an intriguing mystery, but that it raises profound issues, not only about medical ethics but about what makes us who we are.  The boys were placed with three very different families — blue collar, middle class, elite — in order, it seems, to see how those environments might shape them.

The ways in which their three worlds either supported or undermined them, combined with their shared genetic inheritance, make for so some pretty deep thinking.

“…Identical Strangers” starts out as a romp. Before it’s over it has become a lamentation.

| Robert W. Butler


Andrea Riseborough

“NANCY” My rating: B (Opens July 13 at the Screenland Tapcade)

87 minutes | No MPAA rating

Brit actress Andrea Riseborough is a human chameleon.

She played Michael Keaton’s actress girlfriend in “Birdman,” Billy Jean King’s hairdresser and lesbian lover in “Battle of the Sexes,” and Joseph Stalin’s daughter Svetlana in “Death of Stalin.” In each of these supporting roles she was hard to recognize as the same actress.

Now Riseborough gets a leading role and, not unexpectedly,  nails it.

In the title role of  Christina Choe’s “Nancy” she delivers a performance that is simultaneously heartbreaking and scary.

Nancy is a pale, mop-headed weirdo who lives with her demanding invalid mother (Ann Dowd). More accurately, she lives on the Internet, always peering into her cel phone or computer screen.

A social misfit, Nancy only really feels like a person when she assumes a false  identity and goes trolling for new friends/victims.  One such individual is Jeb (John Leguizamo), whom she met on a site for parents mourning dead children.  They arrange a face-to-face and Nancy (he knows her as Rebecca) shows up heavily padded to give the impression that she’s pregnant. Creepy.

She works as a temp, showing the other employees at a dental clinic faked photographs of herself touring North Korea.

When Mom dies Nancy is left to her own devices.  She catches a TV news report about a couple whose little girl Brooke vanished 30 years ago.  Forensic cops have used age progression software to create a “photo” of what the missing child would look like today…and Nancy is floored: “It’s like looking into a mirror.”

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Christopher Plummer, Vera Farminga

“BOUNDARIES” My rating: C+ 

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A harried mom, an eccentric child, and a scurrillous grandpa go on a road trip.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

One could argue that “Boundaries,” Shana Feste’s peripatetic comedy, has most everything it needs — save for originality. Despite an exceedingly strong cast there’s an aura of been-there-done-that hanging over the enterprise.

We meet Seattle mom and party planner Laura Jaconi (Vera Farming) at her weekly visit to the shrink.  She’s smart enough to recognize the forces that make her life a comedy of errors, but not smart enough to overcome them.

There are two sources for Laura’s predicament. First there’s her son Henry (Lewis McDougall), a geeky middle schooler who compensates for his outsider status  by drawing nude portraits (from his imagination) of the people in his life. Henry is miserable at his public school and Laura wants to send him to a private operation… but that will take a lot of money.

Then there’s her octogenarian father, Jack (Christopher Plummer), who is being thrown out of his retirement community for secretly operating a marijuana growing business on the premises.

Basically Laura is saddled with two adolescents.

Arrangements are made to move Jack to the Los Angeles home of his youngest daughter, JoJo (Kristen Schaal). But the old man insists that they travel by car.  Laura reluctantly agrees, unaware that the old coot has filled the trunk with weed.  This will be his last delivery run to his long-time customers.

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Isabela Moner, Benecio Del Toro


102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Sicario” was one of 2015’s best films, a (mostly) South of the Border crime drama which posited that the war on drugs is not only unwinnable but destined to make the U.S. as complicit in evil as the cartels.

Also, it starred Emily Blunt (always a welcome thing) as an F.B.I. agent who discovers the hard way that in this conflict there are no good guys.

The Blunt-less “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” is a step down from the original (this was pretty much inevitable); nevertheless it works reasonably well as a high-tension crime thriller.

Scripted once again by Taylor Sheridan (“Wind River,” “Hell or High Water”) and directed this time around by Stefano Solima (the Italian TV crime drama “Gomorrah”), this entry reunites Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro as, respectively, CIA operative Matt Graver and his right-hand man, former cartel hitman Alejandro.

This time we don’t have to discover through a principled heroine that our government is willing to do all sorts of unpalatable things to secure our safety. Truth is, just about every character in the film is outright evil or seriously compromised.

Early on, Islamic terrorists blow up a big box store in Kansas City; the feds determine that the suicide bombers entered the U.S. as illegal immigrants crossing the Rio Grande, guided by underlings of the Reyes drug cartel.

Graver and Alejandro are assigned to start a war among the various cartels through a series of assassinations. They also set in motion a plan to kidnap Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the teen daughter of the Reyes cartel’s leader.

Of course this skullduggery is off the books; the government bigwigs who order the mission (Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine) are all about deniability and any member of the team is expendable if it means keeping a lid on things.

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Fred Rogers


94 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The story of Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister who for three decades starred in, wrote and scored PBS’s “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is heartwarming, inspiring, funny, aspirational and, alas, kind of depressing.

Depressing because in Donald Trump’s America there is no longer room for a television mentor who eschews technical sophistication and speaks directly to children about their hopes and fears. Who tells every kid that he or she matters.

“Love is at the root of everything,” Rogers tells us in an old interview. “Love or the lack of it.”

This moving, yea, tear-inducing documentary from Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom,” “Best of Enemies”) lays out the Mr. Rogers saga from its early days at a Pittsburgh station to Eddie Murphy’s parody on “SNL” and, much later, charges that Rogers was singlehandedly responsible for a generation of entitled underachievers who bought his line that “You are special.”

Among other things, Rogers is credited with saving public broadcasting. In 1969 Richard Nixon was preparing to strip PBS of its federal funding to help pay for the Vietnam War.  At a Congressional hearing a nervous Rogers set aside his prepared text and charmed the committee members by reciting the lyrics to his song “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?”  Thick-skinned Sen. John Pastore, previously unfamiliar with Rogers’ work, was blown away: “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

This doc proves conclusively that Fred Rogers the man was precisely as he appeared on the little screen — an impossibly decent and compassionate guy who cared deeply about children and quietly reveled in their love (and without the faintest whiff of pedophilia).

In most regards Neville has given us a straightforward docubio: Lots of talking-head testimony from Roger’s family and co-workers, psychologists and even cellist Yo Yo Ma, who as a young man appeared on the show and became a lifelong devotee. Of course there’s tons of broadcast footage.  Backstage photos and home movies. Even some newly animated sequences that illustrate Rogers’ philosophy through Daniel, the hand puppet Tiger who was his almost constant onscreen sidekick and alter ego. (There’s footage of Rogers meeting with kids and pulling his puppets from a bag…the youngsters immediately begin talking to the felt creatures on his hands.)

For those of us too old to have experienced the Rogers magic (I was already in college when his show went national) it has been easy to dismiss him as laughably square and painfully low tech. With hindsight these become the finest of virtues — especially when contrasted with the hyperactive/overtly cruel nonsense that makes up most of children’s programming. Continue Reading »

“THE INCREDIBLES 2” My rating: B 

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

“The Incredibles” (2004) always was too good for kids.

Youngsters may have made up the bulk of ticket buyers, but so much of Brad Bird’s yarn about the Parrs, an urban family with superpowers, was directed at adults — especially boomers with a collective memory of James Bond films and early ’60s kitsch.

The long-in-coming “Incredibles 2” is more of the same.  Far from being a radical departure from the original film, it picks up precisely where the first one left off (with the arrival of the John Ratzenberger-voiced Underminer and his gigantic burrowing machine); you could watch the two films back to back as one big story.

Once again, Bird’s screenplay pits the family against a villain — in this case a mysterious figure known as the Screenslaver who uses the world’s TV sets  as  invasive hypnotic devices. And the sequel continues the earlier film’s plot thread about a worldwide ban on superheroes, which forces our protagonists to operate mostly in secret.

All well and good. But the real theme of “Incredibles 2” is gender roles.

Because of its early ’60s setting, Bird can dabble in bad-old-days male chauvinism, particularly as it affects the marvelous Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), who finds herself more or less working solo to fight the Screenslaver.

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Toni Collette

“HEREDITARY” My rating: B 

127 minutes | MPAA rating: R

No one expects world-class acting from a horror movie. So when you get precisely that, it comes on like a sucker punch.

“Hereditary” is a ghost story — I think — featuring Toni Collette in an emotional performance that will leave audiences limp and exhausted.

Writer/director  Ari Aster’s film is hard to pin down…it may be about ghosts, or it may be a psychological study of mental and spiritual anguish manifesting in very creepy ways.

As the film begins Annie Graham (Collette) is burying her mother, from whom she was estranged for years before finally taking in the old lady at death’s door. Annie isn’t sure whether to react with sobs or cartwheels…Mom was a notoriously difficult personality.  (In her eulogy, Annie says she’s gratified to see so many new faces…she didn’t know this many people cared about her mother. It’s the film’s first subtle clue that Mom had a secret life.)

In the wake of the funeral Annie and her family try to get back to normal.  Husband Steve  (Gabriel Byrne) is an understanding intellectual type. Son Peter (Alex Wolff) is a teen pothead. Daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is something else again, an elfin misfit who, unlike other members of the family, really loved her grandma. In fact, she starts seeing apparitions of the dear departed.

One cannot say much about the plot of “Heredity” without ruining some major surprises.  Let’s just say that Grandma’s death is only the first tragedy to befall the clan; a far more traumatic one is yet to come.

And in the wake of that an emotionally shattered Annie finds herself turning first to a grief support group and then to a fellow mourner (the great Ann Dowd) who claims to have found a way to communicate with the dead.

Aster plays his cards very carefully,  dealing big plot points so matter of factly that it’s only in retrospect that we understand their importance.  There’s no big reveal until the end (and even then it’s a bit ambiguous); mostly he builds a nerve-wracking tension from small moments and observations. (Although there is a dramatic seance scene guaranteed to make every hair on your body stand up and salute.)

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Joonas Suotamo, Alden Ehrenreich

“SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” My rating: B- 

135 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

For one who has felt smothered by the solemn pomposity of recent “Star Wars” releases, the prequel “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a palate cleanser, an origin yarn about two of the franchise’s most beloved characters in which the words “The Force” are never uttered.

Yeah, it’s overlong. And as is par for the course for “Star Wars” films,  and the plot is mostly a series of mini-quests providing plenty of opportunity for f/x and action overkill. But at its best “Solo” reminds of why we fell in love with a galaxy far, far away in the first place.

Directed with assurance if not much personality by veteran Ron Howard (taking over after “Lego Movie” creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller were dismissed…who can tell who directed what in the final cut?), “Solo” follows Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) from his youth through his first big adventure(s).

Along the way father-and-son screenwriters Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan take the opportunity to fill in seminal but never-before-seen moments from Han’s bio:  How he got his last name in an “Ellis Island” moment, his first encounter with the towering Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), his acquisition of the Millennium Falcon and that distinctive blaster in the low-slung holster, and his early partnership/rivalry with gambler/smuggler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

Our yarn begins on a planet where young Han and his girl Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) are among the orphans in the gang controlled by Lady Proxima, a huge caterpillar voiced by Linda Hunt (think “Oliver Twist’s” Fagin.) Already a conniver, Han absconds with a vial of a priceless energy source called coaxion, a few ounces of which should allow him and Qi’ra to bribe their way off the planet.

But things go bad and Han finds himself on his own, vowing to return for Qi’ra.

He enlists in the Imperial Air Force with dreams of piloting his own ship, but a few years later is a mere grunt knee-deep in trench warfare on a mud planet.  There he encounters not only Chewbacca, but crosses path with a band of mercenaries run by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who at the behest of the shadowy criminal syndicate Crimson Dawn steals materiel from the Imperial forces.

Pushing his way into Beckett’s group, Han participates in the film’s action highlight, the highjacking of a freight train speeding through a mountainous ice planet.  A mashup of “Snowpiercer” and a “Mad Max” movie, this sequence finds Beckett’s band battling not only the train’s Imperial guards but a rival crew of bandits intent on stealing their prize. Continue Reading »

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

“RBG”  My rating: B+

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Even if you fail to notice that the opening credits of “RBG” overwhelmingly feature women’s names, it will take only a few minutes to recognize this doc as possibly the most feminist movie of all time.

It comes with the territory.  At age 84 its subject, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is, for many of us, the voice of open-minded sanity on the U.S. Supreme Court. This diminutive grandmother has become a cultural icon with a funny (but dead serious) rapper nickname: The Notorious RBG.  Her elfin features appear on coffee cups, T-shirts and bumper stickers.

For millions of women, Ginsberg is the ultimate role model. Interviewee Gloria Steinem calls her “the closest thing to a superhero that I know.”

Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s film might be dismissed as hagiography — though the film opens with right-wing talk radio soundbites excoriating Justice Ginsberg, thereafter nary a discouraging word is heard. Apparently to know RBG is to love her.

And that’s pretty much how audiences will leave “RBG”…with love, respect and awe.

The film works on two levels. First there’s the public person, whose  class at Harvard Law featured  more than 500 students, only nine of whom were women. She taught gender law at Rutgers, then got involved in arguing cases (often before the Supreme Court) that changed the legal parameters of female rights.

But if she argued for abortion rights — maintaining that “freedom” was a cruel illusion if women were denied reproductive rights — and represented a woman denied entry to the all-male (and state-funded) Virginia Military Institute, she was also willing to challenge a Louisiana law that allowed women to opt out of jury duty. Equal is equal, after all.

The talking heads  assembled for this film — among them journalist Nina Totenberg, grandchildren and a slew of Ginsberg’s fellow attorneys — credit her with creating a legal landscape that case by case led to greater sexual equality.

And that was before Bill Clinton named her to the Supreme Court. Continue Reading »

“MOUNTAIN” My rating: B 

77 minutes | No MPAA rating

Less a conventional documentary than a sort of aural/visual tone poem, “Mountain” is an audacious blend of brilliant cinematography, (mostly) classical music and spoken word performance.

Parts of it work much better than others.

The subjects of Jennifer Peedom’s film, of course, are Earth’s highest places.  The doc was filmed in mountains on every continent, with cinematographer Renan Ozturk often employing drone-mounted cameras that capture astonishing vistas that are simultaneously epic and intimate.

Big swatches of the film are simply jaw-dropping.

And, indeed, “Mountain” is a big-picture sort of enterprise in the style of Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 “Koyaanisqatsi.”  No facts or statistics are presented, no quantitative analysis. The script by Peedom and Robert Macfarlane — it’s read by Willem Dafoe — is big on generalizations.

Until about 300 years ago, we are told, mankind shunned mountains and would have considered mad anyone who climbed them for fun. But at some point men began hearing, as Dafoe’s narration puts it, “the siren song of the summit.”  Mountains came to represent not just rock and ice but dreams and desire.

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Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters


116 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In “American Animals” four college-age doofuses  rob a university library of a priceless copy of Audubon’s massive Birds of America.

Based on real events, the film is as much about these losers’ deluded dreams as it is about the planning and execution of the heist.

Writer/director Bart Layton attempts to add perspective to this shambling crime story by alternating between fictional recreations of the robbery and interviews with the actual participants. Now in their mid-30s, these men sometimes contradict one another…when that happens Layton will often replay a scene “Rashomon”-style, now altered to reflect a different individual’s memories (or inventions).

Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) are childhood friends attending different colleges in Lexington, KY.  They are bored, unfulfilled children of Middle America, and when they learn that the Transylvania University library has a locked-down room displaying  the Audubon book and other treasures (like a first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) they begin to consider if they could rob the place. Continue Reading »