2018 OSCAR-NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS  Overall rating: B+ (Opens Feb. 15 at the Tivoli) 

 143 minutes | No MPAA rating

“BLACK SHEEP” (UK, 27 minutes) B
In “Black Sheep” a young black man named Cornelius Walker describes how as a child he was uprooted from his multicultural London neighborhood (his Nigerian parents feared urban violence) and relocated to a tiny burg in Essex.
There he encountered worse racism than he’d ever experienced in the big city. He was cursed and beaten and, in a desperate effort to gain acceptance, even bleached his skin and wore blue contact lenses.
And it worked. Over time Cornelius was taken in by his one-time persecutors;  ironically, to please them he found himself imitating the same violent and racist behavior he sought to escape.
“I wanted love, so I made friends with monsters,” he says.
Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn’s doc is about 1/4 talking-head interview with Walker; the rest of the film consists of dramatic re-creations employing actors.  Thirty years ago this format would have earned the contempt of documentary purists. But times change. The result is a devastating look at racism and human nature.
“END GAME” (USA, 40 minutes) A
Movies don’t get more real than “End Game,” Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s gut-twisting/transcendent look at life in a hospital ward dedicated to dying.
Epstein and Friedman  — whose resumes include films as diverse as “The Celluloid Closet,” “Paragraph 175” and “The Times of Harvey Milk” — turn their cameras on the medical professionals, patients and families living and dying in the University of California Med Center in San Francisco.
Over its 40 minutes we get to know a good many of these folk who — unlike the rest of us — can no longer ignore the ultimate reality of death.  They have to decide how they are going to die — not just the medical side but the human side.
“Every moment is still a gift” says one patient; even so, not every patient is willing to endure debilitating treatments in order to gain a few days or weeks.
As you’d expect, the material is explosively emotional. One is left with the utmost respect for the individuals (and their families) who were wiling to share the intimacy of their last days…not to mention the realization that the things happening on screen will undoubtedly happen some day to each and every one of us.
“LIFEBOAT” (USA, 40 minutes) B
Every year thousands of North Africans flee poverty, war, persecution and famine by clambering aboard waterlogged small boats for a dangerous trip to Europe.  One in 18 of them drowns.
Skye Fitzgerald and Bryn Mooser’s “Lifeboat” looks at the efforts of the German non-profit Sea-Watch to rescue these hapless immigrants. Their cameras are aboard one rescue vessel when it comes across three boats carrying more than 1,000 refugees.
It’s an instant humanitarian emergency.  These travelers suffer from dehydration, heat stroke, sea sickness…and there’s a slew of pregnant women, some of whom have gone into labor.
In the relative calm after they’re taken aboard several of these refugees explain where they come from and how they came to be on an overcrowded boat in the middle of the Mediterranean.
The captain of one of the rescue vessels says that with just one turn of the historical cycle the comfortable Western countries could find themselves living a Third World existence…and at that point their residents would become the riffraff that nobody cares about.
“A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN” (USA, 7 minutes) B+
Despite a running time of only 7 minutes, Marshall Curry’s “A Night at the Garden” packs an emotional and intellectual punch that leaves  viewers reeling.
In effect, Curry offers us documentary footage of a 1939 rally in Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000 Nazi supporters.
Not Germans.
No these were red-blooded American citizens who stared lovingly at banners equating George Washington and Adolf Hitler and wildly applauded bombastic make-America-great-again rants from swastika-bedecked orators. At one point a protestor somehow gets onto the stage and is beaten for his efforts while the crowd roars its approval.
One assumes that Curry has edited and shaped this archival footage…or perhaps he just threw it up on the screen as he found it.  In the end it doesn’t matter. “A Night at the Garden” reveals a disturbing bit of American history that today looks all too familiar.
“PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE”  (India, 26 minutes)  B+

The lowly sanitary napkin hardly seems like the flashpoint for a revolution. That is, until you visit parts of rural India, where ignorance of the female anatomy and psyche is so complete that a young man, asked about menstruation, answers: “It’s a kind of illness right? Mostly affects girls?”

Rayka Zahtabchi and Melissa Berton’s “Period. End of Sentence” is about Kotex coming to the sticks.  Or at least a locally-produced sanitary pad, hand-crafted by women (for most, it’s their first paying job) in a small factory and distributed to customers who initially have no idea what it is or how to use it.

Only 10 percent of Indian women use sanitary pads, we’re told.  Which explains why every farming community has a vacant lot or field  littered with hundreds of bloody rags, the result of the female population dealing with their periods in the age-old manner.

In a paternalistic society where menstruation is a taboo subject and girls are told that the prayers of a menstruating female will not be heard, something as seemingly retro as readily available sanitary napkins can become the spearhead of a feminist movement.  And that’s the sort of uplifting momentum
“Period…” sets in motion.

The next generation will be even more informed.

| Robert W. Butler


Jamie Bell

“DONNYBROOK”  My rating: C (Opens Feb. 15 at the Screenland  Tapcade)

101 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Donnybrook” is a fistful of  cheap melodrama, what with its emphasis on the drugs and violence its protagonist encounters en route to an underground bareknuckle slugfest.

At least give writer/director Tim Sutton props for trying to elevate this yarn with the sort of ashcan realism and social commentary most commonly found in the work of Brit auteur Ken Loach (“The Angels’ Share,” “Jimmy’s Hall,” “I, Daniel Blake”).

Which is not to say that Sutton pulls it off. You can see him struggling to give this chunk of cheese relevance by peppering it with  observations on blue-collar American angst.  That approach worked in “Hell or High Water”; here not much of it sticks.

When we first encounter Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell…yeah, the original Billy Elliott) he’s robbing a gun store and smashing the owner in the face.  This is our hero?

Well, yeah.  Jarhead  may do bad things, but he does them to support his meth head wife (Valerie Jane Parker) and two young kids. By the logic of “Donnybrook” this makes him a hero.  Everybody else in sight is far worse.

Especially Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), the neighborhood drug dealer.  Accompanied by his sister Delia (Margaret Qualley),  with whom he has a master/slave relationship that reeks of incest, Chainsaw cuts a wide path of bloody destruction.  He may be the only dealer who’d rather kill his clients than sell them drugs.

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Zain Al Rafeea

“CAPERNAUM” My rating: B+ (Opens Feb. 15 at the Tivoli and Rio)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Personal drama and social commentary find an almost perfect marriage in “Capernaum,” an  Oscar-nominated (for foreign language film) heartbreaker about a little boy navigating life on the mean streets of Beirut.

Written and directed by Nadine Labaki (whose earlier efforts — “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now?” — look simplistic by comparison), “Capernaum” stars 12-year-old Zain Al Rafeea, who gives a performance for the ages.

The story is bookended by a trial.  Young Zain (Al Rafeea) is currently in juvenile lockup for, in his words, “stabbing the son of a bitch.” Now he has dragged  his no-good parents (Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Yousef) into court; basically he’s suing them for giving  birth to him.

Filmmaker Labaki does not dwell long on this improbable  spectacle. Most of “Capernaum” is a long flashback depicting how things came to this sad state. Zain’s journey is like that of a Dickens protagonist through a world of few pleasures and much indifference.

Right from the get-go it’s obvious that Zain is one tough little guy. He swears like a sailor and has a chip-on-his-shoulder attitude. He is uncowed by adult authority and is openly contemptuous of his parents, crooks whose current scam is delivering drug-impregnated clothing to Zain’s imprisoned older brother.

The only family member Zain cares about  is his older sister Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam). When the frightened girl experiences her first period, Zain explains what’s what and gives her his T-shirt to use as a menstrual pad, warning her not to tell anyone that she’s reached this milestone. Sure enough, once their parents get wind of Sahar’s condition they sell her to their landlord.

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109 minutes | No MPAA rating

“MADRE” (Spain, 19 minutes)

In this gripping nail biter form Spain a young mother (Blanca Apilanez) receives a call from her 6-year-old son, Ivan, who is vacationing with his father. (The couple are divorced or separated.)

Little Ivan is using his dad’s cell phone to report that he’s alone on a beach. He doesn’t know his location. His father left him there and hasn’t returned.

Mom keeps the boy calm; no doubt her ex will soon return.  But the situation quickly escalates when Ivan reports the appearance of a strange man who starts chasing him…

The direction by Rodrigo Sorogoyen and Maria del Puy Alvarado is like a precision watch wound to the breaking point; the tension generated by this setup is almost unbearable.

In fact, the pure storytelling is so overwhelming that it takes a while for viewers to discover that, incredibly enough, the bulk of the film is one uninterrupted shot  unfolding in Mom’s apartment.  The logistics of pulling off this tour de force are daunting. But “Madre” delivers.

“FAUVE” (Canada, 17 minutes) B

Two boys are roughhousing in what looks like an abandoned strip mine.  For several minutes they dare each other to do dangerous things, wrestle and climb over rusting equipment.

But then they find a manmade lake. It looks enticing…until they discover to their horror that the muddy banks are the consistency of quicksand and can quickly pull a child to his doom.

Jeremy Comte and Maria Gracia Turgeon rev up the tension and fear and leave us with a haunting depiction of a young life all but ruined.

“MARGUERITE” (Canada, 19 minutes) B+

The elderly Marguerite (Beatrice Picard) lives for the daily visits by her caregiver Rachel (Sandrine Bisson). But when she learns that Rachel is in a relationship with another woman it triggers Marguerite’s own memories of a stymies girl-on-girl romance from long ago.

This film from Marianne Farley  is a study in gentle revelation, a heartbreakingly tender look at the life that its protagonist might have had.

“DETAINMENT” (Ireland, 30 minutes) A-

Based on a 1993 murder case that rocked Great Britain, “Detainment” is a docudrama zeroing in on the police interrogations of two 10-year-old Liverpool boys who eventually were convicted of killing 3-year-old James Bulger, whom they kidnapped from a shopping mall.

The dialogue in Vincent Lambe and Darren Mahon’s film was drawn almost entirely from the recordings of the police sessions with the boys, and what emerges is one of the most harrowing 30 minutes of cinema imaginable.

The young killers — interrogated separately but in the presence of their stricken and disbelieving parents — pose a perplexing contrast.

Jon (Ely Solan) is terrified and panic stricken, weeping helplessly in his mother’s arms. He paints himself as a victim of his partner’s malignancy.

Robert (Leon Hughes) is, by contrast, a psychopath in training, a defiant little shit who lies nonstop and uses mind tricks to try to derail the cops as they build their case. He says it was all Jon’s idea.

In all probability neither could have done it alone, but together the boys proved a lethal mix.

As ghastly and off-putting as this tale is, there is no question that Masters Hughes and Solan deliver two of the most amazing performances by child actors ever captured on film.

“SKIN” (USA, 20 minutes) B

The first moments of Guy Nattiv’s “Skin”  offer a touching display of family warmth.  A young boy, Troy (Jackson Robert Scott), is getting a front-porch haircut from his doting dad, Johnny (Jonathan Tucker). Then, with Mom (Danielle MacDonald), they drive out to the country with friends for a day of shooting up old cars.

Little Troy proves a crack shot with a rifle, much to his father’s delight.

Just one problem with this cozy scene.  Johnny and his pals are virulent racists.   We’d know that just from their tattoos, but that night upon returning to town they nearly beat to death a black man in front of his wife and children.

The friends of the victim seek revenge, not through violence (though they do kidnap Johnny right in front of his distressed son) but by using ink and a tattoo needle to turn the racist into that thing he hates so much.

With its emphasis on irony “Skin” plays a lot like an updated episode of “The Twilight Zone” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Its melodramatic elements almost go too far, but the performances keep it all in check.

(Interestingly enough, the short “Skin” is a companion piece to a feature film by Nattiv also called “Skin.” In the feature Jamie Bell portrays a real-life skinhead who rejected his racist upbringing and systematically had all his hateful tattoos removed.)

| Robert W. Butler


 56 minutes | No MPAA rating

Traditionally animated shorts were aimed at the funny bone.

Mickey Mouse. Bugs Bunny. Tom & Jerry.

Well, that was then.  As this year’s slate of Oscar-nominated animated shorts makes clear, today’s animators are interested in big themes and deep emotions.

Only one of the nominees is overtly comical.  The others gravitate toward the arty end of the narrative spectrum, with a special emphasis on works that attempt to encompass an entire life (or a big chunk of one). (Remember the wedding album sequence that opened Pixar’s “Up”?  It’s the spiritual grandfather of many of these nominees.)

“ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR”  (Canada, 14 minutes) B

In Alison Snowden and David Fine’s savage spoof of psychiatry, a canine shrink convenes a group therapy session of diverse animals.

Among others, there’s a pig with an eating disorder and a leech with self-esteem problems. But things go really south when a new patient invades the room: a towering gorilla with anger issues.

The dialogue and voices are basically naturalistic; that it’s all being delivered through cartoon animals makes it truly bizarre.

Classic moment: Leonard, the doggy doctor, notices the discomfort in the room when a single-mom praying mantis laments the difficulty of finding a good male of her species. Adapting exactly the sort of diffident therapy-speak that pisses off so many of us, Leonard offers: “Clearly, sexual cannibalism is for some still a taboo.”

Tres droll.

BAO”  (USA, 8 minutes B

If you saw “Incredibles 2” last year you probably caught Domee Shi and Becky Neimann-Cobb’s “Bao,” which played before the feature.

A visually sophisticated (and wordless) valentine to maternal longing and generational conflict, the film centers on an Asian household — presumably Chinese — where the wife fantasizes that one of her hand-made stuffed dumplings is actually a baby.  So fertile is her imagination that she watches the little guy grow up, go to school, hit those difficult teenage years and eventually show up at the door with his new squeeze, a perky Anglo gal.

“Bao” takes a too-cute (borderline freakish) idea and turns it into emotional gold, especially with its universal theme of the young growing up and more-or-less abandoning their parents.

“LATE AFTERNOON” (Ireland, 10 minutes) B+ Continue Reading »


99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Time travel may be just a theory, but something like it is at work at theaters where Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old”  is playing.

Jackson, the director of the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” franchises, has taken hundreds of  hours of World War I movie footage owned by Britain’s National War Museum and from it fashioned a feature film that practically jumps off the screen and into our laps (and that’s even if you pass on the 3-D version).

The story he tells is that of common English men — boys, really — who signed up to go to defend their country and found themselves in the ghastly trench war of the Western Front in France.  The film relies on snippets of audio interviews the BBC conducted with veterans of the Great War back in the ’60s and ’70s;  now long gone, these men reveal their experiences and innermost feelings about what they went through.

But what makes “They Shall Not Grow Old” absolutely mind-churning is the way Jackson and hundreds of technicians restored the old footage, cleaning up the dust motes and cracked emulsion, colorizing the images and providing an immersive stereo soundtrack.

The film’s first 30 minutes are basically the story of recruitment and training in  black-and-white; then, with the troops’ arrival in France, the screen blossoms with color as we are, in effect, dropped into the meat grinder.

The transition from black-and-white to Technicolor is as poetically jarring as it was in “The Wizard of Oz.”

There’s stuff here that even hard-core World War I junkies haven’t seen. Like what a trench latrine looked like (a thick pole stretched across a pool of muck; we see four bare bottoms simultaneously making use of the facilities). Like a bad case of trenchfoot, a ghastly condition born of wearing wet boots and socks for days on end (in effect, it’s gangrene).

There are piles of dead rats, the result of a housecleaning in one trench. There are bodies hanging on the barbed wire; some stayed so long their living neighbors could watch the slow process of decomposition over weeks. (One old gent describes war as “a fantastic exhibition of anatomy.”)

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Matt Green


95 minutes | No MPAA rating

Matt Green may be a bit nuts, but it’s a wonderful nuttiness.

Now in  his early 30s, Green has spent the last seven years on a quest to walk every street, bike path, pier and park in New York City. He figures that all ads up to 8,000-plus miles.

He’s still not done, but his project has now been documented by Jeremy Workman in “The World Before Your Feet.” This love poem to the Big Apple is enough to make you want to drop everything and start hiking.

Workman’s doc is kind of awe-inspiring. We see Green striding purposefully through swirling seas of humanity; we also see him as a solitary figure in an empty landscape (yes, NYC has such places).

He cruises past landmarks like the Guggenheim Museum, but also wanders down alleyways, across seaside boardwalks and on footpaths through quiet parklands and even a ghost town in Queens. He walks in sweltering summer humidity and in blizzard conditions.

Along the way he takes pictures, which he posts on his web blog. And he meets lots of everyday people, including some who initially are suspicious of him (given his ability to defuse tense situations, Green might consider a post-walking gig as a mediator or reconciliation facilitator).

He is particularly fond of cemeteries (we see the graves of Alexander Hamilton and Harry Houdini) and of the exotic plants (fig trees!!!) that have somehow taken root surrounded by concrete. He finds the oldest and tallest living thing in the city, a tree called The Queen’s Giant.

He has stumbled across hundreds of homemade 9-11 memorials erected in front yards or painted on the sides of buildings.

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Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot

“COLD WAR” My rating: A-

88 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“She’s got something,” observes a Parisian roue after taking in an eyeful and earful of Zula, the troubled heroine of “Cold War.”

No kidding.  As portrayed by Joanna Kulig, Zula radiates slow-smoldering eroticism and more than a hint of working-class voluptuousness. It’s easy to understand how a man — even a sophisticated one — could endure a long search through time and space to be with her.

“Cold War” — an Oscar nominee for foreign language film, director and cinematography — comes to us from Pawel Pawlikowski, who a couple of years back delivered the Academy Award-winning foreign film “Ida,”  about a young nun who discovers she is the child of Holocaust victims.

Like that earlier masterpiece, “Cold War” unfolds during Poland’s decades as a Soviet satellite state and has been shot in mind-blowingly beautiful black and white.

Pawlikowski’s subject is a passionate love affair played out against  the political and social fluctuations of life on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Reportedly he was inspired by the story of his own parents, who maintained an on-and-off relationship for more than 40 years.

Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a musical scholar traveling post-war Poland to  record rural folk songs.  That obsession leads to a job as artistic director of a state-sponsored school devoted to the preservation of traditional Polish culture. Hordes of desperate young people audition for the program; among them is Zula (Kulig), who initially doesn’t stand out against all the other healthy blondes hoping for a spot.

But Zula is clever and manipulative; she immediate gloms onto a girl with a terrific voice and suggests they sing a duet. The other girl’s talent will mask Zula’s limited abilities while giving Zula’s impressive “it” factor a chance to kick in.

Indeed, before long Zula is one of the company’s featured performers. There are better singers and dancers,  but none can match Zula’s understated yet always-ready sexuality. She even comes with a  back story about having done time for murdering the father who molested her.

In no time at all Zula is sleeping with Wiktor, who is twice her age and earning a national reputation for his beautifully-staged concerts of traditional song and dance.  But the purist in him rebels when the authorities demand that the troupe perform newly-penned songs about land reform against a gigantic portrait of Josef Stalin; he lays a plan to defect with Zula  on a tour stop in East Berlin.

When Zula fails to show up for their rendezvous at a checkpoint between East and West Berlin (this is a decade before the construction of the notorious wall) a disappointed Wiktor goes it alone.

But the paths of these two star-crossed lovers will intersect repeatedly over the years.

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Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly

“STAN & OLLIE”  My rating: B- 

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

An O.K. movie elevated by a pair of jaw-dropping lead performances, “Stan & Ollie” will be appreciated best by those already familiar with comic legends Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Which is what…six percent of the population?

Never mind. “Stan & Ollie” so perfectly channels the style of this great comedy duo that as soon as it’s over you’ll go to YouTube to check out the real thing. There many pleasures await.

Jon S. Baird’s film is a fact-based comedy centering on a 1953 tour of British music halls by Stan Laurel (the skinny Englishman) and Oliver Hardy (the obese Yank).  At the time they hadn’t worked together for almost two decades following Laurel’s expulsion from the Hal Roach Studio over demands for more money and control over their films.

In fact, Jeff Pope’s screenplay begins in 1937 with L (Steve Coogan) & H (John C. Reilly in an impressive fat suit and makeup) at work on their last film together. In one masterfully composed and executed tracking shot we follow the two stars from their dressing room through the bustling studio to a soundstage where boss Hal Roach (Danny Huston) awaits.

There Stan makes his demands, Roach fires him, and Oliver — who still has two years on his contract — must look for a new comedy partner if he’s to continue making a living.

All that is so much bad water under the bridge by the time 17 years later that Stan accepts an offer from a fly-by-night Brit promoter to tour England.  The idea is to prove to potential backers that L&H still are popular enough to warrant investing in their proposed film parody of the Robin Hood legend.

Initially, it doesn’t look good. The theaters and accomodations are crappy and the crowds thin. But Stan, the brains behind the outfit and a master promoter, signs on for enough public appearances at charity events, etc., that within a couple of weeks the two are playing to sold-out crowds.

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Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsberg

“ON THE BASIS OF SEX” My rating: B

120 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“RBG,” last year’s documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, was so encyclopedic and emotionally engaging that at first flush a fiction film based on the same material seems superfluous.

Of course, “RBG” didn’t feature an eager and mildly acrobatic bedroom encounter between the young Ruth and her husband Marty. So there’s that.

Directed by Mimi Leder, “On the Basis of Sex” concentrates on the early years of Ginsberg’s legal career and culminates with her arguing a landmark legal case that forced the government to end discrimination based on sex.

If the film follows a predictable David-vs-Goliath path, it is nevertheless informative, accurate (RBG has given it her stamp of approval) and inspiring.

And it succeeds in making its heroine wildly appealing not for her looks or her ability to elicit warm fuzzies but because of her towering intellect and fierce determination. A different kind of leading lady, indeed.

We join Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) at the 1956 orientation session for Harvard Law School.  She’s one of only nine women in a class of 500; at a special luncheon for the ladies, the dean (Sam Waterston) asks each woman to explain why she deserves a slot that could have gone to a man.

Ooookay, then.

Ruth is clearly p.o.-ed by the numerous displays of chauvinism she encounters, but her style is to buckle down and beat the guys at their own game.  Which she does on a regular basis.

She’s supported in all this by her husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), on his way to becoming a wildly successful tax lawyer but more than happy to be the family’s cook and primary childcare provider while the Missus buckles down with the books.  Not only is Marty a good-natured saint, he looks (in this film, anyway) exactly like Armie Hammer.  The whole package. Which makes his early diagnosis of testicular cancer even more unsettling.

Like the documentary “RBG,” this film alternates between two aspects of its subject’s life. There’s the Ginsbergs’ personal story — by most accounts Marty and Ruth had one of the century’s great marriages. But not all is copacetic. Ruth is excoriated by her teenage daughter as “a bully…and she wants everyone to know how smart she is.”

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Stephan James and Kiki Layne


119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Barry Jenkins’ followup to “Moonlight” begins with a God’s-eye view of a young couple walking hand in hand.

This impossibly handsome pair are Tish (Kiki Layne), age 19, and Fonny (Stephan James), 20, African American New Yorkers in the early 1970s.  They’ve been friends since childhood, but are  thinking of taking their relationship to a new physical level.

“Are you ready for this?”

“I’ve been ready for this my whole life.”

“If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin (incredibly, the first of his many works to receive big-screen dramatization), is a deeply affecting love story. But that’s just the starting point.

Baldwin used the Tish/Fonny relationship and its many hurdles to comment on the place of black folk in America. The relationship of two young people in love is simultaneously an indictment of societal evil.

Jenkins’ screenplay, like the novel, centers on Fonny’s arrest on a trumped-up rape charge, a development that shatters the joy that otherwise would be unleashed by Tish’s revelation that she’s pregnant. The film’s time-jumping narrative zaps between the couple’s life together and their separation as Fonny awaits trial.

All this is told in a series of beautifully acted scenes that isolate key moments in the lives of the characters. One of these is a gathering of the couple’s families for the announcement of the pregnancy.

Tish’s parents, Sharon and Joseph (Regina King, Colman Domingo), are hugely supportive. So is Fonny’s garrulous father, Frank (Michael Beach).  But Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) is a sanctimonious harpy who all but damns the baby in the womb and curses Tish for leading her boy astray.

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Christian Bale as Dick Cheney

“VICE” My rating: A- 

132 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In 2014 comedy writer/director Adam McKay (a longtime partner of Will Ferrell) gave us “The Big Short,” a look at the 2008 market meltdown that featured gonzo moments like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining subprime mortgages.     “…Short” was nominated for best picture and took home the Oscar for screenplay adaptation.

It now is clear that “The Big Short” was a test run for the narrative techniques and off-the-wall attitude that come to full flower in “Vice,” an absolutely dazzling/incendiary screen bio of former Vice President Dick Cheney, the Darth Vader of the George W. Bush White House.

This funny/unnerving instant classic features a transformative Christian Bale (he might as well start clearing Oscar space on his mantel), a host of terrifically good supporting perfs from the likes of Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell, and a seductive presentational style that’ll suck you in even if you hate the real Cheney’s guts.

An opening credit informs us that this is a true story, “or as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in history.  But we did our f**king best.”

In fact, writer/director McKay goes out of his way not to turn “Vice” into a ham-handed hatchet job.

For the film’s first half — as we watch Wyoming roustabout Dick (drinkin’, fightin’, D.W.I.s) straighten himself out for the woman he loves (Adams), start a family and dip his toe in the slipstream of Washington power-broking — you may find yourself admiring the kid’s drive and smarts.

By the film’s end — after Cheney has shanghaied the nation into a never-ending Middle Eastern war and done his level best to  legitimize torture — audiences will be wincing under the savagery of the McKay/Bale depiction of this consummate politician guided less by political principles than a Machiavellian appreciation of pure, raw power.

“Vice” does a pretty wonderful job of fleshing out and, yes, humanizing a potent figure who is described by one character here as “a ghost,” a man about whom most of us know nothing.

The film covers (in brief, arresting scenes) Chaney’s education under then-Rep. Donald Rumsfeld (Carell), who instilled in the kid a taste for the ruthless exertion of authority and brought him along when he joined the Nixon administration.

Eventually Cheny becomes the chief of staff to President Gerald Ford where he begins formulating the “unitary executive theory,” which maintains that the President, just because he is the President, can do pretty much anything he damn well wants.

Throughout this recitation we periodically  drop in on the Cheney clan, and it is as a family man that this Dick Cheney seems most human.  He’s lovable and playful with his girls; he and wife Lynne are ahead-of-their-time understanding when daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out as gay.

Repeatedly we see the big man — who has heart attacks with the kind of regularity more associated with heartburn — retreating to the relatively calm and harmony of a Wyoming trout stream. (Fishing becomes a metaphor for Cheney’s canny handling of friend and foe alike.)

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Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz

“THE FAVOURITE”  My rating: B

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Deliciously nasty and morally ambiguous, “The Favourite” is a female-centric slice of history featuring three superb actresses duking it out on screen.

In addition, it may be remembered as Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ most accessible film. Which is not to say that it’s breezy moviegoing.

As was so obvious with his most recent English-language features — “The Lobster” and “The Killing of the Sacred Deer” — Lanthimos marches to his own weird drummer. The difference this time around is that instead of working from his own script he’s tackling a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, and their reasonably conventional approach grounds this yarn in more or less familiar territory.

This feast of power-playing shenanigans is set in the 18th-century court of England’s Queen Anne, a monarch equal parts sadness and silliness.  As played by the great Olivia Colman (for my money this year’s best supporting actress), this ruler is fat, frumpy and flighty.

Small wonder that her childhood friend and now closest confidant, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), treats the monarch as a sort of overgrown baby with big appetites and a short attention span. Because of their long friendship Sarah can tell Her Highness the brutal truth — for example, that her new cosmetic do-over makes the Queen look like a large badger.  (Sarah actually seems to take pleasure in dissing her hapless royal gal pal.)

In return Anne showers gifts (like castles) on her companion and makes sure that Sarah’s husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) spends most of his time away  fighting those nasty Frenchies.

Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s penniless country cousin come to court in the hopes of employment.  She’s put to work in the kitchen, but little by little insinuates herself into the Queen’s household…among other things she whips up an herbal poultice to treat Her Majesty’s gouty feet.

What ensues is a sort of powdered-wig “All About Eve,” with the young interloper cannily inserting herself between the old friends. Abigail  discovers that Anne and Sarah are lovers and decides to use that information for her own advancement. Scheming, backbiting and even a bit of poison are employed.

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Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali

“GREEN BOOK”  My rating: B 

130 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Most of us will go into “Green Book” knowing — thanks to the ads — what the film is about. We can predict with some certainty what notes it’s going to hit, what emotional buttons it’ll be pushing.

None of this detracts from the movie’s immense pleasures.

The latest from director Peter Farrelly (yes, of the raunch-humor Farrelly Brothers) is a fact-based buddy film that dabbles in race and ethnicity, the universal appeal of music, and the glory of Detroit engineering at a time when bigger was definitely better.

It’s 1962 in NYC where Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is bouncing drunks at the Copacabana nightclub. He’s Brooklyn Italian down to his toenails…which he can barely see thanks to his pasta-packed middle-aged spread.

Looking for a temporary gig while the club is undergoing a facelift, Tony signs up for a job driving a musician on  a tour of the Deep South.  And not just any musician.

Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a Phd. pianist who studied music in the Soviet Union, writes and performs classical scores (although on this tour he’s offering a popular jazz sound) and also has doctorates in psychology and liturgical arts. (The real-life Shirley also was fluent in six languages.)

Oh, yeah. He’s black, too.

But the money is good and Tony swallows his ethnic prejudices. He kisses the Missus (Linda Cardelli) goodbye and gets behind the wheel of a big aquamarine land shark for an eight-week tour leading up to Christmas.  Continue Reading »

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury


134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Remi Malek is a most unconventional star.  His biggest break to date has been as the lead of cable’s “Mr. Robot,” where he plays an emotionally-challenged computer genius, a role that perfectly meshes his acting chops with his unusual physiognomy.

He’s a weird-looking dude.

Nevertheless, in Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” Malek becomes a bona fide movie star, sinking so completely into the role of flamboyant Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury that he immediately joins the frontrunners for the year’s best actor Oscar, turning a rather humdrum musical biopic into something scintillating.

Ramen is charismatic, sexy, funny and ultimately heartbreaking as Mercury, whose baroque (or is it rococo?) sensibilities made Queen one of the most unlikely rock bands of the 1970s and ’80s.

Like the new “A Star is Born,” another film that cannily mines the backstage world of pop/rock, “…Rhapsody” follows a predictable arc, being the story of a rock star’s rise to fame and descent into ego, arrogance and, eventually, death (Mercury died of AIDS in 1991).

But that familiar  — almost cliched — tale provides a solid platform for Malek’s performance —  in addition to offering a musical soundtrack that’ll have you humming days and weeks later.

Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan’s screenplay begins with Farrokh Bulsara (Malek) hustling baggage at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Wherever he goes, the shy Farrokh is a fish out of water.  His fellow workers dismiss him as a “Paki” (Pakistani); his Farsi parents, who fled religious persecution in their native Zanzibar, don’t know what to make of his dramatically long hair and disco fashion sense.

Moreover, the kid has an amazing set of choppers…reportedly Farrokh had four extra incisors (Malek wears a lip-stretching set of fake teeth).

Early on Farrokh takes up with a struggling rock band —  guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), baby-faced drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) — and amazes with his songwriting, theatrical presence and balls-to-the-walls vocals (reportedly a combination of Malek’s voice and that of Mercury impersonator Marc Matel).

Oh, yeah. He also changes his name to Freddy Mercury, a break with his heritage that alienates his traditionalist parents.

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Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga

“A STAR IS BORN”  My rating: B

135 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) has been a major star for almost a decade now, but even if you’d never heard of her, “A Star Is Born” would confirm that there is indeed a new comet in the heavens.

She’s really, really good.

This is the third remake of the original show-biz love story (after the 1937 original with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the ’54 version with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the ’76 vehicle for Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). Though many of the details have been refreshed for this Bradley Cooper-directed effort, it’s still the story of a rising young performer’s romance with an older, established star who cannot handle it when her career eclipses his.

So don’t expect much new in the plot department.

But watching Gaga sink her teeth into her first major acting opportunity is thrilling. The woman who in her stage shows often relies on visual overkill here delivers a sensitive and carefully modulated performance that will likely result in an Oscar nomination. And what makes it even more remarkable is that hers is the less showy performance.  Her co-star, Cooper, gets the big chewy scenes (You want attention? Play a drunk.) yet Gaga is all you want to look at.

Plus, the screenplay by Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper perfectly nails its milieu of arena rock concerts, tour busses and messy hotel rooms. The plot may be familiar, but the setting has a life of its own.

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a bearded, gravel-voiced star whose music ranges from folkie efforts to guitar-shredding Southern rock (something along the lines of Lynyrd Skynyrd/Marshall Tucker). He’s also a heavy drinker who gets itchy if he’s too long without a bottle in his hand.

Which is how Jackson ends up in a gay bar (they’ve got alcohol, right?) watching a drag show in which a waitress named Ally (Gaga) steals the spotlight with a spot-on Edith Piaf imitation. He’s impressed enough to go backstage to make her acquaintance.

It’s the start of a big-time romance.  Ally is flattered by the attention, but doesn’t think she’s pretty enough to be hobnobbing with a big star. (Interesting that Gaga, who in her earliest incarnations hid behind elaborate costumes, wigs and makeup, here goes through much of the film with almost no makeup at all).

She’s a songwriter and Jackson urges her to develop that talent.  In fact, after whisking her off to one of his stadium gigs in a far-flung city, he more or less drags her onstage to perform one of her compositions as a duet.  The audience goes ape (so will folks watching the movie) and before long the Ally show is in full swing with a fancy-pants manager/producer, an appearance on “SNL” and a Grammy nomination for best new artist.

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