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Lupita Nyong’o

“US” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on March 22)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Humor and horror are strange bedfellows. Usually one negates the other.

But in “Us,” writer/director Jordan Peele’s followup to the spectacular “Get Out,” finds just the right balance between the goofy and the ghastly. The result is a horror movie quite unlike anything we’ve seen, one that mixes a family survival tale with supernatural elements and wraps it all up in a mind-boggling apocalypse.

All while leaving you chuckling.

The story begins in the mid-80’s when little Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders away from her parents at a beachside amusement park in Santa Cruz. She finds her way to a creepy mirrored funhouse where she encounters her own doppleganger…a little girl who looks exactly like her.

Jump to the present, where the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is vacationing with her family — husband Gabe (Winston Duke), teen Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and little Jason (Evan Alex) — at her late grandmother’s semi-remote house in the forest outside Santa Cruz.

After the creepiness of the prologue Peele plunges into a family comedy.  Dad is a big friendly doofus, the sort of guy who is always humiliating his adolescent daughter, who rarely looks up from her smart phone. Little Jason is a weird kid who goes through life wearing what looks like a snarling gorilla mask.

As for mother Adelaide…well, she does the usual mom stuff. But being so close to the scene of her childhood trauma — after which she didn’t speak for months — has her cringing.  A trip to the beach finds her suppressing hysteria despite the presence of old friends Kitty and Josh (Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker) and their twin teen daughters.

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Julianne Moore, John Turturro

“GLORIA BELL” My rating: B- (Opens wide on March 22)

102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Julianne Moore elevates every film she’s in, and she’s pretty much the reason to see “Gloria Bell,” an American remake by Sebastian Lelio of his 2013 Chilean drama “Gloria.”

As the title character — a middle-aged divorcee whose main pleasure is hanging around L.A.’s retro disco dance clubs with other folk her age   — Moore hides behind outsized glasses and a semi-mousey makeup job…neither of which begin to hide her star quality.

Gloria’s fixation on ’80s dance music — she’s in constant singalong mode whenever cruising with the car radio — softens the hard edges of her life.

She’s been single for a dozen years. Her son (Michael Cera) is currently a solo dad (his wife apparently has abandoned the family);  her daughter (Caren Pistorius) is in a long-distance romance with an extreme surfer from Sweden.  Neither offspring seems particularly warm toward her.

She works at an insurance company where her specialty is coddling customers shaken by auto accidents.

The script by Lelio and Alice Johnson Boher is a love story…sorta.  Alice meets newly divorced Arnold (John Tuturro) at a dance club where he stares at her from afar and defuses her sullen mood by asking if she’s always so happy.

He woos Alice with  paintball (he owns a paintball preserve; she turns out to be a dead shot) and their shared love of boogying down on the dance floor. And he reads funny/romantic poetry to her.

But there’s a problem. Arnold cannot break away from his needy ex and their even more needy daughters.  He’s at their mercy day and night, and it doesn’t take Alice long to figure out she’s always going to be a runner up in the race for his affections.

“Grow a pair,” she tells him.

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Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn

“DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE” My rating: B+ (Opens March 22 at the Screenland Armour)

159 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With its loquacious cops and crooks and pages of dialogue devoted to the amusingly mundane (Quarter Pounders with cheese, egg salad sandwiches), “Dragged Across Concrete” will remind many of a Quentin Tarantino film, especially “Pulp Fiction.”

But it also bears comparison to Michael Mann’s “Heat,” for this curiously affecting crime epic (nearly three hours) is less about black and white than shades of gray.

Add to the mix Mel Gibson chewing on his best role in ages, and the latest from writer/director S. Craig Zahler (“Bone Tomahawk”) shapes up as an unexpected treat that digs into the viewer’s head and hangs around long after the lights come up.

At the center of this sprawling tale are a couple of police detectives — Ridgeman and Lurasetti (Gibson and Vince Vaughn) — who’ve drawn long unpaid suspensions for brutalizing a suspect.  Desperate for money, Ridgeman talks his reluctant partner into tailing a suave  criminal (Thomas Kretschmann); the hope is that he will lead the pair to some sort of drug deal or robbery that they can interrupt, making off with the cash and contraband.

Ultimately the two cops find themselves wading through the aftermath of a bloody bank heist. Few are left standing.

But around this dramatic core Zahler has introduced a big cast of characters — lawmen, criminals and common citizens caught in the crossfire — and given each enough backstory that we begin to identify with them on a much deeper level.

Gibson’s Ridgeman, for instance, is a tough street cop bitter that his refusal to schmooze has left his career in the dust. Now he’s coping with an ailing wife (Laurie Holden) and a teenage daughter terrified of the only neighborhood they can afford to live in. On the job Ridgeman may seem like semi-racist thug; at home we see a different side of the man.

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Dev Patel

“THE WEDDING GUEST” My rating: B- (OpensMarch 22 at the  Tivoli)

97 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Since breaking onto the world cinema scene as a struggling Indian Everyman in “Slumdog Millionaire,” Deval Patel has been methodically expanding his repertoire, from broad comedy (the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” franchise) to straight drama (“Lion”).

With Michael Winterbottom’s “The Wedding Guest” he takes a detour into genre, portraying a ruthlessly efficient man of mystery.

As the film begins Patel’s Jay flies from London to Pakistan.  That’s he’s not your usual tourist quickly becomes apparent: Jay has multiple passports, goes shopping for a small arsenal of handguns and rents two cars.

An anxious pall hangs over the film’s opening sequences.  Is Jay a terrorist bent on mayhem?  A paid assassin on assignment?

Things get a bit clearer when he begins keeping tabs on Samira (Radhika Apte), the daughter of the local gentry preparing for an elaborate arranged marriage. Jay tells people he encounters that he’s one of the wedding guests, but In the dead of night he slips into the family compound and kidnaps the girl, gunning down an armed guard to make his escape.

Samira is at first terrified. Then Jay explains that the kidnapping was arranged by her London-based lover, who hired Jay to spirit her away from her tradition-bound family.

Now the two are on the run, moving across Pakistan and into India toward a rendezvous with Samira’s squeeze. (On one level “Wedding Guest” is practically a travelogue.)

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Paula Beer, Franz Rogowski

“TRANSIT” My rating: C+ (Opens March 22 at the Rio)

101 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Transit” is a great idea that runs itself into the ground.

The opening moments of Christian Petzold’s film (he adapted it from Anna Seghers’ novel) take place in Paris under the German occupation.

Except that the setting isn’t the 1940s…it’s today.

The cars, the clothing, even the flat-screen TVs scream 21st century. But things are missing. Like computers and cel phones.

Our hero, Georg (Franz Rogowski), is part of an underground movement and desperate to get out of the country.  The police are making sweeps of blocks, sending undesirables off to hastily-erected camps.

The film never really lays out its geopolitical roots. Is this a new fascist movement that has swept the country? Was there a physical invasion of France? Is the year 2018 or are we supposed to imagine that somehow it’s still the ’40s?  (Hitler is never mentioned, nor is National Socialism. No German helmets or swastikas.)

Anyway, Georg manages to hide in a boxcar on a train heading to Marseilles. Once in the port city he joins the ranks of thousands of others lining up at the U.S. and Mexican consulates hoping to get transit papers that will allow them to board a ship for freedom (apparently there are no airlines in this alternative reality).

Georg is better off than most. He’s managed to assume the identity of a semi-famous writer, Weisel,  who has committed suicide; his newly-assumed standing as a man of letters moves him to the front of the immigration line.

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“BIRDS OF PASSAGE” My rating: B

125 minutes | No MPAA rating

Crime story and folklore entwine in “Birds of Passage,” Colombia’s nominee for this year’s foreign language film Oscar.

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerre’s decades-spanning saga, which follows the creation of that country’s drug trade in the late 1960s by indigenous peoples, blends stark realism with magic realism for an experience that plays less like “The Godfather” than “Days of Heaven.”

Initially the film resembles a documentary about the Wayúu tribe occupying a remote, desert-like stretch of northern Colombia. A celebration is in progress, a sort of bat mitzvah to welcome the beautiful Zaida (Natalia Reyes) to her status as a grown woman.  She’s now available for marriage and almost immediately she is claimed by Rapayet (Jose Acosta), a handsome young man from a neighboring family.

Zaire’s mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez), the clan’s matriarch, isn’t impressed with Rapayet’s credentials and sets an impossibly high dowry for her daughter’s hand. Rapayet doesn’t know how he’ll find the resources…until he runs into a couple of young Peace Corps volunteers looking to score weed.

Rapayet has some friends who grow the stuff up in the mountains, and with his colorful bud Moises (Jhon Narvaez) starts a distribution business that not only brings him Zaire’s hand but unanticipated riches.  Eager gringos scoop up Rapayet’s marijuana and fly it to the U.S.; before long Rapayet and Zaire are living in a very modern new mansion (which, weirdly enough, is situated on a vast, dried-up mud flat — I kept wondering about water and sewage issues).

But Rapayet’s business corrupts not only himself but an entire way of life. Steeped in tradition and devoted to ideas of honor and sacrifice, the Wayúu quickly succumb to the get-rich-quick, trigger-happy mentality that spreads like a cancer throughout the tribe.

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“CLIMAX” My rating: B-

97 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Climax” may be the most accessible film yet from cinematic evil genius Gaspar Noe (“I Stand Alone,” “Irreversible,” “Enter the Void”). Which is not to say that it is easy movie watching.

“Climax,” like most of Noe’s output, is a celebration of perversity.

It opens with the closing credits (???) and an overhead shot of a scantily clothed and bloodied woman struggling through a field of snow; then shifts into documentary mode before becoming an energetic dance film and ultimately deteriorating into a paranoia-fueled nightmare.

A title card informs us that the story was inspired by actual events in 1996…but I’m not buying that notion any more than I believe “Fargo” was actually based on a real crime.

For 10 or so minutes we get talking-head documentary interviews with a bunch of young French dancers who have auditioned for a special troupe preparing to tour the U.S.A. With few exceptions they lack formal training; most appear to be  kids (all races and ethnicities) who learned their moves on the streets and sidewalks. Some of them are eager and ambitious; others a bit jaded and wary of their newfound legitimacy.

Noe then cuts to a long (like, 15 minutes) single-shot rehearsal in which the youngsters do an elaborate routine that allows for plenty of individual riffing (lots of spectacular hip-hop: locking, popping, cranking) all set to a deafening and hypnotic techno beat.

It’s exhilarating and wildly entertaining, and when it’s over the viewer — like the dancers themselves — is spent and ready for a bit of r&r.

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“THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD” My rating: B+

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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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

“BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY”  My rating: B

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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Travis Fimmell

“FINDING STEVE McQUEEN”  My rating: C+

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Give the makers of “Finding Steve McQueen” credit for at least shaking up the parameters of your standard heist movie.

For starters, this fact-based caper film about the biggest bank haul in U.S. history is thick with comic overtones thanks to a doofus of a leading man and a goofy gang of miscreants.

For another, it employs a scrambled narrative that hopscotches back and forth in time.

“Finding Steve…” centers on Harry Barber, a minor participant in the event but the only one still around to tell the tale.

Mark Steven Johnson’s film begins with Harry (Travis Fimmel) in the present (actually the early ’80s). He’s agitated. All worked up. Hearing his panicked confession, his girl Molly (Rachael Taylor) — the daughter of a local cop —  freaks out when she realizes the man she’s loved for several years isn’t who he said he was.

He is, in fact, the last free member of a notorious gang, and now his time is running out.

Then we flash back to Ohio in 1972.  Harry — who so worships the films of Steve McQueen that he sports “Bullitt”-ish sunglasses, a blond ‘do and tools around in muscle cars — does jobs for his uncle Enzo (William Fichtner), a veteran thief. Enzo has somehow learned that in a safe deposit box in a little nondescript bank in California there sits millions of dollars in a secret (and illegal) slush fund for President Richard Nixon. (This is true.)

Nixon-hater Enzo decides to rip off Tricky Dick…and posits that since the money is dirty the administration will probably not want to publicize the crime or make too big an effort to identify the perps.

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