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Frances McDormand

“THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI” My rating: A- (Opens wide on Nov. 22)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Frances McDormand gives what may be her greatest performance in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

But then the film scores a trifecta by also containing the best-ever perfs of both Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.

Add to that the fact that the latest from Irish auteur Martin McDonough (“In Bruges”) is the funniest movie ever about grief, and you’ve got a serious — and seriously hilarious — moviegoing experience.

The title refers to three billboards on the road near the Ozarks home of Mildred (McDormand).  Almost a year earlier Mildred’s teenage daughter Angela was raped, murdered and her body set afire.  The local cops have hit a dead end and the angry, acid-tongued Mildred decides to jump start the investigation through shaming.

She calls at the local advertising firm and soon those three billboards read like a grim set of Burma Shave signs: “Raped While Dying.” “And Still No Arrests.”  “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”

This is a full frontal assault on the local police led by Chief Willoughby (Harrelson).  By all accounts Willoughby is a decent guy who has exhausted all leads. DNA collected at the crime scene doesn’t match anyone in the data base, and Willoughby rejects Mildred’s demand that the authorities collect samples from every boy and man in the county.

Willoughby reveals that he’s dying of cancer, apparently in the mistaken belief that this will soften Mildred’s wrath and she’ll take down the billboards. She’ll have none of it: “They wouldn’t be so effective after you croak, right?”

Woody Harrelson

Mildred may be the toughest, most uncompromising and prickly character of McDormand’s uncompromising and prickly career. You may not like her (she commits an unconscionable act of arson against her perceived enemies), but you can’t take your eyes off her as plows through the town’s irate citizenry like a vengeful bulldozer. (One may look at the actress’s excellent work in HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge” as a sort of test run for this film.)

Her attitude even comes through in her choice of clothing. Nothing feminine about Mildred’s garb…she wears a blue jumpsuit and a Rambo-style headscarf, looking like Rosie the Riveter with a “can-fuck-you-up” attitude. (In one of the film’s slyer jokes, Mildred operates the Southern Charm Gift Shop — which thanks to her attitude is utterly devoid of  charm.)

Mildred’s contempt for the cops has its basis in more than just personal grief.  Deputy Dixon (Rockwell) is both astoundingly stupid and overtly racist and Mildred has no problem in calling him on his proclivities: “How’s it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon?”

Dixon’s answer is that nowadays it’s “the person-of-color-torturing business.” (One of the iffier aspects of McDonough’s screenplay is that an honorable man like Willoughby employs a vicious asshat like Dixon; we’re led to believe that the Chief feels sorry for this moron and actually sees some potential in him. This strains credulity, but sets up later developments.) Continue Reading »

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Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens

“THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS” My rating: C (Opens wide on Nov. 22)

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

When it is evoking the spirit of Dickens’ immortal A Christmas Carol, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” cannot help but worm its way  into a viewer’s heart and mucus centers.

Seriously, for any halfway literate English-speaking person even the mention of Scrooge and the Christmas ghosts sets off mental and emotional detonations. Not only is A Christmas Carol one of the most artful stories ever written, it is credited by historians with triggering Victorian England’s wholehearted embrace of the Yuletide season. (Before the book’s publication, apparently, Christmas was no big deal.)

Adapted from John Stanford’s nonfiction book by Susan Coyne and directed by Bharat Nalluri (a veteran of Brit TV), “The Man Who  Invented Christmas” purports to relate how Charles Dickens came to write the story. Basically it’s Masterpiece Lite.

We first meet the great author (Dan Stevens, minus the facial hair of the older, more familiar  Dickens) in 1842 when he is going through a rough patch.  His last three books have tanked, his household is going through expensive civic improvements, his kids are running amok and the Missus (Morfydd Clark) announces that there’s another on the way.

Then there’s the arrival of Dickens’ father John (Jonathan Pryce), an entertaining/exasperating  bon vivant perennially in debt and congenitally incapable of earning his own living.

Desperate to offer his publishers a new book, Dickens proposes a Christmas story.  The editors are dubious, but Dickens says if necessary he’ll self-finance the volume. All he needs now are characters and a story.

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“COCO” My rating: B (Opens wide on Nov. 22)

109 minutes | MPAA rating:PG

As they did with 2015’s “Inside Out,” the animation geniuses at Pixar are again pushing the narrative envelope. With “Coco” they deliver a tale so dense with visual and thematic elements that by comparison most live-action films seem simplistic.

Taking as it starting point the traditions and mythology of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration, the film emerges as an epic family drama that resolves with a deeply satisfying emotional coda.

But as was the case with “Inside Out,” the film’s ambitions are so grandiose that it sometimes comes off as overwritten and unnecessarily complicated. Too many  digressions threaten to derail the yarn.

In a brilliant opening sequence that harkens back to the photo album introduction to Pixar’s “Up,” a family’s history is told in papel picado, the colorful hand-cut Mexican tissue flags.

Our narrator, young  Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), relates how his great-great-great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, leaving her to raise her daughter Coco alone. (Coco is still alive, an ancient creature lost in silent dementia and cared for by her extended family.)  Nevertheless she established a family-run shoemaking enterprise which endures to this day.  She also banned music from her household.

This poses a real problem for Miguel, who loves music, plays it in secret, and worships the memory of Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), a legendary guitar-strumming troubadour from the 1930s who starred in a series of perennially popular black-and-white movies.

In fact, Miguel comes to believe that Ernesto de la Cruz — who died years earlier in an on-stage accident — is his great-great-great grandfather, about whom no one in the family will reveal anything.

All this coincides with the Day of the Dead celebration, where photos of deceased family members are displayed in a household shrine. On this one night of the year the dear departed are invited to cross over from the land of the dead to hover around their living descendants in a sprawling cemetery lit by thousands of candles and featuring tables of food to be shared by the living and, symbolically anyway, the ghostly visitors. Continue Reading »

Saoirse Ronan

“LADY BIRD” My rating: B+ (Opens Nov. 24 at the Tivoli, Glenwood Arts, Town Center)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

That Saoirse Ronan gives an Oscar-worthy performance in “Lady Bird” is expected. She is, after all, perhaps the greatest actress of her young generation. (Exhibit One: “Brooklyn.”)

What’s really surprising about this funny/furious coming-of-age yarn is the voice behind the camera.  “Lady Bird” is the first feature soley written and directed by Greta Gerwig, the actress known as indie filmdom’s go-to gal for slightly ditzy heroines (“Greenberg,” “Frances Ha,” “Mistress America”).

Gerwig gives us not only a first-rate dramedy about a young woman’s growth from cranky teen to independent woman, but also the most incendiary mother/daughter movie relationship since “Terms of Endearment.”

Combining savage wordplay, satiric insights into adolescent life and a genuine sense of family dynamics, “Lady Bird” is simultaneously familiar and fiercely original.

Christine (Saoirse Ronan) is a high school senior (the year is 2002) and  pissed off about nearly everything. Her general dissatisfaction may be behind her decision to change her name to Lady Bird…or to at least demand that her parents, friends and teachers call her  that. A new name may lead to a new life, right?

In the film’s first scene Lady Bird and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) are reduced to tears while driving down the highway listening to a book tape of The Grapes of Wrath.  It’s a rare moment when mom and daughter are on the same page; seconds later Lady Bird’s temper flares and she impulsively bails from the moving car. (She will spend much of the movie with a cast on one hand.)

The source of the argument is college.  The two are returning from a scouting trip to regional universities, but Lady Bird has her heart set on something back east, a place with “real culture, like New York…or Connecticut.” Marion, a glum financial harpie, warns that there isn’t any money for an Ivy League education.  A small state college the next town over will have to do.

This is the film’s central conflict: a smart, ambitious and somewhat spoiled adolescent versus her penny-pinching, essentially joyless parent.  (Lady Bird’s dad, played by Tracy Letts, is a laid-back  noncombatant who offers moral support to both mother and daughter but not much else, having been downsized from his tech job.)

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Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” My rating: C  

114 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The year’s strongest cast wrestles inertia to a standstill in “Murder on the Orient Express,” the latest addition to the pantheon of unnecessary remakes.

We already have Sidney Lumet’s perfectly delightful 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s great  railway mystery. But as with Shakespeare, Dame Agatha’s yarns are worthy of retelling for each new generation.  Problem is, this retelling is stillborn.

It’s always difficult to know exactly why a movie goes wrong, but in this case it may very well lie with the decision to have Kenneth Branagh both direct and star as eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

The character dominates virtually every scene, which means the acting weight alone was exhausting. To then also ride herd on a huge cast of heavy hitting thespians was too much to ask of anyone.

As it now stands, Branagh disappoints in both capacities. His features masked by absurd facial hair as obviously fake as the computer-generated backgrounds, he makes a mess of Poirot, who goes from crowd-teasing cutup to moody depressive without much in between. Lines that should evoke a laugh barely generate a tentative smile.

As for the directing end of things…well, what can you say when you have this much talent on hand and still end up with a dull yarn weighted down by blah characterizations?

Set aboard a snowbound luxury train on the Istanbul-Paris run, Michael Green’s screenplay clings to the basics of Christie’s tale (the “who” in the “whodunnit” makes for a one of the better revelations in all detective fiction) while dabbling with some of the particulars, largely in an effort to make the project more attractive to today’s mass audience.

Thus the screenplay finds time for one karate fight, a chase down a railroad trestle and a shooting — none of which are to be found in the novel or the earlier film.

While a few of the characters have undergone some tweaking (a physician aboard the train is now a Negro played by Leslie Odom Jr., providing the opportunity to dabble in some racial issues), most cling to Christie’s parameters. Continue Reading »

Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince

“THE FLORIDA PROJECT” My rating: B+ (Opens Nov. 10 at the Glenwood Arts and Town Center 20)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives in the shadow of Disney World.

Not that she’s ever visited the Magic Kingdom.  Moonee and her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) are guests/inmates at the Magic Castle, a purple monstrosity of a motel where rooms go for $36 a night and the clientele consists mostly of homeless families struggling to survive in the tourist-oriented economy of central Florida.

It’s not like Moonee feels deprived at never having been up close and personal with Mickey and Donald and all the other Disney characters. She’s the kind of kid who creates her own adventures, and if she often runs afoul of grownups  (people don’t like brats who amuse themselves lobbing phlegm bombs onto other people’s cars), she’s sassy and defiant and seemingly untamable.

Moonee and her  playmates regard the motel complex as their own personal realm, and their pint-size depredations are the bane of the existence of Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager forever trying to walk the fine line between corporate dictates and those of his own conscience.

Bobby chastises Moonee and pals for cutting off power to the entire motel by throwing the master switch in the utility room — but even as he does so you can sense that on another level he admires the kids’ lippy defiance.  But he’s also a sort of guardian angel to these mini-Visigoths, quickly swooping down on a pathetically feeble-minded pedophile (Carl Bradford) who hangs around the motel’s swing sets and struggling mightily to cover up Gloria (Sandy Kane), an overpainted septunagerian who insists on sunbathing topless.

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James Booth as Armand Roulin

“LOVING VINCENT” My rating: B

93 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Loving Vincent” is work of adoring fanaticism, an investigation into Vincent Van Gogh’s death through animation that mimics his dynamic and instantly recognizable style of painting.

Van Gogh’s portrait of the real Armand Roulin

It is, we’re told, “the world’s first fully painted feature film” in which each  of the movie’s 60,000-plus frames have been rendered in oil by a crew of more than 100 artists.

What directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welshman have accomplished here is, from a visual point of view, spectacularly mesmerizing.

As a narrative their film (co-scripted with Jack Dehnel) has some issues, but ultimately it works its way under the viewer’s skin.

Unfolding a year after Vincent’s death in the small French town of Auvers-sur-Oise, the story centers on Armand Roulin (James Booth).  Armand is a dedicated drinker and brawler living in Arles, where the artist often lived and painted during his last years. (Vincent actually did a portrait of Armand, and  throughout the movie the young man wears then bright yellow jacket in which he posed.)

This handsome ne’er-do-well is sent on a mission by his father, the local postmaster (Chris O’Dowd).  The elder Roulin has in his possession a letter written by Vincent to his brother Theo but never sent.  Now the old man dispatches Armand off to Paris to deliver the letter to its intended recipient.

Alas, he discovers that Theo died not long after his brother.  Hoping to locate Theo’s widow, Armand travels to Auvers, along the way collecting information about Vincent from those who crossed his path.  (Vincent, played by Robert Gulaczyk, is seen only in black-and-white flashbacks painted to resemble charcoal drawings.)

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Judi Dench, Ali Fazal

“VICTORIA AND ABDUL”  My rating: B-  

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Dame Judi Dench — who won an Academy Award for portraying one British monarch (Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love”) and was nominated for playing another (Victoria in “Mrs. Brown”) — now goes for the trifecta with “Victoria and Abdul.”

Stephen Frear’s comic costume drama finds Dench once again in the glum mourning clothes of Queen Victoria, this time late in the monarch’s reign.

As you’d expect, this great actress eats up the screen, in the process compensating for a screenplay that isn’t exactly sure what it wants  to say.

This Victoria remains the isolated, lonely widow who in “Mrs. Brown” found companionship (and perhaps chaste romance) with her Scottish gamekeeper.  But now, several years down the road, she’s  getting a bit dotty. Dozing off at state dinners is  standard operating procedure. And she’s a voraciously fast diner, posing a problem for others who are expected to stop chewing when she does.

Victoria’s advisers and hangers on (played by a Who’s Who of Brit thesps like Michael Gambon, Tim Piggot-Smith and Olivia Williams)  are running the show in her intellectual absence. The  Queen’s influence is  limited to picking menus.

Based on a little-known historical incident,“Victoria and Abdul” centers on the arrival in court of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), one of the Queen’s Indian subjects who prior to this has been a humble clerk in a prison.

Abdul is tapped to represent India at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee not because of his standing but because of his, er, standing — he’s a lanky fellow and clueless British officials reason that a tall man will look better presenting Her Majesty with a rare and precious gold coin from the subcontinent.

What nobody counts on is that the old gal will look into Abdul’s Omar-Sharif eyes and strike up a remarkable friendship, one that revitalizes Victoria’s mental faculties, sharpens her interest in affairs of state and threatens the status quo of the royal household.

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Ana de Armas, Ryan Gosling

“BLADE RUNNER 2049”  My rating: B 

163 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Making a sequel that will satisfy three generations of “Blade Runner”-obsessed geeks isn’t easy.

What’s surprising is how close director Denis Villeneuve and his screenwriters (Hampton Fancher, Michael Green) have come to pulling it off.

Of course this pronouncement is coming from a guy who admired the original 1982 “Blade Runner” (great film technology and a brilliant evocation of a dystopian future) but didn’t actually like it (one of Harrison Ford’s clumsiest performances…plus the movie should have been about Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, a vastly more interesting character).

“Blade Runner 2049” finds me reversing my original evaluation — I like it but don’t exactly admire it.

Explaining one’s reactions to this eye-popping, ear-shredding futurist epic (the running time is nearly three hours) is made considerably more difficult by Villeneuve’s request  — read to critics at advance screenings — that we not discuss the new film’s plot in our reviews.

Well, that’s kind of limiting.

But here goes.

Once again we have a film about the conflict between replicants — artificially engineered humanoid slaves who are born as adults with phony memories of childhood — and their human creators.

The film centers on “K” (it refers to the first letters of his serial number), a replicant played by Ryan Gosling. K, like Ford’s Deckard in the first film, is a blade runner who hunts down renegade replicants. (The character’s name may also refer to Josef K., the existentially-challenged hero of Kafka’s The Trial. Allegorical names are big here; the principal female characters are called Joi and Luv.)

In the  years since the events of the original film there have been major societal upheavals:  A “great blackout” that destroyed most digital records; the bankruptcy of the Tyrell Corporation which invented replicants; and the rise of mad scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, as irritatingly weird as ever), who has perfected technology to ensure that his new generation of replicants obey their human masters.

But there are still some aging Tyrell-era replicants hiding out in Earth’s less-hospitable neighborhoods, and it is K’s job to track them down and eliminate them.

In his off hours the silently suffering K takes much abuse from his human neighbors, who contemptuously refer to him as a “skin job.”  At least he has a wife at home…well, sort of.  What he is has is Joi (Ana de Armas), a computer-generated hologram who can change her clothing and hair instantaneously to match K’s mood.  She loves him; sexual congress,  though, seems beyond her technology.

No wonder K seems so sad.

Running throughout Fancher and Green’s screenplay are hints that man’s inventions — holograms, replicants — are at least as “human” as their creators, struggling against their programming to express emotional needs and intellectual curiosity.

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Colin Firth, Taron Egerton

“KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE” My rating: B- 

141 minutes | MPAA rating: R

For a movie that isn’t actually about anything, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is ridiculously diverting.

Those who saw the original “Kingsman: The Secret Service” a few years back will be treated to more of the same, only on steroids.  This sequel is bigger, faster, noisier and funnier than the original.

Plus, this time around writer/director Matthew Vaughn shows a surer hand at balancing the movie’s over-the-top violence with a refined comic sensibility.

Things begin with our hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton) trying to juggle his duties as a member of the super-secret Kingsman security apparatus against his romance with Tilde (Hanna Alström), an honest-to-God Swedish princess.  For a former car thief with a taste for a white rapper wardrobe (sweats, ball caps), Eggsy has come a long way in a brief time.

But it all comes crashing down when the entire Kingsman operation is destroyed in one fell swoop.  The only survivors are Eggsy (who was having dinner with the King of Sweden when it all happened) and the bald, tech-savvy Merlin (Mark Strong).

What happened? Well, an international drug lord named Poppy (Julianne Moore) and her Golden Circle gang are clearing the deck prior to a big push for world domination.  A nostalgia freak, Poppy lives in seclusion in the Cambodian jungle in her own private theme park…imagine Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. redone with a “Happy Days” theme.

She’s even kidnapped Elton John (playing himself) so that he can perform her favorite hits at will. (This year’s best bit of celebrity casting.)

Seeking allies, Eggsy and Merlin travel to Kentucky where they encounter the Statesmen, their Yank counterparts, a band of American free agents posing as a distilling concern.  These cowboys — literally…we’re talking Stetsons, boots and electric bullwhips capable of slicing steel — have names like Champagne (Jeff Bridges), Tequila (Channing Tatum), Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) and Ginger (Halle Berry).

Oh yes…the Statesmen have been providing shelter to an amnesiac who has suffered a rather nasty bullet wound in the noggin.  He is, of course, Harry Hart aka Galahad (Colin Firth), Eggsy’s mentor and a fatality (or so we thought) in the first film. (I’m not giving anything away here…Firth is all over the ads.)

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“IT” My rating: B-

135 minutes | MPAA rating: R

First, let’s all take a slow, non-hyperbolic breath.

Rarely has a mere horror movie gotten the advance raves and widespread cultural attention being lavished on “It,” the new film based on Stephen King’s novel (it was filmed once before, for a 1990 TV miniseries).

Well, it’s a good movie. Not great. It’s way overlong and trips over a few narrative dead ends.

It’s not as interesting or satisfying as either “It Follows” or “Get Out,” two recent groundbreaking examples of the horror genre.

But “It” — written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Doberman and directed by Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) — does hit the sweep spot between jump-in-your-seat thrills and the sort of Spielberg-influenced 1980s adolescent adventure most recently championed by Netflix’s hit series “Stranger Things.”

Basically you’ve got a group of pre-pubescents taking on a supernatural evil that resurrects every three decades or so to snatch unwary children. This creature is a sinister circus clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) who lives in a small town’s sewers and marks his approach with red balloons.

There’s no explanation of Pennywise’s back story; the screenplay presents him as the pure embodiment of every child’s deepest fears (making him a clown was a brilliant stroke on King’s part) and pretty much leaves it at that.

Dramatically, “It” is a deft balancing act between growing creepiness, an often hilarious examination of youthful behavior, and a compassionate (but superficial) look at adolescent angst.

The leader of these young misfits is Bill (Jaden Lieberher, so terrific in “St. Vincent” and “Midnight Special”), whose little brother vanished a year earlier when he ventured too close to a street grating during a rainstorm. Motivated by sibling love, the stuttering Bill is determined to face his own fears to stop Pennywise’s quiet rampage. Continue Reading »

“DUNKIRK”  My rating: B

105 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Largely jettisoning character development and conventional exposition in favor of a you-are-there immersion, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is clearly a descendent of “The Longest Day,” producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s massive 1962 recreation of the D-Day invasion.

It moves swiftly and explains little, weaving together three story lines in a chronologically jumbled narrative that covers a week’s worth of history as the British nation rallies to rescue more than 300,000 troops trapped by Germans on the French coast in the early years of World War II.

Nolan’s unconventional storytelling is simultaneously confusing and compelling.  It’s disconcerting to jump back and forth between a daytime aerial dogfight and a nighttime sea illuminated by fires and explosions. Don’t expect an explanation of what’s going on.

But by eschewing a linear narrative Nolan is able to ramp up the tension, zigging and zagging between cliffhanger moments as various characters fight to survive.

The first of these tales is set among the soldiers crowded on the beach, sitting ducks for the German pilots who seem to control the sky.

A British naval commander (Kenneth Branagh) desperately coordinates an evacuation that relies on the Mole, the sole pier in water deep enough to accommodate a large ship.

Most of this sequence centers on a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) who is desperate to save himself. He poses as a stretcher bearer, hoping to get aboard a medical ship being loaded with the wounded. He’s fortunate enough to take refuge in an evacuation ship, but it is torpedoed and he must return to shore. He eventually joins another unit taking refuge in the hold of a beached trawler…they’re hoping for high tide to take them to sea while the boat becomes a target for Nazi marksmen.

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Zoe Kazan, Kumail Nanjiani

“THE BIG SICK”  My rating: B 

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Romantic comedy is so ubiquitous — so familiar and overworked and recycled — that nobody expects originality from the genre.

Then along comes “The Big Sick” to take us by surprise.

Directed by Michael Showalter, produced by Judd Apatow and penned by stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, the film starts out in familiar boy-meets-girl territory only to take us to unexpected places.

Nanjiani, a regular on cable’s “Silicon Valley,” is a Pakistani who came to the U.S. for college. Here he plays a slightly fictionalized version of himself, also named Kumail.

The film’s first hour will seem more than a little familiar to fans of “Master of None,” the much-awarded Netflix comedy from Aziz Ansari, the son of Indian immigrants.

While working as an Uber driver, Kumail struggles to make it on the comedy circuit, determined not to rely too much on his ethnicity for laugh fodder. His deadpan persona is belied by the dry hilarity of his zingers.

His mother and father (Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher) expect him to be a good Muslim (when visiting them, Kumail dutifully retreats to the basement with his prayer rug but spends his time there digging through boxes of childhood belongings).

Moreover, our hero is subjected to a steady stream of available Pakistani woman (they exhibit everything from firm self-confidence to embarrassment and desperation) who just happen to be in the neighborhood when he’s having dinner with the folks.

Kumail hasn’t the heart to announce that he’s not interested in a traditional arranged marriage.

Romance intervenes with Emily (Zoe Kazan), who gently heckles Kumail during a show then sticks around for a little intense cross-cultural interaction.  In one of the film’s goofiest moments, she decides to end their night of passion by calling for a ride; since he’s the closest Uber driver, his cellphone goes off. Continue Reading »

Ross Lynch (center) as future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer

“MY FRIEND DAHMER”  My rating: B

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Right off the bat, the title “My Friend Dahmer” puts potential audiences on edge.

After all, Jeffrey Dahmer was one of our more notorious serial killers of the last 50 years. Between 1978 and 1991 he murdered 17 men and boys, often preserving their bones and feasting on their flesh. He was beaten to death in prison in 1994.

The obvious question: What’s the take of writer/director Marc Meyers’ film?  Is it a blood-soaked bit of gross-out exploitation? A black comedy?

In truth “My Friend Dahmer” is a smart, insightful and disturbing study of the killer’s high school years.  Based on the graphic novel by John Backderf, Dahmer’s classmate and one of the few who paid the dead-eyed loner any attention, it’s both creepy and sad.

From almost the first frame of this film we understand that Jeff, played by Disney discovery Ross Lynch (“Austin & Ally,” “Teen Beach Movie”), has issues. In a shack in the woods behind his family’s semi-rural Ohio home he keeps jars in which dead  animals are slowly dissolving in acid solution. He always keeps a black plastic garbage bag in his pocket, lest he stumble across an intriguing bit of road kill.

“I like bones,” he explains. “It interests me — what’s inside.”

Gawky and outwardly unemotional, Jeff is a target for school bullies. Not that things are much better at home.

Mom (Anne Heche) is a former mental patient who lives life in just two speeds: fetal and combative. Her depression and raw emotions prove unbearable to her decent but  ineffectual husband (Dallas Roberts). At least Jeff’s father, himself the victim of a solitary  childhood, recognizes his oldest son’s plight and urges the kid to try to fit in.

Jeff’s plan to win his classmates’ attention is typically bizarre and tone-deaf.  He begins staging fake epileptic fits in the school hallways. His arm-flapping, screeching antics draw the attention of John Backderf (Alex Wolff) and a small coterie of social outsiders who adopt Jeff as their mascot.

“I think with you as our fearless leader we can really disrupt this school,” John tells Jeff.

“Let’s do a Dahmer,”  becomes their rebellious battle cry before each new example of perverse performance art. Continue Reading »

Steven Yeun

“MAYHEM”  My rating: C+ (Opens Nov. 10 at the Screenland Tapcade)

86 minutes | No MPAA rating

Joe Lynch’s “Mayhem” more than lives up to its name.

This giddy celebration of pointless violence finds Steven Yeun, late of cable’s “The Walking Dead,” playing attorney Derek Cho,  an employee of a take-no-prisoners law firm that represents the worst in contemporary American culture and capitalism.

Framed by a fellow attorney for a major screwup on a big case, a defeated Derek is cleaning out his office when police surround the firm’s high-rise  and inform those inside that a particularly malevolent virus has been detected on the premises.

Known as ID-7, this nasty bug causes the infected to lose all the inhibitions that normally keep us from sexually assaulting and or mercilessly beating our fellow men.

An anti-virus has been released into the building’s air conditioning, but it will take eight hours to kick in. Until then the place is under strict quarantine.

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