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Ben Platt

“DEAR EVAN HANSEN”  My rating: B-

137 minutes | MPAA rating PG-13

“Dear Evan Hansen” is a heartfelt humanist statement about teen suicide.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is an exercise in cynicism.

Which statement is true?  Having just watched the new film based on the Tony-winning Broadway musical, I’d have to say that both are.

Which is a problem.

Ben Platt reprises his stage performance as the title character, a troubled teen whose life is turned upside down by a classmate’s suicide. 

Platt brings to the performance a spectacularly good singing voice (what range! what a way with lyrics!).  He also is called upon to play a character a good decade younger than himself, and while it may have worked in the vastness of a Broadway theater, the cinematic closeup is his enemy.

The film begins with young Evan being pushed by his overworked single mom (Julianne Moore) to stay on his meds (he’s chronically depressed) and make some friends.  The kid is a high school senior but is painfully shy and withdrawn, utterly uncertain about himself.  

He has a kind-of cohort in the tech dweeb Jared (Nik Dodani), who seems to keep Evan around because he’s the one person he can feel superior to.  And Evan has a kinda crush on Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), a couple of years behind him.

A hallway encounter with Zoe’s moody older brother Connor (Colton Ryan) sets the plot in motion. As part of his mental health therapy, Evan is supposed to write encouraging letters to  himself (“Dear Evan Hansen…”) and in an episode of near-bullying, Connor makes off with a printout of one of these self-addressed missives.

Next day it is announced that Connor has killed himself.  His mom (Amy Adams) and stepfather (Danny Pino) have found the Dear Evan note among Connor’s effects and wrongly conclude that Connor had written it to Evan, that in fact the two were best friends.

Rather than tell the hurtful truth that Connor was virtually a total stranger, Evan goes along with the deception, using Jared to create a backlog of phony emails between Evan and Connor chronicling their relationship.

Mom and Dad are relieved that their dead kid had a hidden life in which he wasn’t perennially miserable. Sister Zoe isn’t so sure;  she thinks her older brother was an SOB to the end.

Not only does Evan find himself being adopted by Connor’s family, he becomes the focus of a kickstarter campaign to honor the late student by establishing a park in an orchard that plays a key role in the fictional relationship Evan is promulgating.  Classmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) is the driving force; she attempts to assuage her own unhappiness by organizing for various charities and causes.

Kaitlyn Dever, Ben Platt

At some point, of course, this house of cards will collapse.  Evan will emerge older and a bit wiser, but this is definitely NOT a feel-good experience.

Screenwriter Steven Levenson (adapting his book for the stage musical) and director Stephen Chbosky (a specialist in tormented youth, i.e. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Wonder”) have done an effective job of opening up the stage show, delivering rapid-fire montages of teen life and angst (like “Bye Bye Birdie” for pessimists) and employing judiciously selected cutaway shots to flesh out what otherwise would be one guy standing alone and singing.

The handful of musical numbers provided by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek effectively peel away the layers of the characters’ anxieties. But none had a tune that stuck with me, with most falling into a sort of Sondheim-esque esoterica. There is only one dance number, a fantasy celebration of friendship between Evan and the now-dead Connor that is almost jarring in its upbeat chirpiness.

That said, Moore, Adams, Pino, Dever, Stenberg and Ryan all do their own singing and they’re perfectly adequate.  Top vocal honors, though, go to Platt, who really ought to do an album of classic Broadway show tunes. 

In the end “Dear Evan Hansen” finds itself stranded between sympathizing with teen angst and satirizing it.  In particular there are the sardonic observations of Evan’s pal Jared, who looks at his fellow teens with a jaundiced eye that colors the whole experience.  

Perhaps the film will have the same sort of social impact as the stage show, which concluded with info about teen suicide prevention projected on the stage. If so, great.

But as someone well past his teens, I found “Dear Evan Hansen” a deeply ambivalent experience.

| Robert W. Butler

St. Vincent, Carrie Brownstein

“THE NOWHERE INN”  My rating: C+ (VOD)

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

Movies don’t get much more meta than “The Nowhere Inn,” a life-imitates-art-imitates-life head scratcher from the dynamic duo of St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein.

Basically this is a fictional film about the making of a documentary. Separating fact from fiction gets pretty sticky.

St. Vincent (real name: Annie Clark) is, of course, the pop star/avant garde performance artist who has collaborated with David Byrne and others. Here St. Vincent portrays herself as an artist on tour; her real-life friend Brownstein (also playing herself) signs on to make a documentary movie about the musician.

This setup — two friends making a documentary that will severely test their friendship — offers plenty of opportunities to comment on the madness of stardom, the artistic ego, and the pitfalls of mixing business with personal intimacy.

Initially St. Vincent is thrilled to have her old pal constantly at her elbow; Brownstein hopes the film they are making will provide validation with her ailing father (given her multi-hyphenate job description — actor/writer/director/musician/ comic — validation would seem the last thing she needs).

Dakota Johnson, St. Vincent

But things go wrong.  Turns out that St. Vincent is terminally boring — unceasingly pleasant, inoffensive, sweet-tempered.  So much so that Brownstein pushes her to act out a bit for the sake of the doc.

Careful what you wish for. St. Vincent goes off the deep end. At one point she invites Brownstein and her camera into the bedroom to record a carnal encounter with the singer’s new girlfriend (Dakota Johnson).  

“The Nowhere Inn” is a cool idea that, alas, quickly runs out of steam. Its tongue-in-cheek deadpan sardonicism is good for a couple of chuckles, then settles into a dulling sameness.

Thankfully director Bill Benz recorded several performances on one of St. Vincent’s recent tours, and the dynamism of those moments goes a long way toward redeeming the rest of the film.

| Robert W. Butler

Andrien Titieni

“THE FATHER WHO MOVES MOUNTAINS” My rating: B (Netflix)

108 minutes | No MPAA rating

In the clumsily titled “The Father Who Moves Mountains” a middle-aged man launches a desperate search after learning his twentysomething son has disappeared with his girlfriend on a high-altitude hike. 

Had the film been made by Hollywood it undoubtedly would follow a fairly predictable arc, culminating with a last-minute rescue and a more-or-less happy ending. There might even be a crime at the heart of the disappearance.

But Daniel Sandu’s Romanian entry is something else entirely… part rescue procedural (like a police procedural except rather than solving crime the professionals are attempting a rescue in rugged terrain), part personality study of a once-powerful man learning that throwing around his weight is bringing diminishing returns.

Mircea (Andrian Titieni) is a retired mover and shaker in the Romanian government. He’s doing Christmas shopping with his pregnant trophy wife when he hears a TV news report of missing hikers in the Carpathians.  Learning that his own estranged son is one of the missing, he races to the mountain resort now packed with holiday revelers and immediately begins throwing his weight around.

He is joined by his ex-wife Paula (Elena Purea), still bitter about Mircea’s infidelities but grateful that he still has enough pull in high places to kick things into high gear.

The parents of their son’s girlfriend also show up — though Mircea and Paula make it clear they blame her for everyone’s predicament. If they rescue the girlfriend it will simply be a byproduct of their parental obsession with saving their own blood.

sMircea immediately begins butting heads with the alpine rescue crews who have been searching thick forests and avalanche-prone slopes.  He insists on going out on one of the canvasses, even though he’s so out of shape he slows the progress.

He doesn’t stop there. Before long he’s joined by a unit from the Romanian intelligence service who specialize in sub-zero scenarios.  Much to the chagrin of the year-around mountaineers these black-clad pros set up a tent crammed with high-tech equipment and further complicate an already complex situation. 

The screenplay by Sandou and Christian Routh takes a dispassionate view of these proceedings.  Clearly, the filmmakers are ambivalent about their main character, a ruthless and once-powerful man learning the hard way that there now are some things over which he has absolutely no control.

The result is not a likable film — it starts out with minimal hope and then keeps getting grimmer — but it is a weirdly compelling one.

I’m particularly curious about how Romanians themselves might view this yarn.  That country has been a democracy for 30 years, but for a half-century before that it was a Communist dictatorship with all the baggage that entails.  Mircea is just about the right age to have started his career in the latter stages of the Bad Old Days…how might working for the Communist secret police have molded his bull-in-the-China-shop mentality?

Titieni absolutely nails Mircea’s fierce drive, but he also chips away at the character’s guilty  conscience.

Given the harshness of the subject matter, the film is unexpectedly lyrically visual. Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s cinematography captures all the harsh beauty  of the mountains in winter while carefully mapping the changing emotions on human faces.

| Robert W. Butler

Tom Skerritt

“EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS” My rating: B (Video on Demand)

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

Tom Skerritt has for decades been one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors, yet with the exception of his stint on TV’s “Picket Fences” (1992-’96) he’s largely been denied leading roles.

Now 88, the silver-haired Skerritt shows what we’ve been missing with “East of the Mountains,” a not-quite drama that cannily employs the actor’s low-keyed approach to tell a story that in other hands might overstate its case.

Adapted by Thane Swigart from the best-selling novel by David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars), S.J. Chiro’s film finds retired Seattle heart surgeon Ben Givens (Skerritt) preparing for a trip. He informs his daughter Renee (Mira Sorvino) that with his dog Rex he’s going to drive east, across the mountains, to the tiny Washington burg where he grew up.

Renee isn’t too hot about the idea. Ben seems mentally and physically solid enough, but he is an octogenarian, after all. Doesn’t he want some human company? And why doesn’t he sell his house (his wife died a year earlier) and move in with Renee, her husband and children?

Ben curtly — almost cruelly — nixes that talk. Back home he gets out and assembles his old shotgun in preparation for some hunting. Except that he seems also to be measuring the gun’s barrel length against his own reach…what’s that about?

The film finds Ben going through a series of small adventures. When his car breaks down on a lonely stretch of highway he abandons the vehicle without a second thought. He hitches a ride into the mountains, goes hiking with only a canteen and the clothes on his back, shoots some grouse, and goes to sleep snuggled up with Rex (a soulful-eyed Brittany Spaniel).

An encounter with a boorish coyote hunter (John Paulsen) leaves Rex seriously injured. The old man carries his pet several miles through rough terrain to a kindly veterinarian named Anita (Annie Gonzalez) who saves the dog and provides Ben with a meal and shelter.

There’s also an encounter with Ben’s long-estranged brother, Aidan (Wally Dalton), where old animosities are aired.

Periodically Ben’s mind slips back to his youthful courting of his wife and his boyhood, set in an idyllic physical setting but marred by an overbearing father. These are presented without dialogue in a sort of dream fugue.

And, yes, we finally learn that Ben has received a devastating medical diagnosis and that, being a physician, he knows exactly the ugly fate awaiting him.

With the exception of Paulsen’s redneck thug (he doesn’t wear a Trump hat, but that’s only because the novel was published in pre-smart phone 1999), the characters are presented with a disarming matter-of-factness. There are few big speeches; mostly Chiro and Swigart give us bits of casual conversation that slowly build to a suggestion of who Ben is and what he’s about.

And yet the film also acknowledges our inability to fully know or understand another person…especially one as emotional bottled up as Ben.

Some will find this a drawback. Personally, I could use more films that aren’t compelled to spell everything out.

And when you’ve got a leading man like Skerritt, what isn’t said can be more important than pages of dialogue.

| Robert W. Butler

Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales

“LANGUAGE LESSONS” My rating: B+ (In theaters)

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

Adversity is good for filmmakers. The old Hollywood Production Code may have been a censorious pain in the ass, but in working around it creative moviemakers expanded the limits of cinema.

The COVID pandemic seems to have done the same thing in the case of “Language Lessons,” a ridiculously simple premise that, by stripping filmmaking down to its essentials, finds depths of humanity and emotion that usually get lost in the technical shuffle.

Written by and starring Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass, and directed by Morales, this two-hander is simplicity itself, unfolding in a series of Zoom and/or Skype/Facetime calls.

The entire picture unfolds through the cameras built into cell phones, iPads and computers. There’s little in the way of editing; mostly we log on and stick with a conversation for several uninterrupted minutes.

Here’s the setup: Adam (Duplass) has been given a year’s worth of weekly online Spanish lessons by his spouse Will (DeSean Terry, heard briefly but never seen). The teacher is Carino (Morales), who lives in Costa Rica and speaks perfect English, though she insists on Adam conversing almost exclusively in Spanish. How else is this lazy guy gonna learn?

Right off the bat we sense a lot about these two. Adam and Will live in Oakland in a nice house with a big swimming pool and a ton of trendy art. Will runs a dance company (apparently it pays really well); Adam appears to be something of a kept man.

Carino, on the other hand, lives modestly. Unlike the chatty Adam, she’s reluctant to share too much. Wouldn’t be professional.

Thing is, professionalism only goes so far. Early in the film tragedy befalls Adam and Carino finds herself giving a lot more than just language lessons. She is forced into the position of counselor and therapist. And more even than that.

Given the physical limitations of the production one might expect “Language Lessons” to quickly wear out its welcome. If anything, we’re sucked ever deeper into these two personalities and their respective issues.

Also, thanks to modern technology, we can remain on line while cruising the city streets or exploring a jungle stream, so this is not the static experience you might expect.

Moreover, Morales and Duplass turn in spectacularly good performances…seemingly without breaking a sweat.

On an emotional level “Language Lessons” is a workout, a study of the growing friendship of two dissimilar individuals and the ability of the human connection to span thousands of miles. Smart viewers will have a box of tissues close at hand.

| Robert W. Butler

John David Washington

BECKETT” My rating: B (Netflix)

110 minutes | No MPAA rating

There’s a Hitchcockian simplicity to Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s Beckett,” a man-on-the-run thriller that benefits as much from what it doesn’t do as what it does.

John David Washington plays the title character, an American vacationing in Greece with his girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander).

On a winding rural road at night Becket falls asleep behind the wheel. He awakens to find April unconcious, their vehicle having careened down a steep hill and smack into a farmhouse.

Before passing out Beckett witnesses a woman and a red-haired boy, apparently the residents.

After a couple of days in the hospital and traumatic phone calls back to the States, our man is interviewed by the local police chief (Panos Karonos) who informs him that the farmhouse into which he crashed had been unoccupied for years.

Certain that he saw someone in the house immediately after the accident, Beckett returns to the scene…only to find himself dodging bullets from the cop and a female cohort (Lena Kitsopoulou). Obviously the Yank has stumbled across some deep dark secret; now he’s being framed as a criminal.

So he goes on the run, desperate to get to Athens and sanctuary in the American embassy.

And that’s about all the plot that matters. Later on “Beckett” will dabble in international politics and assassination, but mostly this is a hang-on-by-your-fingernails tale of close escapes and mounting paranoia in a drop-dead beautiful setting.

“Beckett” works because Washington’s character is not some sort of superhero or MacGuyer-esque genius. He’s a grief-wracked everyguy who survives as much through pure luck as smart thinking.

Only once, in the final chase, does Becket do something patently unrealistic, and by that time we’re in a forgiving mood.

| Robert W. Butler

Alvin Ailey’s signature piece, “Revelations”

“AILEY” My rating: B (Available through mulitple streaming services)
82 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Ailey” opens with the 1988 Kennedy Center awards ceremony at which  choreographer Alvin Ailey was  honored for his contribution to American arts.  Actress Cicely Tyson praises Ailey — who would die only a year later — for developing what she calls “choreography of the heart.”  

That’s a terrific description of Ailey’s work.  And in fact the high points of Jamila Wignot’s documentary are the many performance snippets of Ailey’s brilliant creations, especially the life-changing “Revelations,” a distillation of his African American childhood and cultural influences capable of reducing the viewer to tears with a simple but absolutely perfect gesture.

Those moments of physical revelation are key to this doc because, truth be told, Alvin Ailey is knowable almost exclusively through his dance. The man himself kept his cards close to the vest.

The film employs creative editing of old footage to evoke Ailey’s childhood — born to a single mother in Depression-era Texas — and his subsequent adolescence in Los Angeles where he was exposed to the ballet and became a huge fan.  Later he became a dancer, working in New York before founding his American Dance Theatre and becoming a major force in the ballet world.

The Ailey legacy looms large.  As a child he could not conceived of a black professional dancer, and his creation of magnificent black-themed ballets was revolutionary.  At the same time, he insisted that his company be integrated.  Talent, in Ailey’s eyes, was color blind.

But the man himself?  Well, even people who worked with him for years — among them famed dancer Judith Jamison and fellow choreographer Bill T. Jones — had trouble getting a handle on his personality. 

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Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin


“CODA” My rating: B (Apple+)

111 minutes | MPAA: PG-13

The cynic in me approached “CODA” with some trepidation. The trailer makes it look like an inspirational tale with a capital “I.”

Well, it is, but the marvel of Sian Heder’s first feature lies in the way it roots its story in a gritty reality…albeit a reality relatively few of us have been exposed to.

Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a high school senior living in a New England fishing village. On the surface, anyway, it’s picturesque as all get-out. Look closer and you see a town and a way of life in economic decline.

Ruby has grown up working her family’s fishing boat. We soon learn that she is essential to the clan’s financial stability. Ruby, you see, is a CODA (child of deaf adults).

Her mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and big brother Leo (Daniel Durant) rely on Ruby’s signing skills to run interference with the hearing world, whether it’s answering the marine radio or negotiating a sale price for their daily haul.

Heder’s screenplay (an adaptation of a 2014 French/Belgian production) centers on a conflict with existential implications. Ruby loves to sing. It’s about the only thing she’s good at.

And of course it is an avocation that cannot be shared by her hearing impaired family. In fact, they tend to be dismissive of Ruby’s artistic desires. Her mom pointedly asks if they were blind, would Ruby become a painter?

Things get dicier when the high school music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) sees potential in Ruby’s voice. He gives her a prominent role in an upcoming show; moreover, he begins pulling strings to have her considered for a scholarship by his old alma mater, the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

This opens up several wormy cans.

Can Ruby in good conscience abandon her family to pursue a personal dream? There’s Frank and Leo’s effort to create a fishermen’s co-op in a last-ditch effort to save the local fishing industry. There’s Mama Jackie’s stubborn view that deaf culture is vastly superior to the hearing world and that by pursing singing Ruby is betraying her roots.

And, yeah, there’s a guy…Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays Ruby’s classroom singing partner and slowly percolating love interest.

The possibilities for saccharine uplift are legion — yet Heder and her cast sidestep all the pitfalls by giving us characters that are fully formed and absolutely believable. Ruby’s family is a brawling, beer-chugging, pot-sniffing bunch, incredibly funny even as they are infuriatingly exasperating.

And the casting of deaf performers in key roles is a huge plus. It now seems like a no brainer, but for most of Hollywood history hearing actors would have been used.

Jones, a Brit, effortlessly slides into Ruby’s sometimes chaffed skin; she’s a natural who never seems to be trying too hard. And she’s got a terrific singing voice (or seems to…nothing is ever quite what it seems in the movies).

| Robert W. Butler

Lily Hevesh

“LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD” My rating: B (On Discovery +)

90 minutes | No MPAA rating

While still a teen, Lily Hevesh became the best domino artist on Earth.

She excels at creating huge, complex designs with colored dominoes, which are then toppled in a chain reaction of gravity and kinetic force. The effects are mesmerizing…often it takes several minutes for one of her creations to deconstruct.

It’s like watching some sort of living creature collapsing and decaying…except that even in ruins Lily’s creations make an artistic statement.

Jeremy Workman’s documentary “Lily Topples the World” is a celebration of an unusual art form and a study of a young woman who appears to be almost painfully normal except for her ability to envision and execute these mind-boggling constructions.

A decade ago, when she was only 10, Lily started toying around with domino designs.  She recorded their spectacular collapses and posted the videos on her own YouTube channel.  She got a huge following…but pointedly never appeared in the footage.  

This had the effect of making her a sort of mystery figure…particularly since there was no hint that the creator of these works was a) a teenage girl and b) Asian.

Lily was born in China, abandoned by her natural parents, and adopted by an American couple who already had two children. Her father now accompanies her as she travels around the world for domino toppling tournaments and workshops and to create domino designs for movies, television and advertising.

Workman’s film is basically about Lily’s burgeoning career (we see her rubbing elbows with the likes of Jimmy Fallon). 

It is less about her as a person…indeed, at heart she seems your run-of-the-mill nerd girl who lives for her obsession.  There’s no mention of dating, although Lily tells us that her one year of college was noteworthy as the most heavily socialized nine months of her life.

Perhaps this lack of revealing detail is why “Lily Topples the World” feels padded at 90 minutes.

The good news is that at least a third of the doc is footage of her marvelous mandelas of tiny tumbling monoliths, and these segments are hypnotic.

| Robert W. Butler

Adam Driver, Marian Cotillard

“ANNETTE”  My rating: C(Amazon Prime)

141 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Film festival veterans know how under those pressure-cooker circumstances public and critical praise can be showered on a movie which, once it hits the theaters, goes down in flames.  

Here’s the deal…when you’re watching four to six feature films a day, the critical faculties get blunted.  Before long you’re turning to your companions and asking: ”Is this any good?  I can’t tell any more.”

Such appears to be the case with Leos Carax’s “Annette,” which was the darling of this year’s Cannes Film Festival and last week debuted on Amazon Prime to near-universal head scratching.

I won’t call the movie a failure, exactly.  On many levels it is arresting. It’s got a fearless performance from Adam Driver. Great visuals.

Basically I admire “Annette” without actually liking it.

But it says something when the online chatter is filled with viewers describing the point in “Annette” when they could take no more and looked for other entertainments. It’s like some sort of cinematic ice bucket challenge in reverse.

The object of all this flapdoodle is a show-biz romance (you could call it a perversion of “A Star Is Born”) told largely through carefully choreographed set pieces and musical numbers.

The film was written by the musical brothers Ron and Russell Mael, whose long-running rock band Sparks has a worldwide cult following. 

 In fact. the film’s long opening tracking shot begins in an LA recording studio where Carax sits in the control booth while the Mael Brothers perform surrounded by the film’s cast. Then everybody gets up, still singing, and marches down the street.  By the end of the song the actors have donned their costumes and the film proper is ready to begin.

The first 40 minutes follow the romance of Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), a standup comic, and operatic soprano Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard).  

He’s a brooding dude who buzzes around town atop a motorcycle in dark clothes and a feature-hiding helmet…like one of Death’s messengers from Cocteau’s “Orpheus.”  His live act is equally intimidating…he bounces on stage in a fighter’s hooded robe, and spends most of his time sighing and insulting the audience.  It’s less traditional standup than performance art…imagine Andy Kauffman as a mean-spirited misanthrope. (It’s at this point that most folks will bail.)

Ann, on the other hand, is a classic diva, beloved of fans and treated as musical royalty.  

It’s sort of a beauty and the beast relationship.

Anyway, Henry and Ann woo and wed (their affair is chronicled in “Entertainment Tonight”-type news segments) and eventually become parents.

Simon Helberg with Baby Annette

Their baby is called Annette and she’s played — at least until the very last scene — by a series of eerily realistic puppets.

Enter an an old show business cliche: Ann’s career continues to soar while Henry’s flounders.  He was always a grumpy s.o.b., but this has turned him boozy-violent.  During a family boating trip tragedy strikes…or is it murder?

Anyway, Henry finds himself a single parent. And when he discovers that Baby Annette (still a puppet, right?) has the singing voice of an angel, he launches a worldwide tour to capitalize on the mania.

Basically it’s child abuse.

There’s a third character here, Ann’s conductor and one-time paramour (Simon Helberg) who stuck around after she took up with Henry and now serves as a buffer between the little girl and her domineering and manipulative father. It’s not a good place to be.

“Annette” has no shortage of themes and ideas, and is peppered with visual showstoppers (the musical score left me underwhelmed)…but it never engaged the emotions, never made me care.  

The movie belongs to Driver, whose Henry is some sort of ego-driven monster.  He’s undeniably good, but it’s a thankless enterprise. The better he is at his job, the more we despise his character.

| Robert W. Butler

Hugh Jackman

“REMINISENCE” My rating: D (HBO Max)

116 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Reminisence” has one hell of a pedigree.

It is the feature writing/directing debut of Lisa Joy, the co-creator of HBO’s “Westworld.” A while back her “Reminiscence” screenplay was included on the Black List, an annual survey of the Hollywood’s most promising unproduced scripts.

The cast includes heavy hitters like Hugh Jackman and Thandiwe Newton, with assists from the likes of Rebecca Ferguson and Cliff Curtis.

And yet the film is borderline unwatchable, a clumsily assembled pastiche of sci-fi and film noir cliches that fails to generate excitement or emotional involvement. After devoting two hours to watching this project I can see what Joy was going for, but she didn’t come close to getting me there.

Jackman stars as cynical, world-weary Nick Bannister, who in the not-too-distant future lives and works in Miami…or what the filmmakers imagine Miami will be like after a few decades of global warming and rising ocean levels.

Now the city resembles Venice with high rises. Streets are flooded. Dams keep out some, but hardly all, of the encroaching waves. The rich reside in “dry” areas, while everyone else must resign themselves to perpetual sogginess.

Nick and former Army buddy Watts (Newton) run a service that employs futuristic tech to recover the dreams and memories of their clients. Folks in this watery future are so bummed out that many prefer to live in the past; while in Nick’s immersion tank they can be guided back to the happiest moments of their lives and, for a few minutes and a few dollars, dwell there.

Their memories are projected via hologram, allowing Nick and Watts to eavesdrop on what is usually a very private experience.

Enter super hot Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a nightclub chanteuse (of course) who wants to use Nick’s machine to discover where she misplaced her house keys. Uh huh.

Anyway, he falls. Hard.

Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson

We know because he tells us. And tells us. And tells us.

“Reminiscence” relies heavily on Nick’s angsty, tough-guy voiceover narration. It’s so clumsily overwritten that after a while I started to wince every time Jackman’s disembodied voice flooded the soundtrack. Perhaps it’s meant to be a playful parody of pulp fiction first-person navel gazing; whatever…doesn’t work.

Anyway, one day Mae vanishes. To Watts’ dismay, Nick starts spending countless hours in his own machine, mining his reminiscences of their affair. Eventually he decides to get off his ass in an attempt to track Mae down.

Along the way he runs afoul of a New Orleans gangster (Daniel Wu) from Mae’s past, a crooked cop (Curtis) and a family of wealthy creeps who are rapidly taking over what’s left of society.

And he discovers that his beloved may have been playing him all along.

Joy’s plot is so full of twists that I cannot begin to explain what actually happens in the film’s second half. It may have something to do with the fact that I felt nothing for any of the characters, was totally uninvested in their fates.

“Reminiscence” does a fair amount of cinematic name dropping. Mae is the mysterious femme fatale of countless potboilers; Nick is an updated Bogie. The script Nick employs to guide his clients through their memories sounds uncannily like Rod Serling’s spoken introduction to the old “Twilight Zone” episodes.

The film’s version of Miami is right out of “Waterworld” and countless other movies about a dystopian future. The whole memory machine gimmick seems to have been inspired by “Total Recall” and there’s a slugfest with hammers that Joy has stated is her homage to the hallway brawl in “Old Boy.”

None of it worked, at least not for me. In the end I felt as numbed and bummed as Jackman’s character, but for all the wrong reasons.

| Robert W. Butler

David Morrissey

“BRITANNIA” My rating: B  (Amazon Prime)

“Britannia” is like a Limey version of “Drunk History,” only instead of whiskey shots the storytellers are doing acid tabs.

Were you to turn off the sound and just go with the visuals, this series from creators Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and James Richardson would look like a pretty straightforward drama about the Roman conquest of Britain a generation after Julius Caesar.

You’ve got an occupying army of legionaries, painted and plaited Celts who resent the invasion,  mud-daubed Druid mystics overflowing with visions.

Episode to episode you can watch a Roman city being built, from a ditched military encampment to a walled fortress.

There’s plenty of violence, and some of the most realistic viscera seen outside a surgical training film.

Tons of drop-dead gorgeous scenery.

It’s when you turn on the sound that you realize what a wonderfully bizarre reality “Britannia” has created.

People here — whether natives or Romans — speak in contemporary colloquial English (“Bummer,” observes a Roman soldier).  They say “fuck” so often you look for the names of Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet in the credits.

Moreover, the entire enterprise is a sardonic black comedy, peppered with slapstick moments.

And the music choices are marvelously incongruous yet somehow absolutely spot on: Donovan, Fairport Convention, Cream, Richard Thompson.

Comparisons to “Game of Thrones” are unavoidable.  Like that HBO monster, “Britannia” features a couple dozen major characters, all of whom have their own stories that periodically intersect and/or collide.

Mackenzie Crook

To the extent that the series has a central character, it is David Morresssey’s Roman commander, Aulus, who’s only been in Britain a few hours before he’s fallen under the place’s spell and started to go native.

Not that he lets anyone know of his ever-growing obsession with Druid culture.  To the world he’s just a cynical soldier/administrator doing the Emperor’s bidding.  But as the series progresses it’s obvious that Aulus has his own bonkers agenda.

Whatever.  He’s a master manipulator who excels at playing the warring British clans off one another. You know…divide and conquer.

One faction is led by the aged King Pellinor (Ian McDiarmid…that’s right, “Star Wars’” EMPEROR PALPATINE!!!!), who has an ineffectual son (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and one kick-ass warrior-woman daughter (“Yellowstone’s” Kelly Reilly, who looks awesome with face paint and bow and arrow).

The other tribe is presided over by the white-maned matriarch Antedia (Zoe Wanamaker), who never lets go of a grudge and tells the Roman leader to “lick my crack.” Very ladylike.

Kelly Reilly

Mackenzie Crook (you may know him from the series “The Detectorists” or his recurring role in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series) is flat out brilliant as Veran, the skeletal chief Druid and the power behind all of Britain’s thrones. He presides over drum-fueled orgies that looks like Golden Gate Park on a Sunday afternoon in the late ’60s. 

Even under normal circumstances Crook is an odd-looking dude, but the show’s makeup artists have done a mind-boggling job to transform him into a tattooed, black-eyed wraith.

And if that wasn’t enough, in the show’s second season Crook also plays Veran’s brother, resurrected after a millennia in limbo and bent on overthrowing his sibling’s rule.

So one of the problems here is that virtually every character is a deceitful, scheming, two-faced, murderous snake.  Hard to know who to root for.

Thankfully there’s teenage Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), whose coming out party was ruined by the Roman landing.  Cait is about the only psychologically healthy person in sight.  Except that she’s been more or less adopted by Divis, a  Druid dropout who believes she will be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. 

Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Nikolaj Lie Kaas

Divis is played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who looks and acts like a hirsute Jason Bateman, right down to the sardonic asides. He’s like an inept Yoda who’s always cursing in exasperation. 

If “Britannia” has a major flaw it’s that the show has no sense of urgency.  The emphasis is not so much on storytelling as on creating comic character moments — like those delivered by a couple of Roman soldiers who go AWOL and spend their days stoned on the local pharmacopeia.

And just when you figure things can’t get weirder, Season Two opens with a flashback informing us that Aulus and his second-in-command (Hugo Speer) a decade earlier presided over Jesus’ crucifixion.

It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out over the next season (which reportedly begins later this month).

| Robert W. Butler

Donald Rugoff

“SEARCHING FOR MR. RUGOFF” My rating:B

94 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” kicks off with a montage of co-workers, friends and family members discussing the late Donald Rugoff.

“A piece of work.”

“Reviled, feared.”

“A thorny, difficult man.”

“Self-destructive.”

“Really good at what he did.”

“A giant nobody knows about.”

That last comment is most telling, for Ira Deutchman’s documentary makes a case for Rugoff (1927 – 1989) being one of the most important figures in the film business.

Ruggoff didn’t make movies.  He showed them.  Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s his New York-based Cinema 5 distributed the creme-de-la-creme of foreign films, independents, art efforts and documentaries.

Moreover the iconic theaters he operated in Manhattan — the Beekman, Sutton, Paris, Plaza, Grammercy and Cinema I and Cinema II — became the physical embodiment of the whole film-as-art movement.

If back in the day you thrilled to the Maysles’ “Gimmer Shelter,” Nicholas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Bruce Brown’s “Endless Summer,” Robert Downey Sr.’s “Putney Swope,” Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage” or Werner Herzog’s “The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser,” you had Donald Rugoff to thank.

Director Deutchman — who in addition to his own wildly successful career as a distributor of art movies has for 30 years taught the Business of Motion Pictures class at Columbia — worked briefly for Rugoff in the ’70s. He explains for the camera that he was moved to make this documentary because a Google search revealed next to nothing about his infuriating, intimidating, insanely important mentor.

Dozens of Rugoff acquaintances — including filmmakers Costa-Gavras, Lena Wertmuller and Downey, critics like Annette Indsorff and a whole slew of past Cinema 5 grunts — lined up to talk about the man.

The picture that emerges is of an overweight schlub in mustard-stained shirts and ties who loved the movie biz above all human connections. He regularly reduced employees to tears — one recalls that he could be charming when hiring you, but that once on board you were his slave.

At the same time Rugoff was decades ahead of the curve in giving young women a foothold in a male-dominated industry (and apparently without even a hint of Weinstein-level predation). One source calls him “an equal-opportunity exploiter.”

Employees recall being stunned at coming to work to find Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard schmoozing in Rugoff’s office. If Don Rugoff picked up your film, he worked like a madman to make it a commercial and artistic  success. (Curiously, he was notorious for falling asleep during screenings; it may have had something to do with the brain tumor that eventually killed him, though there was also an urban myth that he had a steel plate in his head.)

His  Russian-immigrant father founded a nickelodeon business at the turn of the last century; Rugoff inherited the theaters (now showing films, naturally) when the old man died.

He was a visionary, if a mildly crazy one. His theaters looked like museum displays of modern-art furniture and decoration; he had an artist build life-size dioramas of each new movie and featured them prominently in his lobbies.

His idea of elegant theaters for upscale audiences was wildly successful, pulling the center of New York cinema from grungy Times Square to the Upper East Side. Under his ministrations the opening of a new art film became a cultural event; hip audiences lined up for blocks to see movies  that might barely play elsewhere in the States.

Rugoff was also a genius at old-school hucksterism.  To publicize “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” he dressed employees in costume company armor and had them gallump up and down the city streets to the clip-clopping of coconuts.

Because there’s relatively little archival material available on Rugoff (a few family photos, virtually no home movies or newsreels), “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” relies heavily on talking-head interviews.  These have been brilliantly edited to give the doc a specific rhythm.  


And one cannot underestimate the mental/emotional/cultural charge of the many clips from films Rugoff distributed…if like me you’re a veteran of that era, it’s a hugely pleasurable wallow in nostalgia.

Somewhat less effective — though modestly interesting — is Deutchman’s research into Rugoff’s final years on Cape Cod where, after having lost his company to a hostile takeover, he spent his last years converting a century-old church into a neighborhood film society. As is often the case with stories like this, he died a pauper.

After watching this doc you are left with the conviction that Don Rugoff, whatever his personal demons, changed film culture. He’s got my thanks.

| Robert W. Butler

“THE SWARM” My rating: C+(Netflix)

101 minutes | No MPAA rating

Can a horror movie be too classy for its own good?

That’s the question raised by Just Philippot’s “The Swarm,” a French entry that spends most of its time carefully picking apart a family in crisis before going all Irwin Allen in the last reel.

Virginie (Suliane Brahim) is struggling to stay afloat financially…and mentally, as it turns out.

Her family farm (she used to operate it as a goat breeding operation with her husband, but he hanged himself) is circling the drain. 

Her latest venture — raising locusts (us Midwesterners would immediately identify them as big grasshoppers) to use as feed for commercial poultry operations — is collapsing. The damn bugs make a lot of noise but won’t reproduce.

Virginie’s son Gaston (Raphael Romand) is a sweet kid whose life centers on soccer and the one goat remaining from the family’s earlier business.  His older sister Laura (Marie Narbonne), on the other hand, is a seething cauldron of adolescent resentments, fed up with her bullying provincial classmates and desperate to start life anew in a more copacetic environment. She blames Mom for her unhappiness.

Franck Victor’s screenplay devotes the lion’s share of it pages to exposing the tensions in the family.  Virginie is so consumed with making a go of the locust operation that she’s veering into  madness.

Suliame Brahim

She has a supportive friend and tentative  suitor in Karim (Sfian Khammes), who runs a nearby vineyard, but the poor guy is doomed to frustration.  Virginie has no time for romance.

Against these totally believable real-world issues Philippot and Victor poses a Frankenstein-ian dilemma,  Virginie accidentally discovers that her locusts thrive when given a diet heavy with fresh blood.  She tries offering her own body for snacking, but clearly her bug buddies are going to need more juice than she can provide.

Pretty soon the neighbor’s pets and farm animals are at risk (somebody’s been watching “Little Shop of Horrors”).

Given the movie’s title, it’s a foregone conclusion that  eventually all those voracious insects are going to escape their plastic greenhouses and get to chomping.

All this is played with absolute sincerity and not a hint of camp.  Which makes one wonder…is the film’s emphasis on family dynamics going to bore the horror crowd…and will the final conflagration seem simply silly to folks who take their drama seriously? (I mean, they’re only bugs, after all.)

A couple of things keep us invested in “The Swarm.” First there’s the performance of leading lady Brahim, a member of the acclaimed Comedy Francaise who does a fine job of locating the nuttiness beneath an everyday exterior. (She’s also the lead in Netflix’s “Twin Peaks”-ish series “Black Spot.”)

Then there’s the cinematography by Romain Carvanade, who I presume is behind the super close-up shots of the feeding locusts.  I’m not freaked out by creepy crawlies, but if you’ve got a bug phobia this could probably generate a nightmare or two.

| Robert W. Butler

Jena Malone, Pablo Schreiber

“LORELEI” My rating: B 

111 minutes | No MPAA rating

A shroud of been-there-done-that is draped around “Lorelei,” the feature writing/directing debut of Sabrina Doyle. At times the film seems to have been assembled from leftover parts of other movies.

But the show has been magnificently anchored by Pablo Schreiber and Jena Malone, performers who usually get supporting roles but here waste no time in seizing the material and making the most of it. In the end, they put “Lorelei” across the finish line.

The film opens with Wayland (Schreiber) leaving prison after a 15-year sentence for armed robbery. He’s met at the gates by members of his old motorcycle gang; by keeping quiet and taking the fall he spared his buddies jail time.

Now he returns to his small town in rural Oregon, moving into a church-run halfway house.  But it’s all too clear that he could easily slide back into his old criminal ways; moreover, the tough-love preacher who is housing him (Trish Egan) and his parole officer (Joseph Bertot) aren’t about to cut him much slack. They’ve seen too many ex cons return to stir.

And then Wayland  spots Dolores (Malone) attending the church’s support group for single moms.  He and Dolores were high school lovers, and after some tentative verbal sparing (the film’s sexual subtext could raise blisters) they pick up where they left off.

Well, sorta.  Dolores seems to have spent the last 15 years sleeping around. She has three kids by three different men; she gets by with a part-time gig changing sheets at a sleazy motel and collecting welfare.

So while she’s at work the reluctant Wayland is forced into the role of father figure.

Yeah, it’s a familiar narrative. Practically a cliche.

On one level “Lorelei” is a brutally honest examination of desperate love among the struggling class.  The pleasure Wayland and Delores take in each other is infectious; at the same time it is diluted by the constant battle  to survive and the daily indignities of poverty.

But Doyle’s screenplay should be called for excessive wokeness.  Dolores’ oldest child (Chancellor Perry) is mixed race; the middle kid (Amelia Borgerding) is a furiously angry tweener; the youngest (Parker Pascoe-Sheppard) is clearly trans.

Lets see…are there any hot-button social issues we’ve left out?

But here’s the thing: It works. I got caught up in the love story and the family dynamic…so much so that not even a wildly improbable third act development (it’ll explain where the title “Lorelei” comes from) could dilute my pleasure.

Whatever Doyle’s shortcomings as a scenarist, she shows terrific control as a director.

In the end “Lorelei” emerges as a flawed but deeply felt piece of humanistic cinema, heart-tugging without sticky sentimentality.

| Robert W. Butler

Dev Patel

“THE GREEN KNIGHT” My rating: B 

130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“The Green Knight” is  writer/director David Lowery’s big-screen adaptation of the 500-year-old epic poem (we don’t know the author) “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

As such you might expect a big dose of sword and sorcery and some major-league action/adventure violence.

Think again.  Lowery’s narrative approach has more in common with Robert Bresson’s austere “Lancelot du Lac” than with, say, the atavistic carnage of “Braveheart.”

Here he is attempting cinematically to approximate the experience of reading a long poem from a distant past. In doing so he embraces storytelling that eschews rational explanations and psychological realism. 

And yet “The Green Knight” is not a relic preserved in amber. The film is a visual tour de force thanks to the splendid cinematography of Andrew Droz Palermo (he shot Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” as well as the KC-area lensed documentary “Rich Hill”), the costumes by Malgosia Turnsganza and the production design of Jade Healy.

Periodically Lowery inserts distinctively modern perspectives into this ancient tale. An example: We first meet knight-in-training Gawain (Dev Patel in a true star-making performance) awakening in a whorehouse on Christmas morning.  Actually, he gets a bucket of water in the face, courtesy of his playful  plebian lover (Alicia Vikander).

As he wanders through the bustling bordello in search of his boots, Gawain is teased by other guests and harlots, who kid him about spending more time partying than on his knightly training. The dialogue and camerawork bring a sense of naturalism and everyday immediacy.

Dev Patel

The movie’s distinctively modern moments coexist with a sort of formal pageantry. The result is a film that is overwhelmingly an intellectual/visual experience rather than an emotional one.

“The Green Knight” is probably going to divide audiences into lovers (it’s an overwhelmingly poetic/mystical experience) and haters (too long, too slow, not enough action).

A Yuletide celebration in the court of Gawain’s uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris) and his queen (Kate Dickie) is interrupted by the arrival of the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a towering figure who appears to be half tree (I was reminded of Groot from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise).  This ominous visitor proposes a contest.  He will receive a blow from any of Arthur’s knights; in a year’s time that knight must seek out the Green Knight and stand to receive the same blow.

Young Gawain, apparently smitten with visions of glory, accepts the challenge and with Arthur’s sword strikes off the visitor’s head.  The Green Knight is nonplussed…he picks up his severed noggin and rides off with a laugh and a reminder that they will meet again next Christmas.

The bulk of the film unfolds on Gawain’s trek north to meet his fate. Along the way he is befriended by a fox (Is it a real animal? A CG effect? Whatever, it’s really convincing).  He is waylaid by a talky peasant (Barry Keoghan) who pilfers the remains of slain soldiers.

He spends a chaste night with a young woman named Winnifred (Erin Kellyman), and shares several days with a Lord (Joel Edgarton) and his cooly seductive wife (Vikander again).

At one point on his wanderings he encounters a migration of fog-enshrouded giants, huge naked hairless figures who might have stepped out of one of the recent “Alien” movies.

“The Green Knight” is jammed with symbolism that will probably be lost on anyone not schooled in medievalism.  Some of the episodes seem arbitrary and pointless.

Much as he did with “A Ghost Story,” Lowery explores alternate realities.  In one instance the camera spins to show Gawain hogtied on the ground, then as a rotting skeleton, and then alive again as he struggles to free himself.

And the last 10 minutes is a sort of “Last Temptation of Christ” fantasy in which Gawain’s mind explores the life he might have had (a life in which he is a mighty king).

At its core this is a tale about a young man who acts impulsively and then must live with the consequences; will Gawain have the inner resolve to submit to the Green Knight’s blade? Or will he bring shame on himself and Arthur’s court?

What’s remarkable about Patel’s performance is that he talks about none of this, but the emotions bubbling beneath the surface are perfectly clear. Sometimes words aren’t necessary.

| Robert W. Butler

Nicolas Cage

“PIG” My rating: C+ (VOD)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If Keanu Reeve’s John Wick will kill 100 thugs to avenge his pet puppy, how far will Nicolas Cage’s truffle-hunting hermit go to retrieve his kidnapped porcine pet and coworker?

That’s the setup of writer/director Michael Sarnoski’s “Pig,” a good idea that takes itself way too seriously.

The opening moments establish the relationship of the uber-hairy Robin (Cage) and his pig colleague in a cabin in the forests of the great Pacific Northwest.

Robin — who survives without telephone, electricity, running water or even a functional vehicle — hunts truffles, the gourmet fungi that grow among the tree roots and can sell for big bucks.

He locates these delectables with the help of his swine buddy (who’s a whiz at sniffing out their prey); then sells them to Amir (Alex Wolff), who transports them in his ridiculous yellow sports car to Portland and resells the delicacies to the city’s finest restaurants.

We’ve barely able to absorb the details of Robin and Pig’s lives when tragedy strikes. One night the cabin is invaded by unseen baddies; the pig is kidnapped and Robin beaten bloody.

Refusing to even wash the gore off his face (by film’s end he resembles Jim Caviezel in the latter stages of “Passion of the Christ”), Robin takes off for the big city, first on foot and then commandeering Amir and his posh wheels.

Amir throws a blanket over the passenger seat in a probably futile effort to keep Robin’s body odor from impregnating the leather upholstery.

One of Robin’s first stops is at an underground fight club — yeah, just like the movie “Fight Club” — where our man allows himself to once more be beaten senseless in return for hints as to where his pig pal might be.

Eventually the trail leads to Amir’s estranged father (Adam Arkin), a sort of restaurant godfather who rules his culinary world through intimidation and, if necessary, violence.

Along the way we discover that Robin was once a legendary chef but dropped out 15 years earlier for unspecified reasons. Possibly it’s because he hated the direction the restaurant biz was heading ($50 for what appears to be a single berry frozen in a cloud of dry ice fumes). Even more likely it’s because Robin is seriously damaged goods.

“Pig” is Sarnoski’s feature debut; it’s a good-looking film if an emotionally and intellectually impenetrable one.

Aside from his determination to get his pig back (it’s his only friend), Robin is a glowering cipher.

That said, Cage has such a commanding screen presence that I kept watching just to see what he’d do next. This one-time Oscar winner may in recent years have descended into hackdom, but he’s a hack with astounding charisma.

As Amir, Wolff has the thankless task of playing a weak-willed poseur in constant fear of Daddy damnation.

Arkin fares somewhat better; though his character is simply preposterous, the actor finds a vulnerable center.

There are opportunities for humor here which Sarnoski studious ignores. Instead he leans heavily on the pretention button, giving the film chapter titles like “Rustic Mushroom Tort” and “Mom’s French Toast and Deconstructed Scallops.”

When it’s over you may crave a Big Mac.

| Robert W. Butler

Peri Baumeister, Carl Anton Koch

“BLOOD RED SKY” My rating: B (Netflix)

121 minutes | No MPAA rating

SPOILER ALERT!!! This film contains a forehead-slapping reveal about halfway through; unfortunately, it’s just about impossible to describe the plot without revealing the big news. So…if you want a pristine viewing experience, STOP READING RIGHT NOW!

For the rest of you, here goes:

“Blood Red Sky” is like “Die Hard” on a trans-oceanic airplane flight. With terrorists. And vampires.

It’s an utterly ridiculous idea performed with such unflinching gravitas that somehow the whole lurid mess works.

The film opens with a commercial airliner touching down at a remote military base in Scotland. There’s a terrorist situation on board. A lone passenger, a little boy, escapes from a cargo door; the authorities try to question him but the kid seems too traumatized to talk.

Flash back to a few hours earlier. Single mom Nadja (Peri Baumeister) and her 10-year-old son Elias (Carl Anton Koch) are boarding a night flight from Europe to the USA.

Nadja apparently is a cancer victim…she hides her bald head beneath a wig and has the gaunt features of someone who’s been through serious chemo. Think Noomi Rapace as a crack addict

Nadja has an appointment in NYC with a medical specialist who may have answers for her condition.

But wouldn’t you know it? There’s a bunch of international terrorists on board. Their motives are fuzzy — they are posing as Islamic extremists but that may be a cover for a more mercenary goal — and they’ve incorporated into their conspiracy a co-pilot and flight attendant.

One of them, a sadist known as Eightball (Alexander Scheer), is so perverse in his treatment of the terrified passengers that even his criminal cohorts are appalled.

The highjackers herd the passengers to the rear of the plane, separating Nadja from her emergency medical kit. We assume the injections she’s been taking have something to do with her cancer, but denied her medication she begins changing. Her eyes transform into those of a cat; her bones seem to have grown sharp beneath her features. Her teeth…well, they’re getting ugly.

Tha’s right, ladies and gents, Nadja is a vampire. Flashbacks reveal how she was bitten by one of those nasty bloodsuckers while on a family vacation (her husband didn’t make it); now she relies on injections to keep her human form. Without them she’s getting very, very hungry for blood.

You’d think a twist like that would be enough for director Peter Thorwarth and co-writers Stefan Holtz. But no. Before long the terrorists have deliberately exposed themselves to the vampire’s bite and are transforming into flesh-gnashing fiends.

So now you’ve got bad vampires (the terrorists) and a good vampire (Nadja) squaring off in an epic confrontation. The crawlspaces and cargo areas in the belly of the aircraft become a claustrophobic battleground. Elias, because he’s a tiny person, takes a key role in exploring the labyrinthian maze.

And to make things even more complicated, Nadja is fighting desperately to ignore the call of blood and retain her human consciousness. Will she be able to save little Elias before reverting 100 percent to vampirism? And what happens when the sun comes up?

The premise of “Blood Red Sky” is too ludicrous to countenance…and yet I found myself hugely entertained by the whole preposterous enterprise.

| Robert W. Butler

Brooklynn Prince

“SETTLERS” My rating: B-

103 minutes | No MPAA rating

Mankind possesses the intelligence to travel to the stars. But we’ll never outrun the dark side of human nature.

That’s the unvarnished, uncomfortable message behind “Settlers,” the debut feature of writer/director Wyatt Rockefeller (and, yes, he’s a member of that Rockefeller clan).

With a title like this you expect a frontier drama with sodbusters, outlaws and a hostile environment. And in fact Rockefeller has given us what is essentially a Western,,,a Western set on Mars.

Nine-year-old Remmy (Brooklynn Prince, the knockout young star of “The Florida Project”) lives with her parents Reza (Johnny Lee Miller)and Ilsa (Sofia Boutella) on a Martian farmstead. It’s a hostile environment with limited resources (not even a breathable atmosphere…the secret behind their ability to survive will be revealed later); the family apparently raises just enough greenhouse veggies and food animals to stay alive.

No neighbors. No communication with the rest of the Mars, much less with faraway Earth.

Little Remmy is curious about her home planet, but Mom and Dad are parsimonious with details. She asks her father if he’s ever seen certain wild animals; he replies that he has not, and that before he left Earth about the only animals he saw were dogs.

Evidently humankind has so fouled up its birthplace that it is now all but uninhabitable. Moreover, Martian society — whatever it might once have been — has been reduced to outlawry and Darwinian self preservation.

So it’s a tough life for a curious little girl. Happily she discovers in a shed a boxy little robot she dubs Steve; Remmy trains him as if he were a pet.

Things get ugly when the three family members awaken one day to find that someone has scrawled “LEAVE” on their picture windows in what appears to be blood.

Ismael Cruz Cordova, Sofia Boutella

Enter Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who grew up on the farm and now wants to reclaim it after an absence of many years. Apparently Reza and Ilsa moved onto the property under somewhat less than legal circumstances.

Slow-bubbling sexual intimidation is a big part of “Settlers'” emotional palette. Despite an initial display of violence, Jerry seems a reasonably sane, even sympathetic sort. But as time passes primal urges do a number on him; initially they are directed at Ilsa and, after the passage of many years, at Remmy (played as a young adult by Nell Tiger Free).

“Settlers” feels less like a fully realized drama than as an outline for said drama. Rockefeller explains very little, leaving it up to the viewer to glean little nuggets of information with which to build a bigger picture of human life in the late 21st century.

Moreover he’s anti-melodramatic to a fault. No well-made tale here.

But when it comes to envisioning and creating a tangible world, “Setters” is terrifically seducive. Not a little of the film’s success lies with cinematographer Willie New and production designer Noam Piper, who create an utterly believable enclave of human effort in a hostile landscape (the production was shot mostly in a rocky desert area of South Africa).

| Robert W. Butler

Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, Jack Whitehall

“JUNGLE CRUISE” My rating: C+

127 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like the famed Disneyland ride that inspired it, “Jungle Cruise” is jammed with instantly forgettable silliness; moreover the whole thing is 100 percent synthetic.

Just like a theme park attraction, this sprawling effort from director Jaume Collet-Serra embraces a sort of movie-set phoniness, a phoniness that is only accentuated by a near-complete reliance on CG scenery and action. Is anything we see on screen real?

Happily the film has as its stars the imminently watchable Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson (with able assists from Paul Giamatti, Jack Whitehall and Jesse Plemons), so when your eyes start to glaze over from all the computer eye candy there are at least a couple of real human faces to focus on.

The screenplay (credited to Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, John Norville and Josh Goldstein) takes as its template — for good and bad — the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. But that’s just the start…some wiseass college film student will undoubtedly cough up a thesis picking out all the movie and pop cultural references sprinkled throughout.

There’s also a bit of meta at work here. In recent years the theme park Jungle Cruise has come under fire for its White Man’s Burden approach to the third world, and the movie slyly comments on all this.

When we first encounter Amazon riverboat captain Frank Wolff (Johnson) he’s leading gullible tourists (the setting is the early 20th century) on a cruise that features encounters with wild animals (actually Frank has trained them) and spear-waving cannibals (Frank’s scurrilous rivertown buddies in feathers and warpaint).

Frank is clearly based on Humphrey Bogart’s perf in “The African Queen” (check out the little cap) with a dash of Han Solo “me first-ism”…he’s a charming cad who loves a good pun and cheerfully insults his clientele. He’s also deep in arrears to local mogul Nilo (Paul Giamatti…think Jabba the Hutt).

Enter Lily Houghton (Blunt), a scientist who with her effete sibling MacGregor (Whitehall, looking very much like a fetal Brendan Fraser) has come to South America to find a legendary tree whose flowers possess miraculous healing powers. Lily is a sort of female Indiana Jones, dismissed by the larger scientific community because she is, well, a girl. She’s determined to prove herself.

Jesse Plemons

Also, she wears men’s trousers. Captain Frank decides to call her “Pants.”

Yes, there’s a lot of love/hate bickering reminiscent of the Bogie/Kate Hepburn relationship in “African Queen.” It’s never as clever as that earlier film, but at least it’s out there trying.

Things get complicated with the appearance of Prince Joachim (Plemons), a Prussian martinet who arrives on the scene in a U-Boat (that’s right…a submarine in the Amazon River) and proceeds to revive ghostly, decaying Spanish conquistadors who have been entombed for centuries by a native curse. Now they and their leader, Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), are sent out to intercept Frank and Lily.

Supernatural shenanigans ensue.

There are also killer waterfalls, hostile natives living in treetop villages (just like Ewoks) and computer-generated wildlife (snakes, bugs, even a pet jaguar Frank keeps below deck).

Through it all Frank and Lily exchange insults; brother MacGregor freaks out over the lack of amenities and confesses that he’ll never marry (uh, yeah, we got that early on).

There’s about enough charm and usable plot here for a lighthearted 90-minute romp. Alas, “Jungle Cruise” clocks in at more than two hours, which means that for a good quarter of its running time viewers will be checking their watches.

| Robert W. Butler

Mark Wahlberg

“JOE BELL” My rating: C+

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Joe Bell” is a classic example of “yes/but” filmmaking.

It’s been well acted and competently directed. Its subject matter is drawn from real life and is heavy on inspirational uplift.

At the same time, it’s never saccharine. At times it’s downright disturbing.

And yet there’s something phony about star Mark Wahlberg’s latest. As much as I wish I were enthusiastic about “Joe Bell,” I’m not.

When we first meet the titular character he’s crossing America on foot, pushing an aluminum handcart filled with his pedestrian necessities. Joe sleeps in a tent on the side of the road; every few nights he gets a cheap motel room so that he can recharge his electronics, shower and get a solid 8 hours in a real bed.

He often phones back home to Oregon to discuss his travels with his wife Lola (Connie Britton).

Early in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film Joe walks into a nondescript Idaho burg and within hours is addressing an auditorium of high school students about the evils of bullying. Joe isn’t a natural speaker…he looks uneasy and his language is rudimentary. Some of the kids in the audience are clearly bored. But the fervor behind his message comes through loud and clear.

Joe is accompanied on this trek by his teenage son Jadin (Reid Miller), an almost-pretty young man who, having grown up gay in a small town Oregon, knows all about bullying, though he never joins his dad on the podium to share his own experiences.

As they make their slow way down the two-lanes father and son carry on a running conversation about Joe’s decision to walk across America and his motives for doing so. Jadin suggests it’s because Joe is trying to make up for being a less-than-supportive father. Indeed, Joe seems to be perpetually struggling not to fall back into the judgmental, blue-collar machismo of his youth. When he feels cornered he’s capable of first-class redneck assholism.

“Joe Bell” was scripted by “Brokeback Mountain” scribes Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (it was the last screenplay by McMurtry, the great Texas writer who died earlier this year). And the things about “Joe Bell” that don’t work (for me, anyway) are tied directly to their narrative choices.

Here’s the rub: One cannot talk about the gimmick at the heart of “Joe Bell” without lobbing a huge spoiler. So let’s just say that this tale of a father’s quest to redeem himself with his gay son employs narrative trickery that, upon the big reveal, left this viewer feeling disgruntled and a bit cheated.

Makes me wonder if McMurtry and Ossana sat through an M. Night Shyamalan marathon before putting pen to paper.

That said, Walhberg gives one of his most nuanced and cliche-free performances here, nicely nailing the conflicts inside a real-life protagonist struggling mightily to do the right thing after a lifetime of bullheaded behavior.

Young Miller is terrific as the somewhat enigmatic Jadin; flashbacks to his tormented adolescence are geniuinely upsetting.

Britton is her usual excellent self, and Gary Sinise has a touching if somewhat improbable last-reel appearance, exuding decency as a rural Colorado sheriff who befriends our hero.

Also you can’t argue with the film’s canny use of Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke.”

| Robert W. Butler

German forester Peter Wohlleben

“THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES” My rating: B

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

More New Age navel gazing than rigorous scientific exploration, “The Hidden Life of Trees” is an art film posing as a documentary.

It is based, of course, on German forester Peter Wohlleben’s runaway best seller about, well, the stuff trees are up to right under our noses.

Among other things Wohlleben asserts that trees will band together to “feed” the stumps of their fallen fellows, that our leafy buds can communicate with one another, and that the best forest management is basically to leave the trees alone to do their thing.

Wohlleben’s ecological theories have been embraced by laymen and ridiculed by forest professionals — which is not to say that they lack merit. The pros have been wrong before.

Perhaps in keeping with the woo-woo sensibilities of the source material, Jorg Adolph and Jan Haft’s film steers clear of the usual dry scientific pontificating.

Yeah, we see Wohlleben addressing audiences of eager ecologists and leading woodland tours. There’s footage of him getting down and dirty with plant life in European forests. We see timber being harvesting according to his tree-friendly methodology (for instance, no heavy machinery…massive horses are employed to haul away the logs).

But huge swaths of “The Hidden Life…” are taken up with Daniel Schonauer’s dreamlike nature cinematography, much of it employing slow motion to capture seedlings magically rising from the forest floor and stretching toward the sunlight.

“The Hidden Life…” then, is more noteworthy for its visual wonders and environmental impressionism than for making a measured scientific argument.

Nothing wrong with that…just know what you’ll be getting ahead of time.

| Robert W. Butler

I CARRY YOU WITH ME” My rating: B+

Armando Espitia, Christian Vazquez

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If Terrence Malick had made a gay-themed movie about the immigrant experience, it would be “I Carry You With Me.”

Like Malick’s “Tree of Life,” Heidi Ewing’s film is a dreamlike affair that shifts back and forth in time and relies on voiceover narration to reveal its lead character’s inner thoughts. It is unhurried and lyrical, but also trades heavily in social injustice issues.

And it’s pretty much all true. In this heady blend of gay love story and immigrant saga, documentary footage and fictional reenactments, the two main characters are not only based on two real individuals, but those two individuals play themselves in the movie’s last act.

Head spinning yet?

The picture begins with New York chef Ivan Garcia riding the NYC subway and reflecting, via narration, on the journey that brought him to a successful career while forcing him to leave behind his roots in Mexico. As we’ll learn, Ivan is an undocumented immigrant who, should he return home, would be prohibited from reentering the USA, leaving his two restaurants and 80 employees in the lurch.

The film then shifts back 30 years to Mexico where young Ivan (played as a 20-something by Armando Espitia), despite a culinary degree, can find work only as a restaurant busboy. When there’s an opening for a cook, the owner invariable gives the gig to one of his relations.

Ivan has a young son born out of wedlock; he adores the kid and walks a fine line in maintaining the peace with the boy’s mother, lest he lose visiting rights.

But Ivan has a secret. He is a closeted gay. Macho-centric Mexico makes life hard for homosexuals, and the situation is doubly complicated because should word of his sexual orientation reach the wrong ears, Ivan will never again see his boy.

One good thing: He meets the out Gerardo (Christian Vazquez), who introduces Ivan to the local (albeit underground) gay scene.

The screenplay by Alan Page and Ewing (this is her first fictional effort after a documentary career highlighted by the chilling “Jesus Camp”) depicts the young men’s deepening relationship against Ivan’s growing conviction that if he’s ever to realize his culinary dreams he’ll have to abandon Mexico and sneak into the U.S.

That means leaving behind Gerardo and his little boy.

On his coyote-led trip across the Rio Grande and through the Texas desert Ivan is accompanied by his childhood friend Sandra (Michelle Rodriguez), who very nearly succumbs to the journey’s many dangers.

Once in New York, Ivan works in a car wash and other menial gigs before finally working his way up the food industry ladder.

This immigrant tale is interrupted periodically with flashbacks to his and Gerardo’s childhoods (as boys they are portrayed by Yael Tadeo and Nery Arandondo, respectively). While Ivan was reared in a loving if financially strapped family, Gerardo was tormented by his father, a hairtrigger-tempered rancher carrying a full saddlebag of homophobia. This explains Gerardo’s estrangement from his clan, not to mention his determination to never hide his gayness come what may.

Eventually Gerardo joins Ivan in the US and they build a life and business together. As mature individuals they are portrayed by the real individuals — Ivan Garcia and Gerardo Zabaleta — who celebrate their success even as they mourn the loss of their Mexican identities.

In one heartbreaking scene Ivan shares a phone call with his now-grown son, whom he hasn’t seen for decades and whose attempts to visit his father in the U.S. have been stymied by government red tape.

“I Carry You With Me” began as a documentary, with Ewing filming her friends Ivan and Gerardo. But as she learned more about their epic yet intimate story, she decided to use actors to depict their earlier life in Mexico.

The resulting film is a genre-bending hybrid that nails both the triumph of these two enterprising individuals and the acute sense of loss they experience as men without a country.

“Haunting” isn’t too strong a word.

| Robert W. Butler

Sylvester Stone

“SUMMER OF SOUL”  My rating: A- (Hulu)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Even if it were merely a film record of the musical acts that appeared at 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, “Summer of Soul” would be the most joyous two hours of the summer of 2021.

But first-time director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (yes, the drummer/leader of Jimmy Fallon’s house band The Roots) has taken that half-century-old, never-seen-before footage and fashioned it into a powerful, heart-rending and historically significant experience.  

This was more than a series of concerts in Mount Morris Park in Harlem (now it’s called Marcus Garvey Park)…it was a seminal moment in the development of modern black culture. And Questlove’s love-infused doc absolutely nails it.

The Harlem Cultural Fest was spread over several weekends, each with its own theme: jazz, soul, gospel, etc.  Nearly 50,000 persons attended each of these free concerts.  Many of the audience members who attended as kids now recall that up to that point they have never seen so many black people in one place. 

The music ranged from jazz man Max Roach to Stevie Wonder, the Edwin Hawkins Singers (“Oh Happy Day”) to B.B. King, Nina Simone to Gladys Knight and the Pips.

The whole thing was captured on film and audio tape with an eye to turning it immediately into a theatrical movie event…alas, the entertainment powers put all their money behind that summer’s Woodstock festival in upstate New York.  With no buyers the pristine, technically perfect Harlem footage and audio tapes sat on a shelf for 50 years.



Questlove’s handling of this vintage material is respectful, yes, but he uses it as just one element in a massive collage of African American experience.  He shows some of the performers (Gladys Knight, members of the Fifth Dimension) footage of their performances at the fest and captures the looks of overwhelming emotion that pass across their faces as they witness  their younger selves and relive what for many of them was a sublime personal experience.

Mavis Staples, Mahalia Jackson

He talks to men and women, now in their 60s and 70s, who attended as youngsters and share their impressions and memories.

And he and editor Joshua L. Pearson  masterfully interweave the performance footage with old newsreels, photos and other archival elements…basically they’re demonstrating how the music became the soundtrack to hundreds of thousands of black lives.

Picking favorite performances is a futile exercise — everybody seems to have been at the top of their games — but for sheer show-stopping giddiness you cannot beat Sly and the Family Stone blowing away the crowd with “Higher” and “Everyday People” (“different strokes for different folks”).

And if you’re not moved to tears by watching Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples share a mic on “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (the favorite hymn of Martin Luther King, who was assassinated a year earlier)…well, I can only conclude that you lack both a heart and ears. 

| Robert W. Butler

“TRUMAN AND TENNESSEE: An Intimate Conversation” My rating: B (Now available through the Tivoli at the Nelson-Atkins)

86 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Truman and Tennessee” isn’t your standard-issue documentary biography.  Rather it’s a kind of verbal duel between two of the great literary figures of the late 20th century.

Novelist Truman Capote and playwright Tennessee Williams weren’t just major figures in mid-century American literature.  They were personal friends. Both shared a Southern heritage. Both were gay at a time when being openly gay was illegal. 

After brief biographical segments (my God, but young Truman Capote was cute), Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s film works through a series of topics, allowing her two subjects to comment on things like writing, fame, sex, their childhoods, phobias, relationships.

This is accomplished in a couple of ways.  First, we hear excerpts from the two author’s canons read by the unseen Jim Parsons (who nails Capote’s pitchy whine) and Zachary Quinto (as the voice of Williams).

Then there are various TV interviews the two did over the years…although never together.  In fact, there apparently is no footage here of both men in the same room.

But something weird and wonderful happens.  Turns out both men appeared on David Frost’s interview program within months of each other. They both sat on the same set (it has a very ‘60s pop art motif) and in both instances Frosts’s crew employed the same camera angles. Moreover,  Frost asked both men many of the same questions.

The result is an eerie joint commentary, with footage from various broadcasts woven together into a tapestry of friendship. The effect is that of Truman and Tennessee sitting side by side (even if they weren’t), lobbing ideas back and forth.

An unsung heroine here is film editor Bernadine Colish, who has done a terrific job of incorporating old photos, news footage, home movies and especially clips from film adaptations of the two men’s output (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Baby Doll,” “In Cold Blood” and many others).

The resulting film isn’t encyclopedic…rather it has a sort of impressionistic feel.  Yet because their own words have been so judiciously chosen by the filmmakers, we get terrific insights into Truman and Tennessee’s personalities.

Are there questions left unasked and unanswered?  Sure. But this doc isn’t about everything.  It’s about some things…some pretty wonderful things.

| Robert W. Butler

Rita Moreno

“RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT”  My rating: B (In theaters)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

As she approaches her 90th year actress Rita Moreno can look back on a life packed with triumph (she’s an EGOT — the winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony), tragedy (a botched abortion, sexual assault) and a checkered career that has included both laughable ethnic stereotypes and her current status as a Latina icon.

The new doc “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” is a warts-and-all look at a woman who despite her advanced years exhibits more energy, exuberance and insight than someone half her age.  She’s a born raconteur…and, boy, does she have a story to tell.

Mariem Perez Riera’s film (Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda are among the producers) opens with Moreno bustling around her home, preparing for her birthday celebration.  Then it settles down to a conversation — punctuated with old photos and film clips —  of her life, career and loves.

She was born in Puerto Rico and as a child came to US with her mother (she never again saw her father or brother…a story that could use some explanation), became enamored of the movies at an early age, dropped out of school at 15  and when still a teen dressed up like Elizabeth Taylor for an appointment with Louie B. Mayer, walking away with a Hollywood contract.

For years she was plastered with “makeup the color of mud” to portray Native American princesses, Latina spitfires, island girls, even the slave/concubine Tuptim in “The King and I.”  Her roles, she says, were limited to “sex objects and arm candy.”  

But she lacked the clout to do anything but follow orders.  Moreover, Moreno says she grew up “feeling without value,” a psychological handicap that dogged her until well into her adult life.

She describes the hair-raising sexism she encountered in Hollywood, including being raped by her agent (she had such low self-esteem that she kept working with him even after the incident) and her intense years-long affair with a domineering and manipulative Marlon Brando, who forced her to get a back-ally abortion from which she nearly died. (Today Moreno remains a fierce advocate of female reproductive rights.)

She became so depressed by her relationship with Brando that she attempted suicide.

(There’s no mention here of her well-known affair with Elvis Presley…what’s up with that?)

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“LES NOTRES” My rating: B- (June 16)

103 minutes | No MPAA rating

On numerous levels the French-Canadian “Les Notres” (“Our Own”) is a head scratcher.

It’s part problem picture/social drama, part personality study — without fully committing to either — and regularly thwarts its audience’s expectations. It aspires to depth and yet often is satisfied with melodrama.

But there is no denying that teen actress Emilie Bierre absolutely dominates the screen as a 13-year-old with a devastating secret. It’s a star-making turn; indeed, Bierre’s low-keyed performance and quiet charisma keep us watching, somehow filling the gaps in what otherwise might be a terminally fragmented tale.

Magalie (Bierre) lives with her widowed mother Isabelle (Marianne Farley) in a quaint Quebec town. She is an unremarkable girl, average in just about every respect but one.

She’s pregnant.

This revelation comes early in the screenplay by director Jeanne Leblanc and co-writer Judith Baribeau (who also takes on one of the major supporting roles). The main thrust of the tale is how young Magalie deals with her situation…or doesn’t.

Mag — who even in the best of circumstances nurses a case of teen stubbornness (losing her papa at a tender age has had a major impact on her personality) — refuses to identify the father. And she won’t even consider an abortion.

Word soon gets out of the girl’s tender condition. Her classmates call her a slut to her face. Her best friend Manu (Leon Diconca Pelletier) — an orphan living in a foster home across the street — is widely believed to be the father. The poor kid already has one strike against him for being Hispanic, and is resented for having deposed his fellow jocks as the school’s best soccer player.

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Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, Melissa Barrera as Vanessa

“IN THE HEIGHTS” My rating: B (HBO Max)

143 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

At its best the film version of the Broadway musical “In the Heights” is a colorful Valentine to a neighborhood and a way of life, overflowing with generosity of spirit and gleefully embracing Latinx culture.

It is also overlong, repetitive and, frankly, a bit boring when director John M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) must turn away from the massive musical numbers at which he excels.

Shot in the Washington Heights area of NYC where it takes place (there’s a bit of a “West Side Story” vibe at work), this adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda/Quiara Alegria Hudes 2008 hit (he wrote the music and lyrics, she wrote the book) follows a handful of characters through a summer in the city.

Our narrator is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the owner (apparently) of a cafe/bar in the Dominican Republic.  He’s telling local children the story of how he grew up in Manhattan and came to the Caribbean island to reclaim his father’s long-abandoned seaside business. The entire film, then, is a massive flashback, periodically interrupted as it returns to the “present” for more interaction between Usnavi and the kiddies.

At the heart of the film are two romances.

In the big city Usnavi operates a corner bodega, a natural meeting place for characters from his neighborhood.  The guy is sweet, sensitive and nurturing  — watch him interact with his grandma Claudia (Olga Merediz) and with tweener Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) to whom he serves as a surrogate big brother.  

Alas, Usnavi is a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to his relationship with local gal Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who aspires to become a fashion designer.

Then there’s Benny (Corey Hawkins), right hand man at the local taxi company run by Kevin (Jimmy Smits).  Benny has long awaited the return of Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who has just wrapped up her freshman year at Stanford.

Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace

But all was not well for Nina in sunny Cal.  She missed her nurturing neighborhood and was out of sync with her classmates (subtle racism may have played a role); now she is determined not to return to school.  Her father won’t hear of it…he’s already sold off half his real estate to finance Nina’s education and is ready to go even deeper into debt to see his girl achieve the American Dream. Of course, if he sells the business Benny will be out of a job.

Lin-Manuel Miranda shows up as Piraguero, who hawks shaved ice treats from his handcart and frets about the corporate-backed ice cream truck that is competing for the neighborhood sweet tooth dollar.

Now that’s not much plot for a 2 1/2-hour movie, and ultimately it shows. Yes, the big musical numbers — a street party, a nightclub, the local swimming pool — are explosions of color and movement (they remind of that opening number of “La La Land”).

You might call Miranda’s musical score proto-“Hamilton”…the lyrics pour out in a torrent of rapping-like wordplay (if you’re watching on HBO Max, turn on the captions), though the songs have distinctively Latin and Caribbean elements. Actually, there may be more singing in this film than talking…the effect is operatic.

With all this good stuff going on I’m sorry to admit that halfway through I found “In the Heights”running out of steam.  Part of the problem is that Miranda and Hudes, having found their voice, rarely vary it.  Each song sounds like the last (at least to first-timer ears…perhaps with more intimacy with the score the subtle variations become more apparent.

Likewise, the personal relationships established at the film’s outset undergo few dramatic ups and downs as the story proceeds.

The good news is that “In the Heights” has a solid emotional core built around the idea of a nurturing community, and it is this overarching theme (more than the individual stories) that gives the movie its power and sends the viewer off in a warm cloud of feel-good.

| Robert W. Butler

“TAKE ME SOMEWHERE NICE” My rating: C+

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

The title of Ena Sendijarevic’s “Take Me Somewhere Nice” drips with irony. Like the film’s young protagonist, we might dream of the good life, but we’re not going to find it in modern-day Bosnia.

Alma (Sara Luna Zoric) lives in the Netherlands with her mother. They fled war-torn Bosnia when Alma was a baby, leaving behind her father, whom she has visited only once or twice.

Now, though, the old man is in a hospital and wants to see his offspring one last time. So Alma reluctantly boards a plane bound for her birthplace.

Her first glimpse of “home” is not encouraging. The airport is sterile and all but abandoned. The restaurants don’t have half the items listed on the menu. The cars are held together with baling wire and the crumbling high-rise apartment buildings are like something left over from the Soviet era.

The people, as embodied by her cousin Emir (Ernad Prnjavorac), aren’t much better. Emir is a surly oaf whose livelihood may be linked to petty crime; in any case he resents this familial obligation and goes out of his way not to be helpful.

At least his running buddy Denis (Lazar Dragoevic) is willing to pay attention to the visitor, though he clearly expects to be rewarded with easy sex. And he does have a certain moronic charm.

Basically “Take Me Somewhere Nice” is a road trip as Alma makes her way to the provincial burg where her dad lies dying. She starts out solo — Emir cannot be bothered — but is left stranded and without her luggage when the bus departs from a rest stop without her.

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“THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS” My rating: B

85 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With a title like “The Killing of Two Lovers” you pretty much expect the film to end in ugliness.

And our first glimpse of writer/director Robert Machoian’s fourth feature doesn’t do anything to allay those fears. In the opening scene a man holding a pistol surreptitiously enters a house and stands menacingly at the foot of the bed where a couple lie sleeping.

The intruder is David (Clayne Crawford), and we soon learn that this is his house. Or was. Currently David is residing just down the road in the home of his aged father.

The sleeping woman is his wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi); her bedmate is her new lover Derek (Chris Coy).

This setup reeks of melodramatic possibilities, but instead of the revenge tragedy we expect Machoian delivers an insightful character study, both of a man and of a failed marriage.

Bearded and somewhat unkempt, David works as a handyman in the small, snow-swept Utah town he has always called home. He’s a working stiff with just a basic education; he once harbored dreams of guitar-picking stardom, but those are long gone.

He’s slowly sinking into depression and something like rage. He and Nikki are in a trial separation — they’ve agreed that each can see other people. David — who has eyes for no-one but Nikki — maintains they might still repair the marriage.

His wife — a college grad with professional aspirations — harbors no such illusions. It’s pretty clear she’s outgrown him.

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Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Bront Palarae

“EDGE OF THE WORLD” My rating: C- (VOD)

104 minutes | No MPAA rating

There’s undoubtedly a great film to be made of the life of Sir James Brooke, the Englishman who in the early 19th century schemed and fought his way into ruling a good chunk of the island nation of Borneo.

Alas, “Edge of the World” isn’t that movie.

Written by Rob Allyn, directed by Michael Haussman and starring a horrendously miscast Jonathan Rhys Meyers, this movie doesn’t succeed even as coherent storytelling.

Brooke was the real-life inspiration for Conrad’s characters from Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness (see also John Milius’ 1989 “Farewell to the King” and Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”), an adventurer out of sorts with traditional Victorian society who went rogue and carved a place for himself on the edge of civilization.

What sort of personality would it take to maneuver his way into such a position of power, to juggle and exploit the antagonisms among local political/tribal factions and to combat attempts to unseat him?

Keep asking. This movie offers little insight. Rhys Meyers’ charisma-free performance suggests a man with a 24/7 migraine and dyspepsia. But as to his moral compass, his motivations, his innermost feelings — we’re out of luck. The film is heavy on Brooke’s voiceover narration, but he doesn’t actually say much.

Dominic Monaghan is unmemorable as Brooke’s right-hand man, while Josie Ho plays the colorless local girl who becomes the white rajah’s bride. About the only fun performance here comes from Bront Palarae as Brooke’s scheming, amoral rival, a local prince who thinks nothing of casually lopping off the noggin of any poor peasant who gets in his way.

Director Haussman comes to features after a career in music videos. It shows. The film often looks good, but the means of presenting an effective long-form narrative elude him.

| Robert W. Butler

Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds, Emily Blunt

“A QUIET PLACE PART II” My rating: B

97 minute | MPAA rating: PG-13

With only two directing credits under his belt, actor-turned-filmmaker John Krasinski has proven himself one of the brightest up-and-comers in cinema.

“A Quiet Place” and its just-released sequel, “A Quiet Place Part II” remind a bit of the Spielbergian splash made by “Jaws” more than four decades ago. Like that seagoing classic, Krasinski’s “monster” movies exhibit a Hitchcockian sense for building suspense.

They have their own look and — perhaps even more important for a franchise about eyeless aliens who use their ears to track human prey — their own sound.

And they effectively mine notions of family and parenthood, with a tiny clan battling indescribable horrors to survive.

“A Quiet Place Part II” is a generally enjoyable thrill ride, peppered with gotcha shock moments and performances that far exceed what we’ve come to expect from the horror genre.

Yet despite the many upsides of this sequel, I found myself a bit let down. Not by the execution, but by the sameness. Krasinski sticks with ideas he introduced in the first film, but I never felt he was advancing them so much as recycling them.

You’ll recall that Krasinki’s character Lee Abbott, died in the first film, sacrificing himself to save his children. The new film (the screenplay is credited to Krasinksi, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) opens with a hugely effective flashback to the aliens’ arrival in the Abbott’s small upstate New York town. It’s got an impressive “War of the Worlds” vibe — and gives us our Krasinski fix before he vanishes from the screen for good.

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Toni Collette

“DREAM HORSE” My rating: B-

113 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The unlikely story of the prize-winning race horse Dream Alliance — bred and raised communally by the residents of a Welsh village — has already been the subject of the sublime 2016 documentary “Dark Horse.”

The new fictionalized version of his life, “Dream Horse,” isn’t nearly as good as the doc; still, it’s a solid example of feel-good cinema.

Dream Alliance was owned by a “syndicate” of two dozen store clerks, CPAs, retirees and other common folk in the tiny mining community of Cefn Fforest. Each chipped in 10 pounds a month for the animal’s care and training, and in 2009 the horse overcame what should have been a life-ending injury to win the Welsh National.

It’s like the very definition of feel-good.

The omnipresent Toni Collette stars as Jan Vokes, who toils as a grocery clerk during the day and a bar maid at night. While pushing pints one evening she overhears a barstool conversation featuring Howard Davies (Damien Lewis), an accountant who once was part of a consortium that owned a race horse.

Long an animal lover, Jan wonders what it would take to own her own race horse. She sucks the equally horse-crazed Howard into her scheme; his number crunching suggests that if enough locals chip in a few pounds every month they can afford to buy a mare, cover the fees to have her bred with a horse of quality, and raise their offspring in Jan’s back yard.

It’s the equine version of hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show.

What nobody expects is that after being farmed out to a professional trainer (Nicholas Farrell) their pony will actually start winning, much to the amazement of racing-world pundits who maintain the sport is only for London millionaires in Saville Road suits, certainly not for local yokels in worn tweed and muddy Wellingtons.

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Angelina Jolie, Finn Little

THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD” My rating: B- (HBO Max)

80 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Insubstantial but nevertheless satisfying, Taylor Sheridan’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead” reacquaints us with Angelina Jolie in action heroine mode.

At age 45 Jolie has more gravitas than in her Lara Croft/”Salt”/”Mr. and Mrs. Smith” heyday. So while she might not retain all the physicality of those earlier incarnations, she compensates for it with an inner strength that transcends the overworked action tropes.

Here she plays Hannah, a professional firefighter working Montana’s deep woods. Drinking and carousing with her rugged peeps she’s the good ol’ tough gal. Inside, though, she’s struggling with the emotional fallout of a fatal conflagration…the ghastly incident hinged on an unpredictable change in wind direction, but Hannah blames herself.

Which is why for the current fire season she’s been assigned to a lookout tower situated on such a remote ridge that it can only be reached on foot. (I dunno…maybe they used helicopters to bring in all those girders.) This assignment is meant to keep her safe — physically and mentally — until she can return to normal duty.

Be assured that the screenplay (by Sheridan, Michael Koryta and Charles Leavitt) doesn’t allow her much rest.

Across the country in Florida, a forensic accountant (Jake Weber) realizes that his poking around in a vast government conspiracy has put his life — and that of his young son Connor (Finn Little) — in jeopardy. A couple of shadowy black op types (Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult) are eliminating prosecutors — and their families — pursuing a massive corruption case.

Now they’re after the numbers cruncher.

The chase leads them to Big Sky Country, where the father and son once vacationed at a survival camp run by a local lawman (Jon Berthal) and his wife (Medina Senghore). Their plan is to disappear into the wilds with the help of these knowledgable backwoodsmen.

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Anson Mount

“THE VIRTUOSO” My rating: B- (In theaters)

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The hit man movie occupies a curious corner of the noir world. Invariably these efforts center on a ruthlessly efficient killer who finds himself emotionally involved with a target, experiencing twinges of guilt or generally questioning his choice of professions.

 Nick Stagliano’s “The Virtuoso” works a couple of intriguing variations on the usual setup.

The first and most interesting is voiceover narration that dispassionately describes the daily workings of a professional killer. This narration is provided by leading man Anson Mount, and compensates for the fact that on screen his character says almost nothing. So it’s kind of neat that we get to hear his thoughts as he goes about his deadly business.

“You’re a professional devoted to timing and precision. A virtuoso,” our antihero (identified only as the Virtuoso) offers.

Truth is, the Virtuoso appears to be a mystery even to himself. He lives in an isolated cabin. He seems to have no friends or acquaintances apart from the Mentor (Anthony Hopkins), who farms out contracts to our man and other pro killers. He doesn’t even have a pet, although from time to time he sets out a bowl of kibble for the feral dog that lives among the trees.

Early on the Virtuoso executes a murder, but there is collateral damage in the person of an innocent bystander. Apparently for the first time he feels remorse for killing…indeed, he is so unnerved by the experience that the Mentor — who normally communicates only by phone — shows up in person to check on his charge’s emotional state and to give a long graveyard monologue about how he and the Virtuoso’s father served together on an assassination squad in Vietnam. (This is about as much background as we’ll get on our leading character.)

Anthony Hopkins

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Tiffany Haddish, Billy Crystal

“HERE TODAY” My rating: C+ (In theaters)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Billy Crystal’s sincere but ultimately unfulfilling dramedy “Here Today” is a queasy blend of vintage Crystal wise-cracking and dour navel gazing.

That it works as well as it does is largely due to the pairing of the veteran funnyman with Tiffany Haddish. Turns out that in real life they are besties, so the affection that radiates from their screen relationship is the real deal.

Comedy writer Charlie Berns (Crystal) is a legend in the business and though in his late 60s holds down a gig on the staff of a hit sketch TV show wildly popular with millenials. He’s a mentor to the younger writers, serving as a sort of conscience when the kids push things too far and punching up flat sketches with a new line here and a tweak there.

Thing is, Charlie has been diagnosed with dementia. He gets along by following the same daily routine, but increasingly he’s living in the past with memories of his late beloved wife (portrayed as a young woman by Louisa Krause).

Charlie has a grown son (Penn Badgley) and daughter (Laura Benanti) and especially a beloved granddaughter, but he hasn’t shared his diagnosis with them. During his busy prime Charlie was pretty much an absentee father, and resentments still simmer.

His co-workers on the comedy show are equally in the dark.

Enter Emma (Haddish), a jazz singer whose former boyfriend played the winning bid at a charity auction for a lunch with the great Charlie Berns. Emma is too young to know anything about Charlie or his work, but using the lunch ticket is a good way to get revenge on he ex.

Who knew the two would so quickly hit it off?

In its early going, at least, “Here Today” benefits from blasts of Crystal humor. Charlie may be slipping away, but he’s alert and aware much of the time, and still displays impeccable comic skills.

Slowly, though, his forgetfulness and anxiety begin to percolate through his daily existence. And with his children at arm’s length, it falls to his new best bud Emma to become his new caregiver. She doesn’t think twice about jumping into the fight.

Crystal not only writes, directs and stars in the film, he has packed it with celebs portraying themselves (Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline, Barry Levinson). Anna Deavere Smith portrays his neurologist.

And it’s not bad.

But no early kidding around can disguise the fact that “Here Today” will soon mutate into “Gone Tomorrow.” It’s a downer, a constant balancing act between silliness and tears. It only works part of the time.

| Robert W. Butler


Jodie Turner-Smith, Michael B. Jordan

“TOM CLANCY’S WITHOUT REMORSE” My rating: C (Amazon Prime)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Critical reaction to Netflix’s “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” has pretty much centered on the fact that leading man Michael B. Jordan is WAY too talented to be wasted on this sort of superficial action drek.

I cannot argue with that analysis — putting Jordan in this “John Wick”-ish clone is like using a thermonuclear device to get rid of a wasp nest hanging from your eaves.

Yet even mediocre movies can be significant within a larger social context, and “Without Remorse” (a cheesy, generic title) feels like the right film at the right time in our intensifying national discussion about race.

Not that the film overtly addresses race. Outwardly, anyway, it’s color blind. But it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to find other stuff going on.

Clancy’s 1993 novel introduced readers to John Kelly, a Navy Seal who in 1970 is sent on a Rambo-is mission to recover an American intelligence officer from a North Vietnamese POW camp. He uncovers a high-level government plot to smuggle heroin into the US in the bodies of slain soldiers and instigates a murderous cleanup spree.

Eventually he’s recruited by the CIA, changes his hame to John Clark, and goes on to recurring appearances in a slew of Ryanverse novels.

Presumably the John Clark of the novels is white. Indeed, during the many years that the film version was in preproduction limbo, white actors like Keanu Reeves and Tom Hardy were considered for the role.

The ultimate choice of a black actor probably had less to do with ulterior motives on the part of the filmmakers than on Jordan’s widespread popularity. He is a draw for audiences of all colors.

Watching the film — which has shed its Vietnam-era trappings and takes place in the present; about all it has in common with the novel is the title — one is struck by its seeming color blindness. No mention is made of Kelly/Clark’s race. He’s an elite fighter, a devoted husband and soon-to-be father. But race doesn’t figure into it.

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“THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS” My rating: A-

84 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Notwithstanding its title, “The Truffle Hunters” imparts relatively little information about the actual process of hunting for those priceless subterranean fungi so beloved of cultured palates.

Turns out that the crusty old men of the Piedmont would prefer not to give away their truffle-hunting secrets in front of the camera. This explains why directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw rely heavily on extreme long shots of a tiny human figures — and their faithful dogs — rustling through the thick greenery of Italian hillsides.

But if the nuts and bolts of truffle hunting remain mysterious, “The Truffle Hunters” succeeds magnificently in capturing the rhythms of lives spent in the forests, the attitudes and outlooks of old men whose deepest relationships appear to be with the canines on whose sharp noses they rely.

With no narration, graphics or explanation this doc plops us down in the truffle hunters’ world. We see them at home (many of these colorful codgers seem to live as hermits in a largely technology-free setting). We watch them interact with their beloved pets (the pooches have personalities to rival those of their masters).

One fellow passes the time by bashing away on a full drum kit on his porch.

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Glenn Close, Mila Kunis

“FOUR GOOD DAYS” My rating: B+

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Any more it takes something special for a drug addiction drama to ring my bell. A pall of been-there-done-that hovers over the entire genre.

“Four Good Days” has a premise I’ve never seen before. Plus it’s a prime example of mano-a-mano acting from the fierce duo of Glenn Close (whom we’ve come to expect for this sort of thing) and Mila Kunis (whom we haven’t).

And it’s the latest from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia, a genius of cinematic humanism who gets my vote as creator of the best films nobody has seen (“Nine Lives,” “Mother and Child”).

Suburban housewife Deb (Glenn Close) is angry and distressed to find her thirtysomethibng daughter Molly (Mila Kunis) on her doorstep.

Molly is a junkie. Her trips to rehab number in the double digits. On previous visits Molly has burgled Deb and her husband Chris (Stephen Root) to buy drugs. She just can’t stay sober.

Deb refuses to open the door. She’s been burned too many times. She still loves her daughter, but experience has taught her to steer clear if she values her sanity.

Trouble is, next morning Molly is still perched on the stoop. Moreover, she claims to be in line for a medication that neutralizes the effects of narcotics. With no high, what would be the point of shooting up?

But there’s a catch. The wonder drug reacts violently — possibly fatally — to any narcotics in the user’s body.

Which means that after spending three days in rehab to qualify for the program, Molly must remain clean for the next four days before getting her first dose.

Can she do it?

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Anna Kendrick

“STOWAWAY” My rating: B- (Netflix)

116 minutes | No MPAA rating

The sci-fi entry “Stowaway” has been so well mounted and incisively acted that it almost convinces itself — and us — that it has something important on its mind.

It’s not until it’s all over that you recognize plot holes big enough to drive a Death Star through.

Director Joe Penna’s space opera centers on a head-scratchingly unlikely occurrence.  In the near future, a three-astronaut flight to Mars is jeopardized with the discovery of a fourth person on board.  This interstellar hitchhiker so stresses the vessel’s life-support system that everyone’s survival is in doubt.

Which raises the uncomfortable question:  Who should die so that at least one or two of the travelers can complete their mission to the Red Planet?

Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison root their film in a workaday reality.  

The three astronauts (they’re portrayed by Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette and Daniel Dae Kim) exhibit the sort of competent blandness one expects of today’s space explorers (they’re considerably more professional than the wild-man test-pilot types of the early Mercury missions). 

Their ship’s interior feels uncomfortably like a utility tunnel lined with haphazardly with electronic equipment. No stylish futurism here.

And while the astronauts often communicate with their support staff on Earth, we only hear the spacemen’s side of the conversation…they’re wearing headsets and we’re not privy to what the guys back home are saying.

This makes for a slowly building sense of isolation and claustrophobia.

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Ed Helms, Patti Harrison

“TOGETHER TOGETHER” My rating: B

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Given its premise — middle-aged bachelor hires young woman to carry his child — and the presence of funnyman Ed Helms, one might expect “Together Together” to hit the usual rom-com cliches.

Nope.

Writer/director Nicole Beckwith’s sophomore effort (her debut was the little-seen Saoirse Ronan thriller “Stockholm, Pennsylvania”) delivers a delicate character study more interested in human truths than easy laughs.

The resulting film is a low-keyed affair that worms its way into th head and heart.

Matt (Helms) is an app developer who advertises for a woman to carry his child. He settles on Anna (Patti Harrison), who as a teen gave birth to an illegitimate baby and put it up for adoption. She’s level-headed and apparently neurosis-free…she sees this as a business deal with little need for sentiment or emotional fireworks.

Moreover, she’s merely the vessel. She’ll be implanted with another woman’s egg fertilized by Matt’s sperm in the lab.  It’s about as impersonal as pregnancy  gets.

For Matt, though, it’s  totally personal.  His romantic relationships have all failed, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t love to share. He desperately wants to be a parent.

Which makes for some mildly comic moments as he tries to dictate Anna’s eating habits and lifestyle choices.  He insists on accompanying her to the OB-GYN and doing all the things expected of expectant fathers — even when Anna just wants to be left alone to gestate.

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Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin

“CONCRETE COWBOY” My rating: B (Netflix)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Inner city kid facing an uncertain future is saved by a program that mixes tough love with animal husbandry.

Uh…haven’t we seen this movie about a hundred times already?

Well, yes and no.

The basic plot of “Concrete Cowboy” offers little in the way of surprises. It’s very familiar territory.

The presentational style, though, is fresh and gritty and hugely effective. It’s more Chloe Zhao art film than movie-of-the-week melodrama.

Troubled Detroit teen Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is sullen and angry. He’s being expelled from school for fighting.

So his desperate mother throws his shit into a black plastic trash bag, drags the kid into her car, and overnight drives him the 600 miles to Philadelphia, where she unceremoniously dumps the boy on his father’s doorstep. She’s going to let her ex deal with the young punk over the summer.

“Dad” is Harp (Idris Elba), who lives in a mostly-black neighborhood on the city’s northern edge.  At first glance there’s nothing special about the block of decaying row houses on which Harp lives…until you realize that one old commercial buiilding has been converted into a stable.

Harp and his neighbors are horse junkies. It’s not like they’re an official club or anything…the so-called Fletcher Street Riders (they’re a real thing) just love horses and spend whatever spare money they’ve got to feed, groom and outfit the big animals.  Any cash left over is devoted to communal bonfires replete with weed and whisky. (They’re kind of like benign black bikers with horsies instead of Harleys.)

The screenplay by Dan Walser and director Ricky Staub follows Cole’s gradual assimilation into this clan of urban equestrians…not that it’s an easy transition.

For one thing, he and the old man do not get along. The kid ends up sleeping in the stables, sharing a stall with a horse so mean it seems destined for the glue factory.  And, yes, the angry animal bonds with the angry teen.

Meanwhile there’s his dangerous friendship with Smush (Jharrel Jerone), who sucks Cole into an ill-advised plan to sell drugs.

Elba is top billed here, and he brings a smoldering intensity and quiet dignity to Harp. Especially fine is a monologue in which he explains to his estranged son why he named him Cole (he’s a John Coltrane fan).

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Andrea Riseborough, Dane Dehaan

“ZeroZeroZero” My rating: B (Netflix)

Streaming services are awash with crime dramas, so it takes something new and different to grab my attention.

Netflix’s 8-hour miniseries “ZeroZeroZero” did just that. 

Filmed in Mexico, the U.S., Africa and Italy — not to mention on the high seas — this sprawling crime epic has the big feel and complexities reminiscent of author Don Winslow’s “Cartel” trilogy. We’re talking compelling (if often repugnant) characters, international sweep and a suspension of the usual moral niceties.

Not to mention some hair-raising action sequences.

Created by Leonardo Fasoli, Mauricio Katz and Stefano Sollima, the series follows a shipment of illegal drugs from Mexico, across the Atlantic, through North Africa and on to Calabria in the “boot” of Italy where crime families have been feuding and murdering for generations.

The instigator here is Don Minu (Adriano Chiaramida), a bearded patriarch who looks to be on his last legs but is in fact as ruthless and tough-minded as a thug half his age.  Don Minu places an order for a multi-million-dollar shipment of drugs…a stash so huge that it will change the power equation among Italy’s regional criminal syndicates.

The middleman is Edward Lynwood (Gabriel Byrne), a resident of New Orleans who puts together complex plans executed by his cooly efficient daughter Emma (Andrea Riseborough, giving Tilda Swinton some fierce competition in the weird androgyny department).  

Edward also has a son, Chris (Dane DeHaan), who has been kept out of the family business; the young man has inherited the genetic disorder that killed his mother and likely will never reach age 35.

Nevertheless, Chris will find himself accompanying his sister and the drug shipment (hidden in cans of vegetables) on their long journey. A newcomer to the world of crime, Chris is our guide (we learn as he does); moreover, he views this dangerous enterprise as a great adventure.  I mean, he’s going to die anyway in a few years, so what the hell?

Much of the effectiveness of “ZeroZeroZero” comes from the fact that the three directors (Janus Metz of Denmark, Pablo Trapero of Argentina and Stefano Sollima of Italy) bring a true international feel to the proceedings, with episodes set in different countries finding their own visual and narrative styles.

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Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges

“FRENCH EXIT” My rating: C

110 minutes | MPAA rating:n R

Curiosity. Perplexity. Frustration.

That’s the emotional journey provided by “French Exit,” a bizarre black comedy (at least I think it’s supposed to be a black comedy) that left me dissatisfied despite the presence of big-time star Michelle Pfeiffer, up-and-comer Lucas Hedges, and a strong supporting cast.

Frances Price (Pfeiffer) is a world-weary socialite who is quickly running out of money. Over the last decade she has burnt up the fortune left by her late husband (apparently a Bernie Madoff type whose financial dealings were, uh, questionable).

Now Frances and her spacey son Malcolm (Hedges) are staring down homelessness. Luckily, one of Frances’ rich friends (Susan Coyne) has an empty apartment in Paris. Why don’t the mother and son relocate the the City of Light and start anew?

Director Azazel Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick DeWitt (adapting his own novel) want us to find the Prices quirky and charming and emotionally liberating.

Certainly all the other characters in the film are entranced by the pair. These include a nutty/needy American expatriate (Valerie Mahaffey), a “gypsy” cruise-ship fortune teller (Danielle Macdonald), a Parisian private eye (Isaach De Bankole) and Malcolm’s old girlfriend (Imogen Poots). And, oh yeah, Frances’ late husband (voiced by Tracy Letts) who has taken up residence in the family’s pet cat.

These diverse personalities end up sharing the apartment…it’s like a sleepover camp for the emotionally underdeveloped.

Here’s the bottom line: Pfeiffer’s Frances is spoiled, self-centered, bitter and grumpy — and not in the laugh-out-loud manner of Catherine O’Hara in “Schitt’s Creek.” Her self pity is not attractive.

Hedges, meanwhile, plays a young man who has rarely left his mother’s side and behaves as if he’s on the spectrum.

The title, by the way, refers not only to the pair’s retreat to Paris but also, one suspects, to Frances’ plan to kill herself when the last Euro is spent. Be thankful the movie ends before it gets to that point.

| Robert W. Butler

Naomi Watts

“PENGUIN BLOOM”  My rating: B (Netflix)

95 minutes | No MPAA rating

Movies in which a human is befriended by a wild animal are often satisfying…and just as often ethically iffy.

Handled improperly these yarns  so anthropomorphize the animal that viewer end up ascribing human emotion and intellect to a creature that, let’s face it, functions largely on instinct and appetite.

The Aussie “Penguin Bloom” avoids just about all the pitfalls of the genre.

For starters, it’s based on a true story (yeah…this is one of those movies where the closing credits play out over photos of the real-life people on which the film characters are based).

For another, it’s been extremely well acted.

And finally, the filmmakers —  director Glendyn Ivin and screenwriters Shaun Grant and Harry Cripps — never go for a big gesture when a little one will do. Sometimes less IS more.

We meet housewife and mother Samantha Bloom (Naomi Watts, also the film’s producer) in the aftermath of an accident that has left her paralyzed from the chest down. She’s pretty much confined to her bed and a wheelchair. Her days of riding herd on her three rambunctious sons apparently are a thing of the past. Best not to even think about her love of surfing.

The good news is that husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) has assumed most of the parental chores. His work as a freelance photographer gives him plenty of time around the house, and he’s clearly devoted to Sam.

Not that it registers. Sam is sinking ever deeper into a crippling depression; she knows she would devote more time to the kids and her own recovery, but seems mired in her own personal misery.

And then one of the boys brings home a young magpie injured in a fall from its nest.  He immediately dubs the bird Penguin (because of its black and white coloration) and creates a home for the newcomer in a wicker basket.

Sam and Cameron assume the creature will soon die; at best it will recover and take off.

Nope. Penguin shows every sign of taking up permanent residence, racing around the house (it cannot yet fly) and getting positively possessive about the small sock monkey one of the boys places in her nest. Continue Reading »

The cast of “Call My Agent!”

“CALL MY AGENT!” My rating: B  (Netflix)

“Call My Agent!” unfolds in a Paris agency representing the cream of French film and television talent.

The gimmick of this French comedy series is that every episode features a guest star, a real-life legend — we’re talking Juliette Binoche, Christopher Lambert, Sigourney Weaver, Jean Dujarden, Isabelle Huppert, Jean Reno —  playing spoiled, temperamental, insecure, misbehaving versions of themselves.

But the real subject of Fanny Herrero’s 24-episode (over four seasons) creation is lying.

The ever-scrambling agents who populate the ASK offices are forever lying to their clients, to their loved ones and to each other.  It’s a requirement of the job, rarely done in malice, and often to protect the fragile feelings of the pampered stars to whom they owe their livings.

But be assured that no lie — no matter how creative or outrageous — remains unexposed for long.

Here’s the thing: despite their problematic relationship with the truth, the characters here quickly win us over.  Herrero and her co-creators have given us personalities that we quickly glom onto. They’re witty and driven and creative, and it’s a thrill to be around them.

Moreover, the series does a terrific job of exploring these different personalities over four seasons. Characters who at first seem mere background figures will at some point emerge as the center of their own episodes and story arcs.

There are too many interesting figures here to explore them all, but here’s a thumbnail analysis of the most important:

Andrea Martel (played by Camille Cottin):  This cutthroat agent and predatory lesbian has to re-evalute her existence when she finds herself pregnant after an impetuous three-way.

Mathias Barneville (Thibault de Montalembert): The head of ASK is sauve and cultured.  Except that in the first episode he gets an unexpected complication — the arrival of Camille (Fanny Sidney), the twenty-something lovechild of his long-ago extramarital affair.  He gives his daughter a job (she’s the most principled person on site) but struggles to keep his wife ignorant of his infidelity.

Ariette Azemar (Liliane Rovere):  The grande dame of the outfit, who’s seen and heard just about everything.  She’s constantly accompanied by her lapdog Jean Gabin (and if you appreciate that bit of name dropping, you’ll love just about everything about this series). Continue Reading »

Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Brosnahan

“THE COURIER” My rating: B- (In theaters March 19)

111 minutes: MPAA rating: PG-13

Like its title, “The Courier” is an unprepossessing Cold War thriller that, despite an OK turn from leading man Benedict Cumberbatch and a based-on-fact birthright, never works up a full head of steam.

In the early 1960s British businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) was recruited by his country’s spymasters. An independent salesman who represented dozens of Western manufacturers, Wynne was encouraged by the M-16 spooks to expand his operation to the growing Soviet market.

Mostly he was to carry on business as usual. But from time to time he would be asked to bring pilfered Soviet secrets back to London.

Initially Wynne rejects the idea.  He’s not a spy, after all.

Noting Wynne’s unremarkable military record and his gone-to-flab physique, his handler reassures him: “If this mission were really dangerous you’re the last man we’d send.”

Wynn’s contact in Moscow is Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a WWII hero now working for the KGB, though his “official” title is that of trade specialist.  Penkovsky is the film’s most interesting character, a guy so traumatized by Krushchev’s podium pounding and the growing Cuban Missile Crisis that he’s willing to turn his country’s secrets over to the West in the hope of avoiding all-out nuclear war.

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Anthony Hopkins

“THE FATHER” My rating: B (In theaters)

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Films about Alzheimer’s usually assume an outsider’s point of view, that of a family member or caregiver who must watch in dismay as a loved one goes through the downward spiral of forgetfulness, cognitive dissolution and physical and mental incapacity.

Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” on the other hand, attempts nothing less than to recreate  encroaching dementia as it is experienced by the patient. It’s an insider’s approach.

The film is less a conventional narrative than a series of disorienting scenes that force the audience — like the film’s title character — to ask what is real and what a delusion.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton from Zeller’s stage play, “The Father” relies on a narrative gimmick, yet Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-nominated lead performance is so compelling — by turns infuriating, puzzling and pathetic — that it bouys the entire production.

Things start out more or less conventionally.  Anne (Olivia Colman, also an Oscar nominee) has come to the spacious London flat of her father Anthony (Hopkins) to discuss his living situation.  The old man has chased off his third visiting nurse, accusing her of theft; Anne (a divorcee) is distraught  as this screws up her plans to move to Paris with her new boyfriend. Who’s going to be there for Dad?

Anthony wants nothing to do with caregivers. He swears by self-sufficiency and resents the intrusion of strangers into his neatly circumscribed world.

Listening to him you want to agree. Anthony is eloquent and even witty (albeit often scathingly critical, his jabs at poor Anne suggest not just indifference but overt cruelty); physically he seems perfectly okay. Yeah, he’s self-centered and often hears only what he wants to hear.  You can say the same about lots of  younger people.

Anthony can be a charmer. Look at the show he puts on for Laura (Imogen Poots), a young woman being interviewed by Anne as a replacement for the latest nurse to bail.  For this attractive visitor Anthony is bright-eyed and amusing, claiming to have been a professional tap dancer (he was an engineer) and even doing a soft-shoe across the living room rug.

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Jessica Barr

“SOPHIE JONES” My rating: B+ (In select theaters and on VOD)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

Asked how she’s dealing with the recent death of her mother, 16-year-old Sophie Jones has a canned response.

“I haven’t been cutting myself,” she reports matter-of-factly. “Or drinking. Or taking drugs.”

Which doesn’t mean that she’s dealing well with the trauma.

Sophie has met a devastating family tragedy with ironic detachment. Rather than weeping or moping she she embraces snarky humor and a mockingly defiant attitude. Hanging out with the other theater kids at school, she appears unchanged and unruffled.

Yes, she has embarked on a course of sexual experimentation, though she retains her virginity. “We’re only dry humping,” she assures her best friend.

“Sophie Jones” is a study of grief, but its approach is so tangential and minimalist that the film is almost totally lacking in big dramatic moments. This, interestingly enough,  is its great strength.

We learn about Sophie and her interior world through the accumulation of small details over many months; our girl almost never talks about her feelings, but her actions speak volumes.

This is the first feature from director Jessie Barr (she penned the screenplay with her cousin Jessica Barr, who plays Sophie), and  with its quiet wisdom and backhanded narrative approach the movie is a revelation. We’re told that the film was inspired by the Barrs’ own family tragedy…maybe that’s why it all feels so authentic.

There’s no plot to speak of, just a series of episodes as Sophie makes her way toward graduation and college.  But there are moments here so beautiful (and shocking) that the viewer is pulled up short.

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Hadley Robinson

“MOXIE” My rating: B+ (Netflix)

Running time: 111minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The highest praise I can bestow on “Moxie” is that for two hours it made me once again feel like a teenager…and left me with a much-needed sense of optimism.

Just about everything works in Amy Poehler’s film, adapted from the YA novel by Jennifer Mathieu.  (Full disclosure: Jennifer interned in The Star‘s A&E Department some 20 years ago when I was the editor).  It’s a high school movie with heart, soul and attitude.

We’re talking happy tears.

Our heroine is Vivian (Hadley Robinson, terrific in a non-glam girl-next-door way), a bright quiet girl who is most comfortable when laying low.  But it turns out that everywhere Vivian looks she sees injustice.

Her school is pretty much run by the football team, a pack of entitled meatheads led by the smugly swaggering and creepily predatory Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger…Arnold’s kid).

The jocks annually issue a sexist ranking of their fellow students. One girl is declared “most bangable.” Another has the “best bootie.”  Vivian is humiliated to find herself designated “most obedient.”

What’s really irritating is that the footballers are the constant object of adoration despite a mediocre record; meanwhile the girls’ soccer squad — perennial contenders for the state championship — have to make do with last year’s grass-stained jerseys.

Taking some inspiration from her single mom Lisa (Poehler), whose own teen years were devoted to Bikini Kill-inspired rebellion, Vivian writes and designs her own feminist “zine,” a Xeroxed howl of indignation entitled Moxie!.

She pays to have 50 copies printed and secretly deposits them in the girls’ restrooms. And suddenly the school is abuzz with  female umbrage  and a growing mystery.

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