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Frances McDormand

“NOMADLAND” My rating: A- (In theaters Dec. 4)

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“I’m not homeless,” protests Fern (France McDormand) in a key moment from Chloe Zhao’s haunting “Nomadland.”

“Just houseless.”

There’s a significant difference, at least according to Fern and the countless other Americans spending their so-called Golden Years living out of their vans, RVs and cars.

Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book about “the end of retirement,”  “Nomadland” straddles the line between fiction and documentary.

McDormand, of course, is one of our greatest actors; here she’s joined by the always-reliable  David Strathairn.

But most of the “players” in this film are real nomads, folk who follow the changing seasons (Texas in winter, the Dakotas in the summer) supporting themselves with seasonal gigs (working services jobs as cooks and cleaners, manning a sprawling Amazon fulfillment center during the Christmas rush).

By portraying themselves they give Zhao’s film a reality that seeps into the viewer’s bones. This film is less acted than lived in; as a result it is sad and beautiful and achingly human.

McDormand’s widowed Fern has been on the road for several years. She was more or less cast out into the desert when Empire NV,  the company burg in which she had lived her entire adult life — became an overnight ghost town with the closing of its gypsum mine.

Zhao’s unhurried screenplay follows Fern over the course of a year. There’s no plot to speak of; the film is a series of encounters with other wanderers. Fern attends a huge gathering of the houseless on BLM land out in the desert (the convenor, the bearded, barrell-chested Bob Wells — playing himself — holds seminars on nomad survival strategies).

She works in the kitchen of the famous Wall Drug Store tourist trap near the Black Hills. Her fellow nomad Dave (Strathairn) is a part-time ranger at the nearby Badlands National Park.

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Kate Winslet,Saorise Ronan

“AMMONITE” My rating: C+ (Available On Demand on Dec. 4)

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Kate Winslet is a great actress. No argument.

And I would happily sit in awe as Saorise Ronan read translated-from-the-Korean assembly instructions.

But despite the presences of these two acting giants, “Ammonite” is a bore. Albeit a bore punctuated with a heavy-breathing woman-on-woman sex scene .

Francis Lee’s film is inspired by historic fact.

Paleontology, the study of the fossil record, was all the rage In the early Victorian era.  The science itself was still in an embryonic stage, but the dream of uncovering the remains of some prehistoric marvel motivated many a wealthy gentleman (the sort of chaps who had way too much money and time on their hands) to become amateur diggers.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) may be the best of them, a self-taught fossil sleuth who studies the eroded cliffs along the Lime coast where she lives and has a knack for big discoveries.

Not that she gets any credit for her genius.  A single woman who is the sole support of her elderly mother (Gemma Jones), Mary sells her finds to well-heeled men who then submit them — under their names, not Mary’s — to museums and scientific organizations.

So, yeah, Mary has a chip on her shoulder.

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Sarah Paulsen, Keira Allen

“RUN” My rating: B- (Now streaming on Hulu)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Essentially “Run” is a two-hander about an overprotective mother and a disabled child.

But there’s considerable nastiness percolating just below the surface of Aneesh Chaganty’s new Hulu thriller.  Over the course of 90 minutes we — along with the film’s teenage protagonist — undergo a shocking education in the excesses of the human heart.

For as long as she can remember Chloe Sherman (Kiera Allen)  has been confined to a wheelchair. She’s home schooled by her doting mother Diane (Sarah Paulson) and while not precisely a shut-in (they’ll go shopping in their small town and spend an occasional night at the movies) Chloe’s first-hand experience of the world has been severely limited.

Which is why she’s pumped to be sending out college applications.  Finally, she’ll expand her horizons.

It becomes obvious pretty early on in the screenplay by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian that Mama Diane isn’t  thrilled to be losing her little girl. In fact, her maternal needs are leading to a full-fledged meltdown.

Actually, that train left years ago, as we’ll learn when a curious Chloe begins really examining  her life, the weird medications her mother keeps pushing on her and a locked drawer of papers leading back to her birth.

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“ZAPPA”  My rating: B (Opening Nov. 23 at the Screenland Armour and Nov. 27 at the  Tivoli at the Nelson)

129 minutes | No MPAA rating

Alex Winter’s “Zappa” is the first film about the iconoclastic musician to have access to its late subject’s vault of never-released tapes, performance videos, home movies and personal correspondence.

Fans of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (present company included) will have plenty to drool over here.

But “Zappa” left me only partially satisfied.  The film chronicles Zappa’s life from suburban teen to his death of prostate cancer in 1993 at age 52.  There are lots of juicy details I didn’t know about.

At the same time, “Zappa” is very much about the man, not his music. Sure, there are snippets of Zappa in performance, snatches of his songs on the soundtrack, but the overriding emphasis here is on the man’s personal story.

And — perhaps it’s because director Winter (yes, the guy who stars opposite Keanu Reeves in the “Bill & Ted” franchise) worked so closely with Zappa’s late widow and executor Gail Zappa in mining the treasure trove —  the film often borders on hagiography.

Would Frank have wanted that?

Whatever. “Zappa” makes the case that Francis Vincent Zappa was one of the 20th century’s most remarkable and accomplished musicians, a guy whose career spanned doo-wop, r&b, rock, jazz and classical idioms, all the while dishing vicious satire against the phoniness he saw all around him: politicians, Flower Power, censorship, consumerism, drug abuse.

Zappa’s father was a chemist who worked in a defense plant producing nerve gas; everyone in the neighborhood was required to have gas masks close at hand in case of a leak. Small wonder that gas masks crept into Zappa’s work as an adult.

The teenage Frank dabbled in homemade explosives. His life turned around when he was turned on to a recording by the atonal composer Edgard Varese. His first band took heat because it was racially integrated.

Frank’s first artistic love was film editing; the doc chronicles a bizarre passage in which young Frank was entrapped into making a “porn” movie (it was a total goof; there was nothing overtly sexual in it), resulting in a criminal conviction.

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Michael Angelo Covino, Kyle Marvin

 

“THE CLIMB”  My rating: A- (Opens  Nov. 20 at the Glenwood Arts)

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The gold standard for great first features is  Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” No contest.

Among runners up, though, one might well consider Michael Angelo Covino’s “The Climb,” a droll dissection of a toxic friendship that, even when it’s traversing familiar territory, speaks in its own unique voice.

Written by Covino and Kyle Marvin — and starring the two as best friends Mike and Kyle — “The Climb” is a full-length film shot in fewer than a dozen takes.  Which means that the picture is virtually without cuts. D.p. Zach Kuperstein served as a one-man crew, personally carrying the camera through astoundingly complex tracking shots that sometimes involved dozens of actors.

Single-take movies are not unknown, but unlike the recent “Birdman” and “1917,” “The Climb” hasn’t the budget for a tech-intensive post-production polish. What you see here is what happened; in only one brief instance does it appear Covino and Kuperstein relied on CG to achieve a particularly difficult shot. And I’m not sure even of that.

The  bar is set high with the very first scene. Old buddies Mike and Kyle are pedaling their racing bikes up a mountain in France.  Mike, the more experienced rider, is pep-talking his out-of-shape pal  into meeting the challenges of the climb.

Kyle’s mind isn’t focused on the ride; he is looking forward to his impending marriage to Ava, a French woman.

“I don’t have to change for her,” he says between deep breathes. “She loves me for who I am.”

Seconds later Mike casually announces that he’s slept with Ava. In fact, he still is. And without missing a beat he advises Kyle:
“Switch gears. You need to pedal at a steady cadence.”

This nine-minute scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. First, it is shot in one take (I assume the camera was mounted on the rear of a truck). Second, it establishes Mike as a perennial screwup. Even when he’s trying to be honest — he feels obligated to warn Kyle of his fiancé’s faithlessness — it’s motivated by selfishness.

Over the next 90 minutes we will follow Mike and Kyle’s off-and-on friendship.  “Off” because in the wake of their bike ride Mike marries Ava (French film star Judith Godreche) and Kyle, understandably enough, wants nothing to do with him; “on” because when Ava dies the good-hearted Kyle shows up to support his grief-ravaged friend. ‘Cause that’s the kind of guy he is.

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Guy Pearce

“THE LAST VERMEER”  My rating: B- (Opens in theaters Nov. 20)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In “The Last Vermeer” Aussie Guy Pearce delivers a hugely entertaining performance as Han van Meergren, a charmingly decadent artiste and all-round roue in post-war Copehagen.

Oozing hedonistic hubris, intellectual arrogance and casual amorality through his Einstein-level frizzy gray hair and mustache, Pearce’s van Meergren is the center of attention whenever he appears on screen.

Which, sad to say, isn’t nearly often enough. For though he is arguably the most important character in
Dan Friedkin’s “The Last Vermeer” he — like Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in “The Third Man” — gets relatively little screen time.

The screenplay (credited to John Orloff, James McGee, Mark Fegus and Hawk Ostby…very nearly a case of too many cooks) is based on real events.

The Nazis have been defeated and Jospeh Piller (Claes Bang), a Dane who fled the occupation to fight in the Canadian army, has been assigned the task of tracking down art masterpieces stolen by the Germans. His job is to return these priceless objects to their rightful owners (in may cases Jewish families) and prosecute the  collaborators who made the pillaging possible.

A previously unknown Vermeer painting — recovered from a Berlin-bound train and intended for Herman Goering’s personal collection — sets Pillar on a quest.  He’s accompanied by thuggish aide Esper (Roland Moller) who provides muscle when it’s needed and by the investigative genius Minna (Vicky Krieps).

Their sleuthing leads them to van Meergren, a failed painter who was known to have partied with the Germans and who somehow became fabulously rich during the war — presumably by selling pilfered masterpieces to the enemy.   If that is indeed the case, van Meergren faces the death penalty. Collaborators are daily being executed in Copenhagen’s public squares.

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Ibrahima Gueye, Sophia Loren

“THE LIFE AHEAD” My rating: B- (Now streaming on Netflix)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The pleasure of watching Sophia Loren’s return to the screen (still charismatic at 86) is somewhat tempered by the so-so execution of “The Life Ahead.”

Written (with Ugo Chiti and Fabio Natale) and directed by Edoardo Ponti (Loren’s son), this effort offers all sorts of potential for heartstring tugging. The plot, after all, centers on an orphaned boy and an old lady who takes him in.

And yet I was left hoping for more.

Madam Rosa (Loren) is a former prostitute who now takes care of the children of other hookers in her Naples apartment. She dishes tough love when required, and is paid for her services, but clearly cares for the kids in her charge.

Enter Momo (newcomer Ibrahima Gueye), a Senegalese immigrant whose mother has died. Rosa reluctantly takes on the moody, defiant tweener at the behest of a doctor who serves their slum community.

Momo is rebellious and profane and tries to bully the other boy (Iosif Diego Privu) living with Rosa.  Before long the streetwise little punk has landed a gig peddling drugs.

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Greta Thunberg

“I AM GRETA” My rating: B+ (Streaming on Hulu)

97 minutes | MPAA rating:

She’s only 15. She’s autistic.

Yet in just two years Sweden’s Greta Thunberg has become the inspiration for an international movement.

She has become a self-educated expert on climate change (or at any rate, she knows more about it than most elected leaders) and is not shy about kicking the collective asses of the grownups who, in her opinion, are selling out humanity’s future for a petroleum fix.

Documentarist Nathan Grossman picked Greta as his subject more than two years ago when she was waging a one-girl protest outside Sweden’s house of parliament.  Talk about good instincts!

This child — who admits to liking animals more than humans and has little tolerance for chitchat and socializing — had decided to go on strike from her school every Friday in order to sit on a sidewalk passing out home-made flyers.

In a telling exchange, a woman passerby asks why she isn’t in class. Greta’s answer: “Why get an education if there’s no future?”

Since then she has inspired other young people to protest their governments’ failure in dealing with climate change. She’s addressed UN diplomats, met with presidents and prime ministers.

Despite the occasional “down” day and nagging doubts that the human-fueled destruction of our planet can be reversed in time, Greta plugs away at her message. It’s equal parts inspirational and heartbreaking.

We learned that young Greta was so traumatized by a climate documentary that she stopped eating and talking for months.  This on top of abuse and/or indifference from schoolmates weirded out by her high-functioning Asperger’s.

Somehow she came out of her funk, driven by her inner spirit to draw attention to the plight of the planet. She started with her own suburban Stockholm family, pushing them to a vegan diet and an electric car.  With the help of a photographic memory (and an obviously high IQ…how many teens are fluent in Swedish and English, with a smattering  of French?), she crafted her arguments and began making her case.

As much as this is Greta’s story, “I A Greta” is also about her father, Svante Thunberg, who serves as her primary protector on their many travels (mom Malena and a little sister remain in Sweden). It’s his job to make sure his willful daughter eats (her mind is racing so fast simple sustenance is an afterthought), gets rest and has a shoulder to lean on when the weight of responsibility and isolation becomes too much.

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Diane Lane, Kevin Costner

“LET HIM GO”  My rating: C (In theaters Nov. 6)

114 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There are moments early on when “Let Him Go” seems to be a thoughtful examination of a long marriage between a couple with fundamental differences about how the world works.

That Thomas Bezucha’s film stars Kevin Costner (one can usually feel safe whenever he’s wearing a cowboy hat) and Diane Lane (OMG: the eternally beautiful one-time child star is now portraying a grandmother!!!) generates even more hope that this might be a keeper.

Uh…no.

Before it’s all over “Let Him Go” will have descended into a quagmire of cult film wackiness and action/revenge melodrama, wasting a promising cast along the way.

Set in the early 1960s, the yarn begins on the Montana ranch of retired lawman George Blackledge (Costner), his wife Margaret (Diane Lane) and their son James (Ryan Bruce).  James has a wife, Lorna (Kayli Carter), and an infant boy. They’re just one big happy multigenerational family.

A riding accident leaves Lorna a widow and the story suddenly jumps several years into the future where we see her remarrying. Her new hubby is Donny Weboy (Will Brittain), who turns out not to be a nice person at all. (Why did Lorna fall for a creep, even while she’s still living with the sheltering George and Margaret?  Well, that would take some explaining, so Bezucha’s screenplay doesn’t even try.)

And then one day the little family vanishes without a trace.

The  emotion-driven and fiercely maternal Margaret is determined to mount a pursuit to rescue her grandson Jimmy — wherever it is that Donny may have taken Lorna and the boy.

Husband George, the sort of guy who says little and then only after considerable rumination, is morosely pragmatic. His life has been ruled by the law, and he knows they haven’t a legal leg to stand on.

But the stubborn Margaret announces she’ll go on the quest by herself if needs be. What’s a guy supposed to do?

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Left to right: Sam Swainsbury, James Purefoy, David Hayman, Dave Johns

“FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS”  My rating: B- (Now on Netflix)

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

With its seaside locale, eccentric characters and general sense of whimsey, the Brit “Fisherman’s Friends” bears not a little resemblance to Bill Forsyth’s sublime “Local Hero.”

Not that it’s nearly as good as that 1983 classic. But when you’re stuck at home during a pandemic, this little movie might be just the spirit lifter required.

Chris Foggin’s film was inspired by real events…and it’s sometimes painfully obvious which aspects of the yarn (it was written by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft)  were rooted in reality and which in Screenwriting 101. Nevertheless, it will be a churlish sod indeed who fails to respond to the movie’s charms.

Here’s the poop: A decade ago a bunch of Cornish fisherman rose to the top of the UK charts with a record of authentic sea chanties sung in impeccable 10-part harmony. This film purports to tell us how they were discovered and made the unlikely journey to pop stardom.

Music industry hustler Danny (Daniel Mays) has come to quaint Port Isaac, Cornwall, as part of a bachelor party for one of his co-workers. There the wise-ass city boys come across a gang of singing fisherman;  as a practical joke Danny’s colleagues order him to sign these blue-collar troubadours to a record deal.

What starts as a joke turns into a quest for Danny, who falls under the spell of the music, the town’s ambience, the garrulous seamen and especially the young divorced mother (Tuppence Middleton) in whose B&B he takes up temporary residence.

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Fiona Shaw, Tamara Lawrance, Jack Lowden

“KINDRED” My rating: C+ (In select theaters and VOD)

101 minutes | No MPAA rating

Thrillers can be too classy for their own good.

Such is the case with the British “Kindred,” a variation on “Rosemary’s Baby” (and not a few other women-in-distress pictures) that has been well made and nicely acted but never sucks us in the way we want.

The premise of Joe Marcantonio’s film is tried and true.  Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) and her boyfriend Ben (Edward Holcroft) are expecting a baby.  They reluctantly pop over to the rural estate where Ben grew up to inform his widowed mother, Margaret (Fiona Shaw), of the good news.

And to announce that they’re emigrating to Australia.

Mama is not pleased. The family’s once-resplendent castle in the country is now marked by peeling wallpaper and threadbare rugs; Margaret has long prayed that as the heir Ben would move back and return the place to its former glory.   Now her hopes are dashed.

That is, until Ben dies in an agricultural accident. Shortly thereafter the grieving Charlotte begins to suspect that far from being a pampered guest she is a prisoner in this shabby palace.

Marcantonio’s screenplay(with Jason McColgan) is noteworthy in that until the very end it keeps us guessing as to whether Fiona is a variation on the wicked witch or if it’s all in Charlotte’s head (her own mother had mental issues, and being preggers doesn’t exactly calm our heroine’s mind).

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Anna Taylor-Joy

“THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT”  My rating: A- (Now on Netflix)

Anya Taylor-Joy has been an indie “it” girl ever since 2015’s “The Witch”; she cemented her reputation with this year’s “Emma” (and took a half-step back with the widely reviled “New Mutants”).

But true blow-out mainstream stardom now has arrived for her in the form of “The Queen’s Gambit,” a personality study masquerading as a sports movie (well, sort of…the sport here is chess).

Scott Frank’s seven-part Netflix series (he directed and wrote or co-wrote every episode) allows the 24-year-old Taylor-Joy to exploit everything in her acting arsenal, from her eerie looks (those HUGE eyes, those rosebud lips) to explosive physicality to a sort of studied inscrutability that is her character’s dominant trait.

Along the way the series (adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel) tackles issues of feminism and paternalism, Cold War tension, substance abuse and Sixties hedonism.  Oh, yeah…and  you’ll learn an awful lot about the world of competitive chess.

The first chapter introduces us to young Beth Harrison (played as a child by Isla Johnston) in the wake of the suicidal car wreck that killed her single mother (Chloe Pirrie, who keeps popping up in flashbacks scattered throughout the episodes).

Little Beth is consigned to a church-sponsored orphanage where she’s fed a steady diet of religion and tranquilizers (the beginning of lifelong addiction issues), is befriended by the older malcontent Jolene (Moses Ingram) and finds an unlikely mentor in the school’s reclusive janitor (the great Bill Camp) who in the dingy cellar introduces her to the game of chess — at which she excels. 

“The Queen’s Gambit” follows two distinct but frequently intersecting paths.

The first is Beth’s rise to the highest ranks of international chess, starting with state competitions (she knows the game, but is indifferent to the attendant proprieties), through state championships and on to the nationals. Frank and team pull out the stops in recreating the milieu of chess fantacism.  By the time you’re finished you’ll have been given a crash course.

The second plot is a more personal one. It’s about Beth as damaged goods, a loner who gets by on ego, skill, booze and pills;  a teen who seems unable to establish the  usual connections and friendships.

Beth is adopted by a couple whose motives for becoming parents are mixed at best;  the father almost immediately bails, leave Beth to deal with his depressed, alcoholic and delightfully loquacious wife, Alma (Marielle Heller). You can say this for Alma…despite the constant drinking she’s knows how to monetize Beth’s chess skills; before long the teenager is popping up on the covers of magazines. Continue Reading »

Rashida Jones, Bill Murray

“ON THE ROCKS”  My rating: B (Now on Apple +)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Bill Murray and his gleefully smarmy insouciance have been part of our collective unconscious for so long — more than four decades now — that it’s easy to forget that he is one formidable actor.

And to prove that point one need look no further than Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” a father/daughter road trip that chugs along without a misstep, providing along the way many an opportunity for Murray to do his glorious thing.

The premise is simple enough. Approaching 40, with two young children to care for and a writing career that appears stalled, New Yorker Laura (Rashida Jones) is a envious of her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), an entrepeurial type working on a big project that requires much travel, usually in the company of his team of young go-getters.

Laura’s doubts about herself and her marriage go from lukewarm bath to slow-simmer when her father, famous art dealer and inveterate womanizer Felix (Murray), puts a bug in her ear.  Could Dean be having a fling with one of his young helpers?

Felix, after all, is a past master of marital deception; he knows the signs of a cheating husband and doesn’t want his little girl blindsided in the same way as when he broke up with Laura’s mother decades earlier.

Or could it be that in maturity he’s desperate to connect with the child he once almost drove away? That he has an agenda beyond Dean’s presumed infidelity?

Basically what we’ve got here is a comic mystery in which father-and-daughter sleuths go searching for proof of Dean’s fooling around. It’s a quest that will have them crashing swank Manhattan  soirees and even a Mexican resort.

Mostly, though, it provides a series of opportunities for superbly written and performed verbal exchanges.

Jones is terrific as a woman whose faith in her marriage is tested but never shattered. Her attitude toward Felix — equal parts loving admiration and clear-eyed suspicion — is precisely limned. And she has a great third-act monologue in which she tells off her old man for his selfishness.

But of course Laura is the straight-man role. Murray’s the one who gets one standout moment after the other.  In one marvelous scene he talks his way into the good graces of a NYPD cop who has pulled him over for racing his red convertible through Soho: “Are you Tommy Callaghan’s kid?” he asks after reading the officer’s name tag. “I don’t know why I didn’t make you right away. You’re a dead ringer.”

Before it’s over he has not only sweet talked his way out of a traffic ticket, but he gets the city’s finest to provide a running jump start for his temperamental roadster.

Just about every woman who encounters this sad-eyed Lothario seems to get a buzz off him. Laura is no exception.  The guy is remarkably entertaining.  In one instance Felix has her  walk backwards through a cocktail party — that way the hostess won’t realize they’re leaving early.

And at a posh Mexican resort where Dean is attending some sort of business deal, Laura finds her father serenading the other guests with a pretty righteous rendition of “Mexicali Rose.”

Coppola provides her leads with a late confrontation in which Laura reveals the many times she’s been hurt by her father, and Felix tries to explain how a mistress gave him the “glow” his wife no longer bestowed.

With its love of the big city “On the Rocks” sometimes feels like a long-lost Woody Allen effort, but Coppola is very much her own auteur; it’s doubtful that Allen or any male writer/director could have so succinctly captured Laura’s predicament.

The result is an amusing film that ultimately delivers a few deep lessons.

| Robert W. Butler

Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman

“THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7” My rating: A- (Now streaming on Netflix)

129 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In the year’s most fortuitous marriage of filmmaker and subject matter, Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” delivers a superbly scripted and acted mini-epic torn from recent American history.

Along the way it proves conclusively that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” natch) and based on real events of 1968-69, “Trial…” is packed with great moments and knockout perfs. Awe-inspiring in its ability to take a complex subject and examine it from myriad points of view, the film will leave viewers amused, infuriated and inspired.

That it also deals heavily in themes of  official misbehavior only makes it more relevant to a time in which the tools of government are routinely twisted to serve the corrupt whims of the White House.

Sorkin, who both scripted and directed, kicks things off with a kaleidoscopic sequence that explains, in superb cinematic shorthand, the philosophical differences among the various rabble rousers who will come to be known as the Chicago 7.

Middle-aged David Dellinger(John Carroll Lynch) is a suburban family man and literal scoutmaster preparing to go to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago to protest the Vietnam War.  He’s so totally into non-violence that one of his legal team later admits: “You’re a conscientious objector who sat out World War II.  Even I want to punch you.”

In a similar vein, youthful activists Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis (Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp) plan peaceful protests in Chicago. They want to change society through the ballot box.

Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong of HBO’s “Succession”)  take a more anarchistic view. If punched, they claim, they’ll punch back. In the meantime, they’ll mock authority.

Finally there’s Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who tells us: “Martin’s dead. Malcolm’s dead. Bobby (Kennedy) is dead. Jesus is dead.  They tried it peacefully. We gonna try something else.”

One of Sorkin’s flashes of genius is to not show us the Chicago riots until later in the film, when we see them in flashbacks as testimony is delivered.

Instead the film jumps from the preparations for Chicago to the convention’s aftermath, when Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) orders U.S. attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to indict the leading agitators for conspiring to cross state lines to incite riots against.  Schultz is a reluctant participant; though he has little in common with the men he will prosecute, he doubts the legitimacy of the government’s case. Nevertheless, he forges on.

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Luca Marinelli

“MARTIN EDEN”  My rating: B- (Ooens Oct. 16 at the Kansas City Tivoli at the Nelson Atkins’ Virtual Cinema)

129 minutes | No MPAA rating

Most of us know Jack London for  his perennially popular adventure yarns The Call of the Wild and White Fang.

But London scholars — and the author himself — have always gravitated to the 1909 novel Martin Eden as the ultimate Jack London statement.

In this semi-autobiographical story an impoverished young man educates himself, emerges as a writer of note,  and ultimately kills himself when he finds hollow the success he has always sought. (The novel has been viewed by some as a prediction of London’s mysterious death in 1916).

The book was set in turn-of-the-last-century Oakland.  Director Pietro Marcello and co-writer Maurizio Braucci have transplanted the yarn to Naples.  The change isn’t just geographical…this “Martin Eden” unfolds in two phases, the first a non-specific early 20th century milieu, the second an apparently modern one.

The resulting film is gripping in its first hour, thanks largely to star Luca Marinelli, who oozes early Sam Shepard machismo/sensitivity. The second half, though, bogs down in political navel gazing.

We encounter Martin first as a sailor working on a freighter. He’s a charming fellow, popular with the ladies, and exhibits a good heart, as when he rescues a young man from a brutal dockside security guard.

That act of kindness leads to his introduction to the wealthy Orsini family and their beautiful daughter, Elena (Jessica Cressy). Even Elena’s bourgeoise parents are charmed by this hunky proletarian — especially when he reveals behind his workingman exterior a probing mind, eager for education.

Bent on self-improvement, Martin takes on Elena as his tutor.   Romantic attraction follows — though the movie is coy about whether the relationship is overtly sexual.

All this takes place in a setting that could be anywhere from the 1920s to the early ’50s…the costumers and production designers are intriguingly nonspecific.

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Kristen Vaganos, Carmen Anello

“I AM LISA”  My rating: C+ (Opens Oct. 9 at the Screenland Armour)

92 minutes | No MPAA rating

Horror fans — who seem to be perennially on the prowl for new twists on old tropes — will find fresh meat to chew on in “I Am Lisa,” the latest from Lawrence-based creepmeister Patrick Rea.

Working from a screenplay by first-timer Eric Winkler (full disclosure: Eric and I were for years colleagues at the Kansas City Star), “…Lisa” offers a mashup of two genres — the female revenge melodrama (“I Spit on Your Grave,” etc.) and the werewolf picture.

Moreover, it’s a female centric yarn — the cast is mostly women.

The Lisa of the title (Kristen Vaganos) operates a small-town bookstore.  She’s got scholarly glasses and hides beneath a stocking cap (think Dustin Hoffman in “Straw Dogs”) and  is easy prey for a posse of bad girls who seem to run things in the little burg.

Their sneering, manipulative leader is Jessica (Carmen Anello), who makes off with an expensive first edition.  Lisa seeks relief from the local sheriff, Deb Huckins (Manon Halliburton).

Big mistake.  Sheriff Huckins is Jessica’s mom (uh…how did this escape Lisa?) and the head of a crime family that runs everything from drugs to prostitution.  Her thick son Nick (Crhis Bylsma) is her deputy.

For her troubles Lisa will be kicked nearly to death, raped and, at one point, crucified.  Left to expire in the woods, she’s bitten by a wolf and wakes up in the rural home of an eccentric occultist (Cinnamon Schultz) who nurses her back to health.  This doesn’t take as long as you’d expect…all of a sudden Lisa is exhibiting remarkable recuperative properties.

Hiding out with her best bud Sam (Jennifer Seward), who will function as a last-act maiden-in-distress, Lisa realizes that she’s becoming a powerful beast capable of snapping a neck or tearing out a throat.

Mean girls had best look out. Continue Reading »

Sidse Babett Knudsen, Pilou Asbaek

“BORGEN” (Now streaming on Netflix)

If like me you are inclined to view contemporary American politics as a terrifying shitstorm, there’s some comfort to be had in the excellent Danish series “Borgen,” a sort of “West Wing” for a multi-party society.

Take comfort in the knowledge that things could be even crazier.

The central character of this 2010-2013 series (its two seasons are now streaming on Netflix; a third reportedly is on the way)  is Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen…she played “Westworld’s” top exec in that series’ first season).

Birgitte is a forty something politician, wife and mother whose centrist party grabs enough parliamentary seats in an election to form a new government. That means she is poised to become her country’s first female prime minister.

Thing is, Denmark (like most European nations) relies on coalition governments made up of representatives of two or more parties.  Whereas Americans have only to choose between Democrats and Republicans, Danish voters have a slew of ideologies to select from.

If you’re going to rule in Denmark, you’ll spend much of your time compromising with smaller fringe parties — like the Greens —  in exchange for their support. This is achieved by handing out plum assignments in the various ministries.

And while performing these in-house acrobatics, a leader like Birgitte must fend off the advances  of far right-wing parties currently out of favor.

Complicated? Yeah, but show runner Adam Price and his writers are so good at setting up the lay of the land that it’s easy to pick up on the subtleties of Danish politics.

Just as important, “Borgen” (that roughly translates as “the Castle,” the Danes’ nickname for the building in Copenhagen holding the country’s executive, legislative and judicial branches) is packed with terrific characters to whom we get mightily attached.

Knusden’s Birgitte is a fantastically compelling figure, a whip-smart politician struggling — not always successfully — to balance her duties at the Castle with her family life. Not to mention the near-constant pressure to stuff her ideals and act out of sheer convenience.

Cracks soon appear in her seemingly rock-solid marriage to Phillip, a professor of economics (Michael Birkkjaer). Equally frustrating is the toll her job is taking on the couple’s children, a teenage daughter (Freja Riemann) who slips into depression and an angelic tweener son (Emil Poulsen) who inexplicably begins bed wetting.

Essentially “Borgen” asks if it is possible to hold positions of great power without compromising one’s principles or doing irreparable damage to those you love.

Continue Reading »

Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer

“THE BOYS IN THE BAND” My rating: B (Now on Netflix)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Gotta be honest…the first half hour or so of Netflix’s “The Boys in the Band” is not terribly promising.

Based on Mart Crowley’s ground-breaking 1968 play (it was first filmed in 1970), this new version pretty much sticks to the original script.

In doing so Joe Mantello’s film clumsily displays its theatrical roots, not just in its claustrophobic single setting but also in the dialogue-heavy way it tells us (rather than shows us) what its characters and their predicament are all about. Especially in the early going the talk seems forced and artificial in its efforts to set up the situation.

But once it kicks in, once all the celebrants to a gay man’s birthday party in late-60s NYC show up and start interacting, “Boys…” finds its voice and its power.

What’s really driven home here is the realization that while the conditions under which gay people live have improved over the last 50 years, the human condition pretty much remains the same.

Here’s the setup: Michael (Jim Parsons), a witty and somewhat dictatorial fellow, has invited several of his closest friends to his apartment (Greenwich Village?) for a birthday celebration. Over the course of an increasingly drunken evening they will thrash out relationships, hopes, dreams and fears.

The birthday boy is Harold (Zacharay Quinto), pock-marked, cynical and carrying a substantial load of self-loathing.

Larry (Andrew Rannells) and Hank (Tuc Watkins) are a couple…at least for now. Randy Larry has a wandering eye (and other body parts), while staid Hank — who has an ex-wife and a couple of kids — takes comfort in monogamy.

Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) is a black man who, before the evening is over, will erupt over Michael’s barely-disguised race baiting. Continue Reading »

Sarah Megan Thomas

“A CALL TO SPY” My rating: B- (Available on Video on Demand on Oct. 2)

123 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

An overlooked landmark in the history of World War II — not to mention in the annals of feminism — gets a  dusting off in “A Call to Spy,” the fact based story of the role women played behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France.

Lydia Dean Pilcher’s drama (the screenplay is by Sarah Megan Thomas, who also takes a leading role) begins many months before America was pulled into the conflict. The British are reeling and desperate for information of what’s going on in occupied Europe.

But as spymaster Maurcie Buckmaster (Linus Roache) admits to his second, Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), the English are amateurs at this stuff. Their agents are being quickly swept up and eliminated by the Gestapo.

Atkins has an idea.  The Germans are expecting male infiltrators. Why not women?

Her search quickly brings her to the U.S. Embassy and Virginia Hall (Thomas), a fiercely capable individual (despite having one prosthetic leg) whose dreams of joining America’s diplomatic corps are being crushed by nearsighted male chauvinism.

Being both fluent in French and an American (remember, the Yanks are still neutral), she will be able to move more or less unimpeded throughout Vichy.  Especially when she’s given a cover as a foreign correspondent for an American newspaper.

Another recruit is Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a Sufi Muslim working as a radio operator under Buckmaster.  She is so fast with Morse Code that she’s sent to set up a wireless station in France through which British spies can channel their findings. Though a pacifist, Noor believes her spying can save lives.

Continue Reading »

Julianne Moore

“THE GLORIAS” My rating: B (Available Sept. 30 on Prime Video)

139 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias” isn’t your conventional biopic.  Often it seems to be less about Gloria Steinem the person than about the Women’s Movement as seen from Steinem’s perspective.

The results are hugely informative (and required viewing for all young women) but, for most of the film’s long running time, emotionally remote. Only in the  final inspiring moments (featuring footage of the real Steinem addressing the “Pink Pussy” women’s march on Washington early in the Trump presidency) does the enormity of Steinem’s contributions hit home.

Based on Steinem’s autobiography My Life on the Road,  the film is nevertheless classic Julie Taymor.  The story is told with a shuffled chronology with four actresses (Lulu Wilson, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore) portraying Steihem at various stages of life.  Occasionally the older Gloria will share the screen with her younger selves in a series of interior dialogues.

There are animated sequences and lots of cinematic sleight of hand; the images shift from black-and-white to color (and sometimes just a splash of color in an otherwise b&w palette).

As is usually the case with Taymor, these inventions are arresting, sometimes shockingly dramatic, and provide sly commentary on the action.  Yet I can’t help but wonder if in the end they tend to push us away from her subject; “The Glorias” may be too busy for its own good.

But we do learn a lot about Steinem.  Like her childhood of near constant travel with a father (Timothy Hutton) who was a sort of benign con man (“If you don’t know what happens tomorrow, it could be wonderful”) and, later, her adolescence as caregiver to her emotionally fragile mother (Enid Graham).

There’s her lifelong love of tap dancing, presented here as a musical number unfolding in a black barber shop in the 1950s.

We see her post-college sabbatical in India, where young Gloria (now played by Vikander) is sensitized to the harsh lot of women.

Her writing career flourishes despite the myopic outlooks of her male editors. She becomes a household name for donning a Bunny suit to report on the lives of women working in the Playboy Club; thereafter she must endure being cast as the movement’s resident sex object. In fact, she fights for most of her life not to be viewed as the movement’s voice. Ironically, in the early days she was terrified of public speaking.

Continue Reading »

Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw

“MISBEHAVIOUR” My rating: B- (Available Sept. 25 on Video on Demand)

106 minutes | No MPAA rating

It’s got a killer cast and a stirring inspired-by-headlines story to tell.

Yet Philippa Lowthorpe’s “Misbehaviour” only really kicks in during the closing credits, when through archival photos we get the stories of what happened to its real-life characters “after” the movie ends.

The subject here is the Miss World beauty pageant of 1970, when a staid institution was knocked on its ear by a rising tide of feminism and Third World influences.

Rebecca Frayne’s screenplay begins with Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), a British mother and graduate student, being sucked into the world of “radical” feminism through her unexpected friendship with Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), a gleeful vandal who specializes in spray-paint sloganeering.

Despite her initial misgivings, her traditionalist mother (“Downton Abbey’s” Phyllis Logan) and her own responsibilities as a mom, Sally becomes a convert to the cause.  It helps that she’s had humiliating  run-ins with male-centric academia. Before long the other women are regarding her as a leader.

Sally, Jo and their comrades decide to disrupt the Miss World competition, a London-based event much beloved by the British public.

One of “Misbehaviour’s” many plot threads (“Mis-Behaviour” as in “Miss World”…get it?) centers on the married couple Eric and Julia Morley (Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes), operators of the pageant.  He’s a guy who dispassionately analyzes a young woman’s physical attributes like a health inspector examining a side of beef; she’s a bit more attuned to the needs of modern women, but still committed to the family business.

Another plot involves the famous Hollywood  comedian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear with convincing fake nose and a not-very-convincing impersonation), who is hired as this year’s emcee.  He is accompanied to his country of birth by his wife Dolores (Lesley Manville), who wearily tolerates his rampant philandering.

And then there are the contestants.  1970 was a memorable year for the pageant, and not only because of the feminist shenanigans that turned the live TV broadcast into a chaotic fiasco.

Continue Reading »

Milie  Bobby Brown, Helena Bonham Carter

“ENOLA HOLMES” My rating: B (Now on Netflix)

123 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Netflix’s “Enola Holmes” would be a welcome diversion at any time.

That it also confirms young Millie Bobby Brown (you know…the bald one from “Stranger Things”) as a major star is but frosting on the scone.

The premise of Harry Bradbeer’s film (Jack Thorne adopted from Nancy Springer’s YA novel) is that the great detective Sherlock Holmes had, in addition to his brother Mycroft, a little sister named Enola.

Raised by her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) to be an independent, inquisitive, self-asserting young woman (instead of crocheting and piano 16-year-old Enola was trained in archery and karate), this youngest Holmes is shattered when one morning her dear Mama vanishes.

Big brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin), a pompous and unyieldingly chauvinistic government bigwig, is Enola’s legal guardian — though he hasn’t seen her for a decade. Now Mycroft arranges for her to be shipped off to the smothering finishing school run by the fascistic Miss Harrison (a gloriously scenery-chewing Fiona Shaw).

In the meantime, sibling Sherlock (Henry Cavill) will try to sleuth out what happened to their mother.

But Enola has a head start.  Cannily picking up on clues Eudoria deliberately left behind, Enola disguises herself as a boy and hits the road. Along the way she befriends a runaway adolescent nobleman, Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), who is being stalked by a bowler-hatted assassin (Burn Gorman).  Upshot: Violent confrontations and a teen crush.

She also discovers that her mother and her fellow suffragettes may have been involved in a bomb-making plot. And she runs afoul of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade (Adeel Akhtar), hot on the trail both of Enola and Tewkesbury.

Continue Reading »

Carrie Coon, Jude Law

“THE NEST” My rating: B (Now available on Screenland Online)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The opening scene of “The Nest” contrasts images of moneyed American domesticity — Dad playing soccer with his kids, Mom training horses — against a menacing musical score right out of a horror film.

“The Nest” isn’t a horror entry per se, but over the  course of a downwardly-spiraling 107 minutes it does reveal the horrors lurking just below the surface of what looks like an ideal household. It’s a great topic for writer/director Sean Durkin’s followup to his dark 2011 thriller “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”

And it provides an acting tour de force from Jude Law and Carrie Coon.

Early on the British-born Rory (Law) informs wife Allison (Coon) that he’s been approached by a former boss to return to the U.K. for a prestigious position in acquisitions and mergers. Allison is at first reluctant to leave the States (she’s a Yank), but gradually gives in to the promise of more money and a change of scenery.

When she and the kids — Samantha (Oona Roche), her teenage daughter by a previous marriage, and 10-year-old Ben (Charlie Shotwell) — arrive in London they are driven out into the burbs to a huge Georgian mansion Rory has rented for them. Despite the home’s storied history (apparently members of Led Zepplin lived there for a spell), its full-size soccer field for Ben and space in which to build a stable for their horses, Allison is turned off by the place.  It’s too big, too dark, too pretentious.

Rory, though, is on a hubristic roll, full of plans to get rich. To prove his newfound status, he presents Allison with a full-length fur coat.  Though she makes snide remarks about Rory’s sharkish fellow employees and their posh, social-climbing wives, she still finds excuses to pull on that expensive wrap.

It doesn’t take long for cracks to appear.

Continue Reading »

“MY OCTOPUS TEACHER” My rating: A- (Now on Netflix)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

No nature documentary you’ve ever seen will quite prepare you for “My Octopus Teacher,” a heart-gripping tale of a friendship (one might even call it a romance) between a human and a mollusk.

This film is a transcendent experience.

Craig Foster is a South African maker of nature docs who several years ago underwent an unspecified professional and personal crisis and retreated to the oceanside vacation home in which he had spent his boyhood summers nearly three decades earlier.

Craig Foster

He found himself drawn to an offshore kelp forest and its aquatic denizens. Despite the chilly water Foster declined to wear a wet suit in his explorations as it interfered with his sensory connection with this watery world; for the same reason he eschewed heavy scuba gear in favor of a simple snorkel, which required him to resurface regularly to take a fresh breath.

It was on one of his casual floats through this environment that Foster came across an octopus. He was initially drawn to this creature because it had used its eight tentacles to collect and grasp an assortment of empty shells, thus camouflaging itself either for protection from predators or because it hid her (the animal was female, though the film never tells us how you sex an cephalopod) from her intended prey.

In any case, Foster was intrigued enough by this sophisticated behavior (a mollusk employing tools?) to seek out the octopus on subsequent dives. He found her den beneath a rock shelf and decided to return every day to study this magnificent alien creature.

Just as important, he was moved to pick up his underwater camera and record these adventures.

Other documentarists have obsessed over the astonishing properties of octopi…for instance, their ability to instantaneously change the color and texture of their skin to blend in with their environment, or to compress their bodies to slip through tiny cracks. Or their multiple brains (a couple in the head, others in the arms).

But for Foster, who recalls his experiences in an awed whisper that suggests some sort of religious conversion, this becomes much more than a case of detached scientific observation.  At one point the octopus — he never gives it a name, thank God — becomes so accustomed to Foster’s presence that it sends out a slender tentacle to wrap around his finger, eventually clutching/stroking his limbs in a case of exploration that soon evolves into, well, a friendship.

Continue Reading »

“ALONE” My rating: B (Available on demand on Sept. 18)

96 minutes | No MPAA rating

The woman-in-peril plot has been so overdone that we’re due for an industry-wide embargo.

Before that happens, though, I’m happy to have seen “Alone,” John Hyams’ superior thriller that with a minimum of fuss leaves the nerves tingling.

We meet Jessica (Jules Willcox) packing up her belongings in a U-Haul trailer. She’s leaving Portland; her destination isn’t disclosed, not even to her parents who dun her with phone calls. Basically she heads northeast, into the wilderness.

The first hint that things might not go well comes on the first day when she is nearly run off the road by a jerk in a Jeep.  (Echoes of Spielberg’s “Duel.”)

Next morning, as she’s preparing to pull out from the motel where she spent the night, Jessica is approached by a stranger (Marc Menchacha) who announced he wants to apologize.

This doofus-looking dude (sandy Fu-Manchu ‘stache, oversized aviator glasses) tries to start up a friendly conversation but Jessica wisely isn’t having any of it. She’s suspicious even of the sling in which he keeps one of  his arms.

But getting rid of the guy is a problem. In the wee hours he shows up at a highway rest stop where she’s taking a break; when she gets back on the road she discovers that one of her tires has been slashed.

Nervous yet?

All this has been pulled off by director Hyams and screenwriter Mattias Olsson with a minimum of dialogue. In fact, with the exception of a few voices on the telephone this is a two-person movie.

Continue Reading »

“H IS FOR HAPPINESS”  My rating: B- (Available Sept. 18 on VOD/digital)

98 minutes | No MPAA rating

The Aussie “H Is for Happiness” aspires to the quirky uplift of “Amelie,” only for the tweener crowd.

Every now and then it gets there.

John Sheedy’s film is set in a postcard pretty town that seems timeless despite the very modern wind turbines that dot the landscape. It’s the sort of place where kids can run free, playing in the nearby forests and ranging far and wide on their bikes without fear.  We never see a cop, probably because they’d be superfluous.

Our pint-sized heroine is 12-year-old Candice (Daisy Axon), a buoyant amalgam of flaming Pippi Longstocking pigtails, endless freckles and unstoppable optimism.

Candice is a learning nerd, the kind of pint-sized intellectual who asks incredibly complex questions (the teacher is Miriam Margolyes with a disarmingly weird rotating CG eyeball) just as the end-of-session bell rings. She rapturously soaks up the detailed answer  oblivious to the stinkeyes directed at her by groaning classmates, who just want to leave.

Lisa Hoppe’s screenplay attempts to balance (not always gracefully) the essential innocence of Candice’s world view with the grim realities of her life.

Her mother Claire (Emma Booth) is a recluse who never recovered from the death several years before of Candice’s infant sister. Dad Jim (Richard Roxburgh) is a computer repairman and basement inventor embittered by a falling out with his brother. That would be Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson), who made millions off an unspecified creation originally developed with his sibling.

Continue Reading »

Bill Skarsgard (left)

“THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME” My rating: B- (Now on Netflix)

138 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Some people are born just so they can be buried.”

That glum observation, spoken by a corrupt lawman, pretty much sums up “The Devil All the Time,” a slow-bubbling stew of old-time religion and blue-collar mayhem.

Imagine a partnership of Flannery O’Conner and Jim Thompson. It’s pretty unpleasant…but has been acted and produced with enough brio to keep us hanging on.

Directed by Antonio Campos (“Christine,” TV’s “The Sinner”) and scripted by Campos and his brother Paulo (from the novel by Donald Ray Pollock), this is a  saga covering 20 years and three generations of a family (two families, actually) living in southern Ohio and nearby West Virginia.

Tom Holland

It’s a world populated by devotees of Ol’ Time Religion, feral and/or delusional preachers, dirty cops and a couple of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers.

The whole thing is narrated by novelist Pollock, who has just the right down-home voice (half sincerity, half deadpan sarcasm,  hint of a twang) to pull it all together.

The story?  Where to begin…”The Devil All the Time” is all over the place.

It starts in 1945 with the return from combat of Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard), still haunted by what he experienced and rebelling at God. It then follows Willard’s son Arvin (Tom Holland) through a traumatic childhood.

For both father and son religion is more a burden than a comfort, in large part because of the hypocrisies so lavishly displayed by clergymen like the bombastic Roy Laferty (Harry Melling in  spectacularly hypnotic/creepy form) or the snakily seductive Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), who preys on the naive young things of his congregation.

Continue Reading »

Liu Yifei

“MULAN” My rating: B (Begins streaming Sept. 3 on various platforms)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Disney’s new live-action “Mulan” occupies a precarious sweet spot that is hard to establish and perhaps harder to keep.

The film is simple enough (and inoffensive enough) for children, yet possesses ample thematic depth and technical imagination to engage adults.

Well, most adults, anyway. Certainly those adults who will end up watching it with their offspring.

The story is already familiar to many of us, thanks to several centuries of Chinese folklore and numerous film adaptations, especially the 1998 animated Disney version.  The premise finds a young woman, Mulan, disguising herself as a man and taking her aged/injured father’s place in the Emperor’s army in a fight to repel ruthless invaders.

It hardly needs pointing out that the yarn’s feminist credentials remain timely. Moreover, director Niki Caro has made a career of female empowerment with titles like the sublime “Whale Rider” and the gut-punching “North Country.” She knows her way around the subject.

But she also brings to this incarnation martial arts action reminiscent of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and a David Lean-worthy sense of place and space (although with Lean you knew  those spectacular sunsets and sand dunes were the real deal; here they may have sprung from a computer program).

And in young Chinese star Liu Yifei the film has a heroine able to suggest her character’s inner drive and thoughts while presenting a manly — i.e., emotion-smothering — face to the outside world. (Has there ever been a lead female role with so little smiling?)

This “Mulan” forgoes the musical numbers of the animated version, not to mention the goofy dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy. Instead it emphasizes visual beauty and battle (albeit PG-13 battle…these soldiers die bloodlessly).

The villain here is Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the scarred, long-haired barbarian leader seeking revenge for the death of his father years before. With an army of gravity-defying ninjas, Bori Khan is relentlessly marching into China, intent on personally slaying the aging Emperor (Jet Li).

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Sergio Chamy, Romulo Aiken

“THE MOLE AGENT”  My rating: B+ (Begins streaming on Sept. 1)

84 minutes | No MPAA rating

The opening of the charming/devastating documentary “The Mole Agent” finds dozens of graying gents in Santiago, Chile, responding to a help-wanted ad for “elderly men between 80 and 90.” (Face it — there aren’t many job opportunities for that particular demographic.)

The ad was placed by Romulo Aiken, the head of a private detective agency, who after a series of semi-comic interviews finally hires 83-year-old Sergio Chamy. Sergio is informed that he will spend the next three months undercover in a nursing facility.  The  daughter of  a resident suspects elder abuse by employees and has launched an elaborate scheme to expose these alleged crimes.

Not only will  Sergio have to learn the ins and outs of an iPhone (so that he can file daily reports with Romulo), but he’s given a pair of high-tech spectacles and a writing pen equipped with mini-cameras with which to record any nefarious goings-on.

Even more amazing, Romulo and filmmaker Maite Alberdi have already infiltrated the retirement home with a camera crew, ostensibly  to do a documentary about elder care but strategically placed to follow Sergio while he interacts with the residents and sleuths out the truth of the situation.

What starts out as a sort of mystery, though, quickly emerges as something else — a funny, heartbreaking examination of aging filled with colorful characters and enough choked-back sobs that wise viewers will keep a box of tissues within easy reach.

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Classic ’60s clothing by Pierre Cardin

“HOUSE OF CARDIN” My rating: B+ (Now available for streaming through Loft Cinema:  loftcinema.org)

95 minutes | No MPAA rating

With only a little hyperbole, an admirer of Pierre Cardin tells the makers of “House of Cardin” that virtually everyone on earth knows the Cardin name.

Apparently, though, nobody knows the man.

Early on in P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes’ documentary, one of Cardin’s cohorts is asked to describe the great designer on a basic human level…and can muster only a blank and helpless look.

In old interview footage Cardin (he’s now 98 years young) admits to having “no sense of self…it’s not me, it’s the brand.”

Indeed, we’re three fourths of the way through this movie before the topic turns to something as fundamental as its subject’s sexuality…and even then it’s more a case of suggestion than assertion.

But if the Cardin personality is elusive, his accomplishments are not.  “House of Cardin” will prove a real eye-opener for those of us (this writer included), who pretty much assumed he was a Parisian fashion designer, period.

The doc’s format mixes filmed interviews Cardin has done over the decades, recent footage of the man still at work and holding court (he’s charming without ever revealing too much), archival photos and footage and tons of reminiscences by the likes of rocker Alice Cooper (Cardin was responsible for bringing Cooper’s Grand Guignol stage show to Paris in the early ’70s), actress Sharon Stone and model Naomi Campbell.

But some of the most informative stuff comes from his colleagues, the people who have worked with him for years and regard him as the benevolent if often exacting father of their big family. The guy couldn’t be a total cipher and elicit that sort of love.

The film deals with the basic biographical stuff up front.  Cardin is Italian, not French.  His family fled Mussolini’s fascist state when Pierre was a boy. During the war he worked for the French Red Cross in Vichy.  With the peace he came to Paris and, with unbelievable good luck, immediately began working in the haute couture fashion houses (Paquin, Dior) to which he aspired.

This self-taught clothing maker was soon collaborating with heavy-duty artistic types like filmmaker/poet Jean Cocteau and actor Jean Marais.  “I was a very good-looking young man,” the white-haired Cardin recalls.  “So everyone wanted to sleep with me.”

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“DRIVEN TO ABSTRACTION” My rating: B- (Available for streaming on Aug. 28)

84 minutes | No MPAA rating

Aside from guns and drugs, the world of fine arts may be the biggest unregulated industry on earth.
“Driven to Abstraction,” Daria Price’s documentary about the fall of the nation’s oldest continuously operating commercial art gallery, makes it pretty clear that for all the high-falutin’ airs of the art world, on the business end it’s a Wild West show as often as not run by riverboat gamblers and con artists.
In 2011 New York’s Knoedler Gallery — in operation since 1846 — abruptly closed.  Speculation soon turned to disbelief — the Knoedler’s operator, Ann Freedman, one of the most reputable dealers in the biz,  was being sued for having sold forgeries as genuine works  by Mark Rotko, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Richard Diebenkorn and Frank Stella, among others.
Turns out that for at least 20 years Freedman had been selling modern “masterpieces” ostensibly plucked from the vast private holdings of a European collector.  Oddly enough, there was no record of these particular paintings; Freedman said she had been told the collector bought them directly from the artists before they went on the market or were even photographed for posterity.
But there were  red flags.  Scientific analysis showed that in some instances the paint used  was not available until years after the death of the artists involved.  And then there’s the little issue of the Jackson Pollock painting in which the artist misspelled his own last name in signing the work.
“Driven to Abstraction” chronicles the saga of the Knoedler Gallery and the biggest scandal in the history of art in such labyrinthine detail that a flow chart would come in handy.
Freedman claimed that she was a victim here, too,  that the works in question were sold to her by  Glafira Rosales, operator of a small-time gallery on Long Island. Rosales claimed to be the agent of the mysterious European collector unloading these masterpieces. Freedman maintains she never doubted the paintings were genuine. Continue Reading »

Ethan Hawke as Nicola Tesla

“TESLA” My rating: C+ (Available On Demand on Aug. 21)

102 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The engineer and inventor Nicola Tesla (1856-1943) is one of history’s most fascinating characters…and one of the most elusive .

A scientific genius who pioneered alternating current electrical systems, he was a terrible businessman who died broke. He was also a hermit who avoided human intimacy and a lifelong virgin.

Moreover, even his biographers have found it hard to pin down the guy’s personality.  The man is  an engima.

When he has been portrayed on film — for instance by David Bowie in “The Prestige” (2006) and Nicholas Hoult in “The Current War” (2017) — he’s a supporting character.   The guy just wasn’t leading man material.

Which meant that Overland Park-born filmmaker Michael Almereyda had his work cut out for him in filming “Tesla,” a project which he has been dabbling with for more than 20 years.

Even with the tremendously skilled Ethan Hawke in the title role (Hawke starred in Almereyda’s modern-dress version of “Hamlet” back in 2000) it must be reported that there’s a hole in the middle of “Tesla” where the lead character should be.

Almereyda anticipated this obstacle, and has attempted to compensate with an expansive filmmaking language that throws curve after curve at his audience (and which, not coincidentally, can be achieved with a modest budget).

The resulting film delivers plenty of factual information about Tesla and his work, including the acknowledgement that more than a century ago he was doing stuff with electricity that scientists today cannot yet explain (like transmitting electrical current through the earth to light up a Colorado town many miles away).

The downside is that “Tesla” often plays more like a series of tableaus  than a coherent narrative.

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Wreckage of U.S. aircraft in wake of failed Iran hostage rescue

“DESERT ONE” My rating: B (In theaters and virtual cinemas Aug. 21)

107 minutes | No MPAA rating

A demoralizing bit of recent American history comes vividly to life in “Desert One,”  Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple’s richly detailed retelling of this country’s failed attempt in 1979 to rescue our citizens being held hostage by the new revolutionary Irani regime.

To say that Kopple has cast a wide net in researching this story is an understatement. Giving first-person testimony are not only Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale (then the U.S. president and vice-president) and members of the commando team that undertook the mission, but also Iranis who guarded the American prisoners, the hostages themselves, surviving family members of the men who died in the effort, and journalists like Ted Koppel who covered the event.

The actual raid doesn’t begin until nearly 40 minutes into the documentary. Kopple wisely spends much time explaining (or rather, having others explain…there’s no narration) the tortuous history of U.S.-Iran relations, our propping up of the dictatorial rule of the Shah of Iran and his long reign of terror waged against his country’s dissidents.

The revolt by Islamic fundamentalists is harrowingly recreated through vintage news footage and the testimony of the then-young Marine guarding the gate of the U.S. Embassy when the hordes descended upon it.

The life of the hostages is described in sometimes uncomfortable detail.  One American recalls having his hands cuffed in front of him for weeks at a time, which meant that after defecating he could not clean himself. And despite Irani claims that the prisoners were being treated humanely, there’s that notorious midnight episode in which prisoners were stripped to their underwear and led to a yard where they faced a mock firing squad. (Throughout the doc, Kopple employs animated sequences to depict scenes for which there is no archival footage.)

The hostage crisis stymied President Jimmy Carter, who was rebuffed in his efforts to negotiate with the Irani.  He reluctantly gave the OK to plan a rescue.  Specially skilled fighters from all areas of the military were chosen to train for the raid. Some may have been gung ho about the whole business; one fighter now says he never thought they could pull it off: “Too many moving parts.”

Indeed, this was a hugely ambitious and somewhat improbable effort.  A half dozen helicopters from American warships would fly into the Irani desert at night to meet two transport planes filled with fighters. They would then drive to Tehran, attack the prison, blow a hole in the wall to allow the hostages to escape, then regroup in a nearby sports stadium where U.S. ‘copters would lift them out.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.  Two choppers ran into a desert dust storm and returned to their ship.  The landing site was close to a rarely traveled road which — wouldn’t you know it? — was uncharacteristically busy that night.  The Americans soon found themselves babysitting (at gunpoint) a bus chartered by an extended Irani family (great testimony from a passenger who was only a child at the time).

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Trai Byers

“THE 24th” My rating: B+ (Opens Aug. 21 at the Screenland Armour and on streaming services)

101 minutes | No MPAA rating:

An overlooked landmark in both black history and military history gets a compassionate/angry examination in “The 24th,” the latest from KC-area filmmaker Kevin Willmott.

The subject is the 1917 “riot” of black soldiers in Houston TX. After months of abuse from  both white citizens and the local police department and fearing they were about to be attacked by a white mob, the soldiers went on a late-night killing spree.  By the time the sun rose 11 civilians, five police officers and four soldiers were dead.

The upshot was the largest murder trial in American history, with 156 soldiers of the Third Battalion of the all-black 24th Infantry facing homicide and mutiny charges.

In capable hands of the Oscar-winning Willmott (“C.S.A.,” “Jayhawkers,” “Destination Planet Negro”…as well as the screenplays for recent Spike Lee efforts) the story of the 24th becomes an intimate epic, filled with suppressed fury and perfectly balancing personal moments against the sweep (one almost wants to say inevitable sweep) of history.

Astoundingly, this is accomplished on a bargain basement budget, with filming limited to less than three weeks.

Yet the movie never looks cheap; neither are its sentiments.

We meet the members of the 24th as they show up to provide security for the building of Camp Logan outside Houston.  There’s a war in Europe, and the men are anxious to prove their worth on the battlefield; the Army, though, cannot see them as anything but uniformed ditch diggers and night watchmen.

Our protagonist is William Boston (Trai Byers, co-writer of the screenplay with Willmott), who as a graduate of the Sorbonne is better educated than any of the white officers calling the shots. This is not lost on the regiment’s commanding officer, Col. Norton (Thomas Haden Church), who unsuccessfully urges Boston to sign up for officer training in Des Moines.

Boston is an idealist out to prove that colored soldiers are second to none; alas, his intellectual interests (in his spare time he reads!) and his light complexion make him suspect, especially to the  perennially angry Pvt. Walker (Mo McRae).

And then there’s Sgt. Hayes (Mykelti Williamson), the scarred black NCO who boasts of charging up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt but has spent the last 20 years in an alcoholic funk  kowtowing to a system that respects none of his sacrifice.  He cannot even look a white officer in the eye; occasionally he takes out his frustrations on his men.

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“BOYS STATE” My rating: B+ (Streaming Aug. 14 on AppleTV)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

After watching the spectacularly engrossing documentary “Boys State” I don’t know wether to celebrate our democracy or mourn its death.

Boys State, of course, is a week of politically-charged make-believe in which high school seniors, representing their schools and towns, gather in their capitol city to create political parties, draw up platforms and hold mock elections for various state offices.

Dick Cheney went to Boys State. So did Corey Booker. (BTW: Girls State does the same thing for young women.)

This elaborate exercise is sponsored by the American Legion, which despite its reputation for jingoism attempts to level the playing field by randomly dividing the participants into two parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists.  What each party stands for will be determined by its members during the course of a week.

A stated goal of Boys State is to advance civil discourse. We’ll see about that.

Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s film unfolds in Austin, TX, where 1,100 boys have gathered. Initially one searches in vain for a face of color — this is one majorly white group — but it’s remarkable how many minority faces rise to prominence in just seven days.

The hero of “Boys State” is Steven, whom we meet on the bus ride to Austin. The Hispanic son of a one-time illegal immigrant, Steven doesn’t spew  teen testosterone like some of his fellows. He’s quiet, soaking up the vibes, tentatively making acquaintances.  He’s smart to cautiously feel out the mood of the other kids, because Steven is an unabashed liberal surrounded by gun-owning good ol’ boys (actually, good ol’ young boys).

Before it’s all over Steven improbably will be running as his party’s nominee for governor.  He may not agree entirely with the platform adopted (he’s for gun control and a woman’s right to choose), but he so exudes  basic human decency that even the kids who see things differently are impressed by his integrity.

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Louis Armstrong

“JAZZ ON A SUMMER’s DAY”  My rating: B (Available Aug. 14 through the Tivoli at the Nelson-Atkins Gallery of Art)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

There’s no shortage of reasons to catch the current reissue of 1959’s “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,”  with superb music and spectacularly good photography at the top of the list.

But at a time when most of us are spending way too many hours sequestered in our homes, Bert Stern and Aram Avakian’s record of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival also hits an achingly romantic note,  taking us back to an era when it was safe for hundreds of us to assemble to hear music played by racially integrated bands.

1969’s Woodstock Fest may have been billed as “three days of peace and music,” but the Newport event a decade earlier delivered pretty much the same vibe…minus, of course, public nudity and drug sampling.

The performances captured here (the film spawned a best-selling soundtrack LP back in the day) provide a sort of Who’s Who of ’50s jazz.  They range from the New Orleans-steeped blowing of Louis Armstrong to the white-girl scatting of Anita O’Day (a knockout in black dress, feathered hat and white gloves), from the intellectually-rich piano stylings of Thelonious Monk to the early-rock glory of a duck-walking Chuck Berry. There’s even a touch of gospel glory courtesy of Mahalia Jackson.

(Of interest to KC area jazz fans:  Look for local boys Bob Brookmeyer, Buck Clayton and Basie alumnus Jo Jones playing with various configurations.)

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Seth Rogen…and Seth Rogen

“AN AMERICAN PICKLE” My rating: B- (Now available on HBO Max)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Before bogging down in a flabby middle section, HBO’s “An American Pickle” (aka “In A Pickle”) establishes itself as a gonzo comedy with more than a little soul.

The time-travel fantasy offers Seth Rogen in non-stoner mode as both a turn-of-the-last-century Eastern European Jew and as his modern great-great grandson.

Putting aside the complexities of filming this double performance (it was shot in two phases to give Rogen a time to grow a luxurious Tevye-type beard), “American Pickle” shows the slacker funny man has some serious acting chops.

In a beautifully filmed prologue (using a square-frame format and pastel palette that evokes the earliest color photography) we witness the early life of Herschel (Rogen), a Jewish ditch digger in some Eastern European backwater circa 1919.

In a sweetly comic passage Herschel woos and weds Sarah (Sara Snook of HBO’s “Succession”); they then hop a boat to America where Herschel gets a job killing rats in a pickle factory and looks forward to the birth of their first child.

He dies in an industrial accident, falling into a vat of brine. Before anybody notices that Herschel is gone, the factory is shuttered.  One hundred years later he awakens, perfectly preserved by the pickle juice.

What follows is both a fish-out-of-water yarn and a sort of dysfunctional family reunion. Herschel is united with his one living relation, great-grandson Ben (Rogen again), a dweeby app developer whose lack of success flies in the face of Herschel’s longheld belief that their family is destined for greatness.

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ACLU attorney Dale Ho before the U.S. Supreme Court

“THE FIGHT” My rating: B+ (On Demand as of Aug. 7)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The cynic in me acknowledges that the new documentary “The Fight” comes awfully close to being a recruiting ad for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Except that this effort from co-directors Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg is a hugely engrossing, intellectually stimulating achievement that will leave viewers torn between hope and despair.

“The Fight” follows the efforts of the ACLU to battle four of the more draconian steps taken by the new Trump administration.

We see ACLU lawyer Dale Ho take on Trump’s order that the 2020 census contain a question about the respondents’ citizenship…a development that would undoubtedly keep non-citizens from participating and so skew the numbers that determine, among other things, how many representatives each state gets in the U.S. House.

Brigitte Amiri, a litigator for women’s rights, takes on the plight of a 17-year-old woman who, having been detained as an illegal alien, discovered she was pregnant and was denied the abortion she requested.

Lee Gelernt tackles the issue of child separation along the Border.

Joshua Block builds a case against the banning of transgender persons from the military. He’s assisted by young attorney Chase Strangio, who is himself transgender.

The common thread in all of these cases, as well as with Trump’s notorious Muslim ban, is the suppression of human rights for certain classes of people.

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Lyricist/author Howard Ashman on the off-Broadwday  set of “Little Shop of Horrors”

“HOWARD” My rating: B+ (Debuts Aug. 7 on Disney Plus)

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Howard” is a laughter-through-tears emotional powerhouse that will leave you convinced that when Howard Ashman died of AIDS in 1991, we lost a musical theater genius.

As the lyric-writing partner of composer Alan Menken, Ashman was largely responsible for the off-Broadway hit “Little Shop of Horrors” and then went on to rejuvenate a dying Disney animation division with monsters like “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast.” (The fact that those films went on to spawn wildly successful theatrical versions only adds lustre to his accomplishments.)

Don Hahn’s documentary begins with a recording session for “B&B” in New  York City.  As Hahn’s narration informs us, nobody at the time knew that within nine months Ashman would be gone.  He never got to see the finished film.

On the visual side Hahn (a producer of “Beauty…” and director of the doc “Waking Sleeping Beauty”) exploits a treasure trove of home movies from throughout his subject’s life.  There’s so much material, in fact, that the film needn’t rely on talking-head inserts.  The many contributors to this film (among them Menken and Jeffrey Katzenberg) are heard in voiceover but not seen, leaving center stage to Ashman.

The earliest glimpse into Ashman’s creativity comes from his sister, who recalls her brother turning his bedroom into an elaborate designed theater in which individual toys became players in a vast adventure.  Before long he was organizing neighborhood kids into giving backyard performances.

Young Howard had little interest in sports, but wrote poems for every occasion.

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Johnny Depp, Mark Rylance

“WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS” My rating: C (Begins streaming on  Aug. 7)

112 minutes | No MPAA rating

Not even the usually-comforting presence of Mark Rylance or a hammy performance from Johnny Depp can save “Waiting for the Barbarians,” a literary adaptation that probably should have stayed on the printed page.

Adapted by J.M. Coetzee from his novel and directed by Ciro Guerra, the film struggles to find a balance.  Its production design suggests  an old Foreign Legion movie like “Beau Geste” — except that “…Barbarians” lacks any sense of satisfying adventure.

Moreover, Coetzee’s subject is one individual’s moral struggle, an interior drama not easily depicted dramatically — even when you’ve got someone like the Oscar-winning Rylance assuming top honors.

Rylance plays The Magistrate, a bookish fellow toiling in a dusty desert town on the far-flung edge of an unspecified late 19th-century empire (French, Belgian, German?). Though he’s supposed to be in charge of local government, not to mention a garrison of bored soldiers, The Magistrate prefers to spend his time in archaeological digs, with occasional nocturnal visits to a local prostitute.

Then he’s paid a visit by Colonel Joll (Depp), a black-clad martinet with eccentric sunglasses who radiates quiet menace.  Bigwigs in the distant capital are convinced that the nomadic tribesmen who populate the desert are planning a revolution; Joll’s job is to collect intelligence on these “barbarians.”

To The Magistrate’s horror, tribal visitors to the town are randomly snatched and tortured, some fatally. But being a bit of a milquetoast, he’s powerless to do much more than sputter ineffectually.

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Gillian Jacobs

“I USED TO GO HERE”  My rating: C+ (On Demand Aug. 7)

80 minutes | No MPAA rating

We’re told that you can’t go home again.

You probably shouldn’t go back to school, either.

In “I Used to Go Here” writer/director Kris Rey gives us a heroine who is finding adult life problematical and plops her down in the college environment she left 15 years earlier.

Actually, lots of us nurture a secret back-to-school fantasy; “I Used to Go Here” suggests we should be careful what we wish for.

Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is a mess, thrown into turmoil and depression by the double whammy of being ditched by her fiancé and realizing that her first published novel is headed for the remainder bin. While her gal pals are married and procreating, Kate lives alone in Chicago, stewing  in her own self-pity.

So when an old college professor invites her back to campus to give a reading from the novel, Kate jumps at the chance.

Initially it seems as if her old college town has hardly changed at all.  But when she starts hanging with a scraggly bunch of kids  now living in the off-campus dive where she spent her senior year, Kate is hit full force with knowledge that she is now a middle-aged woman.

What to do?  Well, if reality sucks, make your own reality. Kates starts acting like the mostly carefree college student she once was. This leads her to a nighttime  raid on the home of her old creative writing teacher (Jemaine Clement in full pompous-professor mode) and striking up a quickie romance with a baby-faced undergrad (Josh Wiggins).

Nothing of real import happens in “I Used to Go Here,” but nevertheless the trip is largely pleasant one.  For this we can credit the screen presence of Jacobs (she was a regular on TV’s “Community”), who hits just the right mix of comic neurosis and romantic yearning.

| Robert W. Butler

David Myers Gregory, Vinnie Jones

“THE BIG UGLY”  My rating: C+ (Begins streaming July 31)

106 minutes |MPAA rating: R

Dramatically, there’s nothing special about “The Big Ugly,”  a crime/revenge yarn that hits the usual plot points without adding much to the genre.

What this melodrama from writer/director Scott Wiper does have going for it is its look.  The cinematographer is Jeremy Osbern, a Kansas Citian who has cut his teeth on shorts, a Kevin Willmott feature (“The Only Good Indian”) and is now breaking into the big time.

His work on “Big Ugly” is exemplary — as close to a classic noir look as color will allow.  At least half the film unfolds at night, in dimly-lit bars and bedrooms, and Osbern’s provocative use of shadow and silhouette is absolutely first rate.

The plot finds English tough guy Neelyn (Vinnie Jones) flying to America with his mob boss Harris (Malcolm McDowell). Neelyn is accompanied by his longtime girl Fiona (Leonra Crichlow), a good soul who loves him despite his drinking and murderous employment.

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“REBUILDING PARADISE”  My rating: B (Begins streaming on July 31)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The first 10 minutes of Ron Howard’s “Rebuilding Paradise” employ TV news footage, cell phone videos and audio communications between emergency workers to recreate the notorious Camp Fire that in  2018 consumed the northern California town of Paradise, killing more than  80 citizens.

No horror film of recent years is as terrifying as this masterfully edited depiction. You’ll watch with your mouth open in disbelief…that is, if you’re not already reduced to tears.

The ghastliness of those opening minutes are reinforced by the immediate plight of the fire’s survivors. Citizens quite literally got away with only their lives. Everything else — homes, possessions — has been reduced to smoking cinders.

“Rebuilding Paradise” chronicles the first year or so following the disaster, as individuals and the overall community come to grips with the extent of their loss and make tentative first steps toward returning to some kind of normalcy.

It’s not an easy process…or an easy one to watch.  But Howard’s film is at its core a paen to the resiliency of the human spirit (or, if you’re jingoistically inclined, to can-do Americanism)…which means that you leave the experience with a deep appreciation of and a sort of elation about the possibilities we all share.

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Rosamund Pike as Madame Curie

“RADIOACTIVE” My rating: B (Debuts July 24 on Amazon Prime)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Not content with the limitations of a conventional biopic, Marjane Satrapi’s film about Marie Curie blows up the form, not just depicting the life of a great scientist but exploring what over the decades her discoveries have meant to the world.

As suggested by the piece’s unconventional title — “Radioactive” — the fallout (pun intended) of Curie’s groundbreaking work is not entirely life-affirming.

Satrapi,  who first came to fame with her graphic novel Persepolis (about growing up in and then fleeing post-revolutionary Iran) and the 2007 animated feature based on it, has a lot of her mind here.  Perhaps too much for tidy presentation.

Happily she has as her lead Rosamund Pike,  whose work in recent years — especially “Gone Girl” and “A Private War” — has catapulted her into the first ranks of film actresses. Even when “Radioactive” threatens to fly out of control, Pike keeps things centered.

Beginning late in the 19th century and extending past Curie’s death in 1934 (poisoned by all the radioactive material she had handled over a lifetime), the film hits the usual biographical landmarks: Marie’s meeting and marriage to fellow physicist Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), her discovery of the elements radium and polonium, the death of Pierre and her years as a widow still devoted to scientific research. During World War I she traversed the front in a truck outfitted with primitive X-ray equipment that allowed military doctors to locate the bullets and shrapnel in the bodies of wounded soldiers.

But Jack Thorne’s screenplay (based on Lauren Redniss’ graphic novel Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout) also leans heavily  on the feminist aspects of Curie’s story, especially her fights with a chauvinistic scientific establishment (embodied by Simon Russell Beale’s university bigwig) and her resentment of Pierre, who accepted their Nobel Prize while Marie stayed at home with the kids (“You stole my brilliance and made it your own”).

The film devotes considerable time to one of the more controversial parts of Curie’s story, her post-Pierre affair with a married co-worker (Aneurin Barnard). The relationship created an uproar: this Polish “harlot” was besmirching the sacred institution of French marriage.  (I know, I know…the French have a long history of besmirching marriage.)  Don’t recall that incident even being mentioned in the sanitized 1943 Greer Garson version of the yarn.

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Dolph Lundren, Grace Jones…photo by Helmut Newton

“HELMUT NEWTON: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL” My rating: B (Available July 24 on Kino Marquee)

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

As with few other photographers (Ansel Adams and Robert Mapplethorpe immediately come to mind) the late Helmut Newton’s images cannot be mistaken for those of any other artist.

Newton (1920-2004) worked in fashion  and his most regular employer was Vogue magazine. But even when his stated assignment was to capture on film some item of apparel he still managed to work his sexual preoccupations and perverse sense of humor into the equation.

Though he frequently photographed the famous (Margaret Thatcher, David Bowie), Newton’s main fame rests on his nudes.  Though they’ve been classified as erotica, many find them anything but enticing.

No come-hither looks. No languid poses.

Newton’s women usually present themselves to us in-yer-face naked from top to high-heeled bottom, appproaching the camera defiantly and largely indifferent to the viewer’s gaze. This is the nude body as chilly, intimidating bulwark.

Elements of sado-masochism are not uncommon.

Some critics (Susan Sontag, famously) found his work essentially misogynistic; others, including many of the young women who were his models, regard their time with Newton as empowering.

Getting to the root of that conundrum is the underlying thread of “Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful” by documentarian Gero von Boehm, whose six-part “A Brief History of the World” is one of the highest rated documentaries ever on German television.

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Petr Kotlar as The Boy

“THE PAINTED BIRD”  My rating: B (Streaming July 17 on most digital and cable platforms)

170 minutes | MPAA rating:

As horrifying as “The Painted Bird” is, I don’t regret the three hours spent watching it.

Like a few other films — I’m thinking particularly of the Soviet “Come and See” — Polish filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosiriski’s 1965 novel tests a viewer’s capacity to absorb the terrors of war (in this case World War II on the Eastern Front).

Not that there’s much in the way of battlefield mayhem. The violence here is directed at civilians and, even worse, at one young boy. War or no war, this movie seems to be saying, superstitious, thick-headed humans will go out of their way to torment each other.

The protagonist of the yarn is The Boy (Petr Kotlar), who is presumably Jewish. Separated from his family, he leads a nomadic existence, wandering through fields and forests, barely surviving  thanks to the “kindness” of strangers, who as often as not abuse him physically, sexually and emotionally.

Harvey Keitel

When we first meet him he’s being chased through the woods by three boys who beat him and set fire to his pet ferret. Sort of sets the tone for the whole enterprise.

The boy is living with an old woman he calls “Auntie” (whether they’re actually related is doubtful). Upon her death he stumbles into a village where an old matriarch declares him a “vampire” and orders him  killed. He survives this threat — and all of the others that will test him — less by his wits than by pure luck.

At one point The Boy flees his pursuers by jumping into a river and being carried downstream on a fallen tree branch, only to be delivered into yet another hellish predicament.  This becomes a metaphor for his life; drifting helplessly from one crisis to the next.

All of this is unfolds with a minimum of dialogue and little or no psychological insight into the characters.  That goes as well for The Boy himself, who has been so numbed by his experiences that only acute physical pain can rouse him from his emotional lethargy. Continue Reading »

Charlize Theron

“THE OLD GUARD” My rating: C+ (Debuts July 10 on Netflix)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Netflix’s “The Old Guard” is almost instantly forgettable…but no movie that gives us Charlize Theron in kick-ass mode can be easily dismissed.

Adapted by directed by Greg Rucka from his graphic novel and competently directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “…Guard” stars Theron as Andy, a formidable warrior woman who runs a four-man team of freelance commandos (Marwan Kenzari, Matthias Schoenaerts,  Luca Marinelli).

When we first meet them they are “hired” by a former CIA guy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to travel to Sudan to rescue schoolgirls kidnapped by a predatory militia. Andy and team show up armed to the teeth not only with modern automatic weapons but also with much Medieval cutlery.  No bulletproof vests…but then it turns out they don’t need them.

Because the members of this crew are immortal.  Andy is the oldest, having lived for at least 3,000 years.  The others were picked up over the centuries; apparently each is a genetic/metaphysical freak who for unknown reasons suddenly was endowed with rapid healing and near-instant resurrection.

Betrayed on their mission and left for dead (death doesn’t last long in this instance), the crew clean up the mercenaries who laid the trap (the kidnapped schoolgirls scenario was merely a ruse) and lick their rapidly healing wounds.

Andy, who has devoted her never-ending life to righting wrongs and getting rid of bad guys, has reached the point where she wonders if she’s doing any good any more. “The world isn’t getting any better,” she laments. “It’s getting worse.”

Then all four dream simultaneously about a U.S. Marine, Nile (Kiki Layne), who suffers a seemingly deadly wound in Afghanistan yet recovers within hours. Clearly, she is meant to be the next member of the team, although she greets that news with mixed emotions.  Yeah, living forever and healing instantly is pretty cool; on the other hand, remaining the same age while loved ones wither away is just plain demoralizing.

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“TALES FROM THE LOOP” My rating: B+ (Now streaming on Amazon Plus)

Television has had no shortage of sci-fi/fantasy anthologies (going as far back as the original “Twilight Zone” and continuing today with streaming hits like “Black Mirror”), so when you find an example of the genre that feels fresh and invigorating you’ve got to pay attention.

“Tales from the Loop” on Amazon Plus is a surprisingly potent blend of technological pipe dream and essential human longing for connections.  Though it debuted in April, I’d heard almost nothing about it until stumbling across it while web surfing. This one sticks with you.

Inspired by the paintings of Swedish artist Simon Stalenhag, the series’ superb art direction mixes small-town Americana with futuristic (actually retro futuristic) trappings.

The Ohio burg in which the show is set looks utterly normal…except that a field outside town is dominated by three huge concrete silos, the only visible part of The Loop, a massive underground research facility (the circular corridors suggest a particle accelerator) that is the region’s biggest employer.

An old red barn is pierced by a crescent-shaped metal superstructure (it looks a bit like the wrecked spaceship in “Alien”) and some homes are outfitted with tentacle-like ductwork (shades of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”). Moreover, the nearby woods and fields are littered with the fantastic carcasses of decaying machines, Loop experiments that apparently didn’t work out and were left to rust. (As we soon discover, many are still functional, though their original purposes remains a mystery.)

In fact, pinning down just when “Tales from the Loop” takes place is problematical.  The setting is pre-digital…no cell phones or flat screens.  Home phones are of the rotary variety; computers still use floppy discs.  The costumes and set dressings have a timeless quality…if I had to guess I’d say it all happens in the late ’70s, though that’s really not important.

What is important is how the  scripts (by show runner Nathaniel Halpern and Stalenhag) create an all-inclusive world and a sustained mood.  Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (clearly an inspiration), “…Loop” presents us with numerous characters who move in and out of each other’s stories, taking the lead in one, serving as an extra in others. Each episode examines the interaction of residents with the Loop’s abandoned detritus.

In one instance, teenage boys  (Daniel Zoighadri, Tyler Barnhardt) find a rusting bathysphere-like globe which allows them to inhabit each other’s bodies.  What could go wrong?

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