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Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill

“STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI” My rating: C (Opens wide on Dec. 15)

152 minutes |MPAA rating: PG-13

Over the last 40 years “Star Wars” films have thrilled and delighted (the original “A New Hope”) and occasionally pissed off and dismayed (the George Lucas-directed prequels).

But until now I’ve never been bored.

We’re talking I-don’t-know-if-I-can-keep-my-eyes-open bored.

It’s not that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is terrible. It’s just that writer/director Rian Johnson is so handcuffed by the franchise’s mythology that there’s no hope of actually delivering anything new and unusual.

A “Star Wars” movie is now like a giant hamster wheel. We keep loping along but the scenery never changes. The same narratives, motifs and tropes play out over and over again. The filmmakers may tinker with small details, but there’s no way they can give this series the swift kick in the narrative ass it needs.

Actually, Johnson (“Loopers,” “Brick,”  “The Brothers Bloom”) delivers a flash of hope early in “Last Jedi” when the pompous General Hux (Domhnail Gleeson) delivers one of those vituperative “rebel swine” declamatory speeches, only to be phone pranked by rebel pilot Poe Dameron who cuts in on the imperial cruiser’s radio frequency.

It’s a refreshingly gonzo sequence, one that not only re-establishes Dameron as the new Han Solo but  acknowledges the cardboard villainy that has always been the hallmark of “Star Wars” baddies.

Alas, that moment passes, never to be repeated. Yeah, there are a couple of mildly amusing flashes still on tap.

“If they move, stun ’em” one of our heroes says of captives, a clear nod to “The Wild Bunch’s” “If they move, kill ’em.” And we get a throwaway glimpse of an imperial dreadnaught’s laundry room where all those fascist uniforms are being starched.

But for the most part “Last Jedi” takes itself very, very seriously. It needs a lot more finger-in-the-eye subversiveness.

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Pekka Strong as Tom of Finland

“TOM OF FINLAND” My rating: B (Opening Dec. 7 at the Tivoli)

115 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Tom of Finland” is a film biography of Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), the Finnish artist whose beefcake drawings of leather-clad macho men are among the most recognizable icons of gay culture.

But as much as it is an artist’s biography, Dome Karukoski’s film is a thumbnail history of the rise of homosexual self-awareness and self-assertion over several decades.

We meet Toko Laaksonen (Pekka Strong) as a soldier in World War II, part of a Finnish anti-aircraft unit charged with shooting down Russian planes.  In fact Laaksonen would be haunted throughout his life by the memory of knifing to death a young Soviet parachutist.

After the war Laaksonen lives with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), who helps him land  a job with an advertising agency. In his off hours, though, Laaksonen indulges in a secret (and, given the draconian aspect of Finnish law, wildly illegal) project.

A first-rate craftsman and draftsman, Laaksonen produces drawings of impossibly handsome, heavily-muscled and  fantastically hung hunks. These preening Adonis’s are often clad in leather jackets and ass-less chaps evoking a Marlon Brando/”Wild One” look (although Laaksonen also had a fascination with Nazi regalia, once saying that the Germans “had the best uniforms.”)

Initially these masturbatory fantasies are shown only to close friends, particularly participants in a weekly “poker game” who begin showing up in elaborate cycle regalia inspired by the artwork.

Showing these costumed gents dancing is about the extent of “Tom of Finland’s” sexual adventurousness. The film has no sex scenes, barely a man-on-man kiss. The emphasis is less on personal romance — though Laaksonen has a decades-long relationship with the supportive Veli (Lauri Tilkanen) — than on the slow advance of gay consciousness despite steady persecution.

Strong’s Laaksonen is nothing at all like the men in his drawings. He is tall and thin, with a receding chin, sunken chest, flabby stomach and an indifferent mustache.  He looks more like underground cartoonist R. Crumb (who was surely influenced by Laaksonen’s work) than a Kenneth Anger fantasy.

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James Franco as Tommy Wiseau

“THE DISASTER ARTIST”  My rating: B+ (Opens Dec. 7)

103 minutes | MPAA rating: R

2003’s “The Room” has been widely heralded as one of the worst films ever made, a screen-splattered mess of bad writing, clumsy direction, incompetent acting and grandiose (and totally unfulfilled) ambitions.

All true. But here’s the thing: “The Room” is also wildly entertaining, an  extravaganza of unintentional comedy. Which is why over the last decade it has become a cult favorite, beloved by midnight audiences who know every inane line by heart.

“The Disaster Artist” is director/star James Franco’s retelling of how “The Room” came to be made, and unlike its source material, this film is intentionally hilarious.

Wha we’ve got here is a comic masterpiece inspired by a dramatic monstrosity.

“The Disaster Artist” is based on actor Greg Sistero’s memoir of making the film with friend and all-around bizarre human being Tommy Wiseau.

The two meet in a San Francisco acting class where Wiseau (James Franco) — a droopy eyed, long-haired wraith with an elusive slavic accent, a malapropism-heavy grasp of English and a borderline creepy personality — stuns his fellow students with a rendition of Marlon Brando’s “Stella!” scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire” that ends with him doing a passable imitation of a grand mal seizure.

Sistero (James Franco), whose desire to be an actor is undercut by his unassertive personality, is fascinated by Wiseau, a guy who marches to his own out-of-sync drumbeat — for example, doing high-volume scene readings over breakfast in a crowded restaurant. A sort of sensei/grasshopper relationship develops, and Wiseau invited Sistero to move with him to L.A. where he has an apartment he rarely uses.

(In fact, Wiseau has apartments in several cities and a seemingly inexhaustible checking account. The source of his wealth remains a mystery, as does his age, nationality and personal history. Did he strike a Faustian deal with the devil? Did he materialize on Earth fully formed?)

Neither man has any discernible acting talent, and after weeks of futile auditioning Wiseau decides to go pro-active. He’ll write a script for a movie that he will direct and finance. He and Sistero will star in it.

They hire real professionals (Seth Rogen, Paul Scher) for their crew and desperate actors (Ari Graynor, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Josh Hutchinson) for their cast and get to work.

 

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Sonia Warshawski

“BIG SONIA” My rating: B+ (Opens Dec. 1 at the Glenwood Arts)

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

At first glance there’s nothing particularly big about Sonia Warshawski.

If anything, Sonia is tiny…though she does make an impression way out of proportion to her diminutive size.  Maybe it has something to do with her penchant for animal print fabrics and bright red lipstick.

In any case, one need watch the new documentary “Big Sonia” for only a few minutes to realize we’re dealing here with a major-league personality. In part it’s because of how the Polish-born Sonia handles the English language (she describes a situation as “bog-mindling”); a big chunk of it is her energy, remarkable for a woman who in her 90s int still running the tailor shop founded by her late husband decades earlier.

But mostly it’s her back story, that of a Holocaust survivor who carved out a new life in Kansas City, raising a family, starting a business and, with the fullness of time, becomes a  conduit to the past by giving public talks about the horrors of her youth.

“Big Sonia” — made by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and co-director Todd Soliday — covers a lot of territory.

It examines how Sonia’s tailor shop — the last surviving store in the now-razed Metcalf South Mall — became a dash of European chic amid all our Midwestern drabness. One longtime customer describes it as “a neighborhood bar &  grill without the booze.” It becomes clear that many of Sonia’s customers are as interested in hanging out with her as they are in having their hems adjusted.

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Frances McDormand

“THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI” My rating: A- 

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woody Harrelson

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

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

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

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

Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens

“THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS” My rating: C

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“COCO” My rating: B

109 minutes | MPAA rating:PG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saoirse Ronan

“LADY BIRD” My rating: B+ 

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” My rating: C  

114 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince

“THE FLORIDA PROJECT” My rating: B+

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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James Booth as Armand Roulin

“LOVING VINCENT” My rating: B

93 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

Van Gogh’s portrait of the real Armand Roulin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ana de Armas, Ryan Gosling

“BLADE RUNNER 2049”  My rating: B 

163 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s kind of limiting.

But here goes.

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder K seems so sad.

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

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Colin Firth, Taron Egerton

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

141 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“IT” My rating: B-

135 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“DUNKIRK”  My rating: B

105 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zoe Kazan, Kumail Nanjiani

“THE BIG SICK”  My rating: B 

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“THE BREADWINNER” My rating: C+ (Opens Dec. 1 at the Tivoli)

94 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The animation resume of Nora Twomey (“Song of the Sea,” “The Secret of Kells”) is heavy on splendid  visuals and meandering stories.

That pattern holds true in “The Breadwinner,” an adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ young adult novel about an Afghan girl who survives the Taliban’s reign of terror by posing as a boy.

The film is heavy on social relevance but quickly loses its narrative way. Even moments that should be devastating come off as tepid.

Each day eleven-year-old Parvana (Saara Chaudry) accompanies her father, a former teacher who lost a leg fighting the Russians, to the central market of Kabul where they attempt to sell a few family possessions, including a beautiful red dress which Parvana will now never get to wear. There they run afoul of Taliban bullies who maintain that no woman — not even a prepubescent girl — should be seen in public.

When Parvana’s father stands up for her, he is dragged away to prison.  This leaves the remaining family members — including Parvana’s mother, older sister and baby brother   — in a desperate situation.  Without a man to support them they face starvation.  Parvana risks arrests or beating just venturing outside to get water from a nearby well.

Sneaking around the bazaar one day our heroine meets an old school mate, a girl named Shauzia who has cut her hair and adopted a man’s name.  Parvana follows suit, and soon the two are working odd jobs; she’s proud to be her family’s breadwinner.

But discovery and punishment are never far from her mind, which may be why she concentrates more on simple survival than exploiting the privileges afforded by her new maleness.

“The Breadwinner” features a story within a story. Parvana is a born storyteller, and she amuses herself and family members by spinning out a fantasy about a young man whose village is beset by monsters and his efforts to reclaim the seeds vital to the community’s survival. Clearly, this is a metaphor for the situation facing Afghan women.

In contrast to the gray and brown palette of the “real world” sequences, these fantasy moments are bursting with color. Too bad, then, that the story Parvana relates lacks any immediacy. It feels like a time killer, and that feeling of inconsequence seeps over to the rest of the film as well.

It’s a case of a great message delivered in lackadaisical style.

| Robert W. Butler

Claes Bang

“THE SQUARE” My rating: B 

145 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“The Square” is the equivalent of one of those modern art installations where you wonder if the “artist” isn’t pulling everybody’s chain.

The winner of the  Palm d’Or at Cannes, this comedy from writer/director Ruben Ostend is so dry and droll that it’s often hard to know if we’re actually meant to laugh.

Our “hero” is Christian (Claes Bang), the director of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm that features shows with titles like “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel.” Prominent in the fiftyish Christian’s skill set is an ability to explain far-out conceptual art to the old rich folk who keep the museum afloat. He’s pretty good at schmoozing and coming up with deep intellectual underpinnings for the goofy displays his institution embraces.

The film follows Christian over several days during which he’s dealing with a new installation. “The Square” is just that…an illuminated square set in the cobblestones of the plaza in front of the museum. A plaque embedded in the courtyard describes the square as “a sanctuary of trust and caring”; it’s meant to be a place where the city’s homeless (and Stockholm apparently has an unlimited supply) can take shelter and interact with their more privileged brethren.

This project is more idealistic than realistic…most of the homeless people we encounter are surly and demanding and in their own way as entitled as Christian’s wealthy patrons.

There’s no real plot here, just a series of abusrdism-soaked vignettes depicting Christian’s professional and private life.

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“SWEET VIRGINIA” My rating: C+

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Jon Bernthal

Slickly made but essentially hollow, “Sweet Virginia” is a good-looking piece of neo noir that fritters away a good cast on a so-so story.

In the first moments of this moody effort from director James M. Dagg and scenarists Benjamin and Paul China, three men engaged in an after-hours poker game in a small-town Rockies restaurant are gunned down. The boyish killer (Christopher Abbott) makes it look like a robbery, but we soon learn that he was hired by local gal Lila (Imogen Poots) to murder her no-good cheating’ hubby.

Lila isn’t thrilled that two innocent lives were taken in the operation; she’s even more upset when she learns that her late spouse was insolvent. There’s no way she can pay the hit man, whose name is Elwood, the $50,000 she owes him.

Meanwhile Sam (Jon Bernthal), a beat-up former rodeo champ, runs his motel (the Sweet Virginia of the title) and tries to ignore the fact that all those times he was dumped on his head will probably leave him with a case of early onset dementia.

Ironically, Sam has been having an affair with Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), the wife of one of the shooting victims.  He’s decent enough to feel bad about continuing their liaison…but he gives in to Bernadette’s entreaties.

It all comes to a head when Lila, desperate to get the nasty Elwood off her case, sics him on a likely home robbery target. The ensuing mayhem will involve most of the film’s main characters.

“Sweet Virginia”  takes a long time to go nowhere.  Especially irritating is the dialogue,  which often dips into pretentiousness by giving the characters cryptic mumbles when all we really want is a straight declarative sentence.

That said, the perfs are fine with Abbott’s moody, unpredictable and unprofessional killer talking most of the honors.

| Robert W. Butler