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Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan

THE TENDER BAR” My rating:  B (Amazon Prime)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Will the real Ben Affleck please stand up?

I cannot think of another major actor — okay…Nicolas Cage — whose public persona ranges so widely between genius and ass-hat smirk monkey. 

One cannot dismiss successes like Affleck’s Oscar-winning “Argo”; at the same time the man’s personal and romantic ups and downs are a publicist’s nightmare and a constant inspiration for late-night talk-show monologues.

I’m happy to report that Affleck gives one of his best performances — hell, one of the best performances of the year — in “The Tender Bar,”  George Clooney’s knowing adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s coming-of-age memoir.

Affleck is essentially a supporting player here but his work is so subtle, insightful and charismatic that all the tabloid baggage falls away and we are left in the thrall of an actor connecting perfectly with his character.

The rest of the film is no slouchfest, either. 

Early on young JR (played to perfection by first-timer Daniel Ranieri) and his mom (Lily Rabe) are forced by economic necessity to return to Mom’s blue-collar home town on Long Island. There they take up residence with crusty Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd), quiet Grandma (Sondra James) and especially JR’s uncle, Charlie (Affleck).

JR is essentially fatherless — his biological sire is a  boozing, womanizing, peripatetic radio deejay several years behind on the child support checks.  Under the circumstances one understands why the kid gravitates to his effortlessly suave uncle.

Charlie runs a working man’s bar filled with garrulous regulars.  Like young JR, Charlie is a huge consumer of good literature. At the same time, he never comes off as effete or uber-intellectual; he’s beloved by his dirt-under-the-nails customers for his arid irony, unforced toughness and down-to-earth humanism.

In effect Charlie and his barflies become JR’s adopted father figures, dispensing whiskey-fueled wisdom and (sometimes intentionally, often not) important life lessons.

Chsitopher Lloyd, Daniel Ranieri

The film wafts back and forth between JR’s boyhood and his young adulthood as an Ivy League university student bent on a literary career (he’s played at this age by Tye Sheridan).

We eavesdrop on his doomed love affair with an upper-middle-class fellow student (Briana Middleton); she’s the child of mixed-race parents who clearly think this proletarian yahoo isn’t nearly good enough for their daughter.

We follow him on his first foray into big-city newspapering.

And the film reaches a dramatic crescendo with a rare meeting of JR and his absent father (Max Martini) in which whatever dreams the kid may have of reconnection are dashed once and for all.

“The Tender Bar” is less a film of big dramatic moments than a gently unfolding idyll of self-discovery and familial nurturing. It’s wistful, warm and wise.

Affleck, Ranieri and Sheridan are terrific.  Also deserving of special notice is Lloyd, whose scraggly Grandpa turns out to be an incredibly smart guy hiding out in a seedy, grumpy-old-man exterior.  You can see where Uncle Charlie got his mojo.

| Robert W. Butler

Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand

“THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH” My rating: B+ (At the Screenland Armour, AMC Town Center)

105 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Has there ever been a more visually ravishing “Macbeth” — or any Shakespeare film, for that matter — than this new version of “the Scottish play” from Joel Coen (half of the famous Coen Brothers in his first solo outing)?

Here’s a case where every element — from acting to the drop-dead gorgeous black-and-white cinematography to the brilliantly conceived production design — come together to reinforce the play’s haunting themes of human desire, fate and inevitability.

Denzel Washington makes a fine Macbeth, while Frances McDormand (aka Mrs. Joel Coen) is even better as his force-of-nature-manipulative Lady.
The lesser roles have been precisely cast and captured for the screen.

But a character unto itself is the brilliant look of the production.  Filmed by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel in a 1:33:1 frame ratio (the classic “Academy aperture”), with settings by Stefan Dechant and costumes by Mary Zophres, the film manages to be simultaneously stripped down and abundantly evocative.

The influence of great German expressionist films like the silent “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is found everywhere.  The yarn unfolds in a sort of nonspecific Medieval world, but one presented with a minimum of period detail.  

The castle walls are looming, smooth and white; there’s none of the grime and wear-and-tear of a realistic rendering. When late in the film the cold hard lines of Macbeth’s throne room are softened by fallen leaves blowing across the stones, the contrast delivers an almost visceral shock.

Like one of those Busby Berkley musical extravaganzas that ostensibly take place in a nightclub (a nightclub that would have to be the size of a football field with an Olympic-sized swimming pool tossed in), this “…Macbeth” might be a gigantic stage production unhampered by the limitations of an actual theater. 

The perfect artificiality of the presentation actually emphasizes and amplifies the play’s dramatic elements; against these stark backdrops human faces take on additional power. 

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail as to plotting. I figure if you’re reading this you’re familiar with the basics (oh, OK…Macbeth and the Missus conspire to kill the king and take his crown, then have to keep murdering to keep it).

But Coen’s screenplay does work a few interesting changes.  For example, the character of Ross (here played by the impossibly slender and slinky Alex Hassell) is typically a spear carrier with a few lines.  Coen has made him a semi-sinister Machiavelli whose allegiance is always in question.

Kathryn Hunter

The biggest departure is in the depiction of the “three weird sisters,” the trio of witches who predict Macbeth’s rise to power.  At the beginning of the film there is but one witch, a twisted crone (Kathryn Hunter) whose old bones contort into a human knot that moves like a crab. In one dazzling shot her image is reflected in a pool of water…but not one image: Two.  So now we have three of her.

Hunter’s performance is scary and riveting.  At times she resembles a fallen bird; at others she dons a cloak and hood, looking a lot like Death in Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”  Of all the images seared into my brain by this movie, Hunter’s gnarled form is the most haunting.

Indeed, a case can be made that this “Macbeth” is more satisfying visually than verbally. That’s not a knock against Washington, McDormand and their co-stars (among them familiar faces like Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Ineson, Harry Melling and Stephen Root as the drunken porter).

It’s just that the picture is such an overwhelmingly visual experience.

| Robert W. Butler

Simon Rex (and friend)

RED ROCKET” My rating: B (Theaters)

128 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Filmmaker Sean Baker sure loves his losers.

His debut feature, “Tangerine,” was a screwball comedy about a transsexual prostitute on Skid Row; his Oscar-nominated “The Florida Project” unfolded amongst the societal outcasts living in a shabby motel in the shadow of Walt Disney World.

It’s a logical progression to his latest, the phallo-centric “Red Rocket,” about an “adult film” actor with a heart of…well, not gold, exactly. Maybe brass. Okay then, tin.

Journeyman actor Simon Rex gives a career high perf as Mikey Saber (as porn names go, this one is actually kind of subtle), who one morning washes up penniless and bruised in the Texas Gulf Coast burg he left two decades earlier.

Clearly, Mikey is trying to outrun something or someone.

He makes his weary way to the home of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her chain-smoking, tubercular-looking mother, Lili (Brenda Deiss, a hoot in her acting debut).

The women want nothing to do with Mikey, who sets up camp on their porch until they change their minds.

Here’s the thing about Mikey: Despite his present miserable circumstances, he talks a good fight. He always has a show-biz story to relate (frequently about the porn biz; his matter-of-factness and professionalism in describing hair-raising physical acts somehow makes it all seem normal), and he’s overflowing with plans for the future.

He’s nothin if not upbeat. Faced with one humiliation after another, he squares his shoulders and tries again.

Little by little he works his way into the house and into Lexi’s bed; he also begins selling for a surly family of ganga dealers, earning enough to pay the monthly mortgage on Lexi and Lili’s home.

Simon Rex, Suzanna Son

But then he spots teenage Strawberry (Suzanna Son) working at a donut shop in the shadow of the oil refinery. She’s red haired and freckled and cute as a button, and Mikey is smitten. Yes, he’s twice her age and then some (she’s barely legal, according to Lone Star law), but his love is pure. So pure that envisions a future with Strawberry in porn.

He’ll return to Los Angeles in triumph and pick up where he left off.

This is all very tacky, but the marvel of Rex’s performance (which is racking up all sorts of nominations this awards season) is the way he humanizes this silly, shallow, delusional yet somehow endearing character. Face it…the potential for creepiness is off the charts, yet Rex slides effortlessly through the needle’s eye.

| Robert W. Butler

Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman

“LICORICE PIZZA” My rating: B (Theaters)

133 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The name Paul Thomas Anderson on a movie (“Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood,
“Boogie Nights,” “The Master”)  usually portends a good dose of  anger, angst and a journey through the underbelly of human experience.

But “Licorice Pizza” is something else entirely — a lighthearted cultural memoir of ‘70s teen life in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. 

So lightly plotted as to be weightless, the film is a celebration of youthful energy and ambition. I’ve no idea how much of it is true memoir and how much fiction, but Anderson has absolutely nailed the essence of its setting in much the same way George Lucas did with “American Graffiti”.

Basically this is a love story…or more accurately a study of long-suffering adolescent lust.

Alana (Alan Haim, of the rock sister trio Haim, for which Anderson has directed several music videos) is in her mid-20s and working for a handsy  photographer who shoots portraits for high school yearbooks.  

They’re snapping mugs at a local school when she’s glommed onto by Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a vaguely pudgy 15-year-old (he looks uncannily like the “Mr. Tambourine Man”-era David Crosby) with the self confidence of a veteran grifter.

Gary wastes no time establishing his celeb bona fides.  He’s a child actor (well, former child actor) still recognized for his recurring role in a TV sitcom. He still goes out for auditions, but mostly his energy is devoted to entrepreneurial efforts…the kid has a never-ending supply of get-rich ideas.

For all his bravado — he appears to be on a first-name basis with every maitre’d in town — Gary is also quite obviously a virgin.  

Alana — whose life to date has been unremarkable — is amused by Gary’s chutzpah. Moreover, the kid actually does have several business concerns going; she could do worse than hook her star to this go-getter.

And so she becomes Girl Friday to a teenage Sammy Glick. 

As for the romantic thing…well, there’s a decade between them, though Gary is clearly the adult in the equation. Of course, under the law he is jail bait, which sets off the queasy meter whenever Alana (or those of us watching) contemplate the possibility of something physical between them.

Anderson’s screenplay finds this duo — often accompanied by a small tribe of tweener hustlers attracted by Gary’s grown-up schemes (they’re like human versions of the Minions) — going through a series of misadventures.

Bradley Cooper, Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim

The most sustained of these has Gary marketing that new invention the water bed. In one jaw-dropping episode he installs a new bed in the posh home of real-life hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters, played by Bradley Cooper as a coked-up maniac late for a date with girlfriend Barbra Streisand.

There are other bizarre encounters, like the one with an over-the-hill action star (Sean Penn) who picks up  Alana  at a restaurant and, at the urging of a drunken movie director (Tom Waits), attempts a jump over a bonfire on a souped-up motorcycle.

And the yarn finds time to plumb Alana’s home life (her disapproving parents and  sisters are portrayed by the actress’s real family members) and her brief fling with a young actor who alienates the clan by admitting he is no longer a practicing Jew.

Astoundingly enough, neither Haim nor Hoffman has ever acted before (although she’s done the rock ’n’ roll thing and he is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Their performances work precisely because they’ve not been over-polished…there’s just a touch of endearing amateurism lurking about, one reinforced by the duo’s look — neither is movie-star handsome/beautiful, and this makes them all the more embraceable.

| Robert W. Butler

Filippo Scotti, Teresa Saponangelo, Tony Servillo

“HAND OF GOD” My rating: B (Netflix)

130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

First things first:  Whenever you get a chance to watch Toni Servillo in a movie — and I don’t care if it’s a cameo in a bad Italian slasher flick — jump at it.

Servillo may be the greatest living cinema actor.  Doesn’t matter the role…he just is.

In the goofy/rapturous “The Hand of God” Servillo once again teams up with writer/director  Paolo Sorrentino (“The Consequences of Love,” “Il Divo,” “The Great Beauty,” “Loro” and the Servillo-less “Youth”) to deliver a filmic memoir of Sorrentino’s boyhood.

Servillo isn’t the star of the show — in fact his character disappears halfway through — but even as member of an ensemble he oozes energy and life., electrifying everything and everyone around him.  

Set in Naples int he 1980s, “Hand…” is a two-part yarn.  The first is an almost Fellini-esque study of a roiling, raunchy Neapolitan family, a band of eccentrics so memorable and entertaining you may want to hang out with them forever.

Our protagonist is teenage Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), probably the most introverted member of his clan. Papa Saverio (Servillo) is a wise and witty jokester who approaches life with a wry grin.  Mom Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) is a live wire who peps up family reunions by juggling oranges. 

They’re such a perfect couple that we — like young Fabietto — are dismayed to learn that away from his family Saverio is a womanizer.

There’s also big brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert), an impossibly handsome kid who naively believes that good looks are all he’ll need for an acting career.  Accompanying his sibling to auditions, Fabietto gets an inkling of what the film biz (his future career) is all about.

There’s a load of wild-hair aunts, uncles and cousins swirling around the family…it’s like something out of “Amacord.”  

The most arresting of these is Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), married to Saverio’s brother and oozing sexuality and neurosis in equal measure.  Fabietto has a huge crush on Aunt Patrizia (who doesn’t think twice about sunbathing nude in front of everyone). But he’s seen enough of her emotional and mental crackups to have his adolescent lust tempered by adult pity.

Luisa Ranieri

The film’s first half is a deep dive into plotless family dynamics, and it is often rudely, riotously funny.

Then tragedy strikes and the tone shifts dramatically. Young Fabietto finds himself working through grief and anxiety. He loses his virginity (not to a girl his age but to the dowager living in the upstairs apartment, who apparently sees him as a sexual charity case). 

Fabietto takes comfort in his soccer obsession and the drama of whether his team will be able to sign a premium player who can turn everything around.

And late in the film he has an all-night chat with a veteran movie director (real-life filmmaker Antonio Capuano, who was a mentor to young Sorrentino), who lays out the path to the kid’s career in movies.

“The Hand of God” is so specific in its depiction of people, places and situations that we understand instinctively that much if not all of the film was pulled from Sorrentino’s personal memories.  This is a movie that really feels lived in.

And the neat thing is that for a couple of hours we get to live in it, too.

| Robert W. Butler

Bradley Cooper

“NIGHTMARE ALLEY” My rating: C+(In theaters)

150 minutes | MPAA rating: R

That Guillermo del Toro is one of our great film craftsmen isn’t in question.

An astonishing degree of attention has been lavished on every image in his “Nightmare Alley”; expect Oscar nominations in virtually all the technical categories: effects, cinematography, costuming, production design.

That said, the film as drama left me…well, indifferent.  

Adapted by del Toro and Kim Morgan from William Lindsay’s novel, this is really two movies.

In the first drifter Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) hobos around the Depression-era U.S. We’ve seen Stanton set fire to a house in which he has placed a body…it’s probable that he’s on the run from the law.

On the verge of starvation, Stanton gets a gig doing manual labor for the operator (William Dafoe) of a sleazy traveling carnival, the kind of shady operation that is always a step ahead of the local moralists and the cops.  (One of their disreputable attractions is “the Geek,” a hairy animalistic wraith who lives in darkness, emerging only to bite the heads off live chickens for the entertainment of the rubes).

For the newcomer the eerie carnival (think “Something Wicked This Way Comes”) offers not only shelter and a paycheck, but a chance to learn a new trade.  Stanton shacks up with Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), learning the tricks of her fake mind-reading act. 

Meanwhile he is drawn to Molly (Rooney Mara), the young beauty who allows herself to be strapped into an electric chair and zapped with thousands of lightning bolts.

The second half of “Nightmare Alley” takes place a couple of years later.  Stanton and Molly have fled the carnival and established themselves as a top mentalist act, performing in posh nightclubs.  Stanton has transformed himself from ragged drifter to swank sophisticate.

Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper

But he’s still a crook at heart, and with the help of a high society shrink (Cate Blanchett) he plans his biggest grift, taking on an impossibly rich captain of industry (Richard Jenkins) who is tormented by his evil past and seeks some sort of metaphysical forgiveness.

Stanton is supremely confidant, but one suspects he is biting off way more than he can chew.

Lindsay’s novel, published in 1946 (and filmed the next year with Tyrone Power in the lead), is a classic noir effort that has been described as “a portrait of the human condition…a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece.”

The main problem with the movie, I think, is that over the last 70-plus years film, television and literature have borrowed shamelessly from Lindsay’s opus.  His ideas have been recirculated with such regularity that del Toro’s film struggles beneath a smothering blanket of been-there-seen-that.

The problem is magnified by the film’s languid running time (2 and 1/2 hours) and the fact that despite the first-rate cast (I haven’t even mentioned Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Mary Steenburgen, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson and Holt McCallany), I found the film emotionally remote. The viewer is left on the outside looking in.

And still…del Toro masterfully creates an overwhelming aura of corruption and exploitation. 

We’ll have to be satisfied with that.

| Robert W. Butler

Dakota Johnson, Olivia Colman

“THE LOST DAUGHTER” My rating: B (In theaters)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Many a man has bailed on his family and kept his social status…but let a woman exhibit indifference toward her children and the pillars of civilization start to crumble.

“The Lost Daughter,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s impressive writing/directing debut, is about a bad mother. At least that’s what a traditional moralist would say.

But things aren’t nearly that cut and dried in this smart, thought-provoking adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s  novel. 

This is a deeply ambivalent, jaw-droopingly subtle effort that eschews the usual big dramatic exposition (“…this is why I did what I did…”) in favor of showing us, building its story (and its case) through the slow accumulation of images and information.

Leda (Olivia Colman) is vacationing alone on a Greek island.  She’s a college professor, a Brit by birth but working in America, and she’s going to spend her summer sitting in the sun and researching her next book.

She tolerates the scuzzy American ex-pat (Ed Harris) who manages the vacation home she rents.  And she’s amused by Will (Paul Mescal), her eager-to-please cabana boy. They enjoy a chaste flirtation.

But Leda is absolutely mesmerized — and appalled — by the family with whom she shares the beach.  They’re a loud, obnoxious bunch.  The head of the clan seems vaguely shady;  he’s got a pregnant trophy wife half his age.

The real object of Leda’s fascination, though, is the man’s daughter-in-law, Nina (Dakota Johnson), who has a handsome but pushy husband and a pretty but spoiled young daughter. 

Lena appears obsessed with the tiny interactions between weary, frustrated mother and willful child. When the little girl goes missing the family is thrown into a panic. Leda finds the child and returns her to the fold…but not without secretly claiming a souvenir of the encounter that will come back to haunt her.

“The Lost Daughter” is being described as a “psychological thriller.” Actually, “psychological jigsaw puzzle” seems more accurate.

Through casual conversation — Gyllenhaal’s dialogue is amazingly unforced and natural — we learn that Leda has two daughter, now in their 20s, who live with her ex.  Apparently she rarely sees them.

Peter Sarsgaartd, Jessie Buckley

In flashbacks we see her as a young mother (played now by Jessie Buckley), struggling to balance family and career, and engaging in an affair with a much-admired professor (Peter Sarsgaard, Guyllenhaal’s spouse) that will push her further away from her conventional existence.

Most women have days in which they would just as soon dump the husband and kids and strike out for parts unknown.  Leda is the rare individual who actually kicks motherhood aside in the hope of discovering a different sort of fulfillment. 

But one does not achieve that sort of liberation without paying a huge emotional price, and the wonder of Colman’s performance is how she tells us everything about what Leda is feeling without actually ever saying anything. 

A lesser filmmaker might make excuses for her heroine’s choices, providing her with explanatory monologues, poking at every little shred of guilt clinging to Leda’s consciousness.

There’s no need for that when you have a leading lady with Colman’s range.

Is Leda a heroine or a villainess?

Why not neither? Or both?

| Robert W. Butler

Kodi Smit-McPhee, Benedict Cumberbatch

“THE POWER OF THE DOG” My rating: B (Netflix)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

I’m not sure that “The Power of the Dog” totally adds up, but its individual equations are often so riveting as to carry us along on a wave of pure creativity.

Based on Thomas Savage’s late-60s novel, the latest from writer/director Jane Campion  (“The Piano”) is less a conventional Western than an incisive dissection of four distinct and often contradictory personalities.

It’s also one of the year’s most visually splendid efforts, so spectacularly framed and shot (by Ari Wegner) that at times it takes on the depth of a masterwork painting.

Bachelor brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons) own a sprawling Montana ranch in the 1920s.  Their substantial wood-paneled home, crammed with expensive furniture and a world-class collection of stuffed wildlife, speaks of massive riches.

And yet the brothers seem indifferent to their wealth.  Phil is the brains and muscle of the outfit, a lanky cowboy who calls the shots and — despite an Ivy League education — is most comfortable on horseback.  He and George inherited the ranch, but Phil learned how to run it at the feet of a near-mythical character called Bronco Henry, who has been dead for some years.

George is, well, kind of useless.  He’s a round-faced cipher who dresses like a banker even on a cattle drive; he has pretty much handed the reins to Phil, who openly addresses  him as “Fatso.”

Jesse Plemons, Kristen Dunst

Conflict arrives with George’s unexpected marriage to Rose (Kirsten Dunst, Plemmons’ real-life spouse),  operator of a boarding house in the small rail center where the Dunbars deposit their herd. 

Phil openly accuses Rose of being a gold digger.

Adding even more tension is Rose’s teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an impossibly thin, lanky kid with an artistic bent (he fashions exquisite flowers from scraps of paper). Phil immediately labels Pete a “Nancy boy” and takes sadistic pleasure in tormenting the newcomer, inviting the other cowpokes to get in on the fun.

It doesn’t take a psych degree to see that the effeminate Peter is stirring up Phil’s own long-suppressed homoerotic tendencies.  Yet “The Power of the Dog”  is far from a traditional coming-out tale.

While there’s genuine sweetness in the thick George’s love of his new wife; that’s not enough to keep Rose from seeking solace in a bottle.  A  Montana ranch is lonely for a woman; Phil’s sneering putdowns make it even worse.

Meanwhile young Peter slowly emerges as the most complex character in sight.  Far from trying hide his “otherness,” he flaunts it.  His posture, his manner of talking, his clothing choices…all seem to be calculated as a silent affront to the cowboy machismo surrounding him.  

In the film’s latter stages it almost seems as if the hard-hearted Phil is undergoing a positive transformation. He slowly takes Peter under his wing, teaching him to ride and rope, and is pleasantly surprised to discover that he and the boy may be on the same aesthetic and philosophical wavelength.

But that is only the setup for a betrayal so devastating that it turns inside out what we think we know about at least two of these characters.

“Power of the Dog” is not a copacetic experience;  it seethes with anger and unhqppiness.  

But it unfolds in an environment of austere beauty. It was filmed in Campion’s native New Zealand, and the nearly bare hills and brown palette create a Western landscape unlike anything I’ve seen before.

The performances are pretty much off the charts, especially from Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee — the former a bully who slowly reveals his sensitive side, the latter a seeming sissy who in reality harbors a methodical and implacable core of steel.

| Robert W. Butler

Ansel Elgort as Tony, Rachel Zegler as Maria

“WEST SIDE STORY”  My rating: B (In theaters)

156 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s really no point in remaking “West Side Story” if you’re only going to recreate the 1961 version. Which was, after all, pretty damn definitive.

And so Steven Spielberg’s  daring re-imagining of this classic — my favorite piece of musical theater, rivaled only by Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” — consistently takes its audience by surprise. You may think you know the show inside out; just wait until the master filmmaker  lays a modern sensibility over the story’s late ‘50s ambience.

In this “WSS” the Puerto Rican characters deliver many of their lines in Spanish without subtitles (not that you’ll need them…you can tell by the performances what’s going on).

Moreover, where appropriate the film has been cast with Latinx performers…no lily white actors trying to pass for ethnics.

Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner, adapting the Arthur Laurents/Ernest Lehman script, have shaken things up, shifting the order of the musical numbers and in some cases giving songs to characters who didn’t sing them in the original.

Of course the dancing (not pure Jerome Robbins but close enough to generate goosebumps), the memorable Leonard Bernstein melodies and those brilliant orchestrations (jazz meets mainstream) remain potent enough to generate tears of aesthetic gratitude.

And the core story of star-crossed lovers seeking fulfillment in a world of hatred and strife is as strong as ever (hey, it’s Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”…borrow from the best.)

But perhaps the filmmakers’ biggest reach is to pump up the material’s psychological and social realism to a near breaking point. It is for this effort that Spielberg’s film has been generating off-the-charts praise — and yet I’ve got to admit to a lot of ambivalence.

Ariana DeBose (in yellow) as Anita, David Alvarez as Bernardo

We understand that the film is taking on some big ideas from the first shot, a flyover of a Manhattan neighborhood falling under the wrecking ball. The few tenement walls still standing are surrounded by piles of rubble and abandoned bathtubs. A billboard announces that this will be the future home of Lincoln Center. 

Of course, when the livable turf is reduced, the remaining inhabitants must duke it out for possession of what’s left.

“West Side Story” has always had an undercurrent of social commentary (just listen to Sondheim’s caustic lyrics for “America”) and an aura of liberal awareness. But this new version brings those concerns front and center, then hammers away at them.

In this retelling Riff (Mike Faist) and his Jets view themselves as the last white men standing against a brown tidal wave. The cynical police detective Schrank (Corey Stoll) taunts the Jets as “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians,” in effect goading them into continual warfare with the just-off-the-boat Puerto Ricans.

That the Jets are nativists has always been an element of “West Side Story,” but never before has that idea been banged on so relentlessly.  No one in the film utters the words “Proud Boys,” but you’d have to have spent the last few years in a cave not to see the racial signifiers.

Simultaneously the film paints a vibrant picture of Latin culture, depicting a neighborhood where huge Puerto Rican flags are painted on walls and the locals can effortlessly turn a block of storefronts into a bubbling ethnic festival. (Indeed, the show-stopping “America” is here performed not at night on a rooftop but in bright sunshine on a busy city street.)

“I Feel Pretty,” a song that has always seemed vaguely out of place, gets a major transformation. Instead of being performed by Maria (Rachel Zegler), Anita (Ariana DeBose) and friends in a modest dress shop, the number unfolds after hours in the department store where the immigrant women fill the ranks of the cleaning crew.  They deliver the lyrics while surrounded by mannikins posed in vignettes drawn from majority white culture…what up to now has been a hummable but thematically thin song suddenly is crawling with wry political/social commentary.

Kushner’s script also pumps up what we know about the characters.  Thus we learn that our Romeo stand-in, Tony (Ansel Elgort), is on parole after spending a couple of years in prison for nearly killing another young man in a brawl. Once one of the Jets’ fiercest fighters, he’s now steering clear of conflict.

Anybody’s, the girl who desperately wants to be one of the Jets, is usually portrayed as a tomboy.  Here, though, she is played by non-binary actor Iris Menas, bringing a whole new level of sexual politics and sexual ambiguity into the mix.

Characters that were basically placeholders in earlier incarnations get a major reworking.

Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James), usually depicted as  a hapless flatfoot, comes off as a decent if weary bloke who’d like to see everybody get along.

Perhaps the biggest character expansion falls to Chino (Josh Andres Rivera), Maria’s gang-approved suitor, who is anything but a thug…he’s going to night school and wants to become a CPA. This bespectacled brainiac is the hope of his community, so much so that Bernardo (David Alvarez) and the Sharks work to keep him out of their conflict with the Jets.

But all that is merely a prelude to the big whopper, the casting of Rita Moreno (she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film) as the widow of Doc, operator of the local pharmacy/candy store.  

Doc, inspired by “Romeo and Juliet’s” Friar Lawrence, never had much of a presence in earlier “WSS” incarnations.  But Moreno emerges as a major character, Tony’s employer and moral backup; she even gets to sing the haunting “Somewhere,” a number traditionally performed by Tony and Maria.

Here’s the thing…all these augmentations and observations had the effect of taking me out of the central romance.

Oh, there were some terrifically romantic moments. Tony and Maria’s meeting at the community dance here unfolds beneath the bleachers, a very nice touch.  And songs like “Maria” and “Tonight” absolutely nail the swooning universal yearning for a love capable of changing the world.

But at a certain point I found the ever-thickening patina of commentary got in the way. A marvel of traditional musical theater is the way in which one-dimensional characters expand through song, finding their true humanity through the synthesis of melody and lyric.

This “West Side Story” gave me so much information, so much detail that I felt I was being force fed rather than discovering.

It’s at moments like this when your faithful critic wonders if I have at long last reached the ranks of grumpy old men.

| Robert W. Butler

Lady Gaga, Adam Driver

“HOUSE OF GUCCI” My rating: C (In theaters)

167 minutes | MPAA rating: R

We’re all familiar with cinematic sagas of backstabbing among the filthy rich. Entire TV series have grown around that idea.

In fact, we’re so accustomed to the wealthy misbehaving that any example of the genre trying to capture our time and attention had best come up with something — an approach, an edge, an attitude — that sets it apart.

This is precisely what Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” fails to do.

This is a multi-character epic of greed and power that is intermittently intriguing but which overall suffers from a bad case of meh

The screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna (based on Sara Gay Forden’s nonfiction book) lacks a point of view or even an obvious purpose.  The story is based on facts, but the telling is satire- and irony-free, a bland recitation of events with no attempt to analyze or interpret.

In a shorter film this might have been finessed, but “…Gucci” runs for more than 2 1/2 hours…by the halfway point a viewer’s attention span starts to wander as it becomes clear we’re not going anywhere.

And director Scott’s heart clearly isn’t in it.  This effort lacks even his trademark visual pizzazz. 

The film is strongest in its early passages, when we’re introduced to Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), who works as a secretary for her papa’s Milanese trucking company.  Gaga once again establishes her bona fides as a genuine movie star…here she seems to be channelling Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobridgida, a potent mixture of sex and sassiness. 

Out partying  one night Patrizia bumps into a rather shy but charming young man who introduces himself as Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver).

He describes himself as a humble law student, but Patrizia recognizes that this is one of the heirs to the Gucci fashion empire.  She starts stalking Maurizio, plotting an “accidental” meeting.

Is she a gold digger?  Well, Maurizio’s uber-cultured father (Jeremy Irons) certainly thinks so, but the film declines to pass judgment.  Patrizia is in some ways solidly plebeian (she doesn’t like reading) but she’s no shortage of ambition, something that gratifies her to Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), who runs the Gucci empire from a New York high rise.

Under his new wife’s insistent prodding the laid-back Maurizio is slowly sucked into the firm’s management, undergoing a bit of a personality change in the process.  Power corrupts, don’t cha know?

In fact, Patrizia makes such a pest of herself, meddling in Gucci business, that divorce rears its ugly head. In a plot development that beggars the imagination (but which actually happened), she befriends a TV psychic (Salma Hayek) and together they put together a hit on hubby.

That’s the main plot thread of “House of Gucci,” but it’s only one of many.  

Jared Leto

The film jerks to life every time Jared Leto makes an appearance as Aldo’s son Paolo, a wannabe designer utterly lacking in taste and talent who owns a big chunk of Guggi stock but is considered an idiot by one and all.  

Leto is unrecognizable beneath bald pate, scraggly hair and double chin…his Paolo is like a parody of every hapless loser you’ve ever met.   You’re almost tempted to feel sorry for him, but the guy is so clueless and irritating we practically take pleasure in his humiliations.

(Some smart grad student in psychology is going to do a thesis on why one of the most handsome actors in Hollywood insists in role after role on uglying himself up beneath layers of grotesque makeup and prosthetics.)

There is no shortage of betrayals here.  Patrizia and Maurizio learn that Uncle Aldo has been cheating on his America taxes and turn him in so they can take over the company.  Then they must face a coup engineered by the CEO of Gucci America (Jack Huston).  

While Patrizia stews in divorcee hell, Maurizio cavorts with a thin French friend (Camille Cottin).

Damn, but these rich folk push the envelope.

Truth be told, most of the performances here are just fine.  It’s the storytelling that lets us down, keeping us at arm’s length and ultimately leaving us without any character to care about.

| Robert W. Butler

Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Foy

“THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN”  My rating: B+ (Amazon Prime)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Whimsical charm and heartbreaking tragedy achieve a life-affirming reconciliation in “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” a mostly-factual biopic in which Benedict Cumberbatch gives one of his most memorable performances as a true English eccentric.

In his prime Louis Wain (1860 – 1939) was one of England’s most popular illustrators, a sort of artistic idiot savant who could churn out artwork at an amazing pace, painting or drawing using both hands simultaneously. 

His subject matter was equally odd — he specialized in portraits of cats,  often anthropomorphizing them. (You know the poker-playing dog paintings? Same idea, only with felines.) Before Louis Wain the British public regarded cats not as pets but as working animals whose job was to control the rodent population; his widely disseminated artwork turned that notion inside out.

At the onset of Will Sharpe’s film  (Sharpe also co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Stephenson) we find  Louis (Cumberbatch) working part time for a London newspaper editor (Toby Jones) who appreciates the artist’s keen eye and speed in producing drawings of country life, especially animals like bulls, sheep and fowl. (This was before newspapers could reproduce photographs.)

Beyond his skills as an illustrator,  Louis is a tad wacko.  He has theories about undetected electrical currents permeating all existence. (Later in life he would lecture that cats would evolve into superhuman creatures and turn blue in the process.)

He’s an emotionally constipated  social misfit in a late-Victorian world that is all about propriety. He’s a loner who does not play well with others…not that we can blame him. He lives with and provides the only financial support for his mother and five sisters (the most domineering and critical of his siblings is portrayed by the chameleonic Andrea Riseborough). Can’t blame the guy for zoning out in his own bubble.

But then the family hires Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) as governess for the youngest sisters, and Louis is smitten.  In her own way Emily is an outsider, too. They’re made for each other and ere long have moved to a storybook cottage in the countryside. (Erik Wilson’s astounding cinematography is like a pastel-dominated, hand-colored Daguerrotype and employs a square frame format; it’s sort of like watching a magic lantern show from that period.)

The couple adopt a kitten found mewling in a downpour. They take in this creature and treat it both as a child and as an equal.  

Jeeze…what a happy little family.

Except after only a few blissful years Emily sickens, leaving a distraught Louis once again in the demanding arms of his womenfolk.

There’s a bit of good news…the cat portraits he executed for the ailing Emily have morphed into a full-time avocation.  Suddenly he’s wildly popular.  (Not that this materially helped the Wains…Louis — always more an impetuous enthusiast than a calculating businessman —neglected to copyright any of his illustrations and now they’re being exploited while he receives not a penny.)

As it follows Louis’ long life (he died in a mental hospital at age 78) the film alternates between passages of enchanting oddness and moments of crushing sadness. This repetitive first-you’re-up-then-you’re down pattern might be offputting if not for Cumberbatch’s weirdly compelling performance.

In fact, one is tempted to declare Louis Wain the character Cumberbatch was born to play.   With his big, childlike noggin and ability to perfectly project the sense of a man caught up in private reveries, Cumberbatch embodies this oddball in ways that no conventionally handsome actor could.

There are moments here when the actor moves the viewer to tears; at the same time there’s an almost frightening clinical approach to the character.  After watching this performance you’ll understand why Wain fans still argue over whether he was truly schizophrenic (as he was diagnosed at the time) or instead occupyied his own special niche on the spectrum.

“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” has been sumptuously mounted as it follow its subject from the 1880s to the eve of World War II, and the keen-eyed viewer will spot some sly guest appearances by notables like Taika Waititi and singer Nick Cage. The great Olivia Colman provides the slightly wry narration.

| Robert W. Butler

Jude Hill

“BELFAST” My rating: A- (In theaters)

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The first moments of Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” announce that we’re on the cusp of greatness.

And over 90 minutes Branagh’s heartfelt writing/directing effort delivers one of the year’s supreme movie experiences.

The film opens with Chamber of Commerce-style color footage of modern Belfast; then the screen reverts to black and white.

The year is 1969 and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ camera wanders breathlessly among the denizens of a bustling residential street. At the center of the action is 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), all freckles, buck teeth and peach fuzz. He’s an explosion of youthful energy, slaying invisible dragons with a wooden sword.

And then playtime is suddenly over. Buddy freezes while the camera spins around him, revealing at one end of the street — slightly out of focus, making it all the more terrifying — a mob of Protestant rioters who proceed to smash the windows of Catholic houses.

Buddy stands petrified in horror; he’s plucked from the chaos by his mother (Catriona Balfe), who drags him and his teenage brother Will (Lewis McAskle) into the relative safety of their home. As nominal Protestants they’re not targets, but in the chaos anything could happen.

Catriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan

The scene is breathtaking…horrifying yet weirdly beautiful, and it establishes from the outset that the peaceful lives of Buddy and his kin are now forever changed. Religious intolerance and political anger have come to their little corner of Belfast; when next we see Buddy he’s negotiating barbed-wire checkpoints and barricades of abandoned furniture that seal off either end of the street.

“Belfast” references the sectarian civil war that raged in Northern Ireland for decades, but it’s not about history per se. Rather, this is Branagh’s attempt to conjure up his own childhood; it’s a memory play in which very personal moments play out against a looming background of potential violence. There’s not much discussion of politics or Irish history; that’s way over young Buddy’s head.

He’s more concerned with personal issues, like the little Catholic girl at school on whom he has a killer crush, or the threats directed at his father (Jamie Dornan) for refusing to join the Protestant militia (“There’s no ‘our side’ or ‘their side’ on our street.”)

He interacts with his crusty but loving grandparents (Ciaran Hinds, Judi Dench, both shoo-ins for Oscar nominations). He observes his parents’ relationship, the obvious sexual pull between them (in one intoxicating scene they dance in the street to blasts of radio-powered rock ‘n’ roll) and the tensions generated by his father’s work in England (he’s a construction carpenter) and gambling habit.

Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds

And he is reduced to fearful tears when his parents introduce the idea of moving to London, away from danger and everything young Buddy has known.

The film is crammed with eccentric neighbors and memories of TV shows: Raquel Welsh in fur bikini in “One Million Years B.C.”, John Wayne’s comforting machismo in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” episodes of “Star Trek,” and especially “High Noon” (Buddy can’ help but see his own father as a Gary Cooper character faced with a deadly choice).

And there’s the terrifying sermon delivered by a spittle-spewing preacher that has a worried Buddy drawing up eschatological maps that he hopes will guide him away from hell and into the arms of the holy.

Throughout Branagh and his players maintain a careful balancing act between the deeply personal and the achingly universal; every few minutes the film delivers an emotional coda that will leave audiences reeling.

The acting is impeccable (the best ensemble cast in recent memory) and the technical production jaw-dropping beautiful. The framing of individual shots is a model of effective storytelling; it’s not deep focus, exactly, but every shot is so crammed with detail that you’d swear you could smell individual scenes.

Tie it all up with a killer soundtrack of songs by Belfast native Van Morrison, and you have 2021’s best film.

| Robert W. Butler

“FINCH” My rating: B (Apple +)

115 minutes | MPAA:PR-13

Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks could probably sell refrigerators to Eskimos.

That’s what he does, metaphorically speaking, in “Finch,” a post-apocalyptic science fantasy that is equal parts Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road,” Pixar’s “Wall-E” and Hanks’ “Cast Away.”

If that sounds like an unweildy mashup of unlikely bedfellows…well, it is. But Hanks is such a watchable presence that he makes this one-man show worthwhile.

Fitch (Hanks) lives alone in an industrial bunker beneath the ruins of St. Louis. A decade earlier a sonic flare wiped out modern civilization and left Earth scorched by deadly ultraviolet rays.

Most days Fitch suits up in protective gear to search for supplies. He leaves back in the safety of the bunker the only other living creature in his life, a dog named Goodyear on whom he lavishes affection.

The narrative of Miguel Sapochnik’s feature (the script is by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell) centers first on Finch’s constructing a humanoid-ish robot and programming it to learn more or less like a human child.

This creature, who will eventually name itself Jeff, begins by stuttering static but over time learns to talk (Jeff is voiced by Caleb Landry Jones). It is curious, just like a child, which means that it sometimes gets into trouble.

But it is also loyal to its creator/father and understands that its purpose is to take care of Goodyear should anything happen to Finch. Which seems likely, given the bloody cough he’s developed.

The bulk of the film takes place on the road as Finch loads up Jeff and the pooch into an ancient recreational vehicle in an attempt to outrun the killer storms that are racking the Midwest. They head out West; Finch has it in his head that he’d like to see the Golden Gate Bridge.

There are dangers, both natural and manmade. But “Finch” isn’t so much about reaching a destination as experiencing the possibilities of one’s humanity along the way.

Tom Hanks and “Jeff”

As mentioned earlier, this is pretty much a one-man show. Good thing that man is Hanks, who is able to plumb all sorts of levels without ever pushing too hard, developing his character’s crushing loneliness, his need for companionship, his parental instincts, his fears, his hopes and, finally, his resignation to his fate.

Of course he gets immeasurable help from the designers and animators of Jeff, a creation of metal and plastic that develops a personality before our eyes. I can’t tell you how much of Jeff is puppetry, how much CG, but the results are utterly convincing. Rarely does a human actor get the chance to express a character’s personality through physical performance; it’s rarer still to pull it off with a mechanical contraption.

But that’s what production designer Tom Meyer and his crew have achieved here. Jeff may be all nuts and bolts, but he’s also disarmingly human. This is no small accomplishment.

“Finch” is jammed with improbabilities and explains virtually nothing about Finch’s past or how he came to be in this situation.

But here again Hanks compensates just by being, well, Tom Hanks. His essential “Hank-ness” gently expands to fill the gaps. Watching, we understand that we’re in good hands.

| Robert W. Butler

Danielle Deadwyler, Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz

“THE HARDER THEY FALL” My rating: C+ (Netflix)

130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If “The Harder They Fall” is a thematic and narrative mess, at least it’s a moderately entertaining mess.

Jaymes Samuel’s film aspires to Leone-level mythology while delivering an all-black (or mostly black) Western adventure.

Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin have come up with a wholly fictional (and wholly implausible) plot, but they’ve populated it with historic figures…or at least characters who bear the names of real African American noteworthies like Bill Pickett, Stagecoach Mary Fields, Cherokee Bill and Jim Beckworth.

Those names are the most realistic thing about the film. The characters are paper thin (they sometimes accrue a simulacrum of substance through the sheer charisma of the performers) and nothing like psychological realism rears its head.

Similarly, the physical production is impressive without ever really being convincing.  This is an oddly spic-and-span version of the West…the horses bleed when shot but apparently they don’t defecate, given the pristine state of the streets.  The wardrobe choices — especially for the women characters — are quite wonderful in their eccentricity, but at the cost of constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie.

Indeed, the model for “The Harder They Fall” is less the traditional Western than a Marvel movie.  Instead of a crew of specially-gifted superheroes we get two competing crews of specially-gifted and peculiarly-costumed gunfighters.

In a prologue we see outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) invade a remote farmhouse, shoot the husband and wife and terrorize their young son.

Years later that child has grown to be Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), an outlaw gang leader whose specialty is preying on other outlaws.  You see, Nat thirsts for revenge on Rufus, but that killer is serving a life sentence in prison. So he occupies himself with bothering the still-active remnants of Rufus’ gang.

But wouldn’t you know it…Rufus pulls strings and gets himself freed from stir to run amok once again.  You know it’s all going to end with a big shootout that will reduce a frontier town to rubble and a mano-a-mano confrontation between Nate and his nemesis.

The film is packed with terrific actors on both sides of the feud:  Ed Gathegi, Damon Wayans Jr., Lakeith Stanfield. Regina King is too good an actress to be stuck with a cardboard villainess like Trudy Smith, but by God she looks great in her all-black outfit topped by a bowler hat.

Regina King, Idris Elba, LaKeith Stanfield

Zazie Beetz is an alluring explosion of hair as saloon owner Mary Fields, who is also hero Nate’s love interest.

And two members of the Love Gang just about steal the show:  Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, a cross-dressing diminutive saloon bouncer and R.J. Cyler as Beckworth, one of those mouthy, pistol-spinning wannabe gunfighters who exude more bravado than common sense.

Oh, and let’s not forget Delroy Lindo as grizzled lawman Bass Reeves, who teams up with one band of outlaws to defeat an even worse bunch.

This is an Old West where white faces are peripheral at best. Most of the action unfolds in all-black burgs, and while one assumes this milieu would have been rife with racism, the film really isn’t interested in making a social statemtent. 

(Although there’s one elaborate visual joke: the black outlaws decide to rob a bank in a white town…and when I say “white” I mean really white.  The whole place — houses, storefronts, hitching posts, boardwalks — have been painted bright white. You’d have to shade your eyes on a cloudy day.)

Samuel gets playful with the soundtrack, employing bits of Morricone mischief but relying mostly on reggae.  

On the downside there are several moments of pure sadism that leave a bad taste. And the screenplay features a couple of long monologues that really only prove how much better Tarantino is at this sort of thing.

But, hey, the film looks great. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography lovingly dwells on both the Western landscape and the faces of the players.

If it all never really comes together coherently, at least there’s plenty to look at.

| Robert W. Butler

Matthias Schweighofer

“Army of Thieves” My rating: B- (Netflix)

127 minutes | No MPAA rating

The heist-in-zombie-plagued-Las Vegas title “Army of the Dead” was, to me, anyway, a big bloated bore.

Weirdly, I kinda love “Army of Thieves,” a prequel that provides the back story of Ludwig Dieter, the squirrelly safecracker from the first movie.

Combining the whimsey and visual panache of “Amelie” with the well-worn cliches of a caper flick (with, yeah,  zombies lurking in the distant background), this effort from director Matthias Schweighofer (who also stars as the nimble-fingered Dieter) manages to be consistently diverting.

In large part it’s because Schweighofer is so good as Dieter, a safe-obsessed German nerd who in moments of crisis shrieks like a schoolgirl. He’s anything but heroic…in fact, the sorts of manly characters who usually dominate action films are here portrayed as villains.

Dieter has a little-watched YouTube series in which he rhapsodizes about a safe designer from the early 1900s who produced four impenetrable bank vaults inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

They’ve got names like Siegfried and Valkyrie and each has a specific design guaranteed to discourage any robbery attempts.

Apparently Dieter has one steady viewer. He’s contacted by the gorgeous Gwendoline (“GoT’s” Nathalie Emmanuel) who wants him to join her team of bank robbers.  Her plan is to hit the Ring Cycle safes in various banks across Europe, then move on to the final objective, the massive Gotterdammerung beneath a Las Vegas casino.

(News broadcasts scattered throughout the film inform us that there’s a zombie outbreak in Vegas.  The plague is yet to cross the Atlantic.)

Other members of the team include a master computer hacker (Ruby O. Fee), a skilled if overly-chatty getaway driver (Guz Khan) and the preening Brad (Stuart Martin), an imposing physical specimen who’s a dead-ringer for Hugh Jackman in Wolverine mode.

Turns out the intimidating Brad is also Gwendoline’s current squeeze, a situation that poses additional dangers as our dweeby protagonist finds himself falling ever more deeply for his boss lady’s charms. (Hard to blame him…Gwendoline is pretty charming.)

Shay Hatton’s screenplay (he also penned “Army of the Dead”) is jammed with amusing wordplay (whereas the earlier film was jammed with over-the-top mayhem) and the heist sequences have been paced and edited for maximum tension.

“Army of Thieves” ends pretty much where “Army of the Dead” began…but its pleasures don’t require any knowledge of the earlier movie.  It’s just fun.

| Robert W. Butler

Catherine Keener, Charlie Heaton

“NO FUTURE” My rating: B- (Amazon Prime)

89 minutes | No MPAA rating

A young man has a love affair with his best friend’s mom.

Sounds like not-very-original porn.

Well, “No Future” isn’t porn, at least not in the conventional sense.  Some viewers may find its singleminded obsession with dead-end lives a form of pornography.

What we’ve got in Andrew Irvine and Mark Smoot’s feature (they share both writing and directing credits) is a dour drama about a recovering addict struggling to stick to the straight and narrow and consumed with guilt about the bad stuff he did while under the influence.

Will (“Stranger Things’” Charlie Heaton, who possesses the saddest set of eyes this side of an abused Bassett Hound) lives in what appears to be a small Texas town.  He’s been going regularly to AA meetings, has an attentive and loving girlfriend (Rosa Salazar).

But he’s haunted by his past.  His widowed father (Jackie Earle Haley) can barely tolerate his son…seems that when Will’s mom was dying of cancer the kid pilfered her pain meds.

Will’s past comes back to haunt him in even more immediate fashion with the unexpected arrival of his childhood friend Chris (“Yellowstone’s” Jefferson White), fresh out of prison and falling back into his old ways.  Will was largely responsible for Chris becoming a junkie; now his old bud’s presence threatens Will’s recovery.  He tells Chris they can’t associate.

Chis resignedly accepts this fact, then goes home and overdoses. Accident or suicide? That’s the question that torments his mother Claire (Catherine Keener), who discovers the body.

Despite the 30 or more years separating them, Will and Claire find themselves in a secret physical relationship that oozes grief, guilt and loss. Maybe they somehow assume their affair will make them feel better.

Nope.  A shroud of desperation and doom envelops “No Future”…hell, the title alone should raise red flags.

To their credit, the filmmakers don’t dwell on the sexual nature of this pairing.  Their approach is utterly sincere, soberly non exploitative. 

And the performances — especially from Keener in full anti-glamour mode — are the stuff of heartbreak.

And yet “No Future” is so unrelentingly glum that it’s a struggle to sit through.  Ultimately the experience is so devoid of hope that some may leave the film feeling that recovery is an impossibility.

Surely that’s not the message we’re supposed to take away.

| Robert W. Butler

Zendaya, Timothee Chalamet

“DUNE” My rating: B (In theaters and HBO Max)

155 minutes | |MPAA rating: PG-13

In making his new version of “Dune,” director  Denis Villeneuve has followed his own version of the Hippocratic oath.

Rather than “First, do no harm,” his mantra has been “Above all, do nothing stupid.”

And he hasn’t. 

 Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling 1965 sci-fi epic is consistently smart, effectively acted  and  spectacularly well designed.

 If its slow pacing will irritate some and its emotional distance prove problematic, at least there are none of the wince-worthy moments that marred David Lynch’s 1984 version.

Fans of the novel should be overcome with gratitude that a world-class director took on this material with respect and insight.  It’s an astoundingly faithful film adaptation; whatever narrative issues the film possesses are those of the novel.

First things first…even at 2 hours and 35 minutes this is only half the “Dune” story.  It ends with young Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) a fugitive from the brutal Harkonnen  clan who have killed his father and seized control of the desert planet Arrakis and its vast wealth of spice. When last we see him he’s been taken in by the Fremen, the cave-dwelling locals.

Spice — for any reader who somehow managed to avoid the book as a young person —  is a hallucinogen mined from the sand dunes of Arrakis; its properties make space navigation possible and will fuel the mystical revolution that will undoubtedly dominate a second “Dune” movie. 

But here’s the deal:  I’m not even going to try here to delve into all the story’s plot points: the betrayals, the minor characters,  the allegorical parallels (Paul’s universe-spanning revolt, carried out by religious fanatics from the desert, smacks of our own issues with Islamic fundamentalism).  

I’m gonna assume most of you know the book and want to know how it works as a film.

Well, it works just fine.  Going in I feared that the reedy Chalamet would be just too damn wimpy for the key role of Paul, but you can feel the character grow and mature from scene to scene.

We barely get to spend any time with Zendaya as Chani, the girl-warrior who will become Paul’s paramour (though seen throughout in Paul’s visions, she doesn’t show up as an actual character until the last 15 minutes); but she looks great and exudes the appropriate don’t-screw-with-me desert attitude.

Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac

There are so many characters here that few get much screen time.  Oscar Isaac and Rebecca Ferguson have real presence as Paul’s parents, while players like Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Charlotte Rampling and Javier Bardem barely get a chance to register.

A happy exception is Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, Paul’s military mentor and friend; I don’t know if it’s good acting or if I just like watching Momoa, but he really makes an impression.

(BTW: Look for Kansas City-reared actors Stephen McKinley Henderson and David Dastmalchian in supporting roles.)

Production quality is off the charts (I was particularly taken with the “dragonfly” aircraft employed on Arrakis) and the costuming hugely effective.

The big battle scenes feel a little generic…the violence is PG-13 and I was a tad underwhelmed.

And while I was never bored by this “Dune,” I was never really moved, either.  It’s a good ride, but I wasn’t blown away.

Still, I’m ready for Part II. The sooner the better.

| Robert W. Butler

The Velvet Underground…and Nico

“THE VELVET UNDERGROUND”  My rating: B (Apple +)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Todd Haynes’ new documentary about The Velvet Underground is a movie made by a fan for other fans.

It presumes a certain amount of shared musical history on the part of viewers. It is most definitely NOT “Velvet Underground 101.”  

It’s not interested in dragging out scholarly arguments about the Velvet Underground’s contribution to punk culture or in laying out a careful chronology of the band’s birth and demise.  There’s no analysis of the place of Velvets Lou Reed and John Cale as formidable  solo artists. Heck, I don’t think even one of the band’s songs is played from beginning to end…mostly we get tantalizing snippets. 

Instead Haynes (who has a history of music-themed films like “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” “Velvet Goldmine” and the Dylan-centric “I’m Not There”) strives to give us a broad  impressionistic view of the personalities behind the Velvets and the early-‘60s Bohemian New York milieu which spawned them.

He draws heavily on archival footage of Andy Warhol’s Factory, with its heady mishmash of visual artists, actors, poets, dancers and musicians, creating hallucinogenic montages — including tons of split-screen effects — that look for all the world like one of those early rock concert light shows.

He interviews the two surviving members of the original Velvets (the viola-playing Welshman Cale and the androgynous drummer Maureen Tucker) and draws extensively on audio recordings of the late Lou Reed talking about his time with the band.

Fellow musician Jonathan Richman, a Velvets acolyte back in the day, pops up frequently to discuss why, in his estimation, the band mattered.

There is, of course, a chunk of the film devoted to the late Nico, the neurasthenic German blonde hand-picked by Warhol to be the band’s coolly sexy talisman and, hopefully, their introduction to the commercial mainstream. (Keep dreaming, Andy…not in a million years.)

On some levels “The Velvet Underground” is maddeningly superficial.  The rift between Cale and Reed that led to the latter secretly “firing” the former is written off as a personality clash.  Well, yeah, but how about some details?

And Reed’s notorious bad behavior (often drug-fueled) at various stages of his career is pushed aside and glossed over.

But to watch this doc is to be plunged into the heady world of early art rock with all its dissonance and angst.  It’s a time machine really, and for Velvet fans it’s a nostalgic trip back to the creation of a band that regarded nostalgia as the purview of losers.

| Robert W. Butler

Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimptgon

“MASS” My rating: B+ (AMC Town Center)

110 minutes | MPAA: PG-13

There’s no way “Mass” should work.

Or even if it works, the very premise sounds so unbearable that only masochists would show up for it.

But here’s the thing: Fran Kranz’s feature writing/directing debut (up to now I’ve know him only as the actor who nailed the comically stoned Marty in 2011’s “Cabin in the Woods”) is not only supernaturally well-written, but offers performances of jaw-dropping depth.

The squirm-worthy setup: Two couples meet in a nondescript church parlor to discuss a tragedy more than a decade old. One pair are mourning the death of their son in a school mass shooting. The other are the parents of the killer. This is the first time they’ve spoken to each other without the presence of cameras and reporters and lawyers.

The film’s first 20 minutes are a tease of sorts. Kranz devotes much time to the efforts of two church volunteers (Breeda Wool, Kagen Albright) to prepare a space for the meeting. A rep (Michelle N. Carter) of an agency that deals with this sort of reconciliation makes an inspection and offers suggestions (she’s concerned that the sound of a choir practice elsewhere in the building may drift into the room; also, a table full of refreshments makes it look too much like a party).

We meet the first couple, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton), sitting in their car outside. They’re not sure they can go through with this.

At this point in the proceeding we’re not sure if they’re the parents of the killer or of one of his victims: in fact, that uncertainty lingers for several minutes after the arrival of the other couple, Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney). It takes some uncomfortable small talk before they get down to discussing what haunts them all and we figure out who’s who.

Over the course of 90 real-time minutes they move from wary politeness to bitterness, fury, regret and eventually a sort of mutual conciliation borne of shared pain.

For while Jay and Gail finally have the opportunity to rail at Linda and Richard for ignoring the signals that their loner son was homicidal, it becomes clear that far from being neglectful, Linda and Richard watched their boy, got him therapy, and were relieved when it appeared (falsely) that he had finally found his place in high school society.

Ann Dowd, Reed Birney

And in the wake of all that horror, Linda and Richard have been dunned with lawsuits, hounded by the media. Their marriage has fallen apart. They’re so sorry, but don’t know what else they might have done.

A lesser writer than Kranz would have penned all sorts of declarative passages to delineate where these characters are coming from. Not here. We pick up most of the details of that tragic day and its aftermath tangentially, assembling a big picture from small reveals.

Watching this all unfold on a single set, one assumes “Mass” is an adaptation of stage play. Nope. Kranz wrote it for the screen. But even then he doesn’t gussie things up cinematically. His camera is mostly stationary (a couple of pans between speakers), there’s no musical track to speak of…the emphasis is on the characters.

And, Holy Shit, do his four lead players come through.

Isaacs nails the American male who nurses his pain within a shell of outward masculinity (you’d never know he was a Brit); Plimpton brilliantly traverses her character’s journey from resentment to generosity.

But the show is stolen by Dowd and Birney as the parents of the killer. Dowd will forever be known as one of the great villains for her turn as the tormenting Aunt Lydia on “The Handmaid’s Tale”; here she is devastating as Linda, pathetic in her attempts to please and crippled by grief and guilt.

And Birney (the least known of the four major players despite a Tony, an Obie and 45 years as one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors) damn near steals the show as Richard, a white-collar conservative (he shows up in suit and tie) whom many will initially see as perennially in denial. But just wait; before it’s all over Richard will reveal anguish to match that of anyone else.

Hard to believe this Kranz’s first turn behind the camera. I’m dying to see what he gives us next.

|Robert W. Butler

Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr.

“NEEDLE IN A TIMESTACK” My rating: C (VOD on Oct. 15)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Time travel love stories — the ones that work, anyway — convince us of the inevitability of two souls finding each other across temporal and spacial eternities.

Basically you’ve got to leave one of these flicks feeling that the love relationship depicted is so earth-shakingly right that it must have been preordained by the fates.

John Ridley’s “Needle in a Timestack” aims for that sort of certainty in love…but comes up short.

It’s not for want of trying. The film has been very well cast; the performances are solid.

And yet it never quite works. Mainly, I think, because it doesn’t believe it’s own line of b.s.

Ridley’s screenplay (based on Robert Silverberg’s short story) unfolds in a near future that looks pretty much like ours. The big difference is that the world now is plagued with “time shifts,” waves of distortion that move across the landscape like a liquid wall.

In their wake some people’s realities are altered. They now have different spouses or jobs…and they have no memory of their previous lives.

Moreover, time travel is now a luxury available to the very wealthy. Despite rules to prevent the retro-retooling of the present, some of these high-tech vacationers do go into the past in order to fiddle with the future.

How did these “time shifts” come to be? Experiment gone bad? Interplanetary collision? COVID vaccine side effects?

The film doesn’t explain. Which is the first strike against it.

Anyway, Nick and Janine (Leslie Odom Jr., Cynthia Erivo) are deeply in love. So they tell us…I never once felt it.

But in the wake of a particularly disruptive time shift, Nick becomes uneasy, convinced that Janine’s ex, the fabulously wealthy tech industrialist Tommy (Orlando Bloom), is using time travel to alter the past so as to reclaim Janine.

Maybe Nick is just paranoid. Or maybe not…his own sister (Jadyn Wang) has gone deep into debt in order to travel back in time to prevent the accidental death of her best friend.

In flashbacks (are they flashbacks, really, or an alternative reality depicting a different time line?) we witness Nick’s doomed romance with Alex (Freida Pinto)…doomed because without him realizing it, he’s fated to end up with Janine.”Fated” may be the wrong word. As Ridley’s dialogue insists on telling us at every opportunity, time is a circle. No beginning, no end, just an eternal round and round and round.

Now that’s a nifty concept, one thoroughly examined in countless pot-fueled late-night sessions in college dorm rooms. But “Needle in a Timestack” never makes its case emotionally. It’s more like a schematic for a Ted Talk.

Ridley, a cinematic jack of all trades (numerous producing credits, a mess of screenplays — “Three Kings,” “Red Tails,” “12 Years a Slave” — and a ton of TV) gets props for eschewing the usual fx-heavy trappings (when late in the film Nick becomes a time traveler, the tech is absurdly low) and concentrating instead on the human issues.

But something has gone wrong. At film’s end my reaction was less “aaaahhhhhh” than “uuuuuuuhhhh?”

| Robert W. Butler

Mary Elizabeth Winstead

“KATE” My rating: B (Netflix)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” and the noir classic “D.O.A.” had a baby, it would look a lot like “Kate,” a lean, sleek female-centric actioner from director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan that arrives with a bang, knocks your socks off for 90 minutes, and leaves you limp but weirdly invigorated.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead portrays our title character, an orphan (think “La Femme Nikita”) trained in the arts of assassination by an untrustworthy father figure (Woody Harrellson) and turned loose to do the dirty work of the Yakuza families of Tokyo.

Early on Kate passes out while driving; she awakens in a hospital where (like Edmund O’Brien in “D.O.A.”) she’s informed that she has ingested a lethal dose of radioactive material. She’s got maybe 24 hours.

She’ll use that time to ruthlessly hunt down her poisoner, a high-ranking gangster who believes she knows too much to be allowed to retire. Along the way she’ll kidnap the guy’s teenage granddaughter (Miku Patricia Martineau), who over the course of a long night morphs from entitled brat to Kate’s Girl Friday and avenging mini-angel.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Miku Patricia Martineau

“Kate” doesn’t require an actress as talented as Winstead (check out her exemplary work on the second season of “Fargo” and the criminally underappreciated political/horror spoof “BrainDead”). Mostly she has to look good with a gun…mission accomplished.

But Winstead imbues her relentless killer with very human moments and frailties. After a while it’s positively painful to watch her radiated body fall apart before our eyes; yet our girl always finds the superhuman strength to take on one more bad guy.

And the fight scenes…wow. They come with clockwork regularity and have the furious intensity of a John Wick confrontation. Guns, knives, swords, feet, knuckles…Kate employs them all to leave behind a long trail of dead Yakuza.

The film is crammed with little homages to other movies: “Kill Bill” (a nightclub with an all-girl band, a duel with samurai swords, a deadly schoolgirl), “Aliens” (Kate chops off her hair into a mayhem-friendly Ripley ‘do), “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (the adolescent sidekick) and a slew of others.

Plus the Japanese players have been cast for their unique facial features. Talk about a passle of memorable mugs.

Director Nicolas-Troyan is the guy behind the “Snow White” franchise, which I’ve found visually interesting and dramatically inert. But here he boils things down to pure movement — there’s a nighttime shootout involving dozens of gunmen, all armed with laser-equipped automatic weapons, and the ballet of zig-zagging light beams, bloody eruptions and shattering glass is like nothing I’ve seen before.

“Kate” doesn’t go deep, but it is unquestionably the most satisfying of the recent crop of tough-girl action films. Just enjoy the ride.

| Robert W. Butler

Evangeline Lilly, Jason Sudeikis

“SOUTH OF HEAVEN” My rating: C (Glenwood Arts and VOD)

120 minutes | No MPAA rating

Thanks to the awards magnet known as “Ted Lasso,” 2021 is going down as Jason Sudeikis’ year. Not even a misstep like “South of Heaven” will change that.

What we’ve got here is a multiple-personality crime yarn about an ex-con who gets caught up in ugly (and wildly improbable) events.

We first meet Jimmy (the KC-reared Sudeikis) at his parole hearing in a Texas prison.  He tells the board that after serving 12 years of a 15-year sentence for bank robbery, he’s ready to return home and nurse his childhood sweetheart, who is dying of cancer.

“Lasso” fans may be struck with deja vu.  Jimmy has more than a little in common with the Kansas-bred coach.  There’s no ‘stache, but he shares with Ted a laconic nice-guyness and an innate sweetness. (In fact, Jimmy seems way too copacetic to be a career crook; eventually we’ll learn that the botched bank job was his only foray into crime.) 

Moreover, both characters have that aw-shucks Midwestern way of talking. The big difference is that Ted is bent on amusing us, what with all his witty literary and cultural namedropping. Jimmy, on the other hand, isn’t deliberately funny and doesn’t have all that much to say.

Initially Aharon Keshales’ film (co-written with Kai Mark and Navot Papushado) presents itself as a tear-jerking love story.  The paroled Jimmy returns to his gal Annie (Evangeline Lilly with a blond pixie cut); he’s devoted to making her last months count.

But staying straight ain’t easy.  Jimmy’s parole officer, Schmidt (Shea Whigham, a fine actor here shamelessly overacting), is a creep who threatens to send Jimmy back to prison if he doesn’t serve as a mule in Schmidt’s mini crime syndicate.

On Schmidt’s behalf our reluctant hero finds himself running afoul of both a Hispanic drug lord (Amaury Nolasco) and an African-American gangster (Mike Colter).  (Why are the heavies minorities? Just curious.) At one point the latter kidnaps Annie because he believes Jimmy has made off with a half million of his ill-gotten gains.

Mike Colter

A desperate Jimmy responds by snatching the gangster’s entitled tweener son (Thaddeus J. Mixson).

Yeah, there’s way too much plot here, all of it ending in a most unromantic blood bath.

The screenplay alternates between moments of ghastly violence and sadism and genuinely thoughtful interludes, like the odd friendships that develops between Annie and the gangster and Jimmy and the gangster’s kid. 

If Jimmy seems a sort of dry run for Ted Lasso,  Colter’s erudite gangster is a reprise of his recurring character in TV’s “The Good Wife.” 

Sudeikis gives it the old college try, but I so love his gentle comedy that I felt like he was playing an ex-con in an “SNL” skit…you know, just a second away from donning a silly track suit and doing a goofy dance. It’s hard work reconciling the actor’s affable essence with the avenging angel he becomes in the last reel — like watching Mary Poppins mutate into Steven Segal.

| Robert W. Butler 

A slaughterhouse operating in an oversized child’s playhouse…that’s the overriding image of “Squid Game,” a South Korean mini-series that melds the cult-classic mayhem of “Battle Royale,” the winner-take-all ruthlessness of “The Hunger Games,” the cutthroat strategies of “Survivor” and “Big Brother” and the dour social/political underpinnings of “Parasite.”

Written and directed by Dong-hyuk Hwang, this seven-episode mind-blower (reportedly it’s on track to be Netflix’s most popular series ever) envisions a hidden island arena where the has-beens and wannabes of Korean society are given a chance to win millions of dollars by playing childhood games (red light/green light, tug of war, marbles) on a king-sized playground.

The only problem: Lose the round and you also lose your life.

Our protagonist is Seong Gi-hun (Jung-jae Lee), a middle-aged loser who’s been out of work for a decade. A degenerate gambler, he’s deep in debt to murderous loan sharks; like a junkie, he steals from his impoverished mother to finance his days at the track.

Gi-hun has a daughter he adores and an ex-wife who plans on taking the little girl to the U.S. The guy’s desperate.

So when he’s approached on a subway platform by a stranger who engages him in a children’s game and then offers a business card for game playing on an even bigger scale, Gi-hun figures he’s got nothing to lose.

Picked up by a van and sedated by gas, Gi-hun awakens in a vast dormitory filled with bunk beds and more than 400 other desperate contestants. They all find themselves wearing teal-blue sweatsuits; each player has a number instead of a name.

The contests are overseen by a seemingly endless staff wearing hot pink jump suits and mesh masks that sport symbols delineating their ranks: a square (a boss), a triangle (an armed soldier) or a circle (a common worker).

The entire operation is overseen by the masked Front Man, whose all-black outfit makes him look like the love child of Darth Vader and “G.I. Joe’s” Cobra Commander.

Park Hae-soo, Jung-jae Lee and Jung Ho-yeon

A typical episode of “Squid Game” centers on a competitive event that bloodily halves the number of participants. These thrilling nail biter segments are bookended by what goes on in the dorm between games — the contestants form alliances, plan double crosses, try to undermine the competition.

That may mean staying up all night lest you be murdered in your sleep.

Just as insidious, the whole setup is designed to force the players to question whatever notions of morality or decency they may have had in the outside world. It’s on this level of the narrative that Gi-hun becomes more or less heroic — his conscience appears to have the longest self life of any in the place.

“Squid Game” finds lots of time to get into the other players. Sang-woo (Hae-soo Park) is Gi-hun’s childhood friend, a guy who became a business school star but now faces indictment for squandering his clients’ money.

There’s also an old man (Yeong-su Oh) who seems way too decrepit for this competition; ironically, as someone who grew up analog he’s a walking encyclopedia of strategies for the old-school games the island’s masterminds are updating.

A low-level gangster (Her Sun-tae) who stole his boss’s money now forms his own posse of killers to terrorize the other players. A tart-tongued harridan (Halley Kim) uses sexual favors to prolong her survival. A sad-eyed North Korean defector (Jung Ho-yeon) wants to win the game so that she can get her little brother out of an orphanage.

And then there’s the police detective (Hae-soo Park) who in search of his missing brother has infiltrated the island and is hiding inside one of those pink jump suits. From his perspective we’re allowed a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.

“Squid Game” is an audacious piece of work. But it’s not perfect.

The Grand Guignol grotesqueries are often at odds with the playful production design, and by series’ end you’ll still have major questions about who’s behind this and how they’ve been able to keep such a massive undertaking a secret from the rest of the world. (It’s not just the hundreds of faceless employees…what about the construction workers who built the place and fabricate the gigantic game pieces?)

And late in the series things turn painfully heavy handed with the arrival of VIP millionaires who have paid to watch the finalists game each other to the death. These creeps all wear gold animal masks (the most reprehensible is, quite literally, a fat cat), talk in American English and with cigars and bubbly lounge about like Romans betting on the gladiators.

Gotta tell you: the dialogue Dong-hyuk Hwang has provided for these wealthy creeps is embarrassingly bad; the delivery is worse. Ouch.

Still, “Squid Game” is a rousing, disturbing, candy-coated, brain matter-splattered experience steeped in societal ennui. An American remake seems a certainty.

| Robert W. Butler

(Left to right): John Pollono, Jordana Spiro, Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Josh Helman

“SMALL ENGINE REPAIR” My rating: C+ (In theaters)

103 minutes || MPAA rating: R

John Pollono’s “Small Engine Repair” isn’t so much a movie as it is several movies, often working at cross purposes.

The upshot is a bad case of emotional/tonal whiplash as what initially looks like a study of blue-collar male bonding — with a healthy dash of toxic masculinity — veers into over-the-top melodrama.

Initially this indie effort presents itself as a workin-class riff on “Three Men and a Baby.”  In the first scene Frankie (writer/director Pollono) comes out of prison to be greeted by his boyhood chums Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Patrick (Shea Whigham), who have been taking care of Frankie’s infant daughter while he was in stir.

How these two beer-swigging man-boys were allowed to care for a baby is something of a mystery, but we’re led to believe that they did a pretty good job in Frankie’s absence.

Cut to many years later.  That baby has grown up to be the teenage Crystal ( Ciara Bravo), who still lives with her dad Frankie, although she also spends much time with her loving “uncles.” 

Though Frankie has long been on the wagon, he’s still got a temper, especially when Crystal’s druggie mom Karen (Jordana Spiro) makes a rare appearance to stir up old animosities.  With his patience frayed by domestic issues, Frankie needs little provocation to get into barroom brawls; he’s invariably joined in the mayhem by Swaino and Patrick, who in middle age remain single and, emotionally anyway, adolescent.

These early passages seem to be going for a slice-of-life naturalism. Despite the violent blips, we find ourselves taking comfort in the three men’s lifelong friendship.

It doesn’t last.

In the second half of the film is like another movie altogether. Frankie entertains a smugly privileged college kid, Anthony  (Josh Helman), who sidelines as a drug dealer.  Over the course of a drunken evening in Frankie’s small engine repair shop Anthony finds himself duct taped to a chair; apparently he dated Frankie’s beloved Crystal and ruined the girl’s life by posting intimate photos of her online.

Frankie now expects old pals Swaino and Patrick and to help out with his revenge, though they’re not so sure they’re ready to commit homicide.  Things are further complicated when Crystal’s mom Karen shows up and begins goading the menfolk into action.

“Small Engine Repair” is a very weird, scattered film. It originated as a four-man, one-set  play written by  Pollono. On stage the characters of Crystal and her mom Karen are discussed, but never seen.  

Watching the film I found myself reverse engineering it.  The whole first half of the movie apparently was created in an effort open the yarn up cinematically.  The play proper eats up the claustrophobic Act II.

But the old material and the new really don’t mesh.  Which is where this expanded narrative’s dramatic schizophrenia rears its ugly head. 

The good news is that individual scenes in “Small Engine Repair” work really well.  And the performances are terrific. I was particularly taken with Whigham’s Patrick, a social moron whose tech expertise — he’s something of a computer geek — becomes essential to the plot.

| Robert W. Butler

Ben Wishawen Wishaw

“SURGE” My rating: B- (In theaters; on demand on Oct. 25)

105 minutes | No MPAA rating

Modern life can drive a person crazy.  This is not news.  Dozens of films have been based on that very idea.

Few, however carry the visceral oomph of “Surge,” which finds an airport security guard (Ben Wishaw) going off the deep end to spend 24 hours wandering the streets of London in an ever-accelerating psychic meltdown.

The first 20 or so minutes of Aniel Karia’s film play out almost like a documentary about working airport security.  Our protagonist, Joseph, must put up with travelers who radiate everything from contempt to tearful panic; he’s supposed to maintain his own dispassionate calm while patting down passengers who are about one martini away from an eye-rolling implosion.

I’ve always thought of airport security as a physically dangerous job (you know, terrorists and all that) but clearly it’s the mental/emotional toll that leaves a guy a hollow shell.

Joseph is sleep deprived; he has a neighbor who revs his motorcycle all  night long.  

He’s a chronic moper and after meeting his parents we can see why:  Mom (Ellie Haddington, possessor of the glummest face in film history) oozes maternal disapproval and Dad (Ian Gelder) seethes in a cocoon of pre-dementia fury.

At a certain point in the episodic screenplay (credited to Karia, Rupert Jones and Rita Kalnejais) Joseph begins a journey through the streets. His credit card eaten by an ATM, he tries his hand at robbery.

He visits a coworker to help her get her new TV up and running; this results in a sexual coupling that sends him off on a manic high.

That doesn’t last.  Joseph checks into a hotel and proceeds to do a rock star number on the room, then crashes a wedding reception in the ballroom.

By day’s end he’s beaten,  bloody and burned out.  

Now none of this can be viewed as fun.  “Surge” is a downer from start to finish.

But it is also hugely effective.  Much of it appears to have been shot on the fly with handheld cameras.  Wishaw is often seen moving through crowds of people who don’t know they’re being filmed. Nothing seems rehearsed.

And then there’s the soundtrack.  “Surge” features what may be the most effective sonic depiction of mental collapse ever created for the cinema. Paul Davis’ sound design creates an unrelenting  whirlwind of noise — rumbling engines, horns, music pouring out of shops, snatches of conversation — that perfectly matches the unraveling of Jospeh’s sanity.

At one point Wishaw has been so closely miked that his breathing takes on the devastating power of hurricane-force winds.

This is combined with Tujiko Noriko’s musical score of bass rumblings and dissonant treble notes — it’s reminiscent of the Gyorgi Ligeti “music of the spheres” employed in Kubrick’s “2001.”

Together these elements practically scream for an Oscar nomination for sound design.  (While watching the film I listened on stereo headphones and the effect was simply devastating.)

There were moments early on when I feared that “Surge” was slipping into a satiric parody of the whole “modern life is hell” motif. Nope. Everyone involved seems to be taking it very seriously.

| Robert W. Butler

Ben Platt

“DEAR EVAN HANSEN”  My rating: B-

137 minutes | MPAA rating PG-13

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

“Dear Evan Hansen” is an exercise in cynicism.

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

Which is a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaitlyn Dever, Ben Platt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

St. Vincent, Carrie Brownstein

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

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

Dakota Johnson, St. Vincent

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Andrien Titieni

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

108 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Tom Skerritt

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

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales

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

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

John David Washington

BECKETT” My rating: B (Netflix)

110 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Alvin Ailey’s signature piece, “Revelations”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin


“CODA” My rating: B (Apple+)

111 minutes | MPAA: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This opens up several wormy cans.

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Lily Hevesh

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

90 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Adam Driver, Marian Cotillard

“ANNETTE”  My rating: C(Amazon Prime)

141 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

Basically I admire “Annette” without actually liking it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Helberg with Baby Annette

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

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

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

Basically it’s child abuse.

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Hugh Jackman

“REMINISENCE” My rating: D (HBO Max)

116 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Reminisence” has one hell of a pedigree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, he falls. Hard.

Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

David Morrissey

“BRITANNIA” My rating: B  (Amazon Prime)

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

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

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

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

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

Tons of drop-dead gorgeous scenery.

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

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

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

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

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

Mackenzie Crook

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly Reilly

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

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

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

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

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

Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Nikolaj Lie Kaas

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Donald Rugoff

“SEARCHING FOR MR. RUGOFF” My rating:B

94 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

“A piece of work.”

“Reviled, feared.”

“A thorny, difficult man.”

“Self-destructive.”

“Really good at what he did.”

“A giant nobody knows about.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

“THE SWARM” My rating: C+(Netflix)

101 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suliame Brahim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Jena Malone, Pablo Schreiber

“LORELEI” My rating: B 

111 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Dev Patel

“THE GREEN KNIGHT” My rating: B 

130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dev Patel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Nicolas Cage

“PIG” My rating: C+ (VOD)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Peri Baumeister, Carl Anton Koch

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

121 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

For the rest of you, here goes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Brooklynn Prince

“SETTLERS” My rating: B-

103 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ismael Cruz Cordova, Sofia Boutella

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, Jack Whitehall

“JUNGLE CRUISE” My rating: C+

127 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesse Plemons

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

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

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

Supernatural shenanigans ensue.

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Mark Wahlberg

“JOE BELL” My rating: C+

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

German forester Peter Wohlleben

“THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES” My rating: B

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

I CARRY YOU WITH ME” My rating: B+

Armando Espitia, Christian Vazquez

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

Head spinning yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That means leaving behind Gerardo and his little boy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Haunting” isn’t too strong a word.

| Robert W. Butler

Sylvester Stone

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

117 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Mavis Staples, Mahalia Jackson

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

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

86 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler