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“EO” My rating: B (In theaters)

89 minutes | No MPAA rating

What you get out of the donkey-centric “Eo,” I suspect, depends upon what you bring to it.

The latest from veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski (“Moonlighting,” “The Lightship”) is an acknowledged nod to Robert Bresson’s 1966 “Au Hazard Balthasar”…both follow a donkey as the animal encounters a diverse variety of human beings whose behavior runs the gamut from loving to indifferent to cruel.

Neither film attempts to Disney-fy its subject. Both Balthazar and Eo are animals, pure and simple. They don’t do cute things, they are not ascribed the same emotions as people. Stare into their eyes and find what you can there.

This neutrality makes the movies challenging, for the filmmakers don’t tell us what we’re supposed to be feeling at any given moment. Rather we observe and, ultimately, impose on the donkey our own sensibilities. It’s not so much about the animal as our reactions to it and its plight.

“Eo” begins in a traveling circus where under a fierce red light Eo goes through his repertoire of simple tricks with his trainer Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). This young woman is clearly devoted to the animal, showering it (is it a he or a she? I don’t know…) with affection and kisses.

But in short order things go south. The circus goes bankrupt at the same time it’s assailed by animal rights activists. Eo and the other four-footed performers are shipped off.

Over the film’s 90 minutes we’ll follow Eo through a series of misadventures. He/she ends up in a high-end horse breeding stable, pulling a cart loaded with feed and other necessities. Eo spends time at a farm that serves as a sort of petting zoo for special needs children.

Sandra Drzymalska, Eo

These interludes are presented as neither good nor bad. Is requiring an animal to haul our stuff or be ridden a form of exploitation? Is it cruel? You decide.

It could always be worse, as we’ll soon learn. Wandering off the farm Eo stumbles across a village whose soccer-crazy residents adopt him as their club mascot. Even the minimum pampering he receives from the beery celebrants has a downside; when the skinhead hooligan fans of a vanquished team show up to break heads, they decide to beat poor Eo as well.

Eventually Eo finds himself the companion of a young man (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) who takes the donkey home to meet his rich mother (played by none other than the great Isabelle Huppert). Seems like a pretty nifty place to wind up, but Eo’s sense of wanderlust kicks in yet again, and he’s off.

Periodically the film reverts to crimson-soaked flashbacks to Eo’s days with Kasandra. This is as close as “Eo” comes to suggesting that the animal has an inner life, memories, yearnings.

We never really get to know the human characters, most of whom are treated with the same neutrality as Eo. Some have a mean streak, some are jerks, most are just schlepping through life.

In truth, “Eo’s” neutrality will strike many as its own form of indifference. Happily the film is a technical tour de force, with sumptuous photography by Michal Dymek and a powerful orchestral score from Pawel Mykietyn that imparts an eye- and ear-catching grandeur to the proceedings.

There’s a good deal of Christian symbolism percolating throughout “Eo,” though one needn’t glom onto it to appreciate the film.

I suspect a certain variety of animal lover — the folk who can handle humans killing each other but blanch when someone shoots a dog — will find in Eo’s story a heart-tugging tragedy.

Others — present company included — will see here a pretty standard-issue life: work, food, sleep, a few moments of pleasure and hopefully fewer of pain, all leading up to that big abattoir in the sky.

| Robert W. Butler

Zen McGrath, Laura Dern, Hugh Jacckman

“THE SON” My rating: C+ (In theaters)

123 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The performances are strong. The subject matter is important. The execution is, well, fine.

But “The Son” is the most unpleasant, upsetting two hours I’ve spent watching a movie in months. For all of its strong elements, the damn thing is so disheartening and joyless that I’m loathe to revisit the memory just so I can write this review.

The latest from director Florian Zeller (like last year’s “The Father” it is adapted from a Zeller play, once again with an assist from Christopher Hampton) addresses the issue of teen depression. It’s almost brutally insightful, and not the least bit encouraging.

Peter Miller (Hugh Jackman) is an executive with a Manhattan-based charity. He has recently married his second wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and together they have welcomed to their lives a baby boy.

But Peter’s cozy world comes crashing down when he is approached by his ex, Kate (Laura Dern), who reports that their teenage son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) is in trouble at school. More specifically, he hasn’t been to class in a month. The kid leaves home every morning and God knows where he spends the day.

Peter doesn’t need this, but he’s a decent guy who genuinely loves his firstborn and wants to do the right thing. He invites Nicholas to move into his place (new wife Beth is surprisingly amenable…she’s a decent person, too) and enrolls him in a new school.

But here’s the thing. Nicholas is tormented, unhappy, friendless. He cannot find words to express his feelings, and rather than share them he prefers isolation.

Peter tries to put an optimistic face on all this, but he’s simply denying the inevitable. And the pressure is starting to unravel both is career and his marriage.

Zeller’s narrative nails the pain and frustration of parents incapable of alleviating their child’s misery. And young McGrath delivers a borderline brilliant depiction of a kid whose unhappiness has led him down an antisocial path (among other things he’s a genius at parental manipulation). Watching this performance we’re jerked back and farther between compassion and indignation — exactly the emotions the adults in his life are experiencing.

Though Nicholas is the clockwork that makes the movie tick, “The Son” also serves as a personality study. Jackman has spent so much of his career in Spandex that it’s easy to forget that he’s a solid dramatic actor. A scene in which Peter visits his semi-estranged father — played by Anthony Hopkins as a sarcasm-dripping capitalist elitist — goes a long way towards establishing why Peter operates in the not-for-profit sphere and why he’s determined to be a genuine father to Nicholas.

But sometimes broke cannot be fixed.

“The Son” does contain one spectacularl improbability. Ask yourself…if you were the parent of a suicidal adolescent, would you keep a loaded firearm in the laundry room?

Didn’t think so.

| Robert W. Butler

WOMEN TALKING” My rating: B + (Theaters)

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

True originality in filmmaking may be impossible. After a century plus of cinema most of the easy fruit has been picked; it takes something pretty special to make us sit up straight and pay attention.

“Women Talking” does that with regularity. It’s a mix of poetic parable and docudrama that hits an emotional/intellectual sweet spot, leaving the viewer with a heady mix of feelings unlike anything I’ve experienced.

Written and directed by Sarah Polley (it’s based on the nonfiction book by Miriam Toews, who shares screenplay credit), “Women Talking” is inspired by real-world events. A decade ago in Bolivia the women of a Mennonite community realized that some of their menfolk had been dosing them with animal tranquilizers and raping them in their sleep.

This film (the setting appears to be rural Canada) imagines how those women — purposely uneducated but by no means unintelligent — might gather to decide whether to stick with their religious community or seek lives in the greater world few know much about (they’ve had no radio, no TV, no Worldwide Web).

“Women Talking” opens with a disturbing image, an overhead shot of the maiden Ona (Rooney Mara) awakening to find her legs and bedclothes smeared with blood.

Cut to a man cowering in a corncrib and being beaten by the furious Salome (Claire Foy); other men have to pull her off the miscreant lest she kill him.

In just a few carefully selected moments the film gives us the lay of the land. The men have gone off to town to bail out their lecherous brothers arrested by the cops. For a few hours the women are left alone to make a choice.

Do they forgive the transgressors and carry on as if nothing had happened? Do they stay in the colony and fight the societal structure that has always limited their ambitions? Or do they pull up stakes and move out, taking with them the younger children?

The bulk of “Women Talking” is exactly that. A dozen or so women retreat to a hayloft overlooking the fields to debate their future. Interestingly enough, none exhibits religious doubts; rather, their beef is with men who don’t live up to their half of the bargain.

Some women — embodied by the scar-faced Janz (Frances McDormand) — will stay no matter what the others decide. They simply cannot fathom a life other than the one they’ve experienced in the colony.

Salome, whose violent temper we have already witnessed, bristles with defiance, sneering at admonitions to behave with traditional feminine submission and restraint. “I’ll stand my ground and deal with God’s wrath if I have to,” she seethes.

Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is torn between fury and fear. Her husband (like the other men, we see him only glancingly, as if out of the corner of our eye) enforces household rules with his fists. If she attempts to leave with their children might be the last thing she ever does.

Striking a more conciliatory tone is Ona, now pregnant by one of her nocturnal molesters. Despite this she exudes a preternatural calm — you can’t help thinking of another virgin who found herself with child.

Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy

The debate is overseen by Agata (Judith Ivey), the oldest of the women. There are some teenage girls eager to bail on the colony if given the chance. A bit of a wild card is Greta (Sheila McCarthy), a benign eccentric who mostly wants to talk about her beloved buggy horses.

There is but one man to witness all this. August (Ben Whishaw), the colony’s school teacher, has been brought in to take notes on the proceedings (apparently none of the women can read or write). This gentle soul offers advice when asked and quietly worships Ona from afar…clearly he is hopelessly in love.

“Women Talking” could feel claustrophobic and stage bound, but Polley periodically takes us outside to mingle with the colony’s children who are awaiting their mothers’ decision. Sometimes the camera roams the rows of corn or lifts overhead like a hovering bird.

Luc Montpellier’s photography employs a desaturated color scheme; the absense of bright hues somehow focuses our senses on the issues and personalities at hand. Similarly, Hidur Gudnadottir’s quietly evocative musical score suggest a world of simple pleasures — acoustic guitar, hammered dulcimer and chimes that ultimately subsume into a piece for string orchestra.

Polley and Toews string it all together with voiceover narration provided by one of the colony’s adolescent girls (I was reminded of Linda Manz’s narration for Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”). This monologue is in the form of a letter to Ona’s unborn child.

All this masterfully builds into a quietly devastating emotional crescendo, sending us off with a rare mingling of sadness and hope.

| Robert W. Butler

“A MAN CALLED OTTO” My rating: B (In theaters)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Marc Foster’s “A Man Called Otto” is a remake of the 2015 Swedish film “A Man Called Ove,” which was based on the international best-seller by Fredrik Backman.

Aside from being set in America instead of Sweden, “Otto” feels like a shot-for-shot copy of the earlier film, with only a few minor variations (a gay character is now trans, an Iranian woman in the European version is Latino this time around).

Both films juggle black comedy and heart-tugging sentiment, both feature a Scrooge-ish fart who in old age discovers a sense of compassion for his fellow man.

Given the overwhelming similarities between the two films, one might reasonably ask the point of a remake. Well, here it is in four words:

Tom Hanks.

Mariana Trevino.

Hanks, among our most affable actors, is cast against type as a dour grinch. A recent widower, Hanks’ Otto fills his days with routine, patrolling the housing estate of which he is de facto manager. He’s continually calling his fellow residents to task for parking improperly, failing to sort their trash, and for just being hopeless morons in general.

Otto, you see is a proudly competent American male (he’s got a garage full of tools for any crisis, and he keeps his 50-year-old Ford humming in tip-top shape). He’s utterly contemptuous of everyone else, an attitude that has only grown stronger in the year since his beloved wife Sonya passed.

Early on we discover that Otto is bent on self-destruction. He’s given suicide a lot of thought, and before the film is over he’ll have tried to off himself with a rope around the neck, with poisonous car exhaust, and with a faceful of buckshot.

But every time he’s ready to do the deed (having laid out plastic sheeting to minimize cleanup) Otto is interrupted by one of his neighbors who needs something of him.

Mariana Trevino, Tom Hanks

Enter Mariana Trevino as Marisol, who moves in across the street with her adorable kids and doofus husband. From his first cranky insult, Marisol has Otto’s number, and over the course of the film she will be the prime mover in his reluctant reclamation (you know Otto’s on the mend when he’s adopted by a stray tomcat…you can’t fool animals).

A Mexican actress with mostly TV credits, Trevino delivers a star turn which should earn her an Oscar nomination. She’s funny, soulful, wise and about as sexy as her pregnant state will allow. And absolutely believable. The complete package.

A good chunk of the film is devoted to the courtship decades earlier of Otto (played as a young man by Truman Hanks — yep, Tom’s kid) and Sonya (Rachel Keller); we learn that the guy has always been socially awkward but that Sonya excelled at drawing out his tender side. If I have a major complaint it’s that I’m not sure I can square the young Otto with the misanthrope he’s become.

But that’s a minor qualm. For the most part “…Otto” works quite well, allowing us to bask in Hanks’ reassuring presence while introducing us to a fresh face who could very well become an audience favorite.

| Robert W. Butler

Brendan Fraser

“THE WHALE” My rating: B- (Theaters)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Yes, Brendan Fraser is terrific in “The Whale.” So terrific that his stellar performance accentuates the picture’s overall shortcomings.

The latest from director Darren Aranofsky (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “Black Swan,” “The Wrestler”) is a claustrophobic pressure cooker of a drama.

Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his decade-old Drama Desk Award-winning play, “The Whale” unfolds almost exclusively in the living room of a suburban home occupied by Charlie, an immense blob of a man who survives on pizza and weighs so much it’s a struggle to stand up.

Charlie pays the rent by convening an on-line literature class, imparting his hard-earned wisdom about writing to college kids who have never laid eyes on him. Ashamed of being seen, he lies that his computer camera has gone haywire.

Over the course of the film Charlie will interact with several individuals.

The first of these is Liz (Hong Chau), a registered nurse and the sister of the man Charlie loved and lost. The compassionate but tough-loveish Liz is the closest thing he has to family or friends; she drops by almost daily to deliver food and observe Charlie’s physical deterioration. His blood pressure is off the charts, he wheezes with every breath, and Liz urges him, without success, to check into the hospital.

And there are unexpected guests.

Thomas (Ty Simpkins) is a young missionary from a nearby church — Charlie regards it as a cult — who drops by to proselytize and, despite Charlie’s rejection of his religious message keeps coming back.

Sadie Sink

Then there’s Charlies teenage daughter Ellie (“Stranger Things'” Sadie Sink), an angry young woman who hasn’t seen her father for a decade (not since he ran off with another man) and now observes his blubbery state with a jaundiced eye and a sharp tongue. Charlie is thrilled to see his offspring (Ellie’s mom cut him out of her life). He attempts to soften her up by noting that he has more than $100,000 in savings earmarked for her use.

Finally there’s a late appearance by Charlie’s ex, Mary (Samantha Morton), who is furious at the thought of a father/daughter reconciliation — not the least because she believes Ellie’s cynical snideness is outward manifestation of an evil soul (!!??!!).

With its single set and clockwork introduction of new characters, “The Whale” is more a filmed play than a fully cinematic experience.

Which is fine. My beef with the material is that the characters are more representative of points of view than of individuals, and their introductions into the story feel so carefully thought out and manipulative that there’s little or no sense of spontaneity. It all feels a little canned and preordained.

On the plus side, the story — and Fraser’s performance — humanizes the sort of individual who carries a boatload of societal shame and disapproval. “The Whale” suggests that Charlie wasn’t always morbidly obese, that he began binge eating after the death of his lover. Now in failing health, he’s desperate to rebuild bridges with his estranged family.

Despite a bulbous fat suit and layers of prosthetic jowls, Fraser uses his voice and expressive eyes to bring Charlie’s interior world to life. It’s an extraordinary performance, sad but knowing and leavened with bursts of self-deprecating humor.

| Robert W. Butler

Greta Gerwig, Adam Driver and family

“WHITE NOISE” My rating: C+ (Netflix)

136 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The consensus has long been that Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise defies movie adaptation.

Now we have writer/director Noah Baumbach’s take on the 1985 book and…well, the consensus was right.

There are several passages in this long meandering effort that grab the viewer by the eye and the ear and won’t let go.

But by the end most watchers will shrug and wonder, “What was that all about?”

Set in the early 1980s, the film follows a middle-class American family. Father Jack (Adam Driver) teaches at the picturesque College on the Hill where he has pioneered the field of “Hitler studies” despite his inability to speak, read or write German.

Mom Babette (Greta Gerwig) convenes exercise classes for seniors. And there are four kids, the most interesting of whom is Heinrich (Sam Nivola), a teen whose encyclopedic knowledge of a wide variety of subjects makes him some sort of ambulatory information retrieval system. (This is an era before personal computers, much less smart phones.)

The gently mocking tone is set early on as we eavesdrop on a classroom presentation by one of Jack’s colleagues (Don Cheadle), who maintains with a straight face that movie car crashes epitomize American optimism, that despite the carnage they are “brimming with the spirit of innocence and fun.”

It’s a nonsensical argument that only seems plausible because of the seriousness and erudition with which it is delivered…indeed this college community is crammed with chatty pedants, many of whom inexplicable wear their academic gowns not only to classes but to the campus cafeteria, and all of them so wrapped up in their arcane specialities that it’s a wonder they can dress themselves.

If Jack’s academic world flirts constantly with the absurd, his family situation is cozy. They’re a loving if eccentric bunch.

“Life is good” Babbette says during a post-coital cuddle.

Yeah but that won’t last. The collision of a tanker truck and a freight train releases a cloud of …well, something. Everyone at College on the Hill and in its environs are told to get out of Dodge, like yesterday.

So family members pile into the sedan, only to find themselves in the world’s biggest traffic jam. Baumbach conjures up some pretty interesting imagery here while delivering an homage to Godard’s “Weekend” (home of the traffic jam to end all traffic jams).

When they’re not outrunning the “airborne toxic event,” Jack and crew are establishing a new world order at a series of refugee camps for the dislocated.

In its third act the film shifts into a mystery of sorts, with Babette addicted to a new and untested antidepressant, and Jack going Sherlock Holmes to find her dealer.

By the time “White Noise” reaches the two-hour mark many a viewer will be tempted to bail. Baumbach’s effort is kinda funny, kinda romantic but way too diffuse to really grab our emotions.

But wait…he’s saved the best for last. The film’s final title sequence is a long, massive dance number set in the town’s A&P where the products appear not to be organized by type but rather by the colors of their packaging. It’s a marvelously entertaining, giddily addictive passage that somehow celebrates American consumerism while satirizing it. And it will send you out with a big stupid grin on your mug.

| Robert W. Butler

Harry Turner and Keanu

“WILDCAT” My rating: B+ (Prime Video)

106 minutes | MPAA: R

Folks who fell for the cephalopod/human love story of the Oscar-winning “My Octopus Teacher” can enjoy a second helping with “Wildcat,” a heart-tugging doc about a damaged young man and a wild ocelot.

Harry Turner is a tattooed Brit who returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan with a crippling case of PTSD and memories of seeing children gunned down. Feeling utterly out of place in his native England, he gravitated to an isolated job in the Peruvian jungle where young American scientist Samantha Zwicker has created a project to deal with animals orphaned by hunting, poaching and deforestation.

Harry is given a young ocelot named Khan to supervise. The idea is to keep Khan alive long enough that he can learn to survive on his own, at which point he’ll be returned to the wild. To minimize the cat’s familiarity with humans (in a natural state he should fear them), only Harry (and on occasional visits, Samantha) will interact with the animal in their preserve on the edge of civilization.

For a kid who finds it nearly impossible to deal with his own species, this gig gives Harry something to pour his love into. Which makes it all the more traumatic when something awful happens.

Harry is bereft — we’re talking suicidally bereft — and is only pulled out of his funk when another infant ocelot is recovered. Harry names him Keanu, and “Wildcat” will observe feline pupil and human teacher for more than a year.

“Wildcat’s” directors of record are Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh, but the lion’s share of the footage was shot by Harry and Samantha. It is intimate, visually stunning and emotionally overwhelming.

Samantha Zwicker

For every upbeat moment — Keanu roughhousing with his human companion, Harry showing the ocelot what animals he should feed on and which ones to avoid (hint: alligators should not be messed with) — there is one of soul-scorching anguish as Harry melts down in a series of tearful collapses.

Samatha is good at comforting him (the film suggests without overtly saying so that the two young people are lovers), but even she finds it difficult to deal with Harry’s depression.

Throughout the film we’re faced with the uncomfortable truth that even as Harry and Keanu bond, the ultimate goal is for them to go their separate ways. This isn’t a therapy animal, after all.

In the end “Wildcat” isn’t just a wildlife documentary; it’s a study of the human condition and of a young soul pushed to the very edge. There’s great pleasure here, and great pain.

| Robert W. Butler

Will Smith

“EMANCIPATION” My rating: B (Apple+)

132 minutes | MPAA rating: R

One of the most famous photographs of the Civil War era — a portrait of a shirtless runaway slave named Peter who displays a hideous crosshatch of whipping scars — gets a compelling back story in “Emancipation.”

This inspired-by-fact yarn is especially noteworthy for its borderline brilliant visual sense.

Will Smith stars as Peter, the enslaved blacksmith on a Louisiana plantation. Peter has a wife and several children, but he is requisitioned by the Confederate Army to build a railway line under conditions that are even more brutal than what he’s accustomed to.

Learning that Union troops are only a few miles away across a daunting swamp, Peter and two other slaves make a break for freedom, pursued by dogs and the relentless runaway hunter Fassel (Ben Foster).

Eventually Peter finds himself in the ranks of an all-black unit of Lincoln’s army, seeing brutal action while never forgetting his burning desire to be reunited with his family.

Director Anton Fuqua (“Training Day,” “King Arthur,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” “The Magnificent Seven”) and writer Bill College have fashioned a wrenching experience — part historical/social statement, part chase flick, part battle epic — that works best when it keeps its mouth shut.

Now I don’t doubt that slavery-supporting Southerners were mean, arrogant, dyed-in-the-wool assholes. I only wish the filmmakers had depicted them more through their despicable actions than through heavy-handed dialogue.

Foster (who seems to be falling back into his early career typecasting as an eye-rolling maniac) is saddled with a monologue about being raised on his father’s plantation by a slave woman, whom he considered his adoptive mother until he subsequently betrayed her. Why is he telling us this? Is he conflicted about the experience? Feeling guilty?

Nah…after all, he’s made a career of catching fugitive slaves.

But that’s the thing here…all too frequently we get didacticism instead of dialogue.

Faring far better is Smith, who gives an almost exclusively physical performance. When he talks it’s either to impart necessary information or to extoll his religious faith, which runs strong and unquestioned. Clearly this man has depths of resolve which a lifetime of beatings have not touched.

If “Emancipation” sometimes grates on the ear, it’s a treat for the eyes. Robert Richardson’s cinematography must be seen to be believed. The images have been so color desaturated that they often can be mistaken for black-and-white (only yellow flames seem to break through the monochrome); the effect is of a Civil War daguerrotype come to life.

Moreover, Richardson employs drones for many sweeping shots, including a mind-blowing battlefield flyover that finally comes to rest on Smith’s battle-smudged face. I haven’t seen its like since Bondarchuk’s epic 1965 “War and Peace.”

| Robert W. Butler

The real Peter

Margot Robbie

“BABYLON” My rating: B (In theaters)

188 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Babylon” is filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s recreation of Hollywood in the last days of silent movies and the dawn of the sound era.

It is a riot of excess and ambition, a trip to a La La Land where Prohibition-era parties devolve into Roman-style orgies, where an elephant erupts in a diarrhea gusher and a beautiful woman projectile vomits on a rich man’s priceless carpet.

With nearly a dozen major characters whose careers are tracked over a raucous decade, the film has a running time of more than three hours and is packed with mind-blowing set pieces, some of which work on the viewer’s sensibilities like a dose of LSD.

It is simultaneously too much and just right, though as it enters its third hour you might wish for something resembling an actual plot.

At its core, “Babylon” is a tale of unrequited love. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is a Mexican kid who serves as a fixer for a Hollywood bigwig. On one memorable night of bacchanalian excess circa 1926 he makes the acquaintance of Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a beautiful substance-fuelled party girl from the poor side of town.

These two outsiders are on parallel tracks to fame and fortune, Manny as a studio exec who excels at cleaning up messes, and Nellie as a steaming hot star whose off-the-charts sex appeal is matched only by her effortless acting (in one memorable scene she asks her director if she should produce a tear with her left eye or her right one).

Manny — essentially a sweet guy despite the dark side of his employment — is doomed to worship Nellie from afar. She’s too in love with her vices (drink, drugs, gambling, sex) to notice his adoration, though Manny’s the guy she turns to whenever she gets in over her head.

Meanwhile everywhere you look in this film there’s a colorful character shouldering his/her way into our awareness.

Foremost among them is Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad, a Hollywood leading man in the Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn mold who remains charming and erudite even when plastered…which is most of the time. He becomes young Manny’s mentor and our favorite on-screen presence, a wildly attractive bon vivant with an undercurrent of resigned self-awareness and a roster of ex-wives.

Brad Pitt

We get a Hedda Hopper-ish gossip columnist (Jean Smart), a black jazzman (Jovan Adepo) who finds limited fame a not a little racism starring in musical shorts, a Chinese actress (Li Jun Li) who exudes exotic other-ness, a creep called The Count (Rory Scovel) who seems to provide all Hollywood with drugs and an even creepier gambler (Tobey Maguire) who takes us subterranean slumming in a segment right out of Dante.

Interspersed with Chazelle’s fictional characters are real-world figures like Irving Thalberg and William Randolph Hearst.

“Babylon” is roughly divided between the movie-making segments (including a fascinating look at the maddening unreliability of early sound technology) and behind-the-scenes cavorting.

In many ways the film is scrupulously realistic, yet it’s overflowing with fantastic elements, not least of which is a musical score more redolent of the boppin’ late ’40s than the 1920’s.

There are a few laugh-out-loud moments (many provided by Pitt), but the overriding tone is one of seen-it-all cynicism. Chazelle (“Whiplash,” “La La Land,” “First Man”) clearly is fascinated by the early history of the movies, but he draws the line at sentimentality.

At a certain point “Babylon” becomes a victim of its own diminishing returns. For all its eye and ear candy and its insider’s dissection of the Hollywood machine, and despite some really fine performances the film remains emotionally neutral. We may be diverted by these characters, but we’re not moved by them; their downfalls seem less tragic than a case of just desserts.

It’s probably fitting that a film depicting a world without morals should itself lack a moral. Still, in the final analysis we’re left feeling a bit empty.

Entertained, but empty.

| Robert W. Butler

“GOOD NIGHT OPPY” My rating: B (Prime Video)

105 minutes | MPAA: PG

The robot/computer that develops a human personality is a staple of science fiction. “Good Night Oppy” is an inspiring real-life twist on that cliche.

Launched in the summer of 2003, the roving robots Spirit and Opportunity were designed to explore Mars (the “twins” landed on opposite sides of the Red Planet). NASA scientists and engineers designed the robots to function for 90 Martian days; anything longer would be frosting on the cake.

Spirit kept operating — exploring and photographing the planet’s terrain, picking up and examining geological specimens and searching for signs of water — for six years.

Her sister Opportunity (known affectionately as Oppy) kept chugging along for an unbelievable 14 years, surviving massive dust storms, electrical strikes and the mechanical version of arthritis (shit wears out).

Ryan White’s documentary “Good Night Oppy” is an in-depth look at the Spirit/Opportunity mission, from early designs and testing to the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the rovers on the planet’s surface.

There is utterly convincing footage of Spirit and Oppy going about their work on Mars, courtesy of the visual artists at Industrial Light & Magic, and of course there are plenty of photos taken by the rovers of their environment.

We also meet a dozen or so of the individuals who created the program and kept the robots rolling along for years past their expiration dates. A popular cliche casts scientists and engineers as creatures of fact with little room for sentiment, yet the testimony of these slide-rule types suggests that over time they came to regard the rovers, especially Oppy, as a member of the family, at least as empathetic a being as a cat or dog.

Physically there is little human about the rovers. They look a bit like aircraft carriers on treaded wheels, with the “deck” a couple of feet above the ground. Towering over the body is a “neck” and “head” equipped with cameras…the rovers were deliberately designed so that the cameras’ POV would be that of a five-foot-tall human strolling across the Martian surface.

The humans’ affections for the rovers were built largely on the day-in-day-out routine established over the machines’ lifetimes. There were morning wakeup calls featuring popular songs blasted into space…apparently Spirit and Opportunity were programmed to react like a human being awakened by a clock radio.

Moreover, the robots had been programmed to act autonomously in certain situations (there was a lag time of 10 minutes between NASA sending an order and the machines receiving it), and this sometimes gave the impression that they were exhibiting free will.

The NASA folk recognize, of course, that these are machines. But who can blame them for projecting their parental impulses on these two metallic space babies? Or for mourning when at long last Oppy went to sleep during a long Martian dust storm and never again awoke?

The marvel of White’s film (co-written with Helen Kearns) is that we don’t sneer at this anthropomorphic proclivity. Rather, we buy into it,

Is it possible to love a chunk of metal and plastic? “Good Night Oppy” certainly makes the case.

| Robert W. Butler

Olivia Colman

“EMPIRE OF LIGHT” My rating: B (In theaters)

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Here’s a conundrum: Olivia Colman gives a world-class performance in a film that isn’t up to her standards.

Well, you take what you can get. And getting Colman at full throttle is nothing to dismiss.

In Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” Colman plays the assistant manager of a British cinema circa 1980.

Like the Empire Theater where she works, Colman’s Hilary has seen better days. There are references to a mental breakdown and hospitalization; currently she’s providing sexual favors to the movie house’s owner (Colin Firth), a middle-aged married man who thinks the other employees (mostly twentysomethings) don’t know what it means when he calls Hilary into his office to “discuss business.”

Mendes’ screenplay follows Hilary over the course of several months during which she initiates an affair with a new co-worker, Stephen (Micheal Ward), who is kind and caring and whose youth (he’s maybe 20 years her junior) lifts Hilary out of her her doldrums. Of course, this newfound zest for living may simply be an all-too-predictable upward swing of her manic-depressive condition.

And what goes up is bound to come down. Spectacularly.

Oh, one more thing. Stephen is black, a fact that bothers Hilary only inasmuch as the rise of Thatcher-inspired fascism puts her young lover in perennial jeopardy. Skinheads roam the streets of the seaside resort town in which the film unfolds, and late in the proceedings “Empire of Light” explodes into a full-throttle race riot.

In addition to the film’s social/racial elements, we cannot ignore that this story unfolds mostly in a movie theater. And a good old-fashioned movie palace makes for a pretty heady metaphor.

Still…I cannot be the only viewer anticipating a “Cinema Paradiso”-style wallow in the transcendent glories of the medium, in the movies’ ability to lift us out of our troubled reality and send us off on a journey of love, adventure and laughter.

Toby Jones, Micheal Ward

Except that it never materializes here. The closest we get are scenes with the semi-reclusive projectionist (Toby Jones, predictably great) who takes newcomer Stephen under his wing to explain the workings of the booth; clearly the man is obsessed with the whole cinematic process.

“Empire…” is always threatening to go flying off in different directions. It’s kept more or less on track by Colman, whose transition from drone to eager lover to basket case is heartbreakingly effective. My God, this woman may have the saddest eyes in movie history…yet when she’s called upon to express a girlish giddiness she radiates joy like a movie premiere klieg light.

Watching Hilary’s rise and fall, one is astounded by Colman’s jaw-dropping range and soulful presence. She can do sexy. She can do sad and pathetic. She’s a freakin’ miracle.

Given this, why didn’t I like “Empire of Light” more? Perhaps it is because it has been so obviously calculated to achieve its dramatic effects. The film is self-consciously morose and bereft of humor. By the last reel I found myself getting a bit P.O.’d.

It’s an uncharacteristically heavy-handed effort from Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “1917” and two Bond flicks). Here he’s like an architect who declares the job done while the workers’ scaffolding is still surrounding the building; the film’s intentions and narrative tricks could use some camouflage…a bit more finesse, please.

| Robert W. Butler

“AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER” My rating: B (In theaters)

192 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Avatar: The Way of Water” is — no surprise here — a world-class display of high-end cinema technology. Not to mention a down-to-the-molecular-level example of imaginative world-building from writer/director James Cameron.

These triumphant elements are at the service of some largely underwhelming melodramatics marked by vast narrative digressions that push the film’s running time past the three-hour mark, a boatload of woo-wooish environmental attiitude, and some really tin-eared dialogue.

So the film is a tossup between eye-popping/mind-boggling thrills (the action sequences MUST be seen in 3-D…there’s no reason to watch the movie, otherwise) and (for me, anyway) duh-inducing narrative elements.

I’m satisfied to have seen it once.

“The Way of Water” unfolds approximately 15 years after the events of the first “Avatar” — which not so coincidentally is about how much time this sequel has been in production.

Hour One:

The film’s original hero, Jake Sullivan (Sam Worthington), has settled nicely into his avatar body, becoming a chieftain of the Na’vi, the blue-skinned cat-faced humanoids of the planet Pandora. He and his mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) now have four children ranging in age from wee one to adolescents.

Every day is just another day in paradise until — oh, crap — the skies light up with the return of the Sky People (homo sapiens, that is), most of whom were driven out at the end of the original movie. They’ve spent the last decade planning new ways to plunder Pandora’s rich natural resources.

The script (by Cameron, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) dishes an intriguing element early on with the re-introduction of Quaritch, the gung-ho militarist played in the first film by Stephen Lang. Quaritch was memorably skewered at the end of “Avatar,” but now we learn that before leaving Earth to meet his demise on Pandora his consciousness was downloaded and has been rekindled in a brand new Na’vi avatar body.

So now he’s big, blue and able to move freely around the planet without the oxygen mask required by humans. And with a squad of avatar Marines he’s eager to follow the plan of his commanding officer (Edie Falco!?!?!?!) to “pacify” the locals and get on with the rape of the environment.

Quarich also practices a form of cliched military speak (“Outstanding!” ” Heads on a swivel, guys!”) that threatened to make my eyes roll back in my head.

“The Way of Water” regularly dishes telenovela-level plot twists. For example, before he died in the first flick Quaritch fathered a child who has grown up in the jungle with Jake and Neytiri’s offspring. This mini-Tarzan, called Spider (Jack Champion), has a head of dreadlocks, a surfer-boy physique and doesn’t seem to be at all handicapped by the need to wear an oxygen mask whenever he’s out and about.

Anyway, a weird father/son dynamic develops between the avatar Quaritch and his sort-of spawn; who will Spider choose…his “dad” or his adopted family?

The film’s first hour is devoted to setting up the situation, introducing Jake’s four kids (turns out puberty pretty much sucks among all species on all planets) and depicting a devastating Na’vi raid on the invading humans. Great action stuff.

(BTW: Sigourney Weaver, who in the original played human scientist Grace Augustine, here provides the voice and motion capture performance of Jake’s adopted teenage daughter, Kiri. Apparently Kiri is the child of Grace’s Na’vi avatar. If you’re a major “Avatar” devotee, that’s probably important information.)

Hour Two:

Unfortunatlely, Jake’s routing of the Earthlings makes him a marked man. Lest the wrath of the Sky People come down on his forest-dwelling tribe, Jake and his brood climb on their flying reptiles and relocate hundreds of miles away to an island chain where they hope to live in peace.

The locals there, led by Tonowari and his wife Ronal (Cliff Curtis, Kate Winslet), are Na’vi, but different. Instead of blue skin theirs is kinda greenish, and instead of five fingers they have only four…their hands are more like paddles, which comes in handy since they spend so much time underwater.

So the film’s second hour is a sort of “Swiss Family Robinson” adventure as the newcomers overcome resistance to be slowly accepted by their new community. And there’s lots to learn about surviving in a largely liquid environment, which gives Cameron plenty of opportunity to create an aquatic world filled with mind-blowing beauty.

However at this point the film threatens to bog down in a serious case of Wesley Crusher Syndrome. Remember the first season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” when every episode seemed to center on teenage ensign Wesley Crusher instead of something actually interesting? Same thing here. The kids, sorry to say, aren’t that interesting…even if one of them does befriend a rogue Tulkan, a whale-like creature with super-human intelligence. (If you’re going to cap your movie with an epic sea battle, doesn’t hurt to have a whale-thingie fighting on your side.)

Hour Three:

Quaritch and his goons finally track Jake down. Basically they commandeer a whaling vessel used to harvest a precious oil from the Tulkans…apparently this stuff halts human aging. An entire sequence is devoted to a Tulkan hunt, which looks awfully familiar if you’ve ever seen “Moby Dick.” And since the Tulkans are feeling, intelligent creatures it’s just one more example of human cruelty in the name of greed.

The film is capped by a huge battle at sea. You could call it “Titanic Redux” for all the watery lessons Cameron learned on that blockbuster which he puts to good use here.

Despite a draggy middle section, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is generally well-paced and there’s always something interesting to look at. Moreover, Cameron’s technology seamlessly incorporates real humans and computer-generated characters side-by-side. I can’t begin to differentiate between real physical sets and those constructed of bytes.

We’re told that Cameron has begun work on a third “Avatar” movie. I’ll probably go see that one, too.Avatar: The

| Robert W. Butler

Sofia Kappel

“PLEASURE”  My rating: B (Rent on Apple TV, Vudu, and Redbox)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

 What they say about laws and sausages applies as well to pornography: If you want to keep enjoying it, best not learn about how it’s made.

In broad outline the ironically-titled “Pleasure” follows the familiar inside-showbiz template explored in films ranging from “All About Eve” to “Showgirls.”  Innocent (or not-so-innocent) young thing is corrupted on her climb to fame and power.

Ninja Thyberg’s film, though, unfolds in the world of L.A. porn, a landscape rarely explored dramatically (although one could argue that “Pleasure” is practically a documentary dive into the dirty world of cheap thrills).

Our protagonist is Bella Cherry (not her real name), a Swede barely out of her teens who has flown halfway around the world to become an adult film star. She is played by Sofia Kappel, who benefits hugely from her chameleonic ability to look either ravishing (when fully made up) or girl-next-door unremarkable.

The screenplay (by Thyberg and Peter Modestij) isn’t much interested in plumbing Bella’s personality or her history.  Just how sexually experienced is she? Was she abused? Where did she get the idea that porn might be a viable career?

The film is interested mostly in throwing this young woman into an environment where acts which most of us regard as supremely private are matter-of-factly dissected. 

On one level Bella is brutally mercenary.  She wants to be a porn star and is willing to burn bridges to get there.

On another, she’s painfully naive.  Like many of us she has bought into the erotic allure of porn, not understanding that the onscreen magic is the product of a  highly unromantic and cynical process. 

Before it’s all over she (and we) will get a crash course in the nuts and bolts of porn production.

Basically Bella will bit-by-bit loosen her standards to become the object of lust the industry is looking for.  The degradation is both physical and emotional.

“Pleasure” falls short of being porn itself.  While there is considerable nudity, the sexual acts depicted appear to be simulated.

That said, Thyberg has hired real porn professionals to more or less play themselves,  There is no shortage of penises in various stages of arousal. After a while the shock value wears off. (Still, this is the hardest R rating I’ve ever seen.)

The pall of nauseous discomfort that hovers over the whole enterprise, though, sticks.  Want to convince someone they shouldn’t watch porn?  “Pleasure” is Exhibit No. 1.

| Robert W. Butler

Steve Carell, Domhnall Gleeson

“THE PATIENT” (Hulu)

Thanks to streaming, we live in a paradise of great acting. 

Oh, there’s always been great acting, it’s just in the pre-streaming era it was a huge pain to schlep from theater to theater to catch the strongest stuff. 

Now you just sit down and turn on the tube.  

We’ve known for some time that Steve Carell is more than just a comic actor.  But he blows the doors off with his nuanced, heartfelt performance in the 10-episode ”The Patient,” a creepy thriller with an unexpected moral center.

Carell plays Alan Strauss, a psychotherapist, widower and father of a couple of grown kids who haven’t much use for him.  His latest patient (Donhnall Gleeson) is a troubled young man desperate for mental and emotional healing but stubbornly resistant to revealing the personal secrets that would allow the Dr. Strauss to help him.

And then one morning the good doc wakes up in a basement rec room with a chain around his ankle and a bucket for a bathroom.  His patient, Sam, apologizes but says this is the only way he can reveal the truth about himself and get the help he needs.

The truth?  That Sam is a serial killer, looking to change but compelled to murder those whom he feels have disrespected him.

Created by Joel Fields and Joseph Weisberg, “The Patient” is part escape drama but mostly an insightful look into a healer who over time has become numb to both his profession and his family. Initially the shrink will do anything to effect his own release, but over time he develops something like selfless compassion for his tormented (but still very scary) patient.

Carell brilliantly hits the expected emotional buttons (and a few we didn’t know existed), while Gleeson delivers a chilling portrait of an emotionally constipated killer who nonetheless possesses a tantalizing notion of what normalcy might feel like.

Very dark, but worth it.

“THE CROWN” (Netflix)

Elizabeth Dibecki as Princess Di

The fifth season of this hit dissection of the British royal family has gotten mixed reviews…possibly because as the latest Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) gets to exhibit mostly stiffness and steely resolve.

But I like the way the season has been fashioned to highlight peripheral characters in the grand saga.  

One episode begins in the post-war Mideast…it takes a while before we realize this is the backstory of Mohammed Al-Fayed, the wealthy businessman (he bought Harrod’s) whose son would die with Princess Diana. In fact, the elder Al-Fayed is so obsessed with being accepted but the Brits that he hires the valet of the late Duke of Windsor to give him a crash course in aristocratic do’s and don’t’s.

Another episode unfolds during the Russian Revolution and examines why the British monarchy deliberately chose not to come to the rescue of Tsar Alexander and his doomed family (their cousins, no less) when they were being held by the Bolsheviks.

And then there’s the backstory of Princess Di’s notorious 1995 BBC interview in which she described her marriage as a three-way (her, Prince Charles, and Camilla).  The series picks apart how journalist (now disgraced) Martin Bashir fabricated bank records to suggest to the Princess that the Royals were paying her servants to spy on her.

The series even returns to the nixed love affair between Princess Margaret and the King’s equerry Peter Townsend. Now, 40 years later, Margaret (played this season by Lesley Manville and Townsend (former 007 Timothy Dalton) have a bittersweet late-in-life reunion. 

Lots of familiar faces taking up major roles:  Dominic West as Prince Charles (don’t care what you say…Dominic West is cool even when he’s trying to play the terminally uncool), Elizabeth Debicki as Diana, Johnathan Pryce as Prince Philip.

Is “The Crown” as good as ever? Perhaps not, but you don’t think I’m gonna stop watching now, do you?

“INSIDE MAN” (Netflix)

Here’s an absolutely bonkers premise — not to mention a world-class case of subversive misanthropy —somehow redeemed )or maybe almost redeemed) by solid performances.

In an American prison, death row inmate Jefferson Grieff (Stanley Tucci) awaits his execution by helping the authorities solve outstanding crimes.  An acclaimed criminologist who murdered his wife, Grieff holds court in a prison interview room, weighing the evidence brought to him and invariably coming up with a solution. 

For added weirdness, this jailhouse Sherlock has his own Watson, a cynically  erudite but physically imposing serial killer (Atkins Estimond) who provides comic relief through his cheerful amorality.

Meanwhile, in Britain, an upstanding suburban vicar (David Tennant) finds himself caught up in a child pornography case and, to protect his teenage son, imprisons the boy’s math tutor (Dolly Wells) in the cellar. The only way out, it seems, is for the good Rev to murder the teacher before she goes to the cops.

The two plots come improbably  together when a Brit reporter (Lydia West) presents the case of the missing tutor to Grieff. 

Written by Steven Moffat and directed by Paul McGuigan, “Inside Man” is possibly the most cynical show now streaming, With a tone ranging (not always comfortably) from fierce black comedy to pseudo-tragic drama, the series delights in presenting characters who seem virtuous (or at least likeable) but who invariably reveal a staggering level of corruption.

The supporting cast kills, especially Dylan Baker as a prison warden and Lyndsey Marshal as the vicar’s atheistic spouse.

“Inside Man” is only four episodes long, but that is almost too much.  With race-against-time tension fueling the final hour and characters inducing off-the-charts discomfort, not every viewer will be able to go the course.

| Robert W. Butler

Gabriel LaBelle

“THE FABELMANS” My rating: B+ (Theaters)

151 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s something about the autobiographical film that brings out the best in directors.

Fellini’s “Amarcord.” John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory.” Not to mention last year’s Oscar contender from Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast.”

To that honorable list we now add Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” an episodic epic that dissects his own boyhood fascination with the act of moviemaking against the background of a loving but dysfunctional family.

We first meet little Sammy Fableman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) in a queue outside a movie theater.  The year is 1952 and six-year-old Sammy is about to see his first film, Cecil B. DeMille’s circus melodrama “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  

Except that Sammy isn’t so sure he wants to get involved. Movies, he has heard, are big and noisy. They’re  emotional and visual roller coasters. Sounds scary.

In a good-cop-another-good-cop routine that will be repeated for the next 20 years,  his parents encourage him. 

 Mitzi (Michelle Williams) — a feelings-on-her-sleeve artistic type who gave up a career as a concert pianist to be an Eisenhower-era mom — chatters on  about the fun and beauty of the movies. The magic.  

Dad Burt (Paul Dano) — an engineer rising through the ranks of the new world of computers — takes a more rational approach, analyzing the science of motion pictures. Sammy won’t be frightened once  he understands how individual still photographs can, through the phenomenon of persistence of vision, become lifelike movement on the big screen.

Once in the theater Sammy is predictably blown away, especially by the massive derailment of a circus train that is the movie’s action centerpiece.  In the following weeks he will beg his parents for a model train set and, once that’s in place, plead to use his dad’s movie camera.  He is compelled to recreate that scene from the movie, to pick it apart frame by frame, to understand how it was done and how it could affect him so.

“The Fabelmans”could have been a perfect 30-minute short examining a boy’s introduction to and fascination with movies, But of course it is much, much more than that.

Over 2 1/2 hours we follow Sammy into his late teens (he’s portrayed for most of the film by Gabriel LaBelle), moving with the clan as Burt’s career takes them first to Arizona and later to California.  

Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Seth Rogan

Throughout, Sammy’s devotion to movies grows ever more intense. His equipment becomes increasingly sophisticated; his efforts evolve from home movies to mini-Westerns and, with the help of his entire Boy Scout troop, a bloody World War II combat film.

We are introduced to Burt’s best friend and protege, Ben (Seth Rogen, excellent in non-comedic mode), who spends so much time hanging around the Fabelmans that Sammy and his siblings think he’s an uncle.  Much later Sammy will discover that Ben is key to the breakup of Burt and Mitzi’s marriage.

And then there are the tormented teen years in which Sammy finds himself coping with antisemitism as one of the few Jewish students at a WASPish high school.  The unexpected upside is that as even an indifferent Jew he’s an object of romantic curiosity, with one lovely shiksa (Chloe East) attempting to win him over to Jesus through a bonkers regimen of prayer and petting. (The scene borders on comedic caricature…it’s one of the few times “The Fabelmans” misses the mark.)

In a very real sense”The Fabelmans” is only peripherally about Sammy.  As played by LaBelle and written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner, Sammy is often the least interesting character on screen, a guy who does most of his expressing through a camera lens. His art is intriguing; he’s much less so.

No, the film is basically a love letter to Mitzi, Burt and, to a lesser extent, Ben. All are strong personalities who mold Sammy’s character, whether the effect was encouraging (Mitzi) or cautionary (Burt, who sees a movie career as an unrealistic pipe dream).

Audiences will be particularly taken with Williams’ Mitzi, a frustrated pixie-cut ecdentric who struggles to be a conventional wife (she insists that the family dine on paper plates with plastic cutlery, so that the whole mess can be quickly wrapped up in a disposable table cloth) and battles depression. 

It doesn’t help that Mitzi loves her husband but isn’t actually in love with him. For his part, Burt will remain faithful to her long after the marriage has ended.

Spielberg has rarely been more real-world sensitive than he is in the depiction of his parents…it’s a a quietly spectacular achievement.

BTW: Look for a late-in-the film appearance by David Lynch as veteran director John Ford, who gives Sammy a bit of crusty but concise cinematic advice that provides “The Fabelmans” with its wonderful final image.

| Robert W. Butler

“CAUSEWAY” My rating: B+ (Apple TV +)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Watching “The Causeway” I was reminded of “Winter’s Bone” and why we all fell in love with Jennifer Lawrence in the first place.

Lawrence, of course, is a decade, many movies, a couple of Oscars and a motherhood away from that superb indie effort in which she played a child of the Ozarks. But in “Causeway” she exhibits the same emotional honesty, lack of affectation and wise-beyond-her-years intelligence.

“Causeway” is the feature directing debut of Lila Neugebauer, whose credits to date have centered on episodic TV (“Room 104,” “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” “Maid”). It’s a stripped-down, humanistic paen to everyday lives, the sort of story Ken Loach might tell if he were a young American rather than an old Brit. 

It’s not showy, but it’s substantial, setting  an emotional hook that is not easily shaken.

Lawrence plays Lynsey, who in the film’s first 20 minutes is fighting back from some sort of traumatic experience.  She’s living temporarily with Sharon (Jayne Houdyshell), an older woman who offers her home as a sort of halfway house for veterans recovering from life-changing injuries.

Lynsey suffered traumatic brain damage in an IED explosion in Iraq. She’s not scarred on the outside, but her head is all messed up.  She has to relearn walking and controlling her hands. Moreover, her emotions have been scrambled. She’s living in a cocoon of numbness, barely able to express a normal range of feelings .

The screenplay (by Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Gobble and Elizabeth Sanders) follows Lynsey to her hometown of New Orleans where she moves in with her not-unkind-but-definitely-remote mother (Linda Emond) and begins seeing a VA neurologist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) whose OK she needs if she is ever to return to active service.

The yarn’s center is Lynsey’s growing relationship with James (Brian Tyree Henry), an auto mechanic who fixes her broken truck, offers  her a ride home and ends up becoming her best — hell, her only — friend.

Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Lawrence

James is just as damaged in his own way as Lynsey.  His big bad moment came in an auto accident on a nearby causeway, a horror that claimed the life of his nephew and resulted in the destruction of his marriage.  Now he relies on weed and beer to numb all the raw edges of his bruised psyche.

In a weird way, Lynsey and James were made for one another.

But not in the movie-romance manner you might expect.  Fro one thing, Lynsey is gay (a revelation the film drops matter of factly…it’s no big deal).  Plus, these two are far more important to one another as emotional/intellectual sounding boards than as lovers.  Getting their rocks off is pretty far down their list of essential needs.

“Causeway” explores these two with unhurried calm and a minimum of fuss.  The film is in many ways anti-dramatic.  No big Oscar-bait scenes. Instead it offers a steady drip of insight into its characters’ lives,

The results feel absolutely, inarguably real. Lawrence and Henry (he plays the rapper Paper Boi on TV’s “Atlanta”) imbue their roles with aching loss and a quiet dignity.  They give two of the year’s most effective (if understated) performances.

| Robert W. Butler

“ANDOR” (Disney +)

For three decades the “Star Wars” franchise has been getting progressively dumber, bottoming out with the so-bad-I-couldn’t watch them “The Book of Boba Fett” and “Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Which makes the stunning adultness of “Andor” all the more miraculous.

We were introduced to Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) in 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” He was one of the commandoes  who die transmitting the schematics of the first Death Star to their rebel brethren. “Rogue One” had a few narrative blips but it at least stood on its own in the “Star Wars” universe as a dead serious, camp-free espionage thriller.

Disney’s “Andor” is a prequel depicting Cassian Andor’s early years, and it pushes the solemnity and darkness of “Rogue One” to the very edge. Showrunner and frequent screenwriter Tony Gilroy makes few concessions for the family audience. This series takes as its models police procedurals, film noir, prison pictures and political dramas, and the results are gritty, grim and glorious.

The show covers much territory, opening on a dank corporate-run planet where Cassian kills a couple of thuggish security officers and taking side trips to the Empire’s capital city of Coruscant, a watery prison planet  and, in flashbacks, the primitive tribal world where our hero was born.

This early episodes depict Andor’s life as a criminal fugitive and his run-ins with the Empire…presumably this self-serving mercenary will be thoroughly radicalized in the second season.

The series resurrects from the original “Star Wars” film the character of Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), a member of the Imperial Senate working secretly for the rerbellion, and delivers a whole slew of new faces, among them Stellan Skarsgard as a Machiavellian rebel spymaster and Denise Gough as a dangerously effective Imperial security specialist.

What’s remarkable here is that none of these are throwaway roles.  The villains, usually only paper thin in the “Star Wars” universe, are here given substance and backgrounds. 

The dialogue is smart and the production values off the charts. Every episode, it seems, has at least one tour de force action sequence.

And so far there’s not a Jedi in sight.

“REBOOT”  (Hulu)

It takes a lot to make me laugh out loud at my TV set…but “Reboot” had me howling.

This wickedly clever comedy from Steven Levitan (“The Larry Sanders Show,” “Modern Family”) is an orgy of inside-show-biz rim shots.  The premise finds the cast of a cheesy ‘90s TV family sitcom being reunited 20 years later for an updated version (yeah, just like “Roseanne” and “The Connors”).

The years have not been good to the actors, who are thrilled to be back in the spotlight…and immediately pick up the bad habits they indulged in back in the day.

Keegan-Michael Key is an insecure leading man who overthinks everything; Judy Greer is perfect as his on-screen wife and off-screen ex-squeeze.  Johnny Knoxville  of “Jackass” fame is jaw-droppingly  good as the substance-abusing co-star trying to stay straight, while Paul Reiser and Rachel Bloom (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) are sublime as the father-and-daughter producing team working out the kinks in their troubled relationship.

Along the way “Reboot” is practically a comic tutorial in how TV gets made.  The scenes in the writers’ room are among the funniest TV I’ve seen in years…think “The Dick Van Dyke” show with an unstoppable potty mouth.

“THE ENGLISH” (Amazon Prime)

This six-part Western from writer/director Hugo Blick often bites off more than it can swallow, and its narrative frequently becomes stranded in dead-end alleys.

Yet there’s something about it that kept me coming back for more.

For starters, the ever-watchable Emily Blunt. Here she plays Lady Cornelia Locke, a Brit aristocrat who comes to the 1890s Wild West on a mission of vengeance.  She’s looking to kill the man she blames for the death of her son.  The details of the boy’s demise are not revealed until late in the series, and when they finally hit  home “The English” comes on with the power of an Ibsen tragedy.

Cornelia shares her gruesome and dangerous quest with  Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Cherokee scout who has only recently resigned after years with the U.S. Army. That government gig that has left Eli seriously conflicted, given that his job was tracking down and killing other Native Americans.  Now he must come to terms with his new life as a second-class citizen and his forbidden (for more than one reason) intimacy with Cornelia.

Their journey plays out against an exquisitely photographed landscape (d.p. Arnau Valius Colonel takes full advance of the series’ Spanish locations) populated by characters who at best are wildly eccentric and at worst sadistically venal. 

But all of them speak in a florid style that reminds of “Deadwood’s” Al Swearengen. Black is a first-class wordsmith who can pack tons of meaning in brief exchanges; the dialogue is so spectacular that it helps gloss over the show’s meandering narrative.

| Robert W. Butler

“WEIRD: THE AL YANKOVIC STORY” My rating: B- (Roku)

108 minutes | No MPAA rating

For two thirds of its running time Roku’s “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” is an amusing hoot, a parody of rock screen biographies that just happens to be about a guy who became famous by parodying famous rock songs.

If the movie limps to the finish line with an uninspired final 20 minutes … well, what comes before will leave most viewers in a charitable mood.

Penned by the real Al Yankovic and director Eric Appel, this elaborate spoof stars Daniel Radcliffe as Weird Al…or at least Weird Al as run through the filter of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocket Man” and other tuneful biopics.

So in this version the accordion-pumping parodist dates a man-eating Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood, obviously having a ball), develops a drinking problem, alienates his few friends and struggles to gain the acceptance of his squeezebox-hating father (Toby Huss) and Betty Crockerish mother (Julianne Nicholson).

The film also introduces a deliriously lunatic alternative history in which Weird Al writes the music and lyrics to “Eat It,” only to have the song stolen and parodied by Michael Jackson as “Beat It.”

Daniel Radcliffe Evan Rachel Wood

Along the way viewers can play their own game of Where’s Waldo? with a dozen cameos (some lasting only seconds) by famous (and often heavily disguised) faces: Will Forte, Patton Oswalt, Michael McKean, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Conan O’Brien, Emo Philips, Jack Black, Quinta Brunson, Josh Groban, Seth Green. 

Also, special kudos to Rainn Wilson, who in top hat and tux perfectly embodies Dr. Demento, the cult-rock deejay who becomes young Al’s mentor (kind of a benevolent Colonel Parker).

The real Weird Al even shows up to portray a clueless record label executive.

Holding it all together is Radlicliffe, who perfectly walks the tightrope between silly and sincere. Seems Harry Potter has become a first-class comic performer.

The movie is, I believe, 30 minutes too long.  Maybe a last-act letdown was inevitable, since “Weird” shoots out of the starting gate and gallops madly throughout its first hour.  That’s a hard act to keep going.

| Robert W. Butler

Felix Kammerer

“ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT” My rating: B (Netflix)

148 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Netflix’s new German-language “All Quiet on the Western Front” is not so much an adaptation of Eric Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel as a riff on it.

Those familiar with the book or the 1933 and ’79 film versions will recognize a few scenes.  But for the most part this effort from writer/director Edward Berger comes off as a big-budget art film that eschews niceties like character development and plotting for a near total immersion in the madness of war.

Our hero once again is 18-year-old Paul Baumer, a schoolboy who with his comrades is whipped into a patriotic enlistment frenzy by a jingoistic professor.

But as played by Felix Kammerer, Paul is less a personality than an all-purpose Everyman with no back story.

The earlier “All Quiet…” films starred Lew Ayres and Richard Thomas, both of whom possessed an on-screen charisma.  Kammerer, on the other hand, seems to have been cast for the unremarkable presence he projects, for his ability to suggest quiet anguish or shell-shocked blankness.

This is story-telling stripped down. There’s no basic training montage, no getting to meet the other guys in Paul’s unit.  One day they’re in their school uniforms and the next they’re on World War I’s Western Front where the fighting has boiled down back-and-forth assaults across a ravaged no-man’s land and hours of misery in water-filled trenches.

With one exception — an older fellow named Kaz played by the excellent Albrecht Schuch — we really don’t get to know these kids. They’re cannon fodder, doomed to die in all the ghastly ways modern warfare provides.

You might say Berger’s film is populated by zombies. He’s less interested in individuals than the totality of the war experience. By the time you’re done with this 2 1/2-hour effort, he wants you to be nearly as catatonic and crushed as Paul.

The attention to detail is overwhelming, and the battle scenes have been superbly choreographed to suggest the utter unpredictability of combat.  They are on one level exciting, but ultimately dismaying as boys turn into wraiths before our eyes.

The script by Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell focusses on Paul’s slow dehumanization, culminating in the famous scene in which he shares a shell crater with the dying Frenchman he has repeatedly stabbed with his dagger.

But it also takes new digressions. Late in the film a hungry Paul and Kaz wander a snowy French countryside…you can’t help thinking of the final scenes of Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion.” 

There’s a subplot about a German diplomat (Daniel Bruhl) trying to achieve an armistice late in the war; and another about a Prussian officer who with just a few moments to go before the cease-fire sends his troops on a pointless suicide mission.

 The film opens with a segment showing a military jacket being stripped off a dead German soldier; it is laundered with hundreds of other jackets, then tears and bullet holes are sewn up. After  which it is recycled to a new enlistee, our hero Paul.

When Paul discovers the previous owner’s name tag still in the collar,  a supply officer says that the jacket most likely was turned in because it was the wrong size. 

Yeah, right.

Particularly effective is Volker Bertelsmann’s non-traditional musical score, heavy on ominously wheezing electronics and snare drum hits that ring out like gunshots.

Ultimately this “All Quiet…” presents the full horrors of war, but perhaps something is lost by downplaying our identification with the characters.

Still, this one sticks with you.

| Robert W. Butler 

Eddie Redmayne, Jessica Chastain

“THE GOOD NURSE” My rating: B (Netflix)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Part thriller, part real-world police procedural, part human tragedy, “The Good Nurse” is open to all sorts of themes and somehow manages to keep them all in balance.

Part of that success is due to the performances of Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain, but a good chunk depends upon Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ excellent screenplay (adapted from Charles Graeber’s nonfiction book), a model of intelligent construction and execution.

Ir’s not dishing spoilers to reveal that “The Good Nurse” — capably directed by Tobias Lindholm — is based on the case of Charlie Cullen, an Intensive Care nurse now serving multiple life sentences in New Jersey after pleading guilty to murdering 29 of his patients.  That cat was let out of the bag in the film’s pre-release media blitz.

In 2003 nurse Amy Loughren (Chastain) found her world falling apart.  The single mother of two young daughters (the oldest of whom is an impossibly surly tweener), Amy works extra shifts to make ends meet.  

And then she discovers she has a serious heart condition, a diagnosis she hides from her kids and her employer — she must stay on the job for at least four more months if she’s to get health insurance (this was pre-Obamacare…how soon we forget the wretchedness of the bad old days of health care coverage).

About the same time she gets a new co-worker, Charlie (Redmayne), who seems too good to be true.  Charlie recognizes that Amy is ill and does what he can to cover for her (because of her heart condition she’s limited physically…and, boy, does this movie illustrate how strong nurses must be).  

Just as important, he becomes a frequent guest at the Loughren home.  The girls love him. Moreover, he soon becomes Amy’s best bud and confidant. (There’s no hint of a romantic attraction.)

For all his skills as a nurse — and Amy believes him to be first class — Charlie has problems.  He has an ex-wfie who hates him and denies him visiting privileges with their two daughters; the only reason he moved to New Jersey from Pennsylvania, he says, is to be closer to his kids.

Interwoven with the Amy/Charlie story is a second plot.  Two local police detectives (Noah Emmerich, Navya La Shay) are assigned to look into an unusual patient death.  They are stymied at every turn by stonewalling hospital administrators (the most visible of these is played by Kim Dickens) who drag their feet on producing patient and employee files.  

Noah Emmerich, Navya La Shay, Jessica Chastain

Think pedophile priests…like the Church that reassigns these creeps to new parishes where they can strike again, the hospitals prefer to let suspicious nurses and doctors find work elsewhere rather than open up the institution to liabilities.

Nevertheless, the cops doggedly work the case, discovering that patients who die mysteriously had excessive insulin or heart medication in their bloodstreams. Suspicion falls upon Charlie when they learn that unexplained deaths soared in ICUs where he has worked, then dropped off to practically nothing when he moved on. 

The detectives quietly recruit Amy to wear a wire and engage her friend in conversation about his suspicious past. She doesn’t want to believe her friend is capable of such horrors, but…

Chastain is solid as a woman about to collapse under the pressure of motherhood, disease and an intense workplace.

Redmaye has a trickier job.  The real Charlie Cullen — who may havre had as many as 400 victims, making him the worst serial killer in American history — has steadfastly refused to discuss his  motivation for the murders.  Maybe they were mercy killings…but some of the victims were recovering when they died.

So Redmayne must walk a fine line here, playing a guy so tightly buttoned-down that his inner reality remains a mystery.  Outwardly he excels at presenting himself as a committed, sensitive caregiver. But there are just enough delicious little cracks in his facade to suggest the turmoil underneath.

Part of writing a good script is knowing what to leave out, and “The Good Nurse” is a great example.  Graeber’s book suggests that the real Charlie Cullen was far more obviously wacko than what we get here. Thus “The Good Nurse” may not be particularly accurate in its depiction, but as drama it works wonderfully.

| Robert W. Butler

Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell

“THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN” My rating: B (In theaters)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Audiences are going to love Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin”  — right up to the point where they start to hate it.

McDonagh is not the sort of filmmaker to chuck his audience under the chin and send us off with a pat on the head.  His protagonists  (like those played by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) are often brittle/bitter or comically hateful, and he relishes nudging us in one direction only to see us ricochet off unforeseen developments.

The impeccably-acted “Banshees…” pushes that alienation to its utmost.

The film starts out feeling almost like a sequel to John Ford’s “The Quiet Man.”  This is a 1920s Ireland of horse-drawn carts and thatched roofs, a scape of land and sea so beautifully captured in Ben Davis’ cinematography as to exude postcard perfection.

There’s a plethora of Irish “types”: the chatty pub keeper, the omen-spouting old lady who looks like Death in “The Seventh Seal,” the small-town copper who sheathes his brutality in brisk protocol, the village idiot.

For its first hour or so, “Banshees…” plays like a melancholy comedy, a sort of Gaelic Chekhov punctuated by hilarious exchanges (not that the participants think of themselves as hilarious…that’s for the us to pick up).

And then after that alluring beginning the film becomes incrementally more dark and alarming until it finds itself in tragic mode.

Padraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) are Mutt-and-Jeff best buds.  Technically they’re  farmers, but they don’t spend a lot of time working.  Most afternoons they can be found downing pints in the local pub.

Padraic — a childlike fellow followed everywhere by his miniature donkey — is mildly alarmed when one day Colm refuses to answer his door.  He’s in there, all right, smoking a cig in front of the fire. But he’s refusing to acknowledge his best friend.

Colm is immune to Padraic’s` increasingly desperate attempts to re-establish their normal routine.  Finally Colm reveals that he’s been depressed for ages, and fears that his attachment to Padraic is preventing him from achieving his life’s work — to write a tune for his fiddle that will outlive him.

It’s not that he hates Padraic…it’s just that the guy is insufferably dull, and that dullness is infectious.

A key to McDonagh’s screenplay is the way it contrasts the beauty of Inisherin Island against the smothering repetition of its social life. 

It’s not just Colm who’s going stir crazy here.  Padraic’s spinster sister  Siobhan (Kerry Condon) — also his cook and housekeeper — perplexes her proudly anti-intellectual neighbors with a passion for (gasp!) reading and dreams of moving to the mainland.

Never mind that the sounds of Ireland’s “troubles” — explosions and gunshots — are often can be heard from across the water.  Even civil war is better than wasting away in Inisherin.

And then there’s Dominic (Barry Keoghan), the oft-abused son of the local cop and regarded by most folks as an “idjit.” Well, Domiic certainly lacks even the most basic social skills; he might even be on the spectrum. But he’s far from stupid.  Listen to his vocabulary…he may just be the brightest bulb in this pack.


Kerry Condon

Despite the entreaties of his fellow islanders and the local priest to return to the status quo (the film contains possibly the funniest confessional scene in movies), Colm only digs in his heels. In fact, he threatens to cut off one of his fingers for every time Padraic approaches him.

Before it’s all over Padraic will come to dread the thud of severed digits being hurled at his door.

Yeah, dark.

It’s at this point that “The Banshees of Inisherin” (that’s also the title of the fiddle tune Colm is writing) dives so far into the black that a good chunk of the audience will be left stewing in puzzlement (if not outright disgust).

Clearly McDonogh’s sentiments align with Colm’s, whose farmhouse — packed with folk art objects —suggests a sensitive spirit trapped in a world of soul-killing banality that no amount of pretty scenery can relieve.

Farrell’s Paderaic, on the other hand, is an adolescent in a man’s body, friendly and open but apparently incapable of self-reflection. And like a child, he can take only so much hurt and rejection before lashing out,

“Banshees…” is ultimately a scathing takedown of the cliched quaintness of traditional Irish life, where creativity is smothered and self-mutilation becomes a substitute for  professional mental health care.

The big question is how many viewers will be able/willing to ride its glum message to the end.

| Robert W. Butler

Dustin Lance Black and his mother, Anne

“MAMA’S BOY” My rating: A-  (HBO Max)

102 minutes | No MPAA rating

Dustin Lance Black won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for “Milk,” was crucial to the HBO hit “Big Love,” and most recently created the HULU miniseries “Under the Banner of Heaven,”about a murder in Mormon country.

His professional life is impressive.

But his personal saga, as chronicled in the documentary “Mama’s Boy,” is even more flabbergasting.  Indeed, one could easily see Black’s family chronicle becoming yet another knockout miniseries.

No kidding folks, at least three times I had to stop the movie because it had put me into emotional overdrive. This is powerful, inspiring stuff.

Laurent Bouzereau’s film begins with Black’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Academy Awards.  He spoke not about the movies, but about being gay, about the impact of the life of queer icon Harvey Milk, and he issued a promise that in the near future the full rights of homosexuals would be recognized by the federal government.

Then Black, our onscreen narrator, takes us on the 60-year journey of his mother Anne. She was born to sharecroppers in rural Louisiana, crippled by polio as a child (she underwent several ghastly surgeries and spent the rest of her life in leg braces and on crutches), and converted to Mormonism as a young woman.

She married a Mormon man who clearly wasn’t ready for the responsibility…he abandoned her with and their three boys (she’d been advised not to get pregnant but wasn’t about to let medical realities stifle her dreams). 

To keep the family afloat the church dropped off monthly envelopes of cash (a act of charity Black recalls fondly); then arranged for Anne to marry a divorced Mormon who, unbeknownst to the family, had tired to kill his first wife (a deliberate omission Black cannot forgive).

This monster physically abused his wife and her sons; Anne divorced him while he was on a job overseas, then worked her way up through the civil service,  launching a career as a laboratory technician. She also married for a third time…we meet this fellow and he’s pretty wonderful.

Anne was by any one’s reckoning an amazingly brave, resourceful woman.

While all this is happening young Dustin Lance (“Lancer” to his mother) was suppressing his own sexual identity. He realized early on that girls didn’t do it for him, but the Mormon Church left little doubt about what happens to sexual sinners.

Moreover, the one person whose approval he most wanted — his mother Anne —was fiercely conservative.

“Mama’s Boy” throws a wide net, dealing not only with Dustin Lance’s early life in Hollywood and his reluctant coming out as a gay man, but also pulling into the story his two brothers (one of whom dealt with his own tragedy).

Ultimately, “Mama’s Boy” is a tale of healing.  On a rare visit to  her son in L.A. Anne attended a party filled with Lancer’s gay friends. Something inside her clicked.  So much so that when she accompanied her boy to his big Oscar night, she wore on her dress a white ribbon signifying support for gay marriage.

One thing I didn’t realize about Black…in the wake of the passage of California’s Prop 8, which banned gay marriage,  he suspended his movie career for several years to work on undoing  that law.  He wrote a play, “8,” to dramatize the issue; it was performed more than 400 times around the country.

|Robert W. Butler

Zac Efron

“THE GREATEST BEER RUN EVER”  My rating: B+ (Apple +)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

I put off watching Apple +’s “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” because…well, because it sounded kind of cheesy.

Notwithstanding that it is based on actual events, this yarn — about a good ol’ boy New Yorker who in 1968 smuggled himself into Vietnam to deliver American-made brews to the neighborhood guys fighting Charlie — sounded just a little too flip and insubstantial for my tastes.

I couldn’t have been more off the mark.

Directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly (who has evolved from the grossout yuks of “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber” to substantial fare like “Green Book”) this film walks a fine line between shaggy dog comedy and an essentially serious look at a subject the movies often get wrong.

Not having served I cannot testify to the accuracy of the movie’s war scenes.  But I have never seen a film that so accurately captured the conflicts the war generated in our civilian population.  The attitudes of the characters are absolutely right on.

That “…Beer Run” also gives us Zac Efron’s best performance yet is just icing on the cake. 

Chickie Donohue (Efron) is a U.S. Merchant Marine who spends his time between voyages sleeping late and getting drunk at his neighborhood bar.  He’s essentially directionless and irresponsible; politically he’s of the “my country, right or wrong” persuasion, which puts him perennially at odds with his younger sister, a regular at anti-war rallies.

Realizing he’s doing nothing for the cause, Chickie comes up with the idea of loading a duffel bag with beer and signing up as an oilman on a Vietnam-bound cargo ship.  Once there he’ll make an extensive side trip to visit his childhood buddies who are stationed around the country.  To each he will present a beer or two, a little gift of appreciation from the folks back home.

Russell Crowe, Zac Efron

It’s a genuinely dumb-ass idea, but Efron masterfully sells Chickie’s enthusiasm and naivete.  His pals in uniform are amazed to see him in ‘Nam — pleased with the beer but incredulous that anyone who doesn’t have to be there would come voluntarily.

The screenplay (co-written by Brian Hayes Currie and Pete Jones) balances farcical elements with more somber revelations.

For example, Chuckie finds he can get military transport anywhere he wants by implying that he’s working for the CIA. And he has the head-slapping habit of stumbling across his old running buddies in the midst of war’s chaos.

At the same time, we see his his growing realization that most everything he believes about the war is wrong. The film finds our man being shot at while delivering suds at a far-flung fire base. At one point he sees a suspected Viet Cong tossed out of an airborne ‘copter during an interrogation.  And he’s on hand to witness the notorious Tet Offensive, when the Cong struck at the heart of Saigon during the Asian New Year celebration.

Now I have no idea how much of this the real Chickie experienced and how much was invented for the film. Indeed, many may conclude that the filmmakers have a fairly heavy hand in dealing anti-war sentiments in the movie’s latter stages.

But it works. “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” is fueled equally by its far-fetched silliness and its growing sense of sadness — if not outrage — over the war’s toll.

Toss in a couple of fine supporting performances — Bill Murray as the New York bar owner whose jingoism sets the plot in motion, and Russell Crowe as a war correspondent through whose lens Chickie gets an education in real-world violence — and you’ve got a film that will stand up under repeated viewings.

| Robert W. Butler

Lily Collins, Connie Nielsen, Chace Crawford

“INHERITANCE” My rating: C (Netflix)

111 minutes | No MPAA rating

Netflix’s thriller “Inheritance” is marked by not just one but TWO cases of what appears to be major miscasting.

The first big gulp comes when we discover that Lily Collins, she of the impossibly cute “Emily in Paris” (i bailed on Season Two), has been cast as the hard-driving Manhattan District Attorney.  

No, I didn’t buy it, either.

The second involves the casting of Simon Pegg, usually just the fellow to provide light comic relief, in the heavy-duty dramatic role of…well, let’s let that sit for a minute.

Here’s the setup:  After the heart attack death of her filthy rich banker daddy Archer (Patrick Warburton, in and out so fast you might not recognize him), DA Lauren Monroe (Collins) learns from the family lawyer that the old man has entrusted to her his most deeply-hidden secret.

Not some sort of business fraud, although Archer obviously played loosely with the SEC regs. And  not the mistress he kept in the city unbeknownst to his wife (Connie Nielsen). Not even  the illegitimate child he had with her. 

Nah, all that stuff is standard issue for a rich mover and shaker.

Following cryptic clues left behind by Daddy, Lauren uncovers an old bunker (must have been a  fallout shelter) in the woods on the family’s estate. Inside she discovers a bearded, hairy man chained by the neck in a dark cell.   He tells the shocked Lauren that he has been imprisoned by her late Papa for more than 30 years.

This modern-day Ben Gunn  is played by Pegg, and what with all the hirsute prosthetics and a sepulcher-appropriate voice he’s virtually unrecognizable.  It took me about 10 minutes before I exclaimed “Holy shit!  Simon Pegg!”

Simon Pegg

The woeful tale this poor soul relates involves an accidental death, a gravesite deep in the forest and Archer’s fear that a witness to his perfidy could nip his financial career in the bud. Unwilling to commit murder, he instead becomes a jailor, visiting his prisoner just often enough to keep him stocked in protein powder and toilet paper.

Which leaves Lauren with a moral dilemma.  Should she free the man, thus risking not only her career but that of her brother (“The Boys’” Chace Crawford), a Congressman in the middle of a tough re-election campaign?

Should she keep him alive and in chains…but for how long?  

That “Inheritance” works at all is due to Pegg’s canny balancing act.  His prisoner is by turns tearful, pathetic, manipulative and threatening.  We want to be sympathetic but, like Lauren, we wonder how much of his story to believe. The dude seems sane and rational, but after decades in the dark mightn’t he be, well, a bit off?

It makes for a couple of tasty scenes.

Alas, in the third act Matthew Kennedy’s screenplay devolves into thriller-film cliches…and it cannot outrun the many improbabilities we’re asked to swallow to keep the yarn moving. Vaughn Stein’s direction is functional but style-less.

| Robert W. Butler

Sinead O’Connor

“NOTHING COMPARES” My rating: B (Showtime)

97 minutes | No MPAA rating

One of the best indicators of the effectiveness of a music documentary is when after watching it you cannot wait to listen to the artist involved.

After viewing “Nothing Compares,” the new documentary about Irish singer/songwriter Sinead O’Connor, I immediately turned to my old copy of her greatest hits LP.

And then for good measure i went online and began a Sinead buying spree of other tunes from her repertoire.

Directed by Kathryn Ferguson and written by Fergusoon, Eleanor Emptage and Michael Mallie, “Nothing Compares” is less an analysis of O’Connor’s music than a deep dive into her background and personality.

Even those who aren’t particularly familiar with her work instantly recognize her on sight…the shaved head, the huge soulful eyes, and that voice, which one admirer said was capable of “going from a whisper to a scream in half a second.”

Nobody sounds or looks like her; few artists have her burning sense of social justice,  on display even when — as is shown in the film’s opening moments — she has to endure several minutes of booing before beginning a concert.

Often narrated in first person by the now 55-year-old O’Connor (we don’t see her as she looks today until the very end of the movie) “Nothing Compares” depicts a termifying childhood with a mentally ill mother — the singer calls her “a beast” — who abused the child in just about every way a child can be abused.  One of her tricks was to exile her the 8-year-old to live night and day in the family garden.

She grew up “stupidly religious” and was eventually sent to a church-run school for troubled girls; it was affiliated with the notorious Magdalene Laundry system that virtually imprisoned thousands of young Irish women who had children out of wedlock.

This was still a time when the Irish government served as an arm of the  Catholic Church.  O’Connor at one point compares her homeland to an abused child.

As a teen she fell in love with Bob Dylan, specifically the religious-themed “Slow Train Coming” LP; at the same time O’Connor became enamored of drag culture, which pretty much had to lay low in ‘70s Ireland.

Once she launched her singing career, she specialized in writing her own autobiographical songs, as well as covering work by other artists. Who would have expected her to reach the charts with Broadway’s “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”?  And then there’s her biggest hit, a brilliant version of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” (We’re told in the closing credits that Prince’s estate denied the filmmakers’ request to use the song in the documentary. What’s with that?)

Despite controversy, O’Connor has always insisted on wearing her conscience (and anger) on her sleeve.  She caused a flap in the U.S. when she banned a venue from its usual practice of starting a concert with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” 

And then’s there’s her notorious”Saturday Night Live” appearance in which she ended her a capella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War” by shredding a photo of Pope John Paul II.

She never apologized, never backed down.

“They tried to bury me,” O’Connor says. “They didn’t know I was a seed.”

| Robert W. Butler

Emily Watson

“GOD’S CREATURES” My rating: B (At the Glenwood Arts, VOD)

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A blanket of Celtic fatalism drapes over “God’s Creatures,” rendering even a sunny day wan and gray.

Set in an economically-challenged Irish fishing village, this entry from co-directors Sale Davis and Anna Rose Holmer (“The Fits”) centers on a middle-aged wife and mother who out of love makes a seriously bad decision.

Aileen O’Hara (Emily Watson, sinking her teeth into her meatiest role in ages) is a crew chief at a seafood processing plant. She and her husband Con (Declan Conion) seem to more or less share the same space, brought together mostly by their first grandchild, born to their daughter.

Then, quite unexpectedly, Aileen’s son Brian (Paul Mescal) appears after spending seven uncommunicative years in Australia.  Aileen is overjoyed to have her boy back in the fold. Her husband less so…it’s all he can do to shake Brian’s hand. What’s that about?

At first glance Brian is a handsome charmer.  But his behavior raises questions  He left home suddenly (why?) and rarely communicated with his family during his long absence.  Now he’s back (again, why?) ready to take over the long-unattended oyster beds owned by his uncle.

Aileen is too thrilled having her firstborn back under her wing to dwell on such business. But within weeks of his return Brian is accused of sexually assaulting his old girlfriend Sarah (Aisling Franciosi of “The Nightingale”), one of Aileen’s co-workers.

Interviewed by the police, Aileen lies, providing Brian with an alibi. She does so automatically, almost without thinking.

But in the aftermath her conscience begins gnawing.  She senses something disquieting beneath her boy’s outward magnetism.  Worse, Sarah sticks to her accusation and becomes a pariah in their tiny community.

Viewers who demand that everything be spelled out for them will find little solace in “God’s Creatures.”  The film’s narrative approach is elliptical; there’s all sorts of suggestion but little solid information.

Uncertainty seeps through Fodhia Cronin O’Reilly and Shane Crowley’s screenplay and is reflected in the carefully contained performances.  Watson suggests Aileen’s torn loyalties not with bit speeches but through her eyes.  Similarly, Mescal — who made a big splash as the overwhelmingly decent leading man of Hulu’s “Normal People” — cannily uses his good-guy image to disguise Brian’s true nature.

No doubt many will find the film’s understated approach too remote. And the denouement of Brian’s story arc is borderline ridiculous, a deus ex machina  moment comes out of left field.

On the plus side, the film works extremely well as a study of working class life, with its economic uncertainties and demeaning situations.

| Robert W. Butler


Ana de Armas as Norma Jeane/Marilyn

“BLONDE” My rating: B- (Netflix)

166 minutes | MPAA rating: NC-17

“Blonde” left me feeling…well, ambivalent.

I don’t regret giving 2 1/2 hours to Andrew Dominick’s film. But I’m not eager to see it a second time.

It’s  extremely well-made, and  leading lady Ana de Armas’ turn as Marilyn Monroe goes terrifyingly deep (an Oscar seems likely).

But while I found it interesting, I rarely found it compelling.

What does “Blonde” tell us about the iconic movie star that we didn’t already know?  

What point is Dominik (whose earlier films “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Killing Them Softly” I loved) trying to make?

This is  not a traditional biopic. It is based on a work of fiction (the novel by Joyce Carol Oates) and as such is a brew of historic fact and pure invention. At any given moment it’s hard to know if what we’re seeing ever actually happened.  

We get real events like Monroe’s marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller (listed in the credits as the Ex-Athlete and The Playwright) and re-creations of scenes from her films. This is  interspersed with pure fantasy (a talking embryo, dream sequences). 

In the end  it all comes down to de Armas, who downplays Marilyn’s sexuality in favor of her sensitivity and vulnerability. The film’s major conceit is that Marilyn Monroe never actually existed.  She was the onscreen creation of Norma Jeane, a fatherless girl who was used/abused by men who acknowledged her beauty but not her intelligence or talent.

So, yeah, “Blonde” is a downer.

Little Norma Jeane has a crazy mom (Julianne Nicholson) who fills her daughter’s head with dreams about an absent father — allegedly a bigwig in the movies — who will one day come to rescue them both.  (Small wonder the grown Norma Jeane refers to her husbands as “Daddy.”) At least once Mama tries to drown the girl in a bathtub.

Norma Jeane is sexually assaulted by the movie producer who gets her into the industry (the film ignores Monroe’s first marriage and her affair with her first agent), and is sexually degraded by a President of the United States. She is coerced into an abortion. 

Based on that description you might expect “Blonde” to be a sad saga of victimization.  And in fact the film has been accused of peddling abuse porn. (The film has been rated NC-17, though what you see is relatively tame…the worst abuse takes place just out of camera range.)

Well, I’d agree except for the way in which de Armas infuses her character with beauty.  Not physical beauty (though there are times in the right light and with the right body language that you find yourself gasping in recognition) but with a tender and desperate need to love and be loved.

This side of Norma Jeane is beautifully exposed in the film’s Arthur Miller segment.  Like the playwright (very well played by Adrian Brody), we find ourselves falling for this woman’s combination of unexpected intelligence and childlike openness.  There’s a genuinely sweetness to these moments that is matched by nothing else in the film.

Instead we get ambiguity.  This is reflected even in Domiik’s technical choices. The movie drifts between color and black-and-white passages…but I’m damned if I can figure out what either signifies.  If all the dream sequences, say, were in black-and-white you could sense what the director is going for. But, no, it all seems terribly arbitrary.

My bottom line: A great heartfelt performance anchoring a half-baked film.

| Robert W. Butler

Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline

“THE GOOD HOUSE” My rating: B(In theaters)

114 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“The Good House” is a prime example of cinematic bait and switch…you get sucked into thinking it’s one kind of movie and along the way it becomes something quite different.

That’s the sort of thing that might alienate moviegoers. Except that “The Good House” features Sigourney Weaver in one of her more seductive performances. Who says there are no good roles for women of a certain age?

Weaver plays Hildy Good, a divorced grandmother with her own residential real estate biz in a picturesque seaside New England burg where her family roots go back 300 years (she has descended from one of the Salem witches).

Almost immediately the screenplay (by Thomas Bezucha, Wallace Wolodarsky and director Maya Forbes) lets us in on Hildy’s inner life. While her work requires her to exhibit a gift for schmoozing, our leading lady is in fact a font of sharp-tongued snarkiness who often speaks directly to the audience to diss and dish dirt on her fellow citizens.

Hildy’s outward show of bon homie and civic uprightness and her inner sarcasm provides much of the flim;s dramatic juice. Sardonicism on this level is bracing; when it comes from an older woman it’s damn near celebratory. Not to mention laugh-out-loud funny.

A good chunk of “The Good House” is devoted to a character study of Hildy as she copes with her struggling business (a former assistant has broken away and is now beating Hildy at her own game), a long-ago high school squeeze (Kevin Kline) who over decades has become a blue-collar millionaire (he’s a scuzzy-looking coot who owns a fleet of snow plows, garbage trucks and home renovation vans) and her children and grandchildren.

The film’s real subject sort of sneaks its way in. Hildy, you see, likes her wine. She tells herself (and those of us watching) that she’s totally in control of her intake and that the hand-wringing of her family and friends is just so much do-gooder excess.

Basically “The God House” is about her gradual realization that she’s a first-class alcoholic. At that point the film isn’t so amusing any more.

Now this hardly breaks new cinematic ground; the film works because Weaver is so entertaining and because the ranks of her fellow townspeople have been filled with the likes of Morena Baccarin, Rob Delaney, Kathryn Erbe, Beverly D’Angelo and David Rasche.

All that talent helps compensate for some narrative choices that smack of cheap melodrama. The late-in-life romance with Kline’s character works well enough, but some other subplots involving a neighbor’s autistic child and an extramarital affair being conducted by the local psychiatrist feel underdeveloped and superfluous.

The further the film strays from its central theme — a woman coming to grips with the lies she’s been telling herself — the less effective it becomes.

| Robert W. Butler

Essie Davis, Thomasin McKe3nzie

“THE JUSTICE OF BUNNY KING”  My rating: B (On demand)

101 minutes | No MPAA rating

Thanks to cable’s popular “Miss Fisher” mysteries and her knockout turn in the horror entry “The Babadook,”  Aussie actress Essie Davis has been working her way toward name recognition with American audiences.

In “The Justice of Bunny Fisher” the versatile actress slips effortlessly (or so it seems) into the skin of a homeless woman battling personal demons and a system that seems designed to grind her down.

We meet the title character of Gayson Thavat’s ashcan drama (his feature directing debut) on the streets of a New Zealand burg.  The middle-aged woman is equipped with squeegee and bucket; with a crew of fellow jobless citizens she picks up a few bucks washing the windshields of motorists waiting for the lights to change.

Despite her circumstances Bunny puts up a positive front (no doubt she’s learned that a happy facade results in bigger tips) — at least until she pays a visit to a shelter where her two children (a 14-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl) are being housed.

Bunny, you see, has a criminal record. The government has doubts about her ability to care for her children.  And it’s not just a question of means…Bunny’s mental health is an iffy thing.

Thavat’s film, co-written with Sophie Henderson and Gregory King, follows Bunny’s determined efforts to be reunited with her kids.  But it’s just one damn thing after another.

Bunny has been crashing with her sister and brother-in-law (Angus Stevens). a creep with a thing for teenage girls and an eye for his stepdaughter Tonyah (the great Thomasin McKenzie). When things go south with her relations Bunny lands on the couch of one of her fellow windshield wipers…briefly, at least, she can bask in the warm vibes of the guy’s big Maori household.

We see her hitting the thrift shops, looking for an ensemble that will allow her to pass for semi-solvent.  But  the never-ending maze of bureaus and regulations she must navigate would prove daunting even for a mom with major resources. How’s Bunny supposed to pull it off?

With its social conscience on its sleeve, sympathetic depiction of working-class life and semi-documentary style (mostly handheld cameras and a real eye for detail), “…Bunny King” bears more than a little resemblance to the films of Brit rabble rouser Ken Loach.

And like a typical Loach effort, the film puts us through some majorly disheartening moments that are made endurable by the terrific acting, which discovers human truths that transcend the misery.

Eventually the film settles down to a situation recalling “Dog Day Afternoon.” Our heroine goes on the run with her willing niece (technically, it’s kidnapping) and the film’s final segment is a tense nail-biter. A happy ending does not seem to be in the cards.

Davis’ performance here is jaw-droopingly nuanced.  Beneath Bunny’s maternal drive we sense a woman who is simultaneously furious and frantic, who makes astonishingly bad decisions for the right reasons, who earns our respect and our pity.

Breathtaking stuff.

| Robert W. Butler

June Smollett, Allison Janney

“LOU” My rating: C (Netflix)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

As a general policy it’s wise to see every movie in which Allison Janney appears.  Even in a small role she can can be the difference between dreck and a watchable experience.

“Lou,” though, pushes that thesis to the edge.

Not that Janney isn’t good.  In fact, she is more than effective in what I’m pretty sure is her first attempt to join the ranks of bad-ass action women.

It’s just that the movie around her is pretty sketchy.

Her Lou is a semi-hermit living deep in the woods on an island off the Washington coast.  She’s tall and gray-haired and makeup free (this performance is utterly without vanity) and silently misanthropic.

Lou hunts deer with her dog (often out of season…she doesn’t care) and has a survivalist thing going…a freezer full of meat and, we learn, a small fortune in cash buried out behind the house. Not to mention her familiarity with weapons.

Her closest neighbors are Hannah (Jurnee Smollett) and her adorable little girl Vee (Ridley Asha Bateman).  They rent a mobile home from Lou, who exhibits  little sympathy for the plight of a single working mom.  When the rent is due, it’s due. Period.

Vee’s AWOL father, we learn, was a Green Beret who turned to the dark side — going rogue, killing civilians, stealing and extorting.  That’s when he wasn’t beating Hannah. He may be dead.

Or not.  

“Lou” kicks into gear when Vee is abducted.  The perpetrator leaves behind a bomb in Lou’s car; obviously, the kidnapper is the girl’s father, Phillip (Logan Marshall-Green).  

But we soon learn that Phillip isn’t the only the government-trained killer in the neighborhood.  Lou has skills that could only have been honed in the service of the CIA.

The chase is on.

Director Anna Foerster (among her credits are an “Underworld” feature and episodes of “Outlander”) has turned in a good-looking movie (the lush Northwest forest is hauntingly beautiful) and she delivers a nice action sequence set in a cramped cabin in which Lou goes toe to toe with a couple of Phillip’s nefarious ex-military buddies.

The problem is the screenplay by Maggie Cohn and Jack Stanley, which grows increasingly forced and phony. A little over halfway through they drop a big surprise reveal that elicited from me not a gasp but a shrug.

Marshall-Green can’t do much with his cut-and-paste psycho-soldier role.  Faring better are Janney and Smollett, who become female action buddies. They’re fun to watch even as the movie falls apart around them.

| Robert W. Butler

Creedence in concert: (left to right): Tom Fogerty, Stu Cook, Doug Clifford, John Fogerty

“TRAVELIN’ BAND: CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL” My rating: B (Netflix)

89 minutes | No MPAA rating

For weeks at a time in the late 1960’s  and early ‘70s Creedence Clearwater Revival was the biggest band in the world.

Talk about a seemingly unending stream of hits…the pen of singer/guitarist John Fogerty churned out memorable tunes with startling regularity (“Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,””Fortunate Son,” “Green River,” “Down on the Corner,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain“…and that’s only brushing the surface),

But the thing about Creedence was that they were damn near image free.  The musicians (Fogarty, bassist Stu Cook, guitarist Tom Fogerty, drummer Doug Clifford) did not exude big personalities. Moreover they were squeaky clean by Summer of Love standards — no issues with drugs, violence, offstage misadventure. 

Guys like Jim Morrison and John Lennon got all the press.  CCR was content to play good music and cash the check.

As a result relatively little mythology has grown up around the group. Aside, of course, from the number of excellent songs/recordings they left behind.

That’s rectified in rock documentarian Bob Smeaton’s “Travelin’ Band.” 

The last hour of this 90-minute effort is the full concert Creedence gave in 1970 at London’s Royal Albert Hall.  For decades the footage was rumored to exist, but this is its first public exposure.

The doc’s first 30 minutes give a crash course in CCR history.  Jeff Bridges narrates.

 I learned that far from being an overnight success the band had been around for a decade before scoring (they guys were high school pals from suburban San Francisco).

All four were enamored of black r&b (Ray Charles and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins were big influences), and John Fogerty began writing songs reflecting his fascination with Cajun culture and New Orleans rock.  Amazingly, the guy who gave us “Born on the Bayou” and “Bad Moon Rising” never ventured south of the Mason-Dixon line until after those songs were hits.  It’s a testament to his imagination.

Another reason for the band’s relatively low profile was the simplicity of their style.  No studio magic.  No overdubs.  Just four instruments.

Interestinly enough, that simplicity affected Creedence as a stage band, since they were able to almost perfectly reproduce their recordings in a live setting. Yes, Fogerty occasionally gets to cut loose on an unexpected guitar solo (see the show’s finale, “Keep On Chooglin’ “), but mostly they stuck to the sound fans expected.  

But while the live show was light on surprises, the tightness of the band was hard to beat.  I was especially impressed by Clifford’s drumming…it never struck me as all that special on the records but, dang, watching that guy pound out an inexhaustible beatreedence Clearwater Revival is hypnotic.

| Robert W. Butler

Lu is Partridge as Sid Vicious, Anson Boon as Johnny Rotten

“Pistol”  (Hulu): I never cared much for the angry artlessness of the Sex Pistols. Even so, one must admit that for a band that existed for less than three years, these Brit oafs made an indelible impression on rock ‘n’ roll.

The miniseries “Pistol” was created and largely written by Craig Pearce, frequent collaborator (“Moulin Rouge,” “The Great Gatsby” “Elvis“) of fellow Aussie Baz Luhrman. 

Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Steve Jobs”) directed all six episodes, and is undoubtedly the single biggest factor in the show’s successful nailing of the punk scene.  Even for those who have no taste for the music, “Pistol” brilliantly presents — through camera angles, film stock, editing, set and costume design and especially some brilliant acting — the environment that birthed that rebellious genre.

It’s a social history lesson presented on a scale that is both epic and intimate. Not to mention overflowing with nervous energyl

After watching this series I finally understood the band’s importance.  (And it wasn’t for their music.)

The source material is Lonely Boy, the 2016 memoir by Steve Jones, the band’s guitarist and ostensible leader. Toby Wallace approaches the role of Jones with equal parts sex appeal, inner intelligence and outer oafishness. In the mid-70s he was on his way to becoming a career criminal when he drew the attention of  clothing shop entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren (a stone-cold brilliant Thomas Brodie-Sangster), an erudite and foppish hustler who avows anarchy but is at heart a voracious capitalist.

It is this Svengali’s idea to start a band with which to promote his clothing boutique, SEX.  Thus the birth of the Sex Pistols, an ensemble initially possessing few musical skills but exhibiting a full tank of rage, contempt  and ironic detachment.

As lead singer John ”Johnny Rotten” Lydon Anson Boon commands his every scene like a snarling feral rat.  Johnny is an insufferable asshole but don’t accuse him of duplicity; he’s just as snide, repellant and bitter in real life as in the spotlight. Later they’re joined by heroin-soaked Sid Vicious (Luis Partridge), who cares much more about getting his hair right than hitting the proper notes.

All the high (and low) points of the Pistols saga is on display here — the bad behavior, eyebrow-raising encounters with Britain’s staid media, drugs and drink.  In a sense it’s a predictable rise-and-fall-of-a-rock-band saga, but the details turn it into something truly memorable.

The series has a superb and expansive cast of supporting players, including Sydney Chandler as Jones’ Ohio-born squeeze Chrissie (the final episode delivers a forehead-slapping reveal: she is the future Chrissie Hynde of “Pretenders” fame);  Emma Appleton as Sid’s maddening groupie-with-a-vengance American muse and needle partner Nancy Spungen, and Maisie Williams (yes, GOT’s Arya Stark) as a punk fashion icon so buried beneath spiky hair and garish face paint that I didn’t recognize her until I read the cast list. 

Paul Walter Hauser, Taron Egerton

“Black Bird”  (Apple +): This prison drama from Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”) features possibly the finest acting now available on streaming.

And, no, I’m not exaggerating.

Taron Egerton (“Kingsman,” “Rocketman”) does a complete transformation to get into the skin of Jimmy Keene, a swaggering real-life crook and lady’s man who after his conviction for drug distribution agreed to go undercover in a prison for mental cases.  

He was offered a full pardon if he could get a confession — or at least compelling evidence — of the crimes of fellow inmate Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser), who is being held for the murder of a young girl but in fact may have a dozen or more victims across several states.

There are the usual prison pic tropes at work here…Jimmy must negotiate a dangerous inmate heirarchy (Tony Amendola is chilling as a Mafia don who quietly rules the roost),  corrupt guards and other scary stuff.  Moreover, Jmmy cannot reveal his secret mission, meaning he’ll get no help from the prison administration and will have to survive by his own wits.

While a couple of cops (Greg Kinnear, Sepideh Moafi) work the case from the outside, Jimmy must befriend Hall, a muttonchopped mountain who talks in a soft childish voice and is infuriatingly slow to reveal much about himself. Hauser, who was terrific as one of the goons in “I, Tonya” and the star of Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell,” smashes this one out of the park. Comparisons to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter are appropriate.

There’s also a heartbreaking subplot involving Jimmy’s father, a broken-down ex-cop played by the late Ray Lotta in his last film role.

Ultimately it comes down to an acting duel between Hall as a quietly terrifying psychopath and Egerton as a wiseass egotist who undergoes a near-total mental/emotional meltdown under the pressures of his assignment.

| Robert W. Butler

Hugh BonnevilleI “

“I CAME BY” My rating: B (Netflix)

110 minutes | No MPAA rating

If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best.

Which brings us to the Brit-made “I Came By,” a modestly effective thriller that cannily recycles characters and ideas from Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Along the way this effort allows Hugh Bonneville to join his former “Downton Abby” co-stars in making the leap from genteel civility to bonkers psychopathology.

Bonneville here plays our Norman Bates character…with a dash of Brit class-consciousness stirred in.  His Sir Hector Blake  is a much-admired former jurist who ended his law career ostensibly because he opposes the racial prejudices baked into the English legal system.  

In fact, he’s a killer who keeps a series of young men (at least one of them an illegal immigrant) imprisoned in his basement torture chamber, toying with them until it’s time to dispose of their remains in his late wife’s pottery kiln.

Now I’m not dishing spoilers here…Sir Hector’s secret life is revealed early on in “I Came By.”  What makes the film of interest is the way writer/director  Babak Anvari toys with our perceptions of just who we’re supposed to root for here.

“Psycho,” of course, was notorious for killing off its leading lady, Janet Leigh, at the end of Act I in that spectacular shower sequence. Nobody saw it coming.

Something like that happens here.  

Toby (George McKay) and Jameel (Percale Ascott) are a couple of young activists who have made a career of breaking into the homes of London’s rich and privileged,  leaving behind spray-painted graffiti on the living room walls.  Their signature message: “I Came By.”

Their partnership breaks up when Jameel learns he’s about to become a father.  Thus only Toby shows up to burgle Sir Hector’s posh house…and discover some ugly secrets in the cellar.

Not having much respect for the police, Toby decides to investigate on his own.

Bad decision.  The film then shifts to Toby’s mother Lizie (Kelly Macdonald), who alarmed by her son’s disappearance, starts sleuthing on her own.  (Think of her as the Vera Miles character in “Psycho”…or is she the Martin Balsam character?)

Anyway, “I Came By” does a nifty job of twisting our expectations.  Bonneville’s quietly sinister killer is the stuff of nightmares.  That he’s a smug upper class twit only makes his comeuppance more satisfying.

|

| Robert W. Butler

Tom Hanks and friend

“PINOCCHIO” My rating: C (Disney +)

106 minutes } MPAA rating: PG

Disney’s policy of systematically cannibalizing its animation classics and spewing out new live-action versions hits a wall with “Pinocchio.”

Not even Tom Hanks in front of the camera or Robert Zemeckis behind it  can make this blatantly opportunistic effort resonate.

The film does raise some interesting questions, though.

 The script of this  “Pinocchio” is probably 80 percent faithful to that of the 1940 animated effort…and yet the very things that work in the original fall flat here.  

Why?  If pressed I’d have to say that traditional cel animation (you know…hand-drawn cartoons) employs its obvious artificiality to mentally and emotionally prepare us for the fairy tale fantastic.  

It’s weird, but I find myself responding emotionally to the cartoon (for instance, Geppetto’s heartbreaking longing for a son) when the same scenes, played out with a real actor (Tom Hanks, working to project from behind an Einstein-level ‘stache and wig of exploding hair) feel phony.

Thus the cartoon Figaro the kitten is utterly charming (amazing how the animators captured his cat-ness) while the photo-realistic, CG-generated Figaro of the new film evokes barely a “Meh.”

And don’t even get me started on Jimmy Cricket, a brilliantly conceived character in the original who comes off as grotesquely creepy when rendered in three-dimensional detail. God…that green face! (By the way…that’s Joseph Gordon Levitt providing the insect’s voice…he does a pretty spot-on imitation of Cliff Edwards’ cracker-barrel Americana Jimmy from 1940.)

Zemeckis and co-writer Chris Weitz work a few changes practically guaranteed to raise accusations of wokeness…like casting a black performer (Cynthia Erivo) as the Blue Fairy, giving the puppet master Stromboli a physically handicapped apprentice (Laquita Tale) and turning Pleasure Island from an all-boy environment to one to which naughty girls are enticed as well.

They pay lip service — barely — to the brilliant songs from the original — “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “An Actor’s Life for Me,” “I’ve Got No Strings” — while adding a couple of lackluster new tunes.

Most dismaying of all is that the CG Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) is impossibly bland.  Disney’s original puppet was a much sanitized version of the mischievous imp in Collodi’s book,  but this one registers a big zero.

If the new “Pinocchio” is largely underwhelming, it does have a couple of nifty moments.  Our wooden hero’s debut performance as the star of a puppet show is very nicely handled, with the evil Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston) at the helm of a steam-powered Rube Goldberg-ish backstage contraption.

Geppetto’s workshop, with its dozens of synchronized cuckoo clocks (many clever referencing other Disney animated films), is a visual wonderland worth getting lost in. 

The conniving Honest John the fox gets  terrific voice coverage from Keegan-Michael Key; less effective is Luke Evans as the evil singing Coachman who shanghai’s Pinocchio to Pleasure Island.

And that paradise for bratty kids has been conceived as a sort of anti-Disneyland, complete with “It’s a Small World” boat canal on which our hero cruises the premises.

One benefit of modern streaming technology:  You can watch the 2020 “Pinocchio” and then immediately switch over to the 82-year-old original…make up your own mind about which works best.

For me, there’s no contest.

| Robert W. Butler

In which I dish thumbnail sketches of various shows I’ve been streaming over the last month.

“A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN” (Amazon Prime):  It’s an extended riff on Peggy Marshall’s classic 1992 movie about all-female professional baseball during World War II…with a couple of major differences. 

For starters, this is the gayest TV show since “Pose.” Series creator Abbi Jacobson  found in her research that something like 70 percent of the professional women baseball’s were lesbians; indeed, Jacobson plays the lead character, a married catcher (her hubby’s off to war) confronting her own conflicted sexuality. And then there’s a major subplot centering on an African-American woman who dreams of becoming a pro pitcher (and, yes, she’s gay, too).

Series creator Abbi Jacobson (center)

 The only major male role — that of a washed up professional ballplayer hired to coach the ladies (played in the film by Tom Hanks) — is taken here by Nick Overman, but he is given little to do and vanishes halfway through. 

The series does a pretty decent job of balancing comedy and drama (and it’s got the biggest collection of authentically 1940’s faces I’ve ever seen in a modern production). It’s also a MAGA-ite’s worst nightmare.  Despite the utmost in modesty when it comes to woman-on-woman action (the language is far raunchier than anything we see), this show undoubtedly will trigger seizures in those uninformed folk who tune in expecting inoffensive nostalgia and instead  get a massive dose of baked-in wokeness.

Ewan McGregor

“OBI-WAN KENOBI”(Disney +):  Got through an episode and a half of this “Star Wars” prequel before bailing.  Too bad…I looked forward to seeing Ewan McGregor as the Jedi legend in exile on Tatooine, but wretched writing and awful acting (especially from the heavies) quickly soured me.

“LOSING ALICE” (Apple +): If Alfred Hitchcock had made “All About Eve” you might get something like this Israeli mind-twister.

Fortysomething director Alice (Ayelet Zurer) comes out of retirement to make a film based on a hot screenplay by first-time writer Sophie (Lihi Kornowski). Along the way she decides to cast Sophie in the leading role, opposite Alice’s actor husband David (Gal Toren).

Ayelet Zurer, Lihi Kornowski

Thing is, Sophie is a sly, seductive, infuriating trickster.  She does awful things, but always talks her way out of hot water. It’s even possible that she swiped her screenplay from a fellow film school student (who has mysteriously vanished. GULP!).

Both Zurer and Kornowskii are borderline brilliant here. The former is a mature woman starting to come apart amidst the pressures of a problematic film production, a marriage starting to unravel and the gnawing insecurities. The latter is a sly minx who can shift from charm to hysterical betrayal in the blink of an eye; one moments she’s radiating youthful cheerfulness, the next she’s oozing malevolent sensuality.

At the same time “Losing Alice” is a nifty insider’s look at the nuts and bolts of putting together a movie.

“BAD SISTERS” (Apple +):  This black comedy actually makes a solid case for murder.

Adapted by the prolific Sharon Horgan (“Catastrophe”) from a Belgian series, “Bad Sisters” centers on five Irish siblings who conspire to kill one of their husbands, a supercilious male chauvinist schemer played with such malevolent relish by Danish actor Claes Bang that you’ll hang on every episode just to see what evil shit he’ll come up with next. 

Bang took the starring role in the 2020 Amazon Prime miniseries “Dracula,” but his bloodsucker was actually pretty likable compared to the character of John Paul.

Sharon Horgan, Klaus Bang


Here the actor more than holds his own against a cast of great female performers, psychologically tormenting his wife (Anne-Marie Duff) while infuriating/defying his sisters-in-law, all of whom have personal reasons to consider homicide.

He sabotages Eva (Horgan) at the office where both work, reneges on a promise to finance a massage studio for little sister Becky (Eve Hewson), threatens to expose the extramarital affair of Ursula (Eva Birthistle), and simply infuriates the bad-tempered, one-eyed Bibi (Sarah Greene).

The show’s narrative runs on two intertwined timelines: One follows the siblings’ often comically inept efforts to kill John Paul; the other post-murder scenario finds the sisters dogged by a couple of insurance drones who suspect foul play. 

The dialogue is absolutely wicked. Can’t wait to see where this takes us.

| Robert W. Butler

Jella Haase

“KLEO” My rating: B+ (Netflix)

Establishing and maintaining a consistent attitude in a feature-length film isn’t easy.  It must be harder still in a limited series with a running time of nearly eight hours that walks a tightrope between conflicting moods.

Yet the German “Kleo” pulls it off with an attention-grabbing blend of action, intrigue, social satire and flat-out hilarity.

The titular heroine of this series (Jella Haase)  is a round-faced orphan who has been raised by her grandfather — one of East Germany’s security czars — to be the perfect deadly tool of Communism.

The first episode — set just before the collapse of the Soviet Union — follows young Kleo into West Berlin where, guzzled up in decidedly non-proletariat wig and costume, she assassinates a reveler at a disco. She returns to kudos from her spymaster bosses and warm embraces from her boyfriend/handler Andi (Vladimir Burlakov), by whom she is pregnant.

But Kleo’s world is turned upside down when she is falsely accused of treason, convicted by a kangaroo court and thrown into prison.  Released only after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kleo — who has miscarried — is determined to find out why she was betrayed. It all seems to harken back to that disco mission.

Over the series she works her way through the hierarchy of the now-defunct Stasi (the East German secret police), looking for answers and leaving a trail of bodies. (Think former Nazis scurrying like rats for cover.)

It’s easy enough to spot the influences behind this series from creators Hanno Hackfort, Bob Konrad and Richard Kropf.

Most obviously there’s “La Femme Nikita” and “Killing Eve,” both of which featured young female assassins who are masters of both murder and disguises.

The violence — often mixing shock and black comedy — seems a clear reference to the work of Quentin Tarantino.  Indeed, late in the series Kleo finds herself targeted by one of her former Stasi colleagues, played by Vincent Redetzki with a manic eccentricity that brilliantly mimics Tarantino’s onscreen persona.

And “Kleo” is a hugely satisfying “buddy” picture.  Our girl teams up with a bumbling West German cop who witnessed the long-ago disco assassination and ever since has been obsessed with getting to the bottom of it.  He’s played by Dimitrij Schaad, whose performance is blitheringly endearing. (If there’s an American remake, he MUST be played by Charlie Day.)

Dimitrij Schaad, Jella Haase

As much as it is a spy mystery, “Kleo” is a commentary on Communism and the collision of Soviet repression with Western hedonism.  Kleo has only known the buttoned-down life  of socialist dogma; now she must negotiate a world of wide-open possibilities and capitalist idiocy.  

The latter is perfectly embodied in the person of Thilo (Julius Feldmeier), a druggie slacker from West Berlin she finds squatting in her old apartment (he moved to the East to take advantage of cheaper rents). Thilo believes he is an alien from a distant star and keeps looking for signs that the mothership is coming to bring him home. In the old Soviet-backed regime he’d be eliminated as an undesirable; here he’s practically status quo.

Now none of this works without a terrific actress holding down the crucial role of Kleo.  And the series has a brilliant leading lady in Jaase. 

Her Kleo is clever when it comes to spy craft, but she’s an emotional infant.  Jaase interprets her as a big (if deadly) child whose training as a government killer hasn’t  entirely erased her humanity.

The question that keeps us always guessing is which side of Kleo we’ll encounter in any given situation –K the ruthlessly effective assassin or the eternal adolescent looking for love.

To be honest, I can’t recall just what answers Kleo finds during her blood-soaked search.  It’s probably because what happens around the central mystery and the world in upheaval through which our girl moves is far more compelling.

| Robert W. Butler

John Boyega

“BREAKING” My rating: B (In theaters)

103 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

At some point early in the riveting “Breaking” most viewers are going to say to themselves that John Boyega is the new Denzel.

By the time the film is over they’ll be thinking that Denzel is the old John Bpyega.

The British Boyega has covered a lot of territory in just a few years on screen, from being a regular in the “Star Wars” universe to playing an alien-battling London punk in “Attack the Block” and an African American security guard with a conscience in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit.”

If starring as a rebel Imperial storm trooper made Boyega a household name in some quarters, his performance in “Breaking” should sling him into the ranks of  Oscar contenders.  

As Brian Brown-Easley, a real-life Marine veteran undergoing a mental-emotional meltdown, Boyega gives a performance that is by turns subtle, in your face and heartbreaking.

For its first 30 minutes writer/director Abi Damaris Corbin’s film is basically a three-character drama unfolding in real time.  In a setup that will remind many of “Dog Day Afternoon,”  Boyega’s character walks into an Atlanta-area bank and passes a teller a note announcing that his backpack contains a bomb.

But it’s not a robbery.  We soon learn that Brian is at the end of his rope because his monthly veteran’s benefit has been seized by a collection agency to cover the unpaid tuition incurred in his brief and disastrous attempt at a college education. As his last stand he’s decided to hold the bank hostage until the media gets his story out and he gets his money back.

As hostage situations go, this one is unsettling for its civility.  Brian lets everyone in the bank leave save for a cashier (Selenis Leyva) and the branch manager (Nicole Beharie). And despite waving around what he claims is a detonator (looks like he assembled it with parts from the junk drawer), Brian fights his own peaking anxiety to present himself as polite and non-threatening…or at least as non-threatening as one can be in these circumstances.

In fact, Brian finds an ally of sorts in the manager, who turns down an opportunity to escape because she figures she’s all that’s between this desperate fellow and a sniper’s bullet.  The cashier, on the other hand, is perennially poised on the edge of hysteria.

Little by little the screenplay by Corbin and Kame Kwei-Armah introduces other characters. There’s a police hostage negotiator (the late Michael Kenneth Williams) who must work his away around a shoot-first commanding officer (Jeffrey Donovan) and  a new police chief determined to establish his bona fides as tough on crime.

Michael Kenneth Williams

Brian manages to get a call through to a news producer (Connie Britton) at a local TV station.

And periodically he rings up his estranged wife (Olivia Washington) and their precocious young daughter (London Covington), whose home has been invaded by a couple of grimly unhelpful FBI agents. 

“Breaking” moves with a sort of grim inevitability, balancing fear and suspense against Brian’s desperation.  And while everyone in the film is solid, Boyega’s performance is a tour de force as it shifts back and forth between depression, hope, anger, guilt…there are few emotional bases this young actor doesn’t tag here.

It’s one of those performances you’ll want to see twice, just to figure out how he pulled it off.

| Robert W. Butler

Aubrey Plaza

“EMILY THE CRIMINAL” My rating: B (Theaters)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A seemingly normal young woman finds a new career on the wrong side of the law in “Emily the Criminal,” a low-keyed drama that argues persuasively that when the system is rigged crime actually does pay.

Aubrey Plaza is our titular protagonist, a young woman with a dead-end job hauling catered lunches to high-rise L.A. offices, a huge college loan debt, and an art degree she can’t put to use.

As John Patton Ford’s film begins Emily is undergoing a job interview in which she is caught trying to hide the fact that she has a criminal record. Evidently she once assaulted a boyfriend…whether or not he deserved it is an open question. The fact of her arrest is enough to keep Emily  from being hired by any reputable business.

A catering co-worker suggests something, well, a bit dicey.  And soon Emily finds herself with a dozen or so other economic burnouts being addressed by Youcef (Theo Rossi), who informs them that they are needed as “dummy shoppers.”  

The gig is not dangerous and no one will be physically hurt, Youcef announces in businesslike tones that eerily echo every new-employee orientation session you’ve ever sat through. But it is illegal, he admits.

Basically Emily and her fellow shoppers will be given a credit card — the information is stolen, Yuocef acknowledges — with which to buy a big flat-screen television.  They will bring the electronics to Youcef; he will pay them $200 in cash.

Easy money.

Emily is ready to walk out but there’s something about Youcef — perhaps it’s his honesty in revealing the illegality of the operation — that makes her put her conscience on the back burner.  Her first gig goes smoothly.

Her second, though, quickly turns hairy.  She’s supposed to use a credit card and forged money order to pick up a luxury car, and it’s pretty clear that the foreign types who are doing the selling are a bit shady themselves. Emily barely gets away with the vehicle and a bloody nose.

Theo Rossi

She’s shaken…but also stirred.  One of the marvels of Plaza’s performance is the way she mines her character’s central core of anger and alienation.  If the world won’t give Emily a  break, she’ll make her own.

Emily gets one last chance to go straight with a gig at a hipster ad agency;  during the interview the CEO (Gina Gershon) reveals that it’s a non-paying internship that may — or may not — result in actual employment. It’s one indignity too many for our girl, who storms out more determined than ever to make it any way she can.

Meanwhile her relationship with Youcef segues from student/mentor to hot and heavy.  Youcef (you may remember Rossi as one of the biker regulars on “Sons of Anarchy”) is a sweet fella who takes Emily to meet his Lebanese mama (Sheila Korsi); in fact, Emily will learn that Youcef is way too nice a guy for the illegal business in which he’s involved. 

Ford’s screenplay so matter-of-factly presents Emily’s situation that her bad moral choices make perfect sense; meanwhile he’s slowly turning up the tension as our girl’s escapades become ever more dangerous.

Holding down the whole shebang is Plaza, who plays Emily absolutely straight but with a deep pocket of percolating rage.  There’s not a sign of the actress‘ trademark snark; in fact, aside from some grimly satiric jabs at the 21st century work environment, the film is humorless.

| Robert W. Butler

Amber Midthunder and adversary

“PREY” My rating: B (Hulu)

99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

We’re way past expecting anything of interest to come out of the long-running “Predator” series,  yet Hulu’s  “Prey” consistently takes us by surprise while remaining faithful to the franchise’s mythology.

The gimmick at the heart of writer/director Dan Trachtenberg’s film:  “Prey” is set in the early 1700s in the American West.  Our human protagonists are members of the Comanche tribe; their alien adversary is pretty much the same laser-equipped killing machine we’re familiar with from all those other films.

Trachetnberg and co-writer Patrick Sidon go out of their way to faithfully depict the lifestyle of this continent’s original inhabitants…so much so that you could eliminate the sci-fi/horror elements and still have a pretty solid ethnological study of Native American existence.

Our lead character is Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young woman who defies tribal tradition by insisting on leading the life of a hunter…a role restricted to men.

She’s proficient with bow and arrow and tomahawk (even dreaming up a leather lanyard for the latter that allows her to retrieve a thrown weapon with a jerk of her arm). She has trained a dog — a creature viewed by her clan as an alarm system and possibly dinner — to be her hunting companion; they communicate through hand signals.

Naru’s widowed mother (Michelle Thrush) tolerates and even secretly encourages her daughter’s rebellious streak.  Her big brother Tabu (Dakota Beavers), one of the tribe’s best warriors, does his best to shield her from the jeers of the other young men (not that Naru really needs much help in defending herself from  male chauvinism).

And then, of course, a spaceship drops a predator into paradise.

The film builds slowly as tribal members discover clues that something new and scary is wandering through their post-card perfect landscape.  Three quarters of the way through there’s a battle between the Predator and a crew of French-Canadian fur trappers; turns out single-shot flintlock rifles are no match for alien technology.

“Prey” does a pretty good job of introducing modern (some would say “woke”) elements into the mix without clubbing us over the head with them.  Naru’s nascent feminism is implied rather than articulated.  

The presence of white men is introduced when Naru stumbles across a meadow filled with bison  carcasses, stripped of their hides and left to rot. (Never mind that the actual slaughter of the buffalo didn’t occur until after the Civil War, a 150 years later. The mountain men of this period would have been after beaver pelts.)

Moreover, while the natives live honorably by a shared code, the Frenchmen are presented as thugs and rapists…which is probably not too far from the truth.

Basically it all boils down to Naru using her ingenuity to outsmart her sophisticated enemy; as Arnold Schwarzenegger learned in the original “Predator,” sometimes the simplest solutions wisely applied will trump alien wiles.

The performances are unforced and natural; both Midthunder and Beavers exude screen charisma without making a big deal of it.

Technically the film is quite beautiful, evoking the sort of pristine wilderness captured so hauntingly in “The Revenant.” Costuming and props appear to be utterly authentic.

“Prey” was shot with English dialogue (except for the Frenchies). But for a fully immersive experience I’d go with Hulu”s “Comanche dub” option, which allows the aboriginal characters to speak in their tribal language.  Their words are translated into English subtitles, but “Prey” is such an effective piece of visual storytelling that you could watch it without subtitles and still perfectly understand what’s going on.

| Robert W. Butler

Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Viggo Mortensen

“THIRTEEN LIVES” My rating: A (Amazon Prime)

147 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Thirteen Lives” may be the most engrossing, satisfying film of Ron Howard’s career.

It’s a virtual masterclass in dramatic construction and emotional massaging; moreover it is one of the few films I can think of that contains not one misstep, one wrong performance, one phony moment.

Howard’s recreation of the 2018 rescue of 12 Thai soccer players and their coach from a flooded cave (the screenplay is by William Nicholson and Don MacPherson) manages simultaneously to be a deeply emotional experience and a clear-eyed recreation of actual events. 

 It is modest to a fault, tempering overwhelmingly dramatic material through the lens of a measured docudrama style. Clearly, Howard’s recent forays into documentaries (“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week,” “Pavarotti,” “Rebuilding Paradise,” “We Feed People”) proved invaluable in finding just the right approach for this massive effort.

The payoff is nothing short of spectacular.

In many regards Howard’s 1995’s “Apollo 13” provided the model for this sort of fact-based historic recreation; “Thirteen Lives” is even more successful in capturing the tension between individual human drama and big, overwhelming events.

Though the film features Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton as cave rescue specialists from the UK, there’s no actorly showboating, no obvious star turns.  Everyone seems to be foregoing their moment in the spotlight in favor of a group dynamic.

In this the performances reflect Howard’s overall message that while there certainly were heroes at work (including two Thai Navy Seals who died in the rescue efforts), this is  a tale of literally thousands of individuals who came together to accomplish the impossible.

Howard has never been a director who flexed his stylistic muscles; his approach here is straightforward, even impersonal. This allows us to concentrate on the story itself, which has been presented with marvelous economy and insight.

In the film’s opening minutes we meet the kids and their coach on the practice field.  They decide to treat themselves to a visit to the nearby Tham Luang, a spectacular cave nearly four miles long.  We see them park their bikes at the entrance and eagerly race into the darkness.

We won’t see them again for another hour, or 10 days in real time.  They go missing, their bikes are discovered, and immediately the authorities launch a rescue effort.

Tham Luang completely floods during the monsoon season, and the boys have been unlucky enough to enter the cavern just as an early storm is pouring millions of tons of water into the subterranean system.  It is presumed that they have been trapped by rising waters and forced to retreat ever deeper into the darkness.

While Thai military divers search for them in a labyrinth of submerged stalactites and passages so narrow they must remove their oxygen tanks, an army of volunteers descend on the mountain above the cave with shovels, pumps, pipes and chutes fashioned from split bamboo in an effort to divert water off the hillside and away from the cave.

on Howard

Local officials meet with local farmers to explain the process.  Will their crops be ruined when their fields flood? a woman asks.  Yes they will.  The farmers exchange glances and nod. Those 13 lives come first.

The cave rescue specialists played by Farrell and Mortensen arrive on the scene virtually without portfolio and by virtue of their independent status (they’re not part of the Thai military or government) have the freedom to take extraordinary risks. 

But discovering the boys alive doesn’t end the crisis.  The rain that trapped them was only a preview; within two weeks the full-fledged monsoon will fill every air pocket in the cave with water for several months.  They cannot wait out the weather; they must find a way out.

Several experienced divers have almost panicked and drowned in the treacherous waters.  There is virtually no safe way to guide the boys through several kilometers of cloudy runoff; none of the children have used scuba equipment and several cannot swim.  

That’s where Edgerton’s character comes in.  In addition to being a cave rescue diver, he’s an anesthesiologist; maybe they can suit the children up in scuba gear, knock them out with drugs and pull them to safety? 

“They’re packages,” one of the rescuers explains. “We’re just delivery guys.”

The second hour of “Thirteen Lives” is a step-by-step look at how the rescuers pulled it off. This is an exquisitely timed, bite-your-nails adventure that will have viewers shaking their heads in disbelief.

By film’s end audiences will feel nearly as battered and worn out as the kids and their saviors.  But it’s a good ache.

| Robert W. Butler

Patton Oswalt, James Morosini

“I LOVE MY DAD”  My rating: B- (Glenwood Arts) 

96 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Is “I Love My Dad” clever/charming or just plain creepy?

Reactions will run the gamut for filmmaker James Morosini’s second feature, an autobiographical slice of parent/child dysfunction that flits nervously between comedy and tragedy.

Middle aged Chuck (Patton Oswalt) has proven such a disappointment to his estranged teenage son Franklin (writer/director Morosini) that the kid has severed all lines of communication.

Chuck lives hundreds of miles from his son and ex-wife (Amy Landecker) and has missed most of Franklin’s adolescence, including the boy’s recent stint with a support group for high schoolers with suicidal tendencies.

Franklin, you see,  is an emotional mess and for this he blames good old Dad, a font of moral bankruptcy and selfishness.

But Chuck now finds himself desperately looking for connections with the child he’s pretty much ignored, and he comes up with a mind-bogglingly inappropriate scheme.

He’ll catfish Franklin by creating an online presence, disguising himself as a teenage girl who will exhibit a romantic interest in the lonely kid.  That way he can pry into Franklin’s life in the guise of another teen.

Remember, Franklin has been undergoing counseling for suicidal thoughts.  What could go wrong?

Chuck uses as his model the cute young waitress (Claudia Sulewski) who serves him breakfast at his local diner.  Without her permission he raids her online accounts, downloading her collection of selfies and building a fictional profile.

Morosini’s screenplay (it won the 2020 Screencraft competition) makes a big leap when it employs fantasy sequences to depict encounters between Franklin and his dream girl.  In reality they’re simply typing back and forth on their computer keyboards, but in Franklin’s mind this beautiful, funny, charming woman is right there in front of him, waiting to be kissed.

Claudia Sulewski, James Morosini

For his part, Chuck must keep scrambling to answer Franklin’s demands for a real honest-to-God telephone conversation with his long-distance paramour.  He recruits the help of his bed buddy and boss (Rachel Dratch) who immediately screws everything up by agreeing to a face-to-face meeting. 

Despite some overtly comic moments, the mood of “I Love My Dad” is one of every-growing anxiety. After all, Franklin is a fragile young man, and Morosini’s screenplay keeps digging an ever-deeper hole that will make his rude awakening to the truth all that more traumatic.

Saving the day (because I’m not sure I buy the “happy” ending Morosini supplies) are the performances.  

Oswalt is of course a great funnyman, but in recent years he’s successfully made the jump to dramatic roles; here he balances parental angst with an almost childlike eagerness to love and be loved.

Director Morosini radiates bruised soulfulness as Franklin and, despite being 31 years old when he shot the film, makes us believe he’s a teen.

And Sulewski — making her acting debut after a successful career as a YouTube and Instagram influencer — is dynamite in dual roles, both as the luscious “dream” girl and as the down-to-earth real-life waitress. 

| Robert W. Butler

Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman

“THE LAST MOVIE STARS” (HBO MAX)

As the title suggests, HBO MAx’s “The Last Movie Stars,” is about Hollywood.

But even more, it’s about marriage.

Actor Ethan Hawke, here donning his directing cap, fashioned this six-part documentary series at the request of the family of movie royalty Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. 

The famous couple’s children revealed that some 30 years ago their father began interviewing just about everyone the Newmans knew: directors, fellow actors, housekeepers, family members, close friends.…even the first wife Newman left for Woodward.

 Those interviews were captured on audio tapes which Newman (who died in 2008) subsequently burned (no explanation of why). But transcriptions of the sessions still exist.

Would Hawke like to use that written material to create a doc on the couple?

Well, YEAH.

“The Last Movie Stars” may be unique among show-biz documentaries for its innovative narrative approach.

A good chunk of the series is Zoom footage of Hawke (like everyone else, stuck at home during the pandemic) talking with the actors who would provide the voices of the interview participants. 

Initially this struck me as self-indulgent…the whole thing carries the whiff of how-I-made-a-documentary.  But before long it became apparent that by having Newman and Woodward’s fellow actors comment on their lives and films, we were getting an invaluable look into the couple’s professional world…an insider’s look.

(For the record, George Clooney reads Newman’s words while Laura Linney voices Woodward’s.  Other participants include Sam Rockwell, Billy Crudup, Steve Zahn, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sally Field, Rose Byrne, Mark Ruffalo…and that’s just scratching the surface.)

There are, of course, a ton of clips from the actors’ films, with special emphasis on the ones in which they played opposite each other (their last such collaboration was the Kansas City-lensed “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge”). 

What you soon realize is that Woodward was a great actor, while Newman was a great star (indeed, in some of the old color footage the actor’s eyes are so stunningly blue that you find yourself looking for signs of digital enhancement.)

“Mr. and Mrs. Bridge”

Whereas Woodward appears to have arrived on screen fully formed and a master of the medium, Newman took a while to find his acting chops.  In the meantime his physical beauty and unforced sex appeal would keep the roles coming.

So, yes, we get a lot of clips from films like “Hud,” “Hombre,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Paris Blues,” “The Stripper,” “The Long Hot Summer,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” — enough to make you want to seek out those treasures for fresh viewings.

But behind the glitz “The Last Movie Stars” is about a man and a woman who managed, against the odds, to stay married for half a century in a business notorious for chewing up and spitting out relationships.

How did they persevere?  As the doc shows, it wasn’t always the idyllic partnership the fan magazines depicted.

Although the series hints (so delicately that you might miss it if you step out for a glass of water) that Newman had an extramarital dalliance our two,  the man didn’t take seriously his sex symbol status.  He was ironic and self-effacing, thankful to be accepted by a woman whom he considered his superior professionally and personally. 

At one point Woodward banned him from the house for a period of weeks. He did penance by sleeping in his car in the driveway.

Meanwhile Woodward (who at age 93 is suffering from dementia) could be ruthlessly honest about putting her work on hold to raise the couple’s three children (and to be stepmother to Newman’s three kids from his first marriage).  She had to play the “little woman: while  her husband’s career — both as actor and race car driver — steamed ahead unchecked.

Woodward actually tells one TV interviewer that if she had it to do over again, she doesn’t know if she’d have children.

Even so, the testimony of her offspring and of family friends suggest that she was a terrific mother who never let those misgivings get in the way of her parental obligations.

In the end, “The Last Movie Stars” becomes an engrossing emotional experience.  One might question whether the series needed to be six hours long, but over time you find yourself sucked into the lives of these two.

In the last episode it is revealed that after he received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, Newman secretly crept into the attic and placed in his wife’s Christmas stocking the last present he would ever give her, a present she would not discover until months after his passing.

I’d call that love.

| Robert W. Butler

Ryan Gosling

“THE GRAY MAN” My rating: C (Netflix)

122 minutes | MPAA: PG-13

“The Gray Man” is so generic its makers could have forgone a title and opted instead for a universal product code.

It would be fitting for a movie whose hero is known only as Six.

The latest from directing siblings Anthony and Joe Russo (Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise) is an international spy thriller that aspires to “Bourne”/”Mission: Impossible”-level intensity but ends up looking like a wannabe.

Apparently mediocrity doesn’t come cheap. “The Gray Man” is allegedly the most expensive original film yet made by Netflix. Maybe they should have spent some of the pyrotechnic budget on a script.

In the first scene a prison inmate (Ryan Gosling) is recruited by CIA operative Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), who offers to train him as a super secret agency assassin. He will become part of the shadowy Sierra program…in fact, we will know him only as Sierra Six.

Fifteen years later Six is in Bangkok on assignment. He’s been given an agency handler, Miranda (Ana de Armas) and instructions to attend a big New Year’s bash and eliminate a fellow who is peddling CIA secrets to the highest bidder.

Thing is, he discovers that the target is one of his fellow Sierra assassins.

The MacGuffin here is a memory stick crammed with evidence of wrongdoing by an agency bigwig (“Bridgerton’s” Regé-Jean Page), who sends the smarmy/ruthless Hansen (Chris Evans) to retrieve it. Hansen’s plan is to get to Six by kidnapping the now-retired Fitzroy and his 15-year-old niece (Julia Butters) — the only two people on earth with whom Six has any sort of relationship.

Chris Evans

Well, the story takes us all over Asia and Europe. Inevitably Hansen’s minions catch up with Six, who always slips away — but not without numerous casualties among the local cops and citizenry.

The action scenes come with preplanned regularity and are busy without really making much of an impression…perhaps because the filmmakers were aiming for a PG-13 rating and couldn’t get really lowdown and dirty.

Gosling — admittedly one of our best actors — really doesn’t have a character to play here. Six is pretty much a blank page.

Faring much better is Evans, who is a shamelessly gleeful villain. With a tight haircut and pencil mustache he looks like the leading man in a ’30s porn short. All that’s missing are the black socks and garters. It may be ham, but it’s the most flavorful thing on screen.

Thornton and de Armas don’t have to do much emoting, and reliable performers like Alfre Woodard and Shea Whigham barely make an impression in brief supporting roles.

Technically the film is OK, and it practically serves as a primer for the use of drone footage…the camera is always zooming through the air, bobbing along the sidewalks and floating over and under structures.

In retrospect “The Gray Man” is a natural for a streaming service…it isn’t good enough to warrant the price of a ticket at the cineplex.

| Robert W. Butler

Dakota Johnson, Cosmo Jarvis

“PERSUASION” My rating: C (Netflix)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The Jane Austen purists are hating the new Netflix adaption of Austen’s Persuasion. They object to the many rom-comish liberties screenwriters Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow and director Carrie Cracknell have taken with the novel.

But then the Austen hardcores also hated the 2005 Kiera Knightley “Pride and Prejudice,” which I found quite swoonworthy.

Rather more shocking are the reactions of the mainstream British press: “A travesty.” “Torture.” “At no point do you ever get the sense that anyone’s actually read Persuasion.”

A critic for The Guardian declared it the worst movie ever made, and offered similar thoughts about American actress Dakota Johnson’s lead performance…which suggests to me that the reviewer has only recently come to the job.

Well, this “Persuasion” isn’t very good. It’s not that the filmmakers shouldn’t be free to toy with the source material…just that in almost every case they fail to make their case.

The plot centers on Anne Elliott (Johnson) who several years earlier rejected the love of the Naval officer Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis); friends and family members argued persuasively that he was beneath her. Now officially a spinster, Anne rues that decision.

But wait…Wentworth has returned. He is now the wealthy is captain of his own ship and in the market for a bride. Torn between shame at her earlier behavior and a slow-simmering longing, Anne doesn’t know what to do. This is Regency England after all…individuals are not encouraged to break social norms by speaking their minds.

Then there’s Anne’s wealthy cousin, Elliott (Henry Golding), who comes a-courting but seems, well, disingenuous.

Those who have seen the 1995 “Persuasion,” which took Anne’s predicament as a source of near-tragedy, may be shocked to see how much the new film yuks up the material.

Dakota’s Anne may tell us she fears a life of solitude, but she sure as hell doesn’t act like it. She’s sassy and witty…it’s impossible to feel sorry for her, especially when she spends so much time chugging red wine and stroking her pet bunny. She’s like your fun auntie.

Moreover, Anne treats the camera as her confidante, talking directly to the audience and often rolling her eyes in our direction when members of her family act stupidly, which is always.

The surrounding cast members (in keeping with other post-“Bridgerton” period pieces, they represent a variety of races) offer little support. Most of the women are encouraged to overplay their comic roles (one commentator has suggested the whole thing might benefit from a TV laugh track) while the men are uninteresting stiffs. (The exception is Richard E. Grant, delightfully shallow as Anne’s pompous spendthrift Papa.)

Weirdly enough, after messing ruthlessly with the tone of the piece (surely this is the first time we’ve been treated to the sight of an Austen heroine squatting in the woods to pee), the filmmakers have taken pains to faithfully recreate the costuming and decor of the early 19th century. It’s all been nicely captured by cinematography Joe Anderson, who polishes every image as if it was meant to be framed.

I didn’t hate this Persuasion. I almost wish I did…that would be better than my utter indifference.

| Robert W. Butler

“Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” My rating: B ()

80 minutes | No MPAA rating

One can say with some confidence that virtually every important American of 20th century arts and letters has spent time in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, either as an overnight guest or as a long-term resident.

The roster of artists, writers and musicians who have slumbered (and sometimes partied) under its roof range from Brendan Behan, Salvador Dali and Virgil Thomson to the Sex Pistol’s Sid Vicious and the impossible-to-top young lovers Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Heck, Leonard Cohen wrote a song about the joint.

But do not go to “Dreaming Walls: Inside theChelsea Hotel” expecting a litany of the famous and depraved. Documentarists Maya Duverdier and Amelie van Elmbt have given us something more akin to a tone poem than your traditional nonfiction feature. The best approach is simply to let it wash over you.

Early on one of the Chelsea’s octogenarian inhabitants hobnobs in the hallway with a construction worker who has spent much of the last decade renovating the venerable structure for its new incarnation as a boutique hotel. The young laborer admits while on the job he has sensed the presence of ghosts.

In a sense, Duverdier and Elmbt’s camera becomes one of those ghosts, drifting silently through halls and apartments, some now stripped down to the studs. Periodically the faces of famous Chelsea residents of yore are projected onto the peeling walls…spectres from a colorful past.

Here’s where the Chelsea is right now…the renovations are half completed, but are being held up by long-time habitués who, embracing the New York City equivalent of squatter’s rights, are doing all they can to slow the march of progress. Some have been moved to newly redone (and much smaller) apartments. Others refuse to vacate their homes of longstanding.

The tenants’ association has undergone a bitter division between those who — despite the attendant noise, dust and chaos — welcome progress and those who stubbornly oppose it (one curmudgeon refers to the whole process as “a slow-motion rape”).

Clearly the management recognizes that only death will loosen the grip of some of these old-timers. Work crews have installed a new elevator that will take them and their walkers to an exit at the rear of the building, thus sparing the hotel’s new young, hip and moneyed clientele the trauma of seeing poorly dressed wraiths inching their ways through the lobby.

Lacking any narration or titles to tell us what’s going on, we must get the lay of the land by listening to the residents talk. Happily, they are an interesting bunch, ranging from dancer/choreographer Susan Kleinsinger to artist Skye Ferrante, who fashions exquisite three-dimensional portraits of his fellow Chelseans using only pliers and wire.

There’s a smattering of old films taken at the Chelsea, including an appearance by the late Stanley Bard, for decades the hotel’s manager and probably the person most responsible for nurturing the building’s bohemian atmosphere (he was that rarest of creatures, a businessman who put esthetics on an equal footing with income).

One resident refers to the Chelsea as being like “a grand old tree, chopped down but rooted deep…there’s still life in there.”

“Dreaming Walls” is not encyclopedic and doesn’t want to be. But it gives a tantalizing taste of a grand old institution and the inevitability of change.

| Robert W. Butler

Freida Pinto, Sope Dirisu

“MR. MALCOLM’S LIST” My rating: C (In theaters)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The borderline insufferable “Mr. Malcolm’s List” owes its existence almost exclusively to “Bridgerton,” the Netflix Regency-era bodice ripper that melded multi-racial casting with Jane Austen-ish sensibilities and a good dose of heavy breathing.

Screenwriter Suzanne Allain (adapting her novel) and director Emma Holly Jones (the two also collaborated on a 2019 short film drawn from the book) have given us one of those costume-heavy romances of manners so popular with fans of Anglo-centric entertainment.

The gimmick — not that it’s much of a gimmick in the wake of “Bridgerton” and the recent Dev Patel “David Copperfield” — is that the many characters, from snooty aristocrats to household retainers, are played by a diverse cast representing many races.

Thus our heroine — the sweet, sensible, honest and basically broke Selina — is played by Indian star Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame; her comically scheming, nose-in-the-air cousins are portrayed by Zawe Ashton (whose mother is Ugandan) and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (generic white guy, natch).

The Mr. Malcolm of the title — a fabulously wealthy gent who keeps a list of all the qualities he demands from a potential wife — is played by Sope Dirisu, who is of Nigerian descent.

There’s considerable talent on display given the credits of the many cast members, but all have been undone by the simpering, artificial tone imposed by the writing and directing. The players assume a sort of comic exaggeration that reeks of high school theatrics. I didn’t believe a minute of it.

Moreover, the film never took me by surprise. The plot appears to be strictly by the numbers…I say “appears” because I could only take about 45 minutes of “Mr. Malcolm’s List.” In the unlikely chance that the film utterly redeems itself in the last three reels, I hereby offer my apologies.

Production values are okay, but most of us are past the point where we’ll happily leave the theater whistling the gowns.

| Robert W. Butler

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley

“ELVIS” My rating: B (Theaters)

159 minutes \ MPAA rating: PG-13

Sixty years on it may be difficult for young people to truly fathom the earth-shaking phenomenon that was Elvis Aaron Presley.

Now, thanks to Biz Luhrmann’s monumental “Elvis,” a new generation can relive the madness and wonder of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll.

At its best “Elvis” is a kinetic fever-dream fantasia on rock’s most enduring icon, with newcomer Austin Butler portraying The King in such convincing style that there are moments when I wasn’t sure if I was watching an actor or old footage of the real man.

At other times the film presents as an overlong saga that bogs down in the unchanging relationship between Elvis and his creator/nemesis, Colonel Tom Parker, played by a prosthetics-heavy Tom Hanks as a sort of mumbling Jabba the Hutt.

Presley’s story is not without controversy. He was a natural performer whose sexual charisma flowed effortlessly, but he also seems to have been lazy, self indulgent and weak willed. He played other people’s songs (did he write any of his hits?) and was accused of hijacking the work of black performers. In latter years he was an addict whose bloated form had to be squeezed into those sequined jumpsuits.

But do not expect a revisionist approach in the screenplay by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell and Craig Pearce. If anything the film is borderline hagiographic (enough so that it carries glowing endorsements from Elvis’ former wife and daughter). What criticism it dishes is aimed squarely at Parker, who boosted his client’s career with brilliant marketing innovations like a Las Vegas residency and satellite concerts while, we’re told, smothering Elvis’ creative impulses through micromanagement.

Remember, this is a Baz Luhrmann movie, one that exploits all the tricks the Australian has perfected over a quarter century of Rococo filmmaking: swooping camera work, insistent rapid-fire editing, variations in film and video stock, animation…the complete contents of Luhrmann’s noggin seem to be splashed across the big screen. It’s such a staggering display that questions and objections fall by the wayside.

“Elvis” works best in its first half, when we get caught up in the giddy, dizzying whirlwind of first-generation rock. We see Elvis as a boy torn between the gutbucket blues he hears in a Mississippi roadhouse and the Gospel celebrations witnessed in a revival tent.

To those fertile elements young Elvis introduced a pelvis-pumping sexual braggadocio. It may have been a calculated act (initially he’s a bit embarrassed by it all), but by God did the girls (and not a few of their mothers) ever respond. These moments are sexy, funny and utterly captivating…after all these jaded years it still seems wholly fresh and original.

“Elvis” is narrated by Colonel Parker…who was neither a colonel nor a Parker but rather a Dutch con artist (he proudly proclaims himself a “Snow Man”) who entered the U.S. illegally and managed to live much of his life off the grid, promoting country music shows. Hanks adopts a near-indecipherable European accent (quite a shock if you’re expecting a good-ol’-boy drawl) that must work its way around an ever-present cigar.

So on top of this being the story of Elvis, we get a heaping helping of Parker apologetics, with the Colonel defending himself from charges that he kept Elvis from realizing his full potential. (For instance, Elvis never realized his dream of a world tour because Parker vetoed the idea. At the time nobody realized that the Colonel didn’t have a passport and couldn’t get one without facing deportation.)

And that’s a problem because Hanks’ Parker is a repellant character. I wanted to spend less time with him and more with Elvis.

More to the point, the Colonel is an unreliable narrator, self-serving and sly. (Luhrmann has fun cinematically name-dropping in the opening scene, referencing Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” as Parker suffers a heart attack in his memorabilia-crammed home — briefly we see that event through the cloudy atmosphere of a snow globe).

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

Basically this is a two-character drama. Oh, there are plenty of peripheral characters — Elvis’ parents (Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh), his child bride Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), not to mention fellow musicians like Little Richard (Alton Mason), Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh),Sister Rosetta Thorpe (Yola), Hank Snow (David Wenham) and B.B. King (Kevin Harrison Jr.).

But most of these characters are little more than window dressing (or, in the case of the black performers, a way of deflecting charges of cultural appropriation). Aside from Elvis and the Colonel, nobody here seems to have a whole lot of gravitas.

Which means there’s much resting on the young shoulders of Butler. Well, out of costume the kid doesn’t look all that much like Elvis but manages — with the help of makeup and wigs — to absolutely nail Presley’s onstage essence, from the gyrating hips to the slightest cock of his cocky head. Like I said, there are moments — especially a late scene in which an on-his-last-legs King croons “Unchained Melody” to a legion of fans) when Luhrmann seems to be cutting between original Elvis footage from 50 years ago and newly filmed material with Butler. Which is which? Damned if I know.

It’s a high wire act. Butler must suggest the darker side of Elvis, must make a nod to the drugs and women and dissipation without undermining the film’s worshipful attitude toward the man’s capacity to entertain and enchant. In a weird way “Elvis” is as important for what it leaves out as what it keeps in, but through it all Butler somehow keeps this big ship steady through sheer force of his screen persona.

It’s a phenomenal movie debut.

Hanks no doubt captures the essence of the Colonel, but I found myself on edge every time the big creep appears.

So to sum up: Butler is a great Elvis. Luhrmann’s kitchen-sink style mostly proves the perfect way to present the King’s story. But in its final third the film runs out of steam…more importantly, when it’s not recreating one of those iconic concert moments “Elvis” becomes emotionally muted, perhaps the result of the filmmakers’ efforts to present its legendary subject in the best possible light.

It’s not a whitewash, exactly, but it comes close.

| Robert W. Butler

Chris Hemsworth

“SPIDERHEAD” My rating: C (Netflix)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A promising premise goes nowhere in “Spiderhead,” a si-fy-ish melodrama that at least allows Chris Hemsworth to play something not of the Marvel Universe.

Scripted by George Saunders, Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese (on whose short story it is based), the film unfolds in a futuristic concrete edifice perched on the edge of an island.

Inside it looks like maybe a posh-if-sterile spa melded with a swingers’ resort. There are video games for the residents to play, good food and apparently a hands-off attitude when it comes to romantic connections between the participants.

But we soon discover that this is actually a high-tech prison dedicated to medical experiments. The residents/subjects are inmates from the mainland who have volunteered to be guinea pigs in return for a more relaxed environment: no armed guards, no bars, no locked doors. Moreover, most of the men and women are non-violent offenders.

We learn about the place through Jeff (Miles Teller), who was convicted of vehicular manslaughter. Most of the time he cohabits with Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), who serves as chef in a well-equipped kitchen.

But periodically Jeff is called to the Spiderhead, a testing center run by Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth), a bespectacled brainiac who is clearly working hard to exude an aura of frat-bro affability. He treats his inmate/subjects like buddies…until it no longer serves his purposes.

Steve is a pharmaceutical wiz who has formulated a wide array of mood-altering drugs. His subjects — all volunteers, remember — never know what they’ll be dosed with when they start a session. It might be potion that makes them laugh uproariously at even the lamest joke. For that matter, under the influence thy will find even human suffering hilarious.

There’s a drug that makes two strangers fall almost instantly and carnally in love…although when the effect has worn off there are no residual feelings of romance or lust.

The worst tests, though, involve Darkenfloss, which plunges the subject into the deepest imaginable depression.

That’s where Jeff has issues. He is expected to collaborate with Steve on who gets Darkenfloss and the dosage to be administered…and he’s deeply disturbed at seeing his fellow human beings in the throes of crippling, even suicidal, downers.

A contest of wills develops between Jeff and Steve…at which point Steve shows his true fascistic colors.

The notion of drugs that can drastically change a person’s mood — almost like a hypnotic suggestion — should be fertile ground for some interesting scenes — everything from comedy to tragedy.

And yet “Spiderhead” — which was directed by Joseph Kosinski of “Top Gun: Maverick” fame — never really takes advantage of the possibilities. In a lot of ways it’s a standard-issue mad-scientist flick.

Let’s give some credit, though, to Hemsworth, who seems to have de-bulked for his role (he never takes his shirt off) and offers a physical vulnerability that is in sharp contrast with his Thor persona. He does a good job of nailing Steve’s malevolent scheming while hiding behind the guise of an apologetic and sympathetic sort.

| Robert W. Butler

Juancho Hernangomez, Adam Sandler

“HUSTLE” My rating: B- (Netflix)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Even Adam Sandler haters should have a good time with “Hustle,” a warm-hearted sports drama that taps into the acting chops Sandler demonstrated in “Uncut Gems” without the attendant angst and anger.

Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a globe-trotting scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. A former college player who screwed up his hand in a car accident, Stanley worships the game of basketball. But years of nearly nonstop travel checking out far-flung potential players have taken their toll…Stanley has spent a big chunk off his life away from his wife (Queen Latifah) and tweener daughter (Jordan Hull).

And then there’s his unfulfilled ambition to become a coach. The team’s aged owner (Robert Duvall) is amendable, but his dickish son and heir (Ben Foster, at his dickishest) wants to keep Stanley exactly where he is. This arrogant tool doesn’t care if Stanley always misses his kid’s birthday parties.

Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ screenplay centers on Stanley’s discovery in Spain of towering amateur player Bo Cruz (real-life NBA pro Juancho Hernangomez), who shows up on the public courts wearing clunky work boots and humiliates all comers.

“It’s as if Scottie Pippen and a wolf had a baby,” Stanley marvels.

On his own dime Stanley brings Bo back to the States, only to find that his bosses don’t see the same potential he does. The plot has Stanley underwriting Bo’s total-immersion training regimen in preparation for an appearance at the NBA draft combine, where hopeful players get to strut their stuff before team owners and coaches.

“Hustle” is packed to the gills with sport-flick cliches. There’s coach/player bonding, an extended (too extended, in fact) training montage, and the usual roadblocks that threaten to derail Bo’s journey to the pros.

But under Jeremiah Zagars’ direction and thanks to a supporting cast of real-life NBA legends (Julius Erving, Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal — it’s like a sports-themed edition of “Where’s Waldo”), “Hustle” feels authentically lived in.

Indeed, one gets the impression that everyone involved in this project absolutely loves the game, and that affection wraps the enterprise in a warm glow.

The seriocomic interplay between Sandler’s and Hernangomez’s characters feels absolutely authentic…maybe Hernangomez is just playing himself, but he seems utterly at ease in front of the camera.

The result is two hours of feel-good that goes down easily. For basketball fans the whole experience should prove borderline orgasmic.

| Robert W. Butler

Emma Mackey, Romain Duris

“EIFFEL” My rating: B- (In theaters)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Is “Eiffel” an historic epic posing as a romantic soap opera? Or the other way around?

In the end it may not matter. This French entry about the building of the Eiffel Tower mixes equal parts engineering/historic geekiness with a bittersweet love yarn that may be largely fictional…and the results are imminently watchable.

Martin Bourboulon’s film (the screenplay is by Caroline Bongrand, Thomas Bidegain and Natalie Carter) begins in New York City where French engineer Gustave Eiffel (Romain Duris) is being feted for his part in erecting the Statue of Liberty. Eiffel did not design the statue, but the steel framework he created for its interior ensures that the great lady will survive centuries of wind and water.

Back in Paris the architect becomes involved in a competition to create a visual landmark for the upcoming International Exposition of 1889. Other teams have proposed towers, but Eiffel deems all their designs “ugly.” He envisions something graceful and sweeping, a skyward soaring monument that appears to defy gravity.

Basically what we have here are two movies. In one the engineer struggles to bring his creation into being.

There are scenes set in the sweaty caissons sunk into the sloppy banks of the Seine which allow workers to prepare the ground in pressurized underwater chambers. There are labor issues. There are a host of design challenges. We see the tower at various stages…one assumes it’s all done with CG but it looks pretty dang convincing.

And then there’s the love story. One of the government officials overseeing the project is Eiffel’s old college buddy Antoine de Rustic (Pierre Deladonchamps); the widowed Eiffel (he has four children) gets the shock of his life when he meets Antoine’s beautiful wife Adrienne (Emma Mackey)…she is none other than the great love of his early years.

A fair chunk of “Eiffel” is devoted to a flashback set 20 years earlier when Eiffel, just starting his career, designed a provincial bridge and fell hard for the spoiled daughter (Mackey, mais oui) of a local bourgeoise. Their secret affair uncovered, the lovers were torn apart. Feeling betrayed, Eiffel got on with his life and career.

But seeing Adrienne again gets those juices flowing and the two once again become lovers, though fate is no kinder the second time around.

Aside from what he accomplished, Gustave Eiffel does not appear to have been a terrifically interesting personality; good thing, then, that Duris oozes quiet charisma. Newcomer Mackey, on the other hand, radiates a the sort of beauty and appeal one associates with Italian actresses like Claudia Cardinale or maybe even Gina Lollobrigida.

But the real star of the show, it’s safe to say, is cinematographer Matias Bouchard, whose images of a bygone era are picture postcard perfect.

| Robert W. Butler