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Catherine Deneuve

“THE TRUTH” My rating: B (Available July 3 on Video on Demand)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The character played by Catherine Deneuve in “The Truth” is reprehensible.

Except that she’s played by Catherine Deneuve, which means her reprehensibleness is actually kind of awesome.

In the latest from  Hirokazu Koreeda (a Japanese director making a French movie…talk about cross-cultural pollination) Deneuve plays Fabienne Dangeville, a great beauty of the French cinema who, now well ensconced in her 70s, has just published a memoir called “La Verite” (“the Truth”).

Fabienne has been a star for so long, has spent so much of her life being fawned over, that she has an iron-clad if overinflated sense of her own wonderfulness.  She expects people to cater to her every whim, and has a wickedly sharp tongue with which she lacerates friend and foe alike.

Imagine a Maggie Smith character coupled with world-class sex appeal.

Koreeda’s screenplay follows Fabienne on two fronts.  Professionally she’s taken a supporting role on a low-budget science fiction film starring young actress Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel), who’s being touted as the next Fabienne Dangeville. You can imagine Fabienne’s dim view of that assertion.

On a personal level, Fabienne is dealing with a visit from her semi-estranged daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a New York-based screenwriter who’s returned to her childhood home with her actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their precocious bilingual daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier).

When little Charlotte exclaims that Grandma’s house looks like a castle, Lumir glumly notes, “Yes, and there’s a prison just behind it.”  True.  The family manse abuts a maximum security facility, and it’s pretty obvious that in Lumir’s mind the two properties are interchangeable.

Continue Reading »

Rep. John Lewis

“JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE”  My rating: B- (Begins streaming on demand on July 3)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

How do you not like John Lewis?

The man has an unblemished 60-year history of social activism and public service. He stood elbow-to-elbow  with Martin Luther King Jr. and was beaten on the march from Selma to Birmingham; he’s represented Georgia in Congress for more than 30 years.

And now, at age , he’s been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Small wonder Dawn Porter’s new documentary practically crowns Lewis with a halo.  The guy appears to be a pillar of decency and compassion, free of the usual political bombast.

And he’s been one of the most eloquent analysts of the dark side of human nature proffered by Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” is too much of a good thing.  Though Porter draws from a treasure trove of archival footage from the Civil Rights era and has subjected Lewis to several sit-down interviews, my interest in the film began to wane at the one-hour mark.

Clearly, Porter admires her subject and wants to do him justice.  But she’s made a film so routine and by-the-numbers that despite the compelling subject matter, indifference begins to set in.

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” would probably hit the spot as a one-hour effort.  But at 90-plus minutes it wears out its welcome.

| Robert W. Butler

Edgar Ramirez

“WASP NETWORK” My rating: C+ (Now available on Netflix)

127 minutes | Rated: TV-MA

There’s some interesting history on display in “Wasp Network,” the latest from veteran French auteur Oliver Assayas. But as drama this one’s a head scratcher.

The film begins in the late 1980s in Cuba, with Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez) bidding farewell to his wife Olga (Penelope Cruz) and their young daughter and heading out for another day of piloting planes for the Castro regime.

Except that Gonzalez steals an aircraft and heads to Florida, where he claims political asylum. Before long he’s been hooked up with anti-Castro insurgents, flying dangerous missions to Cuba and elsewhere.  Some of those assignments involve carrying loads of narcotics which are financing plans to destabilize or even overthrow the island’s Communist government.

Meanwhile back in Cuba Olga must live with  the fallout of being the wife of a traitor.

Wagner Moura

Enter a new Cuban character, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), who risks sharks and rip tides to swim into Guantanamo Bay where he defects to authorities at the U.S. base there. Soon Juan Pablo, who has a taste for the high life, is rubbing elbows with expatriate bigwigs in Miami, wooing the gorgeous daughter (Ana de Armas) of Cuban exiles, and flashing a Rolex.

Yet a third plot emerges with the appearance of Gerardo Hernandez (Gael Garcia Bernal), a Cuban operative who informs poor Olga that her husband, far from being a traitor, has been sent to spy on anti-Castro groups in Miami.

At one point there’s a digression to follow a Venezuelan “tourist” (Nola Guerra) who plants bombs in Havana hotels in an effort to destroy Cuba’s fledgling tourism industry.

Assaya’s screenplay plays it coy for the first hour. It’s not until the Hernandez character appears that we realize Gonzalez and Roque are not defectors but undercover agents.  This delayed reveal is meant to build suspense but mostly it leaves us mystified.  Why are we supposed to care about these two? What are their motivations?

Adapted from Fernando Morais’ nonfiction book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, “Wasp Network” reeks of authenticity.  It was shot largely in Cuba featuring a slew of familiar Latin American actors. 

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Miles Teller

I’m not sure I like Amazon Prime’s “Too Old to Die Young,” but I’m damned if I can stop watching it.

Of course, you could say that about any effort from the supremely downbeat Nichoas Winding Refn.

Over the last 20 years Refn has gone from nihilistic Danish productions like the “Pusher” series, “Bronson” (Tom Hardy) and “Valhalla Rising” (Mads Mikkelsen)  to nihilistic American productions like “Drive” (Ryan Gosling) and  the much-despised “Only God Forgives” (Gosling again), with a sidestep into nihilistic pop culture in “The Neon Demon” (Elle Fanning).

Note the recurring word “nihilistic.” Get used to it.

“Too Old…” is Refn on steroids, a 10-part crime drama (each episode is about 90 minutes) that takes all the things people love (and hate) about his  oeuvre and pumps them up to the exploding point (though it rarely explodes; mostly it simmers).

Augusto Aguilera, Cristina Rodlo

Our protagonist (hero is way too strong a word) is Martin Jones (Miles Teller), a deputy with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.  Martin is, to put it bluntly, corrupt (but then so is just about every law enforcement officer depicted here).  He has a side job as an an enforcer/assassin for a Jamaican gang. Also, he’s dating a high-school senior, Janey  (Nell Tiger Free), whose creepy billionaire  father (William Baldwin in a career-high perf) can barely communicate through a bad case of the cocaine sniffles.

Martin’s nemesis is Jesus (Augusto Aguilera), the son of a beautiful cartel queen Martin assassinated before the series begins. The entire second episode is devoted to Jesus’ sojourn with his mother’s family in Mexico, where he gets steeped in the clan’s culture. He returns to the U.S. with his new wife (and adopted sister/cousin) Yaritza (Critina Rodlo), who claims to be a powerful witch. Naturally they’re sworn to exact revenge on Martin.

In the fourth or fifth episode we’re introduced to Viggo (John Hawkes), a terminally ill former FBI agent now devoted to vigilantism. He gets his targets from woo-woo woman Diana (Jena Malone), who as a counselor for victims of crime has a long list of child rapists and other offenders who require elimination.

Eventually Martin decides to stop killing mere gangsters and join Viggo in going after the real monsters. Continue Reading »

Kevin Bacon, Avery Essex

“YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT” My rating: C+ (Now streaming on Amazon Priime)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Written and directed by David Koepp and starring Kevin Bacon, 1999’s  “Stir of Echoes” was a ghost story that stuck with you.  Twenty years away from my only viewing of that movie, I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

Koepp and Bacon reteam for “You Should Have Left,”  a haunted house yarn that, alas, has nothing like that staying power.

The setup is  familiar: Family seeks to leave their troubles behind by pulling up roots and renting a house where weird things start happening.

The backstory provided by Koepp’s screenplay offers plenty of familial woes percolating beneath a seemingly placid exterior.

Financial guru Theo (Bacon) has a pretty trophy wife, Susanna (Amanda Seyfried), who is a couple of decades his junior. They live in Hollywood where she is an actress.

They have an adorable daughter, Ella (Avery Essex), who loves her Daddy something fierce.

Daddy, though, has issues.  For one, he’s sensitive about being so much older than his wife (people want to know if he’s Susanna’s father). He’s having a hard time handling his simmering jealousy, especially when he visits a movie set on the same day Susanna has to perform an intimate romantic scene with another actor.

Moreover, Theo is still trying to live down the scandal surrounding the death of his first wife, who drowned in the bathtub in a drug haze. To this day  lots of folks think Theo murdered her.

So you can hardly blame him for hauling the family off to the UK where the couple have rented a big place in the Welsh countryside.  It’s a very modern, austere home built on the foundations of an old farmhouse where bad things may have happened…at least according to the vaguely threatening locals. Continue Reading »

Robert W. Butler Sr. 1921-2020

Most children — the lucky ones, anyway — stand in awe of their fathers.

Until I was a teenager I took it for granted that my father, Robert W. Butler Sr., who passed away June 12 at age 98, had the superhuman ability to fix anything.

Washing machines, auto engines, electrical wiring, even the collapsing concrete-block foundation of our Prairie Village home…Dad just rolled up his sleeves and fixed it.

By trade he was an electrical engineer…by habit he fixed things.  

He did it as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. He tutored grade schoolers in the Shawnee Mission District. He stocked shelves  at the food bank run by Village Presbyterian Church, where he was an usher and deacon.  For several years he  dressed  up  to help my mother  run  a  booth  at  the Renaissance  Festival  selling  the output  of  the  church’s  printmaking  guild.

He was a Stephens Minister who counseled and comforted members of the church.

After the death of my mother Dad moved into Aberdeen Village in Olathe  KS (he was a member of the original “freshman class”) where over two decades he served as president of the resident’s council and each year did the income taxes of anyone who asked. He passed out his homemade banana bread and summer sausage.

That was typical. Dad, my mother used to joke, never got his tank filled without making friends with the station attendant. 

And the other night as we sat at his death bed, my sister Jan observed that she had never heard a bad thing said about our father; nor had we ever heard him say anything unkind about another person.

In many ways we were opposites…he was a left-brain fixer and I was a right-brain dreamer.  His futile attempts to coach me in seventh grade algebra must have shaken his belief in heredity.  At the same time, I suspect he was mystified at the process by which I watched movies and wrote critical pieces about them.

(Although…in his mid-90s he took up painting with all the eagerness and lack of pretension of an eight-year-old.)

Dad was born on Aug. 9, 1921 in Franklin, NE.  He attended the University of Nebraska (he was a lifelong fan of Cornhusker sports and was still paying dues to the Nebraska Alumni Association when he passed). He received a degree in electrical engineering; the U.S. Navy paid for his further studies at Harvard, M.I.T. and Bowdoin College.

He served as radar officer on the U.S.S. Dayton in the Pacific;  he was in a combat situation only once, when the Dayton was one of dozens of ships shelling the Japanese mainland.

Ironically, Dad was responsible for the only shot to hit his ship.  Assuming his duties as the officer of the day he was handed a .45 automatic, which discharged, blowing a hole in the teak deck.

While still in uniform he met and married my mother, Ardys Arlene Anderegg, a teacher from Iowa.  Their civilian life together began in Fort Wayne IN, where dad worked for Farnsworth Electronics (Philo Farnsworth is credited as the inventor of television). That’s where I was born.

Shortly thereafter the couple moved to Roeland Park KS. In the 1950s and ’60s Dad worked for the Bendix Corporation.  We never knew what he did, although one time he left his official I.D. at home and was sent back to get it before the guards would let him into his office.

 Years later I took him to see “The Abyss”; watching the scene where Navy Seals remove nuclear warheads from a sunken submarine, Dad leaned over and whispered “They look just like that.”

Turns out he was in charge of quality control for ICBM guidance systems. Nightmares of nuclear holocaust notwithstanding, the Cold War was good to the Butler clan.

Dad was active in the American Society for Quality Control and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, often delivering technical papers at their conferences. In retirement he and another group of engineers toured China.  Even after that he kept pronouncing “Mao” like the condiment.

He also went to night school to earn an M.A. in Business from the  University of Missouri.

In 1955 the family moved to Prairie Village; in 1969 Dad, my mother, my brother Dick and sister Jan moved to Fort Lauderdale FL where Dad worked for Milgo Electronics.

Mom and Dad returned to KC in 1974 when he took a job in quality control for the Allis-Chalmers plant in Independence. The job required him to crisscross the Midwest, troubleshooting issues farmers were having with their agricultural equipment.  Coming from Nebraska and having married into a family of Iowa farmers, he talked their language.

After retiring he and Mom spent winters in Florida with my brother Dick. Dad helped plan reunions of the U.S.S. Dayton’s crews — at least until he was the only one left to attend.

He leaves behind three children, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

He also left the world a better place.

| Robert W. Butler

Painting by Robert W. Butler Sr., 2019

Marisa Tomei, Pete Davidson

“THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND” My rating: C (Available June 12 on Video on Demand)

136 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Viewers who make it to the third act of “The King of Staten Island”  will find that this Pete Davidson starrer actually has a heart beneath its smarmy exterior.

Getting to that point, though, is a slog.

Directed by Judd Apatow (according to the credits, anyway…there were moments when I wasn’t sure anyone was in charge) and co-written by “SNL” star Davidson as a tribute to his fireman father who died on 9-11, “The King of Staten Island” is a comedy/drama that never really satisfies on either count.

When we first meet Davidson’s Scott Carlin, the 24-year-old is in his mother’s car speeding down a freeway with his eyes closed.  Maybe it’s a suicide attempt; in any case, like just about everything else in Scott’s life, he manages to screw it up, doing more damage to bystanders than to himself.

Scott is instantly recognizable as a variation on the stoner/slacker persona that is Davidson’s trademark character on “Saturday Night Live,” a dopey guy who has the emotional and intellectual range of a pet gecko. The difference this time around is that we’re supposed to see him as a damaged individual as the result of losing his fireman father at age 7.

That’s the backstory.  In the present, though, Scott  comes off as ignorant, maddeningly self indulgent and given to Adam Sandler-level eruptions of anger.

He’s got a girlfriend (Bel Powley) who soon has had enough of him.  He lives on Staten Island with his widowed mother (Marisa Tomei) and a younger sister (Maude Apatow) who, by virtue of having been too young to experience the trauma of losing her dad, is now a beacon of normalcy.

Scott hangs with a pack of meat-headed, pot-fried friends from high school (Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson, Moises Arias) who are devoting their lives to chilling,  video games and singularly inept criminal enterprises.

Scott frequently behaves like an utter asshole (attempting to practice his nascent tattooing skills on a grade-school kid), which makes it all that much more difficult to root for him.

Continue Reading »

“THE VAST OF NIGHT” My rating: B+ (Now streaming on Amazon Prime)

89 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The low-budget “The Vast of Night” is like the best episode ever of “The Twilight Zone.” With a dose of “American Graffiti” tossed in.

Unfolding on on fall night in the late 1950s in the tiny burg of Cayuga NM, Andrew Patterson’s film delivers a big dose of weirdness made all the more unsettling by its roots in banal reality.

It’s a Friday night and at the local gymnasium the high school basketball team is getting ready to kick off their season. Everett (Jake Horowitz), a twenty something who operates the local radio station, is setting up a tape recorder so that one of his colleagues can do a play-by-play of the game.

(Actually, the game tape won’t be broadcast until  the next day.  As Everett observes, nobody listens to find out who won — they already know — but to hear the names of their sons spoken through the ether. It’s an example of the minute details exploited so effectively in Patterson and Craig W. Sanger’s screenplay.)

Everett, who is so nerdy he’s actually cool in a Buddy Holly kind of way, won’t watch the game. He has to return to the station for that night’s program of recorded music and call-in commentary.

He’s accompanied on the walk across town by Fay (Sierra McCormick), a 16-year-old in cats-eye spectacles, pony tail and poodle skirt who is Cayuga’s nighttime telephone operator. (For the callow  youths reading this:  There was a time when a phone call to your neighbor required an operator poking wires into sockets on a huge circuit board; naturally a small-town operator knew the dirt on just about everybody.)

Fay is a science nerd who chatters enthusiastically about the articles she’s been reading in popular magazines (one predicts the development of telephones with tiny TV screens; another self-driving cars.)  Everett enjoys playing the role of big-brother/mentor.  They briefly refer to the Soviet Union’s recent success with Sputnik (Cold War paranoia wafts throughout).

Sierra McCormick

Once downtown Fay and Everett settle into their respective chairs and prepare for another boring night.  Heck, virtually every Cayugan is at the game.

And then Fay gets a call…well, not a call so much as a weird mechanical/electrical noise.  This coincides with reports of strange lights in the sky. She transfers the call to Everett, who puts it on the air.

He gets a call-in from Billy (the unseen but excellent Bruce Davis), a former soldier who in a long monologue tells of building a hangar in the desert for some sort of top-secret aircraft.  He recognizes the weird audio signal being aired by Everett as accompanying the strange craft.

Continue Reading »

Sam Elliott

“THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT” My rating: B

98 minutes | No MPAA rating

When it comes to pulpy promise, it’s hard to beat a title like “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot.”

But what’s unsettling about this debut feature from writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski is the way it defies almost all audience expectations while giving us Sam Elliott in one of his greatest performances.

In fact, one cannot imagine “The Man Who Killed Hitler…” working without the presence of the 75-year-old Elliott, a white-haired warrior of such potent screen charisma that I would gladly watch him absentmindedly scratch his ass for 90 minutes.

We meet Calvin Barr in the late ’80s or early ’90s, occupying a bar stool in a tavern in the quaint Norman Rockwell-esque town he’s called his home for more than seven decades. Calvin is quiet and cryptic, a man who exudes a certain angst but would never talk about it.

Still, he’s obviously not your typical senior citizen.  He makes mincemeat of a trio of punks who try to hijack his car late one night.

The first 45 minutes of Krzykowski’s screenplay follow Calvin in both the present and the past, interspersing his unremarkable daily routine with flashbacks to his service in World War II. We see glimpses of young Calvin (Aiden Turner) being sent behind enemy lines disguised as a Nazi officer. His assignment is to put a bullet in Der Fuerher.

Other flashbacks take him to the pre-war years when he worked in a shop on Main Street and wooed a pretty school teacher (Caitlin FitzGerald); he was sent to war before they could wed or even consummate their affair. That loss will haunt him to his dying day.

Which could be soon. Forty-five minutes into the film our hero is paid a visit by a federal agent (Ron Livingston) who announces that Calvin’s country once again desperately needs his help.  It seems that an ever-widening area of  Canadian forest is being ravaged by a mysterious influenza that is being spread by none other than Bigfoot.

Blood tests have shown that Calvin is one of the few humans immune to the virus; now he’s being sent up North to stalk  the hairy creature: “If we cannot contain the beast, if we cannot destroy it and it escapes, this could be the end.”

I’ll say this about Krzykowski…whatever his talents as a filmmaker they are vastly surpassed by his abilities as a prognosticator.  Basically this film predicts the pandemic we’re now experiencing. Continue Reading »

Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder

“NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS”  My rating: B 

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

A hot-button issue gets minimalist treatment in Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.”

Yet despite the austerity of Hittman’s effort, this is a film that hooks us emotionally and intellectually.

Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a high schooler in small-town Pennsylvania. When we first meet her she’s singing at a local open-mic showcase.

After the performance she and her family (her mom is played by Sharon Van Etten, the singer; her vaguely indifferent stepdad by Ryan Eggold) decamp to a local restaurant. At an adjacent table a group of teenage boys are hanging out.   Autumn takes offense at something they’re doing and tosses her drink on one of them.

What’s that all about?   We follow Autumn to a clinic where she’s told she’s 10 weeks pregnant and treated to an anti abortion video.  She learns that as a minor in Pennsylvania she must get a parent’s permission before having an abortion.

And so in the dead of night Autumn and her supportive cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) grab a bus to the Big Apple where there are fewer restrictions.

What is supposed to be a one-day trip turns into something rather more complicated.  The Planned Parenthood doctor tells Autumn she’s more like 20 weeks gone; that’ll mean a two-day procedure and a longer stay in NYC.  Strapped for money the girls will basically have to spend a night bumming around the city. Continue Reading »

Amy Ryan

“LOST GIRLS” My rating: B (Now on Netflix)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Anger radiates from “Lost Girls” like steam from a boiling pot.  It swirls around us; we inhale it; we burn with it.

Liz Garbus’ film is about the decade-old (and still unsolved) case of the Long Island serial killer, believed responsible for the deaths of at least 10 young women.

But it’s not a police procedural. More like a study of official indifference and incompetence.

The victims, you see, were call girls. No big loss, right?

The point of view taken by the filmmakers (Michael Were adapted Robert Kolker’s non-fiction book) is not that of a dedicated cop finding answers but of a grieving mother, wracked with uncertainty and played with extraordinary fierceness by Amy Ryan.

Mari Gilbert (Ryan) lives in a small town in upstate New York.  She’s a single mother (no mention of any man in her life, past or present) making ends meet with blue-collar gigs (waitressing, driving heavy construction equipment) and struggling with domestic issues.

One daughter, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie of “Jojo Rabbit” and “Leave No Trace”), has a bad case of late-teen resentfulness. The second, tweener Sarra (Oona Laurence), is bi-polar, jerked between phases of defiance and crushing melancholy.

There’s another daughter whom we never really get to meet. Shannan, we learn, hasn’t lived with her mother since  puberty; she was raised by the state in foster homes. Now she resides in New Jersey, returning home on rare occasions but regularly contributing money to support her mother and siblings.

Shannan is a prostitute who uses Craig’s List to troll for customers. Mari undoubtedly knows this; she just won’t say it out loud.

Continue Reading »

“BLOW THE MAN DOWN” My rating: B- 

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Easter Cove, Maine, is just as picturesque as the name implies.

Lots of boats, weather-worn houses, gray winter skies, residents bred of  tough New England stock…hell, the commercial fishermen even punctuate their daily grind by singing sea chanties directly to the camera.

But beneath the quaint facade things are rotten. At least according to Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s noir-ish “Blow the Man Down.”

Our protagonists are sisters Pris and Mary Beth Connolly (Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor), who as the film begins are burying their mother and discovering that Mom’s retail seafood shop is on life support and the mortgage on the house is way past due.

Their current economic crisis only exacerbates the differences between the two young women. Priss is the “good” sister who runs the shop and toes the line. Mary Beth is a bit of a wildcat, resentful that she had to suspend college to care for her dying mother and desperate to leave Easter Cove behind.

Which is why the night after the funeral Mary Beth goes bar hopping (actually, there’s only one bar in town), picks up a scuzzy and vaguely threatening fisherman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and ends up defending herself with an old harpoon.  (Murder by harpoon…you don’t get more New England than that.)

The panicked sisters opt not to talk to the cops. Instead they stuff the body in a big styrofoam ice chest (some dismemberment required…a fish filleting knife comes in handy), weigh it with an old anchor and toss it off a cliff into the roaring sea.

Oh, yeah…in the dead man’s shack they discover a plastic bag with a small fortune in cash. Continue Reading »

Daniel Craig…Southern fried private eye

“KNIVES OUT” My rating: B (Opens wide on Nov. 27)

130 minutes | MPAA rating:

The genteel drawing-room murder mystery gets roughed up but emerges more or less intact in “Knives Out,” the latest from “it” director Rian Johnson (“Looper,” “The Last Jedi”).

What you’ve got here is a dead man, a house full of suspects (played by some very big names),  a Southern-gentleman detective who seems to have been dipped in molasses — and a gleefully satiric sense of humor.

Plus a lot of snarky attitude when it comes to privileged white folks.

The film begins with the housekeeper for famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) discovering her employer’s corpse.  His throat has been cut.

Apparently the crime (if it is a crime…it might be a very bizarre suicide) took place shortly after Harlan’s 85th birthday party, an event attended by a pack of relations crammed into the old man’s semi-spooky turn-of-the-last-century mansion (described by one cop as “practically a Clue board”). Apparently the evening (which we see in flashbacks) was marked by some discord — old Harlan was no pushover and he loved rubbing his family’s noses in their inadequacies.

The local officer in charge of the investigation (LaKeith Stanfield) has his hands full with the various children, in-laws and others, all of whom seem to have some motive for killing their Sugar Daddy and a bad attitude when it comes to dealing with authority. So he’s mildly relieved when a famous private eye, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), mysteriously shows up.

Benoit, who talks with a slow drawl so thick it drips sorghum, has been hired by an anonymous client to look into the case. He won’t stop until he gets answers. Think Matlock on Thorazine with a cannabis chaser.

Murder mysteries in this  vein (“Murder on the Orient Express,” “Gosford Park”) rely on a large cast of eccentrics to keep us engaged and guessing. “Knives Out” has a colorfully hateful bunch.

Continue Reading »

Hiam Abbass, Ramy Youssef, Amr Waked

Like most boomers, I grew up on half-hour TV dramas. They once roamed the airwaves like herds of bison.

Maybe back then the entertainment industry didn’t think the fledgling television public had sufficient attention spans to endure a full hour of heavy dramatic lifting. Perhaps the studios were still trying to find the right balance between production costs and on-air quality, and a half-hour show minimized risk.

Whatever.  My generation came of age watching Westerns in which characters were introduced, a situation established and resolved (usually through gunplay) in a terse 25 minutes. (Plus five minutes for commercials.)

Not just Westerns.  Legal dramas and crime shows as well.

By the early ’60s the half-hour drama had given way to 60-minute productions which provided creators a chance to stretch a bit, dabble in nuance without the need to get in and out in record time.

Which is why I was surprised to discover that two of my new favorites — the Hulu series “Ramy” and “Normal People” — are half-hour dramas.

Yeah, yeah, technically “Ramy” is a comedy — this year its creator and star, Ramy Youssef, won the Golden Globe for best actor TV musical or comedy   — but as will soon be explained, the new second season of “Ramy” is essentially dramatic.

And as for “Ordinary Humans,” you don’t get much more intense than this tale of two Irish kids whose sexual/romantic relationship is followed over several years.

Okay, first “Ramy.”

Youssef stars (basically he’s playing  himself, or at least the self he presents in his standup routines) as Ramy, twenty something son of Egyptian immigrants who wants to be a good Muslim but also wants to be a normal American millennial.  He manages to avoid alcohol, but sex is his Achilles heel…he loves the ladies and whacking off to porn.

Season One sets up Ramy’s world and its inhabitants. His father Farouk (Amr Waked) is some kind of white-collar drone; mom Maysa (the sublime Hiam Abbass) is a homemaker and busybody with endless advice for Ramy (get a job, marry a nice Muslim girl) and his rebellious but still virginal sister Dena (May Calamawy).

Ramy’s running buddies are Mo ,(Mohammed Amer), who operates a diner and is always encouraging Ramy’s libidinous behavior (married, Mo lives vicariously through his friend), and the physician Ahmed (Dave Merheje), a nerd forever attempting to steer his pal along paths of righteousness.  Basically Ahmed and Mo are a good angel and a bad angel, each perched on one of Ramy’s shoulders and delivering hilariously contradictory advice.

A third pal is Steve (Youssef’s real-life best friend Steve Way), who has muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair from which he hurls world-class insults.

Another important character — and one who generates huge laughs in Season One — is Uncle Naseem (Laoth Nakli), who is also Ramy’s boss at a Manhattan jewelry store (the family lives in New Jersey). Broad, hairy, proudly chauvinistic and fiercely opinionated, Nasseem is an Arab version of a redneck who apparently agrees with Trump on everything except Muslim policy. Archie Bunker seems benign by comparison.

The debut season finds Ramy in various romantic entanglements (including an affair with a Jewish girl), but huge chunks of the season are devoted to exploring his world. This includes the daily schedule of Muslim prayer (Ramy is less than diligent), dietary and cleanliness laws (Ramy is reluctant to pray if he has recently farted) and prejudices within the Muslim community (Arabs aren’t so sure about their black American brethren).

In Season Two, which just debuted, things get considerably darker.

For starters, Ramy often takes a back seat as entire episodes are devoted to one character.  Maysa has been augmenting the family income as a Lyft driver; when she is suspended over a bad customer comment, she is sure the complainer is a trans woman, a recent fare.  She boneheadedly (but without malice) begins stalking the rider in an attempt to set things right.

Sister Dena, who at one point almost gives it up to a charming young man she meets on campus, finds herself in a deep depression when her glorious head of hair (no wraps for this girl) starts falling out in clumps.

Most of all there’s the episode devoted to the Uncle Naseem, whose bullish exterior hides a heart-breaking inner life.

These segments are essentially dramatic…there may be a chuckle or two, but they’re aiming at targets bigger than laughs.

The season is anchored by the great Mahershala Ali as Ramy’s new spiritual leader, a Sufi who cuts through all the chatter in Ramy’s head with his deep faith and psychological awareness.  This leads to Ramy’s romance with the Sheik’s daughter; the season ends with a betrayal by Ramy that makes us wonder if he’s really the nice goof we’ve always thought or simply too dense and selfish to warrant our affection.

Throughout the 30-minute format provides enough time to get the story told without lollygagging…”Ramy” will jump from one scene to the next almost before you can get the laugh out. Yet it rarely seems hurried.
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Michael Stuhlbarg, Elisabeth Moss

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

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Shirley” is a fairly unpleasant viewing experience made mandatory by yet another jaw-dropping Elisabeth Moss peformance.

In Josephine Decker’s film (adapted by Sarah Gubbins from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel) Moss plays Shirley Jackson, the modern American master of the macabre (among her works were the novel The Haunting of Hill House and “The Lottery,” described here by Jackson as “the most reviled short story in the history of The New Yorker” ).

Set in the late 1940s in North Bennington VT, where Jackson’s husband Stanley Hyman was on the faculty of the then all-female Bennington College, the film catches the author in one of her periodic depressive phases, unable to write and terrified to leave her house.  At the time Jackson would have been in her early 30s, but for dramatic purposes (the film is more a fantasia than an historic recreation) she here appears to be in late middle age — bloated, blotchy, hair atangle.

It’s an impressive physical transformation Moss gives us; equally daunting is the personality she offers, a brilliant mind given to moody terrors but still capable of eviscerating anyone who rubs her the wrong way or fits her parameters for intellectual mediocrity.

We explore Jackson through the fictional Rose (Odessa Young), who has come to Vermont with her husband Fred (Logal Lerman). Fred is to be a teaching assistant to Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg).  The young couple’s arrival coincides with the departure of the Hymans’ latest housekeeper, and Stanley coerces Rose into taking on the job.  The kids will get  room and board; Rose will cook, clean and be Shirley’s companion.

And whipping boy.

“She’s a fucking monster,” Rose protests of her new employer, whose madness most often manifests itself in meanness.

Shirley, meanwhile, is perennially being cajoled by Stanley — the very embodiment of professorial pomposity — to get out of bed and start writing.

“I’m going to get better,” she promises. “Starting tomorrow.”

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