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Peri Baumeister, Carl Anton Koch

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

121 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

For the rest of you, here goes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Brooklynn Prince

“SETTLERS” My rating: B-

103 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ismael Cruz Cordova, Sofia Boutella

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, Jack Whitehall

“JUNGLE CRUISE” My rating: C+

127 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesse Plemons

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

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

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

Supernatural shenanigans ensue.

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Mark Wahlberg

“JOE BELL” My rating: C+

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

German forester Peter Wohlleben

“THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES” My rating: B

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

I CARRY YOU WITH ME” My rating: B+

Armando Espitia, Christian Vazquez

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

Head spinning yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That means leaving behind Gerardo and his little boy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Haunting” isn’t too strong a word.

| Robert W. Butler

Sylvester Stone

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

117 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Mavis Staples, Mahalia Jackson

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

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

86 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Rita Moreno

“RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT”  My rating: B (In theaters)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

As she approaches her 90th year actress Rita Moreno can look back on a life packed with triumph (she’s an EGOT — the winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony), tragedy (a botched abortion, sexual assault) and a checkered career that has included both laughable ethnic stereotypes and her current status as a Latina icon.

The new doc “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” is a warts-and-all look at a woman who despite her advanced years exhibits more energy, exuberance and insight than someone half her age.  She’s a born raconteur…and, boy, does she have a story to tell.

Mariem Perez Riera’s film (Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda are among the producers) opens with Moreno bustling around her home, preparing for her birthday celebration.  Then it settles down to a conversation — punctuated with old photos and film clips —  of her life, career and loves.

She was born in Puerto Rico and as a child came to US with her mother (she never again saw her father or brother…a story that could use some explanation), became enamored of the movies at an early age, dropped out of school at 15  and when still a teen dressed up like Elizabeth Taylor for an appointment with Louie B. Mayer, walking away with a Hollywood contract.

For years she was plastered with “makeup the color of mud” to portray Native American princesses, Latina spitfires, island girls, even the slave/concubine Tuptim in “The King and I.”  Her roles, she says, were limited to “sex objects and arm candy.”  

But she lacked the clout to do anything but follow orders.  Moreover, Moreno says she grew up “feeling without value,” a psychological handicap that dogged her until well into her adult life.

She describes the hair-raising sexism she encountered in Hollywood, including being raped by her agent (she had such low self-esteem that she kept working with him even after the incident) and her intense years-long affair with a domineering and manipulative Marlon Brando, who forced her to get a back-ally abortion from which she nearly died. (Today Moreno remains a fierce advocate of female reproductive rights.)

She became so depressed by her relationship with Brando that she attempted suicide.

(There’s no mention here of her well-known affair with Elvis Presley…what’s up with that?)

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“LES NOTRES” My rating: B- (June 16)

103 minutes | No MPAA rating

On numerous levels the French-Canadian “Les Notres” (“Our Own”) is a head scratcher.

It’s part problem picture/social drama, part personality study — without fully committing to either — and regularly thwarts its audience’s expectations. It aspires to depth and yet often is satisfied with melodrama.

But there is no denying that teen actress Emilie Bierre absolutely dominates the screen as a 13-year-old with a devastating secret. It’s a star-making turn; indeed, Bierre’s low-keyed performance and quiet charisma keep us watching, somehow filling the gaps in what otherwise might be a terminally fragmented tale.

Magalie (Bierre) lives with her widowed mother Isabelle (Marianne Farley) in a quaint Quebec town. She is an unremarkable girl, average in just about every respect but one.

She’s pregnant.

This revelation comes early in the screenplay by director Jeanne Leblanc and co-writer Judith Baribeau (who also takes on one of the major supporting roles). The main thrust of the tale is how young Magalie deals with her situation…or doesn’t.

Mag — who even in the best of circumstances nurses a case of teen stubbornness (losing her papa at a tender age has had a major impact on her personality) — refuses to identify the father. And she won’t even consider an abortion.

Word soon gets out of the girl’s tender condition. Her classmates call her a slut to her face. Her best friend Manu (Leon Diconca Pelletier) — an orphan living in a foster home across the street — is widely believed to be the father. The poor kid already has one strike against him for being Hispanic, and is resented for having deposed his fellow jocks as the school’s best soccer player.

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Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, Melissa Barrera as Vanessa

“IN THE HEIGHTS” My rating: B (HBO Max)

143 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

At its best the film version of the Broadway musical “In the Heights” is a colorful Valentine to a neighborhood and a way of life, overflowing with generosity of spirit and gleefully embracing Latinx culture.

It is also overlong, repetitive and, frankly, a bit boring when director John M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) must turn away from the massive musical numbers at which he excels.

Shot in the Washington Heights area of NYC where it takes place (there’s a bit of a “West Side Story” vibe at work), this adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda/Quiara Alegria Hudes 2008 hit (he wrote the music and lyrics, she wrote the book) follows a handful of characters through a summer in the city.

Our narrator is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the owner (apparently) of a cafe/bar in the Dominican Republic.  He’s telling local children the story of how he grew up in Manhattan and came to the Caribbean island to reclaim his father’s long-abandoned seaside business. The entire film, then, is a massive flashback, periodically interrupted as it returns to the “present” for more interaction between Usnavi and the kiddies.

At the heart of the film are two romances.

In the big city Usnavi operates a corner bodega, a natural meeting place for characters from his neighborhood.  The guy is sweet, sensitive and nurturing  — watch him interact with his grandma Claudia (Olga Merediz) and with tweener Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) to whom he serves as a surrogate big brother.  

Alas, Usnavi is a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to his relationship with local gal Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who aspires to become a fashion designer.

Then there’s Benny (Corey Hawkins), right hand man at the local taxi company run by Kevin (Jimmy Smits).  Benny has long awaited the return of Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who has just wrapped up her freshman year at Stanford.

Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace

But all was not well for Nina in sunny Cal.  She missed her nurturing neighborhood and was out of sync with her classmates (subtle racism may have played a role); now she is determined not to return to school.  Her father won’t hear of it…he’s already sold off half his real estate to finance Nina’s education and is ready to go even deeper into debt to see his girl achieve the American Dream. Of course, if he sells the business Benny will be out of a job.

Lin-Manuel Miranda shows up as Piraguero, who hawks shaved ice treats from his handcart and frets about the corporate-backed ice cream truck that is competing for the neighborhood sweet tooth dollar.

Now that’s not much plot for a 2 1/2-hour movie, and ultimately it shows. Yes, the big musical numbers — a street party, a nightclub, the local swimming pool — are explosions of color and movement (they remind of that opening number of “La La Land”).

You might call Miranda’s musical score proto-“Hamilton”…the lyrics pour out in a torrent of rapping-like wordplay (if you’re watching on HBO Max, turn on the captions), though the songs have distinctively Latin and Caribbean elements. Actually, there may be more singing in this film than talking…the effect is operatic.

With all this good stuff going on I’m sorry to admit that halfway through I found “In the Heights”running out of steam.  Part of the problem is that Miranda and Hudes, having found their voice, rarely vary it.  Each song sounds like the last (at least to first-timer ears…perhaps with more intimacy with the score the subtle variations become more apparent.

Likewise, the personal relationships established at the film’s outset undergo few dramatic ups and downs as the story proceeds.

The good news is that “In the Heights” has a solid emotional core built around the idea of a nurturing community, and it is this overarching theme (more than the individual stories) that gives the movie its power and sends the viewer off in a warm cloud of feel-good.

| Robert W. Butler

“TAKE ME SOMEWHERE NICE” My rating: C+

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

The title of Ena Sendijarevic’s “Take Me Somewhere Nice” drips with irony. Like the film’s young protagonist, we might dream of the good life, but we’re not going to find it in modern-day Bosnia.

Alma (Sara Luna Zoric) lives in the Netherlands with her mother. They fled war-torn Bosnia when Alma was a baby, leaving behind her father, whom she has visited only once or twice.

Now, though, the old man is in a hospital and wants to see his offspring one last time. So Alma reluctantly boards a plane bound for her birthplace.

Her first glimpse of “home” is not encouraging. The airport is sterile and all but abandoned. The restaurants don’t have half the items listed on the menu. The cars are held together with baling wire and the crumbling high-rise apartment buildings are like something left over from the Soviet era.

The people, as embodied by her cousin Emir (Ernad Prnjavorac), aren’t much better. Emir is a surly oaf whose livelihood may be linked to petty crime; in any case he resents this familial obligation and goes out of his way not to be helpful.

At least his running buddy Denis (Lazar Dragoevic) is willing to pay attention to the visitor, though he clearly expects to be rewarded with easy sex. And he does have a certain moronic charm.

Basically “Take Me Somewhere Nice” is a road trip as Alma makes her way to the provincial burg where her dad lies dying. She starts out solo — Emir cannot be bothered — but is left stranded and without her luggage when the bus departs from a rest stop without her.

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“THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS” My rating: B

85 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With a title like “The Killing of Two Lovers” you pretty much expect the film to end in ugliness.

And our first glimpse of writer/director Robert Machoian’s fourth feature doesn’t do anything to allay those fears. In the opening scene a man holding a pistol surreptitiously enters a house and stands menacingly at the foot of the bed where a couple lie sleeping.

The intruder is David (Clayne Crawford), and we soon learn that this is his house. Or was. Currently David is residing just down the road in the home of his aged father.

The sleeping woman is his wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi); her bedmate is her new lover Derek (Chris Coy).

This setup reeks of melodramatic possibilities, but instead of the revenge tragedy we expect Machoian delivers an insightful character study, both of a man and of a failed marriage.

Bearded and somewhat unkempt, David works as a handyman in the small, snow-swept Utah town he has always called home. He’s a working stiff with just a basic education; he once harbored dreams of guitar-picking stardom, but those are long gone.

He’s slowly sinking into depression and something like rage. He and Nikki are in a trial separation — they’ve agreed that each can see other people. David — who has eyes for no-one but Nikki — maintains they might still repair the marriage.

His wife — a college grad with professional aspirations — harbors no such illusions. It’s pretty clear she’s outgrown him.

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Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Bront Palarae

“EDGE OF THE WORLD” My rating: C- (VOD)

104 minutes | No MPAA rating

There’s undoubtedly a great film to be made of the life of Sir James Brooke, the Englishman who in the early 19th century schemed and fought his way into ruling a good chunk of the island nation of Borneo.

Alas, “Edge of the World” isn’t that movie.

Written by Rob Allyn, directed by Michael Haussman and starring a horrendously miscast Jonathan Rhys Meyers, this movie doesn’t succeed even as coherent storytelling.

Brooke was the real-life inspiration for Conrad’s characters from Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness (see also John Milius’ 1989 “Farewell to the King” and Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”), an adventurer out of sorts with traditional Victorian society who went rogue and carved a place for himself on the edge of civilization.

What sort of personality would it take to maneuver his way into such a position of power, to juggle and exploit the antagonisms among local political/tribal factions and to combat attempts to unseat him?

Keep asking. This movie offers little insight. Rhys Meyers’ charisma-free performance suggests a man with a 24/7 migraine and dyspepsia. But as to his moral compass, his motivations, his innermost feelings — we’re out of luck. The film is heavy on Brooke’s voiceover narration, but he doesn’t actually say much.

Dominic Monaghan is unmemorable as Brooke’s right-hand man, while Josie Ho plays the colorless local girl who becomes the white rajah’s bride. About the only fun performance here comes from Bront Palarae as Brooke’s scheming, amoral rival, a local prince who thinks nothing of casually lopping off the noggin of any poor peasant who gets in his way.

Director Haussman comes to features after a career in music videos. It shows. The film often looks good, but the means of presenting an effective long-form narrative elude him.

| Robert W. Butler

Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds, Emily Blunt

“A QUIET PLACE PART II” My rating: B

97 minute | MPAA rating: PG-13

With only two directing credits under his belt, actor-turned-filmmaker John Krasinski has proven himself one of the brightest up-and-comers in cinema.

“A Quiet Place” and its just-released sequel, “A Quiet Place Part II” remind a bit of the Spielbergian splash made by “Jaws” more than four decades ago. Like that seagoing classic, Krasinski’s “monster” movies exhibit a Hitchcockian sense for building suspense.

They have their own look and — perhaps even more important for a franchise about eyeless aliens who use their ears to track human prey — their own sound.

And they effectively mine notions of family and parenthood, with a tiny clan battling indescribable horrors to survive.

“A Quiet Place Part II” is a generally enjoyable thrill ride, peppered with gotcha shock moments and performances that far exceed what we’ve come to expect from the horror genre.

Yet despite the many upsides of this sequel, I found myself a bit let down. Not by the execution, but by the sameness. Krasinski sticks with ideas he introduced in the first film, but I never felt he was advancing them so much as recycling them.

You’ll recall that Krasinki’s character Lee Abbott, died in the first film, sacrificing himself to save his children. The new film (the screenplay is credited to Krasinksi, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) opens with a hugely effective flashback to the aliens’ arrival in the Abbott’s small upstate New York town. It’s got an impressive “War of the Worlds” vibe — and gives us our Krasinski fix before he vanishes from the screen for good.

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Toni Collette

“DREAM HORSE” My rating: B-

113 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The unlikely story of the prize-winning race horse Dream Alliance — bred and raised communally by the residents of a Welsh village — has already been the subject of the sublime 2016 documentary “Dark Horse.”

The new fictionalized version of his life, “Dream Horse,” isn’t nearly as good as the doc; still, it’s a solid example of feel-good cinema.

Dream Alliance was owned by a “syndicate” of two dozen store clerks, CPAs, retirees and other common folk in the tiny mining community of Cefn Fforest. Each chipped in 10 pounds a month for the animal’s care and training, and in 2009 the horse overcame what should have been a life-ending injury to win the Welsh National.

It’s like the very definition of feel-good.

The omnipresent Toni Collette stars as Jan Vokes, who toils as a grocery clerk during the day and a bar maid at night. While pushing pints one evening she overhears a barstool conversation featuring Howard Davies (Damien Lewis), an accountant who once was part of a consortium that owned a race horse.

Long an animal lover, Jan wonders what it would take to own her own race horse. She sucks the equally horse-crazed Howard into her scheme; his number crunching suggests that if enough locals chip in a few pounds every month they can afford to buy a mare, cover the fees to have her bred with a horse of quality, and raise their offspring in Jan’s back yard.

It’s the equine version of hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show.

What nobody expects is that after being farmed out to a professional trainer (Nicholas Farrell) their pony will actually start winning, much to the amazement of racing-world pundits who maintain the sport is only for London millionaires in Saville Road suits, certainly not for local yokels in worn tweed and muddy Wellingtons.

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Angelina Jolie, Finn Little

THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD” My rating: B- (HBO Max)

80 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Insubstantial but nevertheless satisfying, Taylor Sheridan’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead” reacquaints us with Angelina Jolie in action heroine mode.

At age 45 Jolie has more gravitas than in her Lara Croft/”Salt”/”Mr. and Mrs. Smith” heyday. So while she might not retain all the physicality of those earlier incarnations, she compensates for it with an inner strength that transcends the overworked action tropes.

Here she plays Hannah, a professional firefighter working Montana’s deep woods. Drinking and carousing with her rugged peeps she’s the good ol’ tough gal. Inside, though, she’s struggling with the emotional fallout of a fatal conflagration…the ghastly incident hinged on an unpredictable change in wind direction, but Hannah blames herself.

Which is why for the current fire season she’s been assigned to a lookout tower situated on such a remote ridge that it can only be reached on foot. (I dunno…maybe they used helicopters to bring in all those girders.) This assignment is meant to keep her safe — physically and mentally — until she can return to normal duty.

Be assured that the screenplay (by Sheridan, Michael Koryta and Charles Leavitt) doesn’t allow her much rest.

Across the country in Florida, a forensic accountant (Jake Weber) realizes that his poking around in a vast government conspiracy has put his life — and that of his young son Connor (Finn Little) — in jeopardy. A couple of shadowy black op types (Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult) are eliminating prosecutors — and their families — pursuing a massive corruption case.

Now they’re after the numbers cruncher.

The chase leads them to Big Sky Country, where the father and son once vacationed at a survival camp run by a local lawman (Jon Berthal) and his wife (Medina Senghore). Their plan is to disappear into the wilds with the help of these knowledgable backwoodsmen.

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Anson Mount

“THE VIRTUOSO” My rating: B- (In theaters)

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The hit man movie occupies a curious corner of the noir world. Invariably these efforts center on a ruthlessly efficient killer who finds himself emotionally involved with a target, experiencing twinges of guilt or generally questioning his choice of professions.

 Nick Stagliano’s “The Virtuoso” works a couple of intriguing variations on the usual setup.

The first and most interesting is voiceover narration that dispassionately describes the daily workings of a professional killer. This narration is provided by leading man Anson Mount, and compensates for the fact that on screen his character says almost nothing. So it’s kind of neat that we get to hear his thoughts as he goes about his deadly business.

“You’re a professional devoted to timing and precision. A virtuoso,” our antihero (identified only as the Virtuoso) offers.

Truth is, the Virtuoso appears to be a mystery even to himself. He lives in an isolated cabin. He seems to have no friends or acquaintances apart from the Mentor (Anthony Hopkins), who farms out contracts to our man and other pro killers. He doesn’t even have a pet, although from time to time he sets out a bowl of kibble for the feral dog that lives among the trees.

Early on the Virtuoso executes a murder, but there is collateral damage in the person of an innocent bystander. Apparently for the first time he feels remorse for killing…indeed, he is so unnerved by the experience that the Mentor — who normally communicates only by phone — shows up in person to check on his charge’s emotional state and to give a long graveyard monologue about how he and the Virtuoso’s father served together on an assassination squad in Vietnam. (This is about as much background as we’ll get on our leading character.)

Anthony Hopkins

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Tiffany Haddish, Billy Crystal

“HERE TODAY” My rating: C+ (In theaters)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Billy Crystal’s sincere but ultimately unfulfilling dramedy “Here Today” is a queasy blend of vintage Crystal wise-cracking and dour navel gazing.

That it works as well as it does is largely due to the pairing of the veteran funnyman with Tiffany Haddish. Turns out that in real life they are besties, so the affection that radiates from their screen relationship is the real deal.

Comedy writer Charlie Berns (Crystal) is a legend in the business and though in his late 60s holds down a gig on the staff of a hit sketch TV show wildly popular with millenials. He’s a mentor to the younger writers, serving as a sort of conscience when the kids push things too far and punching up flat sketches with a new line here and a tweak there.

Thing is, Charlie has been diagnosed with dementia. He gets along by following the same daily routine, but increasingly he’s living in the past with memories of his late beloved wife (portrayed as a young woman by Louisa Krause).

Charlie has a grown son (Penn Badgley) and daughter (Laura Benanti) and especially a beloved granddaughter, but he hasn’t shared his diagnosis with them. During his busy prime Charlie was pretty much an absentee father, and resentments still simmer.

His co-workers on the comedy show are equally in the dark.

Enter Emma (Haddish), a jazz singer whose former boyfriend played the winning bid at a charity auction for a lunch with the great Charlie Berns. Emma is too young to know anything about Charlie or his work, but using the lunch ticket is a good way to get revenge on he ex.

Who knew the two would so quickly hit it off?

In its early going, at least, “Here Today” benefits from blasts of Crystal humor. Charlie may be slipping away, but he’s alert and aware much of the time, and still displays impeccable comic skills.

Slowly, though, his forgetfulness and anxiety begin to percolate through his daily existence. And with his children at arm’s length, it falls to his new best bud Emma to become his new caregiver. She doesn’t think twice about jumping into the fight.

Crystal not only writes, directs and stars in the film, he has packed it with celebs portraying themselves (Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline, Barry Levinson). Anna Deavere Smith portrays his neurologist.

And it’s not bad.

But no early kidding around can disguise the fact that “Here Today” will soon mutate into “Gone Tomorrow.” It’s a downer, a constant balancing act between silliness and tears. It only works part of the time.

| Robert W. Butler


Jodie Turner-Smith, Michael B. Jordan

“TOM CLANCY’S WITHOUT REMORSE” My rating: C (Amazon Prime)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Critical reaction to Netflix’s “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” has pretty much centered on the fact that leading man Michael B. Jordan is WAY too talented to be wasted on this sort of superficial action drek.

I cannot argue with that analysis — putting Jordan in this “John Wick”-ish clone is like using a thermonuclear device to get rid of a wasp nest hanging from your eaves.

Yet even mediocre movies can be significant within a larger social context, and “Without Remorse” (a cheesy, generic title) feels like the right film at the right time in our intensifying national discussion about race.

Not that the film overtly addresses race. Outwardly, anyway, it’s color blind. But it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to find other stuff going on.

Clancy’s 1993 novel introduced readers to John Kelly, a Navy Seal who in 1970 is sent on a Rambo-is mission to recover an American intelligence officer from a North Vietnamese POW camp. He uncovers a high-level government plot to smuggle heroin into the US in the bodies of slain soldiers and instigates a murderous cleanup spree.

Eventually he’s recruited by the CIA, changes his hame to John Clark, and goes on to recurring appearances in a slew of Ryanverse novels.

Presumably the John Clark of the novels is white. Indeed, during the many years that the film version was in preproduction limbo, white actors like Keanu Reeves and Tom Hardy were considered for the role.

The ultimate choice of a black actor probably had less to do with ulterior motives on the part of the filmmakers than on Jordan’s widespread popularity. He is a draw for audiences of all colors.

Watching the film — which has shed its Vietnam-era trappings and takes place in the present; about all it has in common with the novel is the title — one is struck by its seeming color blindness. No mention is made of Kelly/Clark’s race. He’s an elite fighter, a devoted husband and soon-to-be father. But race doesn’t figure into it.

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“THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS” My rating: A-

84 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Notwithstanding its title, “The Truffle Hunters” imparts relatively little information about the actual process of hunting for those priceless subterranean fungi so beloved of cultured palates.

Turns out that the crusty old men of the Piedmont would prefer not to give away their truffle-hunting secrets in front of the camera. This explains why directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw rely heavily on extreme long shots of a tiny human figures — and their faithful dogs — rustling through the thick greenery of Italian hillsides.

But if the nuts and bolts of truffle hunting remain mysterious, “The Truffle Hunters” succeeds magnificently in capturing the rhythms of lives spent in the forests, the attitudes and outlooks of old men whose deepest relationships appear to be with the canines on whose sharp noses they rely.

With no narration, graphics or explanation this doc plops us down in the truffle hunters’ world. We see them at home (many of these colorful codgers seem to live as hermits in a largely technology-free setting). We watch them interact with their beloved pets (the pooches have personalities to rival those of their masters).

One fellow passes the time by bashing away on a full drum kit on his porch.

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Glenn Close, Mila Kunis

“FOUR GOOD DAYS” My rating: B+

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Any more it takes something special for a drug addiction drama to ring my bell. A pall of been-there-done-that hovers over the entire genre.

“Four Good Days” has a premise I’ve never seen before. Plus it’s a prime example of mano-a-mano acting from the fierce duo of Glenn Close (whom we’ve come to expect for this sort of thing) and Mila Kunis (whom we haven’t).

And it’s the latest from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia, a genius of cinematic humanism who gets my vote as creator of the best films nobody has seen (“Nine Lives,” “Mother and Child”).

Suburban housewife Deb (Glenn Close) is angry and distressed to find her thirtysomethibng daughter Molly (Mila Kunis) on her doorstep.

Molly is a junkie. Her trips to rehab number in the double digits. On previous visits Molly has burgled Deb and her husband Chris (Stephen Root) to buy drugs. She just can’t stay sober.

Deb refuses to open the door. She’s been burned too many times. She still loves her daughter, but experience has taught her to steer clear if she values her sanity.

Trouble is, next morning Molly is still perched on the stoop. Moreover, she claims to be in line for a medication that neutralizes the effects of narcotics. With no high, what would be the point of shooting up?

But there’s a catch. The wonder drug reacts violently — possibly fatally — to any narcotics in the user’s body.

Which means that after spending three days in rehab to qualify for the program, Molly must remain clean for the next four days before getting her first dose.

Can she do it?

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Anna Kendrick

“STOWAWAY” My rating: B- (Netflix)

116 minutes | No MPAA rating

The sci-fi entry “Stowaway” has been so well mounted and incisively acted that it almost convinces itself — and us — that it has something important on its mind.

It’s not until it’s all over that you recognize plot holes big enough to drive a Death Star through.

Director Joe Penna’s space opera centers on a head-scratchingly unlikely occurrence.  In the near future, a three-astronaut flight to Mars is jeopardized with the discovery of a fourth person on board.  This interstellar hitchhiker so stresses the vessel’s life-support system that everyone’s survival is in doubt.

Which raises the uncomfortable question:  Who should die so that at least one or two of the travelers can complete their mission to the Red Planet?

Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison root their film in a workaday reality.  

The three astronauts (they’re portrayed by Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette and Daniel Dae Kim) exhibit the sort of competent blandness one expects of today’s space explorers (they’re considerably more professional than the wild-man test-pilot types of the early Mercury missions). 

Their ship’s interior feels uncomfortably like a utility tunnel lined with haphazardly with electronic equipment. No stylish futurism here.

And while the astronauts often communicate with their support staff on Earth, we only hear the spacemen’s side of the conversation…they’re wearing headsets and we’re not privy to what the guys back home are saying.

This makes for a slowly building sense of isolation and claustrophobia.

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Ed Helms, Patti Harrison

“TOGETHER TOGETHER” My rating: B

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Given its premise — middle-aged bachelor hires young woman to carry his child — and the presence of funnyman Ed Helms, one might expect “Together Together” to hit the usual rom-com cliches.

Nope.

Writer/director Nicole Beckwith’s sophomore effort (her debut was the little-seen Saoirse Ronan thriller “Stockholm, Pennsylvania”) delivers a delicate character study more interested in human truths than easy laughs.

The resulting film is a low-keyed affair that worms its way into th head and heart.

Matt (Helms) is an app developer who advertises for a woman to carry his child. He settles on Anna (Patti Harrison), who as a teen gave birth to an illegitimate baby and put it up for adoption. She’s level-headed and apparently neurosis-free…she sees this as a business deal with little need for sentiment or emotional fireworks.

Moreover, she’s merely the vessel. She’ll be implanted with another woman’s egg fertilized by Matt’s sperm in the lab.  It’s about as impersonal as pregnancy  gets.

For Matt, though, it’s  totally personal.  His romantic relationships have all failed, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t love to share. He desperately wants to be a parent.

Which makes for some mildly comic moments as he tries to dictate Anna’s eating habits and lifestyle choices.  He insists on accompanying her to the OB-GYN and doing all the things expected of expectant fathers — even when Anna just wants to be left alone to gestate.

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Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin

“CONCRETE COWBOY” My rating: B (Netflix)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Inner city kid facing an uncertain future is saved by a program that mixes tough love with animal husbandry.

Uh…haven’t we seen this movie about a hundred times already?

Well, yes and no.

The basic plot of “Concrete Cowboy” offers little in the way of surprises. It’s very familiar territory.

The presentational style, though, is fresh and gritty and hugely effective. It’s more Chloe Zhao art film than movie-of-the-week melodrama.

Troubled Detroit teen Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is sullen and angry. He’s being expelled from school for fighting.

So his desperate mother throws his shit into a black plastic trash bag, drags the kid into her car, and overnight drives him the 600 miles to Philadelphia, where she unceremoniously dumps the boy on his father’s doorstep. She’s going to let her ex deal with the young punk over the summer.

“Dad” is Harp (Idris Elba), who lives in a mostly-black neighborhood on the city’s northern edge.  At first glance there’s nothing special about the block of decaying row houses on which Harp lives…until you realize that one old commercial buiilding has been converted into a stable.

Harp and his neighbors are horse junkies. It’s not like they’re an official club or anything…the so-called Fletcher Street Riders (they’re a real thing) just love horses and spend whatever spare money they’ve got to feed, groom and outfit the big animals.  Any cash left over is devoted to communal bonfires replete with weed and whisky. (They’re kind of like benign black bikers with horsies instead of Harleys.)

The screenplay by Dan Walser and director Ricky Staub follows Cole’s gradual assimilation into this clan of urban equestrians…not that it’s an easy transition.

For one thing, he and the old man do not get along. The kid ends up sleeping in the stables, sharing a stall with a horse so mean it seems destined for the glue factory.  And, yes, the angry animal bonds with the angry teen.

Meanwhile there’s his dangerous friendship with Smush (Jharrel Jerone), who sucks Cole into an ill-advised plan to sell drugs.

Elba is top billed here, and he brings a smoldering intensity and quiet dignity to Harp. Especially fine is a monologue in which he explains to his estranged son why he named him Cole (he’s a John Coltrane fan).

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Andrea Riseborough, Dane Dehaan

“ZeroZeroZero” My rating: B (Netflix)

Streaming services are awash with crime dramas, so it takes something new and different to grab my attention.

Netflix’s 8-hour miniseries “ZeroZeroZero” did just that. 

Filmed in Mexico, the U.S., Africa and Italy — not to mention on the high seas — this sprawling crime epic has the big feel and complexities reminiscent of author Don Winslow’s “Cartel” trilogy. We’re talking compelling (if often repugnant) characters, international sweep and a suspension of the usual moral niceties.

Not to mention some hair-raising action sequences.

Created by Leonardo Fasoli, Mauricio Katz and Stefano Sollima, the series follows a shipment of illegal drugs from Mexico, across the Atlantic, through North Africa and on to Calabria in the “boot” of Italy where crime families have been feuding and murdering for generations.

The instigator here is Don Minu (Adriano Chiaramida), a bearded patriarch who looks to be on his last legs but is in fact as ruthless and tough-minded as a thug half his age.  Don Minu places an order for a multi-million-dollar shipment of drugs…a stash so huge that it will change the power equation among Italy’s regional criminal syndicates.

The middleman is Edward Lynwood (Gabriel Byrne), a resident of New Orleans who puts together complex plans executed by his cooly efficient daughter Emma (Andrea Riseborough, giving Tilda Swinton some fierce competition in the weird androgyny department).  

Edward also has a son, Chris (Dane DeHaan), who has been kept out of the family business; the young man has inherited the genetic disorder that killed his mother and likely will never reach age 35.

Nevertheless, Chris will find himself accompanying his sister and the drug shipment (hidden in cans of vegetables) on their long journey. A newcomer to the world of crime, Chris is our guide (we learn as he does); moreover, he views this dangerous enterprise as a great adventure.  I mean, he’s going to die anyway in a few years, so what the hell?

Much of the effectiveness of “ZeroZeroZero” comes from the fact that the three directors (Janus Metz of Denmark, Pablo Trapero of Argentina and Stefano Sollima of Italy) bring a true international feel to the proceedings, with episodes set in different countries finding their own visual and narrative styles.

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Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges

“FRENCH EXIT” My rating: C

110 minutes | MPAA rating:n R

Curiosity. Perplexity. Frustration.

That’s the emotional journey provided by “French Exit,” a bizarre black comedy (at least I think it’s supposed to be a black comedy) that left me dissatisfied despite the presence of big-time star Michelle Pfeiffer, up-and-comer Lucas Hedges, and a strong supporting cast.

Frances Price (Pfeiffer) is a world-weary socialite who is quickly running out of money. Over the last decade she has burnt up the fortune left by her late husband (apparently a Bernie Madoff type whose financial dealings were, uh, questionable).

Now Frances and her spacey son Malcolm (Hedges) are staring down homelessness. Luckily, one of Frances’ rich friends (Susan Coyne) has an empty apartment in Paris. Why don’t the mother and son relocate the the City of Light and start anew?

Director Azazel Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick DeWitt (adapting his own novel) want us to find the Prices quirky and charming and emotionally liberating.

Certainly all the other characters in the film are entranced by the pair. These include a nutty/needy American expatriate (Valerie Mahaffey), a “gypsy” cruise-ship fortune teller (Danielle Macdonald), a Parisian private eye (Isaach De Bankole) and Malcolm’s old girlfriend (Imogen Poots). And, oh yeah, Frances’ late husband (voiced by Tracy Letts) who has taken up residence in the family’s pet cat.

These diverse personalities end up sharing the apartment…it’s like a sleepover camp for the emotionally underdeveloped.

Here’s the bottom line: Pfeiffer’s Frances is spoiled, self-centered, bitter and grumpy — and not in the laugh-out-loud manner of Catherine O’Hara in “Schitt’s Creek.” Her self pity is not attractive.

Hedges, meanwhile, plays a young man who has rarely left his mother’s side and behaves as if he’s on the spectrum.

The title, by the way, refers not only to the pair’s retreat to Paris but also, one suspects, to Frances’ plan to kill herself when the last Euro is spent. Be thankful the movie ends before it gets to that point.

| Robert W. Butler

Naomi Watts

“PENGUIN BLOOM”  My rating: B (Netflix)

95 minutes | No MPAA rating

Movies in which a human is befriended by a wild animal are often satisfying…and just as often ethically iffy.

Handled improperly these yarns  so anthropomorphize the animal that viewer end up ascribing human emotion and intellect to a creature that, let’s face it, functions largely on instinct and appetite.

The Aussie “Penguin Bloom” avoids just about all the pitfalls of the genre.

For starters, it’s based on a true story (yeah…this is one of those movies where the closing credits play out over photos of the real-life people on which the film characters are based).

For another, it’s been extremely well acted.

And finally, the filmmakers —  director Glendyn Ivin and screenwriters Shaun Grant and Harry Cripps — never go for a big gesture when a little one will do. Sometimes less IS more.

We meet housewife and mother Samantha Bloom (Naomi Watts, also the film’s producer) in the aftermath of an accident that has left her paralyzed from the chest down. She’s pretty much confined to her bed and a wheelchair. Her days of riding herd on her three rambunctious sons apparently are a thing of the past. Best not to even think about her love of surfing.

The good news is that husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) has assumed most of the parental chores. His work as a freelance photographer gives him plenty of time around the house, and he’s clearly devoted to Sam.

Not that it registers. Sam is sinking ever deeper into a crippling depression; she knows she would devote more time to the kids and her own recovery, but seems mired in her own personal misery.

And then one of the boys brings home a young magpie injured in a fall from its nest.  He immediately dubs the bird Penguin (because of its black and white coloration) and creates a home for the newcomer in a wicker basket.

Sam and Cameron assume the creature will soon die; at best it will recover and take off.

Nope. Penguin shows every sign of taking up permanent residence, racing around the house (it cannot yet fly) and getting positively possessive about the small sock monkey one of the boys places in her nest. Continue Reading »

The cast of “Call My Agent!”

“CALL MY AGENT!” My rating: B  (Netflix)

“Call My Agent!” unfolds in a Paris agency representing the cream of French film and television talent.

The gimmick of this French comedy series is that every episode features a guest star, a real-life legend — we’re talking Juliette Binoche, Christopher Lambert, Sigourney Weaver, Jean Dujarden, Isabelle Huppert, Jean Reno —  playing spoiled, temperamental, insecure, misbehaving versions of themselves.

But the real subject of Fanny Herrero’s 24-episode (over four seasons) creation is lying.

The ever-scrambling agents who populate the ASK offices are forever lying to their clients, to their loved ones and to each other.  It’s a requirement of the job, rarely done in malice, and often to protect the fragile feelings of the pampered stars to whom they owe their livings.

But be assured that no lie — no matter how creative or outrageous — remains unexposed for long.

Here’s the thing: despite their problematic relationship with the truth, the characters here quickly win us over.  Herrero and her co-creators have given us personalities that we quickly glom onto. They’re witty and driven and creative, and it’s a thrill to be around them.

Moreover, the series does a terrific job of exploring these different personalities over four seasons. Characters who at first seem mere background figures will at some point emerge as the center of their own episodes and story arcs.

There are too many interesting figures here to explore them all, but here’s a thumbnail analysis of the most important:

Andrea Martel (played by Camille Cottin):  This cutthroat agent and predatory lesbian has to re-evalute her existence when she finds herself pregnant after an impetuous three-way.

Mathias Barneville (Thibault de Montalembert): The head of ASK is sauve and cultured.  Except that in the first episode he gets an unexpected complication — the arrival of Camille (Fanny Sidney), the twenty-something lovechild of his long-ago extramarital affair.  He gives his daughter a job (she’s the most principled person on site) but struggles to keep his wife ignorant of his infidelity.

Ariette Azemar (Liliane Rovere):  The grande dame of the outfit, who’s seen and heard just about everything.  She’s constantly accompanied by her lapdog Jean Gabin (and if you appreciate that bit of name dropping, you’ll love just about everything about this series). Continue Reading »

Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Brosnahan

“THE COURIER” My rating: B- (In theaters March 19)

111 minutes: MPAA rating: PG-13

Like its title, “The Courier” is an unprepossessing Cold War thriller that, despite an OK turn from leading man Benedict Cumberbatch and a based-on-fact birthright, never works up a full head of steam.

In the early 1960s British businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) was recruited by his country’s spymasters. An independent salesman who represented dozens of Western manufacturers, Wynne was encouraged by the M-16 spooks to expand his operation to the growing Soviet market.

Mostly he was to carry on business as usual. But from time to time he would be asked to bring pilfered Soviet secrets back to London.

Initially Wynne rejects the idea.  He’s not a spy, after all.

Noting Wynne’s unremarkable military record and his gone-to-flab physique, his handler reassures him: “If this mission were really dangerous you’re the last man we’d send.”

Wynn’s contact in Moscow is Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a WWII hero now working for the KGB, though his “official” title is that of trade specialist.  Penkovsky is the film’s most interesting character, a guy so traumatized by Krushchev’s podium pounding and the growing Cuban Missile Crisis that he’s willing to turn his country’s secrets over to the West in the hope of avoiding all-out nuclear war.

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Anthony Hopkins

“THE FATHER” My rating: B (In theaters)

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Films about Alzheimer’s usually assume an outsider’s point of view, that of a family member or caregiver who must watch in dismay as a loved one goes through the downward spiral of forgetfulness, cognitive dissolution and physical and mental incapacity.

Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” on the other hand, attempts nothing less than to recreate  encroaching dementia as it is experienced by the patient. It’s an insider’s approach.

The film is less a conventional narrative than a series of disorienting scenes that force the audience — like the film’s title character — to ask what is real and what a delusion.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton from Zeller’s stage play, “The Father” relies on a narrative gimmick, yet Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-nominated lead performance is so compelling — by turns infuriating, puzzling and pathetic — that it bouys the entire production.

Things start out more or less conventionally.  Anne (Olivia Colman, also an Oscar nominee) has come to the spacious London flat of her father Anthony (Hopkins) to discuss his living situation.  The old man has chased off his third visiting nurse, accusing her of theft; Anne (a divorcee) is distraught  as this screws up her plans to move to Paris with her new boyfriend. Who’s going to be there for Dad?

Anthony wants nothing to do with caregivers. He swears by self-sufficiency and resents the intrusion of strangers into his neatly circumscribed world.

Listening to him you want to agree. Anthony is eloquent and even witty (albeit often scathingly critical, his jabs at poor Anne suggest not just indifference but overt cruelty); physically he seems perfectly okay. Yeah, he’s self-centered and often hears only what he wants to hear.  You can say the same about lots of  younger people.

Anthony can be a charmer. Look at the show he puts on for Laura (Imogen Poots), a young woman being interviewed by Anne as a replacement for the latest nurse to bail.  For this attractive visitor Anthony is bright-eyed and amusing, claiming to have been a professional tap dancer (he was an engineer) and even doing a soft-shoe across the living room rug.

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Jessica Barr

“SOPHIE JONES” My rating: B+ (In select theaters and on VOD)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

Asked how she’s dealing with the recent death of her mother, 16-year-old Sophie Jones has a canned response.

“I haven’t been cutting myself,” she reports matter-of-factly. “Or drinking. Or taking drugs.”

Which doesn’t mean that she’s dealing well with the trauma.

Sophie has met a devastating family tragedy with ironic detachment. Rather than weeping or moping she she embraces snarky humor and a mockingly defiant attitude. Hanging out with the other theater kids at school, she appears unchanged and unruffled.

Yes, she has embarked on a course of sexual experimentation, though she retains her virginity. “We’re only dry humping,” she assures her best friend.

“Sophie Jones” is a study of grief, but its approach is so tangential and minimalist that the film is almost totally lacking in big dramatic moments. This, interestingly enough,  is its great strength.

We learn about Sophie and her interior world through the accumulation of small details over many months; our girl almost never talks about her feelings, but her actions speak volumes.

This is the first feature from director Jessie Barr (she penned the screenplay with her cousin Jessica Barr, who plays Sophie), and  with its quiet wisdom and backhanded narrative approach the movie is a revelation. We’re told that the film was inspired by the Barrs’ own family tragedy…maybe that’s why it all feels so authentic.

There’s no plot to speak of, just a series of episodes as Sophie makes her way toward graduation and college.  But there are moments here so beautiful (and shocking) that the viewer is pulled up short.

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Hadley Robinson

“MOXIE” My rating: B+ (Netflix)

Running time: 111minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The highest praise I can bestow on “Moxie” is that for two hours it made me once again feel like a teenager…and left me with a much-needed sense of optimism.

Just about everything works in Amy Poehler’s film, adapted from the YA novel by Jennifer Mathieu.  (Full disclosure: Jennifer interned in The Star‘s A&E Department some 20 years ago when I was the editor).  It’s a high school movie with heart, soul and attitude.

We’re talking happy tears.

Our heroine is Vivian (Hadley Robinson, terrific in a non-glam girl-next-door way), a bright quiet girl who is most comfortable when laying low.  But it turns out that everywhere Vivian looks she sees injustice.

Her school is pretty much run by the football team, a pack of entitled meatheads led by the smugly swaggering and creepily predatory Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger…Arnold’s kid).

The jocks annually issue a sexist ranking of their fellow students. One girl is declared “most bangable.” Another has the “best bootie.”  Vivian is humiliated to find herself designated “most obedient.”

What’s really irritating is that the footballers are the constant object of adoration despite a mediocre record; meanwhile the girls’ soccer squad — perennial contenders for the state championship — have to make do with last year’s grass-stained jerseys.

Taking some inspiration from her single mom Lisa (Poehler), whose own teen years were devoted to Bikini Kill-inspired rebellion, Vivian writes and designs her own feminist “zine,” a Xeroxed howl of indignation entitled Moxie!.

She pays to have 50 copies printed and secretly deposits them in the girls’ restrooms. And suddenly the school is abuzz with  female umbrage  and a growing mystery.

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Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen

“PALMER”  My rating: B (Apple +)

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

An paroled con returns to his Louisiana hometown and becomes the best friend and protector of a 10-year-old trans kid.

That’s the plot of “Palmer,” a film that pretty much delivers exactly what you expect.  Once it sets up its  premise the screenplay (by Cheryl Guerriero) really hasn’t any surprises up its sleeve.  It proceeds along the anticipated lines.

But if “Palmer” carries a high degree of predictability, that in no way limits its pleasures.  As directed by Fisher Stevens and performed by a first-rate cast the film is low-keyed, sincere, humanistic and occasionally shockingly tough.

One-time local football hero Palmer (Justin Timberlake) has spent a decade in stir for a beating up a man during a home burglary.  Despite the violence of his crime, he’s now something of a gentle soul — though he still likes the occasional bender.

Anyway, he moves in with the grandma (June Squibb) who reared him, eventually finds a job as a grade school custodian, and little by little is drawn into the life of Sam (Ryder Allen), a kid living in a doublewide adjacent to Granny’s place.

Sam has a drug-addled floozie Mama (Juno Temple).  He’s also obsessed with fairy princesses, wears a beret in his  hair, favors  shorts and cowboy boots and views the world through bottle-bottom spectacles.

The kid, Palmer announces, is weird. Doesn’t he know he’s a boy?

When Sam’s mom vanishes on one of her month-long benders, Sam washes up on Palmer’s doorstep. Reluctantly the parolee becomes the kids’ ex-officio guardian. A bond grows.

Like I said, predictable.

Nevertheless, the film succeeds. Timberlake delivers what may be his most nuanced and heartfelt work yet. Meanwhile young Allen seems to be simultaneously channeling Jonathan Lipnicki from “Jerry Maguire” and Abigail Breslin from “Little Miss Sunshine.”  The kid’s blend of unaffected innocence and preternatural braininess sticks with you.

While “Palmer” touches upon anti-trans prejudice, that really isn’t the film’s driving force.  This is a sort of love story between a needy boy and an equally needy man.

| Robert W. Butler

Robin Wright

“LAND” My rating: B- (Select theaters)

89 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Who hasn’t harbored a dream of retreating to a mountainside home far from the hassles, fears and frustrations of civilization?

Americans seem particularly prone to this Thoreau-esque  fantasy; undoubtedly it has something to do with our shared consciousness of pioneers coming to terms with the wilderness.

It’s all very romantic…until it isn’t.

“Land,” actress Robin Wright’s film directing debut, unfolds in a primitive cabin  where a city dweller, working through an unnamed grief, has taken up residence.

It’s a minimalist effort — very little dialogue, no plot to speak of — that attempts to compensate for its dramatic thinness with gorgeous outdoor cinematography (the d.p. is Bobby Bukowski). If it sometimes seems there’s actually less here than meets the eye…well, at least the eye candy is first class.

Early on we see Edee (Wright) consulting a psychologist and arguing with a woman (Kim Dickens) — her sister? — about her desperate need to get away.

Next thing you know she’s rented a car and a trailer, loaded up on foodstuffs and essentials, thrown away her cell phone and relocated to rural Wyoming.  Basically she’s bought a property — no electricity, no running water — about as far away from other humans as she can get.

To ensure her isolation she hires someone to return the rental car…that way she can’t bail at the first sign of trouble.

As Edee gets used to her new environment she is subjected to visions of a man and young boy (her late husband and son, we assume).  Occasionally, in the midst of breathtaking beauty, she breaks down in helpless tears.

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Foreground: Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Fred Hampton; background: LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal

“JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH”  My rating: B (HBO Max)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The title of “Judas and the Black Messiah” smacks of folklorish hyperbole, but then Shaka King’s film about the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton is positively overflowing with Biblical  allegory.

The Black Messiah, of course, is Hampton, a rising star in black activism who was targeted for elimination by the FBI and shot to death in his bed during a raid in Chicago in 1969. Hampton is here given the hagiographic treatment…after this you half expect the Catholic Church to start stamping out medallions with his likeness.

Whether Hampton was the sinless knight errant portrayed here is a matter for the historians to parse; what’s not in doubt is that Brit actor Daniel Kaluuya sells this interpretation with such conviction and certainty that — while you’re watching the movie, anyway — you absolutely buy into its premise that this guy could really have become the black messiah. Comparisons to Bobby Kennedy seem apt.

Of course, saints aren’t nearly as interesting as devils.  The Judas of this yarn is Bill O’Neal, a crook and con artist recruited by the feds to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Panthers, rise within its ranks, report on what he saw and eventually set up the circumstances under which Hampton would be murdered.

O’Neal is played by LaKeith Stanfield as a man of few or no moral convictions, a survive-at-any-cost scrambler blackmailed into informing and, once in place, perfectly willing to reap the perks of his position.  Does he feel guilt? Remorse?

Hard to say.  What’s obvious, though, is that Stanfield perfectly captures the desperation and creative scheming of a lowlife being squeezed from both directions.  The authorities will send him to prison if he fails to cooperate; his Panther colleagues would no doubt kill him if they knew of his betrayals.

In a weird way we find ourselves rooting for him to squirm his way through this minefield of treachery.

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Lars Mikkelsen

“HERRENS VEJE (RIDE UPON THE STORM” (Netflix)

Being a member of the  clergy is a 24/7 tightrope walking act. Worshipers  expect their holy leaders to be fully human without exhibiting the usual human screwups.

The family of priests in the Danish series “Herrrens Veje” (it translates as “The Lord’s Ways” but Netflix is calling it “Ride Upon the Storm”) have screwups galore.  But, boy, they are truly human. And then some.

Lars Mikkelsen (older brother of fellow actor Mads) stars in this two-season drama as Johannes, a ninth-generation vicar serving a congregation in Copenhagen.

Johannes is outwardly a man at peace with his life and work.  After all, he is fulfilling the important role assigned his family over several centuries, and he’s determined that his own sons carry on the tradition.

Inside though, Johannes carries the scars of his own strict and borderline abusive upbringing. As the series begins (it’s from the same folks who gave us the brilliant “Borgen” about Danish politics) he loses an election for bishop to a female priest, who embodies all the wishywashy qualities which, in his mind, have set the Church of Denmark on the road to obscurity.

Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Lars Mikkelsen

Johannes’ bitterness at this rejection drives him to alcohol abuse and an affair with a member of his staff…although the more we get to know him the more we’re convinced that his particular brand of toxic masculinity eventually would have taken him down those dark paths.

Yeah, this is a troublesome character.  But Mikkelsen brings so much charisma and inner fire to the proceedings that we understand why Johannes’ parishioners and his employees stick with him. At his best he’s a genuinely dynamic leader. (BTW: Mikkelsen won the 2018 International Emmy for his performance here.)

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Jamal Khashoggi, Hatice Cengiz

“THE DISSIDENT” My rating: B+ (Amazon Prime)

119 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

By now the world is pretty unanimous in its conviction that on Oct. 2, 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered while visiting his country’s embassy in Istanbul, Turkey.

Furthermore, it is widely accepted that the execution was carried out at the behest of Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who was furious at Khashoggi’s criticism of his regime in stories in The Washington Post and other news outlets.

Given all this, it’s doubtful that Bryan Fogel’s scathing documentary “The Dissident” is going to change many minds.  Most of us are already on board.

And yet here’s the thing:  This documentary is still capable of setting us back on our heels with gut-clutching revelations.

There is, for example, a transcript of the sound recording (uncovered by Turkish police) of Khashoggi’s real-time murder (he was strangled and suffocated in an embassy meeting room).  Earlier on the same tape a member of the hit squad imported from Saudi Arabia — a forensics expert — jokes that he’s never had to dismember a body on the floor before.  Even hunters, he notes, hang their prey upright for butchering.

And how about the revelation that in the days before the murder the embassy purchased 80 pounds of meat,  meat that investigators believe was barbecued to cover the smell of burning human flesh?

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At top:  Carey Mulligan, Archie Barnes; below: Ralph Fiennes

“THE DIG” My rating: B- (Netflix)

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“The Dig” may be little more than motion picture comfort food…but right now comfort food is what we want.

Though inspired by real events — the discovery in 1939 of the Sutton Hoo site, a 6th-century Anglo-Saxon boat and priceless burial artifacts found  in an English pasture — this Masterpiece-ish effort from director Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini gets most of its momentum from the  melodrama (much of it made up) surrounding the enterprise.

I mean, excavating ancient treasures one tiny trowel scoop at a time isn’t exactly scintillating cinema. Bring on the heavy breathing.

Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) is a self-taught “excavator” (he wouldn’t presume to call himself an archaeologist) whose nose for buried wonders has been proven on various sites around his native Suffolk.  He’s crusty and cranky — in large part because his efforts are undervalued by the hoity-toity academic types with whom he must often work. (This was an era when archaeologists wore neckties and tweed jackets to dig.)

Now he’s been invited to the estate of widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan); she has an ancient mound out in the north forty she’d like to excavate. Basil would actually get to be the boss of the dig.

Along the way the childless fellow will become a father figure to Edith’s young son Robert (Archie Barnes) and befriend Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn), who is brought in to help with some of the heavy lifting.  All this warm fuzzy stuff later will become important when it’s revealed that Edith has major health issues.

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Denzel Washington, Rami Malek

“THE LITTLE THINGS” My rating C (HBO Max on Jan. 29)

Running time:  127 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Were there an Oscar for frustrated expectations, John Lee Hancock’s agonizingly moody “The Little Things” would clearly take home a statuette.

I mean, the elements audiences expect from a police-hunt-a-serial-killer drama are not only denied us in this instance, but obfuscated in a haze of existential navel-gazing.

Good thing the film features three — count ’em, three — Oscar-wining actors. The star power provided by Denzel Washington, Rami Malik and Jared Leto keeps us watching long after that nagging voice kicks in wondering where this sucker is going.

Following a prelude in which a teenage girl is stalked along a highway by an apparently murderous stranger, the film cuts to a northern California burg where Joe “Deke” Deacon (Washington) serves as a uniformed deputy.  At the outset he’s sent by his boss down to Los Angeles to pick up some evidence needed for a case.

Deke is reluctant to make the trip. He was once a celebrated detective in the big city, but left five years ago after some sort of breakdown that ended his marriage and his career.  Apparently he went a little bonkers trying to solve the case of a killer preying on young prostitutes.

By some fantastic coincidence, he arrives in LA in the midst of a new murder spree apparently perpetrated by the same never-apprehended fiend. In charge of the case is Jim Baxter (Malek), a dedicated cop and family man who has hit nothing but dead ends.

Figuring the killer Jim is looking for is probably the same one that got away from him years earlier, Deke decides to take a little vacation time to unofficially poke around the investigation.

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Stanley Tucci, Colin Firth

“SUPERNOVA”  My rating: B+ (Opens Jan. 29 at the Barrywoods, Parkway, Studio and Town Center theaters)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Sam and Tusker (Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci) have been a couple for so long that they talk in shorthand.

Sam, a concert pianist now more-or-less retired, is the fussy, responsible one.

Tusker, a novelist, is a sarcastic wit with little use for propriety; he impishly ridicules his lover’s obsessions.

As Harry Macqueen’s film begins the two are cruising Britain’s back roads in an RV, accompanied by their flatulent dog.

They bicker about travel routes, about what to play on the radio, about Sam’s painfully slow driving. The mood is reasonably light.

Until, that is, they stop for groceries and Tusker wanders off with the pooch.  He manages to perambulate a mile or so down the road before a frantic Sam catches up and gently leads his bewildered best friend back into their ride.

It doesn’t take long for a viewer to grasp the dimensions of Sam and Tusker’s dilemma. Tusker is slipping into early onset dementia; they’re on a sort of farewell tour to visit Sam’s sister and brother-in-law (Pippa Haywood, Peter MacQueen) and other old acquaintances before Tusker’s lights go out altogether.

First, it should be noted that while Firth and Tucci are playing a gay couple, gayness has next to nothing to do with the overall setup.  There’s not a hint of societal disapproval here. no Celtic rednecks to look disapprovingly on the relationship. No stiff-necked family members.

No, these are just two people who have been essential parts of each other’s lives for years trying with varying degrees of of success to cope with a horrible situation.

Problem is, Tusker and Sam aren’t on the same page.

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Shia LaBeouf, Vanessa Kirby

“PIECES OF A WOMAN” My rating: B (Netflix)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Pieces of a Woman” announces itself with such an overwhelmingly dramatic and technologically challenging sequence that the rest of the film seems like an afterthought.

For nearly 30 minutes at the very beginning of Komel Mundruczo’s almost unbearable drama we are in the Montreal apartment of a young couple, Martha and Sean (Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf), as she undergoes childbirth.

The process is captured in one uninterrupted shot, from the first labor pains to the arrival of a midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), and on the the birth of the child.

It is so realistic, so perfectly acted, so audacious in its blend of naturalism and hyper-theatricality that one could end the movie right there and stagger out overwhelmed by the wonder and mystery of one human’s arrival in this world.

Thing is, there are still another 90 minutes to go, and while “Pieces of a Woman” features some impressive acting and soul-scorching angst, the rest of the film falls well short of matching the impact of that brilliant introduction.

There’s only so much one can reveal about the plot (the screenplay is by Kata Weber) without a major spoiler alert.

Let’s just say that the happy event does not long remain in that state, and that in its wake Martha and Sean’s marriage is shaken perhaps beyond repair.  Each party — he’s a construction worker, she occupies a corner office in a major firm — must deal with grief in their own way.

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Gal Gadot

“WONDER WOMAN 1984” My rating: C (HBO Max)

151 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Perhaps the most telling commentary on “Wonder Woman 1984” has come from a critic who observed that the only way to enjoy the movie is to imagine that it is actually a relic from 1984.

Yeah, that works.  Kinda.

Had we seen this movie back in the Reagan years we’d have been blown away by the special effects — WW’s sinuous glowing lasso, that suit of golden armor in which she confronts the bad guy at the end, the flying, etc.

Pedro Pascal

And we’d have forgiven its grievous dramatic shortcomings — the utter lack of psychological realism, the plot holes big enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier, the ever-meandering and overly complicated narrative — because 30 years ago superhero/comic book movies were, for the most part, pretty awful. We didn’t expect anything better.

(Although, the first Christopher Reeve “Superman” from 1978 remains imminently watchable…not for the eye candy but for its wit, its celebration of a cultural icon and the genuine affection it exudes for its hero and his world.)

Anyway, this latest from director Patty Jenkins is most noteworthy for its utter lack of style.  There’s no edge, no real humor aimed at anything that matters (we’re supposed to get off on Chris Pine’s wardrobe  of ghastly ’80s fashion).

Which comes as a surprise since 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” also helmed by Jenkins, oozed style and attitude.

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Clockwise from upper left: Steven Yeun, Youn Yuh-jung, Yeri Han, Noel Cho, Alan S. Kim

“MINARI” My rating: B (VOD)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like the young characters in “Minari,” writer/director Lee Isaac Chung grew up as the offspring of Korean immigrants in rural Arkansas in the 1980s.

Based on that knowledge it can be safely said that big chunks of this excellent family drama are autobiographical.

But even if we knew nothing about Chung’s background, “Minari” is a so crammed with moments of overwhelming specificity that you’d immediately identify it as having been pulled from real-life experience, particularly the experiences of a child now looking back with adult eyes.

Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) are a Korean couple who, after years on the West Coast, have relocated to rural Arkansas.

Jacob is tired of his job sexing chicks for a poultry producer (basically he spends all day staring at the nether regions of fluffy yellow creatures; the males are destroyed for being of no commercial value). He has uprooted Monica and their children David and Anne (Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho) and deposited them in a rather rundown doublewide trailer in the middle of a pasture.

Jacob is bent on realizing his American dream; to be precise, he wants to produce Korean vegetables for his many fellow countrymen now living in the USA and craving a taste of home.

Monica is dubious.  She’s not thrilled with their shabby  new digs. Jacob’s entrepreneurial quest strikes her as more selfish than practical. She frets that little David, who has a heart murmur (he’s always being told not to run, and always does, anyway) is an hour away from emergency medical care. These tensions will put no little strain on the marriage.

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Helena Zengel, Tom Hanks

“NEWS OF THE WORLD” My rating: B+ (Theaters Christmas Day)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Not merely a celebration of our mythic past, Westerns have usually been a way of looking ahead.

The frontier, settlements, Western expansion, laying rails, driving cattle, overcoming obstacles (be it the weather, Native Americans or outlaws)…these are elements of an inherently optimistic outlook, of a nation on the march.

“News of the World,” though, is that rarest of creatures, the melancholy Western.

While sporting many of the elements of classical oaters (especially John Ford’s “The Searchers”), Paul Greengrass’ effort  is more about loss than a triumphant taming of the wilderness. It is far more concerned with the ache of human suffering and a society in turmoil than in gunplay.

Tom Hanks stars as Jefferson Kidd, a former printer and Confederate officer now living off the back of a horse as he circulates among  Texas towns  to bring his fellow citizens the latest news of 1870.

He’s something of a showman, sporting a black frock coat and spectacles to pore over a stack of recent newspapers, delivering quietly dramatic reports of droughts and floods, plagues and politics.  He’s always on the lookout for human interest stories that connect his listeners to the larger world and its inhabitants (“These are men and women very much like you”). Think of him as a wandering town crier with humanistic tendencies.

It’s a solitary life, at least until he comes across a looted wagon and a hanged man.  Nearby Kidd discovers a white girl (Helena Zengel) — blonde hair, blue eyes, freckles — wearing a fringed buckskin dress.

She speaks no English: papers found nearby identify her as Johanna, who lost her family to a Kiowa war party six years earlier. The kidnapped girl was only recently liberated by soldiers who eradicated her adopted clan. (Orphaned twice, Kidd notes.) The hanged man, her government escort, was a Negro. A handwritten sign on his body announces that blacks are not welcome in the neighborhood.

The only decent thing to do, Kidd concludes, is to bring the girl to an Indian agent who can get her to an aunt and uncle living in south Texas. Of course, government ineptness and the tenor of the times — Indians are hated and feared by the general population — make this a difficult proposition. And so, for the time being, Kidd and the kid become traveling companions (the film was shot in New Mexico and is beautiful without romanticizing the environment).

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Carey Mulligan

“PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN” My rating: B+ (Theaters Christmas Day)

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A heady mashup of female revenge melodrama,  black comedy and ruthless personality study, “Promising Young Woman” will leave audiences laughing, wincing and infuriated.

Writer/director Emerald Fennell (also an actress, she plays Camilla Parker Bowles in the current season of Netflix’s “The Crown”) displays such a firm command of her medium that it’s hard to believe this is her first feature.

When we first see Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) she is slumped splayed legged on a leather bench in a noisy dance club. A twentysomeything guy (Adam Brody) accepts a dare from his  friends to rescue this drunken damsel from her vulnerable position.  He gives her a ride back to his house, pushes more drink on her, deposits her on his bed more or less unconscious, and proceeds to pull down her panties.

And then she sits up, totally sober, and asks him just what the hell he thinks he’s doing.

This, we learn, is Cassie’s M.O.  She pretends to be wasted, allows some jerk to get her in a compromising position, and then forces him to confront his own creepiness.

Funny how quickly a guy can turn from lust to panic.

Fennell’s screenplay carefully rations its revelations as it follows several narrative paths.

In one Cassandra continues her vengeful quest, choosing as her targets not only random predatory men (she has an apparently inexhaustible wardrobe of come-hither fashions, wigs and makeup) but also individuals who were involved in an sexual assault scandal dating back to her college years. Among those who run afoul of her fiendish (though not usually violent) machinations are a college dean (Connie Britton), an old classmate (Alison Brie) and a lawyer (an uncredited Alfred Molina) whose specialty is defending men charged with sex crimes.

Turns out our heroine is really good at dreaming up Fu Manchu-level sadism.  You gotta wonder if she’s a genuinely psycho.

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George Clooney, Caoilinn Springall

“THE MIDNIGHT SKY” My rating: B (Netflix)

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

End-of-the-world movies are invariably downers.

“The Midnight Sky” is “The Road” and “Melancholia”-level depressing.

So it’s a testament to the directing and acting chops of George Clooney that this long slow journey to extinction not only hooks us early but keeps us on the line as things just keep getting worse.

Clooney’s achievement is doubly impressive when you consider that “Midnight Sky” relies on a “Six Sense”-ish last-reel revelation that may leave some viewers feeling just a tad violated.

Mark L. Smith’s screenplay (adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight)  begins in 2049 with the evacuation of a polar observatory.  The 200 or so residents of this snowbound outpost are being helicoptered out because of “The Event,” an unexplained phenomenon that is spreading a cloud of death around the planet.

Just one man, the grizzled Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), will remain behind. He’ll have enough food and fuel to last for months, but probably won’t need them. He’s undergoing chemotherapy; what he’s got isn’t going away.

Augustine has a mission. He’s determined to contact a manned spacecraft returning from one of Jupiter’s moons.  Decades earlier the young Augustine (played in flashbacks by Ethan Peck) identified said moon as likely to sustain human life. He was right; the five astronauts returning to Earth found a welcome environment on that distant orb.

These interstellar travelers must be warned of Earth’s fate so that they can return to Jupiter orbit and, hopefully, start the human race all over again.

Problem is, the crew (Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, Tiffany Boone) are been unable to hail their contacts on Earth.  We know it’s because of The Event, but the astronauts assume their communication equipment has a glitch.

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Mads Mikkelsen

“ANOTHER ROUND” My rating: B (VOD)

117 minutes | No MPAA rating

The middle-aged male psyche takes a thorough beating in Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round,” which acts like a black comedy before flirting with tragedy.

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) teaches upper level  high school history at a private school in Denmark. He’s pretty much on autopilot, droning through his lessons to kids who are more interested in checking their cell phones and talking about last weekend’s binge.

Things aren’t much better at home. His teenage sons view him as  a slight embarrassment; he hardly sees his wife (Maria Bonnevie), who works nights.

“Have I become boring?” he wonders.

Martin’s only close human relationships, apparently, are three coworkers:  Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), the phys ed instructor; Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), who teaches psychology; and Peter (Lars Ranthe), the music director.

All four gentlemen are stuck in the midlife doldrums. They desperately need a change.

Over a birthday dinner Nikolaj brings up the work of a scientist who maintains that the average person’s blood alcohol content is about .05 % below optimum operating levels.  This great mind (or is he a quack?) recommends a steady but controlled intake of alcohol throughout the working day, with nothing consumed after 8 p.m.

Hey…it worked for Ulysses S. Grant, Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill.

The four friends decide to make a scientific study with themselves as the guinea pigs. The goal is to achieve “optimal professional and personal performance.” They’ll keep a detailed journal; call it “collecting evidence.”

What could go wrong?

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Frances McDormand

“NOMADLAND” My rating: A-

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

“Just houseless.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

This film is a transcendent experience.

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

Craig Foster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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