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Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsberg

“ON THE BASIS OF SEX” My rating: B (Opens Jan. 11 at the Tivoli and the Glenwood Arts)

120 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“RBG,” last year’s documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, was so encyclopedic and emotionally engaging that at first flush a fiction film based on the same material seems superfluous.

Of course, “RBG” didn’t feature an eager and mildly acrobatic bedroom encounter between the young Ruth and her husband Marty. So there’s that.

Directed by Mimi Leder, “On the Basis of Sex” concentrates on the early years of Ginsberg’s legal career and culminates with her arguing a landmark legal case that forced the government to end discrimination based on sex.

If the film follows a predictable David-vs-Goliath path, it is nevertheless informative, accurate (RBG has given it her stamp of approval) and inspiring.

And it succeeds in making its heroine wildly appealing not for her looks or her ability to elicit warm fuzzies but because of her towering intellect and fierce determination. A different kind of leading lady, indeed.

We join Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) at the 1956 orientation session for Harvard Law School.  She’s one of only nine women in a class of 500; at a special luncheon for the ladies, the dean (Sam Waterston) asks each woman to explain why she deserves a slot that could have gone to a man.

Ooookay, then.

Ruth is clearly p.o.-ed by the numerous displays of chauvinism she encounters, but her style is to buckle down and beat the guys at their own game.  Which she does on a regular basis.

She’s supported in all this by her husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), on his way to becoming a wildly successful tax lawyer but more than happy to be the family’s cook and primary childcare provider while the Missus buckles down with the books.  Not only is Marty a good-natured saint, he looks (in this film, anyway) exactly like Armie Hammer.  The whole package. Which makes his early diagnosis of testicular cancer even more unsettling.

Like the documentary “RBG,” this film alternates between two aspects of its subject’s life. There’s the Ginsbergs’ personal story — by most accounts Marty and Ruth had one of the century’s great marriages. But not all is copacetic. Ruth is excoriated by her teenage daughter as “a bully…and she wants everyone to know how smart she is.”

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Lois Robbins, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

“THE ASPERN PAPERS” My rating: D+ (Opens Jan. 11 at the Glenwood Arts)

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Not even the presence of the iconic mother/daughter acting team of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson can salvage the sodden shipwreck that is “The Aspern Papers.”

Julian Landais’ film is only the latest dramatic incarnation of Henry James’ celebrated 1888 novella (there have been a half dozen previous adaptations), but it’s such a spectacular misfire that it should scare the smart money away from future versions.

In the 1880s an American scholar comes to Venice intent on researching the life of the famed poet Jeffrey Aspern, who died 60 years earlier leaving a couple of books of devastating verse and a beautiful corpse.  Our protagonist and  narrator, unnamed in the book but here calling himself Edward Sullivan, is portrayed by an abysmally miscast Jonathan Rhys Meyers at his creepiest.

“Edward” rents quarters in the crumbling villa of the money-strapped Madame Bordereau (Redgrave), who was Aspern’s lover back in the day. The old lady is a hard, utterly unsentimental case, but Edward sees an opening in her spinster niece, Tina (Richardson).  He gets to work insinuating himself into the women’s lives, courting  the lonely, shy Tina as a way of accessing Aspern’s personal papers, a veritable treasure trove he is certain Bordereau possesses.

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The “family” at the center of “Shoplifters”

“SHOPLIFTERS” My rating: B+

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A study of an unconventional family and a stinging indictment of the modern Japanese economy, “Shoplifters” sneaks up quietly and leaves you heartbroken.

In the very first scene writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda (“After the Storm,” “Our Little Sister”) displays the film’s title in action. A father and son duo — Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Jyo Kairi) — are cruising a grocery store. They appear absolutely unremarkable…Dad picks up various items, reads the labels; the curious  kid explores the place.

Thing is, little Shota is stuffing his clothing with that evening’s meal.  The pair return to their home — a rundown house overflowing with all manner of junk — and we meet the rest of the family:  Mom Nobuyo (Ando Sakura), big sister Aki (Matsuoka Mayu) and Grandma (Kiki Kirin).

Given the sticky-fingered antics of the opening scene, one might assume that this is nothing more than a family of crooks. But both Hirokazu and Nobuyo have backbreaking jobs that never pay enough to make ends meet.  The teenage Aki is a sex worker employed by a peep show.  Grandma contributes her monthly pension check.

The Japanese labor scene, evidently, pretty much guarantees that each day a working stiff is a bit poorer than the day before. Thus the petty crime.

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Stephan James and Kiki Layne

“IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK” My rating: B+

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Barry Jenkins’ followup to “Moonlight” begins with a God’s-eye view of a young couple walking hand in hand.

This impossibly handsome pair are Tish (Kiki Layne), age 19, and Fonny (Stephan James), 20, African American New Yorkers in the early 1970s.  They’ve been friends since childhood, but are  thinking of taking their relationship to a new physical level.

“Are you ready for this?”

“I’ve been ready for this my whole life.”

“If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin (incredibly, the first of his many works to receive big-screen dramatization), is a deeply affecting love story. But that’s just the starting point.

Baldwin used the Tish/Fonny relationship and its many hurdles to comment on the place of black folk in America. The relationship of two young people in love is simultaneously an indictment of societal evil.

Jenkins’ screenplay, like the novel, centers on Fonny’s arrest on a trumped-up rape charge, a development that shatters the joy that otherwise would be unleashed by Tish’s revelation that she’s pregnant. The film’s time-jumping narrative zaps between the couple’s life together and their separation as Fonny awaits trial.

All this is told in a series of beautifully acted scenes that isolate key moments in the lives of the characters. One of these is a gathering of the couple’s families for the announcement of the pregnancy.

Tish’s parents, Sharon and Joseph (Regina King, Colman Domingo), are hugely supportive. So is Fonny’s garrulous father, Frank (Michael Beach).  But Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) is a sanctimonious harpy who all but damns the baby in the womb and curses Tish for leading her boy astray.

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Christian Bale as Dick Cheney

“VICE” My rating: A- 

132 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In 2014 comedy writer/director Adam McKay (a longtime partner of Will Ferrell) gave us “The Big Short,” a look at the 2008 market meltdown that featured gonzo moments like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining subprime mortgages.     “…Short” was nominated for best picture and took home the Oscar for screenplay adaptation.

It now is clear that “The Big Short” was a test run for the narrative techniques and off-the-wall attitude that come to full flower in “Vice,” an absolutely dazzling/incendiary screen bio of former Vice President Dick Cheney, the Darth Vader of the George W. Bush White House.

This funny/unnerving instant classic features a transformative Christian Bale (he might as well start clearing Oscar space on his mantel), a host of terrifically good supporting perfs from the likes of Amy Adams, Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell, and a seductive presentational style that’ll suck you in even if you hate the real Cheney’s guts.

An opening credit informs us that this is a true story, “or as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in history.  But we did our f**king best.”

In fact, writer/director McKay goes out of his way not to turn “Vice” into a ham-handed hatchet job.

For the film’s first half — as we watch Wyoming roustabout Dick (drinkin’, fightin’, D.W.I.s) straighten himself out for the woman he loves (Adams), start a family and dip his toe in the slipstream of Washington power-broking — you may find yourself admiring the kid’s drive and smarts.

By the film’s end — after Cheney has shanghaied the nation into a never-ending Middle Eastern war and done his level best to  legitimize torture — audiences will be wincing under the savagery of the McKay/Bale depiction of this consummate politician guided less by political principles than a Machiavellian appreciation of pure, raw power.

“Vice” does a pretty wonderful job of fleshing out and, yes, humanizing a potent figure who is described by one character here as “a ghost,” a man about whom most of us know nothing.

The film covers (in brief, arresting scenes) Chaney’s education under then-Rep. Donald Rumsfeld (Carell), who instilled in the kid a taste for the ruthless exertion of authority and brought him along when he joined the Nixon administration.

Eventually Cheny becomes the chief of staff to President Gerald Ford where he begins formulating the “unitary executive theory,” which maintains that the President, just because he is the President, can do pretty much anything he damn well wants.

Throughout this recitation we periodically  drop in on the Cheney clan, and it is as a family man that this Dick Cheney seems most human.  He’s lovable and playful with his girls; he and wife Lynne are ahead-of-their-time understanding when daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out as gay.

Repeatedly we see the big man — who has heart attacks with the kind of regularity more associated with heartburn — retreating to the relatively calm and harmony of a Wyoming trout stream. (Fishing becomes a metaphor for Cheney’s canny handling of friend and foe alike.)

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Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges

“BEN IS BACK” My rating: B

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Before it goes belly up in the third act, Peter Hedges’ “Ben Is Back” presents itself as one of the more insightful films about drug addiction.

Like that other contemporary drug drama, “Beautiful Boy,” this one focuses on the relationship between a parent and an addicted child. But whereas “Beautiful Boy” was presented from the POV of an adult, “Ben…” focuses heavily on the young user.

Indeed, Lucas Hedges (the writer/director’s son) is both heartbreaking and terrifying as the title character, who pops up at his family’s suburban New York home on Christmas Eve when he was supposed to be in rehab.

His mom, Holly (Julia Roberts), finds herself welcoming her long-lost son even as she scurries about emptying the medicine cabinets. She wants to believe Ben when he tells her that his drug counselor okayed this Christmas visit, but after thousands spent on recovery programs and repeated relapses, she’s not getting her hopes up.

Her first outing with her newly returned son takes them to the local cemetery, where she bluntly asks Ben where he wants to be buried.  Or does he prefer cremation?

Ben’s teenage sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton) is even more cynical. She as much as tells her brother that the family no longer needs his kind of trouble. (There are also a couple of very young step siblings, the result of Holly’s second marriage to Neal — played by Courtney B. Vance; his  deep pockets have financed Ben’s so-far-unsuccessful efforts to turn his life around.)

Still, Ben is so earnest and eager to please — playing with his stepbrother and stepsister, offering to do chores — that hearts melt a bit.

Hedges’ script is interesting in that it avoids actual drug use and the nuts and bolts of rehab, focusing instead on the human damage Ben has left behind.

Attending a local AA meeting, he meets a young woman to whom he used to sell drugs. She’s a wreck, and he feels at least partly responsible.

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Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart

“MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS” My rating: B-

124 minutes | MPAA rating:R

The story of Mary Stuart, the Scottish Queen, and her long-running rivalry with England’s Elizabeth I  is one of history’s great dramas. Heck, it even ends in a beheading.

So why do cinematic treatments of the yarn always feel so hidebound and emotionally remote?

In part it may be because the two women never laid eyes on one another. Their stories run on parallel tracks, but there is no intersection.

The new “Mary Queen of Scots,” with which storied stage director Josie Rourke makes her feature film debut, solves that problem (sort of) by inventing a meeting between the two monarchs. This allows two terrific actresses — Saoirse Ronan and Margo Robbie — an opportunity for a bit of hand-to-hand thespian combat.

But it’s not enough to make this big fat slice of history dramatically compelling.

Which is not to say there’s nothing to like here.  The film is filled with spectacular scenery and some of the dankest, dimmest castle interiors in movie history. The costuming is lavish.

And then of course you have these two actresses playing a long-distance game of diplomatic chess with the future of the English monarchy at stake.

The film begins with Mary (Ronan) returning to Scotland after a long sojourn in France, where she had married a prince who promptly died on her. She reclaims her throne from her brother James (Andrew Rothney), who will launch a civil war against her.

Mary poses a real threat to her cousin Elizabeth (Robbie), who is unmarried and indifferent about producing an heir.  Should Elizabeth die childless, the Roman Catholic Mary would inherit the throne of Protestant England.

Let the machinations begin!!!

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Emily Blunt

“MARY POPPINS RETURNS” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Dec. 19)

130 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

First, the most obvious question: Is “Mary Poppins Returns” as good as the 1965 original?

Answer: No.  But  it comes close.

Disney’s original “Poppins” is one of — if not the — greatest family films of all time. Everything about it works, from the performances to the writing, the execution, and especially the Sherman Brothers’ astounding score of instantly hummable songs.

So when director Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Into the Woods,” “Nine”) took on this sequel, he had a lot to live up to.

Mostly he succeeds. There are a few flat sequences and the new Music Hall-steeped score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, while perfectly serviceable and occasionally inspired (the moving “The Place Where Lost Things Go, for example), is never as catchy as the original.

But Emily Blunt makes for a slyly entertaining Mary, “Hamilton” star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda makes a solid film debut, and several of the musical numbers  are showstoppers.  A delectable sense of childlike wonder prevails.

The plot cooked up by David Magee, John DeLuca and Marshall draws heavily from P.L. Travers’ nine “Poppins” books, and in many instances offers a sort of variation on high points from the ’65 film.

The setting has been advanced from pre World War I London to the Depression era.  Michael and Jane Banks, the kids from the original, are now adults (played by Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer).  Michael, the widowed father of three, still works at the bank where his father was employed; Jane, taking a cue from her suffragette mother, is a labor organizer.

Michael, who is hopeless with money, is about to lose the family home to foreclosure by his own employer (represented by two-faced exec  Colin Firth).  The family’s only hope is to find a small fortune in bank shares purchased decades earlier — but the papers have all gone missing.

Into this tense situation who should appear but Mary Poppins (Blunt), who in her own no-nonsense way organizes and entertains  the incredibly adorable kids (Pixie Davies,  Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson) with a series of fantastic adventures.

Our narrator through all this is a lamplighter, Jack (Miranda), who serves precisely the same function as did Dick Van Dyke’s chimneysweep Bert in the original. Introduced with the song “Lovely London Sky,” Jack is featured in “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”  featuring a host of dancing lamplighters that mirrors the “Step in Time ” extravaganza from 1965.

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Yalitza Aparicio

“ROMA” My rating: B+ 

135 minutes | MPAA rating” R

A personal memoir set against a moment of national trauma, “Roma” is the most overtly artistic of Alfonso Cuaron’s films.

Unlike the bulk of his resume (“A Little Princess,” “Children of Men,” “Gravity” and a “Harry Potter” installment), it has nothing to do with science fiction, fantasy or the future.

Instead it is like a perfectly composed snapshot of a time gone by. (It’s even been filmed in eye-pleasing widescreen black and white).

The central figure of “Roma” (that’s the upper middle class neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuaron grew up) is Cleo (first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio), a maid in the household of Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a physician, and his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira).

It’s obvious from Cleo’s broad features and dark skin and hair that she is not only of Indian descent, but is a late comer to the big city. She speaks Spanish but in conversation with her fellow workers she still employs her native tongue; she seems out of place in busy urban settings.

Cleo is quiet, efficient and unassertive. Still, she’s a loving companion to Antonio and Sofia’s four young children (one of whom, we assume, is based on Alfonso Cuaron).  Cleo long ago drifted across the line that separates employee from family member.

So when Antonio leaves town — ostensibly for a medical seminar — and never returns, Cleo’s place as a caregiver and low-keyed moral center of the household becomes even more important. Sofia’s parenting responsibilities are neglected in favor of a massive jilted-wife meltdown, the biggest victim of which is the family sedan. The car is slowly  being demolished one fender at at time. (These are among the few overtly comic moments in the movie, and smack of something that actually happened.)

Even as the family attempts to come to term with Antonio’s absence, Cleo faces her own crisis.  She finds herself pregnant by Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a friend of a cousin who seduced the apparently virginal maid and whose idea of post-coital cuddling is a naked bedroom demonstration of martial arts moves.

Cleo even follows Fermin to a training camp in the sticks where he and hundreds of other young men are engaging in martial exercises; confronted with his impending fatherhood Fermin threatens Cleo and beats a hasty retreat.

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Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz

“THE FAVOURITE”  My rating: B

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Deliciously nasty and morally ambiguous, “The Favourite” is a female-centric slice of history featuring three superb actresses duking it out on screen.

In addition, it may be remembered as Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ most accessible film. Which is not to say that it’s breezy moviegoing.

As was so obvious with his most recent English-language features — “The Lobster” and “The Killing of the Sacred Deer” — Lanthimos marches to his own weird drummer. The difference this time around is that instead of working from his own script he’s tackling a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, and their reasonably conventional approach grounds this yarn in more or less familiar territory.

This feast of power-playing shenanigans is set in the 18th-century court of England’s Queen Anne, a monarch equal parts sadness and silliness.  As played by the great Olivia Colman (for my money this year’s best supporting actress), this ruler is fat, frumpy and flighty.

Small wonder that her childhood friend and now closest confidant, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), treats the monarch as a sort of overgrown baby with big appetites and a short attention span. Because of their long friendship Sarah can tell Her Highness the brutal truth — for example, that her new cosmetic do-over makes the Queen look like a large badger.  (Sarah actually seems to take pleasure in dissing her hapless royal gal pal.)

In return Anne showers gifts (like castles) on her companion and makes sure that Sarah’s husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) spends most of his time away  fighting those nasty Frenchies.

Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s penniless country cousin come to court in the hopes of employment.  She’s put to work in the kitchen, but little by little insinuates herself into the Queen’s household…among other things she whips up an herbal poultice to treat Her Majesty’s gouty feet.

What ensues is a sort of powdered-wig “All About Eve,” with the young interloper cannily inserting herself between the old friends. Abigail  discovers that Anne and Sarah are lovers and decides to use that information for her own advancement. Scheming, backbiting and even a bit of poison are employed.

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Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh

“AT ETERNITY’S GATE” My rating: A-

110 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-12

Epically poetic yet aching personal, “At Eternity’s Gate” may be the best film ever about Vincent  Van Gogh.

For that matter, it is among the best movies ever made about a visual artist. Undoubtedly much of the insight and emotion radiating off the screen can be traced back to writer/director Julian Schnabel who was, of course, a famed painter long  before he began  making films.

Visually lush and aurally haunting, “At Eternity’s Gate” follows Vincent through the last year or so of his life.

It is told in fragmented fashion, with scenes built around a series of dialogues between Vincent (Willem Dafoe in the best performance of his career) and others: his supportive brother Theo (Rupert Friend), his combative fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), a fellow patient in a mental institution (Niels Arestrup), a disapproving priest (Mads Mikkelsen), a sympathetic physician (Mathieu Amalric).

And when he’s not talking, this Vincent is painting, creating before our eyes the colorful masterpieces that would not be appreciated until long after his death at age 37. A good chunk of “At Eternity’s Gate” is devoted to following Vincent on his nature walks, easel and canvasses strapped to his back, head shaded with a floppy straw hat.

This is a transcendental Vincent, a man who stands in the sunshine with his arms outstretched, smiling ecstatically at the light that bathes him.

Our first encounter with this Vincent, though, occurs in darkness. We can only hear his voice. He’s talking about loneliness, about how he feels set apart from the rest of humanity: “I just want to be one of them…I’d like them to give me some tobacco, a glass of wine, or even ask: ‘How are you?’…from time to time I’d make a sketch of one of them as a gift.”

The key to Dafoe’s inspiring, heartbreaking performance is the way in which Vincent’s almost religious love affair with the world’s beauty is undercut by his sad “otherness.”  Most people don’t like him. They make fun of him. His eccentricities, poverty and neediness bring out the worst in his fellow man. (An art dealer of my acquaintance once explained that “Everybody wants a Van Gogh in their dining room; nobody wants Van Gogh in their  dining room.”)

Thus he’s an apologetic mystic, aware that he rubs others the wrong way, but unable to escape the almost epileptic thrall into which he is forever being plunged by the beauty of the world around him.

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Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali

“GREEN BOOK”  My rating: B 

130 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Most of us will go into “Green Book” knowing — thanks to the ads — what the film is about. We can predict with some certainty what notes it’s going to hit, what emotional buttons it’ll be pushing.

None of this detracts from the movie’s immense pleasures.

The latest from director Peter Farrelly (yes, of the raunch-humor Farrelly Brothers) is a fact-based buddy film that dabbles in race and ethnicity, the universal appeal of music, and the glory of Detroit engineering at a time when bigger was definitely better.

It’s 1962 in NYC where Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is bouncing drunks at the Copacabana nightclub. He’s Brooklyn Italian down to his toenails…which he can barely see thanks to his pasta-packed middle-aged spread.

Looking for a temporary gig while the club is undergoing a facelift, Tony signs up for a job driving a musician on  a tour of the Deep South.  And not just any musician.

Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a Phd. pianist who studied music in the Soviet Union, writes and performs classical scores (although on this tour he’s offering a popular jazz sound) and also has doctorates in psychology and liturgical arts. (The real-life Shirley also was fluent in six languages.)

Oh, yeah. He’s black, too.

But the money is good and Tony swallows his ethnic prejudices. He kisses the Missus (Linda Cardelli) goodbye and gets behind the wheel of a big aquamarine land shark for an eight-week tour leading up to Christmas.  Continue Reading »

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury

“BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY”  My rating: B

134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Remi Malek is a most unconventional star.  His biggest break to date has been as the lead of cable’s “Mr. Robot,” where he plays an emotionally-challenged computer genius, a role that perfectly meshes his acting chops with his unusual physiognomy.

He’s a weird-looking dude.

Nevertheless, in Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” Malek becomes a bona fide movie star, sinking so completely into the role of flamboyant Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury that he immediately joins the frontrunners for the year’s best actor Oscar, turning a rather humdrum musical biopic into something scintillating.

Ramen is charismatic, sexy, funny and ultimately heartbreaking as Mercury, whose baroque (or is it rococo?) sensibilities made Queen one of the most unlikely rock bands of the 1970s and ’80s.

Like the new “A Star is Born,” another film that cannily mines the backstage world of pop/rock, “…Rhapsody” follows a predictable arc, being the story of a rock star’s rise to fame and descent into ego, arrogance and, eventually, death (Mercury died of AIDS in 1991).

But that familiar  — almost cliched — tale provides a solid platform for Malek’s performance —  in addition to offering a musical soundtrack that’ll have you humming days and weeks later.

Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan’s screenplay begins with Farrokh Bulsara (Malek) hustling baggage at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Wherever he goes, the shy Farrokh is a fish out of water.  His fellow workers dismiss him as a “Paki” (Pakistani); his Farsi parents, who fled religious persecution in their native Zanzibar, don’t know what to make of his dramatically long hair and disco fashion sense.

Moreover, the kid has an amazing set of choppers…reportedly Farrokh had four extra incisors (Malek wears a lip-stretching set of fake teeth).

Early on Farrokh takes up with a struggling rock band —  guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), baby-faced drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) — and amazes with his songwriting, theatrical presence and balls-to-the-walls vocals (reportedly a combination of Malek’s voice and that of Mercury impersonator Marc Matel).

Oh, yeah. He also changes his name to Freddy Mercury, a break with his heritage that alienates his traditionalist parents.

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Alex Hannold

“FREE SOLO” My rating: B (Opens Oct. 26 at the Tivoli)

100 minutes | MPAA rating:PG-13

The faint of heart had best pass on “Free Solo,” a mountaineering documentary with so many close calls that the audience spends a good chunk of the running time with their hearts in their throats.

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s film follows young Alex Honnold, who eschews pitons and ropes and the usual paraphernalia of mountain climbing in favor of his hands and feet.  As a free soloist, he clambers up impossible cliffs with nothing but his own strength and a sort of sixth sense about what cracks and indentations can accommodate his fingers and toes to support his weight.

“Free Solo” follows Honnold over two years as he prepares to be the first to freestyle climb Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan, viewed by mountaineers as “the most impressive wall on earth.” We also learn that the most famous of Honnold’s fellow free soloists have fallen to their deaths…it’s a high-mortality calling.

There’s a good deal of information here about how Honnold approaches this killer challenge.  He has climbed El Capitan dozens of times using ropes  and safety equipment, trying to decide what route he’ll take once he’s on his own.  Frequently he loses his grip and falls. The lines that save him won’t be there on the day of the big climb.

Over time he maps out in his head every nook and cranny of the 2,000-foot tall mountain face, and choreographs his every move, planning what each hand and foot will be doing in a sort of life-or-death choreography.

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Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga

“A STAR IS BORN”  My rating: B

135 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) has been a major star for almost a decade now, but even if you’d never heard of her, “A Star Is Born” would confirm that there is indeed a new comet in the heavens.

She’s really, really good.

This is the third remake of the original show-biz love story (after the 1937 original with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the ’54 version with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the ’76 vehicle for Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). Though many of the details have been refreshed for this Bradley Cooper-directed effort, it’s still the story of a rising young performer’s romance with an older, established star who cannot handle it when her career eclipses his.

So don’t expect much new in the plot department.

But watching Gaga sink her teeth into her first major acting opportunity is thrilling. The woman who in her stage shows often relies on visual overkill here delivers a sensitive and carefully modulated performance that will likely result in an Oscar nomination. And what makes it even more remarkable is that hers is the less showy performance.  Her co-star, Cooper, gets the big chewy scenes (You want attention? Play a drunk.) yet Gaga is all you want to look at.

Plus, the screenplay by Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper perfectly nails its milieu of arena rock concerts, tour busses and messy hotel rooms. The plot may be familiar, but the setting has a life of its own.

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a bearded, gravel-voiced star whose music ranges from folkie efforts to guitar-shredding Southern rock (something along the lines of Lynyrd Skynyrd/Marshall Tucker). He’s also a heavy drinker who gets itchy if he’s too long without a bottle in his hand.

Which is how Jackson ends up in a gay bar (they’ve got alcohol, right?) watching a drag show in which a waitress named Ally (Gaga) steals the spotlight with a spot-on Edith Piaf imitation. He’s impressed enough to go backstage to make her acquaintance.

It’s the start of a big-time romance.  Ally is flattered by the attention, but doesn’t think she’s pretty enough to be hobnobbing with a big star. (Interesting that Gaga, who in her earliest incarnations hid behind elaborate costumes, wigs and makeup, here goes through much of the film with almost no makeup at all).

She’s a songwriter and Jackson urges her to develop that talent.  In fact, after whisking her off to one of his stadium gigs in a far-flung city, he more or less drags her onstage to perform one of her compositions as a duet.  The audience goes ape (so will folks watching the movie) and before long the Ally show is in full swing with a fancy-pants manager/producer, an appearance on “SNL” and a Grammy nomination for best new artist.

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Natalie Portman

“VOX LUX” My rating: B 

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

One of the movies’ recurring themes — the pop/country/rock idol who makes great music despite (or perhaps because of)  personal demons — gets an innovative reworking in Brady Corbet’s “Vox Lux.”

The ever-surprising Natalie Portman is terrific as Celeste, a sort of musical mashup of Madonna, Gaga and especially Sia (who wrote the film’s original songs). But whereas those divas seem to more or less have their heads on straight, Celeste is always walking a fine line between musical brilliance and emotional meltdown.

Interestingly enough, Portman doesn’t appear on screen until halfway through the film.  Corbet’s screenplay opens with a horrific scene from Celeste’s youth — a school shooting that leaves our teen protagonist (Raffey Cassidy) with a bullet permanently imbedded in her neck (this explains her  collection of scar-hiding chokers).

Almost by accident, Celeste’s fame as a survivor of tragedy segues into a burgeoning career in music. Under the guidance of a savvy but fatherly manager (Jude Law) she begins recording songs with her older sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) and touring the world. (The sisters have parents, yes, but they are seen only fleetingly.  Clearly, they’re not important to this yarn.)

Initially the girls behave like the good small-town Christians they are…but life in the fast lane takes its toll.  Celeste loses her virginity to the lead guitarist (Micheal Richardson) of a semi-psychedelic rock band.

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