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The Dames: Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench

“TEA WITH THE DAMES” My rating: B- (Opens Oct. 19 at the Tivoli)

84 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Tea With the Dames” is a slapdash affair, less a well-crafted documentary than a fly-on-the-wall peek at a reunion of four great English actresses.

Theatre geeks will be captivated. Others perhaps not so much.

The “dames” of the title are Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins, all of whom have received that honorary title from Queen Elizabeth for their contributions to English arts.

The youngest is 83, the oldest 88; one of them is blind; two are widows; the other two apparently are divorced (although their present marital status is never addressed).

For this doc director Roger Michell assembled the four at Plowright’s lovely country home (the one she shared with the late Sir Laurence Olivier) and over the course of a long weekend filmed them talking and sipping the occasional cordial.  The conversations are illustrated with clips and photos from the women’s illustrious careers.

Over the course of the film the ladies discuss their careers, their craft, their private lives (within limits). Occasionally director Michell attempts to steer the conversation, not that anyone pays him much attention. (“Let’s talk about aging,” suggests his off-camera voice. “Fuck you, Roger,” one of the dames shoots back.)

“Tea…” has no format, really.  The girls talk about what they damn well want to talk about.

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Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz

“THE OATH”  My rating: B (Opens Oct. 19 at  the Cinemark Palace, AMC Barrywoods, AMC Town Center)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

One of the America’s most hellish rituals — the family Thanksgiving gathering — takes on even more demonic dimensions in Ike Barinholtz’s “The Oath.”

Barinholtz, a familiar face whose name you never knew, does triple duty here, serving as writer, director and star,  combining the usual holiday dysfunction with torn-from-the-headlines politics. The resulting black comedy is like finding a hand grenade in the roasted turkey.

As the film begins we learn that the U.S. president has instituted something called “the Patriot’s Oath,” a sort of loyalty waiver citizens are expected to sign.

“Nothing happens if you don’t sign,” assures a White House spokeswoman. “But there are perks if you do.”

The news infuriates suburban couple Chris (Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish).  Theirs is a mixed-race marriage, and as one might deduce, they are fiercely liberal.

Especially Chris, who is one of those apoplectic lefties who invariably takes a confrontational and self-righteous approach to political matters.

The citizenry has a year to decide  if they will sign; the new law goes into effect on (appropriately) Black Friday, a day after Thanksgiving.

Chris and Kai’s family gathering is like a cross section of the voting public.  Chris’ brother (Jon Barinholtz, the writer/director’s brother) is a sort of perennial frat dude whose new girlfriend (Meredith Hagnar) has a world view cloned from Ann Coulter.

Chris’ sister (Carrie Brownstein) is a fellow liberal, as is her hubby (Jay Duplass), who has come down with an intestinal monster and spends most of the holiday curled in a ball.

Mom (Nora Dunn) tries to referee the mounting sibling turmoil (“Hey, no politics!”);  Dad (Chris Ellis) keeps as low a profile as possible.

Prays Chris: “God, who I don’t believe in, please give me strength to get through the next three days.”

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Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong

“FIRST MAN” My rating: B 

141 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

With “First Man” wonderkid director Damien Chazelle has segued from the high artifice of a musical (“La La Land”) to a soaked-in-realism docudrama.

“First Man” is the story of Neil Armstrong, who in 1969 became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon.

The creation of NASA, setbacks in the U.S. space program and the eventual triumph of a moon landing  already have inspired the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” and films like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13.”

The emphasis from Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer is on momentous events as experienced by one man…and not a terribly demonstrative man at that.

The Neil Armstrong of this retelling is a jet jockey whom we first meet in a near-disastrous sub-orbital test flight of the experimental X-15 plane. Like a lot of guys who risk death as part of their daily routine, he keeps his feelings — both fear and love — pretty much to himself. Whatever  ego he possesses stays hidden…getting the job done is his primary goal.

So it’s a good thing, then, that Armstrong is played by “La La…” star Ryan Gosling, who has the skill and talent to project the inner turmoil of a man who doesn’t give away much.

The screenplay cannily focuses on Armstrong’s most traumatic experience.  It has nothing to do with  ejecting from a crashing plane and being dragged across the landscape by his wind-propelled parachute.

No, it’s the cancer death of  his young daughter, a beautiful child who, thanks to the Chazelle/Singer screenplay, appears periodically to Armstrong’s inner eye, a reminder that no matter his stoic appearance, there’s fierce emotion bubbling beneath.

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Dominic West, Keira Knightley

“COLETTE” My rating: B  

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

It would be easy enough to pigeonhole “Colette” as a bit of feminist backlash against male privilege and arrogance.

After all, the real-life tale of Nobel Prize-winning author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette reads like a cautionary manifesto. Her earliest literary triumphs were published under the name of her husband; it wasn’t until she broke sales records and began to resent her anonymity that she laid claim to her work (though it took a court battle).

Writer/director Wash Westmoreland (“Quinceanera,” “Still Alice”) and his collaborator Richard Glatzer focus their film on the marriage of young Sidonie (Keira Knightly) to roue-about-town Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), an older fellow who under the pen name Willy edits a variety of publications.

Henry  is a womanizer, a big spender, an inveterate gambler, and he isn’t above sticking his own name on the pieces he has struggling writers churn out for his magazines. He flirts constantly with women and bankruptcy, yet manages always to live way beyond his means.

As “Colette” begins our heroine is a country girl, pretty but untested in the ways of the big city.  Henry, an army buddy of her father, visits frequently and initiates an affair with the teenager; ere long they’re married and living in Paris where she gets a quick education in sex, society and her husband’s brigandish approach to letters and commerce.

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Amandla Stenberg (center)

“THE HATE U GIVE” My rating: B

132 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“The Hate U Give” begins with an African American father swallowing his rage and giving his children “the talk,” instructing them how to behave if they’re ever pulled over by the cops. For starters, don’t argue. Put both hands on the dashboard and don’t remove them until told to do so.

The film ends with a race riot of the kind seen in Ferguson MO in 2014.

Between those cringeworthy moments this movie — based on Angie Thomas young adult novel and brought to the screen by director George Tillman Jr. (“Notorious,” “Soul Food,” “Men of Honor”) — explores the world of Starr Carter (Amanda Stenberg in a star-making perf), one of the few black students at her mostly white private school.

Starr is our narrator and she points out from the get-go that she’s living a dual life.  Evenings and weekends she’s a resident of a mostly-black neighborhood, where she can just be one of the girls.

Miles away at school, though, she’s got to be whiter than the white kids (who are free to appropriate gangsta manners while Starr must cling to the straight and narrow). She’s got a white boyfriend (K.J. Aha), who seems a decent enough guy, even if he is making noises about taking their relationship up a step (nudge, nudge).

“The Hate U Give” (the title references one of Tupac’s raps) is set in motion by the death of one of  Starr’s childhood friends, Khalil (Algee Smith) in a police confrontation to which she is the only witness.

The authorities expect Starr to testify about the incident, including her knowledge that Khalil was peddling dope for local drug lord King (Anthony Mackie).  King wants to stop her from talking and will threaten Starr’s family to do so.  It doesn’t help that there’s bad blood between King and Starr’s father, Mav (Russell Hornsby), a grocery owner who broke away from the  gang years before.

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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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Henry Golding, Constance Wu

“CRAZY RICH ASIANS” My rating: C

120 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Crazy Rich Asians” is an utterly conventional and largely indifferent wedding-weekend rom-com made noteworthy by just one thing:

It’s the first Hollywood movie since who-knows-when to feature Asian actors in virtually every speaking role.

Culturally speaking, this is a step forward.  Artistically it’s dead in the water.

Jon M.  Chu’s film centers on Rachel (Constance Wu), a professor of economics at Columbia University in a deepening romance with Nick (Henry Golding), a Singapore citizen of Chinese descent who works in finance.

What Rachel doesn’t realize is that Nick is the heir to one of the biggest family fortunes in Asia.  The Youngs own real estate, hotel chains, you name it (if you think Trumpism with all its attendant tackiness, you’re not too far off the mark). But Nick has kept all this from Rachel; he wants to be loved for himself, not his staggering wealth.

Once in Singapore to attend the nuptials of one of Nick’s many cousins,  the secret is out.

Rachel is stunned by the display of unfettered prosperity before her.  “Crazy” in the case of this film means wildly profligate, for the Youngs are not shy about parading their buying power, from vast estates surrounded by a private army to a wedding ceremony in a church decorated to look like a jungle complete with running stream through which the bride wades to meet her groom.

The big problem, though, is less about money than about cultural prejudice.  The Young clan — especially Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) — cannot conceived of an outsider joining their ranks. Thus Rachel is targeted for humiliation and alienation initiated by aunties and cousins who at first seem civil and even friendly but who are just waiting the opportunity to pounce.

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James Frecheville

“BLACK 47” My rating: B

96 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The story arc of “Black ’47” will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a Western about a posse in pursuit of a wiley outlaw (or Apache).

What makes the film special is the setting.

Lance Daly’s movie unfolds in Ireland during the potato famine, a situation rarely if ever depicted in the movies. While the film’s dramatic tropes follow an expected trajectory, the background against which the action plays out — and which informs the film with a moral imperative — becomes a character in its own right.

In 1847 army deserter Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) arrives in his Connemara birthplace after a long journey from India. He finds a land wracked by starvation after the failure of the potato crop. Dead bodies lie by the roadsides. Virtually everyone is a shoeless beggar.

He discovers that his mother has died and his brother has been executed by the British, and he tries to intervene in the eviction of his widowed sister-in-law and her children, who promptly freeze to death.

Arrested by the local constables, Feeney slaughters a half dozen officers in their own station house, then goes on to kill the judge who hanged his brother, behead the land agent who initiated the eviction, and destroy a revival tent where Protestant missionaries offer soup to the dying…providing they give up Roman Catholicism.

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead

“ALL ABOUT NINA” My rating: B-

97 minutes | MPAA rating: *

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has been on the brink of stardom for a long time.

She’s delivered some terrific TV work (“Braindead,” “Fargo”), sometimes in lead performances, but most of her movie roles have fallen into the supporting category.

“All About Nina” should change that. Written and directed by Eva Vives, “Nina” provides Winstead with perhaps her juiciest role to date.

Nina Geld is a standup comic whose fiercely rude act (menstruation, noncommittal sex) reflects her own angry essence.  She’s perennially pissed because comedy is such a boy’s club; in her private life she avoids intimacy.

Emotional intimacy, anyway. Sex is something else…Nina’s a tart-tongued man-eater who picks up strangers and leaves them whimpering for more.

Despite her tough talk and swagger, Nina is weirdly vulnerable.  After a set — even a wildly successful one — she stumbles offstage and invariably pukes in an ice bucket or other suitable receptacle.  On some level her art hurts.

“All About Nina” follows her from NYC to Los Angeles, where her agent has wrangled her an audition for a TV show. But at the film’s real core is her relationship with Rafe (Common), a contractor who senses the pain beneath Nina’s rough exterior and decides to go slow. (It may be one of the movies’ rare instances of a guy turning down sex.)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Common

Vives’ screenplay has its ups and downs. The depiction of the comedy world — especially backstage at a showcase where woman comics are competing for the same gig — feels absolutely right.

And the slow-burning Nina/Rafe relationship is sweet and sexy despite the landmines with which Nina’s past is littered.

But there’s a big reveal here about our  heroine’s childhood that will shock many viewers (though it retrospect it probably shouldn’t)…it’s not that the film shouldn’t have gone there so much as Vives hasn’t quite figured out how to finesse it.

“All About Nina” is a minor film but as a showcase for Winstead it delivers in spades.

More, please.

| Robert W. Butler

“BISBEE ’17” My rating: B+

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

A little-known but horrifying bit of Americana comes disturbingly to life in “Bisbee’17,” a doc in which the past and the present find an uncomfortable accommodation.

In Bisbee AZ on July 12, 1917, hastily deputized citizens raided the homes of copper miners on strike for higher wages and safer working conditions. At gunpoint the strikers were taken to a baseball field and told to either return to work or face permanent exile from Bisbee.

More than 1,200 refused the offer, were loaded on railroad cattle cars and dropped off in the New Mexico desert without food and water. Mass deaths were avoided only when New Mexico officials stepped in to establish a refugee camp.

Robert Greene’s excellent film, shot during the preparations for a centennial observation of that event (“celebration” hardly seems the right word), is not only about a dark moment in labor history, but about how it continues to resonate over the years, especially now that we find ourselves as divided as ever in our lifetimes — or our parents’ lifetimes.

The film singles out a handful of Bisbee citizens, some of whom are portraying their own ancestors in a town-wide recreation of the deportation.  One woman reveals that her grandfather deported his own brother — a labor sympathizer — at gunpoint.

Behind the event were the copper interests, especially the Phelps Dodge Corp., which viewed the agitation of the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) with concern.

The company surreptitiously recruited local law enforcement, terrified the “good” citizens with tales of the strikers hoarding dynamite for terrorist attacks, and on the day of the deportation took over the telegraph and telephone  lines so that not even the local state representative could get word to the governor and legislature.

For years after, Bisbee’s citizens didn’t talk about the deportation…not with each other and certainly not with outsiders.

“In a company town the company makes the rules,” observes one resident. Continue Reading »