Nicolas Cage, Ryan Keira Armstrong

“THE OLD WAY” My rating: B- (Hulu)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

It’s gotten so that every Nicolas Cage movie is met with equal parts hope and dread.

Will Cage deliver a one-of-a-kind, borderline brilliant performance along the line of 2021’s “Pig”? Or will it be yet another weary entry in his “don’t-send-the-script-send-the-paycheck” marathon?

Director Brett Donowho’s good-looking oater “The Old Way” is a bit of both.

Lord knows it doesn’t start with a whole lot of promise.  In a prequel we meet gunfighter Colton Briggs (Cage), who has an Eastwood squint and a ridiculous ‘stache apparently harvested from the late Wilford Brimley’s upper lip.

Briggs is a hired gun in a range war involving a cattle baron with a penchant for flowery speechifying (Carl W. Lucas’ screenplay periodically slows for displays of frontier loquaciousness) and a bunch of struggling settlers.  The upshot:  Just about everybody but Briggs and a newly orphaned boy lie dead. Time to move on.

Twenty years later Briggs is running a general store in a tiny burg.  He’s traded in his guns and facial hair for a civilians’ suit and derby hat; just outside town he has a modest ranch where he lives with his wife (Kerry Knuppe) and 12-year-old daughter Brooke (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).

Initially it appears that Cage is in his take-the-money-and-run mode…his features are sullenly passive (at best he looks like he’s fighting a constant migraine) and Briggs’ interactions with his daughter perfunctory at best.  No warmth wasted. In short, the one-time gunfighter now appears to be a terribly boring bean counter. (This non-performance is deliberate, as we shall see.)

One evening father and daughter return home to find their  wife/mother  murdered and the place occupied by a weary U.S. marshal (Nick Searcy at his folksy best) and his posse.  The lawmen have been chasing outlaw James McCallister (Noah Le Gros), who with a trio of bad actors has broken out of prison. 

The old marshal wants to take down the McCallister gang — but by the book.  A wrathful Briggs has other ideas.

In one blood-curdling scene Briggs points a pistol at his sleeping child; if she’s dead, he will have one less thing to worry about on his quest for revenge.  Instead he decides to bring her along.

Noah Le Gros, Ryan Keira Armstrong

“The Old Way” almost makes a fetish of recycling ideas from other films.  The killer-turned-domestic notion has been pulled directly from Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” Revenge yarns are a staple of the Western genre. And stories in which an adult killer is teamed with an innocent child are legion (for starters there’s “The Professional” with Jean Reno and then-tweener Natalie Portman; also, Eastwood’s “A Perfect World” in which escapee Kevin Costner leads a little boy on a Texas crime spree; not to mention the two versions of “True Grit”).

But then halfway through Lucas’ script suddenly shifts into focus.  Over a campfire Briggs admits to Brooke that for most of his life — his marriage being the sole exception — he has never felt emotion.  Not love, not fear.  Maybe hate. To survive he has learned to fake normal behavior.

And suddenly we’re watching “Dexter”-on-the-prairie.

Well, that explains Cage’s undemonstrative performance.

It gets better.  Briggs’ particular brand of psychopathology seems to have been inherited by Brooke. Maybe you noticed she didn’t shed a tear over her dead Mommy? And now she’s asking her old man for shooting lessons.

Needless to say, these father-and-daughter avengers will get the chance to settle scores.  And it turns out that the murder of Briggs’ wife wasn’t random…James McCallister is seeking his own revenge for a 20-year-old killing.

“The Old Way” (the title refers to McCallister’s desire to settle things in a classic gunfighter fashion, on the street at high noon) is a bumpy if fascinating ride. The screenplay is filled with seemingly unnecessary moments (in a long monologue a customer at Briggs’ store explains how his apple tree bears poisonous fruit due to its proximity to an outhouse) that are later revealed to have important relevance to the developing story. Sneaky.

Cage and young Miss Armstrong manage to make us care about a couple of individuals who are emotionally unapproachable, and the locations and production design feel real enough.

In the end “The Old Way” is minor Cage in a minor film, but lovers of Westerns and sleight-of-hand acting will find it a tolerable amusement.

| Robert W. Butler

Idris Elba, Tilda Swinton

“THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING” My rating: B+ (Amazon Prime)

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Love stories have always been a staple of the movies, but really effective romantic films — I’m thinking “Somewhere in Time”-level  heart grippers — are surprisingly rare.

To the list of swoonworthy cinema we must now add “Three Thousand Years of  Longing,” a romantic/erotic fantasy from director George Miller (the”Mad Max” and “Babe” franchises) that begins with pure escapism and gradually works its way into your guts.

This adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1994 novel The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye (the screenplay is by Miller and Augusta Gore) stars the chameleonic Tilda Swinton as Alithea, a Brit academic whose specialty is the art of storytelling.  In pursuit of new tales Alithea has traveled to Istanbul for a conference of her fellow narratologists.

As a souvenir of her trip she purchases an old blown-glass vial from a cluttered shop; back in her hotel room she pops the top of her new find and with a smokey whoosh a huge genie (or djinn) fills her suite.

This fantastic creature (Idris Elba) quickly adapts to his new environment, shrinking to human size and learning Alithea’s English language (a surprising amount of the film’s dialogue is presented in ancient Greek and other languages without benefit of subtitles— just one of many ways in which the film insists on immersing the viewer in new and evocative states of mind).

What follows is a sort of riff on “1001 Arabian Nights,” with the Djinn relaying to the fascinated story lady his experiences over the last three millennia…much of which was spent in various lamps and bottles where the unsleeping Djinn had plenty of time to contemplate notions of freedom.

The Djinn’s astonishingly colorful yarns feature the likes of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (he observed their love story from just a few feet away), a slave girl who with the help of the Djinn bewitched the Sultan Suleiman, and a 19th-century  proto-feminist who with the help of the Djinn (who also became her lover) went on an inventing spree worthy of Leonardo.

The Djinn (Idris Elba) and Sheba (Aamito Lagum)

Each passage has been spectacularly designed by Roger Ford, evocatively captured by cinematographer John Seale (“Witness,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The English Patient”) and perfectly performed by an international cast.

Always lurking in the background, though, are two inescapable issues.  

First, to gain his freedom the Djinn must grant his new owner three wishes — and Alithea is too smart a cookie not to anticipate the unforeseen fallout generated by a carelessly worded request.

Second, there’s a slowly pulsing undercurrent of sexuality constantly at work.  Must of this has to do with the vibes given off by the shirtless Elba, who really doesn’t have to work at exuding sexual power.  Then there’s the fact that both characters spend the film in fluffy hotel bathrobes.

And finally there’s the weird magic of Swinton, an eccentric-looking actress who can turn her gaunt frame, pale complexion and lank red hair into formidable tools of seduction — all without ever obviously going for it.

What does it say about us (or about me, anyway) that the most effective love stories are those rooted in fairy tales, science fiction and spiritual yearning?

That’s a topic for another day.  Right now I’m considering watching “Three Thousand Years of Longing” one more time.

| Robert W. Butler

Jennifer Lopoez, Lucy Paez

“THE MOTHER” My rating: C- (Netflix)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“The Mother,” the latest example of gals-with-guns cinema, starts out preposterous and in no time at all has worked its way into full-bore absurdist “Roadrunner” mode…the big difference being that a “Roadrunner” cartoon has a sense of humor. 

Here’s a film about international criminals, a former army sniper and the FBI written by three scribes (Misha Green, Andrea Berloff and Peter Craig) who offer no indication that any of them has ever met an international criminal, an army sniper or a federal agent.  

Basically “The Mother” is a mess of plot points and attitude copied from other movies (Schwarzenegger’s “Commando” appears to have been a major influence) and held together — barely — by Jennifer Lopez’ seriously strained charisma.  

Lopez plays the title character, whose name we never do get.  She’s an Afghan vet with three dozen sniper kills, and as the film begins she’s being debriefed in a safe house by a couple of FBI agents. Seems our girl has spent several years as the consort/muscle of a couple of international arms dealers (Joseph Fiennes, Gael Garcia Bernal), and now she’s decided to turn them in.

Oh, yeah, there’s a catch…she’s preggers, presumably by one of her criminal cohorts. But the bad guys are on to her and she barely survives a massacre at the safe house, undergoes an emergency caesarean, turns her newborn daughter over to an FBI agent (Omari Hardwick) for placement in a good home, and moves to an isolated  cabin in Alaska where she can kill a variety of critters and stay off her criminal colleagues’ radar.

Short story long, she’s called back into the fray when her daughter, now 12 years old, is kidnapped by the evil ones.  She’s able to rescue the girl in a bloody shootout, but now the two are on the run.  She can’t take the girl, Zoe (Lucy Paez), back to her Midwestern home (Ohio, we’re told, though in this alternate universe Ohio has mountains); their  only hope is to hide out in the snowy north until the danger passes.

Zoe suspects that her nameless protector is her birth mother, which doesn’t stop her from behaving like your typical suburban tween, throwing temper tantrums and pouting. 

Before the dust settles The Mother will have wiped out a small army of mercenaries. 

Despite the obviously wretched dialogue, the production was able to attract some serious talent, not just Fiennes and Bernal but also Oscar nominee (for “Sound of Metal”) Paul Raci and multiple Emmy winner Edie Falco.

But what’s really depressing is the name behind the camera. “The Mother” was directed by Niki Caro, whose earliest efforts (“Whale Rider,” “North Country”) suggested a major talent in humanist cinema. “The Mother” is technically polished, but hasn’t a shred of the emotional truth of those early landmarks.

| Robert W. Butler

Matt Damon, Ben Affleck

“AIR”  My rating: B  (Prime Video) 

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Air” describes itself as “a story of greatness,” but exactly whose greatness is up for grabs.

Ostensibly the latest directing effort from Ben Affleck is  referring to the greatness of Michael Jordan, arguably the finest basketball player of all time and the namesake of Nike’s famous Air Jordan athletic shoe which debuted in 1984.  Except that we never see Michael Jordan in the film, save for some archival footage of him in action on the court.

Given Jordan’s physical absence as a character, one must go looking for other recipients of the “greatness” crown.

Well, there’s Nike founder and chief Phil Knight, portrayed by Affleck as a sort of Zen egoist who spouts woo woo philosophy while driving a bright purple sports car that cost more than what the average Joe earns in several years. Knight is an interesting oddball — practically an idiot savant — and good for some unintended laughs. But great? Nah. At best he’s a supporting character here.

A more likely candidate is Matt Damon’s Sonny Vaccaro, whose job is to sign up rookie NBA players with Nike sponsorships.  

Sonny — who apparently has no life beyond sneakers and sports — is an underdog visionary determined to recruit NBA newbie Michael Jordan to the Nike camp, beating down fierce competition from Adidas and Converse. Everyone tells Sonny that  his quest is Quixotic, that Jordan is an Adidas fan and that Nike’s measly budget for basketball shoe promotion (the company’s fortune lies with running foot ware) is embarrassingly limited.

Sonny may have a pot belly and puffy jowls, but he exhibits some signs of greatness.  He’s the little engine that could, who uses grit, determination and smarts to pull off a marketing miracle.  A prime example of good ol’ American capitalist can-do spirit.

And then there’s the Air Jordan itself, an eye-catching explosion of red leather and rubber. Can a shoe have a personality?  Maybe.  But it can sure generate cash…in 2022 more than $5 billion. By this film’s definition, that’s pretty damn great.

You’ve got to credit director Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery with this at least — they elevate Sonny’s quest beyond the merely mercenary to the nearly mythic. Against our better judgment we find ourselves rooting for Sonny to pull off the marketing coup of the century.

Convery’s savvy screenplay features much Mamet-ish high-speed shop talk (various Nike conspirators are portrayed by the likes of Jason Bateman, Christ Tucker and Matthew Maher as the cellar-dwelling dreamer who actually hand crafts the first Air Jordan);  Chris Messina practically chews up the screen as David Falk, Jordan’s silkily venomous agent.

But the key to the movie may be the great Viola Davis as Michael Jordan’s mother, Deloris.  Early in the film Sonny is advised that “The mamas run stuff…especially in black families.”

Davis’ Deloris is both intimidating and huggable…a loving matriarch with a tough-as-nails business sense and an unshakeable faith in her boy’s value.  She makes Sonny improve his game.

There’s a beat-the-clock intensity at the heart of the film — Sonny and his colleagues must dream up and create an Air Jordan prototype in just one exhausting weekend — and the whole enterprise has been so cannily timed and bracingly acted that even those of us who care little about sports and even less about sports capitalism will find ourselves caught up in Sonny (and Nike’s) impossible dream.

|Robert W. Butler


135 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

I was always aware of David Bowie, but never a fan, exactly.  Saw him perform during the Ziggy Stardust tour of ’72, but as the years passed found myself more of a Springsteen guy.

Still, Bowie has lurked on the periphery of my cultural consciousness, occasionally moving in to take a place of some prominence before receding once more.

The doc “Moonage Daydream,” though, has given me a new appreciation of the self-described Thin White Duke.  It may be time for a fresh  immersion in all things Bowie.

Written and directed by Brett Morgan (“The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “Cobain: Montage of Heck”), this is not your conventional documentary bio.

The two-hour-plus film pretty much ignores Bowie’s personal life.  It’s not particularly chronological.  There’s no omniscient narrator guiding us through, no cultural critics rhapsodizing about Bowie’s contributions. The only narration is provided by Bowie himself, culled from dozens of private recordings and public interviews. 

There are, of course, a load of musical performances, but this isn’t a concert film. In fact, Morgan’s guiding premise is that Bowie (who died in 2916 at age 69) was consumed with artistic expression, no matter what the format or packaging.

By “art” I mean not just pop music but also acting, writing, painting, fashion…the guy viewed his entire life as one big act of creation (“I never wanted to appear onstage as myself”). Small wonder he described himself as a “generalist.” 

What Morgan has given us here is a sort of visual/aural acid trip, an impressionistic deluge of images and sounds (Morgan provides the brilliant light-speed editing) that defy rational analysis and asks viewers simply to open up and to absorb the waves of Thin White Dukedom that come percolating out of the screen.

This means that “Moonage Daydream” is not for first-timers looking for a David Bowie survey course.  It’s aimed at fans of longstanding who will immediately recognize  and resonate with key moments from their man’s career, and who will synthesize all this new material into their mental/emotional caches of Bowie-dom.

| Robert W. Butler

Keri Russell, Rufus Sewell

“THE DIPLOMAT”  (Netflix): “West Wing”-quality political intrigue snuggles up to “Veep”-level satire in “The Diplomat,” a torn-from-the-headlines effort that functions simultaneously as real-world drama and nifty sexual comedy.

Keri Russell stars as Kate Wyler, an American diplomat whose speciality is bringing humanitarian relief to Middle Eastern hot spots.  As this eight-episode first season gets underway, she’s called to the Oval Office where the Prez (Michael McKean) tells her she’s going to be the new Ambassador to Great Britain…like right now.

What Kate doesn’t know is that the Big Guy, in cahoots with her charming/rule-breaking diplomat husband Hal (Rufus Sewell in what may be his best role ever), has tapped her to replace the current Vice President, a woman who’s about to get the boot because of her spouse’s financial improprieties.  A high-profile gig at the Court of St. James should pump up Kate’s bona fides.

What the President doesn’t know (because Hal is such a slick schemer) is that the Wylers are planning to split…and a recently divorced woman as Veep is out of the question. So Hal has another reason to rekindle the marital bonfire (aside from the fact that he’s impotent with any woman who is not Kate).

And that’s just the background. Most of this season unfolds in London where Kate and Hal are plopped down in the midst of an international crisis.  A British warship has been attacked in the Gulf of Arabia.  The Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear), eager to reverse his wimpish image, is ready to rain hellfire on Iran for the deaths of English sailors…except that maybe Iran is being framed by some other nation. 

It’s up to Kate to bring some sanity and caution to the situation…all the while getting extremely sexy vibes from the recently widowed British foreign secretary (David Gyasi).

The pacing is brisk, with plenty of sideshows for supporting characters and some nifty plot twists. The dialogue is some of the best out there.

And the perfs are, well, perfect.  Russell excels as an all-business statesperson who prefers plain black pants suits to ball gowns; half the time she appears not to be wearing any makeup and her hair is an afterthought. Of course when she does gussie up, it’s worth the wait.

Sewell is so good you don’t mind Hal’s occasional mansplaining session (it’s part of his allure), and McKean and Kinnear find ways to reference such figures as Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson without slipping into caricature or overt imitation.

Olivia Colman, Fionn Whitehead

“GREAT EXPECTATIONS” (Hulu): Well, it’s not your father’s Charles Dickens.

Last time I read the great Brit author I apparently missed the sado-maso whorehouse scene, the opium puffing, and the frequent use of the “f” word.  Oh, wait, that’s all stuff the creators of this miniseries cooked up to make their “Expectations” appeal to jaded modern viewers.

Also they’ve gone for multiracial casting (Estella and several other characters are played by black actors or those of Middle Eastern heritage).  

Dickens purists will find this a somewhat curdled re-enactment.  

I’m on the fence.  I’m bored stiff by our two young protagonists (Fionn Whitehead as Pip and Shalom Brune-Franklin as Estella), but I’m loving Olivia Colman’s eye-rolling/venom-dropping turn as the crazed man hater Miss Havisham.

And as is so often the case with Dickens, some of the supporting players steal the show.  I’m particularly taken with Ashley Thomas’ turn as Jaggers, the utterly amoral and endlessly scheming lawyer who takes our impressionable young hero under his wing and slickly leads him into one moral and illegal dead end after another.

Juliet Rylance, Matthew Rhys

“PERRY  MASON” (HBO Max): The second season of “Perry Mason” continues its radical retelling of its characters’ origin stories. 

Perry (Matthew Rhys) is a former drunk just embarking on an uncertain legal career; Girl Friday Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and D.A. Hamilton Burger (Justin Kirk) are closeted gays.  Investigator Paul Drake (Chis Chalk) is an African American ex-cop fighting for dollars and some dignity in world that willingly gives up neither.

But the real star of the series is the way in which the show’s creators have established an atmosphere of Depression Era desperation and corruption.  This “Perry Mason” is like an eight-hour take on “Chinatown,”  a seething world of arrogant haves and scrambling have-nots, presented with a visual and aural authenticity (my God, Terence Blanchard’s jazz score!!!) unmatched in current streaming.

The plot finds Perry defending two young Mexicans charged with murdering the son of a supremely powerful (and despicable) oil magnate, but the courtroom stuff is secondary to the world established beyond the courthouse doors.

| Robert W. Butler

Taron Edgerton

“TETRIS” My rating: B  (Apple+)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Capitalist opportunism goes nose-to-nose with Communist purity in “Tetris,” a based-on-fact comedy-thriller about the origins of what may very well be the world’s most ubiquitous video game. 

Spoiler: The Commies lose.

In Jon S. Baird’s diverting recreation of events, Taron Edgerton stars as Hank Rogers, a real-life video game developer and marketer who in the late ‘80s was introduced to Tetris, a computer game in which players had to manipulate falling geometric forms to create solid lines that generated points.  

Rogers realized the game was utterly addictive and foresaw a huge market.  Just a few problems.

Rights to the game in the West were, well, unclear.  Several companies claimed them, but apparently none had actually finalized a deal with the USSR, where the game was born.  The  Soviet state claimed ownership of every invention of any of its citizens, among them the genius behind the game, programmer Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov).

Noah Pink’s screenplay follows Hank Rogers as he travels to Moscow to buy Tetris from the government.  His quest is complicated because there are other Westerners bidding on the game, among them fly-by-nighter Robert Stein (Toby Jones), Brit media mogul Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam)  and Maxwell’s insufferable (think Donald Trump Jr.) son Kevin (Anthony Boyle).  

Things are no less frantic among the Russians.  The honest bureaucrat ostensibly in charge of negotiations (Oleg Stefan) is continually undermined by politicians and their KGB minions expecting the collapse of the Soviet state; they are determined to build their own nest eggs on the back of Tetris.

The film is at its best when Hank must rely on his instincts and wits to penetrate the quagmire of Soviet bureaucracy. (At one point Soviet premiere Mikhail Gorbachov steps in deus ex machine-style.) It’s less effective when dealing with his domestic situation (wife and kids who want Daddy back home).

Also noteworthy is the film’s mirroring of plot points in the Oscar-winning “Argo,” especially the notion of a Westerner on a dangerous mission in a totalitarian state and a last-minute escape on a commercial aircraft.

Despite its slow-building tension, “Tetris” is often drolly funny. But making the show irresistibly playful are the many nods to first-generation video gaming.  The film’s various chapters are introduced with the same chunky graphics that marked early ‘80s video games; at one point during a car chase through Moscow the vehicles begin pixellating and become cartoon versions of themselves.

Nothing earth-shaking here. Just a good time.

| Robert W. Butler

Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X, Forest Whitaker as Bumpy Johnson, Giancarlo Esposito as Rep. Adam Clayton Powell

“GODFATHER OF HARLEM” (Hulu): The great thing about our current streaming situation is that if you’re willing to wait, just about everything you want to see eventually pops up on one of your subscription sites.

So it is with “Godfather of Harlem,” which debuted in 2019 on Epix (I wasn’t going to subscribe for just one show). Now the first two seasons have migrated to Hulu.

Based on the career of real-life gangster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, the show’s title deliberately  references that greatest of American crime movies, “The Godfather.”

Like that Francis Ford Coppola landmark this is a sprawling saga that contrasts its protagonist’s bloody profession against the shifting currents of his family situation. What makes “Godfather of Harlem” special is its setting — the early 1960s — and its emphasis on Civil Rights and the black experience.

Bumpy is portrayed by Forest Whitaker, whose onscreen charisma helps sell a character who, let’s face it, is getting rich off the suffering of his own people. Bumpy used the notorious French Connection to funnel heroin into the inner city; he seems to have had no qualms about this, even when his own daughter became an addict.

Indeed, my biggest beef with Season 1 is that it totally blows off the moral implications of its hero’s choices.  I’m happy to report that Season 2 finally digs into Bumpy’s moral ambivalence.

What makes the show noteworthy is not its gangster cliches but its rich depiction of an era.  

Bumpy’s main nemesis is Mafia crime boss and dyed-in-the-womb racist Chin Gigante (a marvelously loathsome Vincent D’Onofrio). His two greatest allies are a U.S. Congressman, the womanizing, heavy-drinking Rev. Adam Clayton Powell (portrayed with palpable glee by Giancarlo Esposito) and the Nation of Islam maverick Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), perhaps the most ethically grounded character in sight.

Season One also features a Romeo & Juliet love affair beetween Gigante’s daughter (Lucy Fry) and a black r&b singer (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Race relations being what they were, the description “star-crossed” is wholly appropriate.

The performances are top notch.  Especially loved Chaz Palminteri as mob bigewig Joe Bonanno and the late Paul Sorvino as boss of bosses Frank Costello. Look also for Deric Augustine’s turn as young Cassius Clay.

Jason Segel, Harrison Ford

“SHRINKING” (Apple TV):  How’s this for a pedigree?  

“Shrinking” was created by actor Jason Segel, screenwriter/actor Brett Goldstein (“Ted Lasso”) and veteran TV producer Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs,” “Cougartown,” “Ted Lasso”)…and as you might guess from that lineup, it is wickedly funny with a big ol’ heart.

Segel stars as Jimmy, a recently widowed psychiatrist struggling to serve his patients (among them KC’s Heidi Gardner) while bringing up a teenage daughter (Lukita Maxwell) who sees through his every pathetic ruse.

Sadsack Jimmy shares the mental health suite with his mentor Paul (Harrison Ford…way funnier than I thought possible) and the adorably chatty Gaby (Jessica Williams). Those who maintain you have to be a bit crazy to succeed in the psychology racket will find ample confirmation.

(Just occurred to me…”Shrinking” is the old Bob Newhart-as-psychologist show on steroids…with a Viagra chaser.)

Jimmy’s circle also includes his sardonically-inclined neighbors (Christa Miller, Ted McGinley),  a War on Terror veteran with anger issues (Luke Tennie) and Jimmy’s enthusiastically out attorney (Michael Urie).

As was the case with both “Scrubs” and “Ted Lasso,” I’ve fallen in love with the show’s characters — not to mention its vaguely stressed-out  humanism and its intriguing look into the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of psychiatry.

Mark Addy (center)

“THE MURDERS AT WHITE HOUSE FARM” (HBO Max): The 1985 murders of five members of an Essex farm family are the basis for this six-episode series featuring the great Mark Addy (Robert Baratheon for you “GoT” geeks) as a rumpled police detective who bucks his superiors and public opinion to dig into the case.

In real life things were resolved with the conviction of a family member, but the series has just enough flexibility to leave us wondering if, in the end, they got the right guy.  

In any case, the show offers a pantry full of interesting characters and a whole slew of good perfs.

| Robert W. Butler

“WOMEN AT WAR”(Netflix):  Four French women — a prostitute, a nun, a fugitive from the law and a well-to-do wife and mother — find their world upended with the outbreak of World War I in this impeccably produced eight-parter.

“Women…”  (in French the title is “Les Combattantes,”  which I much prefer) seamlessly blends brutal realism with soap opera-ish plotting;  the results are wildly entertaining.

Set in the Vosges region of France in the early days of the conflict (this was before things bogged down in the awful limbo of trench warfare), the series gives us female protagonists struggling to survive in the absence of their menfolk.

Caroline (Sofia Essaidi) is left to run the family’s truck factory while her husband goes off to war. Plus she struggles to hide her disreputable past from his disapproving family.

Nurse Suzanne (Camille Lou) is on the run from the law after a patient dies during an illegal abortion; she takes the identity of a dead woman and begins treating wounded soldiers at the convent/hospital run by the tormented Mother Agnes (Julie De Bona), who finds herself questioning her vows when she falls for a shellshocked patient.

Meanwhile prostitute Marguerite (Audrey Fleurot) silently watches over the son she abandoned twenty years earlier…the kid is now a soldier stationed nearby. 

The series is crammed with intrigue, romance, close calls and some very well staged battle scenes. What you’ll remember most is the ghastly parade of mutilated bodies.

Staunchly feminist without making any big speeches, the series gives us menfolk who range from a decent army surgeon to a skin-crawling pimp, a predatory priest, a revenge-obsessed police detective and a dissipated rich boy. Even the villains are presented as complex characters.

Toss into the mix French cinematic royalty like Tcheky Karyo and Sandrine Bonnaire, and you have an absorbing historic piece that blends the epic and the intimate.

Itzuiar Ituno

“INTIMACY” (Netflix): Also carrying a feminist cudgel is the Spanish eight-parter “Intimacy.”

Part political thriller, part angry dissection of contemporary male privilege, the show centers on Malek (“Money Heist’s” Itziar Ituno), deputy mayor of Bilbao. She’s a tough, talented woman aiming to run the city, but her plans are threatened with the release of a video showing her having sex on a French beach with a man not her husband.

The crisis has implications for both her career and her family, but is only the starting point for a half-dozen subplots centering on wronged women.

A high school teacher (Patricia Lopez Arnaiz) looks for answers to the suicide of her sister (Veronica Echegul), who was humiliated when a years-old sex video goes viral among her coworkers at a factory.

Malek’s teen daughter (Yune Nogueiras) is dealing with a jerk boyfriend who has shared their sexting photos with classmates.

And a female police detective specializing in sex crimes (Ana Wagener) — smells a bigger conspiracy in Malek’s sexual outing.

“Intimacy” offers some great roles for women.  The guys — not so much.  The male characters are much less nuanced, ranging from outright thuggery to bland nice guys.

At least there’s Malek’s husband Alfredo (Marc Martinez), torn between anger at his newfound status as poster boy for cuckoldry and his rueful continued support of his wife’s ambitions.

“Behind every great woman,” he shrugs, “is an emasculated man.”

“THE INVESTIGATION”(Hulu):  That old reliable the police procedural gets an inspired overhaul in this Danish miniseries, a docudrama recreation of one of that country’s most notorious murder prosecutions.

2017’s “submarine case” centered on the death of Kim Wall, a journalist who was last seen getting onto a homemade submarine owned and operated by a Copenhagen industrialist.  Days later her torso — sans head and limbs — was found floating in Koge Bay.

The six episodes from writer/director Tobias Lindholm center on the efforts of a homicide detective and a public prosecutor  (Soren Malling and Pilou Asbaek, both veterans of the excellent “Borgen”) to find enough evidence to indict the rich creep.

But “The Investigation” departs from every other crime drama in never depicting either the criminal or the victim.  We hear about the cops grilling the suspect…we never see it. As for the dead woman, we meet her grieving parents, but only see a photograph of her during the closing credits of the final episode.

Mostly the show zeroes in on the nuts and bolts of police investigation and the case’s flabbergasting million-to-one payoff:  the cops placed cadaver-smelling dogs on boats that crisscrossed the bay for days until they picked up the telltale gases of human body parts decomposing beneath the waves.

Driving the whole enterprise is the dogged determination of the homicide detectives, who fight through numerous reversals and dead ends — along the way risking their own mental/emotional stability — to get justice for the dead woman.

| Robert W. Butler

Charlbi Dean, Harris Dickinson

“TRIANGLE OF SADNESS” My rating: B+ (Hulu)

147 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In 1974’s “Swept Away”  filmmaker Lena Wertmuller  pondered the romantic and political implications of two wildly dissimilar individuals — a spoiled rich woman and a proletarian sailor — becoming castaways on an uninhabited Mediterranean isle.

Ruben Ostlund’s Oscar-nominated “Triangle of Sadness” (it’s competing in the best picture, best original screenplay and best directing categories) takes that idea and expands it tenfold.

Instead of just two individuals representing different castes we get a dozen characters whose societal prejudices and economic backgrounds collide in a heady mashup of satiric comedy… and no small amount of seasickness-induced vomit.

It takes a while before we get a handle on what “Triangle…” is all about.  

It starts with dozens of shirtless male models gathered to audition for a major advertising campaign. Among these desperate hopefuls (all of whom are working desperately not to to look desperate) is Carl (Harris Dickinson), who tries to remain upbeat and positive even after one of the agents doing the hiring comments on his features exhibiting a “triangle of sadness,” whatever the hell that might be.

Anyway, Carl doesn’t get the job.  Later the depressed hunk is joined at dinner by his gorgeous model girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean).  The pair get to bickering…Carl points out that Yaya, despite having the more successful career, always finds ways not to pick up the check. It’s pretty clear that she’s always looking out for No. 1.

Ostlund’s film only kicks into truly comic mode when the couple are invited to cruise on an ultra-high-end yacht. The other passengers  are a mix of old and new money — one genteel British couple turn out to be international arms dealers with much blood on their hands. But, hey, it’s a chance for our young protagonists to eat well and soak up rays on somebody else’s tab.

But clearly something’s off.  The boat’s captain (Woody Harrellson) is undergoing a mental breakdown; he refuses to leave his cabin and appears to be on a world-class drug-and-drink bender. He’s joined in these dissipations by one of the passengers, a rags-to-riches  Eastern European entrepreneur (Zlatko Buric). Between shots and snorts the two carry on a friendly socialism-vs.-capitalism debate.

Woody Harrellson

Ostlund takes immense pleasure in quickly reducing the pampered passengers to wretched wraiths. A raging storm turns the ship into a roller coaster awash in puke; an attack by pirates sends the boat to the bottom of the sea and a handful of survivors flopping on a deserted beach like so many washed-up fish.

It’s in this castaway sequence that the film really pulls out its knives.  The only person with any survival skills is middle-aged Abigail (Dolly De Leon),  a crew member whose specialty was  cleaning the passengers’s toilets. Now, by virtue of being able to catch and cook fish, Dolly ascends to the status of tribal queen.  If the others want to eat, they’d better satisfy her whims…including her sexual demands.

“Triangle of Sadness” might be dismissed as misanthropic; it takes for granted that we’re all self-deluding and selfish fools, no matter where we stand on the economic spectrum.

But it takes such obvious glee in bringing its characters down to the same miserable state that we cannot help but get caught up in the proceedings.  Even a non-ending that tends to dribble away with little closure can’t undo the malevolent pleasures here exhibited.

| Robert W. Butler

My rating: A- (Opens Feb. 18 at the Glenwood Arts)

Once upon a time an animated short needed to do nothing more than make you laugh.

This year’s batch of Oscar-nominated shorts may make you chuckle now and then, but for the most part they’ll leave you gasping in admiration at their intellectual/emotional breadth.


This world-class mind molester from writer/director Lachlan Pendragon is like a “Twilight Zone” version of “The Matrix,” only animated in the stop-motion style made familiar by the folk at Aardman.

In a colorless office telemarketer Neil suffers through his soul-killing job as a toaster salesman. Actually we’re watching Neil on a video monitor that fills much but not all of the frame. You see, around the monitor’s edge we can see things moving. They’re out of focus but, yes, it appears to be an animation studio…we can see the animator moving his toy figures a fraction of an inch between shots to create the illusion of life.

Whoa…Neil thinks he’s living in reality (just like Neo in “The Matrix”) but he’s actually occupying a fictional space created by a filmmaker.

Mind blown yet?

About halfway through Neil falls asleep at his desk and awakens in the darkened office to find himself dealing with a chatty ostrich who informs him that he is living a lie: “Question everything, young man. The world is not quite what it seems.”

Now when Neil looks closely at his existence he sees evidence of the animator’s previously unseen hand. It’s freaking him out.

The meta-rich “An Ostrich Told Me…” is about as clever as a short film can be.

“ICE MERCHANTS” (Portugal; 14 minutes)

From a chalet perched high on the side of a mountain glacier, a man and his young son take advantage of the frigid air to make ice. Every day they load up a back pack with the frosty stuff and base jump to the valley floor below. Down there folks are happy to pay for crystal clear ice.

Just one problem. Things are starting to melt.

Joao Gonzalez delivers this wordless global warming parable in a spectacular graphic style. His images are simultaneously simple and sophisticated. Dominated by the colors orange and blue, the film looks like a silkscreen come to life. Ultimately “Ice Merchants” becomes a touching story of parental love and loss.

MY YEAR OF DICKS” (USA; 25 minutes)

Pamela Ribon’s memoir about the year she tried desperately to lose her virginity has been fashioned by director Sara Gunnardsdottir into a mini-epic of teen angst and social discomfort. Over a half hour we meet the various boys to whom our heroine is drawn…and, yeah, most of them are dicks.

Like the skateboarding lout David; the moody skinhead she meets at a party, and the movie theater employee who in her fevered imagination comes off as a Gallic lover out of a foreign film. Fact is, none of them are worthy of her…except maybe her best bud Sam, who serves as Pam’s emotional wingman and yearns to be something more.

Pam also has a sex talk with her father that is bleakly hilarious, not to mention so embarrassing as to put a girl permanently off carnality.

“My Year…” is both deliciously literary (much of the narration is a parody of flowery/bad romance novel prose) and astonishingly visual (at certain romantic moments our heroine turns into a manga version of herself, all big eyes and rounded features). Director Gunnardsdottir employs a plethora of visual styles, with each segment getting its own special look.

“THE FLYING SAILOR” (Canada; 8 minutes)

A sailor witnesses the explosion of a ship carrying a load of dynamite. The blast tears off his clothes and sends him flying through the sky head over heels, all the while reliving moments from his life. It’s both dreamlike and deeply disturbing.

A final credit informs us that the film was based on the actual experience in 1917 of a seaman who was blown more than a mile by an explosion and lived to tell about it.

“THE BOY THE MOLE THE FOX AND THE HORSE” (Great Britain: 32 minutes)

Peter Baynton and Charlie Mackesy’s animated adaptation of Mackesy’s 2019 children’s book is the sort of thing that can turn hobnailed tough guys into blubbering messes. It’s a simple story — heck, there’s hardly any story at all — with the emotional kick of a Clydesdale.

A tow-headed boy wanders a gorgeous winter landscape. He encounters a chatty mole (voiced by Tom Hollander), who senses the boy is lost and wants to provide assistance. The boy says he doesn’t know who he is or how he got there — only that he wants to go home.

His cross-country quest will bring him into contact with a sly fox (Idris Elba) who wants to chow down on the mole…at least until the mole does him a major favor. Later on a beautiful white horse (Gabriel Byrne) allows the other three to ride his broad back as they make for the distant lights that suggest a human settlement.

The simple yarn is crammed with moral uplift and emotional wisdom; it’s presented with such poetic polish that the viewer’s cynicism evaporates before it can do any damage.

Visually “The Boy The Mole…” is so gorgeous you want to hang every frame on the wall. The backgrounds are like exquisite water colors, while the characters have been rendered in a pencil-like style that recalls E.H. Shepard’s illustrations for the original Winnie-the-Pooh books.

The film is a marvel that returns the viewer to a childlike state of charity and openness…not bad for a short film.

| Robert W. Butler

Bill Nighy

“LIVING” My rating: A- (Theaters)

102 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Just about every element of “Living” works perfectly…which one half expects given that it’s a Brit remake of the brilliant Akira Kurosawa film “Ikiru (To Live).”

To that 1952 humanist triumph (about a gray civil servant whose life finds focus only when he faces death), screenwriter Kazoo Ishiguro and director Oliver Herman add a funny/sad study of a singularly English form of emotional constipation. There are actually some chuckles in this tale of a man with a fatal disease.

And the fact that the man in question is portrayed by the great Bill Nighy kicks “Living” into the emotional stratosphere. Nighy has won an Oscar nomination for his work here…I’ll be rooting for him to take home the golden boy.

“Living” opens with vintage color footage of post-war London, then cuts to a suburban train platform populated by identically-clad office workers (three-piece suits, bowler hats, briefcases and umbrellas) on their way to their jobs in the city. Director Herman has a good time framing and choreographing their movements to remind us of the zombie proles in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.”

We are introduced to Wakeling (Alex Sharp), a new hire at the public works office overseen by Nighy’s Mr. Williams. The kid learns quickly that the office is a place of Scrooge-ish joylessness; he and his colleagues are expected to shuffle much paperwork while accomplishing very little.

Woe be the citizen who enters this daunting bureaucratic maze, as Wakeling discovers when assigned to assist three housewives seeking to have a children’s playground built in the rat-infested bomb crater near their tenement.

Early on the sepulchral Williams visits a physician’s office where he gets bad news. The normally uncommunicative widower considers revealing his grim diagnosis to his live-in son and daughter-in-law, but can’t quite bring himself to open up.

Instead he plays hooky for the first time in his life. Rather than commuting to his desk Williams takes the train to a seaside resort where he is befriended by a rather seedy young intellectual (Tom Burke) and led on a Nighttown-style tour of disreputable cellars, jazz venues and strip-tease shows. It may be the closest thing to a holiday the stiff scarecrow has allowed himself in decades.

Back in London he befriends a young woman (Aimee Lou Wood) who recently left his employ; it is slowly dawning on Williams that while he is surrounded by other people, he actually knows none of them.

Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood

“Living” effortless adapts the unusual narrative of the Kurosawa film — the second half is devoted to Williams’ co-workers reflecting on how he chose to spend his final months — and we’re once again reminded of the original’s stroke of genius, the ways in which it mines emotions without stooping to stridency or heavy-handed bathos.

That savvy sense of restraint also permeates Nighy’s performance. His Williams at first presents as a human chalk stick — dry, white and brittle. Small wonder his newfound female friend describes him as “dead but not dead.”

But little by little we see the character grow aware of sensibilities that have been long dormant. Some actors would aim for the big moment, but Nighy gives a performance of astonishing subtlety. He knows a little goes a long way; he can make us feel more with a straight face than other players could evoke with howls and breast beating.

The resulting movie is a quiet triumph and an unexpected paradox: a feel-good film about dying.

| Robert W. Butler

“EO” My rating: B (In theaters)

89 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandra Drzymalska, Eo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Zen McGrath, Laura Dern, Hugh Jacckman

“THE SON” My rating: C+ (In theaters)

123 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But sometimes broke cannot be fixed.

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

Didn’t think so.

| Robert W. Butler

WOMEN TALKING” My rating: B + (Theaters)

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

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

126 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

Tom Hanks.

Mariana Trevino.

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

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

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

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

Mariana Trevino, Tom Hanks

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Brendan Fraser

“THE WHALE” My rating: B- (Theaters)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there are unexpected guests.

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

Sadie Sink

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Greta Gerwig, Adam Driver and family

“WHITE NOISE” My rating: C+ (Netflix)

136 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Harry Turner and Keanu

“WILDCAT” My rating: B+ (Prime Video)

106 minutes | MPAA: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samantha Zwicker

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Will Smith

“EMANCIPATION” My rating: B (Apple+)

132 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

The real Peter

Margot Robbie

“BABYLON” My rating: B (In theaters)

188 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brad Pitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entertained, but empty.

| Robert W. Butler

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

105 minutes | MPAA: PG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Olivia Colman

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

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toby Jones, Micheal Ward

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

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

192 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

I’m satisfied to have seen it once.

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

Hour One:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hour Two:

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

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

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

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

Hour Three:

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Sofia Kappel

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

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Steve Carell, Domhnall Gleeson


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

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

Now you just sit down and turn on the tube.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very dark, but worth it.

“THE CROWN” (Netflix)

Elizabeth Dibecki as Princess Di

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“INSIDE MAN” (Netflix)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Gabriel LaBelle

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

151 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Seth Rogan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

“CAUSEWAY” My rating: B+ (Apple TV +)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

“ANDOR” (Disney +)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“REBOOT”  (Hulu)

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

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

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

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

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

“THE ENGLISH” (Amazon Prime)

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler


108 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Radcliffe Evan Rachel Wood

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Felix Kammerer


148 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, right.

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

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

Still, this one sticks with you.

| Robert W. Butler 

Eddie Redmayne, Jessica Chastain

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

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noah Emmerich, Navya La Shay, Jessica Chastain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell

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

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kerry Condon

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

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

Yeah, dark.

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Dustin Lance Black and his mother, Anne

“MAMA’S BOY” My rating: A-  (HBO Max)

102 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

His professional life is impressive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

|Robert W. Butler

Zac Efron

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

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

I couldn’t have been more off the mark.

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Crowe, Zac Efron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Lily Collins, Connie Nielsen, Chace Crawford

“INHERITANCE” My rating: C (Netflix)

111 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

No, I didn’t buy it, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Pegg

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

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

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

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

It makes for a couple of tasty scenes.

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

| Robert W. Butler

Sinead O’Connor

“NOTHING COMPARES” My rating: B (Showtime)

97 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She never apologized, never backed down.

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

| Robert W. Butler

Emily Watson

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

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Ana de Armas as Norma Jeane/Marilyn

“BLONDE” My rating: B- (Netflix)

166 minutes | MPAA rating: NC-17

“Blonde” left me feeling…well, ambivalent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, yeah, “Blonde” is a downer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline

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

114 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Essie Davis, Thomasin McKe3nzie

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

101 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathtaking stuff.

| Robert W. Butler

June Smollett, Allison Janney

“LOU” My rating: C (Netflix)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or not.  

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

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

The chase is on.

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

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


89 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Walter Hauser, Taron Egerton

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

And, no, I’m not exaggerating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Hugh BonnevilleI “

“I CAME BY” My rating: B (Netflix)

110 minutes | No MPAA rating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something like that happens here.  

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

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

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

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

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


| Robert W. Butler

Tom Hanks and friend

“PINOCCHIO” My rating: C (Disney +)

106 minutes } MPAA rating: PG

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

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

The film does raise some interesting questions, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me, there’s no contest.

| Robert W. Butler

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

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

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

Series creator Abbi Jacobson (center)

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

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

Ewan McGregor

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

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

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

Ayelet Zurer, Lihi Kornowski

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon Horgan, Klaus Bang

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Jella Haase

“KLEO” My rating: B+ (Netflix)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dimitrij Schaad, Jella Haase

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

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

John Boyega

“BREAKING” My rating: B (In theaters)

103 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Kenneth Williams

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler

Aubrey Plaza

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

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easy money.

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

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

Theo Rossi

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

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

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

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

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

| Robert W. Butler