Jai Courtney, Lily James

“THE EXCEPTION” My rating: B-  (Opens June 23 at the Glenwood Arts)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

At 88 years of age, Christopher Plummer just keeps getting better.

In “The Exception” he portrays an historic figure — Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany — and pretty much mops up the floor with actors half his age.

The premise of David Leveaux’s directing debut finds a young German officer — Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) — assigned to the thankless task of heading the household guard for Wilhelm II (Plummer), who has lived in exile in the Netherlands since abdicating the German throne two decades earlier after losing World War I.

Though the Nazi hierarchy has little use for the old man, Wilhelm still is regarded by some members of the German public as a beloved figurehead.  It would be a p.r. black eye should he be lost to an assassin or kidnapped by the Allies and spirited off to England. Brandt’s presence is meant to prevent that.

For the young officer — who was wounded in the invasion of Poland — the assignment is a bit of an insult. Wilhelm and his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer), live as high as they can on the cash Hitler’s henchmen provide, all the while dreaming of restoring the monarchy and once again wearing the crown.  Brandt is expected to tolerate their pretensions without encouraging them.

There’s one bright spot in this assignment. The Kaiser has a new housemaid, Mieke (Lily James), who catches the Captain’s eye.  Before long they are having a grand old time despite Hermine’s rule against copulation among members of the staff.

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Connie Britton, Salma Hayek

“BEATRIZ AT DINNER” My rating: C+ (Opens June 24 at the Tivoli and Glenwood Arts)

83 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Beatriz at Dinner” might be called a comedy of discomfort.

Actually, there’s a lot more discomfort than comedy.

Scripted by Mike White (“The Good Girl”) and directed by Miguel Arteta (a veteran of numerous TV seres), “Beatriz” offers a fish-out-of-water scenario brimming over with class, race and political implications.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek, sans makeup and sporting a mildly horrifying set of bangs) is a New Age-y therapist whose skills run from your standard massage to aura readings.  On this particularly day she has schlepped out from her headquarters in Pasadena to see to the needs of one of her richest (and, it seems, most demanding) clients.

Cathy (Connie Britton) lives in a gated community with an ocean view, along with her high-rolling husband Grant (David Warshofsky). She’s preparing to host a dinner that night and feels a desperate need for some hands-on work from the talented Beatriz.  (It says volumes that Cathy is stressed when all she really had to do was decide on a menu. Household servants and a caterer do all the real work.)

With the massage session over, Beatriz prepares to drive home, only to find that her car won’t start.  Cathy — who credits Beatriz’s therapies with getting her daughter through a bout with cancer — graciously suggests that the masseuse join the other guests for the evening.

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Jaeden Lieberher

“THE BOOK OF HENRY” My rating: C (Cinemark Palace, Barrywoods 24 and Town Center 20)

105 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

All movies are manipulative, but “The Book of Henry” is an emotional mugging.

Colin Trevorrow’s drama  (with comic moments) is an audacious blend of cute and creepy featuring a precocious child, early death, sexual abuse and attempted murder.

Oh, did I mention it’s supposed to be heart-tugging?

The film stars the terrific Jaeden Lieberher (“St. Vincent,” “Midnight Special”) as Henry Carpenter, an 11-year-old with the mind of a middle-aged man.

Henry is, to put it mildly, a genius. He makes amazing Rube Goldberg-ish kinetic constructions in the spectacular forest treehouse he’s fashioned from found parts. He’s a day trader who has managed to wrack up $1 million in cash and securities (how an 11-year-old can get away with this is never explained).  Wherever he goes Henry is the smartest guy in the room.

Which is good for his single mom Susan (Naomi Watts) and  his tremulous little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”). Susan is a bit of  a flake, addicted to violent video games and boozy binges with her bestie (Sarah Silverman). She works as a waitress and drives a beat-up car even though Henry (being the responsible grownup) keeps reminding her that there’s plenty of money.

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Dan Stevens, Berenice Marlohe

“KILL SWITCH” My rating: C (Opens June 16 at the Screenland Tapcade)

91 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Despite the presence of A-list actor (at least after “Beauty and the Beast”) Dan Stevens, there’s no disguising the origins of “Kill Switch.”

It’s basically a first-person shooter video game. The story may have been dreamt up by writers Charlie Kindinger and Omid Nooshin, but the execution is right out of your Xbox library.

In the near future a huge energy conglomerate called Alterplex has created technology to supply Earth with unlimited electricity. This involveves building a pair of huge towers that suck energy from an alternate universe that is an exact duplicate of ours (except, we discover, everything is in reverse…like looking into a mirror).

By the way, don’t try to comprehend the “science” behind all this.  It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.

Anyway, former astronaut Will Porter (Stevens) has been recruited by Alterplex soley as a troubleshooter who, if things go wrong, will ride a capsule into the alternate universe, hopefully shutting down the towers on the other side and ending the crisis.

Anyway, we see Stevens in flashbacks of Will’s recruitment by the company and interactions with his sister and nephew, but in this alternate universe we only get his point of view.  We see what he sees, and while we hear Will’s voice we can’t look at him because, well, because we’re looking out through his eyes.

Anyway, in this alternative universe Will must contend with a army of eco-terrorists who have sabotaged Alterplex’s big machine and put the whole thing into meltdown. He must dodge airborne drones that shoot at anything that moves.

There’s lots of first-person running, jumping, shooting…you get the picture.

Will is accompanied on this adventure by Abigail (Berenice Marlohe), an Alterplex executive who in the “real” world recruited him but in this one may be trying to stop him from fulfilling his mission which will, after all, bring this alternate world to an end.

Director Tim Smit does an okay job of rendering this alternate universe, but the story is way too complicated and the human beings more or less disposable.

| Robert W. Butler

“DEAN” My rating: C+ (Opens June 16 at the Tivoli)

94 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

You don’t have to look far to determine the pedigree of “Dean,” the new film written, directed by and starring standup comic/actor Dimitri Martin.

Think Zach Braff’s “Garden State” (bumbling millennial angst set to a folky alt-rock beat) and Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” (bittersweet romance, plus a New Yorker’s exile to sunny/shallow California.)

It’s all quite whimsical, as are the child-like cartoons drawn by the title character (the cartoons, actually done by Martin, are the film’s single strongest element).

Dean (Martin) is bummed out. For one thing, he’s broken up with his fiancé. Worse, his beloved mother recently died and he’s having a hard time coping.

When his father (Kevin Kline) starts making noises about selling the family’s Brooklyn home, Dean freaks out.  It’s not just the loss of his childhood abode…it’s irrefutable proof that Mom’s really gone.

He tries to outrun his grief with a business trip to L.A., where some smarmy slackers at an ad agency want to use his cartoons in a  cologne campaign aimed at teenage boys. The job falls through, but something good comes of it : He meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs), a young woman so simpatico and fun that he extends his visit just to be around her.

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Diane Lane

“PARIS CAN WAIT”  My rating: C+ (Opens wide on June 16)

92 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

“Paris Can Wait” is piffle. But it’s pleasant piffle.

Written and directed by Eleanor Coppola — yes, Francis’ wife and Sofia’s mom and the director of the killer doc “Hearts of Darkness” (about the making of “Apocalypse Now”) —  it stars Diane Lane as an American wife thrown together with a charming French fellow for a road trip from Cannes to Paris.

The film will appeal to women looking for a romance with a distinctly feminine perspective…and of course to guys who just like watching Diane Lane.

The film begins on the Riviera where Anne and her producer husband Michael (Alec Baldwin) have been attending the film festival. The plan is for the couple to fly to Budapest where Micheal has a movie in production, but an ear ache grounds Anne.

Michael’s business associate Jacques (Arnaud Viard) offers to drive Anne to Paris. He’s got a spiffy sporty convertible (which he drives like a teen on his first solo cruise); why doesn’t Anne take the scenic route as his co-pilot?

What was supposed to be a one-day drive turns into an extended trek.  The bachelor Jacques has a decidedly Gallic take on time management and cannot pass an attraction without showing it to Anne. And he has an encyclopedic knowledge of every good restaurant along the route.

“I can’t remember the last time I played hooky in the afternoon,” Anne marvels.

There are stopovers for an awesome ancient Roman acquaduct, and for museums dedicated to the Lumiere Brothers (the fathers of cinema) and textiles (one of Anne’s passions).

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Dave Johns

“I, DANIEL BLAKE”  My rating: B+ (Now showing at the Tivoli and Glenwood Arts)

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Is Ken Loach our greatest living filmmaker?

Granted, he’s hardly the flashiest. His films, while technically superb, never scream “Look what I can do with a camera!”

But over a career that spans five decades, the 80-year-old Loach has unwaveringly dedicated his movies to examining small lives…or at least the lives usually overlooked by Hollywood.

His vision is invariably humanistic and left leaning, and even when he tackles an historic subject (the Spanish Civil War in 1995’s “Land and Freedom,” the Irish rebellion in 2006’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” the conflict between Church and individual freedoms in the fledgling Irish Republic in 2014’s “Jimmy’s Hall”) he never lets conventional movie storytelling or ideology trump the human beings who are his constant focus.

His latest, “I, Daniel Blake” is vintage Loach: wise, sad, angry, and deeply moving.

The title character (Dave Johns) is a 59-year-old Newcastle widower and carpenter who has suffered an on-the-job heart attack. Dave wants more than anything to go back to work, but his doctors tell him he needs months of recuperation.

To survive this period of unemployment Dave must go on the dole, but qualifying and keeping his benefits proves a Kafka-esque nightmare of “Catch 22” conundrums and contradictions.

Anyone who’s ever spent an hour listening to Muzak while waiting to talk to a “representative” will identify with Daniel’s plight. Actually, that’s a relatively easy day compared to what our protagonist is about to go through.

American viewers who object to “socialized” medicine may be tempted to use “I, Daniel Blake” as a exhibit in their arguments. But not so fast.  Daniel is getting excellent medical care — the problem is the conservative government’s view that anyone receiving unemployment benefits is, by definition, a slacker who deserves to suffer in a bureaucratic limbo.

From the beginning the deck is stacked against Daniel. Government agencies expect him to communicate with them over the Internet, but Daniel’s an analog kind of guy who’s never been within 10 feet of a computer (his music is all on LPs and cassettes). He’s expected to write  up a job resume, then berated when he produces a hand-written CV.

His caseworker orders him to attend a job-hunting workshop — it’s as excruciating to experience in the context of a film as it is in real world.

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Joel Egerton, Kelvin Harrison Jr.

“IT COMES AT NIGHT” My rating: B

97 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The “it” of “It Comes at Night” doesn’t creep about on four legs or slither on its belly.  No fangs or claws. No growls or shrieks.

The subject of Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore feature (after last year’s devastating family drama “Krisha”) is fear. Fear of both the unknown, of whatever may be lying in wait for us, and fear of our own human selves which, given the right circumstances, can devolve into monsters far scarier than those lurking in the imagination.

As the film opens an old man is dying.  His eyes are black. Festering pustules dot his  body. Blood seeps from his nose and mouth. He breathes in gasps.

Whatever is killing the old man has spooked the other members of his family, who say their muffled goodbyes through biohazard masks. Then they load him up in a wheelbarrow and push him out to a pit where he will be dispatched with one bullet and his remains burned.

This is the new normal for Paul (Joel Egerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).  They live in a house deep in the woods. The windows are boarded up so that from the outside the place looks abandoned. They don’t venture outside any more than is absolutely necessary.  They are on constant alert for unwanted visitors.

What catastrophe has befallen mankind that they must live this way?  Schults’ screenplay never provides an answer and, anyway, that’s not what “It Comes at Night” is about.

Late one night the three hear someone trying to break in.  They capture the intruder, a young man named Will (Christopher Abbott) who claims he thought the house was empty when he began scavenging for supplies. Will says his wife and young son are waiting for him in a cabin nearly 50 miles away.

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Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz

“MY COUSIN RACHEL”  My rating: B- 

106 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Ambiguity can be a wondrous thing on the printed page, as exemplified by Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.”

In the dramatic arts, though, ambiguity  can lead to frustration and dissatisfaction.

“My Cousin Rachel,” the second filmed version of Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel (the first, in 1952, starred Olivia DeHavilland and introduced Richard Burton to American audiences), is a well-made, well-acted yarn that is overwhelmingly faithful to the source material.

Problem is, the source material is one big guessing game — a game in which cut-and-dried answers are not forthcoming. It gives us a title character whose motivations and inner are  deliberately left obscured.

We can watch with intellectual fascination, but it’s hard to be moved when you don’t know who to root for.

Set in 19th century rural England, the tale centers on the orphaned Philip (Sam Claflin of “The Hunger Games,” “Me Before You” and “Their Finest”). Philip was reared by his wealthy cousin Ambrose on a remote Cornish estate where a bachelor ethos has always prevailed…i.e. no women.

As the film begins the ailing Ambrose (seen only fleetingly in flashbacks) has gone to Italy where the climate is more beneficial, leaving Philip in charge of the estate. Ambrose sends back letters describing meeting an English/Italian widow named Rachel, whom he marries.

But the tone of his letters soon turns dark. Ambrose accuses his new bride of slowly poisoning him and intercepting his outgoing epistles. Philip rushes to Italy but arrives too late — Ambrose has died (of a brain tumor, according to an inquest) and his new wife is nowhere to be found.

Philip returns to the vast English properties he now owns, only to find that Rachel (Rachel Weisz) has followed him to England. Initially Philip treats her with suspicion and contempt, but gradually warms to her courtesy, friendliness and seeming lack of interest in taking control of her late husband’s property. (As it turns out, Ambrose died before revising his will, so she has no claim.)

“Rachel” is a love story, but one studded with all sorts of caveats and concerns.  Philip finds himself falling for Rachel, but then he’s not exactly the most sophisticated guy when it comes to women.  Like his benefactor Ambrose, he knows zip about the fairer sex, which makes him an easy mark if Rachel is running some sort of scam.

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Kristin Archibald, Lucas Neff, Doug Archibals

“I LOVE YOU BOTH” My rating: C+

90 minutes | No MPAA rating

It sounds pretty kinky,  like it should be playing at a gay film festival:  A brother and sister — twins, no less — both find themselves falling romantically for a charming hipster.

Except that the comedy “I Love You Both” isn’t actually about sex or romance.

No, this home-grown effort by real-life twins Doug and Kristin Archibald — they co-wrote the script, play siblings onscreen, and Doug directed (plus, they cast their own mother as their characters’ mom) — is about something trickier, something that maybe only twins would truly understand.

As they approach their 28th birthdays, Krystal and Donny are crazily co-dependent. They still live together in a tiny apartment. They share a dog. Both are a bit antisocial — or at least socially inept. Small wonder that they’ve always been each other’s best friend.

Oh, they make a stab at a life outside their little insular world. Krystal works for a software company and recently broke up with a co-worker.  Donny is a keyboardist dreaming of a concert career and marking time by teaching piano to tone-deaf kids.

But basically neither can imagine a life independent of the other.

Enter Andy (Lucas Neff), a laid-back, genuinely nice elementary school teacher who has a history with both men and women.

Initially Krystal and Donny accept Andy’s friendship at face value…except that both are nurturing  a flame for their new bud.

Eventually that tension will force them to begin carving out individual lives.

The film’s oddball sense of humor — filled with eye rolling at the relationship minefield — sometimes pushes too hard. But Kristin Archibald, making her acting debut, proves adept at selling an infectious blend of dweeb sexiness and sardonic glumness.  She might have an acting career ahead of her.

Brother Doug is less photogenic and not quite so compelling a screen presence, but his behind-the-scenes work is top notch.

| Robert W. Butler

Liev Schreiber as boxer Chuck Wepner

“CHUCK” My rating: B

98 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Watching a familiar actor utterly lose him/herself in a role is one of the deep pleasures of moviegoing.

Liev Schreiber makes that transformation in “Chuck.” But then so do Naomi Watts (a.k.a. Mrs. Schreiber), Elizabeth Moss, Ron Perlman and Jim Gaffigan.

The subject of director Philippe Falardeau’s bracing little film (the screenplay is credited to Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael  Cristofer and Schreiber) is Chuck Wepner, the  New Jersey club fighter known affectionately/sardonically as the “Bayonne Bleeder” for his willingness to be beaten to a pulp.  (In fact, “Chuck’s” original title was “The Bleeder.” Wish they’d stuck with it.)

In 1975 the virtually unknown Wepner got a crack at taking away Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight belt in a bout conceived and advertised by promoter Don King as a blatant racial  confrontation.

Werner’s fight strategy was pretty simple: “I could’t hit  him. I figured I’d wear him down with my face.”

Wepner didn’t win, but he lasted for more than 14 bloody rounds against the world’s best, sending the champ to the mat once and losing by a TKO with only 19 seconds left in the fight.

Out in Hollywood a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone was so inspired by Wepner’s David-and-Goliath story that he wrote a screenplay called “Rocky.”

“Chuck” isn’t really a boxing film. Rather, it is simultaneously a fact-based yarn about the ever-widening fallout from the Ali-Wepner fight and a character study of a Palooka whose a brief brush with fame went straight to his head.

Schreiber’s Chuck, who narrates his story, is by most accounts a pretty average guy. He worked as a nightclub bouncer and as a debt collector for a loan shark, though his heart wasn’t in it. (“I was never good at roughing guys up. Too nice.”)

His wife Phyllis (Moss) is the family breadwinner, thanks to her gig with the U.S. Post Office. Chuck shows his appreciation by writing heartfelt doggerel about her virtues.

Eventually an admirer lands Chuck a liquor distributorship.  It’s an OK living, but it provides way too many opportunities to hang around bars and pick up other women. (It also provides an opportunity for a soundtrack filled with disco hits.)

The Ali fight provides Chuck with bragging rights and celebrity status.  Once “Rocky” becomes an Oscar-winning phenomenon, everyone assumes he must have sold his story to the  movies for big bucks.  In fact, Chuck didn’t earn a cent off the film.

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Tracy Letts, Debra Winger

“THE LOVERS” My rating: B (Opens May 26 at the Tivoli)

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Spectacularly acted and deliciously dark, “The Lovers” is a breathtaking balancing act between comedy and drama.

Azazel Jacobs’ cinematic faceslap centers on the fiftysomething Michael and Mary (Tracy Letts, Debra Winger), a suburban  couple who  have been married for so long that they’ve given up searching for that old spark.

They’re more like roommates than spouses. Most of their conversations center on the mundane; they can coast a long way on “We’re out of toothpaste.”

But each is having a secret extramarital affair.

Michael is doodling with Lucy (Melora Walters), a  ballet instructor at least a decade his junior whose neediness is off the charts.

Mary is getting it on with Robert (Aidan Gillen, Littlefinger on “Game of Thrones”), a writer who’s given to lurking outside her place of work.

Both Lucy and Robert are absurdly vulnerable and emotionally naked.  They’re more like a couple of lovesick teens than adults, and Michael and Mary are exhausting themselves trying to please their lovers without giving away  the game at home.

It may be time to fish or cut bait.  Lucy and Robert are tired of the lies and excuses and each lays down the law:  End the marriage.  Now

Independently, Michael and Mary both promise that they’ll bring down the curtain  during an upcoming reunion with their college-age son.

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Johnny Depp


129 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

At this late stage audiences for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” should know better than to expect any surprises.

Like all of its predecessors, “Dead Men” is as shiny and polished as a hand-blown glass Christmas ornament — and just as empty.

The plot (the screenplay is credited to Jeff Nathanson) is predictably incomprehensible.

Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the grown son of series regular Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, who has maybe 90 seconds of screen time), is determined to save his father from eternal enslavement on the sunken ship the Flying Dutchman. (Thwaites is such a bland screen presence that he achieves the near impossible by making Bloom seem dynamic.)

To break that spell Henry will have to obtain several powerful talismans:  a pirate diary containing a hidden map, a compass with mystical properties,  Poseidon’s trident.

He bickers with a young woman, Carina (Kaya Scodelario), who is so much smarter than the oafish and superstitious men around her that she’s repeatedly condemned as a witch. Wanna bet they’re going to move past bickering and fall in love?

The series regulars — among them Geoffrey Rush as the dour Captain Barbossa and the crew members of the Black Pearl — give their usual one-note performances. Most of these characters were set in stone four movies ago and haven’t evolved one whit.

That goes especially for star Johnny Depp, whose Captain Jack Sparrow remains an unchanging and buffoonish blend of swash and swish. For this viewer, anyway, the charm wore off several films back. Continue Reading »

Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle as the Dickinson sisters

“A QUIET PASSION” My rating: B 

125 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like most of Terence Davies’ films, “A Quiet Passion” moves at a glacial pace that taxes an audience’s patience.

Stick with it, though, and you’ll get Cynthia Nixon in the performance of a lifetime.

As poet Emily Dickinson, Nixon (most of us will always know her as the red-headed Miranda on HBO’s “Sex and the City”) plays a physically passive character.  About the most exciting thing Emily Dickinson does is leisurely walk through her family’s 19th-century garden beneath a parasol.

But beneath that civilized, socially-acceptable exterior there beats an angry heart, and periodically it surges to the forefront with dazzling results.

Davies’ screenplay follows Emily from her graduation from a girls’ school (in early scenes she’s played by Emma Bell) to her death in 1886 at age 55. With the exception of an opening scene set at the school, Davies film unfolds entirely in the Dickinson family home in Amherst, Massachusetts — fittingly so, since by middle age Emily was something of a recluse who devoted herself to her ailing mother.

She also devoted herself to her writing,  though Dickinson  died before her work was widely distributed.  Today, of course, she’s regarded as one of best poets this country ever produced, but during her lifetime she saw only about a dozen poems printed in local newspapers.  And those were heavily tinkered with by editors who disapproved of her creative punctuation and other eccentricities.

Film biographies of writers are usually odd affairs.  Nothing terribly interesting in a person scribbling with a pen or pecking at a typewriter.  Davies includes a few shots of Emily writing, but mostly he uses Nixon’s voice-over narration to read relevant Dickinson works.

What the film is really about are Emily’s interactions with her family and friends, and how they reveal her mind and personality. Some of these confrontations are genteel and measured, others volcanic.

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