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Antonio Banderas

“PAIN & GLORY” My rating: B+

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The dominant aural element of Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain & Glory” is a solo oboe exuding gentle melancholy.

It’s the perfect soundtrack for one of this director’s best films, a semi-autobiographical (just how autobiographical will no doubt be debated at length) attempt to capture the limits of one man’s existence.

It’s not a busy film, nor is it particularly amusing or sensational in the ways that once made Almodovar the bad boy of Spanish cinema. “Pain and Glory” starts slowly and quietly builds in intensity until it delivers an overwhelmingly emotional experience.

Antonio Banderas,  the hunky sex object of Almodovar’s earlier efforts, stars as Salvador, a sixtysomething filmmaker who hasn’t had a new project in years.  We first meet him underwater in a swimming pool…turns out that floating  is one of the few things that relieves his physical and spiritual maladies.

In an animated sequence Salvador outlines his various infirmities, which range from fused vertebrae to migraines, digestive issues, outbreaks of tendonitis and, naturally enough, depression. All this has left him a virtual recluse; on most days he sees only his devoted secretary/Girl Friday Mercedes (Nora Navas).

“Pain & Glory” unfolds simultaneously in the present and in the past.

In the here and now Salvador learns that one of his films — made more than 30 years earlier — has been restored and is being given a special screening at the national cinematheque.  This results in a reunion between the director and the film’s leading man, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia). The two had a falling out and haven’t spoken in three decades.

They tentatively reignite their friendship; perhaps even more important to Salvador, Alberto turns him on to heroin, the only drug he hasn’t tried to cope with his almost constant pain.

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Emilia Clarke

“LAST CHRISTMAS” My rating: C-

102 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Despite my general hatred of seasonally-themed romantic comedies (like chugging a gallon of eggnog), there were reasons to think “Last Christmas” might be different.

For starters, it was written by Emma Thompson (who in addition to being a great actress gave us the screenplays for “Sense and Sensibility,” “Nanny McPhee” and “Bridget Jones’ Baby”) and directed by Paul Feig of “Bridesmaids” fame.

Surely those two could provide just enough edge to make all that good cheer palatable.

If only.

“Last Christmas,” which purportedly was inspired by the George Michael song of the same name, is an unbearable mess, too dour to be truly funny and too silly to work dramatically.

Most of the film is a too-quirky dramady that botches just about everything it attempts; in its final stages the script delivers a plot twist that has been so poorly set up that it hardly makes a dent in the audience ennui.

Kate (Emilia Clark) is a mess.  Though she considers herself an aspiring singer, she works in a year-round Christmas store in London where she is required to suit up as an elf — even in the summer.  Her off hours are devoted to boozing and sleeping with cute strangers.  At odds with her parents, she lives out of a suitcase, crashing on the couches of friends whose patience is wearing thin.

We’re supposed to find her charming in an offbeat way; mostly she’s just irritating.

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Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson

“THE LIGHTHOUSE” My rating: B

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” we don’t so much watch a couple of men go crazy as experience that craziness with them.

The film has been beautifully photographed, but beware…it is disconcerting, perplexing  and alienating. Eggers, who burst upon the scene a couple of years back with “The Witch,”  is less interested in solving mysteries than in creating visual and aural conundrums. We’re expected to come up with our own answers.

At the turn of the last century two men — the salty old Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and the much younger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) — take up their duties at a lighthouse on a remote island somewhere off the American coast. They are to be relieved in four weeks.

There’s friction from the start.  The experienced and dictatorial Thomas gives his newcomer partner the lousiest housekeeping jobs: cleaning out the cistern, emptying overflowing chamber pots, whitewashing the lighthouse while dangling in a harness, stoking the furnace that creates the steam to power the deafening foghorn. The old man claims the light itself as his special concern;  Ephraim is steer clear of the tower unless specifically ordered to climb those winding stairs.

This is bad enough. But Thomas is an irritating old coot, a monumental farter and snorer who insists on telling boring tall tales of sea life in a Long John Silver voice.

Ephraim has his own issues. He refuses to drink with Thomas…it seems likely that he is an alcoholic whose misbehavior on the mainland has led to a self-imposed exile.

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Roy Cohn

“WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?”  My rating: B

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Disbarred attorney and right wing political fixer Roy Cohn was such a creepy  character (those sociopathic hooded eyes) that liberals may be forgiven for wanting to forget all about him.

They do so at their own risk.

Matt Tyrnaer’s “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” is, in most regards, a conventional bio doc.

It follows Cohn’s life and career from boyhood (his parents assuaged their own unhappiness by treating him as a little prince) and his first real brush with corruption (at age 15 he used a bribe to get a teacher out of a traffic ticket) to his death from AIDS at age 59 in 1987.

The film covers all the high (or low) points you’d expect:

  • Prosecuting the Rosenbergs and personally lobbying the judge to ensure a death sentence.
  • Serving as counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in his infamous Red Scare campaigns.
  • Playing a major role in Army-McCarthy hearings (Coen tried to blackmail the U.S. Army to gain preferential treatment for PFC David Shine, a friend and colleague with whom he was infatuated).
  • His Machiavellian law practice, frequently on behalf of the corrupt and  powerful, including organized crime bosses like John Gotti. (Cohn’s motto:  “I don’t care what the law is. I want to know who the judge is.”)

But it is in the film’s final third that things get monstrously topical.  For here Tyrnaer’s examines Cohn’s mentoring of young Donald Trump, for whom Cohn cut numerous illegal deals that would pave the way to the erecting of Trump Tower.  Donald Trump who may not have been much of a scholar but apparently he remembered everything he heard and saw in Cohn’s presence and has been exploiting it ever since.

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Bruce Springsteen

“WESTERN STARS” My rating: A-

83 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

As a Springsteen geek of longstanding (I reviewed  his first album for the Kansas City Star back in ’73) I approached the concert film “Western Stars” with some trepidation.

In recent years Bruce Springsteen has published a superbly revelatory  autobiography and written, directed and performed a Tony-winning one-man Broadway show.

The trailer for his film “Western Stars” (the title of his most recent album) offers snippets of  our black-clad hero wandering across desert landscapes like a lost gunfighter, determinedly driving a pickup truck down a cactus-lined dirt track and communing with horses, all set to his voiceover musings.

This was worrisome.  Hadn’t Springsteen pretty much gotten it all out of his system with the book and the play?  Was there that much more there to explore?

Worse, the trailer makes it look like Bruce the Entertainer has been replaced by Mythic Bruce the Philosopher King, dropping pithy axioms on his fans. God, he isn’t going to call us all “Grasshopper,” is he?

I’m happy to report that those fears were unfounded. “Western Stars” is a brilliant piece of work, one that will thrill not only fans of the Boss but also more casual listeners (like Mrs. Butler, who pretty much gobbled up every minute).

It is at heart a concert film, with Springsteen and a 30-piece orchestra performing all the tracks from the “Western Stars” album (plus one killer bonus song) in a century-old barn on the Boss’s New Jersey farm.  Downstairs horses paw the  hay in their stalls; up in the loft a select audience hears the album unfold in what appears to be an acoustically perfect setting.

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Edward Norton

“MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN” My rating: C+

144 minutes | MPAA rating: R

It’s easy enough to understand why an actor of Edward Norton’s capabilities — or even an actor of lesser capabilities — would jump at the chance to portray Lionel Essrog,  the central character of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn.

Lionel lives in NYC and works in private investigations. He has a photographic memory. He’s smart.

And, oh yeah, he’s got Tourette’s syndrome, which leads to involuntary squawking, head jerking and explosions of inappropriate language. Not to mention a sense of social isolation. The poor schlub has never been in a love affair.

In other word’s, Lionel is an actor’s feast.

Wish Norton had left it at that.  For “Motherless Brooklyn” he also serves as scriptwriter and director (only his second behind-the-camera outing since 2000’s”Keeping the Faith”) and one cannot help but feel he was pulled too many ways, that his first love here is a character that he can really chow down on and that most everything else is an afterthought.

It’s not exactly a vanity project — too many big names and skilled artists are involved for that — but one can only wonder what would have happened with someone else calling the shots.

As screenwriter Norton has worked some major changes…for starters he sets the story in the early 1950s rather than the 1999 of the novel (the better to milk the yarn’s noir elements).  The tale still pivots on the murder early on of Lionel’s boss, legendary private eye Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), but in this retelling solving the crime leads not to underworld heavyweights but to governmental malfeasance.

You see, though it’s set 60 years ago, “Motherless” has a very contemporary view of politics.

Radiating arrogant malevolence, Alec Baldwin co-stars as Moses Randolph, a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker inspired by  Robert Moses, the real-life New York public official who for decades served as the powerful “master builder” of the modern city despite never having been elected to any office.

Our twitching hero’s investigation leads him to Laura, a beautiful African American lawyer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), her thuggish nightclub-owner stepfather (Robert Wisdom), and a cool-blowing jazz trumpeter (Michael Kenneth Williams) rather obviously inspired by Miles Davis.

We also meet Lionel’s gumshoe co-workers, portrayed by Bobby Canavale, Ethan Suplee, and Dallas Roberts.

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Eddy Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore

“DOLEMITE IS MY NAME” My rating: B- 

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Aside from setting a cinema record for the number of times “motherf**cker” and its variants are uttered, “Dolemite Is My Name” reminds us of why Eddie Murphy remains one of our comedy treasures.

Murphy slips effortlessly into the skin of Rudy Ray Moore, the struggling singer who in the early ’70s reinvented himself with a series of gleefully lewd party albums, then transferred his alter ego “Dolemite” onto the big screen at the height of the blaxploitation craze.

That said, this comedic slice of entertainment history from director Craig Brewer– a white guy whose Afro-centric films include “Hustle and Flow” and “Blacksnake Moan” —  is so slow out of the gate that more than few viewers will be tempted to bail before the picture hits its stride.

In the waning days of the 1960s the middle-aged Rudy Ray, pot-bellied and jowly, managers a record store and desperately tries to peddle his r&b/funk recordings.  His career is going nowhere (and at this point neither is this movie).

Then Rudy Ray latches onto a vociferous homeless guy (Ron Cephas Jones of TV’s “This Is Us”) who in exchange for a pint or two regales him with tales of the comedic folk hero Dolemite, a sort of ghetto Br’er Rabbit who bombastically outsmarts, outfights and outscrews any and all who get in his way.

Moore develops a comedy act in which he dons Afro wig and colorful pimp regalia to portray Dolemite, telling his self-serving stories in rhymed raps of pyrotechnical profanity. Black audiences go crazy for Dolemite; Rudy Ray is soon making a tour of the chitlin’ circuit, selling his LPs out of his car trunk.

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