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Jodie Turner-Smith, Michael B. Jordan

“TOM CLANCY’S WITHOUT REMORSE” My rating: C (Amazon Prime)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Critical reaction to Netflix’s “Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse” has pretty much centered on the fact that leading man Michael B. Jordan is WAY too talented to be wasted on this sort of superficial action drek.

I cannot argue with that analysis — putting Jordan in this “John Wick”-ish clone is like using a thermonuclear device to get rid of a wasp nest hanging from your eaves.

Yet even mediocre movies can be significant within a larger social context, and “Without Remorse” (a cheesy, generic title) feels like the right film at the right time in our intensifying national discussion about race.

Not that the film overtly addresses race. Outwardly, anyway, it’s color blind. But it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to find other stuff going on.

Clancy’s 1993 novel introduced readers to John Kelly, a Navy Seal who in 1970 is sent on a Rambo-is mission to recover an American intelligence officer from a North Vietnamese POW camp. He uncovers a high-level government plot to smuggle heroin into the US in the bodies of slain soldiers and instigates a murderous cleanup spree.

Eventually he’s recruited by the CIA, changes his hame to John Clark, and goes on to recurring appearances in a slew of Ryanverse novels.

Presumably the John Clark of the novels is white. Indeed, during the many years that the film version was in preproduction limbo, white actors like Keanu Reeves and Tom Hardy were considered for the role.

The ultimate choice of a black actor probably had less to do with ulterior motives on the part of the filmmakers than on Jordan’s widespread popularity. He is a draw for audiences of all colors.

Watching the film — which has shed its Vietnam-era trappings and takes place in the present; about all it has in common with the novel is the title — one is struck by its seeming color blindness. No mention is made of Kelly/Clark’s race. He’s an elite fighter, a devoted husband and soon-to-be father. But race doesn’t figure into it.

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“THE TRUFFLE HUNTERS” My rating: A-

84 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Notwithstanding its title, “The Truffle Hunters” imparts relatively little information about the actual process of hunting for those priceless subterranean fungi so beloved of cultured palates.

Turns out that the crusty old men of the Piedmont would prefer not to give away their truffle-hunting secrets in front of the camera. This explains why directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw rely heavily on extreme long shots of a tiny human figures — and their faithful dogs — rustling through the thick greenery of Italian hillsides.

But if the nuts and bolts of truffle hunting remain mysterious, “The Truffle Hunters” succeeds magnificently in capturing the rhythms of lives spent in the forests, the attitudes and outlooks of old men whose deepest relationships appear to be with the canines on whose sharp noses they rely.

With no narration, graphics or explanation this doc plops us down in the truffle hunters’ world. We see them at home (many of these colorful codgers seem to live as hermits in a largely technology-free setting). We watch them interact with their beloved pets (the pooches have personalities to rival those of their masters).

One fellow passes the time by bashing away on a full drum kit on his porch.

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Glenn Close, Mila Kunis

“FOUR GOOD DAYS” My rating: B+

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Any more it takes something special for a drug addiction drama to ring my bell. A pall of been-there-done-that hovers over the entire genre.

“Four Good Days” has a premise I’ve never seen before. Plus it’s a prime example of mano-a-mano acting from the fierce duo of Glenn Close (whom we’ve come to expect for this sort of thing) and Mila Kunis (whom we haven’t).

And it’s the latest from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia, a genius of cinematic humanism who gets my vote as creator of the best films nobody has seen (“Nine Lives,” “Mother and Child”).

Suburban housewife Deb (Glenn Close) is angry and distressed to find her thirtysomethibng daughter Molly (Mila Kunis) on her doorstep.

Molly is a junkie. Her trips to rehab number in the double digits. On previous visits Molly has burgled Deb and her husband Chris (Stephen Root) to buy drugs. She just can’t stay sober.

Deb refuses to open the door. She’s been burned too many times. She still loves her daughter, but experience has taught her to steer clear if she values her sanity.

Trouble is, next morning Molly is still perched on the stoop. Moreover, she claims to be in line for a medication that neutralizes the effects of narcotics. With no high, what would be the point of shooting up?

But there’s a catch. The wonder drug reacts violently — possibly fatally — to any narcotics in the user’s body.

Which means that after spending three days in rehab to qualify for the program, Molly must remain clean for the next four days before getting her first dose.

Can she do it?

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Anna Kendrick

“STOWAWAY” My rating: B- (Netflix)

116 minutes | No MPAA rating

The sci-fi entry “Stowaway” has been so well mounted and incisively acted that it almost convinces itself — and us — that it has something important on its mind.

It’s not until it’s all over that you recognize plot holes big enough to drive a Death Star through.

Director Joe Penna’s space opera centers on a head-scratchingly unlikely occurrence.  In the near future, a three-astronaut flight to Mars is jeopardized with the discovery of a fourth person on board.  This interstellar hitchhiker so stresses the vessel’s life-support system that everyone’s survival is in doubt.

Which raises the uncomfortable question:  Who should die so that at least one or two of the travelers can complete their mission to the Red Planet?

Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison root their film in a workaday reality.  

The three astronauts (they’re portrayed by Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette and Daniel Dae Kim) exhibit the sort of competent blandness one expects of today’s space explorers (they’re considerably more professional than the wild-man test-pilot types of the early Mercury missions). 

Their ship’s interior feels uncomfortably like a utility tunnel lined with haphazardly with electronic equipment. No stylish futurism here.

And while the astronauts often communicate with their support staff on Earth, we only hear the spacemen’s side of the conversation…they’re wearing headsets and we’re not privy to what the guys back home are saying.

This makes for a slowly building sense of isolation and claustrophobia.

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Ed Helms, Patti Harrison

“TOGETHER TOGETHER” My rating: B

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Given its premise — middle-aged bachelor hires young woman to carry his child — and the presence of funnyman Ed Helms, one might expect “Together Together” to hit the usual rom-com cliches.

Nope.

Writer/director Nicole Beckwith’s sophomore effort (her debut was the little-seen Saoirse Ronan thriller “Stockholm, Pennsylvania”) delivers a delicate character study more interested in human truths than easy laughs.

The resulting film is a low-keyed affair that worms its way into th head and heart.

Matt (Helms) is an app developer who advertises for a woman to carry his child. He settles on Anna (Patti Harrison), who as a teen gave birth to an illegitimate baby and put it up for adoption. She’s level-headed and apparently neurosis-free…she sees this as a business deal with little need for sentiment or emotional fireworks.

Moreover, she’s merely the vessel. She’ll be implanted with another woman’s egg fertilized by Matt’s sperm in the lab.  It’s about as impersonal as pregnancy  gets.

For Matt, though, it’s  totally personal.  His romantic relationships have all failed, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t love to share. He desperately wants to be a parent.

Which makes for some mildly comic moments as he tries to dictate Anna’s eating habits and lifestyle choices.  He insists on accompanying her to the OB-GYN and doing all the things expected of expectant fathers — even when Anna just wants to be left alone to gestate.

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Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin

“CONCRETE COWBOY” My rating: B (Netflix)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Inner city kid facing an uncertain future is saved by a program that mixes tough love with animal husbandry.

Uh…haven’t we seen this movie about a hundred times already?

Well, yes and no.

The basic plot of “Concrete Cowboy” offers little in the way of surprises. It’s very familiar territory.

The presentational style, though, is fresh and gritty and hugely effective. It’s more Chloe Zhao art film than movie-of-the-week melodrama.

Troubled Detroit teen Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is sullen and angry. He’s being expelled from school for fighting.

So his desperate mother throws his shit into a black plastic trash bag, drags the kid into her car, and overnight drives him the 600 miles to Philadelphia, where she unceremoniously dumps the boy on his father’s doorstep. She’s going to let her ex deal with the young punk over the summer.

“Dad” is Harp (Idris Elba), who lives in a mostly-black neighborhood on the city’s northern edge.  At first glance there’s nothing special about the block of decaying row houses on which Harp lives…until you realize that one old commercial buiilding has been converted into a stable.

Harp and his neighbors are horse junkies. It’s not like they’re an official club or anything…the so-called Fletcher Street Riders (they’re a real thing) just love horses and spend whatever spare money they’ve got to feed, groom and outfit the big animals.  Any cash left over is devoted to communal bonfires replete with weed and whisky. (They’re kind of like benign black bikers with horsies instead of Harleys.)

The screenplay by Dan Walser and director Ricky Staub follows Cole’s gradual assimilation into this clan of urban equestrians…not that it’s an easy transition.

For one thing, he and the old man do not get along. The kid ends up sleeping in the stables, sharing a stall with a horse so mean it seems destined for the glue factory.  And, yes, the angry animal bonds with the angry teen.

Meanwhile there’s his dangerous friendship with Smush (Jharrel Jerone), who sucks Cole into an ill-advised plan to sell drugs.

Elba is top billed here, and he brings a smoldering intensity and quiet dignity to Harp. Especially fine is a monologue in which he explains to his estranged son why he named him Cole (he’s a John Coltrane fan).

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Andrea Riseborough, Dane Dehaan

“ZeroZeroZero” My rating: B (Netflix)

Streaming services are awash with crime dramas, so it takes something new and different to grab my attention.

Netflix’s 8-hour miniseries “ZeroZeroZero” did just that. 

Filmed in Mexico, the U.S., Africa and Italy — not to mention on the high seas — this sprawling crime epic has the big feel and complexities reminiscent of author Don Winslow’s “Cartel” trilogy. We’re talking compelling (if often repugnant) characters, international sweep and a suspension of the usual moral niceties.

Not to mention some hair-raising action sequences.

Created by Leonardo Fasoli, Mauricio Katz and Stefano Sollima, the series follows a shipment of illegal drugs from Mexico, across the Atlantic, through North Africa and on to Calabria in the “boot” of Italy where crime families have been feuding and murdering for generations.

The instigator here is Don Minu (Adriano Chiaramida), a bearded patriarch who looks to be on his last legs but is in fact as ruthless and tough-minded as a thug half his age.  Don Minu places an order for a multi-million-dollar shipment of drugs…a stash so huge that it will change the power equation among Italy’s regional criminal syndicates.

The middleman is Edward Lynwood (Gabriel Byrne), a resident of New Orleans who puts together complex plans executed by his cooly efficient daughter Emma (Andrea Riseborough, giving Tilda Swinton some fierce competition in the weird androgyny department).  

Edward also has a son, Chris (Dane DeHaan), who has been kept out of the family business; the young man has inherited the genetic disorder that killed his mother and likely will never reach age 35.

Nevertheless, Chris will find himself accompanying his sister and the drug shipment (hidden in cans of vegetables) on their long journey. A newcomer to the world of crime, Chris is our guide (we learn as he does); moreover, he views this dangerous enterprise as a great adventure.  I mean, he’s going to die anyway in a few years, so what the hell?

Much of the effectiveness of “ZeroZeroZero” comes from the fact that the three directors (Janus Metz of Denmark, Pablo Trapero of Argentina and Stefano Sollima of Italy) bring a true international feel to the proceedings, with episodes set in different countries finding their own visual and narrative styles.

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Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges

“FRENCH EXIT” My rating: C

110 minutes | MPAA rating:n R

Curiosity. Perplexity. Frustration.

That’s the emotional journey provided by “French Exit,” a bizarre black comedy (at least I think it’s supposed to be a black comedy) that left me dissatisfied despite the presence of big-time star Michelle Pfeiffer, up-and-comer Lucas Hedges, and a strong supporting cast.

Frances Price (Pfeiffer) is a world-weary socialite who is quickly running out of money. Over the last decade she has burnt up the fortune left by her late husband (apparently a Bernie Madoff type whose financial dealings were, uh, questionable).

Now Frances and her spacey son Malcolm (Hedges) are staring down homelessness. Luckily, one of Frances’ rich friends (Susan Coyne) has an empty apartment in Paris. Why don’t the mother and son relocate the the City of Light and start anew?

Director Azazel Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick DeWitt (adapting his own novel) want us to find the Prices quirky and charming and emotionally liberating.

Certainly all the other characters in the film are entranced by the pair. These include a nutty/needy American expatriate (Valerie Mahaffey), a “gypsy” cruise-ship fortune teller (Danielle Macdonald), a Parisian private eye (Isaach De Bankole) and Malcolm’s old girlfriend (Imogen Poots). And, oh yeah, Frances’ late husband (voiced by Tracy Letts) who has taken up residence in the family’s pet cat.

These diverse personalities end up sharing the apartment…it’s like a sleepover camp for the emotionally underdeveloped.

Here’s the bottom line: Pfeiffer’s Frances is spoiled, self-centered, bitter and grumpy — and not in the laugh-out-loud manner of Catherine O’Hara in “Schitt’s Creek.” Her self pity is not attractive.

Hedges, meanwhile, plays a young man who has rarely left his mother’s side and behaves as if he’s on the spectrum.

The title, by the way, refers not only to the pair’s retreat to Paris but also, one suspects, to Frances’ plan to kill herself when the last Euro is spent. Be thankful the movie ends before it gets to that point.

| Robert W. Butler

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Naomi Watts

“PENGUIN BLOOM”  My rating: B (Netflix)

95 minutes | No MPAA rating

Movies in which a human is befriended by a wild animal are often satisfying…and just as often ethically iffy.

Handled improperly these yarns  so anthropomorphize the animal that viewer end up ascribing human emotion and intellect to a creature that, let’s face it, functions largely on instinct and appetite.

The Aussie “Penguin Bloom” avoids just about all the pitfalls of the genre.

For starters, it’s based on a true story (yeah…this is one of those movies where the closing credits play out over photos of the real-life people on which the film characters are based).

For another, it’s been extremely well acted.

And finally, the filmmakers —  director Glendyn Ivin and screenwriters Shaun Grant and Harry Cripps — never go for a big gesture when a little one will do. Sometimes less IS more.

We meet housewife and mother Samantha Bloom (Naomi Watts, also the film’s producer) in the aftermath of an accident that has left her paralyzed from the chest down. She’s pretty much confined to her bed and a wheelchair. Her days of riding herd on her three rambunctious sons apparently are a thing of the past. Best not to even think about her love of surfing.

The good news is that husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) has assumed most of the parental chores. His work as a freelance photographer gives him plenty of time around the house, and he’s clearly devoted to Sam.

Not that it registers. Sam is sinking ever deeper into a crippling depression; she knows she would devote more time to the kids and her own recovery, but seems mired in her own personal misery.

And then one of the boys brings home a young magpie injured in a fall from its nest.  He immediately dubs the bird Penguin (because of its black and white coloration) and creates a home for the newcomer in a wicker basket.

Sam and Cameron assume the creature will soon die; at best it will recover and take off.

Nope. Penguin shows every sign of taking up permanent residence, racing around the house (it cannot yet fly) and getting positively possessive about the small sock monkey one of the boys places in her nest. (more…)

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The cast of “Call My Agent!”

“CALL MY AGENT!” My rating: B  (Netflix)

“Call My Agent!” unfolds in a Paris agency representing the cream of French film and television talent.

The gimmick of this French comedy series is that every episode features a guest star, a real-life legend — we’re talking Juliette Binoche, Christopher Lambert, Sigourney Weaver, Jean Dujarden, Isabelle Huppert, Jean Reno —  playing spoiled, temperamental, insecure, misbehaving versions of themselves.

But the real subject of Fanny Herrero’s 24-episode (over four seasons) creation is lying.

The ever-scrambling agents who populate the ASK offices are forever lying to their clients, to their loved ones and to each other.  It’s a requirement of the job, rarely done in malice, and often to protect the fragile feelings of the pampered stars to whom they owe their livings.

But be assured that no lie — no matter how creative or outrageous — remains unexposed for long.

Here’s the thing: despite their problematic relationship with the truth, the characters here quickly win us over.  Herrero and her co-creators have given us personalities that we quickly glom onto. They’re witty and driven and creative, and it’s a thrill to be around them.

Moreover, the series does a terrific job of exploring these different personalities over four seasons. Characters who at first seem mere background figures will at some point emerge as the center of their own episodes and story arcs.

There are too many interesting figures here to explore them all, but here’s a thumbnail analysis of the most important:

Andrea Martel (played by Camille Cottin):  This cutthroat agent and predatory lesbian has to re-evalute her existence when she finds herself pregnant after an impetuous three-way.

Mathias Barneville (Thibault de Montalembert): The head of ASK is sauve and cultured.  Except that in the first episode he gets an unexpected complication — the arrival of Camille (Fanny Sidney), the twenty-something lovechild of his long-ago extramarital affair.  He gives his daughter a job (she’s the most principled person on site) but struggles to keep his wife ignorant of his infidelity.

Ariette Azemar (Liliane Rovere):  The grande dame of the outfit, who’s seen and heard just about everything.  She’s constantly accompanied by her lapdog Jean Gabin (and if you appreciate that bit of name dropping, you’ll love just about everything about this series). (more…)

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