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Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan

THE TENDER BAR” My rating:  B (Amazon Prime)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Will the real Ben Affleck please stand up?

I cannot think of another major actor — okay…Nicolas Cage — whose public persona ranges so widely between genius and ass-hat smirk monkey. 

One cannot dismiss successes like Affleck’s Oscar-winning “Argo”; at the same time the man’s personal and romantic ups and downs are a publicist’s nightmare and a constant inspiration for late-night talk-show monologues.

I’m happy to report that Affleck gives one of his best performances — hell, one of the best performances of the year — in “The Tender Bar,”  George Clooney’s knowing adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s coming-of-age memoir.

Affleck is essentially a supporting player here but his work is so subtle, insightful and charismatic that all the tabloid baggage falls away and we are left in the thrall of an actor connecting perfectly with his character.

The rest of the film is no slouchfest, either. 

Early on young JR (played to perfection by first-timer Daniel Ranieri) and his mom (Lily Rabe) are forced by economic necessity to return to Mom’s blue-collar home town on Long Island. There they take up residence with crusty Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd), quiet Grandma (Sondra James) and especially JR’s uncle, Charlie (Affleck).

JR is essentially fatherless — his biological sire is a  boozing, womanizing, peripatetic radio deejay several years behind on the child support checks.  Under the circumstances one understands why the kid gravitates to his effortlessly suave uncle.

Charlie runs a working man’s bar filled with garrulous regulars.  Like young JR, Charlie is a huge consumer of good literature. At the same time, he never comes off as effete or uber-intellectual; he’s beloved by his dirt-under-the-nails customers for his arid irony, unforced toughness and down-to-earth humanism.

In effect Charlie and his barflies become JR’s adopted father figures, dispensing whiskey-fueled wisdom and (sometimes intentionally, often not) important life lessons.

Chsitopher Lloyd, Daniel Ranieri

The film wafts back and forth between JR’s boyhood and his young adulthood as an Ivy League university student bent on a literary career (he’s played at this age by Tye Sheridan).

We eavesdrop on his doomed love affair with an upper-middle-class fellow student (Briana Middleton); she’s the child of mixed-race parents who clearly think this proletarian yahoo isn’t nearly good enough for their daughter.

We follow him on his first foray into big-city newspapering.

And the film reaches a dramatic crescendo with a rare meeting of JR and his absent father (Max Martini) in which whatever dreams the kid may have of reconnection are dashed once and for all.

“The Tender Bar” is less a film of big dramatic moments than a gently unfolding idyll of self-discovery and familial nurturing. It’s wistful, warm and wise.

Affleck, Ranieri and Sheridan are terrific.  Also deserving of special notice is Lloyd, whose scraggly Grandpa turns out to be an incredibly smart guy hiding out in a seedy, grumpy-old-man exterior.  You can see where Uncle Charlie got his mojo.

| Robert W. Butler

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Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand

“THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH” My rating: B+ (At the Screenland Armour, AMC Town Center)

105 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Has there ever been a more visually ravishing “Macbeth” — or any Shakespeare film, for that matter — than this new version of “the Scottish play” from Joel Coen (half of the famous Coen Brothers in his first solo outing)?

Here’s a case where every element — from acting to the drop-dead gorgeous black-and-white cinematography to the brilliantly conceived production design — come together to reinforce the play’s haunting themes of human desire, fate and inevitability.

Denzel Washington makes a fine Macbeth, while Frances McDormand (aka Mrs. Joel Coen) is even better as his force-of-nature-manipulative Lady.
The lesser roles have been precisely cast and captured for the screen.

But a character unto itself is the brilliant look of the production.  Filmed by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel in a 1:33:1 frame ratio (the classic “Academy aperture”), with settings by Stefan Dechant and costumes by Mary Zophres, the film manages to be simultaneously stripped down and abundantly evocative.

The influence of great German expressionist films like the silent “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is found everywhere.  The yarn unfolds in a sort of nonspecific Medieval world, but one presented with a minimum of period detail.  

The castle walls are looming, smooth and white; there’s none of the grime and wear-and-tear of a realistic rendering. When late in the film the cold hard lines of Macbeth’s throne room are softened by fallen leaves blowing across the stones, the contrast delivers an almost visceral shock.

Like one of those Busby Berkley musical extravaganzas that ostensibly take place in a nightclub (a nightclub that would have to be the size of a football field with an Olympic-sized swimming pool tossed in), this “…Macbeth” might be a gigantic stage production unhampered by the limitations of an actual theater. 

The perfect artificiality of the presentation actually emphasizes and amplifies the play’s dramatic elements; against these stark backdrops human faces take on additional power. 

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail as to plotting. I figure if you’re reading this you’re familiar with the basics (oh, OK…Macbeth and the Missus conspire to kill the king and take his crown, then have to keep murdering to keep it).

But Coen’s screenplay does work a few interesting changes.  For example, the character of Ross (here played by the impossibly slender and slinky Alex Hassell) is typically a spear carrier with a few lines.  Coen has made him a semi-sinister Machiavelli whose allegiance is always in question.

Kathryn Hunter

The biggest departure is in the depiction of the “three weird sisters,” the trio of witches who predict Macbeth’s rise to power.  At the beginning of the film there is but one witch, a twisted crone (Kathryn Hunter) whose old bones contort into a human knot that moves like a crab. In one dazzling shot her image is reflected in a pool of water…but not one image: Two.  So now we have three of her.

Hunter’s performance is scary and riveting.  At times she resembles a fallen bird; at others she dons a cloak and hood, looking a lot like Death in Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”  Of all the images seared into my brain by this movie, Hunter’s gnarled form is the most haunting.

Indeed, a case can be made that this “Macbeth” is more satisfying visually than verbally. That’s not a knock against Washington, McDormand and their co-stars (among them familiar faces like Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Ineson, Harry Melling and Stephen Root as the drunken porter).

It’s just that the picture is such an overwhelmingly visual experience.

| Robert W. Butler

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Simon Rex (and friend)

RED ROCKET” My rating: B (Theaters)

128 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Filmmaker Sean Baker sure loves his losers.

His debut feature, “Tangerine,” was a screwball comedy about a transsexual prostitute on Skid Row; his Oscar-nominated “The Florida Project” unfolded amongst the societal outcasts living in a shabby motel in the shadow of Walt Disney World.

It’s a logical progression to his latest, the phallo-centric “Red Rocket,” about an “adult film” actor with a heart of…well, not gold, exactly. Maybe brass. Okay then, tin.

Journeyman actor Simon Rex gives a career high perf as Mikey Saber (as porn names go, this one is actually kind of subtle), who one morning washes up penniless and bruised in the Texas Gulf Coast burg he left two decades earlier.

Clearly, Mikey is trying to outrun something or someone.

He makes his weary way to the home of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her chain-smoking, tubercular-looking mother, Lili (Brenda Deiss, a hoot in her acting debut).

The women want nothing to do with Mikey, who sets up camp on their porch until they change their minds.

Here’s the thing about Mikey: Despite his present miserable circumstances, he talks a good fight. He always has a show-biz story to relate (frequently about the porn biz; his matter-of-factness and professionalism in describing hair-raising physical acts somehow makes it all seem normal), and he’s overflowing with plans for the future.

He’s nothin if not upbeat. Faced with one humiliation after another, he squares his shoulders and tries again.

Little by little he works his way into the house and into Lexi’s bed; he also begins selling for a surly family of ganga dealers, earning enough to pay the monthly mortgage on Lexi and Lili’s home.

Simon Rex, Suzanna Son

But then he spots teenage Strawberry (Suzanna Son) working at a donut shop in the shadow of the oil refinery. She’s red haired and freckled and cute as a button, and Mikey is smitten. Yes, he’s twice her age and then some (she’s barely legal, according to Lone Star law), but his love is pure. So pure that envisions a future with Strawberry in porn.

He’ll return to Los Angeles in triumph and pick up where he left off.

This is all very tacky, but the marvel of Rex’s performance (which is racking up all sorts of nominations this awards season) is the way he humanizes this silly, shallow, delusional yet somehow endearing character. Face it…the potential for creepiness is off the charts, yet Rex slides effortlessly through the needle’s eye.

| Robert W. Butler

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Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman

“LICORICE PIZZA” My rating: B (Theaters)

133 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The name Paul Thomas Anderson on a movie (“Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood,
“Boogie Nights,” “The Master”)  usually portends a good dose of  anger, angst and a journey through the underbelly of human experience.

But “Licorice Pizza” is something else entirely — a lighthearted cultural memoir of ‘70s teen life in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. 

So lightly plotted as to be weightless, the film is a celebration of youthful energy and ambition. I’ve no idea how much of it is true memoir and how much fiction, but Anderson has absolutely nailed the essence of its setting in much the same way George Lucas did with “American Graffiti”.

Basically this is a love story…or more accurately a study of long-suffering adolescent lust.

Alana (Alan Haim, of the rock sister trio Haim, for which Anderson has directed several music videos) is in her mid-20s and working for a handsy  photographer who shoots portraits for high school yearbooks.  

They’re snapping mugs at a local school when she’s glommed onto by Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a vaguely pudgy 15-year-old (he looks uncannily like the “Mr. Tambourine Man”-era David Crosby) with the self confidence of a veteran grifter.

Gary wastes no time establishing his celeb bona fides.  He’s a child actor (well, former child actor) still recognized for his recurring role in a TV sitcom. He still goes out for auditions, but mostly his energy is devoted to entrepreneurial efforts…the kid has a never-ending supply of get-rich ideas.

For all his bravado — he appears to be on a first-name basis with every maitre’d in town — Gary is also quite obviously a virgin.  

Alana — whose life to date has been unremarkable — is amused by Gary’s chutzpah. Moreover, the kid actually does have several business concerns going; she could do worse than hook her star to this go-getter.

And so she becomes Girl Friday to a teenage Sammy Glick. 

As for the romantic thing…well, there’s a decade between them, though Gary is clearly the adult in the equation. Of course, under the law he is jail bait, which sets off the queasy meter whenever Alana (or those of us watching) contemplate the possibility of something physical between them.

Anderson’s screenplay finds this duo — often accompanied by a small tribe of tweener hustlers attracted by Gary’s grown-up schemes (they’re like human versions of the Minions) — going through a series of misadventures.

Bradley Cooper, Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim

The most sustained of these has Gary marketing that new invention the water bed. In one jaw-dropping episode he installs a new bed in the posh home of real-life hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters, played by Bradley Cooper as a coked-up maniac late for a date with girlfriend Barbra Streisand.

There are other bizarre encounters, like the one with an over-the-hill action star (Sean Penn) who picks up  Alana  at a restaurant and, at the urging of a drunken movie director (Tom Waits), attempts a jump over a bonfire on a souped-up motorcycle.

And the yarn finds time to plumb Alana’s home life (her disapproving parents and  sisters are portrayed by the actress’s real family members) and her brief fling with a young actor who alienates the clan by admitting he is no longer a practicing Jew.

Astoundingly enough, neither Haim nor Hoffman has ever acted before (although she’s done the rock ’n’ roll thing and he is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Their performances work precisely because they’ve not been over-polished…there’s just a touch of endearing amateurism lurking about, one reinforced by the duo’s look — neither is movie-star handsome/beautiful, and this makes them all the more embraceable.

| Robert W. Butler

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Filippo Scotti, Teresa Saponangelo, Tony Servillo

“HAND OF GOD” My rating: B (Netflix)

130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

First things first:  Whenever you get a chance to watch Toni Servillo in a movie — and I don’t care if it’s a cameo in a bad Italian slasher flick — jump at it.

Servillo may be the greatest living cinema actor.  Doesn’t matter the role…he just is.

In the goofy/rapturous “The Hand of God” Servillo once again teams up with writer/director  Paolo Sorrentino (“The Consequences of Love,” “Il Divo,” “The Great Beauty,” “Loro” and the Servillo-less “Youth”) to deliver a filmic memoir of Sorrentino’s boyhood.

Servillo isn’t the star of the show — in fact his character disappears halfway through — but even as member of an ensemble he oozes energy and life., electrifying everything and everyone around him.  

Set in Naples int he 1980s, “Hand…” is a two-part yarn.  The first is an almost Fellini-esque study of a roiling, raunchy Neapolitan family, a band of eccentrics so memorable and entertaining you may want to hang out with them forever.

Our protagonist is teenage Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), probably the most introverted member of his clan. Papa Saverio (Servillo) is a wise and witty jokester who approaches life with a wry grin.  Mom Maria (Teresa Saponangelo) is a live wire who peps up family reunions by juggling oranges. 

They’re such a perfect couple that we — like young Fabietto — are dismayed to learn that away from his family Saverio is a womanizer.

There’s also big brother Marchino (Marlon Joubert), an impossibly handsome kid who naively believes that good looks are all he’ll need for an acting career.  Accompanying his sibling to auditions, Fabietto gets an inkling of what the film biz (his future career) is all about.

There’s a load of wild-hair aunts, uncles and cousins swirling around the family…it’s like something out of “Amacord.”  

The most arresting of these is Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri), married to Saverio’s brother and oozing sexuality and neurosis in equal measure.  Fabietto has a huge crush on Aunt Patrizia (who doesn’t think twice about sunbathing nude in front of everyone). But he’s seen enough of her emotional and mental crackups to have his adolescent lust tempered by adult pity.

Luisa Ranieri

The film’s first half is a deep dive into plotless family dynamics, and it is often rudely, riotously funny.

Then tragedy strikes and the tone shifts dramatically. Young Fabietto finds himself working through grief and anxiety. He loses his virginity (not to a girl his age but to the dowager living in the upstairs apartment, who apparently sees him as a sexual charity case). 

Fabietto takes comfort in his soccer obsession and the drama of whether his team will be able to sign a premium player who can turn everything around.

And late in the film he has an all-night chat with a veteran movie director (real-life filmmaker Antonio Capuano, who was a mentor to young Sorrentino), who lays out the path to the kid’s career in movies.

“The Hand of God” is so specific in its depiction of people, places and situations that we understand instinctively that much if not all of the film was pulled from Sorrentino’s personal memories.  This is a movie that really feels lived in.

And the neat thing is that for a couple of hours we get to live in it, too.

| Robert W. Butler

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Bradley Cooper

“NIGHTMARE ALLEY” My rating: C+(In theaters)

150 minutes | MPAA rating: R

That Guillermo del Toro is one of our great film craftsmen isn’t in question.

An astonishing degree of attention has been lavished on every image in his “Nightmare Alley”; expect Oscar nominations in virtually all the technical categories: effects, cinematography, costuming, production design.

That said, the film as drama left me…well, indifferent.  

Adapted by del Toro and Kim Morgan from William Lindsay’s novel, this is really two movies.

In the first drifter Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) hobos around the Depression-era U.S. We’ve seen Stanton set fire to a house in which he has placed a body…it’s probable that he’s on the run from the law.

On the verge of starvation, Stanton gets a gig doing manual labor for the operator (William Dafoe) of a sleazy traveling carnival, the kind of shady operation that is always a step ahead of the local moralists and the cops.  (One of their disreputable attractions is “the Geek,” a hairy animalistic wraith who lives in darkness, emerging only to bite the heads off live chickens for the entertainment of the rubes).

For the newcomer the eerie carnival (think “Something Wicked This Way Comes”) offers not only shelter and a paycheck, but a chance to learn a new trade.  Stanton shacks up with Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), learning the tricks of her fake mind-reading act. 

Meanwhile he is drawn to Molly (Rooney Mara), the young beauty who allows herself to be strapped into an electric chair and zapped with thousands of lightning bolts.

The second half of “Nightmare Alley” takes place a couple of years later.  Stanton and Molly have fled the carnival and established themselves as a top mentalist act, performing in posh nightclubs.  Stanton has transformed himself from ragged drifter to swank sophisticate.

Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper

But he’s still a crook at heart, and with the help of a high society shrink (Cate Blanchett) he plans his biggest grift, taking on an impossibly rich captain of industry (Richard Jenkins) who is tormented by his evil past and seeks some sort of metaphysical forgiveness.

Stanton is supremely confidant, but one suspects he is biting off way more than he can chew.

Lindsay’s novel, published in 1946 (and filmed the next year with Tyrone Power in the lead), is a classic noir effort that has been described as “a portrait of the human condition…a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece.”

The main problem with the movie, I think, is that over the last 70-plus years film, television and literature have borrowed shamelessly from Lindsay’s opus.  His ideas have been recirculated with such regularity that del Toro’s film struggles beneath a smothering blanket of been-there-seen-that.

The problem is magnified by the film’s languid running time (2 and 1/2 hours) and the fact that despite the first-rate cast (I haven’t even mentioned Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Mary Steenburgen, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson and Holt McCallany), I found the film emotionally remote. The viewer is left on the outside looking in.

And still…del Toro masterfully creates an overwhelming aura of corruption and exploitation. 

We’ll have to be satisfied with that.

| Robert W. Butler

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Dakota Johnson, Olivia Colman

“THE LOST DAUGHTER” My rating: B (In theaters)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Many a man has bailed on his family and kept his social status…but let a woman exhibit indifference toward her children and the pillars of civilization start to crumble.

“The Lost Daughter,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s impressive writing/directing debut, is about a bad mother. At least that’s what a traditional moralist would say.

But things aren’t nearly that cut and dried in this smart, thought-provoking adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s  novel. 

This is a deeply ambivalent, jaw-droopingly subtle effort that eschews the usual big dramatic exposition (“…this is why I did what I did…”) in favor of showing us, building its story (and its case) through the slow accumulation of images and information.

Leda (Olivia Colman) is vacationing alone on a Greek island.  She’s a college professor, a Brit by birth but working in America, and she’s going to spend her summer sitting in the sun and researching her next book.

She tolerates the scuzzy American ex-pat (Ed Harris) who manages the vacation home she rents.  And she’s amused by Will (Paul Mescal), her eager-to-please cabana boy. They enjoy a chaste flirtation.

But Leda is absolutely mesmerized — and appalled — by the family with whom she shares the beach.  They’re a loud, obnoxious bunch.  The head of the clan seems vaguely shady;  he’s got a pregnant trophy wife half his age.

The real object of Leda’s fascination, though, is the man’s daughter-in-law, Nina (Dakota Johnson), who has a handsome but pushy husband and a pretty but spoiled young daughter. 

Lena appears obsessed with the tiny interactions between weary, frustrated mother and willful child. When the little girl goes missing the family is thrown into a panic. Leda finds the child and returns her to the fold…but not without secretly claiming a souvenir of the encounter that will come back to haunt her.

“The Lost Daughter” is being described as a “psychological thriller.” Actually, “psychological jigsaw puzzle” seems more accurate.

Through casual conversation — Gyllenhaal’s dialogue is amazingly unforced and natural — we learn that Leda has two daughter, now in their 20s, who live with her ex.  Apparently she rarely sees them.

Peter Sarsgaartd, Jessie Buckley

In flashbacks we see her as a young mother (played now by Jessie Buckley), struggling to balance family and career, and engaging in an affair with a much-admired professor (Peter Sarsgaard, Guyllenhaal’s spouse) that will push her further away from her conventional existence.

Most women have days in which they would just as soon dump the husband and kids and strike out for parts unknown.  Leda is the rare individual who actually kicks motherhood aside in the hope of discovering a different sort of fulfillment. 

But one does not achieve that sort of liberation without paying a huge emotional price, and the wonder of Colman’s performance is how she tells us everything about what Leda is feeling without actually ever saying anything. 

A lesser filmmaker might make excuses for her heroine’s choices, providing her with explanatory monologues, poking at every little shred of guilt clinging to Leda’s consciousness.

There’s no need for that when you have a leading lady with Colman’s range.

Is Leda a heroine or a villainess?

Why not neither? Or both?

| Robert W. Butler

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Kodi Smit-McPhee, Benedict Cumberbatch

“THE POWER OF THE DOG” My rating: B (Netflix)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

I’m not sure that “The Power of the Dog” totally adds up, but its individual equations are often so riveting as to carry us along on a wave of pure creativity.

Based on Thomas Savage’s late-60s novel, the latest from writer/director Jane Campion  (“The Piano”) is less a conventional Western than an incisive dissection of four distinct and often contradictory personalities.

It’s also one of the year’s most visually splendid efforts, so spectacularly framed and shot (by Ari Wegner) that at times it takes on the depth of a masterwork painting.

Bachelor brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons) own a sprawling Montana ranch in the 1920s.  Their substantial wood-paneled home, crammed with expensive furniture and a world-class collection of stuffed wildlife, speaks of massive riches.

And yet the brothers seem indifferent to their wealth.  Phil is the brains and muscle of the outfit, a lanky cowboy who calls the shots and — despite an Ivy League education — is most comfortable on horseback.  He and George inherited the ranch, but Phil learned how to run it at the feet of a near-mythical character called Bronco Henry, who has been dead for some years.

George is, well, kind of useless.  He’s a round-faced cipher who dresses like a banker even on a cattle drive; he has pretty much handed the reins to Phil, who openly addresses  him as “Fatso.”

Jesse Plemons, Kristen Dunst

Conflict arrives with George’s unexpected marriage to Rose (Kirsten Dunst, Plemmons’ real-life spouse),  operator of a boarding house in the small rail center where the Dunbars deposit their herd. 

Phil openly accuses Rose of being a gold digger.

Adding even more tension is Rose’s teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an impossibly thin, lanky kid with an artistic bent (he fashions exquisite flowers from scraps of paper). Phil immediately labels Pete a “Nancy boy” and takes sadistic pleasure in tormenting the newcomer, inviting the other cowpokes to get in on the fun.

It doesn’t take a psych degree to see that the effeminate Peter is stirring up Phil’s own long-suppressed homoerotic tendencies.  Yet “The Power of the Dog”  is far from a traditional coming-out tale.

While there’s genuine sweetness in the thick George’s love of his new wife; that’s not enough to keep Rose from seeking solace in a bottle.  A  Montana ranch is lonely for a woman; Phil’s sneering putdowns make it even worse.

Meanwhile young Peter slowly emerges as the most complex character in sight.  Far from trying hide his “otherness,” he flaunts it.  His posture, his manner of talking, his clothing choices…all seem to be calculated as a silent affront to the cowboy machismo surrounding him.  

In the film’s latter stages it almost seems as if the hard-hearted Phil is undergoing a positive transformation. He slowly takes Peter under his wing, teaching him to ride and rope, and is pleasantly surprised to discover that he and the boy may be on the same aesthetic and philosophical wavelength.

But that is only the setup for a betrayal so devastating that it turns inside out what we think we know about at least two of these characters.

“Power of the Dog” is not a copacetic experience;  it seethes with anger and unhqppiness.  

But it unfolds in an environment of austere beauty. It was filmed in Campion’s native New Zealand, and the nearly bare hills and brown palette create a Western landscape unlike anything I’ve seen before.

The performances are pretty much off the charts, especially from Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee — the former a bully who slowly reveals his sensitive side, the latter a seeming sissy who in reality harbors a methodical and implacable core of steel.

| Robert W. Butler

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Ansel Elgort as Tony, Rachel Zegler as Maria

“WEST SIDE STORY”  My rating: B (In theaters)

156 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s really no point in remaking “West Side Story” if you’re only going to recreate the 1961 version. Which was, after all, pretty damn definitive.

And so Steven Spielberg’s  daring re-imagining of this classic — my favorite piece of musical theater, rivaled only by Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” — consistently takes its audience by surprise. You may think you know the show inside out; just wait until the master filmmaker  lays a modern sensibility over the story’s late ‘50s ambience.

In this “WSS” the Puerto Rican characters deliver many of their lines in Spanish without subtitles (not that you’ll need them…you can tell by the performances what’s going on).

Moreover, where appropriate the film has been cast with Latinx performers…no lily white actors trying to pass for ethnics.

Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner, adapting the Arthur Laurents/Ernest Lehman script, have shaken things up, shifting the order of the musical numbers and in some cases giving songs to characters who didn’t sing them in the original.

Of course the dancing (not pure Jerome Robbins but close enough to generate goosebumps), the memorable Leonard Bernstein melodies and those brilliant orchestrations (jazz meets mainstream) remain potent enough to generate tears of aesthetic gratitude.

And the core story of star-crossed lovers seeking fulfillment in a world of hatred and strife is as strong as ever (hey, it’s Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”…borrow from the best.)

But perhaps the filmmakers’ biggest reach is to pump up the material’s psychological and social realism to a near breaking point. It is for this effort that Spielberg’s film has been generating off-the-charts praise — and yet I’ve got to admit to a lot of ambivalence.

Ariana DeBose (in yellow) as Anita, David Alvarez as Bernardo

We understand that the film is taking on some big ideas from the first shot, a flyover of a Manhattan neighborhood falling under the wrecking ball. The few tenement walls still standing are surrounded by piles of rubble and abandoned bathtubs. A billboard announces that this will be the future home of Lincoln Center. 

Of course, when the livable turf is reduced, the remaining inhabitants must duke it out for possession of what’s left.

“West Side Story” has always had an undercurrent of social commentary (just listen to Sondheim’s caustic lyrics for “America”) and an aura of liberal awareness. But this new version brings those concerns front and center, then hammers away at them.

In this retelling Riff (Mike Faist) and his Jets view themselves as the last white men standing against a brown tidal wave. The cynical police detective Schrank (Corey Stoll) taunts the Jets as “the last of the can’t-make-it Caucasians,” in effect goading them into continual warfare with the just-off-the-boat Puerto Ricans.

That the Jets are nativists has always been an element of “West Side Story,” but never before has that idea been banged on so relentlessly.  No one in the film utters the words “Proud Boys,” but you’d have to have spent the last few years in a cave not to see the racial signifiers.

Simultaneously the film paints a vibrant picture of Latin culture, depicting a neighborhood where huge Puerto Rican flags are painted on walls and the locals can effortlessly turn a block of storefronts into a bubbling ethnic festival. (Indeed, the show-stopping “America” is here performed not at night on a rooftop but in bright sunshine on a busy city street.)

“I Feel Pretty,” a song that has always seemed vaguely out of place, gets a major transformation. Instead of being performed by Maria (Rachel Zegler), Anita (Ariana DeBose) and friends in a modest dress shop, the number unfolds after hours in the department store where the immigrant women fill the ranks of the cleaning crew.  They deliver the lyrics while surrounded by mannikins posed in vignettes drawn from majority white culture…what up to now has been a hummable but thematically thin song suddenly is crawling with wry political/social commentary.

Kushner’s script also pumps up what we know about the characters.  Thus we learn that our Romeo stand-in, Tony (Ansel Elgort), is on parole after spending a couple of years in prison for nearly killing another young man in a brawl. Once one of the Jets’ fiercest fighters, he’s now steering clear of conflict.

Anybody’s, the girl who desperately wants to be one of the Jets, is usually portrayed as a tomboy.  Here, though, she is played by non-binary actor Iris Menas, bringing a whole new level of sexual politics and sexual ambiguity into the mix.

Characters that were basically placeholders in earlier incarnations get a major reworking.

Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James), usually depicted as  a hapless flatfoot, comes off as a decent if weary bloke who’d like to see everybody get along.

Perhaps the biggest character expansion falls to Chino (Josh Andres Rivera), Maria’s gang-approved suitor, who is anything but a thug…he’s going to night school and wants to become a CPA. This bespectacled brainiac is the hope of his community, so much so that Bernardo (David Alvarez) and the Sharks work to keep him out of their conflict with the Jets.

But all that is merely a prelude to the big whopper, the casting of Rita Moreno (she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film) as the widow of Doc, operator of the local pharmacy/candy store.  

Doc, inspired by “Romeo and Juliet’s” Friar Lawrence, never had much of a presence in earlier “WSS” incarnations.  But Moreno emerges as a major character, Tony’s employer and moral backup; she even gets to sing the haunting “Somewhere,” a number traditionally performed by Tony and Maria.

Here’s the thing…all these augmentations and observations had the effect of taking me out of the central romance.

Oh, there were some terrifically romantic moments. Tony and Maria’s meeting at the community dance here unfolds beneath the bleachers, a very nice touch.  And songs like “Maria” and “Tonight” absolutely nail the swooning universal yearning for a love capable of changing the world.

But at a certain point I found the ever-thickening patina of commentary got in the way. A marvel of traditional musical theater is the way in which one-dimensional characters expand through song, finding their true humanity through the synthesis of melody and lyric.

This “West Side Story” gave me so much information, so much detail that I felt I was being force fed rather than discovering.

It’s at moments like this when your faithful critic wonders if I have at long last reached the ranks of grumpy old men.

| Robert W. Butler

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Lady Gaga, Adam Driver

“HOUSE OF GUCCI” My rating: C (In theaters)

167 minutes | MPAA rating: R

We’re all familiar with cinematic sagas of backstabbing among the filthy rich. Entire TV series have grown around that idea.

In fact, we’re so accustomed to the wealthy misbehaving that any example of the genre trying to capture our time and attention had best come up with something — an approach, an edge, an attitude — that sets it apart.

This is precisely what Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” fails to do.

This is a multi-character epic of greed and power that is intermittently intriguing but which overall suffers from a bad case of meh

The screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna (based on Sara Gay Forden’s nonfiction book) lacks a point of view or even an obvious purpose.  The story is based on facts, but the telling is satire- and irony-free, a bland recitation of events with no attempt to analyze or interpret.

In a shorter film this might have been finessed, but “…Gucci” runs for more than 2 1/2 hours…by the halfway point a viewer’s attention span starts to wander as it becomes clear we’re not going anywhere.

And director Scott’s heart clearly isn’t in it.  This effort lacks even his trademark visual pizzazz. 

The film is strongest in its early passages, when we’re introduced to Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), who works as a secretary for her papa’s Milanese trucking company.  Gaga once again establishes her bona fides as a genuine movie star…here she seems to be channelling Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobridgida, a potent mixture of sex and sassiness. 

Out partying  one night Patrizia bumps into a rather shy but charming young man who introduces himself as Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver).

He describes himself as a humble law student, but Patrizia recognizes that this is one of the heirs to the Gucci fashion empire.  She starts stalking Maurizio, plotting an “accidental” meeting.

Is she a gold digger?  Well, Maurizio’s uber-cultured father (Jeremy Irons) certainly thinks so, but the film declines to pass judgment.  Patrizia is in some ways solidly plebeian (she doesn’t like reading) but she’s no shortage of ambition, something that gratifies her to Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), who runs the Gucci empire from a New York high rise.

Under his new wife’s insistent prodding the laid-back Maurizio is slowly sucked into the firm’s management, undergoing a bit of a personality change in the process.  Power corrupts, don’t cha know?

In fact, Patrizia makes such a pest of herself, meddling in Gucci business, that divorce rears its ugly head. In a plot development that beggars the imagination (but which actually happened), she befriends a TV psychic (Salma Hayek) and together they put together a hit on hubby.

That’s the main plot thread of “House of Gucci,” but it’s only one of many.  

Jared Leto

The film jerks to life every time Jared Leto makes an appearance as Aldo’s son Paolo, a wannabe designer utterly lacking in taste and talent who owns a big chunk of Guggi stock but is considered an idiot by one and all.  

Leto is unrecognizable beneath bald pate, scraggly hair and double chin…his Paolo is like a parody of every hapless loser you’ve ever met.   You’re almost tempted to feel sorry for him, but the guy is so clueless and irritating we practically take pleasure in his humiliations.

(Some smart grad student in psychology is going to do a thesis on why one of the most handsome actors in Hollywood insists in role after role on uglying himself up beneath layers of grotesque makeup and prosthetics.)

There is no shortage of betrayals here.  Patrizia and Maurizio learn that Uncle Aldo has been cheating on his America taxes and turn him in so they can take over the company.  Then they must face a coup engineered by the CEO of Gucci America (Jack Huston).  

While Patrizia stews in divorcee hell, Maurizio cavorts with a thin French friend (Camille Cottin).

Damn, but these rich folk push the envelope.

Truth be told, most of the performances here are just fine.  It’s the storytelling that lets us down, keeping us at arm’s length and ultimately leaving us without any character to care about.

| Robert W. Butler

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