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“DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA” My rating: B (Theaters)

125 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The chickens — every last one of them — have come home to roost by the time “Downton Abbey: The New Era” wraps up the saga of the Grantham clan.

Seriously, folks, there are at least a dozen or so mini-plots playing out against the two main narratives in Julian Fellows’ screenplay…just about every character gets his/her moment in the spotlight before bringing down the curtain.

On one level it’s ridiculous…like watching a stage juggler keep a dozen balls in the air while doing a tap dance on one leg and singing “Old MacDonald” in Farsi. At the same time you have to admire the craftsmanship that keeps it all from descending into pure chaos.

Fans of the PBS series and the previous film entry will be beside themselves.

The film begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral. By the time it’s over just about every character is domestically settled (if not in a conventional marriage then in an appropriate arrangement for the personalities in question).

Two big plots here. No. 1: Downton Abbey becomes a movie studio. No. 2: Half the clan heads off to the South of France to explore a new addition to the family holdings and poke around in unexplored Grantham history.

First, the movie narrative. Seems Downton has a very leaky and expensive roof to repair. When movie director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) proposes spending a small fortune for the right to film a motion picture at the abbey, the Granthams swallow their uneasiness about actors (you know, women plastered in makeup and men just plastered) and assent.

Michelle Dockery, Hugh Darcy

At the same time, dowager Violet (Maggie Smith) is informed that a French gentleman she knew as a young bride (we’re talking 1864…the Lincoln administration) has died and left her his estate on the Riviera. So a delegation of family and staff invade the Continent…they can check out the new digs while avoiding the chaos generated by those “movie people” back home.

So basically you’ve got two films that come together at the end.

The one set in England is a riff on “Singin’ in the Rain.” The movie crew are shooting a silent feature, but “The Jazz Singer” has just opened and halfway through filming the movie must convert to sound. (The time appears to be 1928…the Great Depression has not yet reared its ugly head.)

This poses problems for the movie-in-a-movie’s leading lady, Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), who dominates the screen with her cool beauty but in real life is an angry/insecure diva who speaks in a Cockney bray. At this point Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who has stayed behind to hold the fort, discovers she has a talent for voiceover work. At the same time cinema-crazed former footman Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) uses his previously useless knowledge of literature to knock out desperately needed original dialogue for the actors.

Oh, yes, the male lead of the movie being shot is swashbuckling star Guy Dexter (Dominic West), who takes a shine (ahem) to the chief butler, Mr. Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who we learned in the earlier “Downton” movie bats for the other team.

And I haven’t even mentioned the simmering attraction between Dancy’s character and Lady Mary, whose husband (a race car driver played in the previous film by Matthew Goode) is off gallivanting abroad and never seen.

Meanwhile in France, Robert Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) begins to suspect that he is the offspring of an illicit dalliance between his mother and that now-deceased French fellow, whose widow (the great Nathalie Bay, here criminally underused) is incensed about losing her winter palace to a pack of stuffy Brits. But her son (Alex Skarbek) is more welcoming; he believes that Robert is his half brother.

Whoo-hooo! Dirty family laundry!

There are also minor (very minor) conundrums among the abbey staff and various far-flung Grantham relations and acquaintances.

To ensure lots of screen time for everyone in the massive cast (many of whom saw their story arcs resolved in the last movie and have little to do in this one), director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn,” “Woman in Gold”) breaks even the most banal conversation into a series of quick-cut reaction shots so as to register the faces of surrounding cast members. That way everyone gets screen time. It’s like “My Dinner with Andre” filmed like an action sequence.

Silly? Yes. Are we painfully aware of all the seams and cut-and-paste moments in the narrative? Yep.

Does it matter? Probably not. “Downton Abbey: The New Era” is like attending a reunion with people we all know well and whose company, foibles and all, we relish.

Not to mention the costumes and castles.

| Robert W. Butler

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Rakel Lenora Flottum, Sam Ashraf

“THE INNOCENTS”: My rating: B (On Demand)

117 minutes | No MPAA rating

Most of us are sentimental slobs when it comes to kids, telling ourselves that children are — up to a certain age, anyway — blemish free. They’ve not yet discovered the possibility of evil.

The ironically-titled “The Innocents” isn’t having any of that.

This weriting/directing effort from Eskil Vogt (screenwriter of the Oscar-nominated “The Worst Person in the World”) makes a case that the demons of cruelty and destruction inhabit even the youngest of us.

It’s not a comforting thought, but it makes for a majorly creepy movie, thanks to four astonishing performances by child actors.

Little Ida (Rakel Lenora Flottum), her parents and her profoundly autistic older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) have just moved into a high-rise apartment building in the wooded suburbs of a Norwegian city. The speechless Anna requires so much attention that the unsupervised Ida is left to her own devices.

Almost immediately she finds a new playmate in Ben (Sam Ashraf), a boy several years her senior.

Ben apparently has no friends his own age; indeed, he’s regularly bullied by older kids hanging around the complex.

But he does have unusual skills. Ben demonstrates his ability to move small objects — a bottle cap, for example — using only his mind. Of course he also has a thing for torturing and killing animals.

Apparently he’s not alone in having unusual powers. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), another girl Ida’s age, has her own eerie skill set. Whereas Ben exhibits a sadistic streak, Aisha exudes charity. She silently focuses on Ida’s big sister Anna, who subsequently shows signs of breaking out of her catatonic bubble and actually communicating with the world beyond her head.

To a large extent “The Innocents” takes Ida’s point of view. She matter-of-factly accepts these supernatural events without comment or analysis; she makes no moral judgment on Ben’s clearly psychotic behavior.

But at a certain point the boy’s powers increase to match his pathology; he’ll move from tormenting animals to attacking the older kids and adults who have made his life miserable. What’s a little girl to do?

Vogt doesn’t attempt to explain how these children developed weird skills. Why they developed them, though, may be inferred from their status as victims. Ben and Aisha are dealing with bullying and racial bigotry (both are of Middle Eastern descent in a world of pink-cheeked blondes), and all three have reason to resent their parents.

Grownups here are viewed mostly as background figures…we’re halfway through the film before one of them is seen in closeup. And the adults have no idea of the black magic unfolding around them.

I mean, these are just kids, right?

| Robert W. Butler

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Jim Broadbent, Helen Mirren

“THE DUKE” My rating: B (In theaters)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: R

For all of their perceived stuffiness, the British do love their eccentrics. And in Kempton Bunton — portrayed in Roger Michell’s funny/stirring “The Duke” by the great Jim Broadbent — they had one of the best.

In 1961 Bunton, a 60-year-old taxi driver (among other gigs…the man couldn’t hold a job), was tried for stealing from the National Gallery a portrait of the Duke of Wellington by the great Spanish artist Goya.

A few weeks after the painting went missing Bunto strolled into the museum with the stolen artwork wrapped in brown paper, handed it to a guard and promptly admitted to the theft.

His defense was that the government had, to prevent the painting being returned to Spain, spent 140,000 pounds to purchase the portrait (which, most everyone agreed, wasn’t particularly good even if it did depict a British hero), and that all that money could have been better used to promote the common welfare.

Like, for instance, paying the TV tax of poor English families. From the late 1940s through 2000 British TV owners paid an annual tax meant to underwrite the operations of the BBC. Bunton was on a personal crusade against what he saw as an unfair and regressive tax; in fact he’d briefly gone to prison for failing to pay his own TV tax. (His novel defense was that he’d disabled his set so that it could pick up commercial stations but not the BBC, and therefore he didn’t owe the government a farthing.)

Scripted by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman and directed by Roger Michell (his last film, finished shortly before his death last year), “The Duke” starts out as a study in oddball populism and gradually picks up weight and substance until it’ll damn near have you choking back tears.

Broadbent was clearly born to play Bunton, a character of Dickensian dimensions. A perennial writer of letters to the editor, a critic of the Brit class system and an ambitious but unperformed playwright, the man is always getting into trouble.

But here’s the thing…Kempton Bunton is wildly entertaining. You can’t tell if he’s deliberately giving the middle finger to decorum and propriety, or whether he’s a sort of political/social idiot savant. He delights court watchers with his rapid-fire comebacks (asked where he was born, Bunton replies without missing a beat: “The back bedroom”). At one point the judge cautions that he’s not auditioning for a musical.

Matthew Goode

If Bunton is a rising folk hero in the Old Bailey, he’s in the doghouse at home.

His wife Dorothy (Helen Mirren, dowdied down to the nines) has just about had it with him. While her husband loses job after job she slogs away as a cleaning lady for rich folk. Moreover, she blames him for the death a few years before of their teenage daughter (the movie never really makes clear why she would think that, but there it is).

And, she notes, Kempton is a terrible role model for his two boys, especially the younger, Jackie (Fionn Whitehead), who soaks up his pa’s antiestablishment attitudes. (Indeed, as things progress Jackie, in a nifty plot twist, becomes a pivotal figure in his father’s fate.)

Matthew Goode has a juicy supporting role as Bunton’s defense attorney, who has the good sense to simply let his client be himself on the stand, thus winning the hearts of Englishmen everywhere.

“Torn from the headlines” usually indicates a tragedy in the offing. In case of Kempton Bunton it means head-shaking delights.

| Robert W. Butler

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Julian Richings as Homunculus

“STANLEYVILLE” My rating: C+ (In theaters)

89 minutes | No MPAA rating

The bizzaro Canadian satire “Stanleyville” might best be described as a  Poverty Row variation on “Squid Game.”

 In this debut feature from writer/director Maxwell McCabe-Lokos a group of dissatisfied individuals are invited to compete in a series of contests, with the winner driving away in a ”habanero-orange compact sport utility vehicle.”

But there’s more at stake, according to the event’s convener, who promises nothing less than “authentic personal transcendence.”

Maria (Susanne Wuest) has a dead-end office job, a couch potato husband and a surly teenage daughter.  So she’s receptive when at a shopping mall a painfully thin man who identifies himself as Homunculus (Julian Richings) approaches here with the news — he’s haltingly reciting an obviously memorized script —  that she’s been specifically chosen to participate in a top secret contest.

It’s not the idea of winning a car that appeals to Maria; rather it’s the challenge. Anything to throw a monkey wrench into her humdrum existence.

Soon she finds herself in competition “pavilion,” actually a space in an old office building that looks and feels like a church social hall…or maybe the faculty lounge at an underfunded public school. 

Homunculus is there to read the convoluted contest rules from a clipboard.  If anybody tries to leave the room before the game is over, nobody wins.

The games themselves range from the mundane (who can blow up and explode the most balloons using only lung power?) to the wacko.  For one challenge contestants are given several hours to build from a junkyard assortment of odds and ends “a functioning telecommunications device.”  Maria’s invention is a conch shell outfitted with wires and antennae that throbs with hot pink illumination and actually plucks ghostly voices from the ether.

McCabe-Lokos and cowriter Rob Benvie populate this limited world with contestants who represent various attitudes reflective of our modern times.

There’s an angry young black woman (Cara Ricketts), a musclebound guy (George Tchortov) constantly slurping protein drinks while trying to rope the other players into his health supplement pyramid scheme; an incredibly fey and goofy “actor” (Adam Brown), and a pompous go-getter (Christian Serritiello) whose open contempt for the other players cannot hide the fact that he’s all windup and no delivery.

Early on the contestants are advised that the game’s most important rule is “do whatever it takes to win.” Add a pistol to the mix and bad things happen.

“Stanleyville’s” cryptic title apparently refers to the photograph on the pavilion wall of Henry Morton Stanley, the Victorian journalist who successfully penetrated the “Dark Continent” to find the missing explorer David Livingstone. Although exactly what we’re to make of this historic reference escapes this reviewer.

Some clever stuff here, but even at a tidy 89 minutes “Stanleyville” runs out of steam after a promising start, leaving us with far more questions than answers. 

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“TAKE ME TO THE RIVER: NEW ORLEANS”  My rating: B+ (In  theaters)

115 minutes | No MPAA rating

I cannot even count how many times during “Take Me to the River: New Orleans” I found myself literally bawling with pleasure.

Martin Shore’s documentary love letter to Big Easy musicians (it’s a followup to 2014’s “Take Me to the River,” which probed the Memphis sound) may not be encyclopedic (no one movie could hope to encompass the width and breadth of New Orleans’ musical heritage), but it’s pretty damn staggering nonetheless.

I mean, any film that can enthusiastically embrace Irma Thomas, Snoop Dogg, the Neville Brothers, Ani DiFranco and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (for starters) has got a hell of a reach.

Shore’s approach is simple.  He sets up recording sessions featuring the city’s players — everyone from superstars to working stiffs and even high school students — and lets their creativity run wild. He also revels in pairing music’s elder statesmen with their up-and-coming young counterparts. The results are sublime.

Thus we get blues dowager empress Irma Thomas duetting with Ledisi on “I Wish Someone Would Care.”  The late Dr. John (in one of his last filmed performances) teams with Davell Crawford for “Jock-A-Mo.”  Aaron Neville and the Dirty Dozen Jazz Band rip the place up with the stomping “Street Parade.”  Snoop, G-Eazy and William Bell collaborate on a rap/blues reinterpretation of the classic “Yes We Can Can” (I’ve never cared much for rap, but this number blew me away).

In all there are two dozen performances on display. Not a ringer in the bunch.

And between those there are documentary digressions about the city’s Indian tribes (like the legendary Wild Tchoupitoulas), Preservation Hall,, the second line tradition, the late Allen Touissaint and the continuing fallout from Hurricane Katrina, which displaced scores of musicians, many of whom have been unable to return to Orleans.

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

| Robert W. Butler

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Thandiwe Newton, Chris Pine

“ALL THE OLD KNIVES” My rating: C+ (Amazon Prime)

101 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Give the makers of “All the Old Knives” props for delivering a cerebral spy yarn, one free of gunfire, car chases, explosions and the usual trappings of the post-Bond espionage thriller.

There’s more John LeCarre than Michael Bay on display in director Janus Metz’s yarn. Nice change of pace.

Still, it’s a bit underwhelming.

Unfolding simultaneously in several time frames, Olen Steinhauer’s screenplay (based on his novel) begins with the highjacking of a commercial jet liner in Europe.  The terrorists are holding hostage a hundred or so passengers and crew on a runway of Vienna’s international airport.

Spooks at Vienna’s CIA station monitor the situation. They include station chief Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne),  second-in-command Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce) and agents Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison(Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton), who are not only co-workers but lovers.

Eight years after that incident ended tragically, Henry finds himself pulled back into the ugly past with an unwelcome assignment.  It now appears that someone at the Vienna station was in cahoots with the highjackers; boss Vick thinks it was either Bill or Celia, both now retired from the game.

Henry’s first stop is in London to grill Bill; then it’s on to Big Sur country where Celia has married and started a family.  

Much of the story is told in flashback as Henry and Celia share a dinner at a picturesque seaside restaurant.  It’s a curious dance of nerves and insinuation. Ostensibly it’s just a meeting of old friends, but they (and we) know better …for one thing we discover that a fellow diner is in fact an agency hit man waiting for Henry’s nod to move in on Celia.

So it’s kinda tense. Henry and Celia both recognize that despite the friendly small talk with which the meal begins, the episode could end with arrest and imprisonment…if not termination with extreme prejudice.

And then there’s the issue of unrequited love…these two were never so alive as when in each other’s arms and working together on a mission.

Essentially this is a two-handed drama with brief digressions into the past. It’s a chance for Pine and Newton to flex their acting muscles without a lot of cinematic razzle dazzle.

And the plot delivers a satisfying last-minute “gotcha.”

Still, there’s something missing.  We’re told that Henry and Celia were a hot item, but we don’t necessarily feel it. As a result “All the Old Knives” is more a knotty puzzle than a gripping cinema experience.

| Robert W. Butler

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“COW” My rating: B- (On Demand)

94 minutes | No MPAA rating

If there is an agenda buried within Andrea Arnold’s “Cow,” I can’t find it.

This documentary from the Oscar-winning maker of “Fish Tank,” “Wuthering Heights,” the Kansas City-lensed “American Honey” and HBO’s “Big Little Lies” follows the life of a cow on an English dairy farm.

There is no narration, no on-screen titles, no real dialogue from the few humans who slip in and out of the frame.

Mostly the film is about a cow, beginning with its birth and ending with…well, I’m not going there.

The doc’s brief glimpses of humans suggest working folk going about their business.  They’re not sentimental about the animals, but then neither are they overtly cruel.

Our bovine heroine — the production notes identify her as Luma — is separated from her mother just days after birth. By necessity she  learns to nurse from a bucket with a rubber nipple (which doesn’t stop her from shoving her nose at the netherparts of her fellow calves in a pathetic search for her mama’s warm udders).

As she grows her horns are burned off and her hooves filed down with an electric grinder (neither procedure appears to cause pain…but who knows?). Each day she goes out with the other cows to graze; in the evening they obediently return to the barn where they will be milked by suction-powered machines.

Magda Kowalczyk’s handheld camera effectively captures the grittiness (not to mention mucus) of animal husbandry, though there are too many moments of “Blair Witch” blurriness and nauseous jiggling.

Whatever emotions a viewer takes away from “Cow” will be, I suspect, the emotions they bring to the experience, since Arnold isn’t showing her cards.

If you’ve grown up on a farm this will all seem pretty ho-hum. Farm animals are a commodity, after all. Grow ‘em, use ‘em, eat ‘em.

If you’re an animal rights activist you’ll probably see Luma’s life as one of forced servitude and the film as a vegan call to arms.  It’s not like this gentle creature has any say in the daily grind or the trajectory of her existence.

Going in, I was half afraid that after watching “Cow” I’d be forever unable to chow down on a burger or plate of ribs.  Not the case.

But it does raise the question of just what Arnold wants us to feel.

| Robert W. Butler

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Andy Warhol

“THE ANDY WARHOL DIARIES” My rating: B+ (Netflix)

After viewing the six one-hour episodes that make up Netflix’s “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” I’m not sure I’m any closer to knowing Warhol as a person.

But I’m a lot closer — invested, even — in the mystery.

Let’s say from the outset that this Andrew Rossi-directed documentary series is not a survey course on all things Warhol.  If you’re an art newbie wanting to know what all the fuss was about in an easily digested format, look elsewhere.

You’ll  see lots of his paintings, of course, but this show doesn’t take the art-history approach. Music geeks should note that there’s  no mention of Warhol’s involvement with the seminal rock group the Velvet Underground. Nor is there an attempt to analyze his cinematic output.

The focus here is on Warhol’s interpersonal relationships as revealed in his posthumously published (in 1989) diary, which covered approximately the last decade of his life. One assumes (hopes) that Warhol was being honest in these entries, but there are moments — usually traumatic — when he simply says he’s not going to write about that.

The diary entries are read here by actor Bill Irwin, whose voice has been electronically augmented to mimic Warhol’s.  The results are eerily realistic. Irwin’s approach is appropriately  deadpan; he often ends a sentence on a rising note that suggests a tentative question mark.  Anyway, it sounds just like Andy.

There are dozens of interviews with Warhol friends and associates, critics and others.  And the series offers an unbelievable collection of Warhol film, video and still photos.  Despite his professed shyness,  the man was a publicity whore who over years fashioned his own oddball persona and played the media masterfully.

And yet when it’s all over, Andy Warhol eludes our attempts to pin him down.

Take, for example, the matter of Warhol’s sexuality.  He was queer, but not openly so (he grew  up Catholic in a Slavic enclave in 1940s Pittsburgh; conditioned with nagging inhibitions, he wasn’t  about to go public with his homosexuality).  One assumes that he engaged in sexual relations…but we cannot be sure.  He once dismissed sex as “too messy” to be bothered with.  He shared a bedroom with one of  his lovers, but for all we know it may have been a chaste arrangement.

Throughout the series we witness Warhol being pulled in two directions.  On the one hand, he was reluctant to open himself up emotionally, and this reticence seems to have led to a major breakup.  On the other, the diaries reveal a painfully lonely individual who partied all night at Studio 54, then retreated to the loneliness of his bed. Like just about everyone else, Andy Warhol wanted to be loved.

The first episode in the series lays out the broad strokes of Warhol’s life and career.  The next two center on two men he loved.

Jed Johnson was boy-next-door handsome and met Warhol when he made a delivery to the artist’s famous Factory in NYC; he ended up doing odd jobs around the place and eventually moved in with his boss.

“Nice guy” doesn’t begin to cover Johnson’s positive attributes. He was tremendously loyal to Warhol and had a calming effect on the artist; everyone who knew him seems to have loved him. He started his own interior design business and became a huge success.  Apparently, though, he wanted more from the relationship than Warhol was willing to give.  He became the artists’s great lost love.

Then there’s Jon Gould, a movie studio executive. He, too, was very handsome, and much younger than Warhol.   Again, an all-around nice guy, though apparently more interested in Warhol as a friend than a lover.

Tragically, he died of AIDS at age 33, shortly after abandoning Warhol and life in New York.

Weird note:  Both Jed Johnson and Jon Gould have identical twin brothers who are interviewed for the doc.

Another episode centers on Jean-Michel Basquiat, the young cutting-edge artist befriended by Warhol and with whom he enjoyed a productive artistic collaboration.

Given that Warhol’s essence seems perennially out of reach, is it worth devoting six hours to an epic case of head-scratching? To a mystery with no answer?

Yeah, “The Andy Warhol Diaries” isn’t for everybody. But I don’t regret a minute of the time devoted to watching the documentary. As a time machine into 70s and 80s Manhattan the enterprise is hugely seductive, and in the end I found myself viewing Warhol with unexpected affection.

There’s plenty of eye-catching art here, but in the end, Warhol was his own greatest creation. 

| Robert W. Butler 

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Abubakar Salim, Amanda Collin as an interplanetary Adam and Eve


“Raised by Wolves” gets high marks for its ability to inspire navel-gazing and metaphysical thumb-sucking.

Problem is, I watched the first two seasons of this Ridley Scott-produced sci-fier without feeling anything.  Not once. Nada.

Yeah, the series created by Aaron Guzikowski  is teaming with interesting ideas.  But I cared not one whit about any of the characters, their fates or the overall narrative.

Plus the actors are all saddled with the worst hair styles ever seen on television.

Initially the series sets up an intriguing premise.  

In the future Earth has become uninhabitable in a civil war between true believers and atheists (sound familiar?).  Things have gotten so bad that both sides make for a distant planet capable of supporting human life.

Several story threads unfold.

In the central one, a female android called Mother (Amanda Collin) and her assistant, Father (Abubakar Salim), travel to this new Eden. Once there they follow their programming given them by their atheist creator and start raising a family: human children who have gestated in Mother’s body. 

More than a mere caregiver, Mother is a mighty weapon, a so-called Necromancer who has an arsenal of tricks worthy of Superman: heat-ray vision, the ability to fly, unmatched strength. She’ll use them to protect her offspring and to ensure the survival of rational godlessness.

Then there’’s the married couple,  Marcus and Sue (Travis Fimmel, Niamh Algar)  who have been carrying on a losing fight as atheist soldiers.  They escape Earth by undergoing surgery so that they can replace (after assassinating) two high-ranking deists.

Thing is, the man Marcus has replaced is regarded as a prophet.  It isn’t easy keeping one’s secret atheism when surrounded by believers who kowtow to your every whim; before too long Marcus undergoes a fundamental shift in thinking.  Adoration goes to his head and he becomes a convert to the religion he once despised.

Parenting is a big issue here.  Mother and Father must cope with the growing pains of their children and find ways to finesse the emotions that they themselves lack. Meanwhile Marcus and Sue become attached to the son of the couple they are impersonating.  

Niamh Algar, Travis Fimmel

In both cases we have individuals not inclined toward maternal and paternal feelings forced into positions of caring. So the series is very much about discovering one’s nurturing abilities.

And of course it’s also about faith and science, superstition and rationality, feeling and cold, hard calculation.

Yeah, all that’s in there, plus some really spectacular production design and top notch special effects.

But after the first three episodes — which promise epic things to come — “Raised by Wolves” wafts into emotional and narrative oblivion. 

Plus we’re saddled with a really irritating bunch of child actors.

And, apparently, in the future humor no longer exists.

| Robert W. Butler

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Celine Held, Zhaila Farmer

“TOPSIDE” My rating: B (In select theaters and on demand)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

Most films today start strong and run out of gas.  

I blame the need to push a script past a phalanx of indifferent gatekeepers. Screenwriters cram all their good ideas in the first few pages so as not to lose the reader; alas, this desperate front loading makes for some pretty awful third acts.

The indie effort “Topside” takes the opposite tack.  It starts slow — too slow, for my taste — but ends on a haunting note.  It’s that rarity…a movie that gets better as it goes along.

Directed and written by Logan George and Celine Held, this festival favorite (it won major awards at SXSW and Venice) hovers somewhere between urban fairy tale and gritty docudrama.

Our main character — at least for the first half — is five-year-old Little (Zhaila Farmer). She lives in NYC, but not the Big Apple we’re familiar with.  Little is part of a community of outsiders residing in the labyrinthine tunnels that make up the subway system.  She may never have seen the full light of day.

The film’s first half hour establishes Little’s environment.  She’s not entirely deprived…there are electric lights here and there, an even a handheld video game player.  She runs and plays and daydreams like other kids, and lives in a hovel decorated with dangling folk art items.

But it’s a life fraught with danger.  Periodically maintenance crews will penetrate this netherworld, leveling subterranean homesteads and sending the residents scurrying for darker corners.

And then there’s Little’s mother Nikki (played by writer/director Held), a single mom with a drug problem.

Nobody in this film discusses why they have chosen a life underground. No doubt economic issues and personal psychosis play major roles.

The turning point of George and Held’s script finds Little and Nikki dispossessed and forced to the surface.  The light, wide open spaces and bustling street life are disorienting — terrifying, even — for Little. Nikki knows her way around this “topside,” and desperately works to keep Little warm and fed while steering clear of the authorities.

They briefly take refuge in a church-run shelter, but cannot avoid drawing attention.  It’s unsafe to stay in one place too long.

“Topside’s” third act shifts almost entirely to Nikki, and it is here that it hits a humanistic high note.  Nikki strives to be a good mother despite her addiction. Nothing matters more to her than her child, and when the two are separated she launches a desperate search that end with a throat-grabbing act of sacrifice.

Before “Topside” George and Held made documentaries about homelessness; their earlier efforts undoubtedly inspire and inform this fictional feature.

But their training in non-fiction cinema is obvious; despite the semi-fantastic setting “Topside” unfolds with an almost documentary honesty and lack of pretension. The visual details, cinematography and unforced performances exude a deeper reality

|Robert W. Butler

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