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Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz

“THE FAVOURITE”  My rating: B (Opens  Dec. 14 at the Tivoli , Town Center and Glenwood Arts)

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Deliciously nasty and morally ambiguous, “The Favourite” is a female-centric slice of history featuring three superb actresses duking it out on screen.

In addition, it may be remembered as Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ most accessible film. Which is not to say that it’s breezy moviegoing.

As was so obvious with his most recent English-language features — “The Lobster” and “The Killing of the Sacred Deer” — Lanthimos marches to his own weird drummer. The difference this time around is that instead of working from his own script he’s tackling a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, and their reasonably conventional approach grounds this yarn in more or less familiar territory.

This feast of power-playing shenanigans is set in the 18th-century court of England’s Queen Anne, a monarch equal parts sadness and silliness.  As played by the great Olivia Colman (for my money this year’s best supporting actress), this ruler is fat, frumpy and flighty.

Small wonder that her childhood friend and now closest confidant, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), treats the monarch as a sort of overgrown baby with big appetites and a short attention span. Because of their long friendship Sarah can tell Her Highness the brutal truth — for example, that her new cosmetic do-over makes the Queen look like a large badger.  (Sarah actually seems to take pleasure in dissing her hapless royal gal pal.)

In return Anne showers gifts (like castles) on her companion and makes sure that Sarah’s husband Lord Marlborough (Mark Gatiss) spends most of his time away  fighting those nasty Frenchies.

Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s penniless country cousin come to court in the hopes of employment.  She’s put to work in the kitchen, but little by little insinuates herself into the Queen’s household…among other things she whips up an herbal poultice to treat Her Majesty’s gouty feet.

What ensues is a sort of powdered-wig “All About Eve,” with the young interloper cannily inserting herself between the old friends. Abigail  discovers that Anne and Sarah are lovers and decides to use that information for her own advancement. Scheming, backbiting and even a bit of poison are employed.

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Ron Perlman

“ASHER” My rating: C+ (Opens Dec. 7 at the AMC Town Center)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Asher” is a by-the-numbers aging hit man movie somewhat enlivened by its weirdly charismatic star — Ron Perlman — and by  being a crime drama in which virtually all the characters are Jewish.

White-haired Asher (Perlman) kills people.  He’s got it down to routine.  He stands in the hallway outside his victim’s door, lights up a cigarette and opens an umbrella. When the smoke alarm goes off and the overhead sprinklers start spraying, he waits until the alarmed target throws open the door to see what’s up and then…BLAM!!!

Or, more accurately, ZIIIIP!!!, since Asher uses a silencer.

Jay Zaretsky’s screenplay is unclear about just who Asher works for.

He gets his assignments at a Brooklyn tailor shop where the yarmulke-wearing owner passes out info and cash in plain manilla envelopes. The big boss is Avi (Richard Dreyfuss), who runs a whole crew of assassins, but whether they’re all in the employ of the Israeli government or some organized crime enterprise is left fuzzy.

Anyway, Asher is beginning to feel his age. The plum assignments are now going to the killers Asher taught.

Even more troubling, some of Asher’s colleagues — and their families — are being mysteriously slaughtered.

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Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh

“AT ETERNITY’S GATE” My rating: A-

110 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-12

Epically poetic yet aching personal, “At Eternity’s Gate” may be the best film ever about Vincent  Van Gogh.

For that matter, it is among the best movies ever made about a visual artist. Undoubtedly much of the insight and emotion radiating off the screen can be traced back to writer/director Julian Schnabel who was, of course, a famed painter long  before he began  making films.

Visually lush and aurally haunting, “At Eternity’s Gate” follows Vincent through the last year or so of his life.

It is told in fragmented fashion, with scenes built around a series of dialogues between Vincent (Willem Dafoe in the best performance of his career) and others: his supportive brother Theo (Rupert Friend), his combative fellow painter Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac), a fellow patient in a mental institution (Niels Arestrup), a disapproving priest (Mads Mikkelsen), a sympathetic physician (Mathieu Amalric).

And when he’s not talking, this Vincent is painting, creating before our eyes the colorful masterpieces that would not be appreciated until long after his death at age 37. A good chunk of “At Eternity’s Gate” is devoted to following Vincent on his nature walks, easel and canvasses strapped to his back, head shaded with a floppy straw hat.

This is a transcendental Vincent, a man who stands in the sunshine with his arms outstretched, smiling ecstatically at the light that bathes him.

Our first encounter with this Vincent, though, occurs in darkness. We can only hear his voice. He’s talking about loneliness, about how he feels set apart from the rest of humanity: “I just want to be one of them…I’d like them to give me some tobacco, a glass of wine, or even ask: ‘How are you?’…from time to time I’d make a sketch of one of them as a gift.”

The key to Dafoe’s inspiring, heartbreaking performance is the way in which Vincent’s almost religious love affair with the world’s beauty is undercut by his sad “otherness.”  Most people don’t like him. They make fun of him. His eccentricities, poverty and neediness bring out the worst in his fellow man. (An art dealer of my acquaintance once explained that “Everybody wants a Van Gogh in their dining room; nobody wants Van Gogh in their  dining room.”)

Thus he’s an apologetic mystic, aware that he rubs others the wrong way, but unable to escape the almost epileptic thrall into which he is forever being plunged by the beauty of the world around him.

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Maria Callas

“MARIA BY CALLAS” My rating:

115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Maria Callas seemed bigger than life in just about everything she pursued.

Her voice was legendary. As was her romance with millionaire Aristotle Onasis. She was a fashion icon. And she came to embody the very idea of “diva,” gaining a reputation for temperamental behavior after she was fired by The New York Metropolitan Opera.

During her lifetime it seemed that just about everyone had an opinion about Callas. Now, decades after her death from heart attack at age 53 in 1977, first-time filmmaker Tom Volf lets her speak for herself.

The idea behind “Maria by Callas” is to let the great singer tell her own story, employing dozens of filmed interviews, tape recordings, and excerpts from her memoir (read by K.C. native and current opera star Joyce DiDonato).

Clearly, Volf is a big-time Callas fan (“fan,” of course, being a shortened version of “fanatic”) and he seems to have scoured the planet for photos and footage of his idol.  This is an exhaustive presentation.

In fact, Volf seems not so much to have shaped all this material as to have taken a bath in it.

Some may take exception with his decision to devote at least one quarter of the two-hour documentary to musical numbers, either footage of Callas performancing on stage or sound recordings played against archival photos and footage.

On the other hand, to understand Callas you’ve got to hear her. So there.

Arranged chronologically, “Maria by Callas” follows its subject from her New York childhood to her late adolescence in Greece, her emergence as a European singing sensation and her rapid recognition on this side of the Atlantic.

Her life was beset by scandal both professionally and personally.

In 1958 she dropped out of a performance in Rome after the first act. She was vilified as a temperamental diva; Callas claims the drafty old theater gave her a devastating case of bronchitis.

Later she was cut from the Met; she claims it was about not wanting to participate in lazily-assembled retread productions of old standards. (Nearly a decade later she returned to the Met in triumph.)

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Jakob Cedergren

“THE GUILTY” My rating: B

90 minutes | MPAA rating

“Guilty” is a gimmick movie, but at least it’s an effective gimmick.

Denmark’s nominee for this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film is a real-time drama that unfolds in 90 uninterrupted minutes and has, essentially, a cast of one.

Jakob Cedergren plays Asger Holm, a tough Copenhagen cop who, while awaiting a hearing on some unspecified major infraction, has been handed a set of headphones at the department’s emergency services office.

Early on we realize his heart’s not in it.  To a frantic man who calls seeking an ambulance because he may have overdosed on illegal drugs, Asger responds: “It’s your own fault, isn’t it?”

He also humiliates a fellow who reports he’s been mugged by a woman who stole his laptop; Asger recognizes the call is originating from the city’s red light district.

His boring night picks up in intensity with a call from a frantic woman who reports she’s been kidnapped by her ex-husband. She has told her captor that she is calling their young daughter, but in fact has dialed the police.

Asher quickly sizes up the situation and alerts other cops to intercept the vehicle in which the woman is being held prisoner.

He also spends phone time with the couple’s daughter, traumatized after witnessing her parents’ brawling. Asher dispatches an officer to visit the home; he reports back a grisly scene.

It’s pretty clear to Asger that the estranged husband/father went ballistic and did something awful.  At least it’s clear until a big plot reveal turns the table on the officer and the audience.

Writer/director Gustave  Moller confines the action pretty much to Asger’s desk; there’s relatively little interaction with the other cops in the room. And of course we never see any of the people Asger is talking to…we only hear their voices.

In a cleverly perverse way, this seemingly limiting approach pays off. We’re forced to use our imaginations to picture the scenes as they are reported to Asger, who over the course of 90 minutes goes from  smug arrogance to genuine emotional investment.

One actor in  a confined space doesn’t sound particularly dramatic, but “The Guilty” makes it work.

| Robert W. Butler

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Eva  Melander

“BORDER” My rating: B+

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

When we first set eyes on Tina, the insanely unlikely heroine of Ali Abbasi’s “Border,” we can’t even be sure of her sex.

In fact, Tina (Eva Melander) looks like nothing so much as one of our prehistoric ancestors.  She’s got the thick brows, big buck teeth and unmanageable mop of hair of a cave-dwelling Neanderthal. She’s so ugly people must force themselves not to stare.

For about half its running time, “Border” plays like a character study of a sensitive soul trapped in a grotesque body.

And then it takes off into high-blown fantasy territory.  It’s not stretching things to say the film is this year’s “The Shape of Water.”

Despite her animalistic looks, Tina is an intelligent young woman. She’s a Swedish customs agent and amazes her co-workers with her ability to smell (literally…with her nose) when travelers are trying to hide something. She can even pick up whiffs of guilt on objects handled by smugglers. Through her olfactory talents Tina is largely responsible for alerting authorities to a child pornography ring.

Her personal life is odd, too. She shares a cabin in the woods with Roland (Jorgan Thomsson), a long-haired doofus trying to breed pit bulls (the dogs hate Tina). Apparently their cohabitation is a chaste one; Tina repels Roland’s advances, but she does pay his way. He’s not much of a boyfriend, but at least Tina has someone.

She also has a father (Sten Ljunggren) slipping into dementia in a retirement home. Tina dotes on the old man.

Tina is given to long walks in the primordial forest where deer and foxes allow her to approach; she has a fascination with insects, though she can’t exactly say why.

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Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali

“GREEN BOOK”  My rating: B 

130 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Most of us will go into “Green Book” knowing — thanks to the ads — what the film is about. We can predict with some certainty what notes it’s going to hit, what emotional buttons it’ll be pushing.

None of this detracts from the movie’s immense pleasures.

The latest from director Peter Farrelly (yes, of the raunch-humor Farrelly Brothers) is a fact-based buddy film that dabbles in race and ethnicity, the universal appeal of music, and the glory of Detroit engineering at a time when bigger was definitely better.

It’s 1962 in NYC where Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is bouncing drunks at the Copacabana nightclub. He’s Brooklyn Italian down to his toenails…which he can barely see thanks to his pasta-packed middle-aged spread.

Looking for a temporary gig while the club is undergoing a facelift, Tony signs up for a job driving a musician on  a tour of the Deep South.  And not just any musician.

Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a Phd. pianist who studied music in the Soviet Union, writes and performs classical scores (although on this tour he’s offering a popular jazz sound) and also has doctorates in psychology and liturgical arts. (The real-life Shirley also was fluent in six languages.)

Oh, yeah. He’s black, too.

But the money is good and Tony swallows his ethnic prejudices. He kisses the Missus (Linda Cardelli) goodbye and gets behind the wheel of a big aquamarine land shark for an eight-week tour leading up to Christmas.  (more…)

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