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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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Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Brosnahan

“THE COURIER” My rating: B- (In theaters March 19)

111 minutes: MPAA rating: PG-13

Like its title, “The Courier” is an unprepossessing Cold War thriller that, despite an OK turn from leading man Benedict Cumberbatch and a based-on-fact birthright, never works up a full head of steam.

In the early 1960s British businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) was recruited by his country’s spymasters. An independent salesman who represented dozens of Western manufacturers, Wynne was encouraged by the M-16 spooks to expand his operation to the growing Soviet market.

Mostly he was to carry on business as usual. But from time to time he would be asked to bring pilfered Soviet secrets back to London.

Initially Wynne rejects the idea.  He’s not a spy, after all.

Noting Wynne’s unremarkable military record and his gone-to-flab physique, his handler reassures him: “If this mission were really dangerous you’re the last man we’d send.”

Wynn’s contact in Moscow is Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a WWII hero now working for the KGB, though his “official” title is that of trade specialist.  Penkovsky is the film’s most interesting character, a guy so traumatized by Krushchev’s podium pounding and the growing Cuban Missile Crisis that he’s willing to turn his country’s secrets over to the West in the hope of avoiding all-out nuclear war.

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Anthony Hopkins

“THE FATHER” My rating: B (In theaters)

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Films about Alzheimer’s usually assume an outsider’s point of view, that of a family member or caregiver who must watch in dismay as a loved one goes through the downward spiral of forgetfulness, cognitive dissolution and physical and mental incapacity.

Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” on the other hand, attempts nothing less than to recreate  encroaching dementia as it is experienced by the patient. It’s an insider’s approach.

The film is less a conventional narrative than a series of disorienting scenes that force the audience — like the film’s title character — to ask what is real and what a delusion.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton from Zeller’s stage play, “The Father” relies on a narrative gimmick, yet Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-nominated lead performance is so compelling — by turns infuriating, puzzling and pathetic — that it bouys the entire production.

Things start out more or less conventionally.  Anne (Olivia Colman, also an Oscar nominee) has come to the spacious London flat of her father Anthony (Hopkins) to discuss his living situation.  The old man has chased off his third visiting nurse, accusing her of theft; Anne (a divorcee) is distraught  as this screws up her plans to move to Paris with her new boyfriend. Who’s going to be there for Dad?

Anthony wants nothing to do with caregivers. He swears by self-sufficiency and resents the intrusion of strangers into his neatly circumscribed world.

Listening to him you want to agree. Anthony is eloquent and even witty (albeit often scathingly critical, his jabs at poor Anne suggest not just indifference but overt cruelty); physically he seems perfectly okay. Yeah, he’s self-centered and often hears only what he wants to hear.  You can say the same about lots of  younger people.

Anthony can be a charmer. Look at the show he puts on for Laura (Imogen Poots), a young woman being interviewed by Anne as a replacement for the latest nurse to bail.  For this attractive visitor Anthony is bright-eyed and amusing, claiming to have been a professional tap dancer (he was an engineer) and even doing a soft-shoe across the living room rug.

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Jessica Barr

“SOPHIE JONES” My rating: B+ (In select theaters and on VOD)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

Asked how she’s dealing with the recent death of her mother, 16-year-old Sophie Jones has a canned response.

“I haven’t been cutting myself,” she reports matter-of-factly. “Or drinking. Or taking drugs.”

Which doesn’t mean that she’s dealing well with the trauma.

Sophie has met a devastating family tragedy with ironic detachment. Rather than weeping or moping she she embraces snarky humor and a mockingly defiant attitude. Hanging out with the other theater kids at school, she appears unchanged and unruffled.

Yes, she has embarked on a course of sexual experimentation, though she retains her virginity. “We’re only dry humping,” she assures her best friend.

“Sophie Jones” is a study of grief, but its approach is so tangential and minimalist that the film is almost totally lacking in big dramatic moments. This, interestingly enough,  is its great strength.

We learn about Sophie and her interior world through the accumulation of small details over many months; our girl almost never talks about her feelings, but her actions speak volumes.

This is the first feature from director Jessie Barr (she penned the screenplay with her cousin Jessica Barr, who plays Sophie), and  with its quiet wisdom and backhanded narrative approach the movie is a revelation. We’re told that the film was inspired by the Barrs’ own family tragedy…maybe that’s why it all feels so authentic.

There’s no plot to speak of, just a series of episodes as Sophie makes her way toward graduation and college.  But there are moments here so beautiful (and shocking) that the viewer is pulled up short.

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Hadley Robinson

“MOXIE” My rating: B+ (Netflix)

Running time: 111minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The highest praise I can bestow on “Moxie” is that for two hours it made me once again feel like a teenager…and left me with a much-needed sense of optimism.

Just about everything works in Amy Poehler’s film, adapted from the YA novel by Jennifer Mathieu.  (Full disclosure: Jennifer interned in The Star‘s A&E Department some 20 years ago when I was the editor).  It’s a high school movie with heart, soul and attitude.

We’re talking happy tears.

Our heroine is Vivian (Hadley Robinson, terrific in a non-glam girl-next-door way), a bright quiet girl who is most comfortable when laying low.  But it turns out that everywhere Vivian looks she sees injustice.

Her school is pretty much run by the football team, a pack of entitled meatheads led by the smugly swaggering and creepily predatory Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger…Arnold’s kid).

The jocks annually issue a sexist ranking of their fellow students. One girl is declared “most bangable.” Another has the “best bootie.”  Vivian is humiliated to find herself designated “most obedient.”

What’s really irritating is that the footballers are the constant object of adoration despite a mediocre record; meanwhile the girls’ soccer squad — perennial contenders for the state championship — have to make do with last year’s grass-stained jerseys.

Taking some inspiration from her single mom Lisa (Poehler), whose own teen years were devoted to Bikini Kill-inspired rebellion, Vivian writes and designs her own feminist “zine,” a Xeroxed howl of indignation entitled Moxie!.

She pays to have 50 copies printed and secretly deposits them in the girls’ restrooms. And suddenly the school is abuzz with  female umbrage  and a growing mystery.

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