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“EO”: Beast of burden

“EO” My rating: B (In theaters)

89 minutes | No MPAA rating

What you get out of the donkey-centric “Eo,” I suspect, depends upon what you bring to it.

The latest from veteran Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski (“Moonlighting,” “The Lightship”) is an acknowledged nod to Robert Bresson’s 1966 “Au Hazard Balthasar”…both follow a donkey as the animal encounters a diverse variety of human beings whose behavior runs the gamut from loving to indifferent to cruel.

Neither film attempts to Disney-fy its subject. Both Balthazar and Eo are animals, pure and simple. They don’t do cute things, they are not ascribed the same emotions as people. Stare into their eyes and find what you can there.

This neutrality makes the movies challenging, for the filmmakers don’t tell us what we’re supposed to be feeling at any given moment. Rather we observe and, ultimately, impose on the donkey our own sensibilities. It’s not so much about the animal as our reactions to it and its plight.

“Eo” begins in a traveling circus where under a fierce red light Eo goes through his repertoire of simple tricks with his trainer Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalska). This young woman is clearly devoted to the animal, showering it (is it a he or a she? I don’t know…) with affection and kisses.

But in short order things go south. The circus goes bankrupt at the same time it’s assailed by animal rights activists. Eo and the other four-footed performers are shipped off.

Over the film’s 90 minutes we’ll follow Eo through a series of misadventures. He/she ends up in a high-end horse breeding stable, pulling a cart loaded with feed and other necessities. Eo spends time at a farm that serves as a sort of petting zoo for special needs children.

Sandra Drzymalska, Eo

These interludes are presented as neither good nor bad. Is requiring an animal to haul our stuff or be ridden a form of exploitation? Is it cruel? You decide.

It could always be worse, as we’ll soon learn. Wandering off the farm Eo stumbles across a village whose soccer-crazy residents adopt him as their club mascot. Even the minimum pampering he receives from the beery celebrants has a downside; when the skinhead hooligan fans of a vanquished team show up to break heads, they decide to beat poor Eo as well.

Eventually Eo finds himself the companion of a young man (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) who takes the donkey home to meet his rich mother (played by none other than the great Isabelle Huppert). Seems like a pretty nifty place to wind up, but Eo’s sense of wanderlust kicks in yet again, and he’s off.

Periodically the film reverts to crimson-soaked flashbacks to Eo’s days with Kasandra. This is as close as “Eo” comes to suggesting that the animal has an inner life, memories, yearnings.

We never really get to know the human characters, most of whom are treated with the same neutrality as Eo. Some have a mean streak, some are jerks, most are just schlepping through life.

In truth, “Eo’s” neutrality will strike many as its own form of indifference. Happily the film is a technical tour de force, with sumptuous photography by Michal Dymek and a powerful orchestral score from Pawel Mykietyn that imparts an eye- and ear-catching grandeur to the proceedings.

There’s a good deal of Christian symbolism percolating throughout “Eo,” though one needn’t glom onto it to appreciate the film.

I suspect a certain variety of animal lover — the folk who can handle humans killing each other but blanch when someone shoots a dog — will find in Eo’s story a heart-tugging tragedy.

Others — present company included — will see here a pretty standard-issue life: work, food, sleep, a few moments of pleasure and hopefully fewer of pain, all leading up to that big abattoir in the sky.

| Robert W. Butler

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Zen McGrath, Laura Dern, Hugh Jacckman

“THE SON” My rating: C+ (In theaters)

123 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The performances are strong. The subject matter is important. The execution is, well, fine.

But “The Son” is the most unpleasant, upsetting two hours I’ve spent watching a movie in months. For all of its strong elements, the damn thing is so disheartening and joyless that I’m loathe to revisit the memory just so I can write this review.

The latest from director Florian Zeller (like last year’s “The Father” it is adapted from a Zeller play, once again with an assist from Christopher Hampton) addresses the issue of teen depression. It’s almost brutally insightful, and not the least bit encouraging.

Peter Miller (Hugh Jackman) is an executive with a Manhattan-based charity. He has recently married his second wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and together they have welcomed to their lives a baby boy.

But Peter’s cozy world comes crashing down when he is approached by his ex, Kate (Laura Dern), who reports that their teenage son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) is in trouble at school. More specifically, he hasn’t been to class in a month. The kid leaves home every morning and God knows where he spends the day.

Peter doesn’t need this, but he’s a decent guy who genuinely loves his firstborn and wants to do the right thing. He invites Nicholas to move into his place (new wife Beth is surprisingly amenable…she’s a decent person, too) and enrolls him in a new school.

But here’s the thing. Nicholas is tormented, unhappy, friendless. He cannot find words to express his feelings, and rather than share them he prefers isolation.

Peter tries to put an optimistic face on all this, but he’s simply denying the inevitable. And the pressure is starting to unravel both is career and his marriage.

Zeller’s narrative nails the pain and frustration of parents incapable of alleviating their child’s misery. And young McGrath delivers a borderline brilliant depiction of a kid whose unhappiness has led him down an antisocial path (among other things he’s a genius at parental manipulation). Watching this performance we’re jerked back and farther between compassion and indignation — exactly the emotions the adults in his life are experiencing.

Though Nicholas is the clockwork that makes the movie tick, “The Son” also serves as a personality study. Jackman has spent so much of his career in Spandex that it’s easy to forget that he’s a solid dramatic actor. A scene in which Peter visits his semi-estranged father — played by Anthony Hopkins as a sarcasm-dripping capitalist elitist — goes a long way towards establishing why Peter operates in the not-for-profit sphere and why he’s determined to be a genuine father to Nicholas.

But sometimes broke cannot be fixed.

“The Son” does contain one spectacularl improbability. Ask yourself…if you were the parent of a suicidal adolescent, would you keep a loaded firearm in the laundry room?

Didn’t think so.

| Robert W. Butler

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WOMEN TALKING” My rating: B + (Theaters)

104 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

True originality in filmmaking may be impossible. After a century plus of cinema most of the easy fruit has been picked; it takes something pretty special to make us sit up straight and pay attention.

“Women Talking” does that with regularity. It’s a mix of poetic parable and docudrama that hits an emotional/intellectual sweet spot, leaving the viewer with a heady mix of feelings unlike anything I’ve experienced.

Written and directed by Sarah Polley (it’s based on the nonfiction book by Miriam Toews, who shares screenplay credit), “Women Talking” is inspired by real-world events. A decade ago in Bolivia the women of a Mennonite community realized that some of their menfolk had been dosing them with animal tranquilizers and raping them in their sleep.

This film (the setting appears to be rural Canada) imagines how those women — purposely uneducated but by no means unintelligent — might gather to decide whether to stick with their religious community or seek lives in the greater world few know much about (they’ve had no radio, no TV, no Worldwide Web).

“Women Talking” opens with a disturbing image, an overhead shot of the maiden Ona (Rooney Mara) awakening to find her legs and bedclothes smeared with blood.

Cut to a man cowering in a corncrib and being beaten by the furious Salome (Claire Foy); other men have to pull her off the miscreant lest she kill him.

In just a few carefully selected moments the film gives us the lay of the land. The men have gone off to town to bail out their lecherous brothers arrested by the cops. For a few hours the women are left alone to make a choice.

Do they forgive the transgressors and carry on as if nothing had happened? Do they stay in the colony and fight the societal structure that has always limited their ambitions? Or do they pull up stakes and move out, taking with them the younger children?

The bulk of “Women Talking” is exactly that. A dozen or so women retreat to a hayloft overlooking the fields to debate their future. Interestingly enough, none exhibits religious doubts; rather, their beef is with men who don’t live up to their half of the bargain.

Some women — embodied by the scar-faced Janz (Frances McDormand) — will stay no matter what the others decide. They simply cannot fathom a life other than the one they’ve experienced in the colony.

Salome, whose violent temper we have already witnessed, bristles with defiance, sneering at admonitions to behave with traditional feminine submission and restraint. “I’ll stand my ground and deal with God’s wrath if I have to,” she seethes.

Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is torn between fury and fear. Her husband (like the other men, we see him only glancingly, as if out of the corner of our eye) enforces household rules with his fists. If she attempts to leave with their children might be the last thing she ever does.

Striking a more conciliatory tone is Ona, now pregnant by one of her nocturnal molesters. Despite this she exudes a preternatural calm — you can’t help thinking of another virgin who found herself with child.

Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy

The debate is overseen by Agata (Judith Ivey), the oldest of the women. There are some teenage girls eager to bail on the colony if given the chance. A bit of a wild card is Greta (Sheila McCarthy), a benign eccentric who mostly wants to talk about her beloved buggy horses.

There is but one man to witness all this. August (Ben Whishaw), the colony’s school teacher, has been brought in to take notes on the proceedings (apparently none of the women can read or write). This gentle soul offers advice when asked and quietly worships Ona from afar…clearly he is hopelessly in love.

“Women Talking” could feel claustrophobic and stage bound, but Polley periodically takes us outside to mingle with the colony’s children who are awaiting their mothers’ decision. Sometimes the camera roams the rows of corn or lifts overhead like a hovering bird.

Luc Montpellier’s photography employs a desaturated color scheme; the absense of bright hues somehow focuses our senses on the issues and personalities at hand. Similarly, Hidur Gudnadottir’s quietly evocative musical score suggest a world of simple pleasures — acoustic guitar, hammered dulcimer and chimes that ultimately subsume into a piece for string orchestra.

Polley and Toews string it all together with voiceover narration provided by one of the colony’s adolescent girls (I was reminded of Linda Manz’s narration for Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”). This monologue is in the form of a letter to Ona’s unborn child.

All this masterfully builds into a quietly devastating emotional crescendo, sending us off with a rare mingling of sadness and hope.

| Robert W. Butler

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“A MAN CALLED OTTO” My rating: B (In theaters)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Marc Foster’s “A Man Called Otto” is a remake of the 2015 Swedish film “A Man Called Ove,” which was based on the international best-seller by Fredrik Backman.

Aside from being set in America instead of Sweden, “Otto” feels like a shot-for-shot copy of the earlier film, with only a few minor variations (a gay character is now trans, an Iranian woman in the European version is Latino this time around).

Both films juggle black comedy and heart-tugging sentiment, both feature a Scrooge-ish fart who in old age discovers a sense of compassion for his fellow man.

Given the overwhelming similarities between the two films, one might reasonably ask the point of a remake. Well, here it is in four words:

Tom Hanks.

Mariana Trevino.

Hanks, among our most affable actors, is cast against type as a dour grinch. A recent widower, Hanks’ Otto fills his days with routine, patrolling the housing estate of which he is de facto manager. He’s continually calling his fellow residents to task for parking improperly, failing to sort their trash, and for just being hopeless morons in general.

Otto, you see is a proudly competent American male (he’s got a garage full of tools for any crisis, and he keeps his 50-year-old Ford humming in tip-top shape). He’s utterly contemptuous of everyone else, an attitude that has only grown stronger in the year since his beloved wife Sonya passed.

Early on we discover that Otto is bent on self-destruction. He’s given suicide a lot of thought, and before the film is over he’ll have tried to off himself with a rope around the neck, with poisonous car exhaust, and with a faceful of buckshot.

But every time he’s ready to do the deed (having laid out plastic sheeting to minimize cleanup) Otto is interrupted by one of his neighbors who needs something of him.

Mariana Trevino, Tom Hanks

Enter Mariana Trevino as Marisol, who moves in across the street with her adorable kids and doofus husband. From his first cranky insult, Marisol has Otto’s number, and over the course of the film she will be the prime mover in his reluctant reclamation (you know Otto’s on the mend when he’s adopted by a stray tomcat…you can’t fool animals).

A Mexican actress with mostly TV credits, Trevino delivers a star turn which should earn her an Oscar nomination. She’s funny, soulful, wise and about as sexy as her pregnant state will allow. And absolutely believable. The complete package.

A good chunk of the film is devoted to the courtship decades earlier of Otto (played as a young man by Truman Hanks — yep, Tom’s kid) and Sonya (Rachel Keller); we learn that the guy has always been socially awkward but that Sonya excelled at drawing out his tender side. If I have a major complaint it’s that I’m not sure I can square the young Otto with the misanthrope he’s become.

But that’s a minor qualm. For the most part “…Otto” works quite well, allowing us to bask in Hanks’ reassuring presence while introducing us to a fresh face who could very well become an audience favorite.

| Robert W. Butler

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Brendan Fraser

“THE WHALE” My rating: B- (Theaters)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Yes, Brendan Fraser is terrific in “The Whale.” So terrific that his stellar performance accentuates the picture’s overall shortcomings.

The latest from director Darren Aranofsky (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “Black Swan,” “The Wrestler”) is a claustrophobic pressure cooker of a drama.

Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his decade-old Drama Desk Award-winning play, “The Whale” unfolds almost exclusively in the living room of a suburban home occupied by Charlie, an immense blob of a man who survives on pizza and weighs so much it’s a struggle to stand up.

Charlie pays the rent by convening an on-line literature class, imparting his hard-earned wisdom about writing to college kids who have never laid eyes on him. Ashamed of being seen, he lies that his computer camera has gone haywire.

Over the course of the film Charlie will interact with several individuals.

The first of these is Liz (Hong Chau), a registered nurse and the sister of the man Charlie loved and lost. The compassionate but tough-loveish Liz is the closest thing he has to family or friends; she drops by almost daily to deliver food and observe Charlie’s physical deterioration. His blood pressure is off the charts, he wheezes with every breath, and Liz urges him, without success, to check into the hospital.

And there are unexpected guests.

Thomas (Ty Simpkins) is a young missionary from a nearby church — Charlie regards it as a cult — who drops by to proselytize and, despite Charlie’s rejection of his religious message keeps coming back.

Sadie Sink

Then there’s Charlies teenage daughter Ellie (“Stranger Things'” Sadie Sink), an angry young woman who hasn’t seen her father for a decade (not since he ran off with another man) and now observes his blubbery state with a jaundiced eye and a sharp tongue. Charlie is thrilled to see his offspring (Ellie’s mom cut him out of her life). He attempts to soften her up by noting that he has more than $100,000 in savings earmarked for her use.

Finally there’s a late appearance by Charlie’s ex, Mary (Samantha Morton), who is furious at the thought of a father/daughter reconciliation — not the least because she believes Ellie’s cynical snideness is outward manifestation of an evil soul (!!??!!).

With its single set and clockwork introduction of new characters, “The Whale” is more a filmed play than a fully cinematic experience.

Which is fine. My beef with the material is that the characters are more representative of points of view than of individuals, and their introductions into the story feel so carefully thought out and manipulative that there’s little or no sense of spontaneity. It all feels a little canned and preordained.

On the plus side, the story — and Fraser’s performance — humanizes the sort of individual who carries a boatload of societal shame and disapproval. “The Whale” suggests that Charlie wasn’t always morbidly obese, that he began binge eating after the death of his lover. Now in failing health, he’s desperate to rebuild bridges with his estranged family.

Despite a bulbous fat suit and layers of prosthetic jowls, Fraser uses his voice and expressive eyes to bring Charlie’s interior world to life. It’s an extraordinary performance, sad but knowing and leavened with bursts of self-deprecating humor.

| Robert W. Butler

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Greta Gerwig, Adam Driver and family

“WHITE NOISE” My rating: C+ (Netflix)

136 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The consensus has long been that Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise defies movie adaptation.

Now we have writer/director Noah Baumbach’s take on the 1985 book and…well, the consensus was right.

There are several passages in this long meandering effort that grab the viewer by the eye and the ear and won’t let go.

But by the end most watchers will shrug and wonder, “What was that all about?”

Set in the early 1980s, the film follows a middle-class American family. Father Jack (Adam Driver) teaches at the picturesque College on the Hill where he has pioneered the field of “Hitler studies” despite his inability to speak, read or write German.

Mom Babette (Greta Gerwig) convenes exercise classes for seniors. And there are four kids, the most interesting of whom is Heinrich (Sam Nivola), a teen whose encyclopedic knowledge of a wide variety of subjects makes him some sort of ambulatory information retrieval system. (This is an era before personal computers, much less smart phones.)

The gently mocking tone is set early on as we eavesdrop on a classroom presentation by one of Jack’s colleagues (Don Cheadle), who maintains with a straight face that movie car crashes epitomize American optimism, that despite the carnage they are “brimming with the spirit of innocence and fun.”

It’s a nonsensical argument that only seems plausible because of the seriousness and erudition with which it is delivered…indeed this college community is crammed with chatty pedants, many of whom inexplicable wear their academic gowns not only to classes but to the campus cafeteria, and all of them so wrapped up in their arcane specialities that it’s a wonder they can dress themselves.

If Jack’s academic world flirts constantly with the absurd, his family situation is cozy. They’re a loving if eccentric bunch.

“Life is good” Babbette says during a post-coital cuddle.

Yeah but that won’t last. The collision of a tanker truck and a freight train releases a cloud of …well, something. Everyone at College on the Hill and in its environs are told to get out of Dodge, like yesterday.

So family members pile into the sedan, only to find themselves in the world’s biggest traffic jam. Baumbach conjures up some pretty interesting imagery here while delivering an homage to Godard’s “Weekend” (home of the traffic jam to end all traffic jams).

When they’re not outrunning the “airborne toxic event,” Jack and crew are establishing a new world order at a series of refugee camps for the dislocated.

In its third act the film shifts into a mystery of sorts, with Babette addicted to a new and untested antidepressant, and Jack going Sherlock Holmes to find her dealer.

By the time “White Noise” reaches the two-hour mark many a viewer will be tempted to bail. Baumbach’s effort is kinda funny, kinda romantic but way too diffuse to really grab our emotions.

But wait…he’s saved the best for last. The film’s final title sequence is a long, massive dance number set in the town’s A&P where the products appear not to be organized by type but rather by the colors of their packaging. It’s a marvelously entertaining, giddily addictive passage that somehow celebrates American consumerism while satirizing it. And it will send you out with a big stupid grin on your mug.

| Robert W. Butler

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Harry Turner and Keanu

“WILDCAT” My rating: B+ (Prime Video)

106 minutes | MPAA: R

Folks who fell for the cephalopod/human love story of the Oscar-winning “My Octopus Teacher” can enjoy a second helping with “Wildcat,” a heart-tugging doc about a damaged young man and a wild ocelot.

Harry Turner is a tattooed Brit who returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan with a crippling case of PTSD and memories of seeing children gunned down. Feeling utterly out of place in his native England, he gravitated to an isolated job in the Peruvian jungle where young American scientist Samantha Zwicker has created a project to deal with animals orphaned by hunting, poaching and deforestation.

Harry is given a young ocelot named Khan to supervise. The idea is to keep Khan alive long enough that he can learn to survive on his own, at which point he’ll be returned to the wild. To minimize the cat’s familiarity with humans (in a natural state he should fear them), only Harry (and on occasional visits, Samantha) will interact with the animal in their preserve on the edge of civilization.

For a kid who finds it nearly impossible to deal with his own species, this gig gives Harry something to pour his love into. Which makes it all the more traumatic when something awful happens.

Harry is bereft — we’re talking suicidally bereft — and is only pulled out of his funk when another infant ocelot is recovered. Harry names him Keanu, and “Wildcat” will observe feline pupil and human teacher for more than a year.

“Wildcat’s” directors of record are Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh, but the lion’s share of the footage was shot by Harry and Samantha. It is intimate, visually stunning and emotionally overwhelming.

Samantha Zwicker

For every upbeat moment — Keanu roughhousing with his human companion, Harry showing the ocelot what animals he should feed on and which ones to avoid (hint: alligators should not be messed with) — there is one of soul-scorching anguish as Harry melts down in a series of tearful collapses.

Samatha is good at comforting him (the film suggests without overtly saying so that the two young people are lovers), but even she finds it difficult to deal with Harry’s depression.

Throughout the film we’re faced with the uncomfortable truth that even as Harry and Keanu bond, the ultimate goal is for them to go their separate ways. This isn’t a therapy animal, after all.

In the end “Wildcat” isn’t just a wildlife documentary; it’s a study of the human condition and of a young soul pushed to the very edge. There’s great pleasure here, and great pain.

| Robert W. Butler

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Will Smith

“EMANCIPATION” My rating: B (Apple+)

132 minutes | MPAA rating: R

One of the most famous photographs of the Civil War era — a portrait of a shirtless runaway slave named Peter who displays a hideous crosshatch of whipping scars — gets a compelling back story in “Emancipation.”

This inspired-by-fact yarn is especially noteworthy for its borderline brilliant visual sense.

Will Smith stars as Peter, the enslaved blacksmith on a Louisiana plantation. Peter has a wife and several children, but he is requisitioned by the Confederate Army to build a railway line under conditions that are even more brutal than what he’s accustomed to.

Learning that Union troops are only a few miles away across a daunting swamp, Peter and two other slaves make a break for freedom, pursued by dogs and the relentless runaway hunter Fassel (Ben Foster).

Eventually Peter finds himself in the ranks of an all-black unit of Lincoln’s army, seeing brutal action while never forgetting his burning desire to be reunited with his family.

Director Anton Fuqua (“Training Day,” “King Arthur,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” “The Magnificent Seven”) and writer Bill College have fashioned a wrenching experience — part historical/social statement, part chase flick, part battle epic — that works best when it keeps its mouth shut.

Now I don’t doubt that slavery-supporting Southerners were mean, arrogant, dyed-in-the-wool assholes. I only wish the filmmakers had depicted them more through their despicable actions than through heavy-handed dialogue.

Foster (who seems to be falling back into his early career typecasting as an eye-rolling maniac) is saddled with a monologue about being raised on his father’s plantation by a slave woman, whom he considered his adoptive mother until he subsequently betrayed her. Why is he telling us this? Is he conflicted about the experience? Feeling guilty?

Nah…after all, he’s made a career of catching fugitive slaves.

But that’s the thing here…all too frequently we get didacticism instead of dialogue.

Faring far better is Smith, who gives an almost exclusively physical performance. When he talks it’s either to impart necessary information or to extoll his religious faith, which runs strong and unquestioned. Clearly this man has depths of resolve which a lifetime of beatings have not touched.

If “Emancipation” sometimes grates on the ear, it’s a treat for the eyes. Robert Richardson’s cinematography must be seen to be believed. The images have been so color desaturated that they often can be mistaken for black-and-white (only yellow flames seem to break through the monochrome); the effect is of a Civil War daguerrotype come to life.

Moreover, Richardson employs drones for many sweeping shots, including a mind-blowing battlefield flyover that finally comes to rest on Smith’s battle-smudged face. I haven’t seen its like since Bondarchuk’s epic 1965 “War and Peace.”

| Robert W. Butler

The real Peter

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Margot Robbie

“BABYLON” My rating: B (In theaters)

188 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Babylon” is filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s recreation of Hollywood in the last days of silent movies and the dawn of the sound era.

It is a riot of excess and ambition, a trip to a La La Land where Prohibition-era parties devolve into Roman-style orgies, where an elephant erupts in a diarrhea gusher and a beautiful woman projectile vomits on a rich man’s priceless carpet.

With nearly a dozen major characters whose careers are tracked over a raucous decade, the film has a running time of more than three hours and is packed with mind-blowing set pieces, some of which work on the viewer’s sensibilities like a dose of LSD.

It is simultaneously too much and just right, though as it enters its third hour you might wish for something resembling an actual plot.

At its core, “Babylon” is a tale of unrequited love. Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is a Mexican kid who serves as a fixer for a Hollywood bigwig. On one memorable night of bacchanalian excess circa 1926 he makes the acquaintance of Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a beautiful substance-fuelled party girl from the poor side of town.

These two outsiders are on parallel tracks to fame and fortune, Manny as a studio exec who excels at cleaning up messes, and Nellie as a steaming hot star whose off-the-charts sex appeal is matched only by her effortless acting (in one memorable scene she asks her director if she should produce a tear with her left eye or her right one).

Manny — essentially a sweet guy despite the dark side of his employment — is doomed to worship Nellie from afar. She’s too in love with her vices (drink, drugs, gambling, sex) to notice his adoration, though Manny’s the guy she turns to whenever she gets in over her head.

Meanwhile everywhere you look in this film there’s a colorful character shouldering his/her way into our awareness.

Foremost among them is Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad, a Hollywood leading man in the Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn mold who remains charming and erudite even when plastered…which is most of the time. He becomes young Manny’s mentor and our favorite on-screen presence, a wildly attractive bon vivant with an undercurrent of resigned self-awareness and a roster of ex-wives.

Brad Pitt

We get a Hedda Hopper-ish gossip columnist (Jean Smart), a black jazzman (Jovan Adepo) who finds limited fame a not a little racism starring in musical shorts, a Chinese actress (Li Jun Li) who exudes exotic other-ness, a creep called The Count (Rory Scovel) who seems to provide all Hollywood with drugs and an even creepier gambler (Tobey Maguire) who takes us subterranean slumming in a segment right out of Dante.

Interspersed with Chazelle’s fictional characters are real-world figures like Irving Thalberg and William Randolph Hearst.

“Babylon” is roughly divided between the movie-making segments (including a fascinating look at the maddening unreliability of early sound technology) and behind-the-scenes cavorting.

In many ways the film is scrupulously realistic, yet it’s overflowing with fantastic elements, not least of which is a musical score more redolent of the boppin’ late ’40s than the 1920’s.

There are a few laugh-out-loud moments (many provided by Pitt), but the overriding tone is one of seen-it-all cynicism. Chazelle (“Whiplash,” “La La Land,” “First Man”) clearly is fascinated by the early history of the movies, but he draws the line at sentimentality.

At a certain point “Babylon” becomes a victim of its own diminishing returns. For all its eye and ear candy and its insider’s dissection of the Hollywood machine, and despite some really fine performances the film remains emotionally neutral. We may be diverted by these characters, but we’re not moved by them; their downfalls seem less tragic than a case of just desserts.

It’s probably fitting that a film depicting a world without morals should itself lack a moral. Still, in the final analysis we’re left feeling a bit empty.

Entertained, but empty.

| Robert W. Butler

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“GOOD NIGHT OPPY” My rating: B (Prime Video)

105 minutes | MPAA: PG

The robot/computer that develops a human personality is a staple of science fiction. “Good Night Oppy” is an inspiring real-life twist on that cliche.

Launched in the summer of 2003, the roving robots Spirit and Opportunity were designed to explore Mars (the “twins” landed on opposite sides of the Red Planet). NASA scientists and engineers designed the robots to function for 90 Martian days; anything longer would be frosting on the cake.

Spirit kept operating — exploring and photographing the planet’s terrain, picking up and examining geological specimens and searching for signs of water — for six years.

Her sister Opportunity (known affectionately as Oppy) kept chugging along for an unbelievable 14 years, surviving massive dust storms, electrical strikes and the mechanical version of arthritis (shit wears out).

Ryan White’s documentary “Good Night Oppy” is an in-depth look at the Spirit/Opportunity mission, from early designs and testing to the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the rovers on the planet’s surface.

There is utterly convincing footage of Spirit and Oppy going about their work on Mars, courtesy of the visual artists at Industrial Light & Magic, and of course there are plenty of photos taken by the rovers of their environment.

We also meet a dozen or so of the individuals who created the program and kept the robots rolling along for years past their expiration dates. A popular cliche casts scientists and engineers as creatures of fact with little room for sentiment, yet the testimony of these slide-rule types suggests that over time they came to regard the rovers, especially Oppy, as a member of the family, at least as empathetic a being as a cat or dog.

Physically there is little human about the rovers. They look a bit like aircraft carriers on treaded wheels, with the “deck” a couple of feet above the ground. Towering over the body is a “neck” and “head” equipped with cameras…the rovers were deliberately designed so that the cameras’ POV would be that of a five-foot-tall human strolling across the Martian surface.

The humans’ affections for the rovers were built largely on the day-in-day-out routine established over the machines’ lifetimes. There were morning wakeup calls featuring popular songs blasted into space…apparently Spirit and Opportunity were programmed to react like a human being awakened by a clock radio.

Moreover, the robots had been programmed to act autonomously in certain situations (there was a lag time of 10 minutes between NASA sending an order and the machines receiving it), and this sometimes gave the impression that they were exhibiting free will.

The NASA folk recognize, of course, that these are machines. But who can blame them for projecting their parental impulses on these two metallic space babies? Or for mourning when at long last Oppy went to sleep during a long Martian dust storm and never again awoke?

The marvel of White’s film (co-written with Helen Kearns) is that we don’t sneer at this anthropomorphic proclivity. Rather, we buy into it,

Is it possible to love a chunk of metal and plastic? “Good Night Oppy” certainly makes the case.

| Robert W. Butler

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