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“ZAPPA”  My rating: B (Opening Nov. 23 at the Screenland Armour and Nov. 27 at the  Tivoli at the Nelson)

129 minutes | No MPAA rating

Alex Winter’s “Zappa” is the first film about the iconoclastic musician to have access to its late subject’s vault of never-released tapes, performance videos, home movies and personal correspondence.

Fans of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (present company included) will have plenty to drool over here.

But “Zappa” left me only partially satisfied.  The film chronicles Zappa’s life from suburban teen to his death of prostate cancer in 1993 at age 52.  There are lots of juicy details I didn’t know about.

At the same time, “Zappa” is very much about the man, not his music. Sure, there are snippets of Zappa in performance, snatches of his songs on the soundtrack, but the overriding emphasis here is on the man’s personal story.

And — perhaps it’s because director Winter (yes, the guy who stars opposite Keanu Reeves in the “Bill & Ted” franchise) worked so closely with Zappa’s late widow and executor Gail Zappa in mining the treasure trove —  the film often borders on hagiography.

Would Frank have wanted that?

Whatever. “Zappa” makes the case that Francis Vincent Zappa was one of the 20th century’s most remarkable and accomplished musicians, a guy whose career spanned doo-wop, r&b, rock, jazz and classical idioms, all the while dishing vicious satire against the phoniness he saw all around him: politicians, Flower Power, censorship, consumerism, drug abuse.

Zappa’s father was a chemist who worked in a defense plant producing nerve gas; everyone in the neighborhood was required to have gas masks close at hand in case of a leak. Small wonder that gas masks crept into Zappa’s work as an adult.

The teenage Frank dabbled in homemade explosives. His life turned around when he was turned on to a recording by the atonal composer Edgard Varese. His first band took heat because it was racially integrated.

Frank’s first artistic love was film editing; the doc chronicles a bizarre passage in which young Frank was entrapped into making a “porn” movie (it was a total goof; there was nothing overtly sexual in it), resulting in a criminal conviction.

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Michael Angelo Covino, Kyle Marvin

 

“THE CLIMB”  My rating: A- (Opens  Nov. 20 at the Glenwood Arts)

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The gold standard for great first features is  Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” No contest.

Among runners up, though, one might well consider Michael Angelo Covino’s “The Climb,” a droll dissection of a toxic friendship that, even when it’s traversing familiar territory, speaks in its own unique voice.

Written by Covino and Kyle Marvin — and starring the two as best friends Mike and Kyle — “The Climb” is a full-length film shot in fewer than a dozen takes.  Which means that the picture is virtually without cuts. D.p. Zach Kuperstein served as a one-man crew, personally carrying the camera through astoundingly complex tracking shots that sometimes involved dozens of actors.

Single-take movies are not unknown, but unlike the recent “Birdman” and “1917,” “The Climb” hasn’t the budget for a tech-intensive post-production polish. What you see here is what happened; in only one brief instance does it appear Covino and Kuperstein relied on CG to achieve a particularly difficult shot. And I’m not sure even of that.

The  bar is set high with the very first scene. Old buddies Mike and Kyle are pedaling their racing bikes up a mountain in France.  Mike, the more experienced rider, is pep-talking his out-of-shape pal  into meeting the challenges of the climb.

Kyle’s mind isn’t focused on the ride; he is looking forward to his impending marriage to Ava, a French woman.

“I don’t have to change for her,” he says between deep breathes. “She loves me for who I am.”

Seconds later Mike casually announces that he’s slept with Ava. In fact, he still is. And without missing a beat he advises Kyle:
“Switch gears. You need to pedal at a steady cadence.”

This nine-minute scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. First, it is shot in one take (I assume the camera was mounted on the rear of a truck). Second, it establishes Mike as a perennial screwup. Even when he’s trying to be honest — he feels obligated to warn Kyle of his fiancé’s faithlessness — it’s motivated by selfishness.

Over the next 90 minutes we will follow Mike and Kyle’s off-and-on friendship.  “Off” because in the wake of their bike ride Mike marries Ava (French film star Judith Godreche) and Kyle, understandably enough, wants nothing to do with him; “on” because when Ava dies the good-hearted Kyle shows up to support his grief-ravaged friend. ‘Cause that’s the kind of guy he is.

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Guy Pearce

“THE LAST VERMEER”  My rating: B- (Opens in theaters Nov. 20)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In “The Last Vermeer” Aussie Guy Pearce delivers a hugely entertaining performance as Han van Meergren, a charmingly decadent artiste and all-round roue in post-war Copehagen.

Oozing hedonistic hubris, intellectual arrogance and casual amorality through his Einstein-level frizzy gray hair and mustache, Pearce’s van Meergren is the center of attention whenever he appears on screen.

Which, sad to say, isn’t nearly often enough. For though he is arguably the most important character in
Dan Friedkin’s “The Last Vermeer” he — like Orson Welles’ Harry Lime in “The Third Man” — gets relatively little screen time.

The screenplay (credited to John Orloff, James McGee, Mark Fegus and Hawk Ostby…very nearly a case of too many cooks) is based on real events.

The Nazis have been defeated and Jospeh Piller (Claes Bang), a Dane who fled the occupation to fight in the Canadian army, has been assigned the task of tracking down art masterpieces stolen by the Germans. His job is to return these priceless objects to their rightful owners (in may cases Jewish families) and prosecute the  collaborators who made the pillaging possible.

A previously unknown Vermeer painting — recovered from a Berlin-bound train and intended for Herman Goering’s personal collection — sets Pillar on a quest.  He’s accompanied by thuggish aide Esper (Roland Moller) who provides muscle when it’s needed and by the investigative genius Minna (Vicky Krieps).

Their sleuthing leads them to van Meergren, a failed painter who was known to have partied with the Germans and who somehow became fabulously rich during the war — presumably by selling pilfered masterpieces to the enemy.   If that is indeed the case, van Meergren faces the death penalty. Collaborators are daily being executed in Copenhagen’s public squares.

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Ibrahima Gueye, Sophia Loren

“THE LIFE AHEAD” My rating: B- (Now streaming on Netflix)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The pleasure of watching Sophia Loren’s return to the screen (still charismatic at 86) is somewhat tempered by the so-so execution of “The Life Ahead.”

Written (with Ugo Chiti and Fabio Natale) and directed by Edoardo Ponti (Loren’s son), this effort offers all sorts of potential for heartstring tugging. The plot, after all, centers on an orphaned boy and an old lady who takes him in.

And yet I was left hoping for more.

Madam Rosa (Loren) is a former prostitute who now takes care of the children of other hookers in her Naples apartment. She dishes tough love when required, and is paid for her services, but clearly cares for the kids in her charge.

Enter Momo (newcomer Ibrahima Gueye), a Senegalese immigrant whose mother has died. Rosa reluctantly takes on the moody, defiant tweener at the behest of a doctor who serves their slum community.

Momo is rebellious and profane and tries to bully the other boy (Iosif Diego Privu) living with Rosa.  Before long the streetwise little punk has landed a gig peddling drugs.

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Greta Thunberg

“I AM GRETA” My rating: B+ (Streaming on Hulu)

97 minutes | MPAA rating:

She’s only 15. She’s autistic.

Yet in just two years Sweden’s Greta Thunberg has become the inspiration for an international movement.

She has become a self-educated expert on climate change (or at any rate, she knows more about it than most elected leaders) and is not shy about kicking the collective asses of the grownups who, in her opinion, are selling out humanity’s future for a petroleum fix.

Documentarist Nathan Grossman picked Greta as his subject more than two years ago when she was waging a one-girl protest outside Sweden’s house of parliament.  Talk about good instincts!

This child — who admits to liking animals more than humans and has little tolerance for chitchat and socializing — had decided to go on strike from her school every Friday in order to sit on a sidewalk passing out home-made flyers.

In a telling exchange, a woman passerby asks why she isn’t in class. Greta’s answer: “Why get an education if there’s no future?”

Since then she has inspired other young people to protest their governments’ failure in dealing with climate change. She’s addressed UN diplomats, met with presidents and prime ministers.

Despite the occasional “down” day and nagging doubts that the human-fueled destruction of our planet can be reversed in time, Greta plugs away at her message. It’s equal parts inspirational and heartbreaking.

We learned that young Greta was so traumatized by a climate documentary that she stopped eating and talking for months.  This on top of abuse and/or indifference from schoolmates weirded out by her high-functioning Asperger’s.

Somehow she came out of her funk, driven by her inner spirit to draw attention to the plight of the planet. She started with her own suburban Stockholm family, pushing them to a vegan diet and an electric car.  With the help of a photographic memory (and an obviously high IQ…how many teens are fluent in Swedish and English, with a smattering  of French?), she crafted her arguments and began making her case.

As much as this is Greta’s story, “I A Greta” is also about her father, Svante Thunberg, who serves as her primary protector on their many travels (mom Malena and a little sister remain in Sweden). It’s his job to make sure his willful daughter eats (her mind is racing so fast simple sustenance is an afterthought), gets rest and has a shoulder to lean on when the weight of responsibility and isolation becomes too much.

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Diane Lane, Kevin Costner

“LET HIM GO”  My rating: C (In theaters Nov. 6)

114 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There are moments early on when “Let Him Go” seems to be a thoughtful examination of a long marriage between a couple with fundamental differences about how the world works.

That Thomas Bezucha’s film stars Kevin Costner (one can usually feel safe whenever he’s wearing a cowboy hat) and Diane Lane (OMG: the eternally beautiful one-time child star is now portraying a grandmother!!!) generates even more hope that this might be a keeper.

Uh…no.

Before it’s all over “Let Him Go” will have descended into a quagmire of cult film wackiness and action/revenge melodrama, wasting a promising cast along the way.

Set in the early 1960s, the yarn begins on the Montana ranch of retired lawman George Blackledge (Costner), his wife Margaret (Diane Lane) and their son James (Ryan Bruce).  James has a wife, Lorna (Kayli Carter), and an infant boy. They’re just one big happy multigenerational family.

A riding accident leaves Lorna a widow and the story suddenly jumps several years into the future where we see her remarrying. Her new hubby is Donny Weboy (Will Brittain), who turns out not to be a nice person at all. (Why did Lorna fall for a creep, even while she’s still living with the sheltering George and Margaret?  Well, that would take some explaining, so Bezucha’s screenplay doesn’t even try.)

And then one day the little family vanishes without a trace.

The  emotion-driven and fiercely maternal Margaret is determined to mount a pursuit to rescue her grandson Jimmy — wherever it is that Donny may have taken Lorna and the boy.

Husband George, the sort of guy who says little and then only after considerable rumination, is morosely pragmatic. His life has been ruled by the law, and he knows they haven’t a legal leg to stand on.

But the stubborn Margaret announces she’ll go on the quest by herself if needs be. What’s a guy supposed to do?

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Left to right: Sam Swainsbury, James Purefoy, David Hayman, Dave Johns

“FISHERMAN’S FRIENDS”  My rating: B- (Now on Netflix)

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

With its seaside locale, eccentric characters and general sense of whimsey, the Brit “Fisherman’s Friends” bears not a little resemblance to Bill Forsyth’s sublime “Local Hero.”

Not that it’s nearly as good as that 1983 classic. But when you’re stuck at home during a pandemic, this little movie might be just the spirit lifter required.

Chris Foggin’s film was inspired by real events…and it’s sometimes painfully obvious which aspects of the yarn (it was written by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft)  were rooted in reality and which in Screenwriting 101. Nevertheless, it will be a churlish sod indeed who fails to respond to the movie’s charms.

Here’s the poop: A decade ago a bunch of Cornish fisherman rose to the top of the UK charts with a record of authentic sea chanties sung in impeccable 10-part harmony. This film purports to tell us how they were discovered and made the unlikely journey to pop stardom.

Music industry hustler Danny (Daniel Mays) has come to quaint Port Isaac, Cornwall, as part of a bachelor party for one of his co-workers. There the wise-ass city boys come across a gang of singing fisherman;  as a practical joke Danny’s colleagues order him to sign these blue-collar troubadours to a record deal.

What starts as a joke turns into a quest for Danny, who falls under the spell of the music, the town’s ambience, the garrulous seamen and especially the young divorced mother (Tuppence Middleton) in whose B&B he takes up temporary residence.

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Fiona Shaw, Tamara Lawrance, Jack Lowden

“KINDRED” My rating: C+ (In select theaters and VOD)

101 minutes | No MPAA rating

Thrillers can be too classy for their own good.

Such is the case with the British “Kindred,” a variation on “Rosemary’s Baby” (and not a few other women-in-distress pictures) that has been well made and nicely acted but never sucks us in the way we want.

The premise of Joe Marcantonio’s film is tried and true.  Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) and her boyfriend Ben (Edward Holcroft) are expecting a baby.  They reluctantly pop over to the rural estate where Ben grew up to inform his widowed mother, Margaret (Fiona Shaw), of the good news.

And to announce that they’re emigrating to Australia.

Mama is not pleased. The family’s once-resplendent castle in the country is now marked by peeling wallpaper and threadbare rugs; Margaret has long prayed that as the heir Ben would move back and return the place to its former glory.   Now her hopes are dashed.

That is, until Ben dies in an agricultural accident. Shortly thereafter the grieving Charlotte begins to suspect that far from being a pampered guest she is a prisoner in this shabby palace.

Marcantonio’s screenplay(with Jason McColgan) is noteworthy in that until the very end it keeps us guessing as to whether Fiona is a variation on the wicked witch or if it’s all in Charlotte’s head (her own mother had mental issues, and being preggers doesn’t exactly calm our heroine’s mind).

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Anna Taylor-Joy

“THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT”  My rating: A- (Now on Netflix)

Anya Taylor-Joy has been an indie “it” girl ever since 2015’s “The Witch”; she cemented her reputation with this year’s “Emma” (and took a half-step back with the widely reviled “New Mutants”).

But true blow-out mainstream stardom now has arrived for her in the form of “The Queen’s Gambit,” a personality study masquerading as a sports movie (well, sort of…the sport here is chess).

Scott Frank’s seven-part Netflix series (he directed and wrote or co-wrote every episode) allows the 24-year-old Taylor-Joy to exploit everything in her acting arsenal, from her eerie looks (those HUGE eyes, those rosebud lips) to explosive physicality to a sort of studied inscrutability that is her character’s dominant trait.

Along the way the series (adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel) tackles issues of feminism and paternalism, Cold War tension, substance abuse and Sixties hedonism.  Oh, yeah…and  you’ll learn an awful lot about the world of competitive chess.

The first chapter introduces us to young Beth Harrison (played as a child by Isla Johnston) in the wake of the suicidal car wreck that killed her single mother (Chloe Pirrie, who keeps popping up in flashbacks scattered throughout the episodes).

Little Beth is consigned to a church-sponsored orphanage where she’s fed a steady diet of religion and tranquilizers (the beginning of lifelong addiction issues), is befriended by the older malcontent Jolene (Moses Ingram) and finds an unlikely mentor in the school’s reclusive janitor (the great Bill Camp) who in the dingy cellar introduces her to the game of chess — at which she excels. 

“The Queen’s Gambit” follows two distinct but frequently intersecting paths.

The first is Beth’s rise to the highest ranks of international chess, starting with state competitions (she knows the game, but is indifferent to the attendant proprieties), through state championships and on to the nationals. Frank and team pull out the stops in recreating the milieu of chess fantacism.  By the time you’re finished you’ll have been given a crash course.

The second plot is a more personal one. It’s about Beth as damaged goods, a loner who gets by on ego, skill, booze and pills;  a teen who seems unable to establish the  usual connections and friendships.

Beth is adopted by a couple whose motives for becoming parents are mixed at best;  the father almost immediately bails, leave Beth to deal with his depressed, alcoholic and delightfully loquacious wife, Alma (Marielle Heller). You can say this for Alma…despite the constant drinking she’s knows how to monetize Beth’s chess skills; before long the teenager is popping up on the covers of magazines. (more…)

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Rashida Jones, Bill Murray

“ON THE ROCKS”  My rating: B (Now on Apple +)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Bill Murray and his gleefully smarmy insouciance have been part of our collective unconscious for so long — more than four decades now — that it’s easy to forget that he is one formidable actor.

And to prove that point one need look no further than Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” a father/daughter road trip that chugs along without a misstep, providing along the way many an opportunity for Murray to do his glorious thing.

The premise is simple enough. Approaching 40, with two young children to care for and a writing career that appears stalled, New Yorker Laura (Rashida Jones) is a envious of her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), an entrepeurial type working on a big project that requires much travel, usually in the company of his team of young go-getters.

Laura’s doubts about herself and her marriage go from lukewarm bath to slow-simmer when her father, famous art dealer and inveterate womanizer Felix (Murray), puts a bug in her ear.  Could Dean be having a fling with one of his young helpers?

Felix, after all, is a past master of marital deception; he knows the signs of a cheating husband and doesn’t want his little girl blindsided in the same way as when he broke up with Laura’s mother decades earlier.

Or could it be that in maturity he’s desperate to connect with the child he once almost drove away? That he has an agenda beyond Dean’s presumed infidelity?

Basically what we’ve got here is a comic mystery in which father-and-daughter sleuths go searching for proof of Dean’s fooling around. It’s a quest that will have them crashing swank Manhattan  soirees and even a Mexican resort.

Mostly, though, it provides a series of opportunities for superbly written and performed verbal exchanges.

Jones is terrific as a woman whose faith in her marriage is tested but never shattered. Her attitude toward Felix — equal parts loving admiration and clear-eyed suspicion — is precisely limned. And she has a great third-act monologue in which she tells off her old man for his selfishness.

But of course Laura is the straight-man role. Murray’s the one who gets one standout moment after the other.  In one marvelous scene he talks his way into the good graces of a NYPD cop who has pulled him over for racing his red convertible through Soho: “Are you Tommy Callaghan’s kid?” he asks after reading the officer’s name tag. “I don’t know why I didn’t make you right away. You’re a dead ringer.”

Before it’s over he has not only sweet talked his way out of a traffic ticket, but he gets the city’s finest to provide a running jump start for his temperamental roadster.

Just about every woman who encounters this sad-eyed Lothario seems to get a buzz off him. Laura is no exception.  The guy is remarkably entertaining.  In one instance Felix has her  walk backwards through a cocktail party — that way the hostess won’t realize they’re leaving early.

And at a posh Mexican resort where Dean is attending some sort of business deal, Laura finds her father serenading the other guests with a pretty righteous rendition of “Mexicali Rose.”

Coppola provides her leads with a late confrontation in which Laura reveals the many times she’s been hurt by her father, and Felix tries to explain how a mistress gave him the “glow” his wife no longer bestowed.

With its love of the big city “On the Rocks” sometimes feels like a long-lost Woody Allen effort, but Coppola is very much her own auteur; it’s doubtful that Allen or any male writer/director could have so succinctly captured Laura’s predicament.

The result is an amusing film that ultimately delivers a few deep lessons.

| Robert W. Butler

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