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Shia LaBeouf, Vanessa Kirby

“PIECES OF A WOMAN” My rating: B (Netflix)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Pieces of a Woman” announces itself with such an overwhelmingly dramatic and technologically challenging sequence that the rest of the film seems like an afterthought.

For nearly 30 minutes at the very beginning of Komel Mundruczo’s almost unbearable drama we are in the Montreal apartment of a young couple, Martha and Sean (Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf), as she undergoes childbirth.

The process is captured in one uninterrupted shot, from the first labor pains to the arrival of a midwife, Eva (Molly Parker), and on the the birth of the child.

It is so realistic, so perfectly acted, so audacious in its blend of naturalism and hyper-theatricality that one could end the movie right there and stagger out overwhelmed by the wonder and mystery of one human’s arrival in this world.

Thing is, there are still another 90 minutes to go, and while “Pieces of a Woman” features some impressive acting and soul-scorching angst, the rest of the film falls well short of matching the impact of that brilliant introduction.

There’s only so much one can reveal about the plot (the screenplay is by Kata Weber) without a major spoiler alert.

Let’s just say that the happy event does not long remain in that state, and that in its wake Martha and Sean’s marriage is shaken perhaps beyond repair.  Each party — he’s a construction worker, she occupies a corner office in a major firm — must deal with grief in their own way.

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Gal Gadot

“WONDER WOMAN 1984” My rating: C (HBO Max)

151 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Perhaps the most telling commentary on “Wonder Woman 1984” has come from a critic who observed that the only way to enjoy the movie is to imagine that it is actually a relic from 1984.

Yeah, that works.  Kinda.

Had we seen this movie back in the Reagan years we’d have been blown away by the special effects — WW’s sinuous glowing lasso, that suit of golden armor in which she confronts the bad guy at the end, the flying, etc.

Pedro Pascal

And we’d have forgiven its grievous dramatic shortcomings — the utter lack of psychological realism, the plot holes big enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier, the ever-meandering and overly complicated narrative — because 30 years ago superhero/comic book movies were, for the most part, pretty awful. We didn’t expect anything better.

(Although, the first Christopher Reeve “Superman” from 1978 remains imminently watchable…not for the eye candy but for its wit, its celebration of a cultural icon and the genuine affection it exudes for its hero and his world.)

Anyway, this latest from director Patty Jenkins is most noteworthy for its utter lack of style.  There’s no edge, no real humor aimed at anything that matters (we’re supposed to get off on Chris Pine’s wardrobe  of ghastly ’80s fashion).

Which comes as a surprise since 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” also helmed by Jenkins, oozed style and attitude.

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Clockwise from upper left: Steven Yeun, Youn Yuh-jung, Yeri Han, Noel Cho, Alan S. Kim

“MINARI” My rating: B (VOD)

115 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like the young characters in “Minari,” writer/director Lee Isaac Chung grew up as the offspring of Korean immigrants in rural Arkansas in the 1980s.

Based on that knowledge it can be safely said that big chunks of this excellent family drama are autobiographical.

But even if we knew nothing about Chung’s background, “Minari” is a so crammed with moments of overwhelming specificity that you’d immediately identify it as having been pulled from real-life experience, particularly the experiences of a child now looking back with adult eyes.

Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) are a Korean couple who, after years on the West Coast, have relocated to rural Arkansas.

Jacob is tired of his job sexing chicks for a poultry producer (basically he spends all day staring at the nether regions of fluffy yellow creatures; the males are destroyed for being of no commercial value). He has uprooted Monica and their children David and Anne (Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho) and deposited them in a rather rundown doublewide trailer in the middle of a pasture.

Jacob is bent on realizing his American dream; to be precise, he wants to produce Korean vegetables for his many fellow countrymen now living in the USA and craving a taste of home.

Monica is dubious.  She’s not thrilled with their shabby  new digs. Jacob’s entrepreneurial quest strikes her as more selfish than practical. She frets that little David, who has a heart murmur (he’s always being told not to run, and always does, anyway) is an hour away from emergency medical care. These tensions will put no little strain on the marriage.

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Helena Zengel, Tom Hanks

“NEWS OF THE WORLD” My rating: B+ (Theaters Christmas Day)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Not merely a celebration of our mythic past, Westerns have usually been a way of looking ahead.

The frontier, settlements, Western expansion, laying rails, driving cattle, overcoming obstacles (be it the weather, Native Americans or outlaws)…these are elements of an inherently optimistic outlook, of a nation on the march.

“News of the World,” though, is that rarest of creatures, the melancholy Western.

While sporting many of the elements of classical oaters (especially John Ford’s “The Searchers”), Paul Greengrass’ effort  is more about loss than a triumphant taming of the wilderness. It is far more concerned with the ache of human suffering and a society in turmoil than in gunplay.

Tom Hanks stars as Jefferson Kidd, a former printer and Confederate officer now living off the back of a horse as he circulates among  Texas towns  to bring his fellow citizens the latest news of 1870.

He’s something of a showman, sporting a black frock coat and spectacles to pore over a stack of recent newspapers, delivering quietly dramatic reports of droughts and floods, plagues and politics.  He’s always on the lookout for human interest stories that connect his listeners to the larger world and its inhabitants (“These are men and women very much like you”). Think of him as a wandering town crier with humanistic tendencies.

It’s a solitary life, at least until he comes across a looted wagon and a hanged man.  Nearby Kidd discovers a white girl (Helena Zengel) — blonde hair, blue eyes, freckles — wearing a fringed buckskin dress.

She speaks no English: papers found nearby identify her as Johanna, who lost her family to a Kiowa war party six years earlier. The kidnapped girl was only recently liberated by soldiers who eradicated her adopted clan. (Orphaned twice, Kidd notes.) The hanged man, her government escort, was a Negro. A handwritten sign on his body announces that blacks are not welcome in the neighborhood.

The only decent thing to do, Kidd concludes, is to bring the girl to an Indian agent who can get her to an aunt and uncle living in south Texas. Of course, government ineptness and the tenor of the times — Indians are hated and feared by the general population — make this a difficult proposition. And so, for the time being, Kidd and the kid become traveling companions (the film was shot in New Mexico and is beautiful without romanticizing the environment).

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Carey Mulligan

“PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN” My rating: B+ (Theaters Christmas Day)

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A heady mashup of female revenge melodrama,  black comedy and ruthless personality study, “Promising Young Woman” will leave audiences laughing, wincing and infuriated.

Writer/director Emerald Fennell (also an actress, she plays Camilla Parker Bowles in the current season of Netflix’s “The Crown”) displays such a firm command of her medium that it’s hard to believe this is her first feature.

When we first see Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) she is slumped splayed legged on a leather bench in a noisy dance club. A twentysomeything guy (Adam Brody) accepts a dare from his  friends to rescue this drunken damsel from her vulnerable position.  He gives her a ride back to his house, pushes more drink on her, deposits her on his bed more or less unconscious, and proceeds to pull down her panties.

And then she sits up, totally sober, and asks him just what the hell he thinks he’s doing.

This, we learn, is Cassie’s M.O.  She pretends to be wasted, allows some jerk to get her in a compromising position, and then forces him to confront his own creepiness.

Funny how quickly a guy can turn from lust to panic.

Fennell’s screenplay carefully rations its revelations as it follows several narrative paths.

In one Cassandra continues her vengeful quest, choosing as her targets not only random predatory men (she has an apparently inexhaustible wardrobe of come-hither fashions, wigs and makeup) but also individuals who were involved in an sexual assault scandal dating back to her college years. Among those who run afoul of her fiendish (though not usually violent) machinations are a college dean (Connie Britton), an old classmate (Alison Brie) and a lawyer (an uncredited Alfred Molina) whose specialty is defending men charged with sex crimes.

Turns out our heroine is really good at dreaming up Fu Manchu-level sadism.  You gotta wonder if she’s a genuinely psycho.

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George Clooney, Caoilinn Springall

“THE MIDNIGHT SKY” My rating: B (Netflix)

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

End-of-the-world movies are invariably downers.

“The Midnight Sky” is “The Road” and “Melancholia”-level depressing.

So it’s a testament to the directing and acting chops of George Clooney that this long slow journey to extinction not only hooks us early but keeps us on the line as things just keep getting worse.

Clooney’s achievement is doubly impressive when you consider that “Midnight Sky” relies on a “Six Sense”-ish last-reel revelation that may leave some viewers feeling just a tad violated.

Mark L. Smith’s screenplay (adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight)  begins in 2049 with the evacuation of a polar observatory.  The 200 or so residents of this snowbound outpost are being helicoptered out because of “The Event,” an unexplained phenomenon that is spreading a cloud of death around the planet.

Just one man, the grizzled Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney), will remain behind. He’ll have enough food and fuel to last for months, but probably won’t need them. He’s undergoing chemotherapy; what he’s got isn’t going away.

Augustine has a mission. He’s determined to contact a manned spacecraft returning from one of Jupiter’s moons.  Decades earlier the young Augustine (played in flashbacks by Ethan Peck) identified said moon as likely to sustain human life. He was right; the five astronauts returning to Earth found a welcome environment on that distant orb.

These interstellar travelers must be warned of Earth’s fate so that they can return to Jupiter orbit and, hopefully, start the human race all over again.

Problem is, the crew (Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, Tiffany Boone) are been unable to hail their contacts on Earth.  We know it’s because of The Event, but the astronauts assume their communication equipment has a glitch.

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Mads Mikkelsen

“ANOTHER ROUND” My rating: B (VOD)

117 minutes | No MPAA rating

The middle-aged male psyche takes a thorough beating in Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round,” which acts like a black comedy before flirting with tragedy.

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) teaches upper level  high school history at a private school in Denmark. He’s pretty much on autopilot, droning through his lessons to kids who are more interested in checking their cell phones and talking about last weekend’s binge.

Things aren’t much better at home. His teenage sons view him as  a slight embarrassment; he hardly sees his wife (Maria Bonnevie), who works nights.

“Have I become boring?” he wonders.

Martin’s only close human relationships, apparently, are three coworkers:  Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), the phys ed instructor; Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), who teaches psychology; and Peter (Lars Ranthe), the music director.

All four gentlemen are stuck in the midlife doldrums. They desperately need a change.

Over a birthday dinner Nikolaj brings up the work of a scientist who maintains that the average person’s blood alcohol content is about .05 % below optimum operating levels.  This great mind (or is he a quack?) recommends a steady but controlled intake of alcohol throughout the working day, with nothing consumed after 8 p.m.

Hey…it worked for Ulysses S. Grant, Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill.

The four friends decide to make a scientific study with themselves as the guinea pigs. The goal is to achieve “optimal professional and personal performance.” They’ll keep a detailed journal; call it “collecting evidence.”

What could go wrong?

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Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze

“MISS JUNETEENTH” My rating: B (VOD on Prime)

99 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Miss Juneteenth” is simultaneously a heartbreaking character study, a domestic drama and an almost documentary look at a specific community.

It is fueled by a subtle and unforced script by director Channing Godfrey Peoples, utterly believable supporting performances and a riveting lead turn from actress Nicole Beharie, who after a decade guesting on TV series makes her case for movie stardom.

Peoples has set her debut feature in an environment with which she is intimately familiar — a black community in Ft. Worth TX. It’s a world of black cowboys and barbecue and the annual Miss Juneteenth pageant, in which one beautiful and talented young African American woman will be crowned and handed a tuition-free scholarship to the black college of her choice.

In 2004 Turquoise Jones (Beharie) wore that victorious tiara, hoping to join the ranks of lawyers, doctors and educators who were past winners.

It didn’t quite work out. Today she is a waitress/janitor at a bar and rib joint, a job that just barely keeps a roof over her head and that of her 15-year-old daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze).

But Turquoise dreams — intensely if not realistically — that Kai will succeed in not only winning the title of Miss Juneteenth but in realizing the life her mama missed out on.

A lesser film would have made the movie a tragedy about the mother trying to force her offspring into a situation in which the child has no interest.  Kai is your average teen; she dreams of joining her schools’ booty-bumping dance squad, and can only roll her eyes at the demure, old-school beauty pageant behavior demanded by the Miss Juneteenth organizers.

Indeed, Turquoise is so controlling that she won’t let her daughter venture forth in shorts and T-shirt lest “somebody from Juneteenth see you like that.”

Kai could be forgiven for going rebel on her mother.  Thing is, the love between these two women  is so intense that despite her reservations (and the limits of her talents and poise), Kai slogs through the indoctrination and rehearsals out of sheer loyalty to Mama.

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Andrew Rannells, Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman

“THE PROM”  My rating: B+ (Netflix)

130 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Sabre-toothed cynicism and squishy-hearted sentiment are unusual bedfellows, but they get it on quite swimmingly in “The Prom,” Ryan Murphy’s winning screen adaptation of the gay-centric Broadway musical.

Here’s a movie I’d pay to see in a theater.  And I say that from the depths of my pandemic-panicked heart.

Simultaneously a celebration/sendup of show-biz hamminess and a touching coming-out story, “The Prom” depicts how a handful of Broadway has-beens and wannabes descend upon a tiny Indiana burg to champion the cause of a teenage lesbian named Emma (a winning Jo Ellen Pellman) who only wants to take her gal to the high school prom.

That simple desire is complicated. First, because the PTA president Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) would rather cancel the prom than let a gay couple attend; second because Emma’s squeeze is none other than Mrs. Greene’s daughter Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), who is yet to come out to her mom.

Meanwhile in New  York, Broadway diva Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) has been trashed for  her new musical about Eleanor Roosevelt.

“What didn’t they like?” asked co-star Barry Glickman (James Corden), who plays FDR. “Was it the hip hop?”

Actually, no.  The critics find Dee Dee and Barry to be insufferably narcissistic. They need an image makeover, something that will let them “love ourselves but appear to be caring human beings.”  Hey, what if they help out that little gay girl in Indiana?

They are joined on their mission  by Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), who after 20 years in the biz is still stuck in the chorus, and actor/bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), whose career high point is his degree from Juilliard.

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Jamie Dornan, Emily Blunt

“WILD MOUNTAIN THYME” My rating: B- (In Theaters and On Demand on Dec. 11)

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

I was prepared to dislike “Wild Mountain Thyme” as a collection of hoary old cliches about the Irish. Indeed, the movie is crammed with said cliches.

But about halfway through John Patrick Shanley’s film something  kicked in and my irritation  gave way to a luxurious wallow in romantic sentimentality.

I am ashamed of myself, dear reader, but there you have it.

Shanley, whose career high point remains the Oscar-winning screenplay to 1987’s “Moonstruck” (though one should not dismiss his work a writer/director of 2008’s “Doubt”), attempts here to give us his own “Quiet Man.”

“Wild Mountain Thyme” is a romance crammed with eccentric characters, lots of eye-calming greenery, lilting folk music (especially the haunting title tune), a dispute over farmland and two protagonists who, despite living in the  21st century, appear to have retained their virginity into their mid-30s.

Over aerial views of coastal Ireland a narrator (Christopher Walken) introduces himself as one Tony Reilly, adding “I’m dead.”

Well, death has never stopped an Irishman from talking. From the hereafter the late Tony relates the tale of his son, Anthony (Jamie Dornan), and the girl on the next farm over, Rosemary (Emily Blunt).

Flash back a year. Tony (still alive at this point) is more or less retired. Anthony has been running their farm…badly. He’s a sweet guy but painfully shy and majorly unfocused. How else can you explain living in close proximity to the astounding Rosemary without once picking up a sexual vibe?

As it turns out, Anthony and Rosemary have spent their entire lives in denial that they love one another.  Or they know they yearn for each other but won’t admit it.

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