Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Sofia Kappel

“PLEASURE”  My rating: B (Rent on Apple TV, Vudu, and Redbox)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

 What they say about laws and sausages applies as well to pornography: If you want to keep enjoying it, best not learn about how it’s made.

In broad outline the ironically-titled “Pleasure” follows the familiar inside-showbiz template explored in films ranging from “All About Eve” to “Showgirls.”  Innocent (or not-so-innocent) young thing is corrupted on her climb to fame and power.

Ninja Thyberg’s film, though, unfolds in the world of L.A. porn, a landscape rarely explored dramatically (although one could argue that “Pleasure” is practically a documentary dive into the dirty world of cheap thrills).

Our protagonist is Bella Cherry (not her real name), a Swede barely out of her teens who has flown halfway around the world to become an adult film star. She is played by Sofia Kappel, who benefits hugely from her chameleonic ability to look either ravishing (when fully made up) or girl-next-door unremarkable.

The screenplay (by Thyberg and Peter Modestij) isn’t much interested in plumbing Bella’s personality or her history.  Just how sexually experienced is she? Was she abused? Where did she get the idea that porn might be a viable career?

The film is interested mostly in throwing this young woman into an environment where acts which most of us regard as supremely private are matter-of-factly dissected. 

On one level Bella is brutally mercenary.  She wants to be a porn star and is willing to burn bridges to get there.

On another, she’s painfully naive.  Like many of us she has bought into the erotic allure of porn, not understanding that the onscreen magic is the product of a  highly unromantic and cynical process. 

Before it’s all over she (and we) will get a crash course in the nuts and bolts of porn production.

Basically Bella will bit-by-bit loosen her standards to become the object of lust the industry is looking for.  The degradation is both physical and emotional.

“Pleasure” falls short of being porn itself.  While there is considerable nudity, the sexual acts depicted appear to be simulated.

That said, Thyberg has hired real porn professionals to more or less play themselves,  There is no shortage of penises in various stages of arousal. After a while the shock value wears off. (Still, this is the hardest R rating I’ve ever seen.)

The pall of nauseous discomfort that hovers over the whole enterprise, though, sticks.  Want to convince someone they shouldn’t watch porn?  “Pleasure” is Exhibit No. 1.

| Robert W. Butler

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Steve Carell, Domhnall Gleeson


Thanks to streaming, we live in a paradise of great acting. 

Oh, there’s always been great acting, it’s just in the pre-streaming era it was a huge pain to schlep from theater to theater to catch the strongest stuff. 

Now you just sit down and turn on the tube.  

We’ve known for some time that Steve Carell is more than just a comic actor.  But he blows the doors off with his nuanced, heartfelt performance in the 10-episode ”The Patient,” a creepy thriller with an unexpected moral center.

Carell plays Alan Strauss, a psychotherapist, widower and father of a couple of grown kids who haven’t much use for him.  His latest patient (Donhnall Gleeson) is a troubled young man desperate for mental and emotional healing but stubbornly resistant to revealing the personal secrets that would allow the Dr. Strauss to help him.

And then one morning the good doc wakes up in a basement rec room with a chain around his ankle and a bucket for a bathroom.  His patient, Sam, apologizes but says this is the only way he can reveal the truth about himself and get the help he needs.

The truth?  That Sam is a serial killer, looking to change but compelled to murder those whom he feels have disrespected him.

Created by Joel Fields and Joseph Weisberg, “The Patient” is part escape drama but mostly an insightful look into a healer who over time has become numb to both his profession and his family. Initially the shrink will do anything to effect his own release, but over time he develops something like selfless compassion for his tormented (but still very scary) patient.

Carell brilliantly hits the expected emotional buttons (and a few we didn’t know existed), while Gleeson delivers a chilling portrait of an emotionally constipated killer who nonetheless possesses a tantalizing notion of what normalcy might feel like.

Very dark, but worth it.

“THE CROWN” (Netflix)

Elizabeth Dibecki as Princess Di

The fifth season of this hit dissection of the British royal family has gotten mixed reviews…possibly because as the latest Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) gets to exhibit mostly stiffness and steely resolve.

But I like the way the season has been fashioned to highlight peripheral characters in the grand saga.  

One episode begins in the post-war Mideast…it takes a while before we realize this is the backstory of Mohammed Al-Fayed, the wealthy businessman (he bought Harrod’s) whose son would die with Princess Diana. In fact, the elder Al-Fayed is so obsessed with being accepted but the Brits that he hires the valet of the late Duke of Windsor to give him a crash course in aristocratic do’s and don’t’s.

Another episode unfolds during the Russian Revolution and examines why the British monarchy deliberately chose not to come to the rescue of Tsar Alexander and his doomed family (their cousins, no less) when they were being held by the Bolsheviks.

And then there’s the backstory of Princess Di’s notorious 1995 BBC interview in which she described her marriage as a three-way (her, Prince Charles, and Camilla).  The series picks apart how journalist (now disgraced) Martin Bashir fabricated bank records to suggest to the Princess that the Royals were paying her servants to spy on her.

The series even returns to the nixed love affair between Princess Margaret and the King’s equerry Peter Townsend. Now, 40 years later, Margaret (played this season by Lesley Manville and Townsend (former 007 Timothy Dalton) have a bittersweet late-in-life reunion. 

Lots of familiar faces taking up major roles:  Dominic West as Prince Charles (don’t care what you say…Dominic West is cool even when he’s trying to play the terminally uncool), Elizabeth Debicki as Diana, Johnathan Pryce as Prince Philip.

Is “The Crown” as good as ever? Perhaps not, but you don’t think I’m gonna stop watching now, do you?

“INSIDE MAN” (Netflix)

Here’s an absolutely bonkers premise — not to mention a world-class case of subversive misanthropy —somehow redeemed )or maybe almost redeemed) by solid performances.

In an American prison, death row inmate Jefferson Grieff (Stanley Tucci) awaits his execution by helping the authorities solve outstanding crimes.  An acclaimed criminologist who murdered his wife, Grieff holds court in a prison interview room, weighing the evidence brought to him and invariably coming up with a solution. 

For added weirdness, this jailhouse Sherlock has his own Watson, a cynically  erudite but physically imposing serial killer (Atkins Estimond) who provides comic relief through his cheerful amorality.

Meanwhile, in Britain, an upstanding suburban vicar (David Tennant) finds himself caught up in a child pornography case and, to protect his teenage son, imprisons the boy’s math tutor (Dolly Wells) in the cellar. The only way out, it seems, is for the good Rev to murder the teacher before she goes to the cops.

The two plots come improbably  together when a Brit reporter (Lydia West) presents the case of the missing tutor to Grieff. 

Written by Steven Moffat and directed by Paul McGuigan, “Inside Man” is possibly the most cynical show now streaming, With a tone ranging (not always comfortably) from fierce black comedy to pseudo-tragic drama, the series delights in presenting characters who seem virtuous (or at least likeable) but who invariably reveal a staggering level of corruption.

The supporting cast kills, especially Dylan Baker as a prison warden and Lyndsey Marshal as the vicar’s atheistic spouse.

“Inside Man” is only four episodes long, but that is almost too much.  With race-against-time tension fueling the final hour and characters inducing off-the-charts discomfort, not every viewer will be able to go the course.

| Robert W. Butler

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Gabriel LaBelle

“THE FABELMANS” My rating: B+ (Theaters)

151 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s something about the autobiographical film that brings out the best in directors.

Fellini’s “Amarcord.” John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory.” Not to mention last year’s Oscar contender from Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast.”

To that honorable list we now add Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” an episodic epic that dissects his own boyhood fascination with the act of moviemaking against the background of a loving but dysfunctional family.

We first meet little Sammy Fableman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) in a queue outside a movie theater.  The year is 1952 and six-year-old Sammy is about to see his first film, Cecil B. DeMille’s circus melodrama “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  

Except that Sammy isn’t so sure he wants to get involved. Movies, he has heard, are big and noisy. They’re  emotional and visual roller coasters. Sounds scary.

In a good-cop-another-good-cop routine that will be repeated for the next 20 years,  his parents encourage him. 

 Mitzi (Michelle Williams) — a feelings-on-her-sleeve artistic type who gave up a career as a concert pianist to be an Eisenhower-era mom — chatters on  about the fun and beauty of the movies. The magic.  

Dad Burt (Paul Dano) — an engineer rising through the ranks of the new world of computers — takes a more rational approach, analyzing the science of motion pictures. Sammy won’t be frightened once  he understands how individual still photographs can, through the phenomenon of persistence of vision, become lifelike movement on the big screen.

Once in the theater Sammy is predictably blown away, especially by the massive derailment of a circus train that is the movie’s action centerpiece.  In the following weeks he will beg his parents for a model train set and, once that’s in place, plead to use his dad’s movie camera.  He is compelled to recreate that scene from the movie, to pick it apart frame by frame, to understand how it was done and how it could affect him so.

“The Fabelmans”could have been a perfect 30-minute short examining a boy’s introduction to and fascination with movies, But of course it is much, much more than that.

Over 2 1/2 hours we follow Sammy into his late teens (he’s portrayed for most of the film by Gabriel LaBelle), moving with the clan as Burt’s career takes them first to Arizona and later to California.  

Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Seth Rogan

Throughout, Sammy’s devotion to movies grows ever more intense. His equipment becomes increasingly sophisticated; his efforts evolve from home movies to mini-Westerns and, with the help of his entire Boy Scout troop, a bloody World War II combat film.

We are introduced to Burt’s best friend and protege, Ben (Seth Rogen, excellent in non-comedic mode), who spends so much time hanging around the Fabelmans that Sammy and his siblings think he’s an uncle.  Much later Sammy will discover that Ben is key to the breakup of Burt and Mitzi’s marriage.

And then there are the tormented teen years in which Sammy finds himself coping with antisemitism as one of the few Jewish students at a WASPish high school.  The unexpected upside is that as even an indifferent Jew he’s an object of romantic curiosity, with one lovely shiksa (Chloe East) attempting to win him over to Jesus through a bonkers regimen of prayer and petting. (The scene borders on comedic caricature…it’s one of the few times “The Fabelmans” misses the mark.)

In a very real sense”The Fabelmans” is only peripherally about Sammy.  As played by LaBelle and written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner, Sammy is often the least interesting character on screen, a guy who does most of his expressing through a camera lens. His art is intriguing; he’s much less so.

No, the film is basically a love letter to Mitzi, Burt and, to a lesser extent, Ben. All are strong personalities who mold Sammy’s character, whether the effect was encouraging (Mitzi) or cautionary (Burt, who sees a movie career as an unrealistic pipe dream).

Audiences will be particularly taken with Williams’ Mitzi, a frustrated pixie-cut ecdentric who struggles to be a conventional wife (she insists that the family dine on paper plates with plastic cutlery, so that the whole mess can be quickly wrapped up in a disposable table cloth) and battles depression. 

It doesn’t help that Mitzi loves her husband but isn’t actually in love with him. For his part, Burt will remain faithful to her long after the marriage has ended.

Spielberg has rarely been more real-world sensitive than he is in the depiction of his parents…it’s a a quietly spectacular achievement.

BTW: Look for a late-in-the film appearance by David Lynch as veteran director John Ford, who gives Sammy a bit of crusty but concise cinematic advice that provides “The Fabelmans” with its wonderful final image.

| Robert W. Butler

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“ANDOR” (Disney +)

For three decades the “Star Wars” franchise has been getting progressively dumber, bottoming out with the so-bad-I-couldn’t watch them “The Book of Boba Fett” and “Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

Which makes the stunning adultness of “Andor” all the more miraculous.

We were introduced to Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) in 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” He was one of the commandoes  who die transmitting the schematics of the first Death Star to their rebel brethren. “Rogue One” had a few narrative blips but it at least stood on its own in the “Star Wars” universe as a dead serious, camp-free espionage thriller.

Disney’s “Andor” is a prequel depicting Cassian Andor’s early years, and it pushes the solemnity and darkness of “Rogue One” to the very edge. Showrunner and frequent screenwriter Tony Gilroy makes few concessions for the family audience. This series takes as its models police procedurals, film noir, prison pictures and political dramas, and the results are gritty, grim and glorious.

The show covers much territory, opening on a dank corporate-run planet where Cassian kills a couple of thuggish security officers and taking side trips to the Empire’s capital city of Coruscant, a watery prison planet  and, in flashbacks, the primitive tribal world where our hero was born.

This early episodes depict Andor’s life as a criminal fugitive and his run-ins with the Empire…presumably this self-serving mercenary will be thoroughly radicalized in the second season.

The series resurrects from the original “Star Wars” film the character of Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), a member of the Imperial Senate working secretly for the rerbellion, and delivers a whole slew of new faces, among them Stellan Skarsgard as a Machiavellian rebel spymaster and Denise Gough as a dangerously effective Imperial security specialist.

What’s remarkable here is that none of these are throwaway roles.  The villains, usually only paper thin in the “Star Wars” universe, are here given substance and backgrounds. 

The dialogue is smart and the production values off the charts. Every episode, it seems, has at least one tour de force action sequence.

And so far there’s not a Jedi in sight.

“REBOOT”  (Hulu)

It takes a lot to make me laugh out loud at my TV set…but “Reboot” had me howling.

This wickedly clever comedy from Steven Levitan (“The Larry Sanders Show,” “Modern Family”) is an orgy of inside-show-biz rim shots.  The premise finds the cast of a cheesy ‘90s TV family sitcom being reunited 20 years later for an updated version (yeah, just like “Roseanne” and “The Connors”).

The years have not been good to the actors, who are thrilled to be back in the spotlight…and immediately pick up the bad habits they indulged in back in the day.

Keegan-Michael Key is an insecure leading man who overthinks everything; Judy Greer is perfect as his on-screen wife and off-screen ex-squeeze.  Johnny Knoxville  of “Jackass” fame is jaw-droppingly  good as the substance-abusing co-star trying to stay straight, while Paul Reiser and Rachel Bloom (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) are sublime as the father-and-daughter producing team working out the kinks in their troubled relationship.

Along the way “Reboot” is practically a comic tutorial in how TV gets made.  The scenes in the writers’ room are among the funniest TV I’ve seen in years…think “The Dick Van Dyke” show with an unstoppable potty mouth.

“THE ENGLISH” (Amazon Prime)

This six-part Western from writer/director Hugo Blick often bites off more than it can swallow, and its narrative frequently becomes stranded in dead-end alleys.

Yet there’s something about it that kept me coming back for more.

For starters, the ever-watchable Emily Blunt. Here she plays Lady Cornelia Locke, a Brit aristocrat who comes to the 1890s Wild West on a mission of vengeance.  She’s looking to kill the man she blames for the death of her son.  The details of the boy’s demise are not revealed until late in the series, and when they finally hit  home “The English” comes on with the power of an Ibsen tragedy.

Cornelia shares her gruesome and dangerous quest with  Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer), a Cherokee scout who has only recently resigned after years with the U.S. Army. That government gig that has left Eli seriously conflicted, given that his job was tracking down and killing other Native Americans.  Now he must come to terms with his new life as a second-class citizen and his forbidden (for more than one reason) intimacy with Cornelia.

Their journey plays out against an exquisitely photographed landscape (d.p. Arnau Valius Colonel takes full advance of the series’ Spanish locations) populated by characters who at best are wildly eccentric and at worst sadistically venal. 

But all of them speak in a florid style that reminds of “Deadwood’s” Al Swearengen. Black is a first-class wordsmith who can pack tons of meaning in brief exchanges; the dialogue is so spectacular that it helps gloss over the show’s meandering narrative.

| Robert W. Butler

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108 minutes | No MPAA rating

For two thirds of its running time Roku’s “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” is an amusing hoot, a parody of rock screen biographies that just happens to be about a guy who became famous by parodying famous rock songs.

If the movie limps to the finish line with an uninspired final 20 minutes … well, what comes before will leave most viewers in a charitable mood.

Penned by the real Al Yankovic and director Eric Appel, this elaborate spoof stars Daniel Radcliffe as Weird Al…or at least Weird Al as run through the filter of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocket Man” and other tuneful biopics.

So in this version the accordion-pumping parodist dates a man-eating Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood, obviously having a ball), develops a drinking problem, alienates his few friends and struggles to gain the acceptance of his squeezebox-hating father (Toby Huss) and Betty Crockerish mother (Julianne Nicholson).

The film also introduces a deliriously lunatic alternative history in which Weird Al writes the music and lyrics to “Eat It,” only to have the song stolen and parodied by Michael Jackson as “Beat It.”

Daniel Radcliffe Evan Rachel Wood

Along the way viewers can play their own game of Where’s Waldo? with a dozen cameos (some lasting only seconds) by famous (and often heavily disguised) faces: Will Forte, Patton Oswalt, Michael McKean, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Conan O’Brien, Emo Philips, Jack Black, Quinta Brunson, Josh Groban, Seth Green. 

Also, special kudos to Rainn Wilson, who in top hat and tux perfectly embodies Dr. Demento, the cult-rock deejay who becomes young Al’s mentor (kind of a benevolent Colonel Parker).

The real Weird Al even shows up to portray a clueless record label executive.

Holding it all together is Radlicliffe, who perfectly walks the tightrope between silly and sincere. Seems Harry Potter has become a first-class comic performer.

The movie is, I believe, 30 minutes too long.  Maybe a last-act letdown was inevitable, since “Weird” shoots out of the starting gate and gallops madly throughout its first hour.  That’s a hard act to keep going.

| Robert W. Butler

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Felix Kammerer


148 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Netflix’s new German-language “All Quiet on the Western Front” is not so much an adaptation of Eric Maria Remarque’s classic anti-war novel as a riff on it.

Those familiar with the book or the 1933 and ’79 film versions will recognize a few scenes.  But for the most part this effort from writer/director Edward Berger comes off as a big-budget art film that eschews niceties like character development and plotting for a near total immersion in the madness of war.

Our hero once again is 18-year-old Paul Baumer, a schoolboy who with his comrades is whipped into a patriotic enlistment frenzy by a jingoistic professor.

But as played by Felix Kammerer, Paul is less a personality than an all-purpose Everyman with no back story.

The earlier “All Quiet…” films starred Lew Ayres and Richard Thomas, both of whom possessed an on-screen charisma.  Kammerer, on the other hand, seems to have been cast for the unremarkable presence he projects, for his ability to suggest quiet anguish or shell-shocked blankness.

This is story-telling stripped down. There’s no basic training montage, no getting to meet the other guys in Paul’s unit.  One day they’re in their school uniforms and the next they’re on World War I’s Western Front where the fighting has boiled down back-and-forth assaults across a ravaged no-man’s land and hours of misery in water-filled trenches.

With one exception — an older fellow named Kaz played by the excellent Albrecht Schuch — we really don’t get to know these kids. They’re cannon fodder, doomed to die in all the ghastly ways modern warfare provides.

You might say Berger’s film is populated by zombies. He’s less interested in individuals than the totality of the war experience. By the time you’re done with this 2 1/2-hour effort, he wants you to be nearly as catatonic and crushed as Paul.

The attention to detail is overwhelming, and the battle scenes have been superbly choreographed to suggest the utter unpredictability of combat.  They are on one level exciting, but ultimately dismaying as boys turn into wraiths before our eyes.

The script by Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell focusses on Paul’s slow dehumanization, culminating in the famous scene in which he shares a shell crater with the dying Frenchman he has repeatedly stabbed with his dagger.

But it also takes new digressions. Late in the film a hungry Paul and Kaz wander a snowy French countryside…you can’t help thinking of the final scenes of Renoir’s “The Grand Illusion.” 

There’s a subplot about a German diplomat (Daniel Bruhl) trying to achieve an armistice late in the war; and another about a Prussian officer who with just a few moments to go before the cease-fire sends his troops on a pointless suicide mission.

 The film opens with a segment showing a military jacket being stripped off a dead German soldier; it is laundered with hundreds of other jackets, then tears and bullet holes are sewn up. After  which it is recycled to a new enlistee, our hero Paul.

When Paul discovers the previous owner’s name tag still in the collar,  a supply officer says that the jacket most likely was turned in because it was the wrong size. 

Yeah, right.

Particularly effective is Volker Bertelsmann’s non-traditional musical score, heavy on ominously wheezing electronics and snare drum hits that ring out like gunshots.

Ultimately this “All Quiet…” presents the full horrors of war, but perhaps something is lost by downplaying our identification with the characters.

Still, this one sticks with you.

| Robert W. Butler 

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Eddie Redmayne, Jessica Chastain

“THE GOOD NURSE” My rating: B (Netflix)

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Part thriller, part real-world police procedural, part human tragedy, “The Good Nurse” is open to all sorts of themes and somehow manages to keep them all in balance.

Part of that success is due to the performances of Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain, but a good chunk depends upon Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ excellent screenplay (adapted from Charles Graeber’s nonfiction book), a model of intelligent construction and execution.

Ir’s not dishing spoilers to reveal that “The Good Nurse” — capably directed by Tobias Lindholm — is based on the case of Charlie Cullen, an Intensive Care nurse now serving multiple life sentences in New Jersey after pleading guilty to murdering 29 of his patients.  That cat was let out of the bag in the film’s pre-release media blitz.

In 2003 nurse Amy Loughren (Chastain) found her world falling apart.  The single mother of two young daughters (the oldest of whom is an impossibly surly tweener), Amy works extra shifts to make ends meet.  

And then she discovers she has a serious heart condition, a diagnosis she hides from her kids and her employer — she must stay on the job for at least four more months if she’s to get health insurance (this was pre-Obamacare…how soon we forget the wretchedness of the bad old days of health care coverage).

About the same time she gets a new co-worker, Charlie (Redmayne), who seems too good to be true.  Charlie recognizes that Amy is ill and does what he can to cover for her (because of her heart condition she’s limited physically…and, boy, does this movie illustrate how strong nurses must be).  

Just as important, he becomes a frequent guest at the Loughren home.  The girls love him. Moreover, he soon becomes Amy’s best bud and confidant. (There’s no hint of a romantic attraction.)

For all his skills as a nurse — and Amy believes him to be first class — Charlie has problems.  He has an ex-wfie who hates him and denies him visiting privileges with their two daughters; the only reason he moved to New Jersey from Pennsylvania, he says, is to be closer to his kids.

Interwoven with the Amy/Charlie story is a second plot.  Two local police detectives (Noah Emmerich, Navya La Shay) are assigned to look into an unusual patient death.  They are stymied at every turn by stonewalling hospital administrators (the most visible of these is played by Kim Dickens) who drag their feet on producing patient and employee files.  

Noah Emmerich, Navya La Shay, Jessica Chastain

Think pedophile priests…like the Church that reassigns these creeps to new parishes where they can strike again, the hospitals prefer to let suspicious nurses and doctors find work elsewhere rather than open up the institution to liabilities.

Nevertheless, the cops doggedly work the case, discovering that patients who die mysteriously had excessive insulin or heart medication in their bloodstreams. Suspicion falls upon Charlie when they learn that unexplained deaths soared in ICUs where he has worked, then dropped off to practically nothing when he moved on. 

The detectives quietly recruit Amy to wear a wire and engage her friend in conversation about his suspicious past. She doesn’t want to believe her friend is capable of such horrors, but…

Chastain is solid as a woman about to collapse under the pressure of motherhood, disease and an intense workplace.

Redmaye has a trickier job.  The real Charlie Cullen — who may havre had as many as 400 victims, making him the worst serial killer in American history — has steadfastly refused to discuss his  motivation for the murders.  Maybe they were mercy killings…but some of the victims were recovering when they died.

So Redmayne must walk a fine line here, playing a guy so tightly buttoned-down that his inner reality remains a mystery.  Outwardly he excels at presenting himself as a committed, sensitive caregiver. But there are just enough delicious little cracks in his facade to suggest the turmoil underneath.

Part of writing a good script is knowing what to leave out, and “The Good Nurse” is a great example.  Graeber’s book suggests that the real Charlie Cullen was far more obviously wacko than what we get here. Thus “The Good Nurse” may not be particularly accurate in its depiction, but as drama it works wonderfully.

| Robert W. Butler

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Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell

“THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN” My rating: B (In theaters)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Audiences are going to love Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin”  — right up to the point where they start to hate it.

McDonagh is not the sort of filmmaker to chuck his audience under the chin and send us off with a pat on the head.  His protagonists  (like those played by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) are often brittle/bitter or comically hateful, and he relishes nudging us in one direction only to see us ricochet off unforeseen developments.

The impeccably-acted “Banshees…” pushes that alienation to its utmost.

The film starts out feeling almost like a sequel to John Ford’s “The Quiet Man.”  This is a 1920s Ireland of horse-drawn carts and thatched roofs, a scape of land and sea so beautifully captured in Ben Davis’ cinematography as to exude postcard perfection.

There’s a plethora of Irish “types”: the chatty pub keeper, the omen-spouting old lady who looks like Death in “The Seventh Seal,” the small-town copper who sheathes his brutality in brisk protocol, the village idiot.

For its first hour or so, “Banshees…” plays like a melancholy comedy, a sort of Gaelic Chekhov punctuated by hilarious exchanges (not that the participants think of themselves as hilarious…that’s for the us to pick up).

And then after that alluring beginning the film becomes incrementally more dark and alarming until it finds itself in tragic mode.

Padraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) are Mutt-and-Jeff best buds.  Technically they’re  farmers, but they don’t spend a lot of time working.  Most afternoons they can be found downing pints in the local pub.

Padraic — a childlike fellow followed everywhere by his miniature donkey — is mildly alarmed when one day Colm refuses to answer his door.  He’s in there, all right, smoking a cig in front of the fire. But he’s refusing to acknowledge his best friend.

Colm is immune to Padraic’s` increasingly desperate attempts to re-establish their normal routine.  Finally Colm reveals that he’s been depressed for ages, and fears that his attachment to Padraic is preventing him from achieving his life’s work — to write a tune for his fiddle that will outlive him.

It’s not that he hates Padraic…it’s just that the guy is insufferably dull, and that dullness is infectious.

A key to McDonagh’s screenplay is the way it contrasts the beauty of Inisherin Island against the smothering repetition of its social life. 

It’s not just Colm who’s going stir crazy here.  Padraic’s spinster sister  Siobhan (Kerry Condon) — also his cook and housekeeper — perplexes her proudly anti-intellectual neighbors with a passion for (gasp!) reading and dreams of moving to the mainland.

Never mind that the sounds of Ireland’s “troubles” — explosions and gunshots — are often can be heard from across the water.  Even civil war is better than wasting away in Inisherin.

And then there’s Dominic (Barry Keoghan), the oft-abused son of the local cop and regarded by most folks as an “idjit.” Well, Domiic certainly lacks even the most basic social skills; he might even be on the spectrum. But he’s far from stupid.  Listen to his vocabulary…he may just be the brightest bulb in this pack.

Kerry Condon

Despite the entreaties of his fellow islanders and the local priest to return to the status quo (the film contains possibly the funniest confessional scene in movies), Colm only digs in his heels. In fact, he threatens to cut off one of his fingers for every time Padraic approaches him.

Before it’s all over Padraic will come to dread the thud of severed digits being hurled at his door.

Yeah, dark.

It’s at this point that “The Banshees of Inisherin” (that’s also the title of the fiddle tune Colm is writing) dives so far into the black that a good chunk of the audience will be left stewing in puzzlement (if not outright disgust).

Clearly McDonogh’s sentiments align with Colm’s, whose farmhouse — packed with folk art objects —suggests a sensitive spirit trapped in a world of soul-killing banality that no amount of pretty scenery can relieve.

Farrell’s Paderaic, on the other hand, is an adolescent in a man’s body, friendly and open but apparently incapable of self-reflection. And like a child, he can take only so much hurt and rejection before lashing out,

“Banshees…” is ultimately a scathing takedown of the cliched quaintness of traditional Irish life, where creativity is smothered and self-mutilation becomes a substitute for  professional mental health care.

The big question is how many viewers will be able/willing to ride its glum message to the end.

| Robert W. Butler

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Dustin Lance Black and his mother, Anne

“MAMA’S BOY” My rating: A-  (HBO Max)

102 minutes | No MPAA rating

Dustin Lance Black won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for “Milk,” was crucial to the HBO hit “Big Love,” and most recently created the HULU miniseries “Under the Banner of Heaven,”about a murder in Mormon country.

His professional life is impressive.

But his personal saga, as chronicled in the documentary “Mama’s Boy,” is even more flabbergasting.  Indeed, one could easily see Black’s family chronicle becoming yet another knockout miniseries.

No kidding folks, at least three times I had to stop the movie because it had put me into emotional overdrive. This is powerful, inspiring stuff.

Laurent Bouzereau’s film begins with Black’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Academy Awards.  He spoke not about the movies, but about being gay, about the impact of the life of queer icon Harvey Milk, and he issued a promise that in the near future the full rights of homosexuals would be recognized by the federal government.

Then Black, our onscreen narrator, takes us on the 60-year journey of his mother Anne. She was born to sharecroppers in rural Louisiana, crippled by polio as a child (she underwent several ghastly surgeries and spent the rest of her life in leg braces and on crutches), and converted to Mormonism as a young woman.

She married a Mormon man who clearly wasn’t ready for the responsibility…he abandoned her with and their three boys (she’d been advised not to get pregnant but wasn’t about to let medical realities stifle her dreams). 

To keep the family afloat the church dropped off monthly envelopes of cash (a act of charity Black recalls fondly); then arranged for Anne to marry a divorced Mormon who, unbeknownst to the family, had tired to kill his first wife (a deliberate omission Black cannot forgive).

This monster physically abused his wife and her sons; Anne divorced him while he was on a job overseas, then worked her way up through the civil service,  launching a career as a laboratory technician. She also married for a third time…we meet this fellow and he’s pretty wonderful.

Anne was by any one’s reckoning an amazingly brave, resourceful woman.

While all this is happening young Dustin Lance (“Lancer” to his mother) was suppressing his own sexual identity. He realized early on that girls didn’t do it for him, but the Mormon Church left little doubt about what happens to sexual sinners.

Moreover, the one person whose approval he most wanted — his mother Anne —was fiercely conservative.

“Mama’s Boy” throws a wide net, dealing not only with Dustin Lance’s early life in Hollywood and his reluctant coming out as a gay man, but also pulling into the story his two brothers (one of whom dealt with his own tragedy).

Ultimately, “Mama’s Boy” is a tale of healing.  On a rare visit to  her son in L.A. Anne attended a party filled with Lancer’s gay friends. Something inside her clicked.  So much so that when she accompanied her boy to his big Oscar night, she wore on her dress a white ribbon signifying support for gay marriage.

One thing I didn’t realize about Black…in the wake of the passage of California’s Prop 8, which banned gay marriage,  he suspended his movie career for several years to work on undoing  that law.  He wrote a play, “8,” to dramatize the issue; it was performed more than 400 times around the country.

|Robert W. Butler

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Zac Efron

“THE GREATEST BEER RUN EVER”  My rating: B+ (Apple +)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

I put off watching Apple +’s “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” because…well, because it sounded kind of cheesy.

Notwithstanding that it is based on actual events, this yarn — about a good ol’ boy New Yorker who in 1968 smuggled himself into Vietnam to deliver American-made brews to the neighborhood guys fighting Charlie — sounded just a little too flip and insubstantial for my tastes.

I couldn’t have been more off the mark.

Directed and co-written by Peter Farrelly (who has evolved from the grossout yuks of “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber” to substantial fare like “Green Book”) this film walks a fine line between shaggy dog comedy and an essentially serious look at a subject the movies often get wrong.

Not having served I cannot testify to the accuracy of the movie’s war scenes.  But I have never seen a film that so accurately captured the conflicts the war generated in our civilian population.  The attitudes of the characters are absolutely right on.

That “…Beer Run” also gives us Zac Efron’s best performance yet is just icing on the cake. 

Chickie Donohue (Efron) is a U.S. Merchant Marine who spends his time between voyages sleeping late and getting drunk at his neighborhood bar.  He’s essentially directionless and irresponsible; politically he’s of the “my country, right or wrong” persuasion, which puts him perennially at odds with his younger sister, a regular at anti-war rallies.

Realizing he’s doing nothing for the cause, Chickie comes up with the idea of loading a duffel bag with beer and signing up as an oilman on a Vietnam-bound cargo ship.  Once there he’ll make an extensive side trip to visit his childhood buddies who are stationed around the country.  To each he will present a beer or two, a little gift of appreciation from the folks back home.

Russell Crowe, Zac Efron

It’s a genuinely dumb-ass idea, but Efron masterfully sells Chickie’s enthusiasm and naivete.  His pals in uniform are amazed to see him in ‘Nam — pleased with the beer but incredulous that anyone who doesn’t have to be there would come voluntarily.

The screenplay (co-written by Brian Hayes Currie and Pete Jones) balances farcical elements with more somber revelations.

For example, Chuckie finds he can get military transport anywhere he wants by implying that he’s working for the CIA. And he has the head-slapping habit of stumbling across his old running buddies in the midst of war’s chaos.

At the same time, we see his his growing realization that most everything he believes about the war is wrong. The film finds our man being shot at while delivering suds at a far-flung fire base. At one point he sees a suspected Viet Cong tossed out of an airborne ‘copter during an interrogation.  And he’s on hand to witness the notorious Tet Offensive, when the Cong struck at the heart of Saigon during the Asian New Year celebration.

Now I have no idea how much of this the real Chickie experienced and how much was invented for the film. Indeed, many may conclude that the filmmakers have a fairly heavy hand in dealing anti-war sentiments in the movie’s latter stages.

But it works. “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” is fueled equally by its far-fetched silliness and its growing sense of sadness — if not outrage — over the war’s toll.

Toss in a couple of fine supporting performances — Bill Murray as the New York bar owner whose jingoism sets the plot in motion, and Russell Crowe as a war correspondent through whose lens Chickie gets an education in real-world violence — and you’ve got a film that will stand up under repeated viewings.

| Robert W. Butler

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