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David Myers Gregory, Vinnie Jones

“THE BIG UGLY”  My rating: C+ (Begins streaming July 31)

106 minutes |MPAA rating: R

Dramatically, there’s nothing special about “The Big Ugly,”  a crime/revenge yarn that hits the usual plot points without adding much to the genre.

What this melodrama from writer/director Scott Wiper does have going for it is its look.  The cinematographer is Jeremy Osbern, a Kansas Citian who has cut his teeth on shorts, a Kevin Willmott feature (“The Only Good Indian”) and is now breaking into the big time.

His work on “Big Ugly” is exemplary — as close to a classic noir look as color will allow.  At least half the film unfolds at night, in dimly-lit bars and bedrooms, and Osbern’s provocative use of shadow and silhouette is absolutely first rate.

The plot finds English tough guy Neelyn (Vinnie Jones) flying to America with his mob boss Harris (Malcolm McDowell). Neelyn is accompanied by his longtime girl Fiona (Leonra Crichlow), a good soul who loves him despite his drinking and murderous employment.

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Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond

“SUMMERLAND” My rating: B (Available July 31 on Amazon Prime and various cable/streaming services)

99 minutes | MPAA rating:PG

One of literature’s more enduring themes — that of a misanthrope redeemed by the love of a child (Silas Marner, anyone?) — gets a clever reworking in Jessica Swale’s “Summerland.”

In her quaint cottage on the Dover seashore, Alice (Gemma Arterton) has pretty much managed to avoid the  unpleasantries of the world war taking place on the other side of the channel. A middle-aged recluse regarded by the local kids as some sort of witch (they stuff dirt and sticks into her mail slot), Alice immerses herself in her scholarly study of British folklore. She just wants to be left alone.

So she’s more than a little miffed when told that like many other residents of this rural area, she is expected to take in a child evacuated from London and its nightly air raids. Frank (Lucas Bond) is already traumatized at being separated from his soldier father and government-worker mother; things aren’t improved when Alice gives him a chilly reception and immediately launches an effort with the local schoolmaster (the venerable Tom Courtenay) to have the youngster reassigned to another home.

Swale’s screenplay follows one familiar trajectory, but manages to change things up with a couple of novel twists.

The cranky woman and the innocent child eventually will warm to one another.  This goes without saying.

Frank’s relationship with a another displaced child (Dixie Egerickx) feels fairly predictable as well.

But in a series of flashbacks we see young Alice  having an affair — her only sexual encounter, apparently — with a fellow university student, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Their idyllic flapper-era romance ends when Vera opts for conventional marriage and children over a mixed-race lesbian relationship (which, in  late 1920s Britain, was a far dicier premise than it is today).

This soul-shattering disappointment explains Alice’s intervening years of surly solitude. Having been badly burned, she’s not keen on forming relationships of any depth.  Which makes the presence of curly-haired Frank all the more problematic.

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“REBUILDING PARADISE”  My rating: B (Begins streaming on July 31)

95 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The first 10 minutes of Ron Howard’s “Rebuilding Paradise” employ TV news footage, cell phone videos and audio communications between emergency workers to recreate the notorious Camp Fire that in  2018 consumed the northern California town of Paradise, killing more than  80 citizens.

No horror film of recent years is as terrifying as this masterfully edited depiction. You’ll watch with your mouth open in disbelief…that is, if you’re not already reduced to tears.

The ghastliness of those opening minutes are reinforced by the immediate plight of the fire’s survivors. Citizens quite literally got away with only their lives. Everything else — homes, possessions — has been reduced to smoking cinders.

“Rebuilding Paradise” chronicles the first year or so following the disaster, as individuals and the overall community come to grips with the extent of their loss and make tentative first steps toward returning to some kind of normalcy.

It’s not an easy process…or an easy one to watch.  But Howard’s film is at its core a paen to the resiliency of the human spirit (or, if you’re jingoistically inclined, to can-do Americanism)…which means that you leave the experience with a deep appreciation of and a sort of elation about the possibilities we all share.

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Rosamund Pike as Madame Curie

“RADIOACTIVE” My rating: B (Debuts July 24 on Amazon Prime)

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Not content with the limitations of a conventional biopic, Marjane Satrapi’s film about Marie Curie blows up the form, not just depicting the life of a great scientist but exploring what over the decades her discoveries have meant to the world.

As suggested by the piece’s unconventional title — “Radioactive” — the fallout (pun intended) of Curie’s groundbreaking work is not entirely life-affirming.

Satrapi,  who first came to fame with her graphic novel Persepolis (about growing up in and then fleeing post-revolutionary Iran) and the 2007 animated feature based on it, has a lot of her mind here.  Perhaps too much for tidy presentation.

Happily she has as her lead Rosamund Pike,  whose work in recent years — especially “Gone Girl” and “A Private War” — has catapulted her into the first ranks of film actresses. Even when “Radioactive” threatens to fly out of control, Pike keeps things centered.

Beginning late in the 19th century and extending past Curie’s death in 1934 (poisoned by all the radioactive material she had handled over a lifetime), the film hits the usual biographical landmarks: Marie’s meeting and marriage to fellow physicist Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), her discovery of the elements radium and polonium, the death of Pierre and her years as a widow still devoted to scientific research. During World War I she traversed the front in a truck outfitted with primitive X-ray equipment that allowed military doctors to locate the bullets and shrapnel in the bodies of wounded soldiers.

But Jack Thorne’s screenplay (based on Lauren Redniss’ graphic novel Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout) also leans heavily  on the feminist aspects of Curie’s story, especially her fights with a chauvinistic scientific establishment (embodied by Simon Russell Beale’s university bigwig) and her resentment of Pierre, who accepted their Nobel Prize while Marie stayed at home with the kids (“You stole my brilliance and made it your own”).

The film devotes considerable time to one of the more controversial parts of Curie’s story, her post-Pierre affair with a married co-worker (Aneurin Barnard). The relationship created an uproar: this Polish “harlot” was besmirching the sacred institution of French marriage.  (I know, I know…the French have a long history of besmirching marriage.)  Don’t recall that incident even being mentioned in the sanitized 1943 Greer Garson version of the yarn.

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Dolph Lundren, Grace Jones…photo by Helmut Newton

“HELMUT NEWTON: THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL” My rating: B (Available July 24 on Kino Marquee)

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

As with few other photographers (Ansel Adams and Robert Mapplethorpe immediately come to mind) the late Helmut Newton’s images cannot be mistaken for those of any other artist.

Newton (1920-2004) worked in fashion  and his most regular employer was Vogue magazine. But even when his stated assignment was to capture on film some item of apparel he still managed to work his sexual preoccupations and perverse sense of humor into the equation.

Though he frequently photographed the famous (Margaret Thatcher, David Bowie), Newton’s main fame rests on his nudes.  Though they’ve been classified as erotica, many find them anything but enticing.

No come-hither looks. No languid poses.

Newton’s women usually present themselves to us in-yer-face naked from top to high-heeled bottom, appproaching the camera defiantly and largely indifferent to the viewer’s gaze. This is the nude body as chilly, intimidating bulwark.

Elements of sado-masochism are not uncommon.

Some critics (Susan Sontag, famously) found his work essentially misogynistic; others, including many of the young women who were his models, regard their time with Newton as empowering.

Getting to the root of that conundrum is the underlying thread of “Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful” by documentarian Gero von Boehm, whose six-part “A Brief History of the World” is one of the highest rated documentaries ever on German television.

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Petr Kotlar as The Boy

“THE PAINTED BIRD”  My rating: B (Streaming July 17 on most digital and cable platforms)

170 minutes | MPAA rating:

As horrifying as “The Painted Bird” is, I don’t regret the three hours spent watching it.

Like a few other films — I’m thinking particularly of the Soviet “Come and See” — Polish filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosiriski’s 1965 novel tests a viewer’s capacity to absorb the terrors of war (in this case World War II on the Eastern Front).

Not that there’s much in the way of battlefield mayhem. The violence here is directed at civilians and, even worse, at one young boy. War or no war, this movie seems to be saying, superstitious, thick-headed humans will go out of their way to torment each other.

The protagonist of the yarn is The Boy (Petr Kotlar), who is presumably Jewish. Separated from his family, he leads a nomadic existence, wandering through fields and forests, barely surviving  thanks to the “kindness” of strangers, who as often as not abuse him physically, sexually and emotionally.

Harvey Keitel

When we first meet him he’s being chased through the woods by three boys who beat him and set fire to his pet ferret. Sort of sets the tone for the whole enterprise.

The boy is living with an old woman he calls “Auntie” (whether they’re actually related is doubtful). Upon her death he stumbles into a village where an old matriarch declares him a “vampire” and orders him  killed. He survives this threat — and all of the others that will test him — less by his wits than by pure luck.

At one point The Boy flees his pursuers by jumping into a river and being carried downstream on a fallen tree branch, only to be delivered into yet another hellish predicament.  This becomes a metaphor for his life; drifting helplessly from one crisis to the next.

All of this is unfolds with a minimum of dialogue and little or no psychological insight into the characters.  That goes as well for The Boy himself, who has been so numbed by his experiences that only acute physical pain can rouse him from his emotional lethargy. (more…)

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Charlize Theron

“THE OLD GUARD” My rating: C+ (Debuts July 10 on Netflix)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Netflix’s “The Old Guard” is almost instantly forgettable…but no movie that gives us Charlize Theron in kick-ass mode can be easily dismissed.

Adapted by directed by Greg Rucka from his graphic novel and competently directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “…Guard” stars Theron as Andy, a formidable warrior woman who runs a four-man team of freelance commandos (Marwan Kenzari, Matthias Schoenaerts,  Luca Marinelli).

When we first meet them they are “hired” by a former CIA guy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to travel to Sudan to rescue schoolgirls kidnapped by a predatory militia. Andy and team show up armed to the teeth not only with modern automatic weapons but also with much Medieval cutlery.  No bulletproof vests…but then it turns out they don’t need them.

Because the members of this crew are immortal.  Andy is the oldest, having lived for at least 3,000 years.  The others were picked up over the centuries; apparently each is a genetic/metaphysical freak who for unknown reasons suddenly was endowed with rapid healing and near-instant resurrection.

Betrayed on their mission and left for dead (death doesn’t last long in this instance), the crew clean up the mercenaries who laid the trap (the kidnapped schoolgirls scenario was merely a ruse) and lick their rapidly healing wounds.

Andy, who has devoted her never-ending life to righting wrongs and getting rid of bad guys, has reached the point where she wonders if she’s doing any good any more. “The world isn’t getting any better,” she laments. “It’s getting worse.”

Then all four dream simultaneously about a U.S. Marine, Nile (Kiki Layne), who suffers a seemingly deadly wound in Afghanistan yet recovers within hours. Clearly, she is meant to be the next member of the team, although she greets that news with mixed emotions.  Yeah, living forever and healing instantly is pretty cool; on the other hand, remaining the same age while loved ones wither away is just plain demoralizing.

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“TALES FROM THE LOOP” My rating: B+ (Now streaming on Amazon Plus)

Television has had no shortage of sci-fi/fantasy anthologies (going as far back as the original “Twilight Zone” and continuing today with streaming hits like “Black Mirror”), so when you find an example of the genre that feels fresh and invigorating you’ve got to pay attention.

“Tales from the Loop” on Amazon Plus is a surprisingly potent blend of technological pipe dream and essential human longing for connections.  Though it debuted in April, I’d heard almost nothing about it until stumbling across it while web surfing. This one sticks with you.

Inspired by the paintings of Swedish artist Simon Stalenhag, the series’ superb art direction mixes small-town Americana with futuristic (actually retro futuristic) trappings.

The Ohio burg in which the show is set looks utterly normal…except that a field outside town is dominated by three huge concrete silos, the only visible part of The Loop, a massive underground research facility (the circular corridors suggest a particle accelerator) that is the region’s biggest employer.

An old red barn is pierced by a crescent-shaped metal superstructure (it looks a bit like the wrecked spaceship in “Alien”) and some homes are outfitted with tentacle-like ductwork (shades of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”). Moreover, the nearby woods and fields are littered with the fantastic carcasses of decaying machines, Loop experiments that apparently didn’t work out and were left to rust. (As we soon discover, many are still functional, though their original purposes remains a mystery.)

In fact, pinning down just when “Tales from the Loop” takes place is problematical.  The setting is pre-digital…no cell phones or flat screens.  Home phones are of the rotary variety; computers still use floppy discs.  The costumes and set dressings have a timeless quality…if I had to guess I’d say it all happens in the late ’70s, though that’s really not important.

What is important is how the  scripts (by show runner Nathaniel Halpern and Stalenhag) create an all-inclusive world and a sustained mood.  Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (clearly an inspiration), “…Loop” presents us with numerous characters who move in and out of each other’s stories, taking the lead in one, serving as an extra in others. Each episode examines the interaction of residents with the Loop’s abandoned detritus.

In one instance, teenage boys  (Daniel Zoighadri, Tyler Barnhardt) find a rusting bathysphere-like globe which allows them to inhabit each other’s bodies.  What could go wrong?

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Catherine Deneuve

“THE TRUTH” My rating: B (Available July 3 on Video on Demand)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The character played by Catherine Deneuve in “The Truth” is reprehensible.

Except that she’s played by Catherine Deneuve, which means her reprehensibleness is actually kind of awesome.

In the latest from  Hirokazu Koreeda (a Japanese director making a French movie…talk about cross-cultural pollination) Deneuve plays Fabienne Dangeville, a great beauty of the French cinema who, now well ensconced in her 70s, has just published a memoir called “La Verite” (“the Truth”).

Fabienne has been a star for so long, has spent so much of her life being fawned over, that she has an iron-clad if overinflated sense of her own wonderfulness.  She expects people to cater to her every whim, and has a wickedly sharp tongue with which she lacerates friend and foe alike.

Imagine a Maggie Smith character coupled with world-class sex appeal.

Koreeda’s screenplay follows Fabienne on two fronts.  Professionally she’s taken a supporting role on a low-budget science fiction film starring young actress Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel), who’s being touted as the next Fabienne Dangeville. You can imagine Fabienne’s dim view of that assertion.

On a personal level, Fabienne is dealing with a visit from her semi-estranged daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a New York-based screenwriter who’s returned to her childhood home with her actor husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their precocious bilingual daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier).

When little Charlotte exclaims that Grandma’s house looks like a castle, Lumir glumly notes, “Yes, and there’s a prison just behind it.”  True.  The family manse abuts a maximum security facility, and it’s pretty obvious that in Lumir’s mind the two properties are interchangeable.

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Rep. John Lewis

“JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE”  My rating: B- (Begins streaming on demand on July 3)

96 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

How do you not like John Lewis?

The man has an unblemished 60-year history of social activism and public service. He stood elbow-to-elbow  with Martin Luther King Jr. and was beaten on the march from Selma to Birmingham; he’s represented Georgia in Congress for more than 30 years.

And now, at age , he’s been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Small wonder Dawn Porter’s new documentary practically crowns Lewis with a halo.  The guy appears to be a pillar of decency and compassion, free of the usual political bombast.

And he’s been one of the most eloquent analysts of the dark side of human nature proffered by Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” is too much of a good thing.  Though Porter draws from a treasure trove of archival footage from the Civil Rights era and has subjected Lewis to several sit-down interviews, my interest in the film began to wane at the one-hour mark.

Clearly, Porter admires her subject and wants to do him justice.  But she’s made a film so routine and by-the-numbers that despite the compelling subject matter, indifference begins to set in.

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” would probably hit the spot as a one-hour effort.  But at 90-plus minutes it wears out its welcome.

| Robert W. Butler

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