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Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, Melissa Barrera as Vanessa

“IN THE HEIGHTS” My rating: B (HBO Max)

143 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

At its best the film version of the Broadway musical “In the Heights” is a colorful Valentine to a neighborhood and a way of life, overflowing with generosity of spirit and gleefully embracing Latinx culture.

It is also overlong, repetitive and, frankly, a bit boring when director John M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) must turn away from the massive musical numbers at which he excels.

Shot in the Washington Heights area of NYC where it takes place (there’s a bit of a “West Side Story” vibe at work), this adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda/Quiara Alegria Hudes 2008 hit (he wrote the music and lyrics, she wrote the book) follows a handful of characters through a summer in the city.

Our narrator is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), the owner (apparently) of a cafe/bar in the Dominican Republic.  He’s telling local children the story of how he grew up in Manhattan and came to the Caribbean island to reclaim his father’s long-abandoned seaside business. The entire film, then, is a massive flashback, periodically interrupted as it returns to the “present” for more interaction between Usnavi and the kiddies.

At the heart of the film are two romances.

In the big city Usnavi operates a corner bodega, a natural meeting place for characters from his neighborhood.  The guy is sweet, sensitive and nurturing  — watch him interact with his grandma Claudia (Olga Merediz) and with tweener Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) to whom he serves as a surrogate big brother.  

Alas, Usnavi is a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to his relationship with local gal Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who aspires to become a fashion designer.

Then there’s Benny (Corey Hawkins), right hand man at the local taxi company run by Kevin (Jimmy Smits).  Benny has long awaited the return of Kevin’s daughter Nina (Leslie Grace), who has just wrapped up her freshman year at Stanford.

Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace

But all was not well for Nina in sunny Cal.  She missed her nurturing neighborhood and was out of sync with her classmates (subtle racism may have played a role); now she is determined not to return to school.  Her father won’t hear of it…he’s already sold off half his real estate to finance Nina’s education and is ready to go even deeper into debt to see his girl achieve the American Dream. Of course, if he sells the business Benny will be out of a job.

Lin-Manuel Miranda shows up as Piraguero, who hawks shaved ice treats from his handcart and frets about the corporate-backed ice cream truck that is competing for the neighborhood sweet tooth dollar.

Now that’s not much plot for a 2 1/2-hour movie, and ultimately it shows. Yes, the big musical numbers — a street party, a nightclub, the local swimming pool — are explosions of color and movement (they remind of that opening number of “La La Land”).

You might call Miranda’s musical score proto-“Hamilton”…the lyrics pour out in a torrent of rapping-like wordplay (if you’re watching on HBO Max, turn on the captions), though the songs have distinctively Latin and Caribbean elements. Actually, there may be more singing in this film than talking…the effect is operatic.

With all this good stuff going on I’m sorry to admit that halfway through I found “In the Heights”running out of steam.  Part of the problem is that Miranda and Hudes, having found their voice, rarely vary it.  Each song sounds like the last (at least to first-timer ears…perhaps with more intimacy with the score the subtle variations become more apparent.

Likewise, the personal relationships established at the film’s outset undergo few dramatic ups and downs as the story proceeds.

The good news is that “In the Heights” has a solid emotional core built around the idea of a nurturing community, and it is this overarching theme (more than the individual stories) that gives the movie its power and sends the viewer off in a warm cloud of feel-good.

| Robert W. Butler

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“TAKE ME SOMEWHERE NICE” My rating: C+

91 minutes | No MPAA rating

The title of Ena Sendijarevic’s “Take Me Somewhere Nice” drips with irony. Like the film’s young protagonist, we might dream of the good life, but we’re not going to find it in modern-day Bosnia.

Alma (Sara Luna Zoric) lives in the Netherlands with her mother. They fled war-torn Bosnia when Alma was a baby, leaving behind her father, whom she has visited only once or twice.

Now, though, the old man is in a hospital and wants to see his offspring one last time. So Alma reluctantly boards a plane bound for her birthplace.

Her first glimpse of “home” is not encouraging. The airport is sterile and all but abandoned. The restaurants don’t have half the items listed on the menu. The cars are held together with baling wire and the crumbling high-rise apartment buildings are like something left over from the Soviet era.

The people, as embodied by her cousin Emir (Ernad Prnjavorac), aren’t much better. Emir is a surly oaf whose livelihood may be linked to petty crime; in any case he resents this familial obligation and goes out of his way not to be helpful.

At least his running buddy Denis (Lazar Dragoevic) is willing to pay attention to the visitor, though he clearly expects to be rewarded with easy sex. And he does have a certain moronic charm.

Basically “Take Me Somewhere Nice” is a road trip as Alma makes her way to the provincial burg where her dad lies dying. She starts out solo — Emir cannot be bothered — but is left stranded and without her luggage when the bus departs from a rest stop without her.

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“THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS” My rating: B

85 minutes | MPAA rating: R

With a title like “The Killing of Two Lovers” you pretty much expect the film to end in ugliness.

And our first glimpse of writer/director Robert Machoian’s fourth feature doesn’t do anything to allay those fears. In the opening scene a man holding a pistol surreptitiously enters a house and stands menacingly at the foot of the bed where a couple lie sleeping.

The intruder is David (Clayne Crawford), and we soon learn that this is his house. Or was. Currently David is residing just down the road in the home of his aged father.

The sleeping woman is his wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi); her bedmate is her new lover Derek (Chris Coy).

This setup reeks of melodramatic possibilities, but instead of the revenge tragedy we expect Machoian delivers an insightful character study, both of a man and of a failed marriage.

Bearded and somewhat unkempt, David works as a handyman in the small, snow-swept Utah town he has always called home. He’s a working stiff with just a basic education; he once harbored dreams of guitar-picking stardom, but those are long gone.

He’s slowly sinking into depression and something like rage. He and Nikki are in a trial separation — they’ve agreed that each can see other people. David — who has eyes for no-one but Nikki — maintains they might still repair the marriage.

His wife — a college grad with professional aspirations — harbors no such illusions. It’s pretty clear she’s outgrown him.

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Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Bront Palarae

“EDGE OF THE WORLD” My rating: C- (VOD)

104 minutes | No MPAA rating

There’s undoubtedly a great film to be made of the life of Sir James Brooke, the Englishman who in the early 19th century schemed and fought his way into ruling a good chunk of the island nation of Borneo.

Alas, “Edge of the World” isn’t that movie.

Written by Rob Allyn, directed by Michael Haussman and starring a horrendously miscast Jonathan Rhys Meyers, this movie doesn’t succeed even as coherent storytelling.

Brooke was the real-life inspiration for Conrad’s characters from Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness (see also John Milius’ 1989 “Farewell to the King” and Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”), an adventurer out of sorts with traditional Victorian society who went rogue and carved a place for himself on the edge of civilization.

What sort of personality would it take to maneuver his way into such a position of power, to juggle and exploit the antagonisms among local political/tribal factions and to combat attempts to unseat him?

Keep asking. This movie offers little insight. Rhys Meyers’ charisma-free performance suggests a man with a 24/7 migraine and dyspepsia. But as to his moral compass, his motivations, his innermost feelings — we’re out of luck. The film is heavy on Brooke’s voiceover narration, but he doesn’t actually say much.

Dominic Monaghan is unmemorable as Brooke’s right-hand man, while Josie Ho plays the colorless local girl who becomes the white rajah’s bride. About the only fun performance here comes from Bront Palarae as Brooke’s scheming, amoral rival, a local prince who thinks nothing of casually lopping off the noggin of any poor peasant who gets in his way.

Director Haussman comes to features after a career in music videos. It shows. The film often looks good, but the means of presenting an effective long-form narrative elude him.

| Robert W. Butler

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Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds, Emily Blunt

“A QUIET PLACE PART II” My rating: B

97 minute | MPAA rating: PG-13

With only two directing credits under his belt, actor-turned-filmmaker John Krasinski has proven himself one of the brightest up-and-comers in cinema.

“A Quiet Place” and its just-released sequel, “A Quiet Place Part II” remind a bit of the Spielbergian splash made by “Jaws” more than four decades ago. Like that seagoing classic, Krasinski’s “monster” movies exhibit a Hitchcockian sense for building suspense.

They have their own look and — perhaps even more important for a franchise about eyeless aliens who use their ears to track human prey — their own sound.

And they effectively mine notions of family and parenthood, with a tiny clan battling indescribable horrors to survive.

“A Quiet Place Part II” is a generally enjoyable thrill ride, peppered with gotcha shock moments and performances that far exceed what we’ve come to expect from the horror genre.

Yet despite the many upsides of this sequel, I found myself a bit let down. Not by the execution, but by the sameness. Krasinski sticks with ideas he introduced in the first film, but I never felt he was advancing them so much as recycling them.

You’ll recall that Krasinki’s character Lee Abbott, died in the first film, sacrificing himself to save his children. The new film (the screenplay is credited to Krasinksi, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods) opens with a hugely effective flashback to the aliens’ arrival in the Abbott’s small upstate New York town. It’s got an impressive “War of the Worlds” vibe — and gives us our Krasinski fix before he vanishes from the screen for good.

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Toni Collette

“DREAM HORSE” My rating: B-

113 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The unlikely story of the prize-winning race horse Dream Alliance — bred and raised communally by the residents of a Welsh village — has already been the subject of the sublime 2016 documentary “Dark Horse.”

The new fictionalized version of his life, “Dream Horse,” isn’t nearly as good as the doc; still, it’s a solid example of feel-good cinema.

Dream Alliance was owned by a “syndicate” of two dozen store clerks, CPAs, retirees and other common folk in the tiny mining community of Cefn Fforest. Each chipped in 10 pounds a month for the animal’s care and training, and in 2009 the horse overcame what should have been a life-ending injury to win the Welsh National.

It’s like the very definition of feel-good.

The omnipresent Toni Collette stars as Jan Vokes, who toils as a grocery clerk during the day and a bar maid at night. While pushing pints one evening she overhears a barstool conversation featuring Howard Davies (Damien Lewis), an accountant who once was part of a consortium that owned a race horse.

Long an animal lover, Jan wonders what it would take to own her own race horse. She sucks the equally horse-crazed Howard into her scheme; his number crunching suggests that if enough locals chip in a few pounds every month they can afford to buy a mare, cover the fees to have her bred with a horse of quality, and raise their offspring in Jan’s back yard.

It’s the equine version of hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show.

What nobody expects is that after being farmed out to a professional trainer (Nicholas Farrell) their pony will actually start winning, much to the amazement of racing-world pundits who maintain the sport is only for London millionaires in Saville Road suits, certainly not for local yokels in worn tweed and muddy Wellingtons.

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Angelina Jolie, Finn Little

THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD” My rating: B- (HBO Max)

80 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Insubstantial but nevertheless satisfying, Taylor Sheridan’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead” reacquaints us with Angelina Jolie in action heroine mode.

At age 45 Jolie has more gravitas than in her Lara Croft/”Salt”/”Mr. and Mrs. Smith” heyday. So while she might not retain all the physicality of those earlier incarnations, she compensates for it with an inner strength that transcends the overworked action tropes.

Here she plays Hannah, a professional firefighter working Montana’s deep woods. Drinking and carousing with her rugged peeps she’s the good ol’ tough gal. Inside, though, she’s struggling with the emotional fallout of a fatal conflagration…the ghastly incident hinged on an unpredictable change in wind direction, but Hannah blames herself.

Which is why for the current fire season she’s been assigned to a lookout tower situated on such a remote ridge that it can only be reached on foot. (I dunno…maybe they used helicopters to bring in all those girders.) This assignment is meant to keep her safe — physically and mentally — until she can return to normal duty.

Be assured that the screenplay (by Sheridan, Michael Koryta and Charles Leavitt) doesn’t allow her much rest.

Across the country in Florida, a forensic accountant (Jake Weber) realizes that his poking around in a vast government conspiracy has put his life — and that of his young son Connor (Finn Little) — in jeopardy. A couple of shadowy black op types (Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult) are eliminating prosecutors — and their families — pursuing a massive corruption case.

Now they’re after the numbers cruncher.

The chase leads them to Big Sky Country, where the father and son once vacationed at a survival camp run by a local lawman (Jon Berthal) and his wife (Medina Senghore). Their plan is to disappear into the wilds with the help of these knowledgable backwoodsmen.

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Anson Mount

“THE VIRTUOSO” My rating: B- (In theaters)

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The hit man movie occupies a curious corner of the noir world. Invariably these efforts center on a ruthlessly efficient killer who finds himself emotionally involved with a target, experiencing twinges of guilt or generally questioning his choice of professions.

 Nick Stagliano’s “The Virtuoso” works a couple of intriguing variations on the usual setup.

The first and most interesting is voiceover narration that dispassionately describes the daily workings of a professional killer. This narration is provided by leading man Anson Mount, and compensates for the fact that on screen his character says almost nothing. So it’s kind of neat that we get to hear his thoughts as he goes about his deadly business.

“You’re a professional devoted to timing and precision. A virtuoso,” our antihero (identified only as the Virtuoso) offers.

Truth is, the Virtuoso appears to be a mystery even to himself. He lives in an isolated cabin. He seems to have no friends or acquaintances apart from the Mentor (Anthony Hopkins), who farms out contracts to our man and other pro killers. He doesn’t even have a pet, although from time to time he sets out a bowl of kibble for the feral dog that lives among the trees.

Early on the Virtuoso executes a murder, but there is collateral damage in the person of an innocent bystander. Apparently for the first time he feels remorse for killing…indeed, he is so unnerved by the experience that the Mentor — who normally communicates only by phone — shows up in person to check on his charge’s emotional state and to give a long graveyard monologue about how he and the Virtuoso’s father served together on an assassination squad in Vietnam. (This is about as much background as we’ll get on our leading character.)

Anthony Hopkins

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Tiffany Haddish, Billy Crystal

“HERE TODAY” My rating: C+ (In theaters)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Billy Crystal’s sincere but ultimately unfulfilling dramedy “Here Today” is a queasy blend of vintage Crystal wise-cracking and dour navel gazing.

That it works as well as it does is largely due to the pairing of the veteran funnyman with Tiffany Haddish. Turns out that in real life they are besties, so the affection that radiates from their screen relationship is the real deal.

Comedy writer Charlie Berns (Crystal) is a legend in the business and though in his late 60s holds down a gig on the staff of a hit sketch TV show wildly popular with millenials. He’s a mentor to the younger writers, serving as a sort of conscience when the kids push things too far and punching up flat sketches with a new line here and a tweak there.

Thing is, Charlie has been diagnosed with dementia. He gets along by following the same daily routine, but increasingly he’s living in the past with memories of his late beloved wife (portrayed as a young woman by Louisa Krause).

Charlie has a grown son (Penn Badgley) and daughter (Laura Benanti) and especially a beloved granddaughter, but he hasn’t shared his diagnosis with them. During his busy prime Charlie was pretty much an absentee father, and resentments still simmer.

His co-workers on the comedy show are equally in the dark.

Enter Emma (Haddish), a jazz singer whose former boyfriend played the winning bid at a charity auction for a lunch with the great Charlie Berns. Emma is too young to know anything about Charlie or his work, but using the lunch ticket is a good way to get revenge on he ex.

Who knew the two would so quickly hit it off?

In its early going, at least, “Here Today” benefits from blasts of Crystal humor. Charlie may be slipping away, but he’s alert and aware much of the time, and still displays impeccable comic skills.

Slowly, though, his forgetfulness and anxiety begin to percolate through his daily existence. And with his children at arm’s length, it falls to his new best bud Emma to become his new caregiver. She doesn’t think twice about jumping into the fight.

Crystal not only writes, directs and stars in the film, he has packed it with celebs portraying themselves (Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline, Barry Levinson). Anna Deavere Smith portrays his neurologist.

And it’s not bad.

But no early kidding around can disguise the fact that “Here Today” will soon mutate into “Gone Tomorrow.” It’s a downer, a constant balancing act between silliness and tears. It only works part of the time.

| Robert W. Butler


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