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Daniel Scheitert, Andre Hyland, Michael Abbott Jr.

“THE DEATH OF DICK LONG” My rating: B- 

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Given that the combined IQs of the characters in “The Death of Dick Long” is about 45, it’s remarkable that Daniel Scheinert’s dark comedy resists the temptation to sneer and instead goes mining for empathy.

Under the opening credits we see three good ol’ Alabama boys — Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.), Earl (Andre Hyland) and Dick (director Scheinert) — rehearsing their garage band. Then Dick proposes “Wanna get weird?” and we’re treated to a montage of heavy drinking, bong sucking, fireworks and midnight target practice.

Suddenly we’re in the backseat of Zeke’s car, where Dick is bleeding all over the upholstery.  Zee and Earl are trying to get their buddy to a hospital, but they don’t want to be caught on camera; panicked, they park a block away, carrying their companion through some woods (dropping him on his noggin in the process), and dump him on the pavement outside the E.R. — but not before taking his wallet so that he cannot be identified.

The attending physician is appalled and puzzled.  The patient, who promptly dies, has suffered a severely torn rectum and head trauma.  Looks like a very weird case of rape/murder.

“We’ve got some real perverts on the loose,” observes the officer called to investigate.

Just how weird won’t be revealed until later in the proceedings;  more than a few viewers  will have to pick their jaws out of their laps.

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Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock

“BEFORE YOU KNOW IT” My rating: B-

98 minutes | No MPAA rating

A family comedy with just enough edge, “Before You Know It” is the creation of Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock, who co-wrote the script and star as mutually exasperated sisters.

In addition, Utt directed.

The end results aren’t earth-shaking, but there’s a good deal of talent on display.

As she approaches 30 Rachel Gruner (Utt) still hasn’t had a chance to discover herself…she’s got a full-time job being the only grownup in a household where delusion reigns.

Her widowed father, playwright/actor Mel Gruner (Mandy Patinkin), is an overgrown child who has spent the last 50 years writing and starring in plays no one sees.  He mounts them in the basement theater of the Greenwich Village building he owns; the family lives upstairs.

Rachel’s older sister Jackie (Jen Tullock) is an always-aspiring actress who spends too much time chasing men to pay much attention to her 12-year-old daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe).

By default, Rachel runs the family’s struggling theater company and serves as surrogate mother to Dodge, catering to her father’s artistic dreams and ignoring Jackie’s more maddening behavior.

But when Mel suffers a fatal heart attack, Rachel and Jackie discover that the mother they thought died nearly 30 years earlier is still alive. Indeed, she is a soap opera star named Sherrell (Judith Light) who has been paying the mortgage on the theater/apartment all this time. If they want to keep a roof over their heads, the sisters had best reach out to Mama.

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“DOWNTON ABBEY” My rating: B+ 

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Feature film spinoffs of successful TV series have an iffy track record (“Sex and the City,” “Entourage,” “Absolutely Fabulous”), but the folks at “Downton Abbey” have done it right.

The new “Downton Abbey” movie is an astonishingly effective piece of work, one that hits all the notes that made the TV show so successful and then adds a couple of new ones.

Will the movie make sense to anyone who wasn’t glued to PBS on Sunday nights?  Well, maybe, but the real pleasure here comes from continuing our relationships with characters we already know inside out.  It’s like a family reunion…only you actually like hanging with this family.

Writer Julian Fellowes, who created the series and scripted most of its episodes, provides a screenplay that gives almost every member of the huge cast at least one memorable moment and effortlessly balances multiple story threads.

Director Michael Engler deftly handles the pacing and the impressive technical production (he’s in charge of the actors, too but since most of these players have been doing their characters for the better part of a decade, how much coaching could they have required?).

The plot? Well, there are a dozen of them, but the overriding one has the King and Queen visiting Downton. It’s like when the FBI takes over a local murder investigation…Their Majesties’ arrogant retainers invade the Abbey, relegating the resident staff to observer status.  But not for long, thanks to machinations that come off as a more genteel iteration of “Revenge of the Nerds.”

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Brad Pitt

“AD ASTRA” My rating: B

124 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Equal parts “2001” and “Apocalypse Now,” James Gray’s “Ad Astra” is meditative journey to both outer and inner space punctuated with moments of high melodrama.

The film is drop-dead beautiful and features a contemplative performance from Brad Pitt which is among his finest; best of all, one leaves it feeling we’ve truly been on an intergalactic journey.

In the near future Major Roy McBride (Pitt) is a model astronaut, though in voiceover narration he reveals the price of the clear, dispassionate thinking that makes him the equal of any situation.

McBride is a master at suppressing his emotions, a skill that has wrecked his marriage (his ex, who is seen only briefly, is played by Liv Tyler) but made him the poster boy of space program efficiency. Only the occasional twitch of an eyelid suggests Roy’s inner turmoil.

Moreover, Roy comes by his heroism genetically — his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), was an astronaut who decades ago went off on a mission to Neptune to look for extraterrestrial life and hasn’t been heard from for 30 years.

As “Ad Astra” begins Roy is doing maintenance work on a radio tower so tall its upper reaches scrape the stratosphere.  A mysterious electrical pulse blows the tower’s power grid, sending our man in freefall back to Earth.

Roy survives, thanks to his parachute, but he subsequently learns in a top secret briefing that the authorities believe the damaging electromagnetic pulses are coming from Neptune, the last-known location of the elder McBride’s exploratory ship. If Roy’s father is behind these pulses — which threaten human life — perhaps a message from his son will bring a happy resolution.

The plan is for Roy to radio his Pops from an outpost on Mars.  First, though, he has to take a commercial shuttle to the moon (a pillow and blanket kit costs $150), then make his way to a launch complex on the dark side of that satellite (apparently the moon is an international combat zone with marauding pirates on speeding lunar rovers attempting to highjack official vehicles).

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Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez

“HUSTLERS” My rating: C+

109 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Hustlers” arrives on a wave of fest-generated hype: It’s one of the year’s best!!!  Jennifer Lopez is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination!!!

Uh, sorry, but I don’t see it.

Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s film is ambitious, certainly, telling the fact-based story of a group of exotic dancers who in the decade after the big market meltdown reacted to economic challenges by luring, drugging and ripping off wealthy men, sometimes for as much as $50,000 a pop.

It offers a charismatic and glamorous turn from Lopez, who is compellingly watchable as the nurturing (until she isn’t) pole dancer/housemother of this group of female marauders. Even more of a revelation is Constance Wu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) as the new girl at the strip joint through whose eyes we witness it all.

But despite its welcome depiction of mutually supportive sisterhood, Scafaria’s film becomes bogged down in sticky moral entanglements.  Even more problematic, this is an emotionally chilly yarn exhibiting little warmth or open compassion for its characters.

Given that the few men depicted here are unsalvageable swine and the ladies are equally predatory…who are we supposed to root for?

The story begins in 2006 with Destiny (Wu) struggling to get into the swing of things at a noisy, dark, raunchy NYC exotic dancing club.  She’s quickly taken under the wing of Ramona (Lopez), who gives her an impressive tutorial of pole moves (I particularly liked “the table”) and coaches her in the art of squeezing money out of arrogant Wall Street sphincters.

But in the wake of the big crash the high rollers aren’t rolling much.  Ramona cooks up a special drug cocktail — it makes its victims gleefully happy while erasing their short-term memories — and with Destiny and a small crew of out-of-work dancers targets and rips off moneyed fat cats.

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Keira Knightley

“OFFICIAL SECRETS” My rating: B- 

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There are moments when “Official Secrets” doesn’t seem to know just whose story it is telling; others when the dialogue sounds more like speechifying than regular conversation.

Still, there’s something so vital about the material it covers — the British government’s complicity in the Bush White House’s half-assed plan to invade Iraq — that Gavin Hood’s fact-based docudrama demands to be seen.

In 2003 Katharine Gun, an analyst with Her Majesty’s spy service, received an unexpected email.  In this message — also received by all of her co-workers — the American CIA urged everyone to be on the lookout for dirt that could be used to force recalcitrant members of the United Nations Security Council into voting for a US/British invasion of Iraq.

Gun was both surprised that she received the email — her regular gig was translating intercepted Chinese telephone communications — and appalled that the Yanks and her own people were so nonchalantly encouraging the entire apparatus of British intelligence to participate in a blackmail scheme for the purpose of rushing into an unjust war.

So she surreptitiously copied the email and gave it to an anti-war activist friend, who passed it on to a newspaper reporter, who with his colleagues spent months verifying the truth of the communication.

Eventually the story was published, but not without some unexpected blowback.  Before it hit the printed page, an unsuspecting editor ran the copy through Spell Check, which changed all the American spellings in the CIA email to British, thus leading to accusations that this was a British-generated fake document.

Spell Check strikes again.

As scripted by Hood, Gregory Bernstein and Sara Bernstein (from Marcia Mitchell and Thomas  Mitchell’s book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War), “Official Secrets” is essentially a procedural docudrama populated by an A-list British cast.

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“FIDDLER: A MIRACLE OF MIRACLES” My rating: B 

92 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Since it debuted on Broadway in 1964, not a day has passed when “Fiddler on the Roof” was not being performed somewhere on Earth.

The universal appeal of this musical about life in a Jewish village in Czarist Russia is examined every which way in “Fiddler” A Miracle of Miracles,”  Max Lewkowicz’s documentary summation of the show, its creators and its lingering appeal and influence.

Drawing as its starting point two recent NYC productions of “Fiddler,” one that ran on Broadway for two years and a second performed entirely in Yiddish, the film dips into the creation  of this most unusual effort. Scenes from these revivals — as well as clips from the 1971 movie version — hammer home once again just how spectacularly good the work is.

We’re talking goosebumps moments.

Happily, the geniuses behind the show — composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, playwright Joseph Stein and producer Hal Prince — lived to ripe old ages and before their deaths (Prince left us only last month) sat down for insightful interviews on how the show came together.  (Jerome Robbins, the brilliant director, passed in 1998).

The film is part history, part testimonial, with actors, directors and others who have been associated with the musical — Lin-Manuel Miranda, Austin Pendleton, the Israeli actor Topol — commenting on its life-changing power.

Actor Joel Gray offers a common analysis when he says that “it works in so many languages — and everyone thinks it’s about them.”

Author Stein recalls attending a Tokyo production where an audience member asked him: “Do they understand ‘Fiddler’ in America? It’s so Japanese.”

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