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Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Brosnahan

“THE COURIER” My rating: B- (In theaters March 19)

111 minutes: MPAA rating: PG-13

Like its title, “The Courier” is an unprepossessing Cold War thriller that, despite an OK turn from leading man Benedict Cumberbatch and a based-on-fact birthright, never works up a full head of steam.

In the early 1960s British businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) was recruited by his country’s spymasters. An independent salesman who represented dozens of Western manufacturers, Wynne was encouraged by the M-16 spooks to expand his operation to the growing Soviet market.

Mostly he was to carry on business as usual. But from time to time he would be asked to bring pilfered Soviet secrets back to London.

Initially Wynne rejects the idea.  He’s not a spy, after all.

Noting Wynne’s unremarkable military record and his gone-to-flab physique, his handler reassures him: “If this mission were really dangerous you’re the last man we’d send.”

Wynn’s contact in Moscow is Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a WWII hero now working for the KGB, though his “official” title is that of trade specialist.  Penkovsky is the film’s most interesting character, a guy so traumatized by Krushchev’s podium pounding and the growing Cuban Missile Crisis that he’s willing to turn his country’s secrets over to the West in the hope of avoiding all-out nuclear war.

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Anthony Hopkins

“THE FATHER” My rating: B (In theaters)

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Films about Alzheimer’s usually assume an outsider’s point of view, that of a family member or caregiver who must watch in dismay as a loved one goes through the downward spiral of forgetfulness, cognitive dissolution and physical and mental incapacity.

Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” on the other hand, attempts nothing less than to recreate  encroaching dementia as it is experienced by the patient. It’s an insider’s approach.

The film is less a conventional narrative than a series of disorienting scenes that force the audience — like the film’s title character — to ask what is real and what a delusion.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton from Zeller’s stage play, “The Father” relies on a narrative gimmick, yet Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-nominated lead performance is so compelling — by turns infuriating, puzzling and pathetic — that it bouys the entire production.

Things start out more or less conventionally.  Anne (Olivia Colman, also an Oscar nominee) has come to the spacious London flat of her father Anthony (Hopkins) to discuss his living situation.  The old man has chased off his third visiting nurse, accusing her of theft; Anne (a divorcee) is distraught  as this screws up her plans to move to Paris with her new boyfriend. Who’s going to be there for Dad?

Anthony wants nothing to do with caregivers. He swears by self-sufficiency and resents the intrusion of strangers into his neatly circumscribed world.

Listening to him you want to agree. Anthony is eloquent and even witty (albeit often scathingly critical, his jabs at poor Anne suggest not just indifference but overt cruelty); physically he seems perfectly okay. Yeah, he’s self-centered and often hears only what he wants to hear.  You can say the same about lots of  younger people.

Anthony can be a charmer. Look at the show he puts on for Laura (Imogen Poots), a young woman being interviewed by Anne as a replacement for the latest nurse to bail.  For this attractive visitor Anthony is bright-eyed and amusing, claiming to have been a professional tap dancer (he was an engineer) and even doing a soft-shoe across the living room rug.

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Jessica Barr

“SOPHIE JONES” My rating: B+ (In select theaters and on VOD)

85 minutes | No MPAA rating

Asked how she’s dealing with the recent death of her mother, 16-year-old Sophie Jones has a canned response.

“I haven’t been cutting myself,” she reports matter-of-factly. “Or drinking. Or taking drugs.”

Which doesn’t mean that she’s dealing well with the trauma.

Sophie has met a devastating family tragedy with ironic detachment. Rather than weeping or moping she she embraces snarky humor and a mockingly defiant attitude. Hanging out with the other theater kids at school, she appears unchanged and unruffled.

Yes, she has embarked on a course of sexual experimentation, though she retains her virginity. “We’re only dry humping,” she assures her best friend.

“Sophie Jones” is a study of grief, but its approach is so tangential and minimalist that the film is almost totally lacking in big dramatic moments. This, interestingly enough,  is its great strength.

We learn about Sophie and her interior world through the accumulation of small details over many months; our girl almost never talks about her feelings, but her actions speak volumes.

This is the first feature from director Jessie Barr (she penned the screenplay with her cousin Jessica Barr, who plays Sophie), and  with its quiet wisdom and backhanded narrative approach the movie is a revelation. We’re told that the film was inspired by the Barrs’ own family tragedy…maybe that’s why it all feels so authentic.

There’s no plot to speak of, just a series of episodes as Sophie makes her way toward graduation and college.  But there are moments here so beautiful (and shocking) that the viewer is pulled up short.

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Hadley Robinson

“MOXIE” My rating: B+ (Netflix)

Running time: 111minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The highest praise I can bestow on “Moxie” is that for two hours it made me once again feel like a teenager…and left me with a much-needed sense of optimism.

Just about everything works in Amy Poehler’s film, adapted from the YA novel by Jennifer Mathieu.  (Full disclosure: Jennifer interned in The Star‘s A&E Department some 20 years ago when I was the editor).  It’s a high school movie with heart, soul and attitude.

We’re talking happy tears.

Our heroine is Vivian (Hadley Robinson, terrific in a non-glam girl-next-door way), a bright quiet girl who is most comfortable when laying low.  But it turns out that everywhere Vivian looks she sees injustice.

Her school is pretty much run by the football team, a pack of entitled meatheads led by the smugly swaggering and creepily predatory Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger…Arnold’s kid).

The jocks annually issue a sexist ranking of their fellow students. One girl is declared “most bangable.” Another has the “best bootie.”  Vivian is humiliated to find herself designated “most obedient.”

What’s really irritating is that the footballers are the constant object of adoration despite a mediocre record; meanwhile the girls’ soccer squad — perennial contenders for the state championship — have to make do with last year’s grass-stained jerseys.

Taking some inspiration from her single mom Lisa (Poehler), whose own teen years were devoted to Bikini Kill-inspired rebellion, Vivian writes and designs her own feminist “zine,” a Xeroxed howl of indignation entitled Moxie!.

She pays to have 50 copies printed and secretly deposits them in the girls’ restrooms. And suddenly the school is abuzz with  female umbrage  and a growing mystery.

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Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen

“PALMER”  My rating: B (Apple +)

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

An paroled con returns to his Louisiana hometown and becomes the best friend and protector of a 10-year-old trans kid.

That’s the plot of “Palmer,” a film that pretty much delivers exactly what you expect.  Once it sets up its  premise the screenplay (by Cheryl Guerriero) really hasn’t any surprises up its sleeve.  It proceeds along the anticipated lines.

But if “Palmer” carries a high degree of predictability, that in no way limits its pleasures.  As directed by Fisher Stevens and performed by a first-rate cast the film is low-keyed, sincere, humanistic and occasionally shockingly tough.

One-time local football hero Palmer (Justin Timberlake) has spent a decade in stir for a beating up a man during a home burglary.  Despite the violence of his crime, he’s now something of a gentle soul — though he still likes the occasional bender.

Anyway, he moves in with the grandma (June Squibb) who reared him, eventually finds a job as a grade school custodian, and little by little is drawn into the life of Sam (Ryder Allen), a kid living in a doublewide adjacent to Granny’s place.

Sam has a drug-addled floozie Mama (Juno Temple).  He’s also obsessed with fairy princesses, wears a beret in his  hair, favors  shorts and cowboy boots and views the world through bottle-bottom spectacles.

The kid, Palmer announces, is weird. Doesn’t he know he’s a boy?

When Sam’s mom vanishes on one of her month-long benders, Sam washes up on Palmer’s doorstep. Reluctantly the parolee becomes the kids’ ex-officio guardian. A bond grows.

Like I said, predictable.

Nevertheless, the film succeeds. Timberlake delivers what may be his most nuanced and heartfelt work yet. Meanwhile young Allen seems to be simultaneously channeling Jonathan Lipnicki from “Jerry Maguire” and Abigail Breslin from “Little Miss Sunshine.”  The kid’s blend of unaffected innocence and preternatural braininess sticks with you.

While “Palmer” touches upon anti-trans prejudice, that really isn’t the film’s driving force.  This is a sort of love story between a needy boy and an equally needy man.

| Robert W. Butler

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Robin Wright

“LAND” My rating: B- (Select theaters)

89 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Who hasn’t harbored a dream of retreating to a mountainside home far from the hassles, fears and frustrations of civilization?

Americans seem particularly prone to this Thoreau-esque  fantasy; undoubtedly it has something to do with our shared consciousness of pioneers coming to terms with the wilderness.

It’s all very romantic…until it isn’t.

“Land,” actress Robin Wright’s film directing debut, unfolds in a primitive cabin  where a city dweller, working through an unnamed grief, has taken up residence.

It’s a minimalist effort — very little dialogue, no plot to speak of — that attempts to compensate for its dramatic thinness with gorgeous outdoor cinematography (the d.p. is Bobby Bukowski). If it sometimes seems there’s actually less here than meets the eye…well, at least the eye candy is first class.

Early on we see Edee (Wright) consulting a psychologist and arguing with a woman (Kim Dickens) — her sister? — about her desperate need to get away.

Next thing you know she’s rented a car and a trailer, loaded up on foodstuffs and essentials, thrown away her cell phone and relocated to rural Wyoming.  Basically she’s bought a property — no electricity, no running water — about as far away from other humans as she can get.

To ensure her isolation she hires someone to return the rental car…that way she can’t bail at the first sign of trouble.

As Edee gets used to her new environment she is subjected to visions of a man and young boy (her late husband and son, we assume).  Occasionally, in the midst of breathtaking beauty, she breaks down in helpless tears.

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Foreground: Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Fred Hampton; background: LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal

“JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH”  My rating: B (HBO Max)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The title of “Judas and the Black Messiah” smacks of folklorish hyperbole, but then Shaka King’s film about the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton is positively overflowing with Biblical  allegory.

The Black Messiah, of course, is Hampton, a rising star in black activism who was targeted for elimination by the FBI and shot to death in his bed during a raid in Chicago in 1969. Hampton is here given the hagiographic treatment…after this you half expect the Catholic Church to start stamping out medallions with his likeness.

Whether Hampton was the sinless knight errant portrayed here is a matter for the historians to parse; what’s not in doubt is that Brit actor Daniel Kaluuya sells this interpretation with such conviction and certainty that — while you’re watching the movie, anyway — you absolutely buy into its premise that this guy could really have become the black messiah. Comparisons to Bobby Kennedy seem apt.

Of course, saints aren’t nearly as interesting as devils.  The Judas of this yarn is Bill O’Neal, a crook and con artist recruited by the feds to infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Panthers, rise within its ranks, report on what he saw and eventually set up the circumstances under which Hampton would be murdered.

O’Neal is played by LaKeith Stanfield as a man of few or no moral convictions, a survive-at-any-cost scrambler blackmailed into informing and, once in place, perfectly willing to reap the perks of his position.  Does he feel guilt? Remorse?

Hard to say.  What’s obvious, though, is that Stanfield perfectly captures the desperation and creative scheming of a lowlife being squeezed from both directions.  The authorities will send him to prison if he fails to cooperate; his Panther colleagues would no doubt kill him if they knew of his betrayals.

In a weird way we find ourselves rooting for him to squirm his way through this minefield of treachery.

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Lars Mikkelsen

“HERRENS VEJE (RIDE UPON THE STORM” (Netflix)

Being a member of the  clergy is a 24/7 tightrope walking act. Worshipers  expect their holy leaders to be fully human without exhibiting the usual human screwups.

The family of priests in the Danish series “Herrrens Veje” (it translates as “The Lord’s Ways” but Netflix is calling it “Ride Upon the Storm”) have screwups galore.  But, boy, they are truly human. And then some.

Lars Mikkelsen (older brother of fellow actor Mads) stars in this two-season drama as Johannes, a ninth-generation vicar serving a congregation in Copenhagen.

Johannes is outwardly a man at peace with his life and work.  After all, he is fulfilling the important role assigned his family over several centuries, and he’s determined that his own sons carry on the tradition.

Inside though, Johannes carries the scars of his own strict and borderline abusive upbringing. As the series begins (it’s from the same folks who gave us the brilliant “Borgen” about Danish politics) he loses an election for bishop to a female priest, who embodies all the wishywashy qualities which, in his mind, have set the Church of Denmark on the road to obscurity.

Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Lars Mikkelsen

Johannes’ bitterness at this rejection drives him to alcohol abuse and an affair with a member of his staff…although the more we get to know him the more we’re convinced that his particular brand of toxic masculinity eventually would have taken him down those dark paths.

Yeah, this is a troublesome character.  But Mikkelsen brings so much charisma and inner fire to the proceedings that we understand why Johannes’ parishioners and his employees stick with him. At his best he’s a genuinely dynamic leader. (BTW: Mikkelsen won the 2018 International Emmy for his performance here.)

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Jamal Khashoggi, Hatice Cengiz

“THE DISSIDENT” My rating: B+ (Amazon Prime)

119 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

By now the world is pretty unanimous in its conviction that on Oct. 2, 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered while visiting his country’s embassy in Istanbul, Turkey.

Furthermore, it is widely accepted that the execution was carried out at the behest of Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who was furious at Khashoggi’s criticism of his regime in stories in The Washington Post and other news outlets.

Given all this, it’s doubtful that Bryan Fogel’s scathing documentary “The Dissident” is going to change many minds.  Most of us are already on board.

And yet here’s the thing:  This documentary is still capable of setting us back on our heels with gut-clutching revelations.

There is, for example, a transcript of the sound recording (uncovered by Turkish police) of Khashoggi’s real-time murder (he was strangled and suffocated in an embassy meeting room).  Earlier on the same tape a member of the hit squad imported from Saudi Arabia — a forensics expert — jokes that he’s never had to dismember a body on the floor before.  Even hunters, he notes, hang their prey upright for butchering.

And how about the revelation that in the days before the murder the embassy purchased 80 pounds of meat,  meat that investigators believe was barbecued to cover the smell of burning human flesh?

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At top:  Carey Mulligan, Archie Barnes; below: Ralph Fiennes

“THE DIG” My rating: B- (Netflix)

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“The Dig” may be little more than motion picture comfort food…but right now comfort food is what we want.

Though inspired by real events — the discovery in 1939 of the Sutton Hoo site, a 6th-century Anglo-Saxon boat and priceless burial artifacts found  in an English pasture — this Masterpiece-ish effort from director Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini gets most of its momentum from the  melodrama (much of it made up) surrounding the enterprise.

I mean, excavating ancient treasures one tiny trowel scoop at a time isn’t exactly scintillating cinema. Bring on the heavy breathing.

Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) is a self-taught “excavator” (he wouldn’t presume to call himself an archaeologist) whose nose for buried wonders has been proven on various sites around his native Suffolk.  He’s crusty and cranky — in large part because his efforts are undervalued by the hoity-toity academic types with whom he must often work. (This was an era when archaeologists wore neckties and tweed jackets to dig.)

Now he’s been invited to the estate of widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan); she has an ancient mound out in the north forty she’d like to excavate. Basil would actually get to be the boss of the dig.

Along the way the childless fellow will become a father figure to Edith’s young son Robert (Archie Barnes) and befriend Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn), who is brought in to help with some of the heavy lifting.  All this warm fuzzy stuff later will become important when it’s revealed that Edith has major health issues.

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