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Maika Monroe, Bill Skarsgard

“VILLAINS” My rating: B-  

88 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The ironically titled “Villains” makes audiences  root for a pair of truly stupid criminal lovers by providing antagonists who are infinitely worse.

In Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s black comedy, Mickey (Bill Skarsgard) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are the stars of their own sweetly demented version of “Gun Crazy.”  They are to real criminals what white suburban teens are to genuine gang bangers — they talk tough and are sexually turned on by  criminal behavior, but they’re so thick they don’t think to fill the tank of their getaway vehicle before robbing a convenience store.

Running out of gas just miles from their latest heist, the pair ditch the car and take refuge in blandly posh manse in the woods.  Nobody’s home, so they figure they can hang out there for a while.

That’s until they find a mute 10-year-old girl chained in the basement and are interrupted by the arrival of homeowners George and Gloria (Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick), who are also serial kidnappers/killers.

Gloria is a Southern belle so off the charts that she believes  a porcelain-headed doll is her actual child (she makes Blanche Dubois look like the poster girl for emotional stability).  Hubby George is a golden-voiced charmer, a Dixie gentleman who can explain away even the most hair-raising ugliness with a barrage of reassuring   bromides. (Am I the only one who suspects Donovan is doing a vocal imitation of Kevin Spacey in his “House of Cards” role?) (more…)

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Joaquin Phoenix

“JOKER” My rating: B+

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier teamed up to make a superhero movie, the result would be just like “Joker.”

Less conventional comic book material than existential scream, Todd Phillips’ take on the legendary D.C. villain gives us Joaquin Phoenix as a hapless loser transformed by isolation and grief into a clown-faced avenging angel.

This grim — as in NOT FUN — yarn unfolds not in some make-believe alternative universe (the traditional Tim Burton-ized abode of comic book sagas) but in a Gotham City that looks, sounds and seems even to smell like the dystopian NYC of the 1970s, replete with wall-to-wall graffiti and mounds of garbage thanks to a strike by city workers.

There’s nothing supernatural offered by Phillips and Scott Silver’s screenplay, no fantastic science fiction machines or surgeries, nobody gifted with special powers.

Just the eternally miserable Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a human wraith doomed by genetics and circumstance to live in brutal isolation.

Arthur  works as a professional clown (children’s parties, sidewalk huckstering) and aspires to do stand up — which is odd because he is stupendously unfunny.

Street punks beat him up. When nervous — pretty much all the time — he breaks into uncontrollable laughter.  It’s actually a medical condition for which he takes an array of prescriptions.  Except that the city agency that provides drugs and counseling (Arthur spent some of his young adulthood in a mental ward) has lost its funding. Now he’s on his own.

“The worst thing about having mental illness,” he observes, “is that people expect you to act like you don’t.”

At home in a peeling apartment he feeds and bathes his aged mother (Frances Conroy); their relationship is essentially loving, but it’s pretty clear that Mom is delusional.  She insists on sending pleading letters to her long-ago employer Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), an oligarchical fascist making a run for mayor. (Yes, that Thomas Wayne, father of young Bruce, who will one day become Joker’s arch nemesis Batman.)

But then Arthur has his own issues with reality. He fantasizes that he appears on the late-night talk show of his favorite TV personality, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). Movie buffs will no doubt pick up some residual vibes from Martin Scorsese’s 1982 “King of Comedy,” in which DeNiro played a pathologically inept standup comic.

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Rene Zellweger as Judy Garland

“JUDY” My rating: B

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

One of the biggest thrills in moviegoing is seeing a familiar performer sink so completely into a character that you forget who  you’re watching.

That’s the case with Rene Zellweger’s portrayal of Judy Garland in “Judy.”  Bet she’s already cleared space on the mantel for another Oscar.

Scripted by Tom Edge and directed by Ruper Goold, “Judy” is a film whose flaws are more than compensated for by a monumental performance.

Set in 1969, the last year of Garland’s life, when she was persona non grata in Hollywood and had to travel to London to get a nightclub gig, the film has some rough spots, particularly in its depiction of a once-great talent circling the drain. It’s pretty depressing stuff.

But Zellweger’s portrayal lifts the entire enterprise. She not only looks like the 47-year-old, drug-worn Garland, but she channels the star’s eccentric body language. And she sings Garland’s songs — not as well as Garland did, but enough to wow moviegoers. (It helps that by this time in her career Garland’s power was more in her unique delivery than vocal strength.)

We meet Judy and her two young children returning to L.A. from a tour playing clubs in the South. It’s not a happy homecoming — they’re evicted from their hotel for back rent, and Judy’s ex, agent Sid Luft (Rupert Sewell) says that while he’ll take in the kids, he’s also going to sue for custody.

The only way to get enough cash to make her case in court is for Judy to take a gig in London, performing at a club run by a no-nonsense promoter (Michael Gambon); wise to his star’s reputation for temperamental meltdowns, he assigns a handler (“Wild Roses'” Jessie Buckley) to coax, cajole and physically push the quaking singer out onto the stage.

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Anton Yeltsin

“LOVE, ANTOSHA” My rating: B+

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

I knew who Anton Yeltsin was, of course.  I’d seen the young actor as Chekhov in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboots, and in a couple of other movies like Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver.”

And of course I knew he died in 2017 at age 27 in a freak accident, pinned against a metal gate by his rolling automobile.

None of which prepared me for the gut punch that is “Love, Antosha,” a love letter to the late actor signed by his parents, his boyhood friends, and his heavy-hitting acting colleagues.

It seems nobody who knew Yeltsin had anything but love for him. And that emotion comes roiling off the screen.

Garret Price’s documentary opens with home movies from Yeltsin’s childhood. What we see is an impossibly handsome kid with a big performer’s personality that fills the room.

We also get a bit of back story about his parents,  competitive Soviet ice dancers who emigrated to the U.S.A. to get away from growing anti-Semitism in the new Russian Republic.

Here’s something I did not know:  While a teen Anton was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, the devastating lung condition (the average life expectancy of a sufferer is 37 years). He was so full of energy, so good at masking his symptoms and plowing ahead, that many of his show biz colleagues were unaware that he had gone through life essentially under a death sentence.

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“AQUARELA” My rating: C+

89 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Technically classified as a documentary, “Aquarela” might more accurately be described as slow-moving wallpaper.

The subject of Viktor Kossakovsky’s film is water and its power. There is no narrator, no graphics, no argument made or thesis stated.

The film’s first 20 minutes unfold on a frozen bay in Greenland where a team of rescue workers use primitive muscle-powered winches to extract from the frigid waters automobiles that have broken through the ice.  During the winter local drivers use the frozen bay as a shortcut, but as spring approaches this becomes an iffy proposition.

One man, soaking wet and frantic after his car has vanished, taking with it his passenger, is asked why he  risked it. He responds that the ice isn’t supposed to melt for another three weeks.

That’s as close as “Aquarela” comes to making an overt statement about global warming.

We get long passages of vivid blue glaciers calving, creating mountainous icebergs that dwarf the ships which share their waters. Marine photography reveals the abstract beauty of bergs below the water line.

Another segment unfolds aboard a yacht where the swells and storms create a terrifying environment.

There are spectacular jungle cataracts that generate their own misty rainbows, and news footage of hurricane-force winds lashing coastal cities and flooding streets. Monster waves charging ashore.

Some of this is spectacular, some beautiful.

But isn’t this lazy documentary-making?  How about some insight, some perspective?

Some viewers will find “Aquarela’s” glacial pace and gorgeous imagery hypnotically compelling.

Others will find in it a surefire cure for insomnia.

Place me somewhere in the middle.

| Robert W. Butler

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Peter Sarsgaard

“THE SOUND OF SILENCE” My rating: C+

87 minutes | MPAA rating:

Before it goes off the philosophical rails and disappears up its own nether regions, “The Sound of Silence” casts an eerie spell.

Our protagonist is acoustic specialist Peter Lucian (Peter Sarsgaard), a self-described “house tuner.”

Peter is paid to visit the apartments of his fellow New Yorkers, bringing a suitcase filled with tuning forks and tape recorders.  His job is to study the “sound environment,” identifying and eliminating aural anomalies that may be responsible for sleeplessness, anxiety, and a whole host of psycho-physical modern maladies.

For instance,  he may discover that the musical voice of a client’s heating system creates dissonance when heard in conjunction with the imperceptible sounds emitted by an electric toaster. Time to get a new Sunbeam.

Sounds like woo-woo, but Peter has recently been written up in The New Yorker. So there.

Michael Tyburski’s debut film (the screenplay is by Ben Nabors)  is nothing if not out there. In mood and overall story arc it bears more than a little resemblance to “The Conversation,” Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 classic about a sound technician whose specialty is surreptitiously recording conversations under impossible circumstances.

Peter is pretty much obsessed with his  inquiries.  He often walks through Manhattan wearing sound-cancelling earphones; at other times he stands in public places twanging his tuning forks and taking acoustic readings.

He’s studying “harmonic resonance,” all so that he can develop a sort of unified field theory of sound.  His research has already drawn the attention of an industrialist (Bruce Altman) who has big plans to monetize it, but Peter is a purist.  His dream is to have all his findings published in a scholarly journal.  Only then will he consider the commercial applications.

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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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