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“BLACK CRAB: My rating: C+ (Netflix)

114 minutes | No MPAA rating

The Swedish “Black Crab” is really two movies.

The first — the good one —is an icy “lost patrol” adventure steeped in an end-of-the-world angst reminiscent of  Cormack McCarthy’s The Road.

The other movie resembles the finale of any number of James Bond films…complete with mad scientists operating in a hollowed-out mountain stronghold.

The emotional/intellectual distance between the two is enough to cause whiplash.

We  meet Caroline (Noomi Rapace) and her teenage daughter Vanja (Stella Marcimain Klintberg) in a car in a traffic jam. Up ahead there’s shooting. Desperate people run past. Bullets whiz by. The women hunker down in the back seat beneath a blanket and hope they’re not noticed.

The next time we see Caroline she’s about 20 pounds lighter (nobody does emaciated like Rapace) and carrying a military-grade rifle.  It’s the middle of a brutal Scandanavian winter. Stockholm is a bombed-out ruin. (Can’t see this stuff without thinking of Ukraine.)

Moreover, the war is all but lost.  We sort of assume that from the fact that Caroline — a middle-aged housewife — has been given a uniform and pushed into service.

Turns out that she’s uniquely qualified for a special operation that may end the war.  She and a half-dozen fellow soldiers will penetrate enemy lines and deliver a Top Secret package to a laboratory 100 miles to the north.

The enemy (never identified) controls the skies, so they’re to go on foot — or rather, on skates, using the frozen ocean as their highway (the ice is too thin for vehicles, too thick for boats). 

This “Black Crab” is a suicide assignment, but Caroline has special motivation. She’s been told that her daughter awaits her at mission’s end. 

Written and directed by Adam Berg (with a screenplay assist from Aliette Opheim and David Dencik), “Black Crab” is stingy on exposition.  Little is explained…we’re just thrown into the mission.  

Noomi Rapace

One by one the little unit is whittled down.  There are so many ways one can die out here…drowning, hypothermia, gunfire.

From casual conversations we pick up a little about Caroline’s comrades (portrayed by Jakob Oftebro, Dar Salim, Ardalan Esmaili, Aliette Opheim and Eric Enge), but they are painted in broad strokes. 

 The main question — the only one that matters — is who will be next to bite the big one?

And then there’s the nature of the mysterious parcel they are to deliver. 

As a taut tale of survival, “Black Crab” grabs us early.  There’s a fatalistic pall hanging over the proceedings, and the production design (along the way the soldiers take shelter in abandoned houses, an icebound ferry, a wrecked WWII-styled pillbox) reflects the weirdly beautiful but miserably hostile environment. 

It’s only when Caroline and one surviving teammate reach their destination that “Black Crab” falls apart.  Up to that point the story’s gaping holes have been kept at bay through the sheer effectiveness of the direction, design, action sequences and performances.

Now, with much-anticipated answers at hand, all we get is a major intellectual letdown.

| Robert W. Butler

Desi Arnaz, L:ucille Ball

“LUCY AND DESI” My rating: B+ (Amazon Prime)

103 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

By virtue of its having arrived three months after “Becoming the Ricardos,” there will be a tendency to view the documentary “Lucy and Desi” as a sort of supplement to Aaron Sorkin’s fictionalized approach to showbiz power couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Actually, it should be the other way around.

“Lucy and Desi,” directed by Amy Poehler, covers much the same territory as “…Ricardos,” but its impact is vastly more emotional and its aim much more focused.

This is a real-life love story that many of us — thanks to our familiarity with the iconic “I Love Lucy” TV show — will approach as shared family history.  That it has more than a few elements of tragedy only makes it more a more piquant experience.

Superbly scripted by veteran documentarian Mark Monroe, the film was made with the cooperation of Lucy and Desi’s daughter, actress Lucie Arnaz,  and draws from a treasure trove of home movies, “I Love Lucy” clips and archival films and photos.

Especially effective is a collection of never-before-heard audio interviews in which the two stars speak with remarkable candor about their lives and careers.  

Lucie Arnaz also provides numerous talking-head moments, and she appears to be a straight shooter, a woman who loved her parents but doesn’t attempt to whitewash their story.

Other celebrity contributors include Bette Midler, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear and Charo who, like Desi, honed her performing chops at the feet of Latin music legend Xavier Cugat. Curiously the Arnaz’s son, Desi Arnaz Jr., has virtually no presence here, despite the fact that the “I Love Lucy” episode about his birth was the most-watched program of its era.

While I enjoyed Sorkin’s film, I found much new information in Poehler’s effort. Of course we all recognize Lucille Ball as a comedy genius.  Especially revelatory, though,  is the case the documentary makes for Desi Arnaz’s role as a television giant and innovator.

Before this I didn’t realize that he invented the summer rerun…to placate fans who demanded a “Lucy” episode every week…even if they’d already seen it.

And then there was his stewardship of Desilu Studios, which in addition to the “Lucy” show was the home of “The Andy Griffith Show” and its spinoffs, “Star Trek,” “The Untouchables” and a seemingly endless stream of boob tube  classics.

Ironically it was the pressure of running a studio that broke up the Ricardos’ marriage — Desi turned increasingly to drink, which undoubtedly led to bad decisions in the out-of-marriage sex department (not that Desi was unfamiliar with infidelity; for the first five years of their marriage, after all, he led the life of a touring musician).

There are dark elements to this yarn, but “Lucy and Desi” is far from being a downer.  As their daughter notes, the two went on to happy second marriages that lasted much longer than the Lucy/Desi pairing.

And yet we leave the doc with the unmistakeable impressions that Lucy and Desi were the great loves of each other’s lives, and with the sobering knowledge that sometimes even great loves cannot go the distance.

| Robert W. Butler

Hayley Bennett, Peter Dinklage

“CYRANO” My rating: B (In theaters)

124 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like the works of Shakespeare, Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” is imminently adaptable; stage directors and filmmakers can revel in its timelessness while bending and stretching the material to match the current zeitgeist.

Every generation seems to get its own version of the swashbuckling warrior insecure in love because of his monstrous nose; past Cyranos include Jose Ferrer, Gerard Depardieu and, in a comedic updating, Steve Martin.

The new “Cyrano” from director Joe Wright is the same animal — but different. It stars Peter Dinklage, so memorable as Tyrion Lannister in “Game of Thrones,” and while this Cyrano excels at swordsmanship he is crippled romantically not by his big schnozz but by his diminutive size.

Oh, and did I mention that this is a musical?

Based on a stage production scripted by Dinklage’s spouse, Erica Schmidt, and featuring songs by Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Matt Berninger and Carin Besser (of the rock band The National), this lavishly mounted movie version takes a bit of getting used to.

In fact, it took a good 45 minutes for me to feel comfortable with its ambitious conceits.

Initially the uber-realistic 18th-century settings (it was filmed in gorgeous Noto, Italy, which apparently hasn’t changed in centuries) and sometimes graphic violence are a weird fit for a pop musical. And then there’s the nontraditional casting (lots of black faces) that may prove jarring for those expecting historical accuracy.

By film’s end, though, audiences will have been sucked in, thanks primarily to Dinklage’s riveting performance, an inspired blend of physical swagger and emotional reticence, tempered by a savage wit coexisting with a poetic soul.

The story remains pretty much the same. Cyrano has long been in love with childhood friend Roxanne (Hayley Bennett), but has never expressed his yearning, certain he would be rejected for his physical peculiarities. When Roxanne falls for his comrade-in-arms Christian (Kevin Harrison Jr.), Cyrano provides the attractive but tongue-tied fellow with romantic poems and sweet nothings (better to woo Roxanne once removed than not at all).

“I will make you eloquent,” our hero advises Christian, “and you will make me handsome.”

Meanwhile our three protagonists must stymie the machinations of the entitled aristocrat De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), who not only has eyes for Roxanne but is Cyrano and Christian’s commanding officer.

Kevin Harrison Jr. as Christian

The essential “Cyrano” story remains as seductive as ever, and the performances are spot on.

Dinklage may have the greatest hangdog eyes in movie history, and he perfectly captures the character’s conflicting emotions (a cocksure cavalier when it comes to battle, a swooning romantic who is fearful of announcing his love). He’s less a singer than a Rex Harrison-styled reciter of lyrics…but it works.

Bennet nicely captures both Roxanne’s beauty and her childlike superficiality, while offering the production’s best singing voice; Harrison walks a fine line between Christian’s sincerity and his, er, intellectual limitations.

As a musical “Cyrano” is a tad half-hearted. There are only a half dozen numbers, and many of them feel more like fragments of songs than full-blown compositions.

At its best the score has a sweeping pop feel that reminds of early Kate Bush with a dash of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The highlight is the late-in-the-show “Heaven Is Wherever I Fall” in which three soldiers (one played by “Once’s” Glen Hansard) prepare for a fatal charge by writing letters to faraway loved ones. The tune’s throat-stopping blend of heroic fatalism, yearning, and lost possibilities is simply drop-dead gorgeous.

There’s relatively little real dancing here; Wright opts mostly for carefully staged crowd and camera movement. An exception is a number unfolding in a fortress where a regiment of sword-wielding soldiers perform a grand waltz (there’s even some break dancing dropped in).

| Robert W. Butler

“MIL COLMILLAS” My rating: B (HBO Max)

Among my current guilty pleasures is HBO Max’s “Mil Colmillos,” a Colombian TV series that slices and dices several strains of popular sci-fi and action flicks to create its own heady cocktail of mayhem and horror.

Is it good?  Not sure. After all, in English the title is “A Thousand Fangs,” which pretty much announces its pulpy intentions.

What I do know is that I gobbled up its first seven episodes and am now anxiously awaiting the arrival of Season 2.

A squad of Columbian special forces soldiers are sent on a secret assignment into the jungle of a neighboring country.  Since their presence there is completely illegal, they cannot rely on outside help…they’re on their own.

But each episode also contains a mini-episode set in the 1500s in which conquistadores and their Indian scouts go searching in this same jungle for treasure…and stumble across countless horrors.

Both the modern soldiers and the matchlock-toting Spaniards are picked off one by one by the jungle and its denizens.

Just what they’re up against is never made clear.  There are, it goes without saying, fanged humanoids looking for a snack.  But there are also masked locals whipped into a frenzy by a charismatic leader; one entire episode is devoted to the commandos’ defense of a long-abandoned factory compound besieged by hundreds of these fearless, faceless killers.

There are hints of an ancient Indian curse, and possibly a psychotropic drug loose in the environment that can turn a well-trained soldier into a murderous drone.

And it’s pretty obvious that the big brass back at the base know stuff they haven’t shared with the boots on the ground.

There are dark caves and tunnels. Crumbling ruins. Thick vegetation that could be hiding…anything. 

A cynical little voice in the back of my head tells me that that the creators of “Mil Colmillos” cannot possibly find a logical way to sort out all the elements they are throwing at us, that ultimately the series is going to collapse beneath the weight of its pretentions.

And yet on an episode-by-episode basis this is terrific stuff, a survival fantasy in which the characters are reduced to a couple of salient traits (just so we can tell them apart) and simply staying alive becomes their reason for being.

The series borrows shamelessly. “Predator,” zombie flicks, the Kurtz sequence of “Apocalypse Now,” plague melodramas and just about every “lost patrol” movie ever made are sampled and mined for high-tension possibilities.

Yeah, the big payoff may never materialize.  But at the very least “Mil Colmillos” is a happy waste of time.

| Robert W. Butler

“LUNANA: A YAK IN THE CLASSROOM” My rating: B+ (On demand)

110 minutes | No MPAA rating

The familiar trope about the pompous city slicker who falls for the simple charms of the sticks gets an innovative reworking in the Oscar-nominated “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.”

This quiet heart-tugger from the Himalayan nation of Bhutan (It’s been nominated in the foreign language film category) opens in the tiny country’s capital city where twenty something Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) dreams of rock stardom, hopefully in Australia. The closest he’s gotten to fame, though, is open mike night at a local club.

In fact, Ugyen is a bit of a spoiled slacker, resentful that he still has a year to go on his national service contract as an elementary school teacher. He’s even less thrilled when he’s assigned to finish out the year in the mountain town of Lunana, the most remote burg in Bhutan and, by extension, site of the the most remote school in the world.

It takes a long bus ride and a week of uphill walking to even get to the place, and Ugyen almost immediately announces to the town’s headman, Asha (Kunzang Wangdi), that he wants to get back to civilization like, yesterday. The place is cold, the homes are heated with burning yak dung, and there’s no way to recharge Ugyen’s precious iPod (forget about cell phone service).

The school itself is basically four walls, a couple of unsteady tables. No supplies. No paper. No blackboard.

Screw this.

Except…there are the people. Like Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup), Ugyen’s mountain guide, exuding uncluttered decency and charity from every pore. Or Saldon (Keldon Lhamo Gurung), serenading her herd of yaks, singing traditional songs with the voice of an angel. And especially Pem Zan (Pem Zan), a jawdroppingly adorable little girl thrilled to learn at the feet of this worldly guy from the big town.

Ugyen Norbu Lhendup, Pem Zan, Sherab Dorji

The deal is sealed when Saldon lends the teacher her favorite yak, Norbu, who takes up residence in the classroom (where it’s relatively warm) and supplies Ugyen with yak patties for the stove.

Little by little, our man gets sucked into life at the top of the world. And we along with him.

Writer/director Pawo Choyning Dorji manages to avoid all the predictable cliches to deliver a hugely satisfying movie experience. This is all the more amazing when you consider that “Lunana…” has no plot to speak of…no big dramas, no swooning romance. Yet it modestly expands to fill and feed the viewer’s soul.

Special nod to cinematographer Jigme Tenzing, whose images effectively capture both the lush forests of the lower slopes and the semi-barren mountain crests surrounding Lunana. Like almost everything about this movie, they are effortlessly poetic.

| Robert W. Butler

“LOTAWANA” My rating: B (VOD on AppleTV, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Vudu)

90 minutes | No MPAA rating

How best to describe “Lotawana,” Trevor Hawkins’ low-budget, locally-made feature shot mostly in the Kansas City ‘burb of Lake Lotawana?

Maybe “Malick-lite.”

In myriad ways the film comes off as an homage to the idiosyncratic works of Terrence Malick, both in its offhand approach to narrative (like Malick, Hawkins seems to have shot lots of footage and then found his story in the editing room, almost as an afterthought) and in its cosmic/transcendental appreciation of the natural world around us.

The plot — to the extent that “Lotawana” has one — follows the relationship between Forrest (Todd Blubaugh, looking uncannily like folkie Eric Andersen as a young man) and Everly (Nicola Collie), two societal dropouts who find each other and fall in love.

Forrest lives on a sailboat on a Midwestern lake, going ashore mostly to ride his motorcycle at breakneck speed and to hike/camp in the Missouri woods. How this modern-day Thoreau can afford a boat and a bike with no employment is never explained (well-to-do parents?).

Everly’s past is just as vague. She mentions not getting along with her mother and she talks with a hard-to-pin-down accent (Maybe she’s a Brit. Or Australian).

Not much happens in the first half hour. Then Everly announces she’s pregnant. The couple argue, reconcile, plan for a baby with what meager resources they can muster, and undergo a tragedy that almost drives them apart.

In the film’s latter stages we find Everly coping with the emotional turmoil by burgling lakeside vacation homes. The closer she gets to being discovered, the more exciting it is for her. Forrest isn’t so sure. (There are echoes here of the young lover-criminals in Malick’s “Badlands.”)

But then conventional plotting isn’t on Hawkins’ agenda. Scenes don’t so much play in real time as fragment into film snippets; the dialogue is mostly small talk (certainly there are no big quotable speeches).

Serving as his own cinematographer Hawkins concentrates on natural moments — birds, insects, sunsets, fluttering leaves. Forrest and Everly seem to view themselves as unspoiled, semi-civilized inhabitants of this idyllic world.

Happily the movie doesn’t swallow that story without a bit of chewing. Hawkins clearly recognizes the delusional nature of his characters. Why else would he name Forrest’s boat Lorelei after the mythological siren who lures sailors to their doom?

And then there’s the fact that Forrest and Everly, despite their naive ambition to achieve absolute freedom, are bobbing in a relatively small body of water from which they cannot escape.

Some viewers will be seduced by the film’s poetic evocations; others will conclude that the ship is awash with pretentions.

I found myself torn between those two extremes, simultaneously fascinated by Hawkins’ atypical storytelling and visual panache and mildly irritated by the film’s refusal to give us any sort of backstory that would tell us how our protagonists came to be the people they are.

Hawkins — who has nearly 30 shorts under his belt, many of them in the travel/nature genre — shot the film with a crew of only a dozen (most of them friends and family members) and financed the production by mortgaging his house on Lake Lotawana. And he simultaneously produced “At the Helm, the Making of Lotawana,” a documentary about the struggle to complete the film.

| Robert W. Butler


f

Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan

THE TENDER BAR” My rating:  B (Amazon Prime)

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Will the real Ben Affleck please stand up?

I cannot think of another major actor — okay…Nicolas Cage — whose public persona ranges so widely between genius and ass-hat smirk monkey. 

One cannot dismiss successes like Affleck’s Oscar-winning “Argo”; at the same time the man’s personal and romantic ups and downs are a publicist’s nightmare and a constant inspiration for late-night talk-show monologues.

I’m happy to report that Affleck gives one of his best performances — hell, one of the best performances of the year — in “The Tender Bar,”  George Clooney’s knowing adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s coming-of-age memoir.

Affleck is essentially a supporting player here but his work is so subtle, insightful and charismatic that all the tabloid baggage falls away and we are left in the thrall of an actor connecting perfectly with his character.

The rest of the film is no slouchfest, either. 

Early on young JR (played to perfection by first-timer Daniel Ranieri) and his mom (Lily Rabe) are forced by economic necessity to return to Mom’s blue-collar home town on Long Island. There they take up residence with crusty Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd), quiet Grandma (Sondra James) and especially JR’s uncle, Charlie (Affleck).

JR is essentially fatherless — his biological sire is a  boozing, womanizing, peripatetic radio deejay several years behind on the child support checks.  Under the circumstances one understands why the kid gravitates to his effortlessly suave uncle.

Charlie runs a working man’s bar filled with garrulous regulars.  Like young JR, Charlie is a huge consumer of good literature. At the same time, he never comes off as effete or uber-intellectual; he’s beloved by his dirt-under-the-nails customers for his arid irony, unforced toughness and down-to-earth humanism.

In effect Charlie and his barflies become JR’s adopted father figures, dispensing whiskey-fueled wisdom and (sometimes intentionally, often not) important life lessons.

Chsitopher Lloyd, Daniel Ranieri

The film wafts back and forth between JR’s boyhood and his young adulthood as an Ivy League university student bent on a literary career (he’s played at this age by Tye Sheridan).

We eavesdrop on his doomed love affair with an upper-middle-class fellow student (Briana Middleton); she’s the child of mixed-race parents who clearly think this proletarian yahoo isn’t nearly good enough for their daughter.

We follow him on his first foray into big-city newspapering.

And the film reaches a dramatic crescendo with a rare meeting of JR and his absent father (Max Martini) in which whatever dreams the kid may have of reconnection are dashed once and for all.

“The Tender Bar” is less a film of big dramatic moments than a gently unfolding idyll of self-discovery and familial nurturing. It’s wistful, warm and wise.

Affleck, Ranieri and Sheridan are terrific.  Also deserving of special notice is Lloyd, whose scraggly Grandpa turns out to be an incredibly smart guy hiding out in a seedy, grumpy-old-man exterior.  You can see where Uncle Charlie got his mojo.

| Robert W. Butler

Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand

“THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH” My rating: B+ (At the Screenland Armour, AMC Town Center)

105 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Has there ever been a more visually ravishing “Macbeth” — or any Shakespeare film, for that matter — than this new version of “the Scottish play” from Joel Coen (half of the famous Coen Brothers in his first solo outing)?

Here’s a case where every element — from acting to the drop-dead gorgeous black-and-white cinematography to the brilliantly conceived production design — come together to reinforce the play’s haunting themes of human desire, fate and inevitability.

Denzel Washington makes a fine Macbeth, while Frances McDormand (aka Mrs. Joel Coen) is even better as his force-of-nature-manipulative Lady.
The lesser roles have been precisely cast and captured for the screen.

But a character unto itself is the brilliant look of the production.  Filmed by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel in a 1:33:1 frame ratio (the classic “Academy aperture”), with settings by Stefan Dechant and costumes by Mary Zophres, the film manages to be simultaneously stripped down and abundantly evocative.

The influence of great German expressionist films like the silent “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is found everywhere.  The yarn unfolds in a sort of nonspecific Medieval world, but one presented with a minimum of period detail.  

The castle walls are looming, smooth and white; there’s none of the grime and wear-and-tear of a realistic rendering. When late in the film the cold hard lines of Macbeth’s throne room are softened by fallen leaves blowing across the stones, the contrast delivers an almost visceral shock.

Like one of those Busby Berkley musical extravaganzas that ostensibly take place in a nightclub (a nightclub that would have to be the size of a football field with an Olympic-sized swimming pool tossed in), this “…Macbeth” might be a gigantic stage production unhampered by the limitations of an actual theater. 

The perfect artificiality of the presentation actually emphasizes and amplifies the play’s dramatic elements; against these stark backdrops human faces take on additional power. 

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail as to plotting. I figure if you’re reading this you’re familiar with the basics (oh, OK…Macbeth and the Missus conspire to kill the king and take his crown, then have to keep murdering to keep it).

But Coen’s screenplay does work a few interesting changes.  For example, the character of Ross (here played by the impossibly slender and slinky Alex Hassell) is typically a spear carrier with a few lines.  Coen has made him a semi-sinister Machiavelli whose allegiance is always in question.

Kathryn Hunter

The biggest departure is in the depiction of the “three weird sisters,” the trio of witches who predict Macbeth’s rise to power.  At the beginning of the film there is but one witch, a twisted crone (Kathryn Hunter) whose old bones contort into a human knot that moves like a crab. In one dazzling shot her image is reflected in a pool of water…but not one image: Two.  So now we have three of her.

Hunter’s performance is scary and riveting.  At times she resembles a fallen bird; at others she dons a cloak and hood, looking a lot like Death in Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”  Of all the images seared into my brain by this movie, Hunter’s gnarled form is the most haunting.

Indeed, a case can be made that this “Macbeth” is more satisfying visually than verbally. That’s not a knock against Washington, McDormand and their co-stars (among them familiar faces like Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Ineson, Harry Melling and Stephen Root as the drunken porter).

It’s just that the picture is such an overwhelmingly visual experience.

| Robert W. Butler

Simon Rex (and friend)

RED ROCKET” My rating: B (Theaters)

128 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Filmmaker Sean Baker sure loves his losers.

His debut feature, “Tangerine,” was a screwball comedy about a transsexual prostitute on Skid Row; his Oscar-nominated “The Florida Project” unfolded amongst the societal outcasts living in a shabby motel in the shadow of Walt Disney World.

It’s a logical progression to his latest, the phallo-centric “Red Rocket,” about an “adult film” actor with a heart of…well, not gold, exactly. Maybe brass. Okay then, tin.

Journeyman actor Simon Rex gives a career high perf as Mikey Saber (as porn names go, this one is actually kind of subtle), who one morning washes up penniless and bruised in the Texas Gulf Coast burg he left two decades earlier.

Clearly, Mikey is trying to outrun something or someone.

He makes his weary way to the home of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) and her chain-smoking, tubercular-looking mother, Lili (Brenda Deiss, a hoot in her acting debut).

The women want nothing to do with Mikey, who sets up camp on their porch until they change their minds.

Here’s the thing about Mikey: Despite his present miserable circumstances, he talks a good fight. He always has a show-biz story to relate (frequently about the porn biz; his matter-of-factness and professionalism in describing hair-raising physical acts somehow makes it all seem normal), and he’s overflowing with plans for the future.

He’s nothin if not upbeat. Faced with one humiliation after another, he squares his shoulders and tries again.

Little by little he works his way into the house and into Lexi’s bed; he also begins selling for a surly family of ganga dealers, earning enough to pay the monthly mortgage on Lexi and Lili’s home.

Simon Rex, Suzanna Son

But then he spots teenage Strawberry (Suzanna Son) working at a donut shop in the shadow of the oil refinery. She’s red haired and freckled and cute as a button, and Mikey is smitten. Yes, he’s twice her age and then some (she’s barely legal, according to Lone Star law), but his love is pure. So pure that envisions a future with Strawberry in porn.

He’ll return to Los Angeles in triumph and pick up where he left off.

This is all very tacky, but the marvel of Rex’s performance (which is racking up all sorts of nominations this awards season) is the way he humanizes this silly, shallow, delusional yet somehow endearing character. Face it…the potential for creepiness is off the charts, yet Rex slides effortlessly through the needle’s eye.

| Robert W. Butler

Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman

“LICORICE PIZZA” My rating: B (Theaters)

133 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The name Paul Thomas Anderson on a movie (“Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood,
“Boogie Nights,” “The Master”)  usually portends a good dose of  anger, angst and a journey through the underbelly of human experience.

But “Licorice Pizza” is something else entirely — a lighthearted cultural memoir of ‘70s teen life in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. 

So lightly plotted as to be weightless, the film is a celebration of youthful energy and ambition. I’ve no idea how much of it is true memoir and how much fiction, but Anderson has absolutely nailed the essence of its setting in much the same way George Lucas did with “American Graffiti”.

Basically this is a love story…or more accurately a study of long-suffering adolescent lust.

Alana (Alan Haim, of the rock sister trio Haim, for which Anderson has directed several music videos) is in her mid-20s and working for a handsy  photographer who shoots portraits for high school yearbooks.  

They’re snapping mugs at a local school when she’s glommed onto by Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), a vaguely pudgy 15-year-old (he looks uncannily like the “Mr. Tambourine Man”-era David Crosby) with the self confidence of a veteran grifter.

Gary wastes no time establishing his celeb bona fides.  He’s a child actor (well, former child actor) still recognized for his recurring role in a TV sitcom. He still goes out for auditions, but mostly his energy is devoted to entrepreneurial efforts…the kid has a never-ending supply of get-rich ideas.

For all his bravado — he appears to be on a first-name basis with every maitre’d in town — Gary is also quite obviously a virgin.  

Alana — whose life to date has been unremarkable — is amused by Gary’s chutzpah. Moreover, the kid actually does have several business concerns going; she could do worse than hook her star to this go-getter.

And so she becomes Girl Friday to a teenage Sammy Glick. 

As for the romantic thing…well, there’s a decade between them, though Gary is clearly the adult in the equation. Of course, under the law he is jail bait, which sets off the queasy meter whenever Alana (or those of us watching) contemplate the possibility of something physical between them.

Anderson’s screenplay finds this duo — often accompanied by a small tribe of tweener hustlers attracted by Gary’s grown-up schemes (they’re like human versions of the Minions) — going through a series of misadventures.

Bradley Cooper, Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim

The most sustained of these has Gary marketing that new invention the water bed. In one jaw-dropping episode he installs a new bed in the posh home of real-life hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters, played by Bradley Cooper as a coked-up maniac late for a date with girlfriend Barbra Streisand.

There are other bizarre encounters, like the one with an over-the-hill action star (Sean Penn) who picks up  Alana  at a restaurant and, at the urging of a drunken movie director (Tom Waits), attempts a jump over a bonfire on a souped-up motorcycle.

And the yarn finds time to plumb Alana’s home life (her disapproving parents and  sisters are portrayed by the actress’s real family members) and her brief fling with a young actor who alienates the clan by admitting he is no longer a practicing Jew.

Astoundingly enough, neither Haim nor Hoffman has ever acted before (although she’s done the rock ’n’ roll thing and he is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Their performances work precisely because they’ve not been over-polished…there’s just a touch of endearing amateurism lurking about, one reinforced by the duo’s look — neither is movie-star handsome/beautiful, and this makes them all the more embraceable.

| Robert W. Butler