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Nicole Kidman

“DESTROYER” My rating: C-

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Virtually everything about “Destroyer” — from its title to the plotting, dialogue and star Nicole Kidman’s Oscar-bait makeup transformation — screams overstatement.

Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi and directed by Karyn Kusama, this joyless (and, let’s face it, off-putting) crime drama aspires to noir greatness but succeeds only in alienating with its blend of cliche and unearned angst.

Along the way it wastes Kidman, a hugely talented actress who here is limited to a sort of slow-burn psychosis.

When we first meet L.A. Police Det. Erin Bell (Kidman) she’s sleeping in her car, looking pretty much like death warmed over. Sunken eyes, sallow/blotchy skin, painfully projecting cheekbones, cracked lips.   Kidman is borderline unrecognizable; she could be a “Walking Dead” extra.

(In fact, we’re immediately reminded of Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning uglying-down for “Monster.”)

Some 16 years ago Bell was part of an undercover operation that went horribly bad. Her partner Chris (played in flashbacks by Sebastian Stan) was killed by members of the bank robbery gang the two had infiltrated.

Now Bell receives a threat in the mail…a $100 bill stained with purple dye from that long-ago bank job.  It can only mean that Silas (Toby Kebbel), the gang leader who vanished shortly after the deadly heist, has returned to settle the score with Bell.

Bell has to get him first.

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Thomas Cockerel as young Errol Flynn

“IN LIKE FLYNN”  My rating: C

106 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Before he became a Hollywood movie star, Australian-born Errol Flynn lived a life of adventure cruising through the Indonesian archipelago.

Drinking. Whoring. Brawling. Looking for gold in dangerous places.

Russell Mulcahy’s “In Like Flynn,” based on the actor’s memoir Beam Ends, attempts to capture the pre-movie star Flynn as he and a trio of buddies go sailing for wine, wenches and wealth.

It’s not as much fun as it sounds.

Things start out promisingly with an encounter with headhunters in New Guinea.  Young Flynn (Thomas Cockerel) and a Hollywood crew shooting location footage are forced to flee for their lives. Think the opening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Once back in Australia, Flynn decides to return to New Guinea to search for gold. He steals a yacht, the Sirocco, and mans it with two drinking buddies — the gruff Rex (Callan Mulvey) and the babyfaced Duke (William Moseley) — and a suicidal old salt (Clive Standen, channelling Robert Shaw in “Jaws”) who provides most of the sailing knowhow.

Along the way they visit dockside dives and brothels and opium dens, run afoul of the Chinese mafia and the crooked mayor (David Wenham) of a sleazy stopover, brave sharks and seasickness and poisonous spiders and starvation and shipwrecks and get involved in an underground fight club. Continue Reading »

Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot

“COLD WAR” My rating: A-

88 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“She’s got something,” observes a Parisian roue after taking in an eyeful and earful of Zula, the troubled heroine of “Cold War.”

No kidding.  As portrayed by Joanna Kulig, Zula radiates slow-smoldering eroticism and more than a hint of working-class voluptuousness. It’s easy to understand how a man — even a sophisticated one — could endure a long search through time and space to be with her.

“Cold War” — an Oscar nominee for foreign language film, director and cinematography — comes to us from Pawel Pawlikowski, who a couple of years back delivered the Academy Award-winning foreign film “Ida,”  about a young nun who discovers she is the child of Holocaust victims.

Like that earlier masterpiece, “Cold War” unfolds during Poland’s decades as a Soviet satellite state and has been shot in mind-blowingly beautiful black and white.

Pawlikowski’s subject is a passionate love affair played out against  the political and social fluctuations of life on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Reportedly he was inspired by the story of his own parents, who maintained an on-and-off relationship for more than 40 years.

Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a musical scholar traveling post-war Poland to  record rural folk songs.  That obsession leads to a job as artistic director of a state-sponsored school devoted to the preservation of traditional Polish culture. Hordes of desperate young people audition for the program; among them is Zula (Kulig), who initially doesn’t stand out against all the other healthy blondes hoping for a spot.

But Zula is clever and manipulative; she immediate gloms onto a girl with a terrific voice and suggests they sing a duet. The other girl’s talent will mask Zula’s limited abilities while giving Zula’s impressive “it” factor a chance to kick in.

Indeed, before long Zula is one of the company’s featured performers. There are better singers and dancers,  but none can match Zula’s understated yet always-ready sexuality. She even comes with a  back story about having done time for murdering the father who molested her.

In no time at all Zula is sleeping with Wiktor, who is twice her age and earning a national reputation for his beautifully-staged concerts of traditional song and dance.  But the purist in him rebels when the authorities demand that the troupe perform newly-penned songs about land reform against a gigantic portrait of Josef Stalin; he lays a plan to defect with Zula  on a tour stop in East Berlin.

When Zula fails to show up for their rendezvous at a checkpoint between East and West Berlin (this is a decade before the construction of the notorious wall) a disappointed Wiktor goes it alone.

But the paths of these two star-crossed lovers will intersect repeatedly over the years.

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Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly

“STAN & OLLIE”  My rating: B- 

97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

An O.K. movie elevated by a pair of jaw-dropping lead performances, “Stan & Ollie” will be appreciated best by those already familiar with comic legends Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Which is what…six percent of the population?

Never mind. “Stan & Ollie” so perfectly channels the style of this great comedy duo that as soon as it’s over you’ll go to YouTube to check out the real thing. There many pleasures await.

Jon S. Baird’s film is a fact-based comedy centering on a 1953 tour of British music halls by Stan Laurel (the skinny Englishman) and Oliver Hardy (the obese Yank).  At the time they hadn’t worked together for almost two decades following Laurel’s expulsion from the Hal Roach Studio over demands for more money and control over their films.

In fact, Jeff Pope’s screenplay begins in 1937 with L (Steve Coogan) & H (John C. Reilly in an impressive fat suit and makeup) at work on their last film together. In one masterfully composed and executed tracking shot we follow the two stars from their dressing room through the bustling studio to a soundstage where boss Hal Roach (Danny Huston) awaits.

There Stan makes his demands, Roach fires him, and Oliver — who still has two years on his contract — must look for a new comedy partner if he’s to continue making a living.

All that is so much bad water under the bridge by the time 17 years later that Stan accepts an offer from a fly-by-night Brit promoter to tour England.  The idea is to prove to potential backers that L&H still are popular enough to warrant investing in their proposed film parody of the Robin Hood legend.

Initially, it doesn’t look good. The theaters and accomodations are crappy and the crowds thin. But Stan, the brains behind the outfit and a master promoter, signs on for enough public appearances at charity events, etc., that within a couple of weeks the two are playing to sold-out crowds.

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“STUDIO 54” My rating: B- 

98 minutes | No MPAA rating

The notorious New York disco Studio 54 was in operation only for 33 months nearly 40 years ago.

Yet its reputation as the ultimate nightspot — a place one former patron describes as “Carefree. Hot. Sexy” — lives on. One comes away from  Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary convinced that there was never another disco to equal it, and that there never will be.

The main claim to fame of this particular doc is the on-screen presence of Ian Schrager, who co-founded Studio 54 along with his college buddy, the late Steve Rubell, and ended up serving prison time with Rubell on tax evasion charges. This is the first time in 40 years that Schrager — who has carved out a post-prison career as a developer of boutique hotels — has submitted to interviews about his experiences, and it provides Tyrnauer’s film with a unique perspective.

Schrader was always the silent partner, the guy largely responsible for designing the club with its elaborate lighting and set elements (a night at Studio 54 was like a Broadway production in which the customers were the cast). He allowed the flamboyant and, initially anyway, closeted Rubell to serve as the club’s host and good will ambassador.

A former customers attest, the essence of the club was celebrity and total freedom.  The owners tried to get famous people into the doors and keep out the ugly and uninteresting (though if you were ugly in an interesting way you had a good shot at  getting in).  A list handed out to employees described who would be comped (Keith Richards and Mick Jagger got in free) and who had to pay (all other members of the Rolling Stones).

But the club was weirdly egalitarian. Along with celebs and millionaires it welcomed drag queens, persons of color (as long as they had something interesting to offer) and folks whose main claim to fame was that they looked good.

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Ah-in Yoo, Jong-weo Jun, Steven Yeun

“BURNING” My rating: B 

148 minutes | No MPAA rating

Class warfare, economic hardship, generational conflict and, who knows, maybe even a murder are the issues swirling around in  “Burning,” a film that seems in no hurry to get anywhere but in which, we realize much later, every moment counts.

Chang-Dong Lee’s drama — South Korea’s official nominee for this year’s Oscar for Foreign Language Film — centers on Jong-Su (Ah-in Yoo), a twenty something living on the economic edge in modern Seoul.  It’s not clear exactly how Jong-Su survives. We see the army veteran lugging bagged clothes around the streets, but whether his business is legit or not is never plumbed.

He’s schlepping his way through the day when he stumbles across Hae-Mi (Jong-Seo Jin), with whom he grew up in a rural farming community.  Hae-Mi is now employed as a sort of model; clad in a cheerleader outfit she hawks bargains on the sidewalk outside a department store.

She’s bouncy and adventurous and claims to be on a spiritual quest.  After bedding the bowled-over Jong-Su she asks him to feed her cat while she goes searching for inner truth in Africa.

Jong-Su agrees (he never sees the cat but the food bowl keeps emptying and the litter box keeps filling); moreover he uses his visits to Hae-Mi’s one-room apartment as an opportunity to masturbate.  He may not be a very demonstrative guy, but it’s pretty clear Jong-Su is smitten.

Which makes it all the worse when Hae-Mi returns from Kenya with a new guy in tow.  This is Ben (Steven Yeun, late of cable’s “Walking Dead”), who is clearly playing in another league.  Ben dresses well, drives an expensive sports car, seems utterly unimpressed by anything (at one point he claims never to have wept) and, when asked what he does, replies “I play.”

Jong-su, who wants to be a novelist (though we never see him writing), takes to calling this new acquaintance “the Great Gatsby.”

At least Ben lets the puppylove-tormented Jong-Su  hang out with him and Hae-Mi.  One one particular weekend the three party on Jong-Su’s rundown family farm (his divorced father is in jail after an altercation with a neighbor); during a marijuana-steeped evening Hae-Mi does a naked dance as the sun sets and Ben reveals to Jong-Su that his hobby is setting fire to the ugly plastic-draped greenhouses that litter the landscape.  Continue Reading »

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsberg

“ON THE BASIS OF SEX” My rating: B

120 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“RBG,” last year’s documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, was so encyclopedic and emotionally engaging that at first flush a fiction film based on the same material seems superfluous.

Of course, “RBG” didn’t feature an eager and mildly acrobatic bedroom encounter between the young Ruth and her husband Marty. So there’s that.

Directed by Mimi Leder, “On the Basis of Sex” concentrates on the early years of Ginsberg’s legal career and culminates with her arguing a landmark legal case that forced the government to end discrimination based on sex.

If the film follows a predictable David-vs-Goliath path, it is nevertheless informative, accurate (RBG has given it her stamp of approval) and inspiring.

And it succeeds in making its heroine wildly appealing not for her looks or her ability to elicit warm fuzzies but because of her towering intellect and fierce determination. A different kind of leading lady, indeed.

We join Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) at the 1956 orientation session for Harvard Law School.  She’s one of only nine women in a class of 500; at a special luncheon for the ladies, the dean (Sam Waterston) asks each woman to explain why she deserves a slot that could have gone to a man.

Ooookay, then.

Ruth is clearly p.o.-ed by the numerous displays of chauvinism she encounters, but her style is to buckle down and beat the guys at their own game.  Which she does on a regular basis.

She’s supported in all this by her husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), on his way to becoming a wildly successful tax lawyer but more than happy to be the family’s cook and primary childcare provider while the Missus buckles down with the books.  Not only is Marty a good-natured saint, he looks (in this film, anyway) exactly like Armie Hammer.  The whole package. Which makes his early diagnosis of testicular cancer even more unsettling.

Like the documentary “RBG,” this film alternates between two aspects of its subject’s life. There’s the Ginsbergs’ personal story — by most accounts Marty and Ruth had one of the century’s great marriages. But not all is copacetic. Ruth is excoriated by her teenage daughter as “a bully…and she wants everyone to know how smart she is.”

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