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Barry Ward, Maeve Higgins

“EXTRA ORDINARY” My rating: B- 

94 minutes | MPAA rating: R

A supernatural comedy of exceeding drollness, “Extra Ordinary” feels like a mostly successful mashup of “The Frighteners,” “Ghostbusters” and “What We Do in the Shadows.”

Rose Dooley (Maeve Higgins) is a thirtysomething spinster living in small-town Ireland. She’s a big woman, socially inept and saddled with a weird family history from which there is no escape.

Rose is the daughter of Vincent Dooley (Risteard Cooper), who back in the ’90s had a best-selling series of VHS tapes dealing with the supernatural (the film is punctuated with snippets from his broadcasts).  In fact, little Rose was her Daddy’s assistant in his investigations of the paranormal.

Now a grown woman, she blames herself for Papa’s untimely death years before. Even more unsettling, eerie happenings seem to follow her like needy doggies. She used to do consultations for people with supernatural problems, but has given all that up to run her own not-terribly-successful driving school.

Enter Martin Martin (Barry Ward), a widower haunted by the ghost of his late wife.  This unseen and temperamental spirit is always knocking bad food (especially donuts) out of Martin’s hand before he can stuff them in his mouth. Even from the grave she’s bossing him around.

Their teen daughter Sarah (Emma Coleman) is sick of all these spooky shenanigans; she urges her dad to contact Rose and set up an exorcism.

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Liam Neeson, Leslie Manville

“ORDINARY LOVE” My rating: B+

92 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In an era of caped escapism, an intimate cancer drama like “Ordinary Love” has about as much chance as a penguin in the shark pool.

But those daring enough to take the risk will discover an acting tour de force saturated in pain and beauty, a drama that effectively tells a universal story precisely because its characters are largely unremarkable.

The challenge facing writer Owen McCafferty, directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn and their principal players (Liam Neeson and Leslie Manville) is to make their yarn compelling without resorting to heroics, histrionics or bigger-than-life characterizations.

They succeed to a degree I didn’t think possible.

Tom and Joan (Neeson, Manville) are a retired couple living in Belfast (we never do learn anything about their careers). At first glance their marriage seems more or less ideal. He’s charmingly irascible, a guy who goes for long walks with the Missus, then claims that entitles him to one more beer.

She’s no shrinking violet, apparently relishing the banter that has them dueling with gentle witticisms.

They’ve got a nice house and apparently no money woes. Their mantel feature a framed photo of a pretty young woman, obviously their daughter.  Only much later do we realize that the subject, their only child, died some years before.

The unremarkable patterns of Tom and Joan’s life are upended when she discovers a lump in her breast.

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Julia Garner

“THE ASSISTANT”  My rating: B+

87 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Just another day at the office becomes a moment of moral reckoning for the title character of “The Assistant,” a minimalist drama that only grows in potency the more you think about it.

Jane (Julia Garner) is a recent college graduate neck deep in her new job in the Lower Manhattan office of an independent film company. She gets up before dawn, naps during the Uber ride from Queens, and is the first person on site, turning on the lights, firing up the computers, brewing coffee.

Many a viewer will find the monotony all too familiar.

As the low man on the office totem pole, Jane is determined to keep her head down and establish a rep for quiet competence. She wants to be a producer some day.

A good chunk of Kitty Green’s film finds our protagonist doing both movie-related chores (Xeroxing spec scripts) and scutwork (donning rubber gloves to clean stains off the upholstery).

But the biggest chunk of her day is devoted to the Boss, a never-seen mogul (his muffled voice — heard through walls, open doorways and the telephone — is provided by Jay O. Sanders) of unassailable power.

Stationed outside the Boss’s private sanctum, Jane greets and ushers in guests, guards the door when the Boss doesn’t want to be disturbed, and fields phone calls.  She also is in charge of arranging transportation and lodging for the Boss’s frequent trips to the West Coast.

Writer/director Green is so good at nailing both Jane’s daily grind and the moments of gut-twisting anxiety (periodically she finds herself caught between the imperious Boss and his angry wife; more than once she endures a verbal chewing out from the executive suite) that the film’s true subject matter only slowly sneaks up on us.

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Juan Pablo Olyslager, Mauricio Armas Zebadua

“TEMBLORES” My rating: B-

107 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Temblores (Tremors)” begins with an intervention.

Returning home one rainy night, Guatemalan businessman Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) discovers his entire family gathered in the living room of his posh domicile.  They’ve learned that Pablo is having an affair with another man and are determined to put an end to this abomination.

Their approaches differ.  Pablo’s sister cradles her sobbing sibling and insists that his gayness must be the result of childhood trauma. Her alpha male husband is sneeringly contemptuous.  Pablo’s mother finds a religious lesson: “This is a trial.” Dad is a denier: “It’ll blow over.”

Meanwhile Pablo’s model-pretty wife Isa (Diane Bathen) sits silently, wrapped up in her own cocoon of humiliation.

Their deliberations are interrupted by one of the small earthquakes that regularly wrack their region of Central America.  “God’s punishment,” asserts Mom.

Jayro Bustamente’s “Tremblores” follows Pablo as he moves into a shabby apartment with his lover, the good-natured Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadua), who works as a masseuse at a local clinic.  But almost immediately the repressive society around him kicks into high gear.

Pablo is fired from his high-paying  job as a consultant — the company adheres to a strict morality policy.  Isa goes to court where a judge declares Pedro a pedophile (he isn’t) and forbids him from seeing his two young children; the ruling also makes finding a new job impossible.

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“PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE” My rating: B 

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Looking like a period painting and moving with graceful deliberateness, Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” delivers a lesbian love story of aching delicacy.

But it’s more than that.

Set in the 1770s, the film follows a young woman painter, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), to an French island where she is deposited soaking wet on the beach. She’s been hired to paint another  young woman’s portrait…though she’s been warned it won’t be easy.

Her subject is Heloise (Adele Haenel), a wan beauty who, in the wake of the suicide of her older sister, has been brought home from the convent where she was raised so that she can marry the Milanese prince who was her dead sibling’s finance. His wealth will turn around the fortunes of Heloise’s financially strapped family. (Indeed, the clan’s castle has an eerie, half-empty feel that suggests they’ve been selling off furniture and fixtures to stay afloat.)

Thing is, the young man wants to know what this second sister looks like before committing to the the marriage.  Thus the portrait.

But as Heloise’s mother (Valeria Golino) notes, her daughter is waging a passive/aggressive war against the betrothal. Heloise refuses to pose, so Marianne will be introduced merely as a companion; she’ll have to observe Heloise, then make sketches of her subject once she returns to the privacy of her room. Continue Reading »

“DOWNHILL”  My rating: C 

89 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There’s a chill in the air of “Downhill,” and it’s only partly the result of five feet of perfect white powder.

Set in an Austrian ski resort, the latest from directing duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (“The Way Way Back”) offers Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell as vacationing Yanks who see the fissures in their relationship only widened by their high-altitude visit.

Billie and Pete seem pretty average.  She’s an attorney and appropriately self-assertive.

He’s some kind of executive who cannot put down his cel phone and tends to plan things out for his family — they have two tweener sons (Julian Gray, Ammon Jacob Ford) — without asking for their input. He maintains a Father-knows-best attitude behind his doofus-y exterior.

This is how they end up at a high-end resort at which the boys are the only kids in sight and the hot tubs tolerate only nude soaking.

Things come to a head when an outdoor lunch is interrupted by a controlled avalanche. The resort operators routinely set off blasts to loosen dangerous snowpack; this time the boiling wall of white comes shooting down the mountain and directly toward the diners.

Billie instinctively grabs her sons and hunkers down behind the table.  Pete grabs his phone and hightails it out of there. Turns out it’s a false alarm — just a cloud of mist reaches the visitors — but Pete’s act of cowardice will haunt him ever after.

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Issa Perica

“LES MISERABLES” My rating: B+

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

From its first shot Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated (for best international feature) “Les Miserables” informs us that, no, this is not yet another remake of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century tale.

The first thing we see is the face of young Issa (Issa Perica), a 14-year-old African immigrant living in a crime-riddled Paris suburb (ironically, the same burg in which Hugo wrote his masterpiece).  Issa is wrapped in the flag — literally — to attend a rally celebrating the French national soccer team’s recent victory. With thousands of other sports-mad Parisians he stands in the Champs-Élysées  singing “The Marseillais” and letting loose with victory roars.

For one glorious, transcendent moment Issa feels genuinely French.  It won’t last.

Ly’s film is a rapidly percolating thriller that views life in an immigrant enclave from several perspectives.

As with “Training Day,” our guide to this world of crime and social upheaval is a cop new to the scene. Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) has just come to this seething ‘burb from a cozy provincial post. He’s assigned to a three-man team to learn the ropes…and is less than comforted by what he observes.

His new partners are Chris (Alexis Manenti), a cocky casual racist who relishes every opportunity to bully and bend the rules, and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), a long-time resident of the neighborhood who’s regarded by his fellow citizens as a traitor for becoming a cop.

The police are only one element of the neighborhood’s ever-changing social order.  The place is run by the Mayor (Steve Tientcheu), a former gangster who now serves as the town’s fixer; he’s like an old-fashioned ward heeler who wins votes by dishing favors, and he’s not above turning to violence to enforce his will.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, bearded dudes trying to coax the local kids into more-or-less civilized behavior, have little but contempt for both the Mayor and the police.

Meanwhile the gypsy operators of a traveling circus are on the warpath because some black teen has stolen the owner’s beloved lion cub.

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