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Lo-And-Behold-Poster_1200_1781_s“LO AND BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD” My rating: B 

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about.

Werner Herzog’s “Lo and Behold” starts out like a nostalgic documentary tribute to the men and women who created the Internet. By the time it’s over, it’ll have you fretting about the end of the world.

This isn’t Herzog’s most sophisticated effort. It feels thrown together and random. But it gets the job done.

The unseen but very vocal director first takes us to the University of Southern California where down a “repulsive corridor” in a science building we encounter “ground zero of humanity’s biggest revolution.”

There in a basement room the university has recreated the computer lab from which, on Oct. 29, 1969 the first email message was sent from USC to Stanford University several hundred miles away.

It wasn’t an entirely successful experiment — the computer crashed after just two letters had been typed in.

One of the original computer geeks working on the project reflects that back then the names of everybody working online could be contained in a slim directory. He knew most of them personally.

But it was the start of very big things.

Then Herzog branches out a bit, giving us glimpses of the brave new world of technology.  For example, he offers a segment on self-driving cars that learn from each other’s experiences.  When one car messes up, says an expert, “future unborn cars will never make that mistake again.”

And then there’s a soccer game played by rhumba-like drones.  They learn teamwork.

All good, right?

Well, no.  Herzog then introduces us to a middle-class family whose emotionally-tormented daughter was decapitated in an auto accident — and who subsequently were hit with tons of hate email. The mother, who in all other respects seems pretty normal, suggests that the Internet is a “manifestation of the antichrist.”

Next we relocate to a rural area of Appalachia where all cell phones and radio emissions are banned so as not to interfere with the operation of a massive radio observatory aimed at the stars.  As it turns out, this neighborhood has become a mecca for individuals suffering from electromagnetically-trggered illnesses (like the Michael McKean character in “Better Call Saul”). They can only function where cell phones aren’t in use.

How about that rehab center  for persons dealing with internet addiction?  Apparently it’s a real thing. Or this tidbit:  South Korean teens are so addicted to playing video games that they wear diapers so as not to lose points by having to get up to use the bathroom.

An expert on solar flares enumerates the ways in which such regularly occurring phenomenon could wipe out the electric grid. It’s not a question of if, but of when. And if the internet does go dark, will enough of us know how to survive without it to keep civilization going?

Kevin Mitnick, the world’s best hacker, observes that we are constantly engaged in a  cyber war that most of us don’t even notice.

There are a few brief rays of hope on display here (most provided by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk), but mostly “Lo and Behold” dwells on what can — and probably will — go wrong. Good luck, everyone.

| Robert W. Butler

Stellan Skarsgard

Stellan Skarsgard

“IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE”  My rating: B-

116 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Avoid pissing off civil servants. They have so many ways to get even.

In the Norwegian thriller “In Order of Disappearance” a nondescript  snowplow driver  (apparently it’s a year-around gig in parts of that Scandinavian nation) goes on a methodical killing spree to avenge his son’s murder.

As Hans Petter Moland’s film begins, Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgard) is being honored as his tiny burg’s Citizen of the Year. He’s a hard-working, inoffensive sort who gets up early every morning to clear the roads in his mountainous district — “Just a guy who keeps a strip of civilization open through the wilderness.”  For fun he reads technical manuals for heavy-duty snow removal equipment.

But when his son is found dead — apparently of a drug overdose — Dickman refuses accept the official police version of events. He discovers that his boy was collateral damage in a drug smuggling conspiracy operating out of the snowbound regional airport where the kid worked maintenance.

So this working stiff nearing retirement saws down his hunting rifle (so that it can be concealed beneath his snow parka) and systematically begins working his way up the food chain of the local drug gang. He dumps the bodies in a scenic waterfall.

Kim Fupz Akeson’s screenplay is a balancing act between genuine outrage/grief and black comedy ala Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. Skarsgard plays it straight — he’s a man on a mission — but the crooks he picks off one by one are flamboyantly offbeat.

The main baddie is The Count (Pal Sverre Hagen), a preening, pony-tailed sociopath art collector who, when he’s not giving orders to have people killed, is advocating for veganism.

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Jamie Dornan, ****

Jamie Dornan, Aiden Longworth

“THE 9th LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX” My rating: C-

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“The 9th Life of Louis Drax” has been competently produced and adequately acted.

Nonetheless, I hated it.  Phoniness oozes from every frame (assuming that “frames” even exist in digital film).

In a hospital bed in a special ward dedicated to pediatric coma victims, little Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) vegetates.

Apparently while on a family picnic the boy was thrown off a cliff and into the sea by his father. A statewide manhunt is now underway to track down this paternal monster.

Sarah Gadon

Sarah Gadon

Meanwhile Louis’ mom, the long-suffering Natalie (Sarah Gadon), waits moist-eyed by his bedside. She’s so sensitive. So fragile yet so strong for her son. So freakin’ hot.

Who can blame Louis’ hunky young M.D., Allan Pascal  (Jamie Dornan of “Fifty Shades…” fame), for experiencing flickerings of lust…flickerings which Natalie suggests might be reciprocated, her recent tragedy notwithstanding?

Directed by French helmer Alexandre Aja (“The Hills Have Eyes” remake, “High Tension”) and scripted by Max Minghella (from Liz Jensen’s novel), “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” is a con job, a not-so-mysterious mystery (I had more or less figured out the truth halfway through) that attempts to mask its predictability with a time-leaping narrative, fantasy sequences and obfuscatory storytelling.

The film begins with a montage of the many times in his young life that Louis Drax has cheated death.  Little Louis narrates this parade of near-horrors, describing himself as accident prone. Well, duh. Electrocution, falls…the kid is almost comically clumsy.

This segment is presented as a semi-playful fable about a little boy who just can’t be killed. It’s borderline charming in an “Amelie” vein.

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Anna Gunn

Anna Gunn

“EQUITY” My rating: C

“Equity” arrives on theater screens with a promising and unusual pedigree.  This female-centric financial thriller was produced, written and directed by women.

That’s nice. If only it were a better film.

Written by Amy Fox and Sarah Megan Thomas, “Equity” wants to tap some of the same emotional/intellectual/political  buttons hit so deftly in “Margin Call,” “Arbitrage,” and “The Big Short” — only with a feminist perspective.

Well, it’s got the woman’s angle, all right. But on most of the other counts it’s lightweight stuff.

Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn of “Breaking Bad” fame) is a hot shot at a huge investment bank. Her job is to put together big IPOs that can bring in millions if not billions of bucks. Currently she’s putting together a campaign for a Silicon Valley outfit that specializes in internet security.

But Naomi isn’t feeling the love she should. Her boss has passed her over for a big promotion and she’s still sore after her last IPO went belly up. She’s told she may be too aggressive (something nobody would use as a negative were she a man).

Small wonder she spends much of her down time pounding away at a heavy bag.

At least there’s a man in her life, a coworker, Michael (James Purefoy), who manages investors’ portfolios. But Michael is a mixed blessing. Loverboy isn’t above milking Naomi for information on upcoming deals that he can use to his advantage — information that once leaked  could land her in criminal court.

In the meantime she advises a meeting of younger women that she’s in it for the money and the feeling that success provides. “Don’t let money be a dirty word!” she tells them.

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 ** as Roberto Duran

Edgar Ramirez as Roberto Duran

“HANDS OF STONE” My rating: C+

105 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Hands of Stone” is  “Raging Bull” lite — a boxing biopic minus the genius of Martin Scorsese.

But it does have Robert DeNiro.

Written and directed by Venezuelan Jonathan Jacubowicz, the film takes on the troubled life and career of Roberto Duran, the Panamanian pugilist whose ring experiences were as much a product of his dysfunctional childhood and Third World resentments as they were of hard sweat and tremendous innate talent.

In a decade of championship fighting, Duran held the lightweight belt, engaged in a long-running war of words (and blows) with American champ Sugar Ray Leonard, and sometimes  behaved in private and in the ring like a spoiled child.

“Hands of Stone” feels like an attempt not to excuse that behavior but to put it in perspective.

Early scenes establish Roberto as the son of an American soldier who impregnated his mother and then vanished, setting  up in the future boxer a lifelong antipathy toward the United States.  That fury was only stoked by political upheaval in Panama over efforts to take back the Canal Zone from the gringos (the American-run canal, guarded by U.S. soldiers, effectively divided the country in half).

We see the young and charming (also unschooled and illiterate) Roberto (played as an adult by Edgar Ramirez) wooing a wealthy blonde schoolgirl, Felicidad (Ana de Armas), and starting a family even as his career is taking off.

In a sense “Hands of Stone” is a dual biography, its second subject being boxing trainer Ray Arcel (DeNiro).

When in 1971 he first saw Duran fight, Arcel had been out of boxing for nearly 20 years. In the early ’50s he had incurred the wrath of the mobsters (represented here by John Turturro) who ran the boxing business. He barely survived an assassination attempt and was allowed to live only if he steered clear of the fight game.

But he’s so moved by Duran’s potential that he gets the Mafia’s permission to train the kid with no pay.

Roberto is cocky and tough and at first resents the discipline Arcel demands. But slowly he begins to see his trainer’s genius, especially when it comes to mapping out the strategies that can win or lose a fight.

 

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** and

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyer

“SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU”  My rating: B+ 

83 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Sight unseen, “Southside with You” sounds like a really bad idea…or at least one with a booby trap around every corner.

The subject of writer/director Richard Tanne’s feature debut is the early relationship of Barack and Michelle Obama.

This is the sort of project one might expect 20 years after the Obamas leave the White House. By that time history will have had a chance to sort things out.

It’s certainly not what one anticipates while the man is still sitting in the Oval Office.

But put those misgivings aside. “Southside with You” is a terrific film — funny, romantic, respectful without being stuffy and, yes, inspiring.

Every time it looks like things will bog down in discourse, politics or hagiography, this well-acted effort gracefully sidesteps the crisis.

Set in 1989, the film begins with Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) in her parents’ Chicago home getting gussied up for an appointment. Meanwhile young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyer) is doing the same thing in a haze of cigarette smoke.

A Harvard law student, Barack is a summer intern at a big Chicago law firm where second-year associate Michelle is his adviser. He’s asked her to accompany him to a community meeting on the city’s South Side. (Her mama teases her about spending time with “another smooth-talking brother.”)

Michelle is less than impressed when Barack picks her up in a rattletrap sedan filled with cigarette butts. She must straddle a rusty hole in the passenger-side floorboards.

And she’s indignant when she discovers that their meeting is several hours away, that Barack hopes to fill the time with date-like activities like a museum visit and lunch.

“We work together,” she protests. “A date would be inappropriate.”

Michelle explains that it’s hard for a young black woman in a big law firm to be taken seriously.  Dating the summer help is out of the question.

“It’s not a date until you say it is,” Barack concedes. But we all know that before the day is over it’s going to be something bigger than that. Continue Reading »

Chris Pine, Ben Foster

Chris Pine, Ben Foster

“HELL OR HIGH WATER” My rating: A- 

102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Hell or High Water” is about two brothers on a crime spree. But David Mackenzie’s film has a lot more on its mind than mere suspense and thrills.

Imagine the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” filtered through the sensibilities of a Bruce Springsteen ballad about sibling tensions and economic alienation, enacted by players who in some instances are giving their best perfs ever, and set against a bleak West Texas landscape so carefully rendered you may find yourself trying to spit out the dust.

And although it was filmed a year ago, it  damn near serves as an ethnological study of Trump voters.

The film begins with a bank heist.  Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) pull on ski masks and barge into a branch of the Texas Midlands Bank in an oil spot of a rundown town. Brother Tanner is clearly enjoying his power over the employees and customers — a bit too much, actually. He has to be admonished by his sibling after pistol whipping a slow-moving bank employee.

Because Ben Foster has so often played eye-rolling loonies, we assume that his ex-con Tanner is the criminal mastermind behind the unfolding series of bank robberies. Actually it’s the low-keyed Toby who came up with the plan to steal  money from the same bank threatening to foreclose on the family’s run-down ranch.

Estranged from his wife and two teenage sons and way behind on his alimony, Toby hopes to pay off the mortgage with the bank’s own money. At least he’ll be able to leave the family spread to his boys. Heck, there may even be black gold under it.

The brothers have a system, hitting different branches at off hours, then burying the getaway cars out on the back 40. They launder the stolen cash by gambling at an Indian casino up in Oklahoma.

But it’s a given that at some point the hair-trigger Tanner will deviate from the plan and throw the entire enterprise into jeopardy.

Because there’s a relentless lawman on their trail. Jeff Bridges is Marcus, a crusty old Texas Ranger facing an uneasy retirement. Marcus has been catching crooks for so long that he thinks like them; he’s just waiting for one little screwup.

In the meantime he passes the time making politically incorrect observations about the heritage of his long-suffering half-Commanche partner (Gil Birmingham).

That’s the plot.  But the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (who most recently gave us the first-rate drug war saga “Sicario”) is noteworthy for all the other stuff going on just below the surface. Continue Reading »