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Judi Dench, Ali Fazal

“VICTORIA AND ABDUL”  My rating: B-  

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Dame Judi Dench — who won an Academy Award for portraying one British monarch (Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love”) and was nominated for playing another (Victoria in “Mrs. Brown”) — now goes for the trifecta with “Victoria and Abdul.”

Stephen Frear’s comic costume drama finds Dench once again in the glum mourning clothes of Queen Victoria, this time late in the monarch’s reign.

As you’d expect, this great actress eats up the screen, in the process compensating for a screenplay that isn’t exactly sure what it wants  to say.

This Victoria remains the isolated, lonely widow who in “Mrs. Brown” found companionship (and perhaps chaste romance) with her Scottish gamekeeper.  But now, several years down the road, she’s  getting a bit dotty. Dozing off at state dinners is  standard operating procedure. And she’s a voraciously fast diner, posing a problem for others who are expected to stop chewing when she does.

Victoria’s advisers and hangers on (played by a Who’s Who of Brit thesps like Michael Gambon, Tim Piggot-Smith and Olivia Williams)  are running the show in her intellectual absence. The  Queen’s influence is  limited to picking menus.

Based on a little-known historical incident,“Victoria and Abdul” centers on the arrival in court of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), one of the Queen’s Indian subjects who prior to this has been a humble clerk in a prison.

Abdul is tapped to represent India at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee not because of his standing but because of his, er, standing — he’s a lanky fellow and clueless British officials reason that a tall man will look better presenting Her Majesty with a rare and precious gold coin from the subcontinent.

What nobody counts on is that the old gal will look into Abdul’s Omar-Sharif eyes and strike up a remarkable friendship, one that revitalizes Victoria’s mental faculties, sharpens her interest in affairs of state and threatens the status quo of the royal household.

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Christian Friedel

“13 MINUTES” My rating: B

114 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Can a murderer be a hero?

That’s just one of the perplexing questions posed by “13 Minutes,” the fact-based story of Georg Elser, who in 1939 planted a bomb in a Munich auditorium in order to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Der Fuhrer exited the building 13 minutes before the timer ignited the device, killing a half dozen and maiming another 60.

Elser was picked up as a suspect within hours of the blast and underwent interrogation and torture.

(There’s a devastating scene in which the young woman stenographer recording the interview realizes it is time for her to leave the room. She sits outside in the hall, reading a book, and trying to ignore the screams and whimpers of pain coming through the closed door.)

Initially Elser refused to give even his name or date of birth, breaking only when the authorities announced they would begin enhanced interrogations of his parents and mistress.

Later the Gestapo tried to get Elser to confess to being part of a conspiracy; he maintained (and eventually proved even to his dubious captors) that he had designed, built and planted the bomb unassisted.

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film explains why a pacifist would turn to killing.

Elser wasn’t crazy.  He wasn’t homicidal. He deeply regretted that his failed assassination attempt resulted in death and injury to bystanders. And yet he believed his actions — criminal by definition and immoral according to many — were absolutely necessary.

The screenplay by the father/daughter team of Fred and Leonie-Claire Breinersdorfer alternates scenes of Elsner (a quietly intense Christian Friedel) in Gestapo custody with passages from his past.

These flashbacks depict an apolitical humanist — a carpenter by trade and a musician for the fun of it — who is gradually radicalized by the slow creep of Naziism into his sleepy provincial town.

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Q’orianka Kilcher

“TE ATA” My rating: B 

105 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Knowing that it was made by Chickasaw Nations Productions and follows the life of a famous Native American storyteller, one might be excused for avoiding “Te Ata” as an earnest endeavor of the sort to make a cynic’s skin crawl.

In truth, this modestly-budgeted, high-impact true story is inspirational in most of the right ways.  A few so-so performances and a couple of clunky moments cannot blunt its emotional power.

The subject is Mary Frances Th0mpson (1895-1995), born in Indian Territory (eventually to become Oklahoma) to a Chickasaw father (Gil Birmingham) and a mother (Brigid Brannagh)  of German descent.

Raised in a thoroughly Anglicized environment — her uncle (Graham Greene) was governor of the territory and, later, the state —  young Mary Frances was only tangentially aware of her tribal culture, thanks mostly to her father’s retelling of traditional fables.

As a young woman Mary Frances (Q’orianka Kilcher) became the first Native American to attend the Oklahoma College for Women, where a drama instructor (Cindy Pickett) encouraged her to forego the usual recitations from Shakespeare in favor of  the girl’s own rich cultural heritage.

This led to a stint on the chautauqua circuit, where she adopted the stage name Te Ata (Bearer of the Dawn) and donned a traditional buckskin costume for performances that embraced native dances, song and storytelling.

After further studies at Carnegie-Mellon, and a brief and unfulfilling career as a Broadway actress, Mary Frances/Te Ata turned once again to tribal storytelling. Eventually she would become a household name and a visitor to Franklin Roosevelt’s White House.

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Kate Winslet, Idris Elba

“THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US”  My rating: C+

103 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

He’s a neurosurgeon desperate to get back to Baltimore for a big operation.

She’s a photojournalist desperate to get back east for her wedding.

With an incoming blizzard grounding commercial air traffic, they rent a charter plane to take them home.

Nope.

“The Mountain Between Us” is a survival tale/love story set in the Colorado Rockies and starring Idris Elba and Kate Winslet as Ben and Alex, total strangers who must work together to survive when their plane crashes on a remote mountain top.

As an outdoor adventure crammed with drop-dead scenery and a plethora of adversity (hungry mountain lion, freezing temperatures, starvation, a fall through cracking lake ice) this film from director Hany Abu-Assad (an Israeli making his Hollywood debut) works well enough.

As a romance, though, it’s iffy.  J. Mills Goodie’s screenplay (from Charles Martin’s novel) doesn’t really give us that much to work with, character-wise.  Elba and Winslet are charismatic performers capable of suggesting depth where there is relatively little, but the script is skimpy with details, and what there is is a bit hokey. For way too long the state of Ben’s marriage is dangled before us like a mystery carrot.

Speaking of way too long…the movie continues a good 15 minutes after it should have ended; many viewers will develop a case of ants in their pants.

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Ana de Armas, Ryan Gosling

“BLADE RUNNER 2049”  My rating: B 

163 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Making a sequel that will satisfy three generations of “Blade Runner”-obsessed geeks isn’t easy.

What’s surprising is how close director Denis Villeneuve and his screenwriters (Hampton Fancher, Michael Green) have come to pulling it off.

Of course this pronouncement is coming from a guy who admired the original 1982 “Blade Runner” (great film technology and a brilliant evocation of a dystopian future) but didn’t actually like it (one of Harrison Ford’s clumsiest performances…plus the movie should have been about Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, a vastly more interesting character).

“Blade Runner 2049” finds me reversing my original evaluation — I like it but don’t exactly admire it.

Explaining one’s reactions to this eye-popping, ear-shredding futurist epic (the running time is nearly three hours) is made considerably more difficult by Villeneuve’s request  — read to critics at advance screenings — that we not discuss the new film’s plot in our reviews.

Well, that’s kind of limiting.

But here goes.

Once again we have a film about the conflict between replicants — artificially engineered humanoid slaves who are born as adults with phony memories of childhood — and their human creators.

The film centers on “K” (it refers to the first letters of his serial number), a replicant played by Ryan Gosling. K, like Ford’s Deckard in the first film, is a blade runner who hunts down renegade replicants. (The character’s name may also refer to Josef K., the existentially-challenged hero of Kafka’s The Trial. Allegorical names are big here; the principal female characters are called Joi and Luv.)

In the  years since the events of the original film there have been major societal upheavals:  A “great blackout” that destroyed most digital records; the bankruptcy of the Tyrell Corporation which invented replicants; and the rise of mad scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, as irritatingly weird as ever), who has perfected technology to ensure that his new generation of replicants obey their human masters.

But there are still some aging Tyrell-era replicants hiding out in Earth’s less-hospitable neighborhoods, and it is K’s job to track them down and eliminate them.

In his off hours the silently suffering K takes much abuse from his human neighbors, who contemptuously refer to him as a “skin job.”  At least he has a wife at home…well, sort of.  What he is has is Joi (Ana de Armas), a computer-generated hologram who can change her clothing and hair instantaneously to match K’s mood.  She loves him; sexual congress,  though, seems beyond her technology.

No wonder K seems so sad.

Running throughout Fancher and Green’s screenplay are hints that man’s inventions — holograms, replicants — are at least as “human” as their creators, struggling against their programming to express emotional needs and intellectual curiosity.

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Steve Carell, Emma Stone

“THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES”  My rating: B+

121 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Those going to “The Battle of the Sexes” expecting 0nly a bit of lightweight nostalgia had best gird their loins. There’s more going on here than a re-creation of a oddball moment in our cultural history.

Yes, this retelling of the famous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs has its share of humor and historic earmarks. (Those costumes. Those hairstyles.)

But you’ll leave Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ film (they were the pair behind “Little Miss Sunshine”) struck by how relevant its issues remain, by the anger percolating just beneath the surface, and for its implicit warning that  the bad old days may be making a comeback.

Simon Beaufort’s script wastes little time in setting up the basic conflict.  In 1970 nine of the best female tennis players rebelled against the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association over the disparity between prize money awarded men and women.

Outraged, the reigning women’s champion, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), and tennis journalist Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) corner USLTA head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) in his exclusive men’s club.

Told they cannot be there, Heldman shoots back: “Why? Because I’m a woman? Or because I’m Jewish?”

Right there “Battle of the Sexes” draws its line.  Progress versus the reactionary status quo.

The upshot is the creation of the all-women Virginia Slims tennis circuit.

In a parallel plot line we eavesdrop on former tennis champ Billy Riggs (Steve Carell), now immersed in post-career boredom.

Riggs fritters away his days at a make-work job at his father-in-law’s business; at night he hangs with his drinking buddies, taking bets that he can beat anyone at tennis while tethered to two large dogs  or substituting a frying pan for his raquet.

His high-society wife (Elisabeth Shue) makes him attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings, which he breaks up by declaring that the problem isn’t that these people gamble, but that they’re bad gamblers. Winners don’t need support groups.

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Anastasia Shevtsova

“POLINA” My rating: B-

108 minutes | No MPAA rating

On the surface, “Polina” appears to be a fairly typical dance film, one that follows an aspiring ballerina from childhood through rigorous training to triumph on the stage.

Except that’s not really what it’s about.

Valerie Muller and Angelin Preljoca’s film begins in Moscow where young Polina (played as a child by Veronica Zhovnytska) begins serious ballet training under the demanding Bojinski (Aleksey Guskov), who frequently berates her for allowing her emotions (there are troubles at home) to interfere with her technique.

Young Polina takes his words to heart, so much so that in class she radiates a sullen stoicism.  Only when she’s walking home alone does this little girl allow herself to caper in the snow with childlike enthusiasm.

As an adolescent (now played by Anastasia Shevtsova) she’s good enough to be accepted by the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet. But emotionally she’s a closed book.  What is she thinking? What does she really want?

Polina gives herself (with only limited enthusiasm) to a fellow dancer, a French lad (Niels Schneider) interning with the Bolshoi. When he returns to France she follows, joining a regional company presided over by Liria (Juliette Binoche), a choreographer who complains that while Polina may be technically perfect, she exhibits no passion.

This then, is the heart of “Polina”: When will our heroine overcome her emotional blockages and open up to the expressive possibilities of dance? (Hint: the film ends with a knockout modern dance piece choreographed by co-director Preljocaj.)

The problem with all this, of course, is that an emotionally blocked character isn’t very interesting.

While Shevtsova is obviously a lovely young woman and an accomplished dancer, her acting chops appear limited.  In any case it’s hard to read what’s going on behind her character’s blank exterior, and that makes “Polina” itself more an exercise in technique than in feeling.

| Rober W. Butler