Movie Review: A movie from a play, a family Thanksgiving slice-of-life, “The Humans”

There’s one obvious metaphor that I dare say playwright turned filmmaker Stephen Karam couldn’t make nearly as obvious in his play, “The Humans,” when it was on the stage. But it stands out like a scarlet letter in his intimate, warm and mournful film of the piece.

Everywhere we look in this “new” apartment daughter Brigid has moved into, evidence of its pre-World War II Chinatown provenance stands out.

He shows us closeups of plaster that has aged, moistened and blistered. The doorways show decades of wear. The windows haven’t been caulked since the Eisenhower Administration. The antiquated light fixtures are popping bulbs, left and right.

And everything, from the ancient radiator to the leaky, rust-stained pipes, has been painted over, time and again, layer upon layer of surface added to something that needs to be addressed, fixed or at least talked about in the open.

“The Humans” is a moody, talky family-get-together melodrama that surfs a sea of banter as the parents, grandmother and sister of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) come to eat, drink and house-warm the two-story flat that she and student-boyfriend Richard (Steven Yuen) have just taken on. Will they get at what’s going on beneath the surface?

It’s a film of overheard snatches of conversations. Dreams and problems and issues discussed and listened in on, sometimes barely made-out two muffled rooms away. Conversations are often interrupted by the hustle and prep of a big meal in a place with little furniture, noisy thunking pipes and a noisier thumping neighbor.

The hallway is almost too narrow for Erik (Richard Jenkins) to get his mother, “Momo” (June Squibb) in the door. In an instant, we can see how overwhelmed he and wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) are dealing with a 90ish woman mumbling from dementia. And that’s before we hear some of that mumbling, or how expensive it is to keep them with her.

The Catholic parents are here to hang out with the unmarried couple and with their daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer), have a little fellowship, celebrate the new home and catch up.

Erik is Mister Gloom and Doom about the “flood zone” they’ve moved into, advising Richard to “save now,” before he and Brigid get married, before they face the expenses that accumulate AFTER the college loans come due. Erik is practical and handy, checking the fuse box, eyeballing the plumbing, suggesting “hard work” as a solution to most problems. He’s worked at a pricey Catholic school forever, in maintenance and cleaning.

“You don’t pick up after other people’s kids for 28 years unless you really love your own,” he says, mostly for Richard’s benefit. His daughters got free tuition there, and a head start in life. Aimee’s a lawyer living in Philly. Brigid’s a New York composer hoping to make her mark in orchestral music.

Deirdre is just as working class, marveling at Richard’s frank discussion of his mental health, something Erik insists “nobody in our family” has problems with.

Nooo, Deirdre says. “We just have a lot of stoic sadness.”

A lot of what’s said over the course of this evening is translated, explained for Richard’s benefit — family “traditions,” the status of a long-planned “lake house” Erik and Deirdre hope to retire to, what Momo was like before her final break with reality and the various elements of sibling bonding/rivalry that the sisters have acted out.

The word “judgement” gets tossed about. Faith is preached as “a natural anti-depressant,” and lightly mocked. The merits of being “unhappy alone or unhappy with someone else” are debated. Richard struggles to manage sports small talk and not give away every “issue” he’s dealing with, and not have Brigid give those away for him.

Health problems, jobs lost or soon-to-be-lost, financial strains, the frustration of this or that career that isn’t taking off any time soon, all come up, almost buried in the banter.

And Aimee? She’s in the noisy, ancient toilet, not just for her ulcerative colitis. She’s on her cell with the longtime-love that she just broke up with. Something’s bound to break, something beyond the wiring and the plumbing.

The great character actor Jenkins has perfected his blue collar guise, adding to the collection of professionals, authority figures and scientists he’s played over the years. Erik’s fatalism has come from age, a lifetime of caution and fear about the future.

Eventually, “everything you have, goes.”

The other stand-out in this cast is Schumer, whose character’s many problems make us wonder how she is keeping it all together. Aimee’s physical issues cannot help but make us fret over what Schumer’s been telling us about her own health in recent years. Aimee the character and Amy the character actress aren’t shy about flippantly sharing medical problems with those who love her. But one look at Aimee makes us wonder what she’s not telling us.

Whatever everybody else has going on, none of the characters save for hers made me feel anything about their plight.

Karam’s film doesn’t “open up” the play so much as absorb us into its claustrophobia. But “The Humans” feels so unsubtle and “theatrical” that when the story makes its third-act turn towards BIGGER REVELATIONS, it feels abrupt and melodramatic, like a script outline that dictates “Third Act Surprise comes here.” It’s as obvious as “granny’s one sentient moment,” which we know is coming and can only hope won’t be cloying. It isn’t.

There’s so much messiness in these lives that the film feels universal, thanks to the viewer’s experience of the world and the realization that “everybody’s going through something.” The cast is skilled and accomplished, but some characters and their problems are barely sketched in, while others are magnified by the old “blurt my problems out in the third act” trick.

The only “issues” that feel lived-in are the ones literally everybody faces — health, aging parents and grandparents — mortality. It’s the players most wrapped up in those who stand out. The rest is just colorful, sometimes flippant, background noise.

Rating: R, language (profanity)

Cast: Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yuen, Jayne Houdyshell and June Squibb.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Stephen Karam, based on his play. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:48

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Netflixable? “The Power of the Dog” gives Campion a great cast and a grand canvas to paint upon

Stately, austere and somewhat soap operatic, “The Power of the Dog” is an intimate story in a Cinemascope setting, and marks a welcome return to feature films for New Zealand’s Jane Campion, director of “The Piano” and most recently (in 2009) “Bright Star.”

Netflix has given her a big canvas and great cast for another tale of repressed desire, emotions and sexuality, her specialty.

Based on a Thomas Savage nove, “Dog” is a 1920s saga set in Montana, the story of two brothers, the widow one marries and the son that comes with that marriage. And even if it doesn’t manage many surprises, it’s still an acting showcase for Benedict Cumberbatch, going larger-than-life, and Kirsten Dunst, quietly underplaying against that.

Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons play brother ranchers, the Burbanks. The oldest, Phil (Cumberbatch), is a grizzled cowman who throws his weight around, hangs with the ranch hands and avoids bathing at all costs. And with his first words he gives away much of his character, just interacting with his more subdued, genteel sibling, George.

“Hey, Fatso!”

Phil is a bully. And George lets him be one. He accepts second-banana status to the cattle-savvy, more macho Phil. He takes Phil’s abuse about being “a chubby know-nothing too dumb to get through college.” Because to some degree, it’s true. Phil gives hints of his superior intellect, referring to themselves as “the Romulus and Remus and the wolf who raised us” when talking about the cattleman, the fabled “Bronco Henry,” who taught them how to run a ranch.

George dresses more like his class, even when they’re taking their herd to town to sell. George is soft-spoken. George bathes.

And when Phil’s bullying makes the widow Rose (Dunst) who runs a boarding house and restaurant, weep, when Phil insults her thin, artistic son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), George is the one to makes amends.

George is also the one who sets his cap for Rose, and we see the brothers — who shared a room in their big, two-servant house on the plains — drift apart.

The split is deftly-captured in just a couple of scenes and the chill between them comes out in a single sentence, a piece of news Phil wasn’t privy to.

“We were married Sunday.”

Thus does “The Power of the Dog” set us up for a cruel war of wills, with smart and condescending Phil never missing a chance to humiliate the “cheap schemer” new bride to her face, even encouraging the ranch hands to pick on the fey and delicate med student, Peter, aka “Little Lord Fauntleroy.”

Cumberbatch’s bluff and blustery bully seems studied, measured and calculated. On purpose.

Plemons gives us a another performance of soft tones and quiet kindnesses. He’s equally invested in making George a non-confrontational figure, somebody who’s used to “handling” his arrogant, banjo-picking alpha male brother.

Dunst gives us quiet suffering, a woman who accepts her lot and the improved prospects for her boy that a marriage provides, but who swallows her misery from a bottle — beaten down by a brother-in-law who not only knows how to spell “misogyny,” he lives it.

Smit-McPhee, a child star since “Let Me In,” gets across all we need to know just with his physicality. Everything about Peter screams “delicate.”

That points to the shortcomings in Campion’s slow-moving melodrama. “Netflix editing” is what we call it when films or series are padded, layered with onscreen fat that prevents the picture from developing anything like the necessary pace to pull us into the story.

And that’s important in “The Power of the Dog” because of the tropes it trots out that give away its “secrets” at first glance. When we know much of what’s coming, dawdling along the way makes characters and incidents play as pre-ordained, dulling their impact.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal becomes classic “over-compensating,” the way Hollywood has long depicted characters with a serious “He Man Woman Hater’s Club” streak.

Smit-McPhee’s Peter is more stereotype than archetype.

Even if some of the second and third act twists upend some expectations, even if the Big Sky setting (it was filmed in New Zealand) promises “epic,” the melodramatic characters and touches give it a predictable familiarity.

It’s great to see Campion making movies again, and if Netflix writes blank checks to cinema grand masters like her, Scorsese, Cuaron and others, that’s money well-spent and a service to the arts far beyond what cable services like HBO ever offered.

But given their heads, every single established director who has worked for Netflix has been flattered into making big, flaccid epics that viewers can leave on while they take bathroom breaks or make a dash to the kitchen. “Streaming” and “slow” shouldn’t be synonymous.

Rating: R, for brief sexual content and full nudity

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Keith Carradine.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Jane Campion, adapted from the novel by Thomas Savage. A Netflix release.

Running time: 2:06

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Movie Review: A melodrama of crime, abuse, cash, drugs and immigration from Cameroon — “The Eagle’s Nest (La Vallee’ des Aigles)”

Cameroonian filmmaker Olivier Assoua makes his feature directing debut with “The Eagle’s Nest,” a lurid, lurching and muddled melodrama that still manages some good ideas and terrific moments.

The screenplay, which he co-wrote, has an “everything but the kitchen sink” flavor as see see drug abuse and drug money, sexual abuse, betrayal and murder, all set against a story about a young woman’s desperation to get out of “this s–thole” that has her trapped, with nothing but her good looks and her wiles help her escape her hometown, Nkongsamba.

Our first glimpse of Paris, played by Claude Scholastique Nkou Mbida, is of her crawling through the mud on a rainy night. Whatever this bleached blonde’s “Goth” girl dreams, something has gone wrong.

“The Eagle’s Nest” — not sure what the title has to do with the story — clumsily backtracks and backfills as we learn what happened and what Paris plans to do about it.

She is “saved” from her injuries by the young nurse’s aide Obama (Richard Essame), a timid soul who pines for her. He has set up a clinic there, something Paris and her brassy BFF Samantha (Felicity Asseh) ridicule.

Paris doesn’t let whatever happened distract her from her escape plan. “Life sucks in Africa” she tells one and all (in French with English subtitles), including her mother (Sybile Aline Njoke) and little sister.

Everybody is curious about her plans, but she doesn’t give what we’d call straight answers. Mom and others want to know where she’s come up with the money, and she’s even more evasive about that.

We can guess.

But something happens, her money and passport are taken. As she won’t call the cops, it’s up to her and Samantha to track the perps through the modest clubs (where Samantha is a singer) and seedy nightlife of their corner of Cameroon.

Several elements conspire to make “The Eagle’s Nest” hard to follow. Assoua doesn’t clearly delineate what is the story’s “present” is, and what happened earlier. The flashbacks and present-day search for the cash and passport are mashed together in a very confusing way.

Performances would ordinarily help make that distinction, but Mbida never gives us any sense of urgency or panic over what’s happened to her prospects or her family. Worst of all, she doesn’t show much in the way of emotion until late in the third act. By then, we’ve spent an hour wondering if this or that scene came before her mother and little sister’s murder, or after it.

She never sheds a tear over this loss, which is almost certainly all her fault.

“What did you get yourself into this time?” is a question everybody asks and she won’t answer.

Her character drops the suggestion that she was molested by her father as a child, and lost her virginity “too cheaply” to the first guy who offered to give her a ride in his car — when she was 13. But even these facts of life are presented poker-faced.

Samantha’s worst moment came on an earlier attempt to escape Africa. We see her tortured and perhaps sexually assaulted in Tripoli, Libya, jumping off point for many migrants fleeing to Europe.

I say “perhaps sexually assaulted” because much of the violence here is kept off camera. A lucrative sex worker threesome that Sam sets up for her and Paris to score cash from a high roller (Keumbang Diedonné) is kept PG, more implied than explicit. Even Sam’s singing is skipped over as we see her club act, but don’t hear it.

The bare bones of a tight melodrama about narcissism and “look out for myself” greed, murder and money and betrayal are here. But it never comes together until the striking and violent finale.

Which suggests that there’s enough here for viewers to hope Assoua gets better and gets it right next time.

Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Claude Scholastique Nkou Mbida, Felicity Asseh, Richard Essame, Keumbang Diedonné,
Axel Abessolo

Credits: Directed by Olivier Assoua, scripted by Magno Assoua Adeline and Olivier Assoua. An Indie Rights release.

Running time: 1:31

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Next screening? GDT’s “Nightmare Alley”

A carny tale from the Oscar winning director of “The Shape of Water,” starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Willem Dafoe….and others.

Looks lush, lurid and menacing, and jst in time for the holidays, too!

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Movie Review: Stop-motion animated “Even Mice Belong in Heaven” is a charmer

“Even Mice Belong in Heaven” is the most adorable and unusual animated offering for kids this year.

A Czech production based on a children’s book by Iva Procházková, it’s an afterlife tale. And unlike “All Dogs Go to Heaven,” it’s almost wholly-invested in presenting a deeply-detailed look at heaven for animals, a charming hereafter of amusement park and moral tests in the “Forest of Forests.”

And what’s your prize for examining your life among the hippo, crocs, flamingos and other fauna? “A movie ticket.” That personalized trip to the cinema is a genuine lump in your throat moment, a feat few animated films from Hollywood can manage these days.

There’s something mesmerizing about the handcrafted look of stop-motion animation that transfixes children and that adults — some of us, anyway — never grow out of. “Mice” is more reminiscent of the European “Peter and the Wolf” stop-motion (models, hand-posed frame by frame) short than the recent classics of the genre, by Aardman (“Wallace & Gromit”) or Laika (“Coraline”). The artists’ handiwork shows in every frame.

Wizzy the mouse (voiced in the film’s English language version by Simona Berman) is forever proving to her brothers, her friend Mole and others in her world that she’s brave, even though she’s “always afraid, like every other mouse.”

She’d like to be heroic like her mouse-stached father, whose exploits are taught in mouse school. To prove it, she slips into the abandoned playground and snatches a tuft from fur from a sleeping fox.

But the fox awakens, and despite being cheered on by the animals she’s trying to impress, she finds herself in the foggy white purgatory of heaven. A long-horned goat checks her in, assures her that yes, she’s dead and no, that she, the goat isn’t “God.”

When Wizzy discovers that she’s been sent to the same place as the fox she assumes killed her, she is seriously put-out. But events conspire to tie Miss “I don’t need any help!” and the stammering White Belly (Graham Halstead) together for their journey, a “Pilgrim’s Progress” through obstacles, rules and rites of passage before they get their tickets to the cinema.

They learn of each other’s shortcomings and “issues,” and as they deal with helpful crocs, rageaholic badgers and pestering peers of their own genus, they prove their worth and face their species’ prejudices.

“Heaven is what you make of it,” a croc tells them, before reminding each to wash up, especially their ears.

“You cannot go back,” a sage lobster intones. “You must go where your nose points, not your tail.”

The theology is childlike and mostly upbeat. The biggest sin either of these two must shake is their childish phobia about baths. Yes, that’s an issue in Czechoslovakia, too. Heaven is largely one big bathtime, with hot springs hot tubs and the like. Mice, it turns out, are especially touchy about having to wash their ears.

The translated dialogue only occasionally flirts with funny or profound. The fox is warned by a legend of the vulpine race about “making friends with FOOD” (a mouse).

But the whimsical, hand-made realization of heaven and the life-affirming “meaning” of it is kid-friendly in the extreme, and that makes “Even Mice Belong in Heaven” a charmer worth tracking down (in theaters and streaming) this holiday season.

Rating:unrated

Cast: The voices of Simona Berman, Graham Halstead, Ryan Andes, Marc Thompson, Major Attaway, Mary O’Brady 

Credits: Directed by Jan Bubenicek and Denisa Grimmová, scripted by Alice Nellis, Richard Malatinsky and Jeffrey Hilton, based on the book by Iva Procházková. A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:20

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Movie Review: Joaquin Phoenix as baby-sitter, “C’mon C’mon”

Joaquin Phoenix and “endearing” don’t often make it into the same sentence. But watch his soft-spoken, laid-back turn in “C’mon, C’mon,” a movie about a midlife discovery of just how hard parenting is. “Endearing” is the only word that fits. Working with an adorable moppet will do that for you.

The latest dramedy from the director of “Beginners” and “20th Century Women” is a black and white essay on childhood trauma, memory and family — one teetering on the brink, but with an ill-prepared uncle willing to pitch in to keep others from tumbling into the abyss. Quiet and obsessed with sound, indulgent and wise, brittle but softened by love, it’s another sensitive and humane feature from Mike Mills, a filmmaker who makes “family” and “listening” a focus of all of his films.

That’s what Johnny does for a living — listening, He’s a public radio reporter, traveling the country, interviewing the children of immigrants for a documentary he and others are producing. He treats the kids with respect, never talking down when he asks “When you think about the future” questions about their lives and their prospects. Best of all, he listens to what they have to say.

Another person he’s hearing these days is his sister, Viv (played by Gaby Hoffman). They live on opposite coasts, and haven’t been close of late. But the anniversary of their mother’s death has them chatting. He catches up on how little Jesse (Woody Norman) is doing. And that’s when he gets a hint about a situation Viv has to deal with regarding her concert musician husband.

Viv has to go to Paul (Scoot McNairy), who has taken a job in Oakland. She lives in greater LA. And without words being said, we can tell Johnny knows why she can’t take Jesse with her, why she needs to go and why her trip might take time.

Next thing we know, laid-back, single and childless 40something Johnny is volunteering to take care of her son.

Mom describes Jesse as “a whole little person, now.” He’s nine and indulged way beyond what most families would consider “normal.” Jesse has been warned that Johnny is “a bit awkward.” Johnny? He has no idea what’s coming.

“Why aren’t you married,” the tactless tyke asks? “Why did she (his mother) stop talking to you?”

Jesse sports an unruly mop and a lot of needs. He needs to be read to at bedtime, is fond of sleeping in the grownups’ bed, loves hiding from caregivers when they’re out in public, has to be kept away from sugar and simply must be addressed as an “orphan kid” from next door who play-acts this whole morbid thing about Viv (later Johnny) having children that died, which is why he wants to come stay with them.

Johnny’s mild-mannered meltdown, when it finally comes, is overdue.

“Why does everything have to be like this weird eccentric thing that you do? Why can’t you be NORMAL?”

If he’d thought rather than snapping, Johnny could have come up with a reasonable answer by himself, one that might have made him hold his tongue. All those soundless flashback arguments we’ve seen between the siblings weren’t just about their dying mother. Some of them were about whatever else was going on in Viv’s house. Paul has “manic” problems of his own. We’re seen the apple. Guess what the tree is like.

I love the way Mills gives Johnny “bonding” ideas that come from his work. Soon, Jesse is as obsessed with “getting sound” (recording audio environments like the beach, skate parks and the like) as his uncle.

Having Johnny read aloud from the (credited) parenting books, comic books and essays Viv keeps around the house (“Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty,” by Jaqueline Rose, “The Bipolar Bear Family” comic, by Angela Holloway) is a clever way of getting Big Themes into the story without having the characters dive into exposition.

Johnny’s endless parade of interviews with kids looks like a Hollywood child actor casting call. If they aren’t actors, they certainly were cast for being the prettiest girls and boys in their age range available. Nary a zit, crooked tooth or fashion-impaired outfit in the lot. But even that will play as “real” to regular listeners to NPR, which tends to skew urban, overly-articulate and coastal in the people it reports on and listeners it caters to.

Young Master Norman, a British child actor, is very good at taking Jesse right to the cusp of “insufferable.” He makes acting-out look obvious. He’s convincingly precocious, which is the way the movies treat almost all children. We don’t need the “I don’t really have friends. I mostly talk with adults” confession. That’s a trap even an indie icon like Mike Mills can’t help but fall into.

But Phoenix and Hoffman really sell “C’mon, C’mon,” settling into “siblings” with such ease that even their phone conversations have a lived-in familiarity — Johnny admitting he shouted at the brat, Viv relieved that it’s not just her.

That relationship — the childless and clueless but willing to learn, and the “finally somebody realizes what mom’s go through” sibling — makes this warm but melancholy movie something to be cherished, another “family relationships” movie from a filmmaker so good at them that it’s about time he shared his reading list with the audience, giving away his secrets.

Rating: R for language (profanity)

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffman, Woody Norman and Scoot McNairy

Credits: Scripted and directed by Mike Mills. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:48

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Movie Review: Hotelier Jonathan Rhys Meyers is sure his crazed brother is playing “Hide and Seek”

I have a faint recollection of seeing the Korean thriller “Hide and Seek” several years back. The plot twist is familiar when it turns up again in actor-turned-director Joel David Moore’s remake.

But even with all that information, even re-watching the picture’s last third to see if I’d missed something, it’s hard to make sense of the remake’s finale. The pieces don’t fit as neatly as they did in Jung Huh’s original, and that spoils the effect.

It’s about a hotelier (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who just inherited dad’s tony Grand Parkmore Hotel in Manhattan. Noah lives in the penthouse with his wife (Jacinda Barrett) and two kids.

The over-organized refrigerator, fastidious grooming and a tendency to scrub his hands with a psychotic vigor make us wonder about Noah, and diagnose him as “OCD” on the spot.

The last thing a guy like that needs, with this new responsibility just added to his portfolio, is hearing from his “fixer” lawyer (Joe Pantoliano) that his estranged and apparently-disturbed brother has returned to the city, perhaps to make trouble over the will.

Noah follows directions to the condemned flophouse where brother “Jacob” was last seen. Mr. OCD Fastidious finds himself haggling with an informal slumlord (Mustafa Shakir), his phone snatched by an urchin whose mother (Sue Jean Kim) is convinced the missing Jacob was some sort of pervert, and then mugged by a homeless guy.

Before this mystery is unraveled, neat-freak Noah will be crawling through ruined crawl spaces, seeing this mysterious, helmeted menace everywhere and certain that its Jacob demanding his share.

“He wants what’s mine, what’s HIS!”

Rhys Meyers goes properly wild-eyed for this performance, playing a buttoned-down man who snaps and turns manic. The wife and kids, his employees? They don’t seem to notice the guy is off his rocker.

And as Noah’s nightmares about the sinister motorcycle-helmet turn real, other threats from that condemned building manifest themselves in more beatings and a deeper puzzle.

We saw the helmet kill a young renting “squatter” (Alejandra Rivera) in the first scene. We know the threat is real. But in a building littered with crazy, who can it be?

Writer-director Joel David Moore, an actor in the “Avatar” franchise, has no problem getting our attention with the mystery. But he squanders that attention with a story that doesn’t play fair or logically add up. A couple of interesting performances are similarly squandered.

This “Hide and Seek” isn’t hatefully bad. It’s short, well-acted and easy enough to follow until it isn’t. It’s the “until it isn’t” that earns it the label, “disappointing.”

Rating:  R for some violence, disturbing images, nudity, and for language.

Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jacinda Barrett, Mustafa Shakir, Alejandra Rivera, Sue Jean Kim and Joe Pantoliano

Credits: Scripted and directed by Joel David Moore, based on the South Korean film of the same title by Jung Huh. A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:24

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Movie Preview: Oscar winner Mark Rylance travels to Mobland — “The Outfit”

This February 25 thriller has the “Bridge of Spies” and “Dunkirk” star playing a tailor with a very important mob commission on this one particular night.

Zoey Deutsch and Dylan O’Brien and Johnny Flynn are in the supporting cast.

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Netflixable? Animated manga takes us into the headspace of climbers, “The Summit of the Gods”

“The Summit of the Gods” stands alone when it comes to animated films about mountain climbing. So it has that going for it.

It’s a tale that hangs on two mysteries — that of a recovered camera that might have belonged to George Mallory, the Englishman who might have “summited” Mount Everest in 1924, before disappearing in the snow for 75 years. His body was found in 1999, something not mentioned in the film, which is based on a Japanese comic book (manga).

The movie’s speculation is about a camera that Mallory might have had on his person, and the notion that an obsessive purist climber might have found it, withholding it from the world.

The other “mystery” is the one that’s been glibly answered for the 150 years people have battled sheer rock faces and ice walls to reach the world’s highest peaks. Why do they climb this or that mountain? Mallory is the bloke who gave that oft-quoted answer.

“Because it’s there.

French animation filmmaker Patrick Imbert and his animation team tell this straightforward story in the most time-honored straightforward way. That makes for an engrossing film, but one that doesn’t really “get at” that “why,” despite paying lip service to the psyche of climbers.

A photojournalist comes home from a failed Everest expedition disgruntled with the work and the people who engage in this sport that has become his specialty. But a Nepalese barfly pitched him a much better story and an artifact, one that Fukamachi failed to act on. The guy wanted to sell him Mallory’s “vest pocket camera.”

The cynical Fukamachi brushed off the hustle, but later saw the hustler surrendering the camera to a big guy who seemed to have a better claim on it. And that guy’s missing fingers convince Fukamachi that he was the reclusive climbing legend Habu, a working-class mountaineer who gained fame in the ’60s and dropped out of sight years before.

Finding Habu and that camera become the reporter’s obsessions. But even after finding Habu, “answers” won’t come easily for a plainly-haunted man who will only say, “Once you get a taste for it, nothing else matters” when it comes to explaining himself.

In classic “Citizen Kane” fashion, we have a reporter talking to people who knew Habu, hearing their accounts of a self-absorbed obsessive, a classic loner who reminds anyone climbing with him, “If I’m in a tough spot, you leave me.”

His interview subjects him fill in on the man’s life story, and what they leave out Fukamachi fleshes out in voice-over narration.

“The Summit of the Gods” isn’t necessarily a story that needed to be told via animation. There are no talking animals, monsters or big-haired ponies. The medium is used to depict a death or two, some hallucinations and some decently rendered mountains. The animation isn’t anime, but is in that ballpark — slightly jumpy, under-animated.

It’s the screenplay, the mysteries in the plot, that sell this. It’s worth adding that it’s not over-sold, and like most films adapted from comic books, it’s more a surface skim than a deeply illuminating exploration of the human condition.

While “Summit” doesn’t expand the animation frontier or lift animation as an artform, it’s a perfectly watchable way of telling a reasonably compelling story.

Rating: PG, Thematic Content|Peril|Some Language|Smoking|Unsettling Images

Cast: The voices of Darren Barnet, Rich Ting, Keiko Agena

Credits: Directed by Patrick Imbert, scripted by Patrick Imbert and Magali Pouzol, based on the manga by Jirô Taniguchi and Baku Yumemakura. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:36 

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Movie Preview: Horror hits Ireland, where it’s most “Unwelcome”

A March 17 you-know-what-day tale of Irish goblins getting after the new folks in town, who happen to be Londoners played by Hannah John-Kamen and Douglas Booth.

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