Netflixable? Frights come via phone in the Korean thriller “The Call”

Korean filmmaker Chung-hyun Lee makes a splashy K-horror debut with “Call,” which Netflix has unhelpfully retitled “The Call” for North American purposes.

Lee takes a simple supernatural premise and runs it to death and then some in this sinister tale of a land-line that cuts through time, if not space, in a Korean village.

Two young women of 28 who lived at the same address, in the same house, but decades apart, connect on an old cordless phone.

Seo-yeon (Park Shin-Hye) has had a bad day, resentfully visiting her sickly mother in the hospital, nagged to visit her father’s grave. To top it off, she lost her phone on the train back to the village where she grew up and the big old house Mom (Kim Sung-Ryung) has held onto all these years.

Luckily, she tracks down the cordless phone. But when it rings, she hears a frantic, confused voice that doesn’t make any sense. It takes her a while to figure out that the voice is that of someone who used to live there. It takes her a longer while to convince the voice on the other end, Young-sook (Jong-seo Jun) that her 1999 “present” isn’t Young-sook’s present.

“No Walkman? You listen to music on your ‘smart phone?'”

And it isn’t long until Seo-yeon realizes that Young-sook’s “present” is hellish — kocked indoors, tortured and subjected to occult rituals by her adoptive “shaman” mom (El Lee). Poking around the house she finds evidence of a secret basement room where some of this took place.

The late fall of 1999 was a fateful month in both their lives. And when Young-sook hears how Seo-yeon lost her beloved father, she makes a pitch (in Korean with English subtitles).

“Maybe I could bring your Dad back to life!”

If you know the date, time and means of accidental death, and it’s coming right up on the calendar, why not? Seo-yeon barely has time to get used to this miracle (Ho-San Park plays her dad) that transforms her life when, digging around, she uncovers Young-sook’s upcoming date with death.

“The Call” becomes a story of what comes afterward, the obligation, shared guilt and intertwined destinies of these two. Because one of the them is a lot more twisted than the other and saving her isn’t quite as simple as preventing a house fire.

The script cleverly hides the Mobius Strip engineering built into this tale of salvation, murder and woe. Young-sook, from the past, has an easier path to impacting the future. Seo-yeon has to do more research and up her game to 3D chess to fight back.

Pathos and suspense compete for screen time as the party line from Hell consumes them both, and others become collateral damage. Writer-director Lee taken that haunted phone/phone-calls-through-time gimmick from “Don’t Let Go” and other films and made the stand-out movie in the genre out of it. The effects — showing scars, and then people and automobiles vanishing as history is altered, are first-rate.

The leads aren’t given much time to soak in this incredible turn of events they’ve fallen into, and the script is at its trickiest in making us guess just how much info each on what’s happening or about to happen that first time they connect via phone.

El Lee, in cadaverous makeup that gives her the look of a murderous manikin, stands out in support. Jun, playing an under-socialized naif with boundary and self-preservation issues, is a manic fright. And Park ably suggests an “innocent” dragged into this who isn’t all that innocent, and has inner resources of her own.

There have been too many movies titled “The Call,” so when Hollywood remakes it they’ll have to tweak that. But Chung-hyun Lee has delivered a tight, surprising and moving thriller good enough to ensure that they will.

MPA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence

Cast: Shin-hye Park, Jong-seo Jun, El Lee, Ho-San Park and Sung-Ryung Kim

Credits: Scripted by directed by Chung-hyun Lee. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:52

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Netflixable? “The Beast (La Belva)” is the Italian “Taken”

He looks to be 50ish, balding, tattooed and showing his miles. Troubled. And when his doctor asks what would help, his request is direct and simple.

“Up my dosage,” he says, in Italian, with English subtitles.

Captain Riva has his demons, and we see little flashes back to their source. He was in the service for 30 years. He saw things. He did things. And awful things were done to him.

You don’t need subtitles to read “post traumatic stress disorder” into the title character in “La Belva (The Beast).” And you don’t need our anti-hero (Fabrizio Gifuni) to mutter, into a phone, that he’s an “uomo con particolari capacità,” a “man with particular skills,” to see this thriller for what it is — an Italian “Taken.”

He’s big. He’s divorced. He has two children, a teen son who’s never forgiven him for being too wrapped up in his own mess, and a six year old daughter who adores him.

Guess who’s “Taken?” Guess what he does about it?

Director and co-writer Ludovico Di Martino (“Il Nostro Ultimo”) gives us a violent man who takes a horrific series of beatings, stabbings and shootings, all in a frantic pursuit of a person or persons who might be settling some old score with him or might just be into very little girls.

“The Beast” may hit its climax a solid thirty minutes before the movie ends. But the grit, the grim violence and the surprises — in a story that is as naked a “Taken” ripoff as Liam Neeson’s legal team could tolerate — make it a gripping, grueling ride, start to very very VERY drawn-out finish.

Gifuni (“The Cezanne Affair”) makes a properly hulking and stoic lead, traumatized, desperate for that “dosage” just so he can be close to “normal” and have his kids over to dinner. Mattia (Emanuele Linfatti) isn’t having it. Whatever he told their mother (Monica Piseddu), he and little Teresa (Giada Gagliardi) are ducking into a burger joint and ducking the crazy old man.

He only steps outside “for a second.” That’s all it takes to be “Taken.”

Leonida Riva isn’t waiting to tell his wife how their son screwed up. He’s not waiting for the cop (Lino Musella) to get results from the department’s frantic dragnet. He steals a police radio and we’re off– tracking the kidnapper, then the drug dealers who might know the kidnapper, then checking in with old contacts to see who might be responsible for all this.

The fights are savage and in-your-face, with the best set-piece an homage to that famous, furious brawl in the Korean classic “Oldboy.” The climax is more anticlimactic, and the third act goes on well beyond that, settling into something far more sentimental.

But no matter. We’re having to be taken along on the chase and taken through showdowns showcasing our tough old guy’s “particolari capacità.”

MPA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, drug content

Cast: Fabrizio Gifuni, Lino Musella, Monica Piseddu, Emanuele Linfatti, Giada Gagliardi and Andrea Pennacchi

Credits: Directed by Ludovico Di Martino, script by Claudia De Angelis, Nicola Ravera and Ludovico Di Martino. A Warner Media film on Netflix.

Running time: 1:37

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Netflixable? “Midnight at the Magnolia” is Hallmark Channel bland

“Midnight at the Magnolia” is a holiday romance as tasty as bargain-shelf whitebread and edgy as a butterknife. It’s Example One in that age-honored adage that America is filled to the brim with competent actresses and actors, but “star power” and “screen charisma” are what count, and are still as rare as Tanzanite.

Maggie and Jack are lifelong friends who’ve realized a lifelong dream. They co-host “The Windy City Wakeup” onFM98.8 in Chicago. And all we need to know about the movie is right there, in the sparkling banter between perfectly pretty Maggie (Canadian Natalie Hall, of “You’re Bacon Me Crazy”) and unshaven/snarky Jack (Canadian Evan Williams, of “A Date by Christmas Eve”). As in, there isn’t any.

These two couldn’t host a podcast from Paducah, much less an energy-ratings driven morning show in the Second City.

But gosh, here’s their boss, telling them they’re up for a satellite radio promotion thanks to the legend “Judd” someone or other.

They chat, frankly but benignly, about their love lives on the air. Their families, who’re close, don’t mind. But their latest romantic partners? The ones they haven’t allowed to “meet” their respective families? They’re a bit put off. Nice about it, but…

Telling a radio audience they’ll relent and introduce them to their (united) extended families over the holidays in the legendary jazz bar/restaurant their dads co-own isn’t considerate or discrete. EVERYbody can see their friendship stands in the way of new love.

Who WILL they share a New Year’s kiss with on “Midnight at the Magnolia?”

I mean, their siblings and parents have all expected them to make a love connection, Maggie’s “If something were going to happen, it would have” notwithstanding.

Jack’s fecklessness and Maggie’s eagerness to accommodate show history, but can they “fake it” convincingly enough to fool their radio audience with a surprise “We’re TOGTHER” announcement, on the air and online, New Year’s Eve?

There isn’t a single line in the script pithy enough to bother quoting. “The Man Who Came to Dinner” this isn’t.

There is nobody in the supporting cast colorful enough to steal a scene, much less the movie.

And the leads? Competent, attractive, with no chemistry and zero sizzle or spark. G-rated or not, this “romance” should make us feel the longing they’re denying, the hurt they feel if things don’t pan out.

Hall and Williams would have trouble standing out in this blase supporting cast, much less as leads.

When everyone and everything is this low-heat, even a Hallmark level holiday romance faces that dreaded two-word review every actor and filmmaker fears.

Who cares?

MPA Rating: TV-G

Cast: Natalie Hall, Evan Williams

Credits: Directed by Max McGuire, script by Carley Smale. A MarVista movie, a Netflix release.

Running time: 1:27

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Netflixable? “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey”

The choreography by Ashley Wallen sparkles and dazzles.

Madelen Mills, Anika Noni Rose, Ricky Martin and Lisa Davina Phillip sing, but so do Forest Whitaker and Keegan-Michael Key — who sings the villain’s show-stopper, “Magic Man G.”

The settings are baroque, brass-burnished and gorgeously detailed, creating a Dickensian city (Cobbletown) with a far more diverse populace.

“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” has the makings of a film kids get into, colorful and cute (ish) and tuneful — “Hugo” and “Short Circuit” mashed up with “The Greatest Showman.” If only it wasn’t so…long.

And the message of this “Christmas Journey?” Um, protect your copyrights, lest your assistant cash in on them? Toys will only work if kids truly “believe?” Because the holiday is all about the toys?

“Jingle Jangle” may be a giant step up in ambition for writer-director David E. Talbert (“Almost Christmas”). And while it never offends, this shiny, empty-headed musical bauble doesn’t cut the mustard, pleasantly-forgettable songs notwithstanding. The arrival of its show-stopper is jarring, because of how boring the first half hour has been. The fact that little that follows comes close to that highlight further dulls the senses.

A not-quite-pointless framing device has a grandmother (Phylicia Rashad) reading the kids a whole new story, something a little more up to date than Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” she promises.

She tells of a great toy inventor, Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell) whose Jingle Jangle toyworks/shop is where the magic happens.

His greatest gadget of all is his new automata, a tiny metallic matador (voiced and sung by Ricky Martin) who develops a mind of his own with a dollop of magical elixir. “Every child in the world” will get one,” Jeronicus declares.

But the toy and the shop assistant, aspiring inventor Gustafson (Justin Cornwell) conspire to steal away with the master’s master blueprints, and Jeronicus is lost.

Years later, he’s just a widowed old man (Oscar winner Whitaker) keeping his banker (Hugh Bonneville) at bay, fending off the advances of delivery-lady Johnston (British actress Lisa Davina Phillip), dismissing his visiting granddaughter (Madalen Mills), desperate to come up with something unique and spectacular.

Once the granddaughter and nerdy new shop assistant Edison (Kieron L. Dyer) set their minds to helping, you know that’ll come, and that the older Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key) will want to get his hands on it.

I’m not the age-range Talbert is shooting for here, but I laughed maybe once. The only songs that tickle are Martin’s matador number (a grin) and Key’s big mustache-twirling ego trip “Magic Man G.”

I liked the granddaughter Journey’s aspirational (“longing”) song, the “Square Root of Possible (is me).” The rest? Meh.

The dancing crackles, and even Whitaker gets into it (to a reggae-ish tune). There’s no slapstick to speak of, the new automata is a little “Short Circuit” and a lot of “Wall-E.” Aborbs, but come on.

The whole affair has a touch of “Polar Express” about it, kind of holiday heartless. Even “Toy Story” isn’t just about the toys.

Maybe the gadgets, the cute kids and the dancing will hold younger kids’ attention. But if they wander out of the room at the 75 minute mark, at least you’ll know why.

MPA Rating: PG for some thematic elements and peril

Cast: Forest Whitaker, Madalen Mills, Anika Noni Rose, Keegan-Michael Key, Ricky Martin, Lisa Davina Phillip, Phylicia Rashad and Hugh Bonneville

Credits: Scripted and directed by David E. Talbert. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:58

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Documentary Review: “Museum Town” tracks a dying city’s attempts at revival via a Big Museum

The largest museum of contemporary art in the world, acres and acres in size, was opened in a dying industrial town in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.

MASS MoCa was the most “out there” and yet doable pitch thrown at North Adams, Mass. locals and state officials when the one factory in their “one factory town” closed in the 1980s.

And getting it in there, obtaining state backing and the support of artists and the “arts community” which dumpy, industrial North Adams is pretty far removed from and gauging its impact (or the lack of it) on the city is the story of “Museum Town.”

This engaging documentary and labor of love from one of those instrumental in giving the facility its start, its first development director, now a first-time documentary filmmaker, Jennifer Trainer.

Trainer, a journalist by training, tells the industrial story of North Adams, which first industrialized as a print and dye works in the Industrial Revolution, a company that help on for nearly a century, providing employment even as it polluted the town.

“You could tell which dye they were using by the color of the river that day,” one older local remembers.

An electrical parts factory moved in afterwards, another vast workforce in a huge collection of spaces, putting most of the women of the city to work during World War II and the decades after. And then Sprague up and moved out.

Trainer’s film tells its story in three threads. There’s the history, and the efforts of local officials and boosters to find something to stop the city’s utter collapse (soaring unemployment, social services strained, etc). We meet the nearby artist/dreamers who pushed the idea and deal with its successes and failings to this day.

Then there’s artist Nick Cave — NOT the icon rock icon. We see this contemporary artist install, in a huge space, an exhibit quite typical of today’s MASS MoCa. “Until” was huge in scale, splashy, pushing the museum’s fabrication shop — where craftspeople help an artist “realize his vision” — to its limits. It is a show designed to draw a crowd, at least at the opening.

It took years of pushing, navigating the shifting currents of Massachusetts politics to obtain the huge amount of start up funding. Trainer and those she interviews take us through that, and serve up this delicious anecdote. The plans, approved by then-governor Michael Dukakis, needed further support from the incoming Republican governor William Weld. We hear how the skeptical Weld visited the place to make his mind up about it, treated to an edgy installation by art student turned rock star David Byrne.

“Who knew our Republican governor was actually a huge Talking Heads fan?”

Famous visual artists (Robert Rauschenberg) and artists who gained fame in other media (Laurie Anderson) are a signature of MASS MoCa, which has room for performance spaces, as well as performance art. Wilco shows and metal sculptures can vie for your attention on a given week.

Meryl Streep reads from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” from letters between staff and artists, and from a scathing New York Times review of a museum low point, when a Swiss diva abandoned an ever-growing planned show because of problems of “vision,” exposing MASS MoCa to ridicule and vast losses.

What’s sobering about the film is how plainly this experiment in high culture re-purposing could never work any where else on this scale. Thomas Krens, the nearby college museum curator and co-founder who first came up with the of putting a museum in the Sprague factory points to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain, as akin to MASS MoCa. But whatever the violent history of Basque country, Bilboa’s landmark has a famous architect, a gigantic foundation and a scenic coastal city and waterfront property to recommend it.

Smaller scale versions of industrial buildings turned into galleries have worked all over the world. But try to replicate this grand experiment anywhere outside of The Berkshires, home to colleges, Tanglewood and affluence, and see how far you get.

“Museum Town” still makes makes for a fine recounting of one instance where “thinking big” in the always-strapped-for-cash museum world paid off in post-industrial North Adams. Trainer lets us meet bold thinkers who found a way to put a modern twist on what a museum — “an eighteenth century idea (stuck) in a 19th century box” — could be.

Credits: Directed by Jennifer Trainer, script by Noah Bashevkin, Pola Rapaport and Jennifer Trainer. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:16

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Netflixable? Bruce Willis in his C-movie twilight, “Hard Kill”

We always knew how Bruce Willis would spend his celebrity dotage — Shakespeare in the Park, maybe a spirited farewell tour as “Bruno” with his band.

OK, maybe we didn’t. But seeing him in — BARELY in — C-movies like “Hard Kill” is just another reminder that some guys can’t let go, can’t change a lifetime of piss-poor movie choices and don’t know, the way Garbo and Cary Grant did, when it’s time to “close the door” and leave with their screen image intact and immortal.

“Hard Kill” is a garbage thriller made because the producers had access to an abandoned factory complex, a lot of tac gear to dress their color-coordinated “terrorist” minions in and Bruce Willis’s name.

Willis plays Chalmers, the billionaire ex-military chief of a tech empire who hires/tricks an elite mercenary team led by Derek (Jesse Metcalfe of “Desperate Housewives” and “Chesapeake Shores”) and Sasha (WWE minx Natalie Eva Marie) into helping him recover not just the story’s “MacGuffin,” a magical artificial intelligence gadget that “in the wrong hands” could doom us all.

And it’s in the wrong hands, those of the terrorist named “The Pardoner” (Lamest villain name ever, lamely played by Sergio Rizzuto).

Another thing in the wrong hands? Chalmers’ daughter Eve, the tech genius behind his Charterhouse Industries, is being held hostage. And I didn’t have to look up Lala Kent, who plays her, to realize she’s a no-talent, either a model or reality TV creation.

The fights and shootouts are fine, basically commandos taking out one helmeted minion after another.

The dialogue is limp as week-old Ramen, and the performances give “perfunctory” a bad name.

Willis? He’s just a wizened, pistol-packing bald guy who used to spend his holidays flying to LA, “having a few laughs,” a very long time ago.

MPA Rating: R for violence and language throughout

Cast: Jesse Metcalfe, Bruce Willis, Lala Kent, Natalie Eva Marie, Texas Battle and Sergio Rizzuto.

Credits: Directed by Matt Eskandari, script by Joe Russo and Chris LaMont. A Vertical release on Netflix.

Running time: 1:38

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Netflixable? A SWAT team goes wrong in the ruins of their Iraqi city, “Mosul”

For my money, the best action picture on Netflix right now is a grim combat thriller set in the bombed-out ruins of the Iraqi city, “Mosul.”

It’s an intimate “Blackhawk Down” meets “Saving Private Ryan” tale of a mission and “attrition,” grizzled professionals battling the murderous “on a medieval scale” soldiers of ISIS, or “Daesh” as they’re called in the Middle East.

The film feels like you’re trapped in a first-person-shooter video game where the stakes are real, the learning curve is steep and the peril — house-to-house fighting where every building is mostly ruined, and a potential threat. It feels like you’re in Mosul, when they filmed it in Morocco. And it’s so inside the combat zone and the culture — Arabic is the only language spoken — that it plays like an Iraqi war memoir, even though this “inspired by true” events tale was written and directed by the guy who scripted “The Kingdom” and “World War Z.”

“Mosul” is set in the last days of the city’s “latest” occupation, when Daesh is “fleeing.”

“Do THEY know that?” Major Jasem (Suhail Dabbach, in a breakout performance) growls.

He leads the Nineveh SWAT team, what’s left of it. They’ve survived the various occupations, they still have enough men and battered Humvees to carry the fight to Daesh. They show up just as young policeman Kawa (Adam Bessa) has fired his last round in the firefight that saw his unit — including the uncle who got him the job — all but wiped out, pinned down in a ground floor storefront.

Jasem sizes him up and brings him aboard. There’s no arguing. Just take your uncle’s hat, change shirts and you’re “one of us.”

He has no idea of “the mission” these guys are on in the “wrong side” of Mosul. But he can use a gun, and he’s kept himself alive.

“Lift your weapon and keep your eyes open” are Jasem’s only instructions.

Matthew Michael Carnahan’s story is a journey through the inferno of a city that could be Warsaw in 1945, Beirut in 1979 — bombed-out, littered with corpses, rife with murderous snipers who “punish” civilians trying to flee the dying remnants of Daesh.

It’s a movie of gritty details and jaw-dropping surprises. The well-equipped SWAT commandos keep small pickaxes and chisels with them. Yes, they can be weapons, but their main use it punching holes in walls so that they can shoot through them.

They work their way down streets, through hallways, with the worn remnants of well-taught and much-used military precision. But when Kawa sees what they’re clearing this one corpse-ridden apartment complex for, he’s a bit taken aback. As are we.

It’s midday, and their favorite “Kuwaiti soap opera” is on. They had to find a building with power and a working TV.

That’s a rare light moment in an otherwise relentless tale of hunt and be hunted, ambushes, with every firefight reducing their number.

Kawa is young, but a quick study.

Jasem is jaded, but hopeful. He rescues children when he can, pays to impose them on families (they rob the dead of their cash at every turn) and urges them to care for the child so that “the rebuilding” can begin. Every room that they stop in, he stoops to pick up trash, tidy up, as if for that eventuality.

“We have to rebuild everything,” he sighs. “But first, we have to kill every one of them.”

They can’t ask for help, for reasons that are both clear and obscured. “Don’t talk about the Americans, we’re beyond that” is the extent of Jasem’s politics, until he has to haggle with one of the Iranian “militias” that’s come in, an enemy “faction” fighting on their side. Jasem and his team bicker with the Persian commander (Waleed Elgadi) over history, British vs. French occupation, the works.

And when these little grace notes — tense as they are — end, there’s more blood, more street-level strategizing, anything to further this rogue unit’s “mission” which Kawa doesn’t want to know about until he absolutely has to.

No one in their right mind would want to go there, but for the viewer, “Mosul” is a combat thriller that passes on an appreciation of professionalism and patriotism in a different language, in different uniforms, but with a universal focus on “mission” and “hope.”

MPA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, constant smoking, profanity

Cast: Suhail Dabbach, Adam Bessa, Is’haq Elias, Qutaiba Abdelhaq, Mohimen Mahbuba, Thaer Al-Shayei and Waleed Elgadi

Credits: Written and directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:41

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Movie Review: “Deadhead Miles,” an abandoned Alan Arkin film scripted by Terrence Malick

A friend pointed me to an Internet appreciation of this “lost” 1972 Terrence Malick-scripted road comedy, a movie partially-filmed in a city where I used to live — Knoxville, Tennessee.

“Deadhead Miles” is a loosely-organized, largely-improvised long-haul trucking tale that ventures from the Tennessee/Virginia line to the desert Southwest. Oddly enough, when I was living in Knoxville, Ridley Scott came through scouting for this road picture he was about to shoot about two women on the lam in a T-bird. He ended up limiting that one to the desert Southwest and environs. Perhaps some Knoxvillian warned him about “Deadhead Miles,” which was shelved, then barely released (Drive-ins, maybe?) and lost.

As hard as it was to get any movie made in the late ’60s and early ’70s, you saw more than one version of this pseudo-existential road picture during that era, this one riffing on “Easy Rider.” “Odd” and “indulgent” misfires were everywhere as Hollywood tried to figure out the new formula for success. Robert Altman’s nearly-unwatchable “Brewster McCloud,” “C.C. & Company” and loads of B-movies came out with a “quirky” bent, the romance of the open road their only organizing principle, a “name” or two in the credits and limited audience appeal.

Sam Peckinpah’s “Convoy,” Eastwood’s “Every Which Way But Loose” and assorted TV series and C.W. McCall’s novelty hit song “Convoy” celebrated the modern loner “cowboys” behind the wheels of tractor trailers. Steven Spielberg sent that genre up with “Duel.”

“Deadhead Miles” — that’s a trucking term for empty (no profit, lost money) trips between loads — begins with a simple but labor-intense hijacking organized by Durazno (veteran character actor Oliver Clark), a guy with some unknown beef with the trucking industry. He and his crew stage a crash, tear-gas a trucker and Cooper (Alan Arkin, beginning a long career disappearing act from his ’60s peak) is their designated driver.

The rig is repainted, re-licensed, re-labeled and run down the road so that they can sell its cargo — thousands of carburetors. That’s what ran American cars before the magic of “fuel injection,” kids. The unsellable load is bad enough. But when Cooper slyly ditches the gang (Avery Schreiber is among the character actors in it), he’s on his own.

Until, that is, he’s badgered by a couple of hitchhikers and their dog. He’ll only take one, so Paul Benedict (“The Jeffersons”) it is, his somewhat boon companion for a cross-country odyssey to New Mexico.

“It’s hard work,” the hitcher remarks, making small talk. “What you mean is that it ain’t IN-ter-estin’ work,” Cooper replies, in perhaps the only Southern drawl in Alan Arkin’s (eventual) Oscar-winning career.

Roadhouses where they run into the likes of fellow drivers like “The Duke of Interstate 40” (Hector Elizondo, a decade before “Pretty Woman”), surface roads lined with farm stands, Double Bubble Cola and Schlitz signs, a stop at a drive-in to watch “Samson & Delilah,” a bizarre brothel (a hooker tied to a wood stove, so she can’t flee), an overnight encounter with a rolling brothel (a Ford “woody” wagon with a naked “road whore” advertising her wares), they see it all.

Cooper lets “bennie take the wheel” (popping uppers to stay awake), and brags about getting out of tickets (which he never does) every time the cops pull him over.

“Ok, Buddy, you’re gonna see a man step in a bucket of s–t and come out with his SHOES shined!”

The direction, by drive-in trade mediocrity Vernon Zimmerman, is competent, but haphazard and pedestrian. If you’re looking for something resembling a Terrence Malick script here, good luck. The road and caper comedy tropes served up include double crosses, bungled efforts to unload the carburetors and an encounter with a trucking myth — a helpful repair in the middle of nowhere by a ghost (Bruce Bennett) dressed in cowboy black, driving a jet-black rig.

If Malick researched this trucking script, my guess is that it began and ended with listening to country music radio in the “Phantom 309” “Six Days on the Road” era. Dave Dudley, who sang that last classic, sings several songs on the soundtrack.

The best you can say about “Deadhead Miles” is that it’s a fascinating Alan Arkin-tries-to-improv-a-movie artifact, indulgent and screwy and not funny, not profound — with cameos by George Raft, Ida Lupino, Loretta Swit, Charles Durning and future Bond villain Richard “Jaws” Kiel dressing up the roadside tour of America before the Oil Embargo and the completion of the Interstates turned us into the highway monoculture you see today.

MPA Rating: R, nudity, sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Alan Arkin, Paul Benedict, Oliver Clark, Avery Schreiber, Hector Elizondo, Charles Durning, Loretta Swit, George Raft and Ida Lupino

Credits: Directed by Vernon Zimmerman, script by Terrence Malick. A Paramount release on Youtube.

Running time: 1:27

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Movie Review: Aubrey Plaza finds inspiration in “Black Bear”

“Everything is copy,” the late novelist, screenwriter and filmmaker Nora Ephron preached. Anything that happens to you or someone you know, everything that you overhear — fair game for a creative person. Especially one who’s “blocked.”

That might describe Allison, the character played by Aubrey Plaza in “Black Bear,” a sexy and edgy deep dive into “creatives” and their creativity, and conflicts we can see from a long way off because introducing stress into a situation is how you get drama out of it, on or off the screen.

Allison has rented a room in a couple’s house in a lakeside forest. Gabe (Christopher Abbott of TV’s “Catch-22”) picks her up and proceeds to ask a lot of questions and admits, eventually, to doing more research on their “guest” than he initially lets on.

She’s a movie director. She used to be an actress.

“People sort of stopped hiring me,” she says, explaining the switch because he’s asked. Because she’s “difficult?” “Maybe I’m just not attractive enough” is easier for her to own.

Once at the house, the third party — Blair (Sarah Gadon of last year’s run of “True Detective”) is pregnant, outspoken in her feminism and unfiltered in her reaction to Allison’s opinions (she alternately embraces and mocks feminism). A little wine, which Allison indulges in over Gabe’s objections, loosens everybody’s tongue.

The filmmaker is “waiting for something meaningful to happen to me.” Does she mean in her personal life, or her creative one? Because with the way Blair and Gabe start going at it, it’s obvious both could happen, and at the same time.

We know where this little third-wheel situation is going long before the metallic bickering delivers that line, worn out in “the other woman” tales since the beginning of time, is uttered.

“I SAW the way you were looking at her!”

And after the melodrama — contrived, preordained, sexual — has played out, the second movie begins, the movie about the making of a movie called “Black Bear.”

On a set filled with attractive film professionals unprofessional enough to let their flirting, hooking up and indulging get in the way, Gabe is now the filmmaker manipulating his distraught, diva wife (Plaza) by pretending to be carrying on with “the other woman” (Gadon) in this lakeside house in a forest where black bears roam.

“Write what you know” they tell you in creative writing classes, and actor turned writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine (“Wild Canaries”) is better prepared than most to turn the camera back on the people making the movie.

The intimacy of an indie film set, with a small — usually young because they’re cheaper to hire — crew, creates its own sexual tension. And filmmakers aren’t shy about lying, seducing or bullying their actors to get what they think they want out of them.

Plaza makes good use of her reputation for deadpan. But she doesn’t let us see Allison’s wheels turning. Is she giving in to passion, truly at a crossroads and lost, or is she just playing everybody to get a rise out of them and stir up something she can “use?”

That cinematic sage Val Kilmer, in his new memoir “I’m Your Huckleberry,” gives away the secret of why so many people in the acting/filmmaking profession are magnets for discord, divas and drama queens on and off sets, in and out of marriages. They feed off it, need it. It’s their “normal.” That’s what Levine taps into here.

Gadon plays two quite-different characters in the movie and the movie-with-a-movie, and makes both fascinating. Abbott makes Gabe an argumentative reactor in the first act, a cruel puppeteer in the second and is believable in both guises.

It’s not the neatest film-dissecting-filmmakers story, with rough edges, lurches in tone and trite tropes and dialogue. But the characters make us wince in recognition and the situations, even the ones we know are coming, are real enough to cringe over.

And all along, we ponder if anything and everything we see might be happening because somebody is playing somebody else, just for effect.

MPA Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content, drug use and some nudity

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Gad, Christopher Abbott

Credits: Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine. A Momentum release.

Running time: 1:44

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Movie Preview: Streep and Corden try to “fix” Indiana at “The Prom”

Netflix has this cute, woke activist Ryan Murphy musical comedy.

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