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    ‘Munich: The Edge of War’ Review: ‘Well Navigated, Sir’ (Not!)

    With clenched jaws and furrowed brows, this plodding procedural attempts to glorify Neville Chamberlain, played here by Jeremy Irons.Shortly after “Munich: The Edge of War” opens, a young couple have an anniversary lunch at a restaurant. It’s 1938, and the husband, who works in the British Foreign Service, tells his wife that Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia, and if that happens Britain and France will be obliged to respond militarily. Just as the husband delivers this sober news, the wife — wearing an indulgent smile and the openly bored look of someone listening to the weather report — perks up. The waiter has brought their Chablis finally.Unlike that wife, Hitler at least gets some grudging respect and decent dialogue in this potboiler about the diplomatic efforts to stop Germany. Based on the best seller by the British novelist Robert Harris, the movie weds fact with fiction for a story about estranged friends, Hugh (George MacKay) and Paul (Jannis Niewöhner), occupying opposite side of the geopolitical divide. Hugh works at 10 Downing Street and is married to the aforementioned cliché, Pamela (Jessica Brown Findley). Paul serves in the foreign ministry in Berlin and has a tart, politically astute lover, Helen (Sandra Hüller).For the most part, this movie comes across as a feature-length attempt to glorify Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who engaged in the much-debated diplomatic strategy of appeasement in the run-up to World War II. Played by a sadly juiceless Jeremy Irons in funereal mode, the Chamberlain here is a quietly heroic figure who perceptively negotiates with Hitler to avoid another war. Yet while Chamberlain is the story’s champion — a noble defender, historical bone of contention and revisionist argument rolled into one phlegmatic figure — the movie’s more energetic and visually engaging heroic duties have been relegated to Hugh, Paul and the supporting players in their orbits.The movie opens with a glimpse of the good old days at Oxford when Hugh and Paul were in love with the same Jewish free spirit, Lena (Liv Lisa Fries). Years later, Hugh is in obsequious functionary mode at Downing Street and hovering attentively over Chamberlain (“well navigated, sir”) while Paul is busily conspiring to boot out Hitler (a spidery and strange Ulrich Matthes). For much of what follows, Hugh and Paul occupy their respective narrative territories. As the plot thickens, the filmmakers — the movie was written by Ben Power and directed by Christian Schwochow — try to build tension by cutting back and forth between the two lines of action that eventually, predictably converge.All this editing busywork doesn’t help enliven “The Edge of War,” a plodding bureaucratic procedural that features many, many characters strategizing in various spaces with furrowed brows and clenched jaws, mostly in relentless medium close-up. Every so often, these talking heads prove they have bodies and rush or just walk down a corridor and into an office, car or plane, where they continue to scheme, furrow and clench. On occasion, someone has a drink or makes love or goes outside for a breather. In Britain, ordinary citizens are either agitating for peace or preparing for war; in Munich, German soldiers salute one another, hailing Hitler in front of shop windows defaced with anti-Semitic threats.As the story grinds to its spoiler-free finale, it becomes increasingly clear that the movie would have been vastly improved if the filmmakers had ditched the dueling band o’ brothers story line and instead focused on Paul and his efforts to assassinate Hitler, always a surefire audience pleaser. Hugh is largely a reactive character — a minor planet orbiting Chamberlain’s fading star — and enough of a dreary presence and conceit that you start to feel grudging sympathy for his ridiculous wife, if not the people who put such snortingly terrible dialogue in her mouth. For his part, MacKay is playing a witness to history, which may explain all his energetic eye widening; too bad the character has no detectable inner life.Paul is the better, more effective figure partly because he faces the more obvious and immediate threat, one that’s largely conveyed through Hitler’s paranoia (and, well, Hitler himself), Nazi iconography and your own knowledge of history rather than the reams of dialogue or the filmmaking. This danger gives Paul’s part of the story juice as does Niewöhner’s fine impression of a pressure cooker leaking steam. Adding much-needed interest too are the women in Paul’s life. They’re stereotypes and certainly objectionable — Lena is more symbol than person — but at least they don’t read as insults to half the world’s population. As Helen, Hüller may not have much to do, but her vitality and intelligence are irrepressible.Munich: The Edge of WarRated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes. Watch on Netflix. More

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    ‘A Shot Through the Wall’ Review: Tipping Justice’s Scales

    In this drama about the killing of a Black man, the intersection of race and policing is considered from the perspective of a Chinese American police officer.Written and directed by Aimee Long, “A Shot Through the Wall” considers the modern dilemma about race and policing in the United States from the perspective of a Chinese American police officer in New York. When a rookie, Mike Tan (Kenny Leu), chases a teenager through an apartment building in Brooklyn, Mike accidentally fires his gun, killing a Black man.After the shooting, Mike is seen agonizing over his actions, though his immigrant parents, Chow and May (Tzi Ma and Fiona Fu), are supportive. At work, his superiors assure him everything will blow over — until a video revealing Mike’s identity goes viral, prompting widespread demands for justice and the possibility of a sentence that includes jail time. Mike then seeks the help of a high-powered attorney who encourages him to flaunt his Black girlfriend, Candace (Ciara Renée), to blunt any accusations of racism.Though attentive to calls for police accountability, and the media’s role in reducing complex issues into simple narratives, Long’s schematic script ramps up theatrics at the expense of more challenging insights.Nevertheless, the brisk, eventful melodrama has an undeniably absorbing appeal, and the strongest moments in the film occur when Long illuminates Mike’s family life with subtle details about the relationship between two generations of Chinese Americans — as when May’s English is smugly corrected by her daughter.Alienated and desperate upon realizing the exploitative strategies he needs to perform in order to avoid a conviction, Mike illegally purchases a weapon and betrays his loved ones before coming to his senses. By the final act, however, Long pulls the rug out from under us in a way that implausibly drives home the film’s perfunctory ideas about gun violence, police incompetence and the victimhood of communities of color.A Shot Through the WallNot rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Amazon, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators. More

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    ‘Donkeyhead’ Review: You Really Can’t Go Home Anymore

    A writer living in Canada finds herself back home with her Punjabi immigrant parents.It’s going on seven years since Mona (Agam Darshi), a failed Punjabi Canadian writer in her mid-30s, moved back to her childhood home to care for her father (Marvin Ishmael), who has cancer. When his health deteriorates and he lapses into a coma, Mona begins to unravel as she realizes his death would remove her only meaningful purpose in life.Written and directed by Darshi, “Donkeyhead” is a kind of coming-of-age film, only its heroine is an extremely late bloomer. When her accomplished siblings — Rup (Huse Madhavji), Sandy (Sandy Sidhu), and Parm (Stephen Lobo), Mona’s twin brother — come home, the aimlessness of Mona’s existence is thrown into sharp relief.“Donkeyhead” attempts to build out complex family dynamics with humor and an eye toward Sikh immigrant culture — a nosy aunt transforms Mona’s home into a reception space for relatives to pay their respects to the dying patriarch.But Darshi’s script lacks flair, and often resorts to cringe-inducing clichés, as when Mona whisks her stuffy siblings away to a local bar and initiates a singalong to the Canadian national anthem. Secrets emerge as tensions come to a head over dad’s will and the fate of the family home, and — predictably — Mona’s siblings aren’t as put together as they seem.The black sheep of the family who outwardly resists Sikh tradition, Mona is also in an affair with a married man, Brent (Kim Coates), who — like her father — is yet another obviously tenuous source of comfort destined to slip away. Despite her minor rebellions, Mona remains a frustratingly opaque character; a stereotypically troubled woman whose eventual awakening merits a shrug at most.DonkeyheadNot rated. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. Watch on Netflix. More

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    ‘The Royal Treatment’ Review: Heavy is the Head (and Shoulders)

    Laura Marano and Mena Massoud star in a romantic comedy that tweaks a familiar formula but still feels inane.Cinderella stories don’t die, they mutate.In “The Royal Treatment,” Izzy (Laura Marano), a New York hairdresser with major attitude, gets a happily-ever-after story that justifies itself by offering two tweaks to the familiar formula. First, the screenwriter Holly Hester swaps the fairy godmother for a smartphone — one that mistakenly directs the valet of a dimpled royal, Prince Thomas (Mena Massoud), to Izzy’s salon. Second, this candy-floss flick embraces today’s trend toward populism by having the girl initially reject the prince because his kingdom, a Euro-spritzed fantasyland called Lavania where folk-dancing peasants speak fluent English, has perpetrated human rights abuses.Here, the prince — not his working-class crush — must be made over. This is because of ignominies including his ignorance of the number of gardeners on the royal estate (18, for the record) and his failure to question why his parents have betrothed him to the daughter of a Texas real estate tycoon. (Let’s just say that the reason is not good for the poorest Lavanians, who live in a gray warren called Über die Gleise, or “Over the Tracks.”)The movie comes across as a deliberately, almost defensively, inane trifle; a cupcake whose icing reads, “Enjoy the tooth decay.” Not only can’t the Lavanians agree on an accent, but the structures that make up the king’s castle can’t agree on an architecture style, settling on a bizarre mix of mildewed gargoyles and modernist solariums. Given the director Rick Jacobson’s sheer insouciance, it feels petty to sniff that the couple has the chemistry of tap water. The lovebirds chatter and smile — Massoud with a graham-cracker blandness, Marano with a roiling, unfiltered and eventually exhausting extroversion — as time ticks by until a climactic kiss. There’s no swooning, but at least there’s a fun subplot where Izzy’s salon co-workers (played by Grace Bentley-Tsibuah and Chelsie Preston Crayford) suffer a royal re-education camp that trains the brassy glamour girls to put down their nail glitter. Sobs one, “I’m losing my pizazz!”The Royal TreatmentNot rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. Watch on Netflix. More

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    ‘The King’s Daughter’ Review: Sinking or Swimming at Versailles

    Pierce Brosnan stars as a version of King Louis XIV who seeks to sacrifice a mermaid for immortality in this puerile storybook fantasy that was shot nearly eight years ago.Here’s a tragic tale: Once upon a time, an action-adventure drama began production. Nearly eight years, a title change and a new distribution plan later, the movie finally sees the light of day. Nothing about it feels worth the wait.Puerile and plodding, “The King’s Daughter” — originally called “The Moon and the Sun,” and based on the fantasy novel of that name — begins as the plucky Marie-Josephe (Kaya Scodelario) is recruited to Versailles as a royal composer. Of meager origins, our young heroine thrills at palace life, and even establishes a rapport with France’s august sovereign, King Louis XIV (a puckering Pierce Brosnan). There appears to be an oddly coquettish slant to their relationship until, what a surprise: Marie-Josephe discovers that she’s not an orphaned paysan but Louis’s estranged child. (It isn’t a stretch to guess that titling the movie “The King’s Daughter” was a Hail Mary measure to undercut the principals’ accidental framing as a romantic couple-to-be.)Oh, and there’s also a C.G.I. mermaid (Fan Bingbing) being held captive until an imminent eclipse, when the king will order her sacrifice in exchange for immortality.Directed by Sean McNamara, the movie seems to aspire to the grand, squally allure of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series. And shot partly on location at Versailles, the visuals are sometimes splendid. When, for example, Marie-Josephe and a ship captain frolic through Hameau de la Reine, the setting’s natural beauty allows for a momentary respite — until the scene ends, and we’re thrust back into storybook inanity.The King’s DaughterRated PG. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. In theaters. More

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    ‘Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’ Review: Remote Learning

    In Pawo Choyning Dorji’s film, a teacher is assigned to a school that’s an eight-day walk from where he lives.In “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” an indifferent young teacher, Ugyen, is assigned to a school high in the mountains of Bhutan. This is far from where he’d rather be — Australia — and it’s an eight-day schlep by foot from where he currently lives, the modern Bhutanese city of Thimphu. As Ugyen makes the trek with two guides, the director, Pawo Choyning Dorji, shows the declining population and rising altitude along the way. Lunana numbers less than 100 residents.Ugyen’s charming, yak-herding hosts are an internet-free picture of serenity against the backdrop of verdant, misty slopes. Parables about teachers sent to the provinces are usually a two-way street: education and advancement for the students, life lessons for their instructor. Ugyen (plainly played by Sherab Dorji) is especially undistinguished, and despite teaching the children about math and toothbrushes, he receives the brunt of the story’s enlightenment about the upsides of traditional living.The gently efficient story feels like an attempt to illustrate Bhutan’s real-life “Gross National Happiness” initiative. (The film gives credit to “the noble people of Lunana,” as well as “School Among Glaciers,” a 2003 Bhutanese documentary about a teacher sent to the mountains.) Ugyen’s aspirations to a singing career are amusingly unremarkable in Lunana, where locals croon songs to the valleys as spiritual offerings.About that yak: he’s a gift to Ugyen (to produce dung fuel), and he sits and chews in the background of classroom scenes, just happy to be there. The film basks in a similar mood of mild-mannered contentment.Lunana: A Yak in the ClassroomNot rated. In Dzongkha, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. In theaters. More

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    ‘The Last Thing Mary Saw’ Review: God Is Always Watching

    In this thriller set in a Calvinist household in 1843, two women in love struggle against both patriarchal and supernatural forces to be together.“The Last Thing Mary Saw,” as a name, might lead viewers to believe that the titular character has seen some unspeakable horror just before her death. In fact — and this is no spoiler — she has seen such terrors just before having her eyes gouged out. Such is the beguiling, nasty nature of this first feature from the writer-director Edoardo Vitaletti, set at a Calvinist household in 1843.Mary (Stefanie Scott) is the black sheep of her strict, upper-class family. She has fallen in love with their maid, Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman), and seems barely interested in hiding it. As Mary’s parents turn to the family’s eerie matriarch (Judith Roberts) for guidance, Mary and Isabelle plan their escape with the help of the downtrodden family guard, Theodore (P.J. Sosko). This main narrative is apparently a retelling, introduced during an interrogation between Mary — now blindfolded, with blood dripping from her eye sockets — and the town constable.Though this is a slow, at times plodding film, it holds more intricacies than that plot summary alone can convey. Each member of Mary’s family has a distinct role in her persecution, and she and Eleanor try to evade them several times before a grisly climax. As a result, “The Last Thing Mary Saw” is as surprising as it is frustrating. Art house horror fans may delight in its supernatural twists and pitch-dark ending, but these mechanisms only serve to muddy the story. In act two, a funeral goes awry and an anonymous villain (Rory Culkin) wreaks havoc, but it is completely unclear how or why any of these agitating events ensue. At best, the film may offer a criticism of a vengeful Christian god — at worst, it paints its lesbian protagonist as a contemptible sinner who was always destined for punishment.The Last Thing Mary SawNot rated. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. Watch on Shudder. More

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    ‘Definition Please’ Review: What Does It All Mean?

    A grown-up spelling bee star who never left her hometown tries to make sense of the conflicts and challenges in her family.“Definition Please” begins with wee Monica Chowdry winning the Scribbs National Spelling Bee. She claims the title after using up all the time-buying requests allowed, including the one that gives the actor-writer-director Sujata Day’s sincere, Bollywood-winking film its title.Turns out Monica’s ailing mom has been watching video of her little one triumph yet again. Grown-up Monica (Day) lives with her ailing mother in Greensburg, Pa. Monica has the smarts to secure a clinical research position, which she does early in the movie. So why is this minor celebrity with the major vocabulary sticking around?She has her reasons: to care for her mother (Anna Khaja); to hang out with her bestie, Krista (Lalaine), a wisecracking bartender; to coach future spelling bee champs. But mostly, she’s stuck. Will the return of her older brother, Sonny, nudge her?Ritesh Rajan brings overgrown puppy energy to Sonny, who returns home to mark the one-year anniversary of their father’s death. Mother Jaya hopes he’ll stay. That is the last thing Monica wants.More touching than riotous, “Definition Please” proves to be impressively nuanced once it begins revealing why Monica is so prickly around Sonny: He has bipolar disorder. Day depicts Monica’s frustrations, fears and resentments with a patience and depth that feels true to the experience of loving a sibling who is struggling with mental illness.Even more convincing is Khaja’s warm portrayal of a mother who needs her kids to get along. Her machinations may be the stuff of comedy, but her frightened yet steadfast approach to Sonny at his worst is a thing of tender beauty.Definition PleaseNot rated. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. Watch on Netflix. More