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A Kid Like Jake

⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Unrated: by the MPAA.

Theater: St. Anthony Main,

The crux of this family drama is an ethical quandary faced by two thoughtful people (played by Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) who want to acknowledge and support their 4-year-old son's emerging gender identity but not exploit it for gain or pin it down while it's still in formation.

That's an intriguing premise that takes this story out of conventional, daytime-special sentimentality and makes use of the distinctive gifts of Danes and Parsons — her sharp edges, his self-effacing, un-macho persona — in exploring questions about societal norms and the fluid spectrum we call selfhood.

The Wheelers are a Brooklyn couple embarking on the perilous, ruthless business of applying to schools. In New York, getting into kindergarten is tantamount to blood sport, and the Wheelers — who aren't poor, but aren't exactly rich, either — need every advantage they can get.

They seek advice from Jake's preschool principal (Octavia Spencer), who diplomatically suggests that they stress Jake's singular qualities on their applications, which in this case have to do with his preference of dresses to pants, Disney princesses to superheroes, pink to blue.

The film is directed with grace and humor by Silas Howard (who works primarily in TV) from a script that Daniel Pearle adapted from his play of the same name. It features a sensitive, even-tempered tone, as well as terrific supporting performances from Spencer, Ann Dowd and a scene-stealing Amy Landecker.

Oddly enough, the only thing missing from the film is its title character. Jake, portrayed in a sweetly beguiling turn by Leo James Davis, is seen mostly in brief, impressionistic moments while he is playing make-believe in a gauzy fort or reading along with his mom. At one point, his father observes that Jake is clearly relating to Ariel, the little mermaid who pointedly has no voice for most of her own story. The same could be said for a movie in which the predicaments of parents — philosophical, emotional, marital — take precedence over the child who's continually described but rarely seen.

The movie comes off as an unassailably benevolent place, but it's frustrating that it insists on holding its nominal protagonist at arm's length.

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Unrated: by the MPAA.

Theater: Lagoon.

You might think that having a documentary film made about your life would be a good thing, that having awed folks calling you a cultural avatar and far-seeing visionary was worth a little trouble. You might think all that, but Vivienne Westwood does not.

The subject of "this film is introduced dressed in funereal black with an agonized look on her face bemoaning the fact that interviews with her are at all necessary. "Do we have to have every bit of it, it's so boring to say all of it," she complains. "I'm totally bored doing this stuff, but you need it, so I'll tell you."

It is the charm of first-time filmmaker Lorna Tucker's movie that — her subject's reluctance notwithstanding — it provides a fascinating, involving glimpse of who Westwood was back in the day and who she is now, even at age 77, a woman of formidable energy and drive whether she is tearing apart one of her own fashion collections the night before a show or passionately advocating for environmental issues.

The film spends equal time on Westwood's legendary past and her life today, overseeing the ever-expanding fashion house that bears her name while simultaneously trying to save the planet.

Westwood designed her own clothes as a child. She moved to London as a young woman and partnered with impresario Malcolm McLaren in a Kings Row shop whose name kept changing (Let It Rock, World's End and Sex were some of the monikers) but whose impact on fashion never faltered.

Along the way Westwood and McLaren helped create the punk movement and the Sex Pistols, though that is one of the subjects Westwood is not at all keen on talking about. Typically, the designer has mixed feelings about her role in the process. "We wanted to undermine the establishment, we hated it, we wanted to destroy it," she proclaims.

But she also saw punk as a real marketing opportunity and worries today that the whole movement was "part of the distraction" and not a genuine moment of change.

A perennial rebel who feels she was "put on this planet for a reason, to stir it up a little bit," Westwood throws herself into everything she does, and that helps make her a compelling documentary subject.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

The First Purge

½ out of four stars

Rated: R for violence, pervasive profanity, sexuality and drug use.

This is the most walk-outable film I have seen in ages.

The prequel to the sociopolitical parable couched as a dystopian horror series that was launched in 2013, it strains every sinew to exceed the gory sensationalism of its predecessors, creating a new chapter in the annals of barrel-scraping.

For those who aren't aware of the series, the initial episode explained how the government has instituted an annual Purge that has, among other things, lowered the national crime rate and given citizens a cathartic means to express their inner rage. Every March 1, from 7 p.m. to 7 the following morning, Americans are legally allowed to rape, kill, steal and destroy whatever they wish, with no public services to interfere.

In the movies that have followed (this is No. 4), filmmaker James DeMonaco made the personal survival stories into allegories of a blood-spattered war between America's worst impulses and better angels. And he made no secret of whom he is rooting for. The bad guys wear conical Klansman masks or wave flags that look awfully close to Nazi insignia.

This edition of the franchise steps back in time before the Purge has been nationalized. It is being given a trial run on New York's Staten Island, triggering street parties, thrift shop costumes, a rising body count and a second-grader's story structure. The film depends on exciting action scenes that it fails to deliver. And, unfortunately, the hero and leading lady, hunky Y'lan Noel and lovely Lex Scott Davis, are as attractive as statues but less expressive. Not that they get any help from the script, a strange rambling collection of staccato diatribes and scenes of assorted creative sadisms leading to sudden death.

Attributing blame for this film is difficult. DeMonaco wrote the script, but he handed directing duties over to Gerard McMurray, who handles the duties crudely. Unless the next film in the franchise outdoes it, "The First Purge" will be the gold standard by which horror movies that were really bad ideas are judged.

Colin Covert