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Cherry Pop

Movie Reviews
'Ford v Ferrari'
(PG-13 / 152 mins)

Overview: Academy Award-winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in 'Ford v Ferrari,' based on the remarkable true story of the visionary American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and the fearless British-born driver Ken Miles (Bale), who together battled corporate interference, the laws of physics, and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford Motor Company and take on the dominating race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966.

Verdict: This is certainly not a film for our times. Drawn from recent history, it’s a nostalgic celebration of gas-guzzling fast cars and the people who risked their lives racing them.

Yet it’s wholly seductive. Cars may be its focus but its underlying theme dwells on the deadening effect of corporate conformity. Its villains are company men.

Their adversaries are the mavericks who see the path ahead and are canny and courageous enough to forge through the politicking blocking the way. Maybe it is a film for our times, after all.

Director James Mangold has made a few false steps in his career but his Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line (2005), left you in no doubt of the empathy he has with working-class heroes of an ornery disposition.

And it’s on show again here. He has a couple of first-rate examples of the breed in Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and his friend and colleague, Ken Miles, a racing driver with a Birmingham accent, World War II experience as a tank commander in the British Army and an unshakeable sense of his own worth.

Christian Bale, at his most angular and hard-bodied, seems born for the role. You fancy he found something very familiar about Miles. While his stubbornness can be supremely annoying, his faith in himself is justified by his dedication to getting things right.

To him, cars and their engines are something more than instruments to be tuned to perform at their best. When he gets behind the wheel, he could be slipping into a second skin.

He can sense the precise nature of the car’s relationship with earth and air. And he can pinpoint the most efficient way of adapting it to reach a perfect balance.

But he has a forthright contempt for men in suits, and a hot temper. Fortunately, he also has Shelby, a former chicken farmer who turned himself into a champion racing driver before a heart condition forced him off the track.

As well as knowing as much about cars as Miles does, he has enough tact and guile to hold his own in any corporate brawl.

The two begin to tangle with big business in 1966 after Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his chief lieutenants, Lee Iacocca (John Bernthal) and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), make Shelby an offer.

They want him to design a racer that will win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal contest long dominated by Ferrari.

Iacocca has persuaded the others that Ford can revive its fortunes by throwing off its reputation for stodginess and attracting younger customers. As winner of Le Mans, he reasons, the company will acquire a glamour that will cast a reflected glow on its commercial models.

Mangold has firmly fixed the film in its time. It’s not a matter of lengthening sideburns, raising skirts and planting hippies among the extras.

Its more subliminal. The cinematography has a rough texture that speaks of time’s passing. The cars may be shiny but there’s no gloss in the rest of the décor.

His crew re-created the Ford’s Michigan plant in an old steel factory in Los Angeles, going so far as to buy a fleet of 1960s Ford Falcons on eBay and Craigslist to stock the assembly line, and the racing sequences, shot with an array of rigs, platforms and camera cars, are simply breathtaking.

But some of the most absorbing action takes place off the track as the film’s cast of insatiable egos goes to war. The most withering put-down comes from Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) after he rejects a merger offer from Ford with a torrent of invective directed at the company’s “big ugly factories and ugly little cars”.

Then comes the coup de grace. Ford, he says, is not Henry Ford. “He’s Henry Ford the Second”.

Damon anchors the whole thing with his Everyman looks and adaptable amiability. He’s the most unlikely Hollywood star but perhaps that’s where his secret lies.

In this case, he keeps us with him because his is the sanity of a character who never loses sight of the big picture.

'The Irishman'
(R / 2O9 mins)

Overview: This biographical crime thriller follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he recalls his past years working for the Bufalino crime family.

Now older, the WWII veteran once again reflects on his most prolific hits and, in particular, considers his involvement with his good friend Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance in 1975.

Verdict: 'The Irishman' is a great movie, easily one of the best of the year, one of the best of the great Martin Scorsese’s career — and all anyone wants to talk about is Marvel movies.

That’s too bad. Because the merits of this film considerably outweigh self-indulgent debates about whether someone thinks 'Ant-Man' qualifies as cinema.

Who cares? Like what you like. Don’t like what you don’t.

But love “The Irishman.” It’s brilliant.

Yes, it’s Martin Scorsese making a mob movie, sort of. And he re-teams with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (with Al Pacino thrown in as icing in a very expensive cake).

If you’re hoping for a thrill ride like 'Goodfellas,' however, you’ll be disappointed, although that’s the only way you could be.

Instead you get a lonely old man’s meditation on life and loss, by which I don’t mean Scorsese. No, it’s about Frank Sheeran, played by De Niro. He’s the Irishman of the title, a truck driver turned mobster who eventually serves as union boss Jimmy Hoffa’s bodyguard, enforcer, head-cracker, whatever.

The film is based on Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Painted Houses,” which is a much better title — when one of the characters utters that phrase I couldn’t suppress a smile. (Brush up on your mob lingo.) Pacino — he’s been in a couple of pretty decent mob pictures himself — plays Hoffa, brash and fearless and not a little reckless.

Pesci is Russell Bufalino, a mob boss who quietly goes about his often deadly business in a matter-of-fact manner. Again, if you’re looking for Pesci’s Tommy DeVito from 'Goodfellas' (“You think I’m funny?”) rent it. This isn’t that.

Yes, as you’ve doubtless heard, Scorsese uses digital de-aging technology to make them all look younger at various points in the film. It’s odd but not off-putting, and it doesn’t take you out of the movie. Whatever is going on on the surface, there is some tremendous acting going on underneath.

The film is structured somewhat oddly — a framing device within a framing device. One of its joys is its celebration of Scorsese’s genius. Remember the long tracking shot at the Copacabana in 'Goodfellas'?

Here he creates another, only this time it’s into the nursing home where Sheeran is whiling away the end of his life. For whatever reason, he has decided to tell an unseen visitor the story of is life.

This gives way to another story, about a long, excruciating car ride to a fateful wedding, with Sheeran driving Bufalino and their wives over a few days. Sheeran uses this as a way to trace the events of his life.

If the details were different, the overall arc would be mundane; as if to emphasize the point, Sheeran is feted at a banquet later in life. It’s pretty regular gold-watch stuff — except for the privately issued threats and warnings in corners of the room that lead in only one direction.

Sheeran is a loyal soldier, to a surprising degree. Part of that surprise is learning to whom he’s loyal. Not his family, really — he ignores his wife and four daughters for long stretches.

His daughter, Peggy (Anna Paquin, who says about 10 words in the whole movie), won’t have anything to do with him. (She loves Hoffa but is creeped out by Bufalino, despite the latter’s lifelong queasy efforts to make her like him.)

Yes, women are underrepresented here — it’s a boy’s club. If there’s a saving grace, it’s not really a club anyone would want to belong to.

Impeccably shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto — some shots look and feel like washed-out photos from a long-forgotten family album that maybe no one wanted to find — the film is infused with melancholy.

It doesn’t glorify the mob life. It makes it seem mundane.

If Henry Hill was a rockstar mobster in 'Goodfellas' (sorry for the continual comparisons, but that’s the most obvious precedent, given the talent and themes involved), Sheeran is just a grunt.

Hits aren’t calculated events, for the most part. More likely they’re just a matter of walking up to someone and shooting them in the face. And everywhere else.

That said, at times Hoffa and Bufalino crop up in a lot of historical events, not quite mobster versions of Forrest Gump, but something like that.

You can probably guess most of them. Even then it doesn’t seem like part of a grand scheme, but a bunch of guys just going about their work. It just happens to be uniquely unsavory.

The acting is superb. Harvey Keitel shows up as a mob boss — you know he’ll be appropriately scary. Ditto Bobby Cannavale as a mid-level thug. But how about Ray Romano as a mob lawyer?

When tensions reach their height, there is Jesse Plemons as Hoffa’s stepson, explaining why he transported fish in the back seat of a car, to everyone’s disgust.

If the details of the story seem prosaic individually, together they’re not. They capture something, the elements of one man’s life. He worked adjacent to larger-than-life characters, if he himself was not.

He soldiered on — a quality that can be heroic in some characters, when they’re not guilt-free killers.

But 'The Irishman' is also a flawless weaving of those details. Scorsese turns them into something greater than the sum of the parts.

Scorsese has taken heat for saying he didn’t consider Marvel movies “cinema.” Again, argue among yourselves. But there is no doubt about this: 'The Irishman' is> cinema, of the highest order.

'Charlie's Angels'
(PG-13 / 127 mins)

Overview: Director Elizabeth Banks takes the helm as the next generation of fearless 'Charlie's Angels' take flight.

In Banks' bold vision, Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, and Ella Balinska are working for the mysterious Charles Townsend, whose security and investigative agency has expanded internationally.

With the world's smartest, bravest, and most highly trained women all over the globe, there are now teams of Angels guided by multiple Bosleys taking on the toughest jobs everywhere.

Verdict: A concept in search of a movie, 'Charlie’s Angels' wants to take the venerable franchise in a new direction. The goal is exemplary, the execution nothing to write home about.

When it came out in 1976 on ABC, there was nothing about the crime-fighting exploits of three women (Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith starred) that would predict five seasons on TV followed by a pair of motion pictures.

But here we are more than 40 years later with yet another feature film, written (from a story by Evan Spiliotopoulos and David Auburn) and directed by Elizabeth Banks, who also has a key role.

Banks made her directorial debut with the very successful 'Pitch Perfect 2,' about the further exploits of an all-female a capella group, so it’s no surprise that her version of the Angels (“Sworn To Secrecy, Bound By Sisterhood” is the tagline) feels pitched to please a similar audience.

First and foremost, this “Angels” has its empowerment of female credentials in good order. The film’s opening features a montage of girls doing it all, its first line of dialogue is “I think women can do everything,” and the closing montage shows us powerful women like race car driver Danica Patrick and former mixed martial arts champion Ronda Rousey doing what they do best.

This is all to the good, not to mention long overdue, but outside of public service announcements good intentions do not necessarily make for an involving viewing experience.

Instead of engaging what we get is a plodding, unfocused effort with few genuine thrills to speak of, the kind of movie that would play best on an airplane when you are eager to kill time.

In its defense, 'Charlie’s Angels' would say it’s not trying to be 'Captain Marvel,' that it’s intentionally going for a light comic effect. But the comedy feels largely forced, and if you are old enough to get the film’s “Birdman of Alcatraz” joke — yes, there is one — the proceedings are unlikely to involve you.

The film’s core idea is a solid one. Taking advantage of the notion that it’s been more than 40 years since that first TV appearance, this 'Charlie’s Angels' imagines the Townsend Agency, founded by the mysterious Charlie with the closed-mouthed Bosley as his No. 2, having expanded with bureaus all over the world.

In fact, the name Bosley has now become a rank (“like Lieutenant”, as someone helpfully explains), and as the film opens, a former Angel turned Bosley (played by Banks) is spearheading a retirement party for the original John Bosley (Patrick Stewart); a senior citizen headed for retirement after all those decades on the job.

As for the Angels, at the film’s start we deal with only two, starting with Sabina Wilson (an unexpected Kristen Stewart), a wild and crazy individual introduced in a long blond wig vamping a criminal figure in Rio as part of a sting operation.

Coming in to help with the job is former MI-6 agent Jane Kano (Ella Balinska), as pulled together as Sabina is off the wall.

Naturally these two do not get along, and when they are reunited in Paris a year later, with Jane training under Edgar Bosley (Djimon Hounsou), their lack of harmony is still front and center.

We also meet Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott, 'Aladdin’s Princess Jasmine). She’s a key cog in a company that created Calisto, a new sustainable alternate energy source that has an unfortunate side effect: It could kill people.

When her bosses won’t let Elena fix the flaw, she goes to the Angels for help.

This seems like a simple assignment at first, but soon enough "really bad people" get involved, epitomized by the tattooed and dangerous Hodak (Jonathan Tucker), the only opponent in the film who comes off as legitimately threatening.

When Hodak goes on the attack, Elena becomes a blubbering wreck, a situation that is played, not successfully, as broad comedy. Fortunately, the other two women take Elena under their wing, so speak, and she becomes an Angel-in-training.

This much sounds simple, but as the Angels try to stop Calisto from falling into the hands of those "really bad people", the pace slackens and the plot gets overly complicated.

Despite all its hand-to-hand fighting, the latest 'Charlie’s Angels' never really gets a proper grip on things.

'Ad Astra'
(PG-13 / 124 mins)

Overview: Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travels to the outer edges of the solar system to find his missing father and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of our planet.

His journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos.

Verdict: In space, no-one can hear you repress your emotions due to the damaging impact of toxic masculinity.

Acclaimed indie director James Gray's first big-budget feature heightens his unique blend of action and introspection to cosmic proportions. Set in the near future, 'Ad Astra' takes place in a world where you can board a commercial flight to space, and when you land, you'll find coffee franchises and gift shops. We mastered space travel just to gentrify the moon.

Humanity's propensity for perpetuating damaging cycles is at the heart of Gray's film, which stars Brad Pitt as veteran astronaut Roy McBride. Roy is sent on an enigmatic mission to Neptune in order to make contact with his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a national hero who led the first voyage into deep space, 30 years ago, and hasn't been heard from since.

Roy embarks on a multi-stop voyage to track the father he barely knew, which includes a car-chase on Mars, an ill-fated rescue mission, and a mutiny. Using deeply questionable rules regarding gravity, Gray captures both the absurdity and profundity of these moments, unexpectedly showing threats that seem all too Earth-tethered to exist in space.

Therein lies the less and the more of these sequences; they do little to propel the plot, but clearly demonstrate that - as any good shrink or colonization historian will tell you - humans bring our same old issues with us, wherever we go.

Roy illustrates this via plaintive but overused voiceover, agonizing over his relationship with his father and his place in the universe - in overlapping ways. "I'm being pulled farther/father from the sun/son" - Roy's Therapy 101 epiphanies are both frustrating and pathos-filled, as we watch an emotionally stunted man struggling to transcend a limited legacy.

This also feels like Gray's struggle. 'Ad Astra' has visual and emotional echoes of Kubrick and Heart Of Darkness, and like many space-set films, centers on a male character musing philosophically about the self and mortality. It's both impressive and deeply conventional.

Its heart-wrenching final thesis statement is a stunner, however, and will help Gray with reviews. On Earth, everyone can hear you be more appreciative.

'Downton Abbey: The Movie'
(PG / 122 mins)

Overview:This fall, the worldwide phenomenon DOWNTON ABBEY, becomes a grand motion picture event, as the beloved Crawleys and their intrepid staff prepare for the most important moment of their lives.

A royal visit from the King and Queen of England will unleash scandal, romance and intrigue that will leave the future of Downton hanging in the balance.

Verdict: I have never seen a single episode of Downton Abbey, the Emmy-winning British TV series that aired its last episode three years ago. It's not that I have intentionally avoided it, there are just some TV shows I never get around to watching.

I haven't seen Good Omens, either!

So, walking into 'Downton Abbey: The Movie', I knew next to nothing. I knew it was set in the early 20th Century, I knew it was British, and I knew the awesome Maggie Smith was in it. I also knew Dan Stevens was probably not in it due to situations his character encountered during the run of the show—TV events that made the news.

This movie is a mess, although it's the sort of mess a true fan might be willing to tolerate. Director Michael Engler seems to be working with enough subplots in this movie to fuel an entire season of the former TV show, and it's painfully apparent by the pacing—especially in its first half—that the big screen doesn't serve the cast well.

The big plot twist here is that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to Downton Abbey, a big estate with a reasonably sized staff, for a quick visit during one of their tours. So the staff, taken a bit by surprise, must prepare for a visit from the royal family.

Much of this movie is staff running around trying to prepare for this visit. In fact, the first half of this movie is almost entirely about preparing for the visit. They go to the store for eggs. They try to fix the boiler so the Queen will have hot water, and they endure some minor staff shakeups in anticipation of the big visit. Then the visit happens, and then the visit ends. That's the main thrust of the movie.

In the background, there are all sorts of little affairs and plot threads that even the most hardcore fans might have a hard time keeping track of. There's even a blink-and-you-will-miss-it assassination plot involving King George that just sort of happens, without any attention to anything resembling details.

Hey, a movie where King George V almost gets assassinated should be at least slightly exciting, right? Nope, it's just something that happens in this movie, as inconsequential as one of its characters taking a bath.

The presentation of the film's first half is rushed, as if Engler is worried someone would accuse his film of being bloated and dragging. Quick little scenes happen, and then they are connected by a plucky string orchestral soundtrack that does more to annoy than enhance. Honestly, the kinetic pace of the first half of this movie reminded me of Michael Bay's scattershot Transformers movies.

I wanted this movie to slow down, and allow some of its sumptuous set designs and obviously decent cast to get a chance to be seen and breathe. The Downton staff winds up preparing a meal for the King and Queen, and not a single detail about what they prepare is shared. I'd like to know what they prepared for Queen Mary. Was it duck? What did they have for dessert? Clearly, the makers of this movie never saw Babette's Feast.

The last act of the film is its best. A showdown between Violet Crawley (Smith) and Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) comes to a satisfying conclusion, proving that their part of the story probably deserved its own movie. There's no question in my mind why Smith won some Emmys for her portrayal of Crawley on the show. She's not in the movie a lot, but when she occupies the screen, the movie takes on life.

So, if I can say anything good about 'Downton Abbey: The Movie,' it's that I'm at least slightly curious to watch some of the TV show (I probably won't) and see a little more background on some of its characters. I can see why the enterprise has gathered a huge throng of fans, but I can't come even close to recommending the movie.

'The Addams Family'
(PG / 107 mins)

Overview: Get ready to snap your fingers! The first family of Halloween, 'The Addams Family', is back on the big screen in the first animated comedy about the kookiest family on the block.

Funny, outlandish, and completely iconic, the Addams Family redefines what it means to be a good neighbor.

Verdict: Though the iconic theme and peculiar characters which comprise 'The Addams Family' are largely unknown to the current generation of children and those youngest viewers among us, co-directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon (Sausage Party) have seized the opportunity to relaunch, reboot, and reinvent these legendary characters all over again for today’s audiences.

With The Addams Family, we have a big-budget animated take on material that dates back to Charles Addams’ cartoons from the 1940s and the legendary ABC television series he helped create in 1964. As the theme song tells us, this Addams clan are “mysterious and spooky and altogether ooky,” traits which appear to be largely absent in Tiernan and Vernon’s 2019 presentation.

In terms of Halloween-season frights and scares, the film is about as intense as a trip through one of those seasonal pop-up Spirit Halloween Superstores. All the right stuff is there, you can pretty much find everything you’re looking for, but the presentation just kind of seems like it’s thrown together to make a profit.

The film works through its steps quickly, especially in getting us to present-day. We first meet husband and wife, Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia (Charlize Theron) Addams, as they relocate to New Jersey after they have been run out of their town by an intolerant community.

In their getaway, their car, driven by their pet disembodied sentient hand, strikes a massive man on a dark, desolate road. Clad in an insane asylum straitjacket, the Addams take him in and then inhabit an abandoned, dilapidated mental hospital.

That man, now known as Lurch, works as the Addams’ 8-foot-tall butler who is also a virtuoso piano player to boot. As we cut to 13 years later, the Addams’ teenage daughter Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and 13-year-old son Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) have been largely isolated from the outside world. Wednesday is curious what lies beyond the family’s gnashing metallic gate which lines the family home.

Pugsley is preparing for a rite of passage from adolescence into “manhood” - a family ritual known as “the Mazurka.” Soon, they will be joined by Gomez’s obnoxious brother, Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and their mother, Grandmama (Bette Midler), in town for Pugsley’s big day.

As Pugsley attempts to learn the complicated sword-bearing dance which accompanies the ritual, Wednesday’s curiosity leads her outside the gate. She makes a friend, Parker (Elsie Fisher), a bullied junior high school girl who finds Wednesday standing up to girls who treat her terribly.

Wednesday essentially enrolls herself into school and both girls show defiance to their mothers, in particular, in a rather clever look at conformity and what it means to try and fit in.

And there’s a lot more than just those things happening in The Addams Family. Something of a growing trend with new animated enterprises, the film actually feels like it could be laying the groundwork for an episodic series on either cable television or a streaming platform somewhere. Parker’s mother, home makeover television star Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), has designed a brightly-colored, pastel-laden community named Assimilation.

She discovers, to her horror, Assimilation sits underneath the black, colorless, foreboding Addams estate. Janney is inspired in her vocal work and gives this over-the-top, narcissistic character her all, even when the screenplay saddles her with a poorly conceived twist the film does not quite know what to do with.

While I cannot say I didn’t find lots of anecdotal laughs and chuckles along the way, The Addams Family is haphazardly constructed and a bit of a mess overall. Because we move so briskly through scene after scene, nothing really resonates beyond a fleeting moment or two.

Some jokes land quite well, but others miss the mark or, perhaps worst of all, pass by so quickly we can’t care long enough to consider what we have just seen.

With that said, these characters, especially guided by a terrific Moretz vocal performance, could be appealing to families watching in a theater or sitting on the couch at home. The themes of acceptance, meeting people where they are in life, and recognizing that our differences are things to celebrate and not condemn, are important messages for all of us to hear.

And yet, in a movie that rushes through so many things, the elements of the story which matter most are, ironically, hammered home so many times they start to lose their impact.

Completely inoffensive and pleasant enough, 'The Addams Family' is a serviceable animated comedy with a lot of energy but not a lot of great moments to show for it.

Like that Halloween Superstore, it fills a need, but as soon as you get what you paid for, you’ll leave it in the past, forget about it, and move on to something new.

'Gemini Man'
(PG-13 / 116 mins)

Overview: 'Gemini Man' is an innovative action-thriller starring Will Smith as Henry Brogan, an elite assassin, who is suddenly targeted and pursued by a mysterious young operative that seemingly can predict his every move.

Verdict: Will Smith plays a man who is haunted by his past: all those years pulling a trigger for the government have taken their toll, to the point where he tells people he’s having trouble looking in a mirror. (Though from his swaggering carriage and bulked-up physique, it’s clear he’s aware of his appearance.)

But uh-oh, no peace for this 51-year-old retiree: he’s also hunted by his past, both in the form of his old commanding officer and his past self — or at least, a much younger clone. Our man is a weary, lonely, wounded soul, but you’ll have to take his word for it, because he mostly just seems bored.

Why are we here again? Oh right: someone’s trying to breed a new kind of soldier, one without the kind of pesky conscience that’s been bothering Smith. I mean, big baddie Clive Owen is already running a paramilitary org that seems comfy shooting civilians and making “12 Saudi Princes disappear,” but things could always be better! More to the point: what is director Ang Lee doing here with this bargain Bond flick? (Well, $138 million.)

Oh — he’s playing with tech, and not just the de-aging sort that's got folks excited these days. The same High Frame Rate that make the actors look like they’re on Days of Our Lives makes the colors absolutely pop: a royal blue truck against a tangerine wall, a lime-green bike before a butter yellow church.

Oh, and just look at those textures on the skulls in the underground ossuary fight scene! It’s cooler than the action, anyway, which feels utterly detached from the supposed story.

Old Man Smith holds his own just fine against Smith in His Prime, and he’s tough enough to take a motorcycle to the head, so there’s really nothing to worry about. Or care about. A rare, numbing emptiness.

(R / 122 mins)

Overview: 'Joker' centers around the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone fictional story not seen before on the big screen. Phillips' exploration of Arthur Fleck, who is indelibly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is of a man struggling to find his way in Gotham's fracturedsociety.

A clown-for-hire by day, he aspires to be a stand-up comic at night...but finds the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence between apathy and cruelty, Arthur makes one bad decision that brings about a chain reaction of escalating events in this gritty character study.

Verdict: Long before 'Joker' pays homage to two of the classic New York films of the nineteen-seventies and eighties, 'Taxi Driver' and 'The King of Comedy,' it relies on the fictitious setting of Gotham City and the pretext of a comic-book story to evoke real-life crime — and it alludes to them from a perspective so narrow and destructive as to resemble not intention but obliviousness.

The result is a movie of a cynicism so vast and pervasive as to render the viewing experience even emptier than its slapdash aesthetic does.

The first dramatic scene in 'Joker,' which is set in a grungy and turbulent New Yor... I mean, Gotham City, seemingly around 1980 (judging from details of décor), shows a clown, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), on a busy street in midtown, working as a sign twirler for a music store.

A group of teen-agers of color hassle him and steal his sign. He chases them into a garbage-strewn alley (the city is in the midst of an apocalyptic garbage strike), where one kid hits Arthur in the face with the sign and knocks him down.

Then the whole group swarms him, pummels him, kicks him, and leaves him bruised and bleeding and sobbing, alone, in the filthy alley. The crime alluded to is the attack wrongly attributed to five young men mislabeled as the Central Park Five — an attack on an isolated and vulnerable white person by a group of young people of color.

The scene waves away history and says, in effect, that it may not have been those five, but there was another group out there wreaking havoc; they’re not figments of a demagogue’s hate-filled imagination—here they are, and they’re the spark of all the gory action that follows.

What follows, soon thereafter, is another scene of brutality: Arthur, whose beating is the talk of the locker room at the clown agency for which he works, is handed a gun by a blustery colleague named Randall (Glenn Fleshler).

When Arthur is assaulted on the subway by three young men (whites, in suits), he pulls out the gun and fires — and even pursues one of the men onto the platform in order to shoot him dead.

It’s an evocation of the shooting, in 1984, by Bernhard Goetz, of four teen-agers in a subway who, Goetz believed, were about to rob him. They were four black teen-agers, and Goetz, after his arrest, made racist remarks.

In 'Joker,' the director, Todd Phillips (who wrote the script with Scott Silver), whitewashes Goetz’s attack, eliminating any racial motive and turning it into an act of self-defense gone out of control.

Overall, the thematic incoherence of 'Joker' is inseparable from its aesthetic emptiness. Phoenix, alternately brooding and exulting, dancing extravagantly in his underwear or in a resplendent costume or seething with rage, cringing with horror, or camping it up with an affected accent, isn’t so much unhinged as unmotivated and, to all appearances, undirected.

What he delivers is less a performance than a display of his bag of actorly tricks—and they’re pretty wonderful, but they adorn a character who’s an empty framework, and, to all appearances, empty by design, for fear of alienating the target audience.

The movie’s parodies of 'Taxi Driver' and 'The King of Comedy' are obvious; so are its pastiches of the designs and events of those movies’ times. But the crucial parody, the crucial mockery, the work of which 'Joker' comes off as a callously commercial imitation, is 'Black Panther' — a comic-book-based movie that infuses its framework with rigorously conceived and boldly assertive political visions to go with its elaborate world-building.

Simply put, 'Joker' is a wannabe movie that also wants to be all things to all viewers, that imitates the notion of adding substance while only subtracting it (ie: 'Joker' is a viewing experience of a rare, numbing emptiness).

'The Goldfinch'
(R / 149 mins)

Overview: 'The Goldfinch' is the film adaptation of Donna Tartt's globally acclaimed bestseller of the same name, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list.

Theodore "Theo" Decker (Ansel Elgort) was 13 years old when his mother was killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tragedy changes the course of his life, sending him on a stirring odyssey of grief and guilt, reinvention and redemption, and even love.

Through it all, he holds on to one tangible piece of hope from that terrible day … a painting of a tiny bird chained to its perch.

Verdict: You have to wonder about a business in which an enjoyable airport novel like “Big Little Lies” gets adapted into an entire prestige-TV series and a far richer work like Donna Tartt’s 'The Goldfinch' gets squished into a two-and-a-half-hour movie.

Don’t get me wrong; I loved every minute of “Big Little Lies.” But the new film version of 'The Goldfinch,' directed by John Crowley, feels like a disappointing misfire; it needed more room to breathe, to soar. Where’s HBO when you need it?

Tartt’s novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2014, is a sweeping coming-of-age story. At its center is Theo Decker, who is 13 when his mother is killed in a museum bombing.

Theo himself emerges from the attack unscathed, but forever changed: not only has he lost his beloved mother, but he has, in the confusion, taken a famous painting from the rubble, one that she loved.

The book, and the movie, follow Theo and that painting (Dutch artist Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” tiny and perfect) through a modern-day Dickensian series of adventures, as he lives with a wealthy Park Avenue family, then his dissolute father in the Southwest, then a kindly antiques restorer in New York’s West Village — and, finally an adult, in Europe, as he chases the painting in hopes of making his damaged life whole again.

Peter Straughan’s screenplay is mostly faithful to the book, but trades its linear structure to a zigzagging timeline; we begin with grown-up Theo (Ansel Elgort, oddly styled like Matt Damon in 'The Talented Mr. Ripley') collapsed in an Amsterdam hotel room, and flash back and forth to the character as a boy (Oakes Fegley).

The film, shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (a 14-time Oscar nominee), looks immaculate — the painting seems caught in magic light — and the supporting cast of grown-ups is mostly impeccable.

Nicole Kidman does another perfect turn as a whispery, loving mother figure; Luke Wilson is chilling as Theo’s snake-oil dad; and Jeffrey Wright, as Hobie the antiques dealer, makes something warm and nuanced from a small role. (One discordant note: Boyd Gaines, as Kidman’s character’s husband, giving a weirdly satiric performance that seems to belong in an entirely different movie.)

But the young cast is problematic. It’s tough to hang a large part of a film on the performance of an actor barely in his teens, and Fegley, though trying hard, never quite breaks through.

Finn Wolfhard (“Stranger Things”), as Theo’s satyr-like friend Boris, offers an uneven Russian accent and a vaguely unfocused expression. Too much time is spent watching the two of them drifting — which is true for the book as well, but at least there they’re more charismatic.

Ultimately, 'The Goldfinch' feels like a series of often-elegant moments, in service to a story that never quite comes into focus.

Elgort doesn’t get enough screen time to really register as Theo, and the character’s love for art and beauty — which is part of why he clung to the painting in the first place — mostly seems to have been left on the page. Like the goldfinch itself, the movie feels tethered and trapped; it wants to fly, but it can’t.

'Brittany Runs A Marathon'
(R / 104 mins)

Overview: Brittany Forgler is a hilarious, friendly, hot mess of a New Yorker who always knows how to have a good time, but at 27, her late-night adventures and early-morning walks-of-shame are starting to catch up to her.

When she stops by a Yelp-recommended doctor's office in an attempt to score some Adderall, she finds herself slapped with a prescription she never wanted.

Forced to face reality for the first time in a long time, Brittany laces up her Converse and runs one sweaty block.

The next day, she runs two. Soon she runs a mile. Brittany finally has direction, but is she on the right path?

Verdict: It's not often that your best friend writes and directs their debut feature film about you, but Brittany O'Neill's mental and physical transformation inspired her friend/writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo to make 'Brittany Runs a Marathon,' a drama disguised as a comedy about the hard work of changing yourself.

Comedian Jillian Bell steps into her first starring role as the funny, frumpy Brittany, a New York City party girl/slacker whose body can't keep up with her arty all day/sleep all night routine (Bell also produced the film). Under doctor's orders, she hits the pavement in search of salvation.

And along the way, she finds herself.

The ending is right there in the title, but Colaizzo's film leans into the old adage that it's all about the journey, not the destination, following the achingly hard work of Brittany's trek toward the finish line of the New York City Marathon, and ultimately, toward happiness.

Brittany's problems aren't unique, and they aren't insurmountable, but they aren't easy. She's got a lame job, flounders in her love life, grieves the loss of her father and has high blood pressure to boot.

Living with a wannabe influencer, Gretchen (Alice Lee), isn't the best influence either. But for all her external problems, the highest mountain Brittany has to climb is getting over herself, a struggle Bell makes poignantly, piercingly real in her performance and that takes the film into its darkest yet most relatable moments.

To anyone who can relate to Brittany's predicament of feeling stuck and depressed, this may all sound familiar. She's unable and unwilling to receive and accept help and love from her loved ones, so she wallows in her own bad thoughts and negative spirals.

During a particularly nasty relapse, while recuperating from an injury at her sister's home, a drunk Brittany spews all her judgmental thoughts (clearly about herself) at another plus-size woman, envious that this person has decided to choose happiness and joy in her own body rather than self-hatred.

It's an ugly moment, tough to watch, and Bell and Colaizzo don't shy away from the darkness.

Colaizzo has stacked the cast of this dramedy with gifted comedians alongside Bell, including Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Lil Rel Howery, who all bring a natural levity. But the script also offers each performer a meaty dramatic arc.

Bell demonstrates her otherwise-unknown dramatic chops, and her performance is surprising and nuanced, yet also incredibly funny when it needs to be.

Cinematographer Seamus Tierney brings a handheld immediacy to the look and feel of the film, which is far more indie drama than broad comedy.