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Bradley Whitford, Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins

“THREE CHRISTS”  My rating: C- (Opens Jan. 17 at the Screenland Tapcade)

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The title “Three Christs” suggests the possibility of blasphemy.

If only.

Jon Avnet’s film — shot in 2017 and on ice since then — is an adaptation of psychiatrist Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, about his experiences working in a mental institution outside Detroit in the late 1950s.  The three Christs of the title are schizophrenics  suffering from the delusion that they are, well, Jesus.

Going in there’s reason for optimism.  Stone, the physician handling their cases, is played by Richard Gere, who in recent years has enjoyed a late-stage career resurgence (“Arbitrage,” “Norman,” “The Dinner”).

His three “holy” patients are played by heavy hitters Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins and Bradley Whitford.  Even the supporting cast has depth: Julianna Margulies, Kevin Pollack, Stephen Root, Jane Alexander.

So why does this feel like a waste of time?

Richard Gere

Neither Avnet nor his screenwriter, Eric Nazarian, seem to have a clue as to how to proceed with this yarn.  We get the basic setup — Dr. Stone attempts a revolutionary new therapy by putting his three “Christs” together in isolation; it’s an experiment to see if each can be cured of his delusion by observing his fellow’s delusions.

But what ensues doesn’t play like drama, comedy, or anything in between.

There are digressions into Stone’s personal life — the Missus (Margulies) is developing a drinking problem and he must  perennially steel himself against viewing his pretty young assistant (Charlotte Hope) as anything more than a professional colleague.

But the three Christs themselves remain ciphers. We should be feeling for these seemingly hopeless cases, but while the players are occasionally amusing, they never really engage our emotions.  The characters’ manias are too extreme to seem like anything but a sideshow. They are — I hate to say it — cardboard crazy men.

| Robert W. Butler

“63 UP”  My rating: A- (Playing Jan. 17, 19 and 20 at the Tivoli at the Nelson-Atkins)

125 minutes | No MPAA rating

When Brit director Michael Apted first launched his “7 Up” documentary series back in 1963, among its major themes were politics and class.

The project’s big idea was to take a bunch of 7-year-olds from various social backgrounds and study them over time, returning every seven years with an update of how they’re doing (“21 Up,” “35 Up,” “56 Up”).  Originally much was made of the differences between the privileged kids and those who were struggling in the lower levels of the British beehive.

More than a half century later the world’s longest-lasting cinematic experiment continues, but the emotional tenor of the piece has mellowed. At age 63 Apted’s subjects have been seasoned by the death of parents and friends and the expectations of their own demises (in fact, we learn that one woman subject died just a couple of years ago).

So now it’s not so much about Tories vs. Labour or even Brexit (though the subject does come up) as about figuring out what to do with the time you’ve got left.

Apted’s methodology remains unchanged. He approaches his still-participating 12 subjects one at a time, alternating past footage with current interviews. It’s weird watching someone age instantaneously before our eyes; in the dad guts and double chins and graying (or missing) hair we are forced to confront the forces working on our own bodies.

Tony, the once-aspiring jockey who became a London cabbie, now laments that Uber is putting him out of business. The self-described “Cheekie Chappie” augments his income with walk-on film roles and retains his working-class childhood belief that in class warfare “it’s us or them.”

Corporate lawyer Andrew at age 63 laments that he was so career driven he failed to make time for his family.

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Guy Pearce

“DISTURBING THE PEACE” My rating: C- (Opens Jan. 17 at  the Screenland Tapcade)

90 minutes | MPAA rating:

Apparently Aussie star Guy Pearce is the newest member of the don’t-send-the-script-send-the-check club. That’s the only explanation for his presence in the laughably inept “Disturbing the Peace.”

In York Alec Shackleton’s unintentionally goofy actioner, Pearce plays Jim Dillon, who left the Texas Rangers after accidentally shooting and paralyzing his partner in a hostage standoff. Now he’s the law in the tiny burg of Horse Cave. Apparently the place has a very low crime rate, because Jim has for years refused to carry a gun.

This proves problematical when a gang of rogue motorcyclists invade the place, robbing the local bank and hanging around so that they can rip off an armored car bringing big bucks from a nearby casino.

With many of his fellow residents being held captive, Jim must use his wits (we’re talking MacGyver-style booby traps) to foil the baddies; it’s just a matter of time, though, before he picks up a firearm and gets down to serious business.

Chuck Hustmyre’s screenplay is a mashup of ideas from “High Noon” (a more-or-less real-time narrative), Brando’s “The Wild One” (bad boys on bikes) and “Die Hard” (with a small town instead of a high-rise office building).

Hustmyre’s bio claims he’s a retired federal agent who has written several crime books, yet there’s nothing even remotely authentic about “Disturbing the Peace.”  Its depiction of small town life and law enforcement plays like the work of someone whose entire world view has been shaped by watching straight-to-video crime thrillers in his mother’s basement.

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George MacKay

“1917”  My rating: B+

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Both epically sprawling and remarkably intimate, “1917” instantly establishes itself as one of the great war films.

Here’s the ugly truth of trench warfare during World War I: Rotting corpses, feasting rats, clouds of carrion-colonizing insects.

Yet along with these ghastly images, “1917” delivers a profoundly human story that taps into all sorts of emotions: terror, comradeship, compassion, bravery, hubris.

That the entire two-hour film is told entirely in what appears to be one uninterrupted shot makes it a technical tour de force (Roger Deakins is the d.p. and his work is jaw-dropping). But this is more than a cinematic gimmick. Without editing and alternating camera angles we’re forced to focus on the conflict in much the same way as its participants. There’s no way out.

The screenplay by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (reportedly inspired by wartime tales related by Mendes’ grandfather) is straightforward enough.

Two lance corporals in the British army in northern France — Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) — are sent on foot across nine miles of no man’s land to deliver a message. Another British unit  is planning an attack on “retreating” German troops.  But aerial surveillance shows that the enemy withdrawl is merely a strategic realignment, and that the Tommies are walking into a trap that could mean death for 1,600 of them.

So it’s a race against time that takes the two young soldiers through a shell-pocked landscape, into abandoned enemy trenches, through rubble-strewn farms and villages and down swollen rivers.

Though their journey is marked by growing suspense and flashes of real danger, there’s relatively little in the way of conventional combat here — just one incident with a German sniper. Mendes and Wilson-Cairns find plenty of moments of relative calm in which to explore their characters.

Blake, who was picked for the mission because his older brother is an officer in the target battalion (evidently the brass figure that a chance to save his sibling will prove motivational), is gung ho to get moving.  Schofield, several years older and much more combat savvy, wants to wait for nightfall. He’s overruled and bitter that his fate is in the hands of an amateur.

The two marvel at the complexity of German engineering (the Huns’ trench network is made of concrete with subterranean barracks outfitted with bunk beds; the Brits basically squat in the mire). They talk about duty and valor. The still-idealistic Blake is shocked to learn that Schofield has traded his combat medal to a French officer for a bottle of wine (“I was thirsty”).

They witness an aerial battle between British and German planes; from the ground it’s a weirdly peaceful, balletic experience…at least until fate drops one of the plummeting aircraft into their laps.

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Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx

“JUST MERCY”  My rating: C+

136 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

In “Just Mercy” an A-list cast does its best with movie-of-the-week execution; the results are simultaneously inspiring and off-putting.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film is based on the true story of attorney Bryan Stevenson and the founding in Alabama in the late 1980s of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization devoted to re-examining the cases of Death Row inmates.  These were condemned men  — most of them black — whose convictions may have been based on perjured testimony, suppressed evidence and inadequate defenses.

In addition to its truth-to-power narrative and the obvious dramatic power of men awaiting death at the hands of the state, the film boasts a lead performance by Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, a New Englander who came to the South to right wrongs.

Oscar winner Brie Larsen takes a supporting role as the local activist who becomes his assistant and guide to the workings of Southern justice.

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Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen

“LITTLE WOMEN” My rating: B+

134 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Each generation, apparently, gets its own cinematic “Little Women.” Count Greta Gerwig’s new version among the best.

Beautifully acted, classily mounted and delivering its emotional detonations with almost clocklike precision, this adaptation manages to do justice to Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel while viewing the tale through a protofeminist lens.

Gerwig lets us know what she’s up to in the opening scene, where aspiring writer Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) meets with a New York publisher to discuss her latest story.

“If the main character is a girl,” the bewhiskered editor (Tracy Letts) advises, “make sure she’s married by the end…or dead.  Doesn’t matter which.”

This is only the first of several moments in which the film takes aim at male privilege and arrogance in 19th century America (and, by implication, in today’s world).  Not that the film ever mounts a soapbox or goes strident.  Gerwig’s screenplay effortlessly incorporates a modern sensibility into the classic tale; it feels as if she discovered these  millennial attitudes  in the original story and merely amplifies them.

This “Women” is novel as well for its narrative juggling.  The film opens several years after the Civil War…the March sisters from Concord, Mass., are now young adults.

We’ve already seen Jo pursuing a career in the Big Apple.  We find sister Meg (Emma Watson) back in Concord; she’s married, a mother and struggling with money issues.  Little sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in France studying painting under the watchful eye of their wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep, doing her best Maggie Smith).

There’s a fourth sister, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), whom we meet in the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film.  (One of the great pleasures in Gerwig’s narrative sleight-of-hand is that we’re able to compare the mature women we first meet with their much more innocent selves seven years earlier.)

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Adam Sandler

“UNCUT GEMS” My rating: C+

135  minutes | MPAA rating: R

Funnyman Adam Sandler undergoes a remarkable transformation in  “Uncut Gems.”  He’s really, really effective as a Diamond District hustler whose debts and sins are rapidly closing in on him.

That said, the latest from the writing/directing Safdie Brothers (Benny and Josh) is like having an irate New Yawk cabbie screaming nonstop in your ear for two-plus hours.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, the middle-aged proprietor of a Manhattan jewelry store.  He calls himself a jeweler but he’s not so much an expert in gemology as he is a full-time con artist, always looking for his next (not necessarily legal) kill.

Howard is an inveterate gambler who always is nurturing a get-rich-quick scheme.  He’s got a furious wife (Idina Menzel) and kids in the ‘burbs,  a girl squeeze (Julia Fox) he keeps in an apartment in the city, and a crushing gambling debt that finds him being stalked by a pair of underworld enforcers  (Tommy Dominik, Keith William Richards).

Howard’s sure that his latest scheme will turn everything around. He has somehow gotten his hands on a “black opal,” a fist-sized gem smuggled out of Africa.  He’s already arranged to have this spectacular rock sold by a prestigious auction house; surely it will leave him set for life. Or at least alive.

Or maybe not.  His streetsmart associate Demany (LaKeith Stansfield) introduces Howard to basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself, and most convincingly), who so loves the big opal that he asks to carry it around with him for a few days. He comes to regard it as his good luck charm.

Always looking for an edge, Howard agrees, figuring that a generous gesture now will turn the sports millionaire into a long-term bling buyer. Continue Reading »

Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins

“THE TWO POPES” My rating: B+ (Now on Netflix)

125 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

At its best “The Two Popes” is a monumental acting duel that’ll leave viewers in open-mouthed amazement.

The subjects of Fernando Meirelles’ witty and ultimately heart-tugging drama are the German Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), who would become Pope Benedict XVI, and the Argentinian Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), our current Pope Francis.

Essentially the tale told by screenwriter Anthony McCarten is one of the passing of power from one pope to the next, and how that exchange heralds a possible new beginning for Roman Catholicism. The details are fictional — the spectacularly wrought conversations McCarten delivers are his own creation — but the overall portrait he paints of these two men and the church they represent feels utterly true.

The film begins in 2005 with a convocation of cardinals to vote on a new pope.  Ratzinger — a dogmatic conservative deeply suspicious of efforts to modernize the Church — actively campaigns for the job.  He views the reform-minded Bergoglio, the favorite of the liberal cardinals, with thinly-veiled contempt.

As the two stand side by side at a sink in a Vatican restroom, Bergoglio absent-mindedly whistles “Dancing Queen.”  Ratzinger asks: “What is that hymn you’re whistling?”  Turns out he’s never heard of Abba.

A small moment, but an illuminating one. Ratzinger is an intellectual, emotionally remote, authoritarian, with little or no interest in popular culture. Even some of the faithful dismiss him as a “Nazi.”

Bergoglio is his polar opposite, a beloved charmer with the common touch, a man whose hobbies include tango dancing and soccer (for an Argentinian they are practically compulsory, he notes).

Ratzinger, of course, becomes the next pope.
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Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman

“BOMBSHELL”   My rating: B

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Simultaneously an insider’s look at Fox News, a record of the rise of Trump, and an examination of sexual harassment in the workplace, “Bombshell” can boast of terrific timeliness and a killer cast of women (and one man).

What it doesn’t have is much emotional pull — aside, of course, from the indignation it’s sure  to generate in response to the culture of crassness fomented by the late Roger Ailes.

Jay Roach’s film centers on three women struggling to forge and maintain careers at Fox  News.

Two of them — network stars Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) — are of course real people.  The third, a newcomer to the network named Kayla Pospisi (Margot Robbie), is fictional.

Early in Charles Randolph’s screenplay Carlson secretly meets with a couple of lawyers. She’s on thin ice at the network, both for her show’s ratings and her feminist inclinations (doing one broadcast sans makeup as a sort of statement of solidarity with women viewers). Her chafing at being Barbie-tized will likely lead to her demotion or dismissal; when that day comes she wants to have plenty of documentation about groping and sexual intimidation in the hallowed halls of Fox.

Meanwhile Kelly (Theron looks so eerily like the real Kelly that audiences will end up doing double takes) makes the mistake of daring to ask tough questions of then-candidate Trump and so becomes the public object of the Donald’s ridicule (“She had blood coming out of her whatever”). Suddenly she’s the story; it’s not a comfortable place to be.

Finally there’s Robbie’s Kayla, daughter of conservatives from Out West, evidently religious, and fiercely ambitious.  She learns the Fox ropes from her cubicle mate (Kate McKinnon), a closeted lesbian, but has to make a decision when given the choice of trading a blowjob for a promotion.

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Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne

“THE AERONAUTS”  My rating: B  (Now showing at the Glenwood Arts; on  Amazon Prime Dec. 20)

100 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

An aerial thriller packed with gobsmacking visual splendors, “The Aeronauts” is also historically based…though not so much as to let facts muck up our enjoyment.

In 1862 two Londoners — one a sort of female daredevil and the other a stuffy scientific sort — risk their lives on a balloon ride into sky. Their goal is to set an altitude record for human survival…at that time about 20,000 feet.

They’ll go considerably higher than that.

Our protagonists are Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), an experienced balloonist thanks to her late lamented husband, and James Glashier (Eddie Redmayne), who is something of a laughing stock in the science community for his theories on weather prediction.

For her the ascent is a chance to commune privately with the spirit of her dead love and revel in the wonders of our atmosphere; for him this initial ride into the sky will allow him to take measurements that will bring about understanding of the nature of this envelope of air in which our Earth resides.

There really was a James Glashier, although in 1862 he was an overweight middle-aged husband and father and already respected in scientific circles. Amelia Wren, however, is the fictional creation of director Tom Harper and co-writer Jack Thorne, an obvious attempt to create a heroic female protagonist who will resonate with women viewers.  Not that I’m complaining.

The film begins with the pair’s sendoff before a wildly cheering crowd in a London park.  Amelia arrives in paint and shortened petticoats to do cartwheels before the wicker gondola and pose prettily.  Glashier is embarrassed by all the show-biz hoopla.

But before long they’re airborne for a ride that in just 90 minutes will test them to the limit.

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Scarlett Johanssen, Adam Driver

“MARRIAGE STORY” My rating: B+ (Premieres Dec. 6 on Netflix)

136 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The opening moments of Noah Baumbach’s latest film finds a couple — Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) — rhapsodizing about the other’s best features.

Each has a laundry list of his/her spouse’s positive attributes.  My God, you think, these two are wildly in love.

Uh, no.  The cataloguing of lovable traits is simply an exercise developed by a marriage counselor.  In fact, Nicole and Charlie seem destined for the big split.

“Marriage Story” — which more accurately might have been entitled “Divorce Story” — is a black comedy that leaves audience suspended between laughter and wincing.  It’s about how despite the best efforts of the people involved, a marital breakup takes nightmarish turns.

It’s funny and heartbreaking.

Nicole and Charlie live in NYC with their adorable son Henry (Azhy Robertson).  Charlie is the director of a semi-celebrated experimental theater company; Nicole’s the leading lady  in most of their productions.

But Nicole has long felt stifled, artistically and emotionally. Over Charlie’s objections she takes a role in a TV series being filmed in Hollywood and with young Henry heads West to live — temporarily Charlie assumes — with her mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty). It eventually dawns on Charlie that Nicole won’t be returning to their life in New  York.

Now Nicole and Charlie are decent folk and they agree up front that while the marriage may be doomed, there’s no reason to become enemies.  They have a child to think of and, anyway, who wants to get all wrapped up in recriminations and resentments?  Why not just split up the common property and make it all as painless as possible? Continue Reading »

Daniel Craig…Southern fried private eye

“KNIVES OUT” My rating: B (Opens wide on Nov. 27)

130 minutes | MPAA rating:

The genteel drawing-room murder mystery gets roughed up but emerges more or less intact in “Knives Out,” the latest from “it” director Rian Johnson (“Looper,” “The Last Jedi”).

What you’ve got here is a dead man, a house full of suspects (played by some very big names),  a Southern-gentleman detective who seems to have been dipped in molasses — and a gleefully satiric sense of humor.

Plus a lot of snarky attitude when it comes to privileged white folks.

The film begins with the housekeeper for famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) discovering her employer’s corpse.  His throat has been cut.

Apparently the crime (if it is a crime…it might be a very bizarre suicide) took place shortly after Harlan’s 85th birthday party, an event attended by a pack of relations crammed into the old man’s semi-spooky turn-of-the-last-century mansion (described by one cop as “practically a Clue board”). Apparently the evening (which we see in flashbacks) was marked by some discord — old Harlan was no pushover and he loved rubbing his family’s noses in their inadequacies.

The local officer in charge of the investigation (LaKeith Stanfield) has his hands full with the various children, in-laws and others, all of whom seem to have some motive for killing their Sugar Daddy and a bad attitude when it comes to dealing with authority. So he’s mildly relieved when a famous private eye, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), mysteriously shows up.

Benoit, who talks with a slow drawl so thick it drips sorghum, has been hired by an anonymous client to look into the case. He won’t stop until he gets answers. Think Matlock on Thorazine with a cannabis chaser.

Murder mysteries in this  vein (“Murder on the Orient Express,” “Gosford Park”) rely on a large cast of eccentrics to keep us engaged and guessing. “Knives Out” has a colorfully hateful bunch.

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Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys

“IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Nov. 22)

108 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Movie trailers are a hugely effective way of lying. One should always approach them with the same caution brought to political postings on Facebook.

So my tearful response to the trailer for “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” with Tom Hanks as the iconic PBS kiddie show star Fred Rogers, left me wary.  Could the actual movie really be that moving, or would it fall apart in a morass of manipulation and sentimentality?

Good news, Mr. Rogers fans.  “Beautiful Day” sidesteps virtually all the landmines in its path and delivers a funny, touching and uplifting story about a man who was too good to be true.

Fred Rogers was the subject last year of an exhaustive documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”; happily director Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harvester (working from Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers) don’t turn “Beautiful Day” into another retelling of the famous man’s life. In fact, one could argue that Fred Rogers is a supporting character here.

The film centers on Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a (fictional) investigative journalist whose specialty is digging up dirt on his subjects. He’s tough and analytical and cynical…and appalled when his editor assigns him to write a 500-word piece — essentially a long caption –on Mr. Rogers. (“Play nice,” she urges him.)

He doesn’t want the assignment. His wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson of TV’s “This Is Us”) sees disaster looming: “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”

Lloyd has more than a little baggage from his own childhood.  Early on we see his encounter at a wedding with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), whom he hasn’t seen for years; it almost immediately devolves into a father-son brawl.

Fifteen years earlier, when Lloyd’s mother became fatally ill, the philandering Jerry abandoned her and his two children. Now Lloyd carries a manhole cover-sized grudge. When Lloyd first interviews Fred Rogers (Hanks) at the Pittsburgh TV station where the show is taped, the evidence of his Oedipal issues is all over his bruised face.

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Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller

“21 BRIDGES” My rating: C (Opens wide on Nov. 22)

99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

To the extent that it delivers a series of adrenaline-stoked action sequences and a ridiculously high body count, Brian Kirk’s “21 Bridges” should satisfy audiences looking for a thrill.

And that’s about it.

Not even the presence of the versatile  Chadwick Baseman (whose roles range from Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall to the Black Panther) and the eerily transforming Sienna Miller can elevate this piece above “mehhh” status.

The first half of Adam Mervis and Matthew Michael Carnahan’s screenplay (and by far the better half) is a manhunt told from the points of view of two couples — a pair of crooks on the run  and a pair of cops on their heels.

In the opening sequence a couple of well-armed thugs, Michael and Ray (Stephan James, Taylor Kitsch) hit a posh New York City restaurant late at night after closing.  They’ve been told there’s 30 kilos of cocaine hidden in the eatery; they are perplexed to discover it’s more like 300 kilos, way more than they can carry out.

To further complicate matters,  a bunch of cops show up.  Maybe they are looking for a late-night snack.  In any case, there’s a gun battle that leaves eight of New York’s finest headed to the morgue.  The perps take off running.

Stephan James, Taylor Kitsch

The filmmakers at least try for plausible back stories.  Michael and Ray are ex-military; Ray is by far the more ruthless of the two, but Kitsch gives him just enough charisma to keep us interested.  Michael basically finds himself in over his head.

On the other side of the coin are detectives Andre Davis (Boseman) and Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller, almost unrecognizable with no makeup), thrown together to manage a city-wide manhunt for the cop killers.

Again, an attempt is made to provide some depth to the characters.  Davis is himself the son of a slain cop who regularly faces Internal Affairs hearings for his marksmanship (eight fatal shootings in as many years); he maintains he never fires first. Burns is a single mom with a Brooklyn accent.

To keep the crooks from leaving town, Davis imposes a 1 a.m.-to-sunup closure of all 21 bridges leading into and out of Manhattan Island.  He’s got five hours before the quarantine will be lifted and rush hour begins. (Thus the movie’s title…though once the roads are blocked the film never returns to them. Another title would have been “21 Body Bags.”)

An already perplexing case is made even more unmanageable by the dead officers’ revenge-minded colleagues (J.K. Simmons plays their precinct chief). These cops have a bad habit of killing witnesses before Davis can interview them.

In the film’s second half it dawns on Davis that there may be more to this case than meets the eye…we’re talking corruption in high places. (And you can only imagine the paperwork demanded of our hero after personally killing a dozen people.)

“21 Bridges” has been well made.  The acting is OK. The shots of NYC at night are sometimes eerily atmospheric.

On the whole, though, the film is more blah than bad. Instantly forgettable.

| Robert W. Butler

Taika Waititi, Roman Griffin Davis

“JOJO RABBIT” My rating: C+r (Now showing)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Jojo Rabbit” is one of those movies more satisfying in principle than in practice.

The latest from Kiwi auteur Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and, of course, TV’s “Flight of the Conchords”) is nothing if not timely.

Waititi’s subject is right-wing political fanaticism — German Naziism, to be precise — and his methodology is that of off-the-wall satire.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

The title character is 10-year-old Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) — Jojo for short.  Jojo lives in Germany in the latter stages of World War II.  His father has gone off to fight for the Fuehrer in Italy…at least that’s the story his mom, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is sticking to.

Jojo is himself a worshipper of Hitler and all things Nazi. (Those uniforms! That invigorating aura of invincibility and racial superiority!) In fact, his adoring  imagination has conjured up a make-believe best friend…none other than Adolf himself (Waititi), who loves hanging out with Jojo and exudes childish enthusiasms and questionable advice.

Some of the film’s funniest material is front loaded…early on Jojo and his fat pal Yorki (Archie Yates) spend a weekend at a Hitler Youth camp where they are subjected to lectures on racial purity, practice lobbing grenades and gaze in gape-mouthed admiration at their chief instructor, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a one-eyed combat veteran rarely seen without his two flunkies, Finkel (Alfie Allen) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson).

The whole thing is like a Boy Scout rally with live ammunition.  Except that Jojo collapses when ordered to snap a bunny’s neck with his bare hands to prove his willingness to slay the enemies of the Reich. Apparently Jojo’s love of manly posing won’t be enough to make him a good National Socialist.

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Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa; Robert DeNiro as Frank Sheeran

“THE IRISHMAN” My rating: B (Now at the Alamo Drafthouse, Screenland Armour and Standees)

209 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Martin Scorsese’s much-anticipated “The Irishman” is a good movie.

Not a great one.

It’s been described as the filmmaker’s ultimate gangster epic, yet it feels less like a conventional celebration of tough-guy ethos than a slow (3 1/2 hour’s worth), mournful meditation on sins unacknowledged and unforgiven.

In fact, Scorsese seems to have gone out of his way to avoid the sort of eye-catching set pieces (like the long nightclub tracking shot from “GoodFellas”) that marked many of his earlier efforts. “The Irishman” is almost ploddingly straightforward.

Steve Zaillian’s screenplay follows the title character, real-life contract killer Frank Sheehan (Robert DeNiro), from his early days as a truck driver with a taste for theft  to his residency in an old folk’s home.

(Now seems a good time to comment on the much-ballyhooed CG “youthening” of the actors…it’s so good you don’t even think about it. No waxy skin tones or blurry edges — damn near flawless.)

The bulk of the movie, set in the ’50s and ’60s, chronicles Frank’s association with the Teamsters  and his friendship with union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who in a phone call introduces himself to Frank with the statement: “I heard you paint houses.”  That’s code for acting as a hired assassin, a role Frank will perform for Hoffa and others for a quarter century.

The film centers on a long 1975 car trip in which Sheehan and his mentor, crime family boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their wives drive from Philadelphia to Detroit, ostensibly to attend the wedding of a colleague’s daughter.  At various stages in the journey Frank’s memory is jogged to recall past exploits. He doesn’t realize until late in the trip that Russell has another agenda — the assassination of Jimmy Hoffa who, after serving a four-year sentence in federal prison, is now upsetting the apple cart by attempting to reclaim the presidency of the Teamsters Union.

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Christian Bale, Matt Damon

“FORD v FERRARI” My rating: B

152 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

One needn’t care about car racing to get caught up in James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari,” a fact-based (well, mostly) bit of automotive/pop culture history fueled by engaging performances, a come-from-behind narrative and enough close calls on the track to have nervous viewers yearning for a Valium.

The tale begins  with driver/car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) winning the 1959 24 Hours of Lemans race despite experiencing some alarming physical issues.  Turns out he’s got a bad ticker;  that would be his last competition behind the wheel. From now on he’ll have to be content selling fancy cars to rich idiots.

Cut to Detroit where Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), intent on sexing up the Ford Motor Company’s bourgeoise brand, dispatches exec Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) to Europe.  The plan is for Ford to buy Ferrari; Detroit will continue to crank out station wagons and sedans; the Italians will retain their independence in hand-crafting race-winning machines.

Not only does the deal fall through, but old man Ferrari opines that Ford makes ugly cars in ugly factories….and that Henry Ford II is fat.

This can mean only one thing: War.

Ford recruits Shelby to create a Ford racing car from scratch…and to do it in a matter of months.

In turn, Shelby recruits Brit driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), whose volatile temper and refusal to kowtow to the money men has made him persona non grata in some racing circles…not to mention a target of the IRS. Thing is, Miles is more than just a supremely talented (if cranky) driver; he’s a car whisperer who can take a machine out for a spin and immediately identify everything that’s wrong with it and what must be done to improve its performance.

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Antonio Banderas

“PAIN & GLORY” My rating: B+

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The dominant aural element of Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain & Glory” is a solo oboe exuding gentle melancholy.

It’s the perfect soundtrack for one of this director’s best films, a semi-autobiographical (just how autobiographical will no doubt be debated at length) attempt to capture the limits of one man’s existence.

It’s not a busy film, nor is it particularly amusing or sensational in the ways that once made Almodovar the bad boy of Spanish cinema. “Pain and Glory” starts slowly and quietly builds in intensity until it delivers an overwhelmingly emotional experience.

Antonio Banderas,  the hunky sex object of Almodovar’s earlier efforts, stars as Salvador, a sixtysomething filmmaker who hasn’t had a new project in years.  We first meet him underwater in a swimming pool…turns out that floating  is one of the few things that relieves his physical and spiritual maladies.

In an animated sequence Salvador outlines his various infirmities, which range from fused vertebrae to migraines, digestive issues, outbreaks of tendonitis and, naturally enough, depression. All this has left him a virtual recluse; on most days he sees only his devoted secretary/Girl Friday Mercedes (Nora Navas).

“Pain & Glory” unfolds simultaneously in the present and in the past.

In the here and now Salvador learns that one of his films — made more than 30 years earlier — has been restored and is being given a special screening at the national cinematheque.  This results in a reunion between the director and the film’s leading man, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia). The two had a falling out and haven’t spoken in three decades.

They tentatively reignite their friendship; perhaps even more important to Salvador, Alberto turns him on to heroin, the only drug he hasn’t tried to cope with his almost constant pain.

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Joaquin Phoenix

“JOKER” My rating: B+

121 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier teamed up to make a superhero movie, the result would be just like “Joker.”

Less conventional comic book material than existential scream, Todd Phillips’ take on the legendary D.C. villain gives us Joaquin Phoenix as a hapless loser transformed by isolation and grief into a clown-faced avenging angel.

This grim — as in NOT FUN — yarn unfolds not in some make-believe alternative universe (the traditional Tim Burton-ized abode of comic book sagas) but in a Gotham City that looks, sounds and seems even to smell like the dystopian NYC of the 1970s, replete with wall-to-wall graffiti and mounds of garbage thanks to a strike by city workers.

There’s nothing supernatural offered by Phillips and Scott Silver’s screenplay, no fantastic science fiction machines or surgeries, nobody gifted with special powers.

Just the eternally miserable Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a human wraith doomed by genetics and circumstance to live in brutal isolation.

Arthur  works as a professional clown (children’s parties, sidewalk huckstering) and aspires to do stand up — which is odd because he is stupendously unfunny.

Street punks beat him up. When nervous — pretty much all the time — he breaks into uncontrollable laughter.  It’s actually a medical condition for which he takes an array of prescriptions.  Except that the city agency that provides drugs and counseling (Arthur spent some of his young adulthood in a mental ward) has lost its funding. Now he’s on his own.

“The worst thing about having mental illness,” he observes, “is that people expect you to act like you don’t.”

At home in a peeling apartment he feeds and bathes his aged mother (Frances Conroy); their relationship is essentially loving, but it’s pretty clear that Mom is delusional.  She insists on sending pleading letters to her long-ago employer Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), an oligarchical fascist making a run for mayor. (Yes, that Thomas Wayne, father of young Bruce, who will one day become Joker’s arch nemesis Batman.)

But then Arthur has his own issues with reality. He fantasizes that he appears on the late-night talk show of his favorite TV personality, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro). Movie buffs will no doubt pick up some residual vibes from Martin Scorsese’s 1982 “King of Comedy,” in which DeNiro played a pathologically inept standup comic.

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“MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND” My rating: B

94 minutes | No MPAA rating

The cinema has always been dominated by its visual elements and the moving image…there’s a reason we refer to them as “the movies,” after all.

But as powerful as visual images may be, they can be enhanced immeasurably by the judicious and creative use of sound. Some filmmakers, in fact, argue that what we hear in the theater is as important — perhaps more important — than what we see.

Midge Costin’s documentary “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” — she’s a veteran sound and dialogue editor making her directing debut — is a little bit of everything: history, aesthetic exploration, technological geek out.

It is also, for the most part, a look at the careers of two of the still-living giants of movie sound: Walter Murch, whose sound designs have graced the films of Francis Coppola, and Ben Burtt, who brought his talents to George Lucas’ “Star Wars.”

The film opens with Murch, now 77, commenting on how even before birth we are accustomed to hearing our mother’s breathing and heartbeat, as well as voices and noises coming from outside her body. For that reason, Murch asserts, hearing is a much more profound experience than viewing.

The film picks out from cinema’s past special films that advanced movie sound. There’s “King Kong,” whose sound designer manipulated the roars of zoo animals.  There was the radio era, when entire worlds were fabricated from pure sound; artists like Orson Welles exploited the artistic possibilities of radio and then brought that some creativity to the soundtrack of his “Citizen Kane” (1941). Alfred Hitchcock was an advocate of pure sound, eschewing all music for his “The Birds” (1965) and relying heavily on electronically distorted avian noises.

But these adventurous souls were few and far between. Mostly the studios were run like an assembly line that avoided adventurous sound design; each studio had its own sound library of gunshots, trains, screeching tires, ricocheting bullets and other noises that were used over and over again.

Of course for most of the sound era — which began in the late ’20s — movie sound meant monaural sound, noises coming from one speaker directly behind the screen.  It wasn’t until Barbra Streisand demanded a full stereo presentation for her 1976 “A Star Is Born” that stereo soundtracks became the norm.

In films like “Nashville” Robert Altman got creative with dialogue, wiring up everyone in a crowded scene with their own microphones and recording each actor individually so that he could manipulate what his audience heard in the final print.

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