Monday, December 9, 2019

Joker (2019) Makes Clowns Of Us All

Joker movie review
Warner Bros. Pictures
Box office dominance, Academy Award victories, and a stream of superhero movies slated for the next five years. All signs point to comic book movies not going away any time soon. As traditional filmmakers call out the formulaic scope of CGI thrills, it seems like the genre is still due for a timely swing in a different direction - a grim character study, subtle comic mythology, and a thought-provoking message about the state of the world. Joker is the first to step up to the plate, and then misses the mark on such an impressive scale, I was left laughing until it hurt.

Living in the slums of Gotham City with his troubled mother, social outcast, party clown, and aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) struggles with his mental illness. As ruthless street punks, his boss, a late night talk show host, and society seemingly have out for him, Fleck wrestles to fulfill his aspirations of putting on a happy face and making the world smile. Subsequently, the ostracization he endures drives him closer to becoming the nihilistic criminal he abhors.

Director Todd Phillips leaves the comedy world behind to take on a complex comic book icon who blurs the lines between villain and anti-hero. In pop culture, Joker's earned a status of cool by swatting at the privileged classes while having a laugh at the city's expense. Despite his unhinged personality and behavior, Joker's maddening method to the chaos easily gains legions of fans who believe anarchy can dismantle the system. By following in The Dark Knight's footsteps with a gripping portrayal, Phillips tries to tackle mental health for the Joker's origins. But the root of his film's problems is that there's not much here except untapped potential.

To start, the story preemptively bets we'll automatically be on his side simply due to the plethora of reasons for how Arthur's unending and mounting suffering - a traumatic brain injury leaves him with a condition where he's triggered to laugh at the most inopportune times. Residing with his mother who has her own mental health problems, he's a relative shut-in with no social skills or social life. He gets beat up at his job, the people he works with hates him, and just when you think life couldn't kick him down anymore, it does, and he increasingly doesn't have any more ha-ha-ha's to give. Despite what he faces, Arthur supposedly has aspirations to make Gotham better than what it is - to be kinder, less cynical, and make people smile. But when given the opportunity to truly step in and help others, he doesn’t. He remains focused on himself, internalizes all the world's problems around him, and then starts violently lashing out.

What ends up happening here is that the film does little to give you something to root for why Arthur might not or shouldn't have a breakdown even though it's inevitable. Phillips's only draw for tension is that Arthur's stability is cracking or cracked beyond the point of no return, and we're just there to ride it out. In turn, the city of Gotham itself and every supporting character no matter if they are a group of Latinx kids, a dwarf, another white guy at Arthur's gig, or a single mother of color exists purely to be a bystander of Arthur’s destruction. He doesn't even take a public stand against the film's biggest foe-in-the-background Thomas Wayne who wants to use the 99% as his own white savior project, but Arthur gets the credit for it for a real crime he committed that happens to go "viral." Anything that potentially appears good for Arthur is eventually twisted into a device that doesn't aid him and never intended to do so in the first place. This is advantageous for a film that aims to use the final straw as a climax for his breakdown; it's a disadvantage when Arthur's non-existent non-movement for peace or chaos is so incidental, the explosion of rebellion feels inserted into the plot rather than a result of his actions. Gotham exists so much in Arthur's peripheral that his mob of copycat clowns is just violence as a means to a disturbing end.

While I’m all for a film exploring how a character can't pick themselves back up again despite their best efforts or their mental state used to shift plot structure, alter timelines and create illusions (Memento, Black SwanShutter Island, American Psycho), Joker relies on a performance that's absolutely hollow in carrying out its intentions. Despite his massive weight loss and vacant expressions, Phoenix is shockingly void of a personality and internal struggles, and especially “finding some real”. His cringe-worthy laughs and abstract dances mean to signal his increasing loss of reality, but remains a repetitive running gag that doesn't stem from any real source of psychosis or deeper expression of self. Phoenix's lack of depth only calls back to why Heath Ledger’s version delivered a fulfilling complex portrayal - it wasn't just the voice and make-up that got him the Oscar, but every laugh, lie, and seed he planted had a resonating motivation to turn Gotham in on itself. For Phoenix, there’s nothing going on beyond the veil of Arthur’s misfortune (several of which are his own silly mistakes and not imposed on him because the world is ~evil~).

With Phillip's overall direction that manages to maintain an even pace without utilizing an iota of tension or action to support it, Joker isn't a total waste. In the middle of all the tomfoolery is a script by Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver that's terrifyingly relevant to our current era of Arthur Fleck's in the news. There are small tricks with his transformation and the setting that creates a palpable and enigmatic energy where you're waiting for something exciting to happen - the NYC atmospheric edge of the 1970s, the idea of his laugh as an uncontrollable response, the thinnest re-examination of Arthur;s connection to the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents. Besides the clown make-up and the inclusion of Batman characters, that's all you're going to find of DCEU here. Surrounding the scraps of a decent script is an an all-encompassing cinematography by Lawrence Sher and heart-pounding score by Hildur Guðnadóttir that makes Joker hard to turn away from, and delivers on being different than the formulaic superhero movies we're used to.

Phillips and Phoenix admirably attempts to solve the superhero flick problem by making a non-CGI spectacle, but they barely graze the surface of anything they’re trying to say. Instead of digging deep into Fleck's development into Joker, the movie parks itself on the corner and dances down the street while the film world goes up in flames. As much as Arthur wears a mask to the rest of the world, Joker wears one too - by trying to make a point about the disenfranchised (white males) without actually making one. It's also unsurprising that this becomes an example of the pseudo character study we're left with when following ex-producer Martin Scorsese's idea of traditional storytelling - genres actually blur together. In the end, Joker’s too boring to be considered brilliant, not worth the hot-take hype culture, and too pointless to be cancelled. It just makes clowns of us all.
Rating: ★☆☆
Have you seen Joker? What did you think?

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Trailer Reaction: Black Widow (2020)

After helping The Avengers lead their missions from one global catastrophe to another, the former Russian spy Natasha Romanoff finally has her own spin-off. As the first solo female-led flick from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the dots are starting to connect about Black Widow's past.

Ten years in the making, the first look at Black Widow (2020) with a brand new trailer might just answer some long-anticipated questions about the mysterious superhero.

This post contains spoilers from Avengers: Endgame. Read at your own risk. Let's get into the newest trailer.

Friday, November 29, 2019

(Spoiler Free) Knives Out (2019) Resurrects The Who Dun It Genre

Knives Out movie review
Knives Out / Lionsgate
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that manages to hit all the right spots - funny, suspenseful, detailed production design, fantastic cast, a real entertaining thrill ride. As the film industry is in the throes of artful cinema versus blockbuster cinema, sometimes you need a director who can kind of do both. Enter Rian Johnson.

On his 85th birthday, acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies unexpectedly and leaves his entire family grasping at straws over his passing. Renown detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) comes in to investigate and teams up with local Thrombey fanboy Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan) and Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) to find out the truth. With a massive estate on the line, what is initially ruled as a suicide unravels into a much deeper mystery where everyone - Thrombey's goodhearted nurse Marta (Ana De Armas) and his whole family Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans), Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), Walter Thrombey (Michael Shannon), Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette), Meg Thrombey (Katharine Langford), Jacob Thrombey (Jaeden Martell) - are a suspect for Harlan's murder.

After the divisive reception to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, taking over the murder-mystery genre is a step in the right direction for director and writer Rian Johnson. His longtime familiarity and appreciation of the genre is evident in Knives Out from beginning to end. From the lone antique-filled house on a hill in the midst of a cold Boston winter to the unraveling plot that manages to stitch itself together act by act, Johnson has total control over the film. Even when the plot ventures in directions you never imagined, he manages to keep it on track but keep you guessing.

At the film's heart and as a true source of zest is the fantastic ensemble. The Thrombeys are teeming with greed, ignorance, and entitlement. A death in the family doesn't necessarily show their true colors, but instead makes their genuine personalities grow more self-absorbed. There are a few sympathetic faces among the selfish elite, but doesn't necessarily dim just how dysfunctional and passionate the family truly is about their own self-interests and their patriarch. Despite the massive undertaking of making sure the characters are treated as evenly as possible, every supporting character feels like a person on their own with potential motives for killing Harlan. They also feel like a part of a whole, and surprisingly, nobody gets too lost in the shuffle - their audacious behaviors almost makes you want to see more of how this family works from the inside out.

Their chaotic dynamics are spectacularly balanced out with Marta and the detectives - Benoit Blanc, Trooper Wagner and Detective Lieutenant Elliot. While the film is definitely an ensemble piece, it's not difficult to see who the film truly belongs to - Ana De Armas, Daniel Craig, and Chris Evans. Even though Marta is apart of the family, she's also clearly an outsider excluding Harlan. She manages to survive their prejudice through a test of wills, courage, and kindness, and becomes of the best written characters and performances of the year. This role, combined with her next stint in Bond, will make it hard to believe her career does anything but skyrocket. Next to her is Blanc, a detective clearly pulled from the archives of every murder mystery detective ever, yet manages to be his own quirky, trusting, enigmatic, sprightly character on his own. (For those who aren't familiar with Craig's work outside of Bond, he's finally going to turn a lot of heads.) And, even though Evans carved out great performances outside of Captain America, it's refreshing to see him emerge from the Marvel umbrella even more; Ransom attracts everyone into his web with honey and vinegar, and Evans's charm makes you trust and question his every move. The trio's chemistry together truly acts as the film's glue.

Expectantly, as a murder mystery, Knives Out runs the risk of audiences figuring out the plot early, leaving the rest of the film to feel boring and uninteresting. While I was left generally guessing all the way through, the main plot is surprisingly answered quite early in the two hour running. Initially, this might give off the impression that the rest of the film will struggle to add up. However, with time and every act afterwards, Johnson's script is a true beast at connecting all the dots; his plotting shines with the full breadth of twists that never stop unfolding.

However, this is also where some of the story decisions works for and against itself - sometimes the direction or script is too obvious for its own good, or sometimes subtle enough to let the atmosphere and dynamics take on a life of their own. Where Johnson goes right is fleshing out the main mystery into a wider plot that weaves Harlan's death into a full circle. As stones are turned, there's always another that has to be turned again. Every act in their entirety is suspenseful and thrilling, even if the revelations themselves might be predictable for some moviegoers. Where Johnson struggles, and only slightly, is when compelling moments are spelled out directly and come across as unnatural and forced instead of letting them be subtle and take on a life of their own - (one regurgitated gimmick that'd probably work on SNL isn't as smart as it thinks it is, and a Thrombey-fueled debate on immigration feels forced rather than a natural extension of how ignorant they are.). There is a slight imbalance with tones that Johnson employs to infuse the moment with wit and tension that doesn't always stick the landing. Even with the smallest details that aren't as strong as they could be, the film combines humor, heart, and suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat.

From beginning to end, Knives Out does as it promises by taking movie goers on an absolute rollercoaster ride. Its immaculate casting, splendid production and costume design, and dauntless performances is a refreshing jaunt outside of beloved franchises and stream-worthy series as of late. It's difficult to not love the film as it is, but also question if its non-stop praise is due in part that we haven't seen a film like this in a while (a la Clue, Gosford Park, etc.), and not because it's absolutely flawless as many claim. That said, Johnson still delivers a funny, suspenseful and relevant murder mystery that breathes new life into the Who Dun It genre.

Rating for Knives Out: ★★★
Have you seen Knives Out? What do you think?

Monday, November 25, 2019

Maiden (2018) Shows Courage Against All The Odds

Maiden documentary review
Sony Pictures Classics
Rarely does history feel like its shifting when the status quo remains the same. Yet when we look on the past as a kaleidoscope of groundbreaking events in politics, entertainment, and sports, culture is transformed because a few ordinary people were called to forge their own path. A small moment creates a ripple effect that lasts for generations. Maiden tells the inspiring true story of Tracey Edwards and her bid to race the 1989–1990 Whitbread Round the World Race with an all-female crew for the first time.

Much more than a documentary, Maiden captures Edwards’s journey before she changed the competitive nature of sailing forever. As the crew’s cook Jo Gooding says, “If you believe in everything people tell you, you can't do, what would humankind have achieved?”. With captivating footage exploring the chapters of Edwards's life from childhood to adulthood, Maiden dives deep into the courage of the women who dared to do something different: not only be a woman stepping into a man’s world but compete the best that they could.

As much as the film is a documentary, it also works as a biopic, capturing the essence of someone's life and the challenges they faced to become who they are today. The trajectory of gates being closed to Edwards dates back to her childhood when her father passed away and her mother couldn’t take over his HIFI business. Like sailing, it was a male dominated field. Similar to the ocean, there’s a fire burning within her that made her not want to give up. After Edwards tried to make it on her own as a teenager with a clan of misfits, nomads, and dropouts all running away from something on the sea, the environment of skippers and father figures spurned her to go a step further: charter her own all-female crew and race with them.

The Whitbread Round the World Race maps out 33,000 miles from Southampton in South East England to Uruguay, and then Ft. Lauderdale in Florida. Divided into different courses, teams push each other and fight against mother nature to navigate the ocean for top prize. Sliced in between real footage of their journey are interviews with Edwards, her crew members, journalists, and male competitors who give you a full portrait of the hurdles to commandeer their own ship as spectators and critics placed bets they wouldn't survive the first leg.

The Maiden's trials are as big as its triumphs – when they first rally together to prepare, no company or brand steps up to sponsor them; while the male competitors are asked questions about their skills; the media looks for jealousy and catfights for the women; everyone thinks they won’t make it, and when crewmates have to literally be tied to the ship to avoid being thrown overboard as they battle massive waves, there is a genuine chance they might not survive one part of the race let alone the whole expedition. Their small victories also add up: finding the right sponsor who believe women can do anything, overcoming injuries and learning to work as a team. Through every step of the way as the Maiden races around the world, the voyage Edwards starts is far different physically, emotionally, and socially then when they finish.

Though she's not a fictional character drawn from a novel or comic book, the film is a wondrous character study of Edwards, her crew, and the state of the world for women both in 1989 and now. The calling for the Maiden team to have a natural freedom to do what they love grows into a subtle movement, one where they don't just want to participate; they want to make an impact and to be seen for more than the generic stereotypes of being a woman. Maiden sets out to become an example of what people can do when they work hard and aren't hold back by their gender or other societal stats. The film also sets a lasting impression that you don't know you're changing the world in the moment, but sometimes there's nothing else you can do except to trust your instincts and go further than anyone else has gone before.

Rating for Maiden: ★★★
Have you seen Maiden? What do you think?

Please Note: I was provided with a screener in order to watch this film. This is not a sponsored post. My opinion is my own. Maiden is currently available to watch on Amazon, Youtube, Netflix DVD, and GooglePlay.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Film Spotlight: The Fare (interview with Brinna Kelly)

In the middle of nowhere, a charming woman Penny (Brinna Kelly) hails a taxi from a world-weary driver Harris (Gino Anthony Pesi). Though their initial encounter is only fleeting, their chemistry is suspiciously electric - almost as if they’ve met before. Soon, the duo come to an unsettling realization that they are trapped reliving the same moment over and over. The search for truth about what’s happened will undoubtedly change their lives forever.

Directed by D.C. Hamilton, The Fare immediately grabs your attention with its nostalgic atmosphere. A lone cab out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but two passengers, a mysterious radio show, and an electrical storm blocking their trip makes you feel like you’ve been transported into The Twilight Zone. There’s the natural sense, like with any sci-fi flick, that something else is brewing underneath the surface of what’s occurring on-screen. The use of special effects between the stretch of road Harris’s cab cruises over and over again as well as the black and white cinematography gives The Fare a production value of a much larger studio. Yet, as Penny and Harris’s relationship unfolds, the film also holds onto the intimate character experience of an indie, and lets the film unfold more than the initial sci-fi impression. Despite the seemingly simple premise, there’s a lot at play with the production between the characters and story, and Hamilton manages it with ease.

Similarly, some films falter when its cast can’t live up to the story, or the story engulfs the characters. But as a two-person show (three including the voice-over of Jason Stuart), it’s hard to believe how much the film relies and thrives on the deft performances of Brinna Kelly and Gino Anthony Pesi.

For Penny and Harris to work as individual characters reliving the same moment, as well as a partnership that evolves and flows with the story, their chemistry has to shine from the start. Even though the characters have been trapped together for an inordinate amount of time, their connection must be strong enough to sense that something else is going on between them – it’s not too fresh or too worn down to ruin the allusion of how long they’ve running into each other. They have a real interest in each other as well as a light-hearted banter and connection that makes you root for them. Both Kelly and Pesi exude that balance as their characters grapple with the routine of what they’ve experienced before as well as the startling discoveries that come along. It’d be difficult to believe that Kelly and Pesi don’t break out into the wider span of what Hollywood has to offer at some point, and hopefully The Fare will give them a bigger launching pad.

While this film works seamlessly together with the actors and production, The Fare’s greatest strength is its script. The direction and look of the film will grab your visual attention, and the performances will hook you emotionally, but the set-up of mystery and drama unfolds throughout Kelly’s plot with an impressive amount of pacing. The story rarely lags or feels overdone as the sci-fi element of a time loop gradually explores the loneliness of Harris’s lifestyle, the loss and yearning for connection, and contemplating the unknown. Kelly offers enough questions to keep you guessing about why and how the characters are trapped together, but doesn’t limit the characters’ own story. As the movie moves towards the ending, it’s surprisingly fitting how the film doesn’t throw in a twist just to be shocking as many sci-fi films manage to do. By all means, there is a twist - it’s not necessarily ground-breaking, but you also can’t say for sure you saw it coming. It fits well into the story that Kelly lays out, and depending on your guesses, should still leave you feeling satisfied.

Hamilton’s work on the production offers a visual appeal for longtime fans of The Twilight Zone, while Kelly’s script digs just as deep as Rod Serling’s character studies. Being forced to relive a moment or being trapped by the limitations of time has been done before throughout film and various genres – Memento, Groundhog’s Day, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and About Time, to name a few – yet none of them can quite compare to The Fare.

As always, I provide an honest critique for every film that I screen, and hope that you will check out the review and interview below. The Fare is currently available on YouTubeGoogle Play, and Amazon.

Rating for The Fare: ★★★

Friday, November 8, 2019

In Defense of Theme Park Movies

In an interview with Empire magazine, and his op-ed with The New York Times, director Martin Scorsese mentioned disliking the superhero genre and comparing Marvel movies to theme parks. His answer sparked a debate about what qualifies as true cinema and what doesn't. As a fan of both comic book movies and traditional film genres, I wanted to touch on why I disagree and both agree.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The One With My Favorite FRIENDS Episodes

Favorite FRIENDS Episodes
On September 22nd, 1994, a tiny sitcom named FRIENDS debuted on NBC. This year marks the 25th Anniversary since we first saw the gang reunite in Central Perk. *Chandler Bing voice* Could you FEEL any older? I know I do.

In celebration of the series 236 episodes, laughs, happy tears, shocking moments, quotable lines, lesbianism, hook-ups, I compiled a list of my top fifteen favorites. (There's no doubt, I could've kept going for a few more posts, but I had to stop the list somewhere.) Which episodes do you love the most? Let me know what you think!

Side Note: This top ten list is in addition to my favorite FRIENDS' Thanksgiving episodes, which easily would have taken up half the spots here. Only one makes the final cut in a pivotal spot.