September/October 2019 Round-Up – Part 1

Hustlers(9/16/2019)

I’m generally used to knowing months in advance what movies are worth looking forward to but every once in a while something will come out of nowhere and surprise you, and that’s more or less what happened with Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, which tells the true story of a group of exotic dancers who form a gang of sorts which starts drugging and robbing various customers in order to “get theirs.”  In some quarters the film was being sold as a sort of economic revenge romp with women nobly fighting back against their opressors, which is not necessarily something I would have gotten behind, but the actual movie exists in a more morally nuanced place than that.  In essence the film is another entry in the much imitated formula established by Goodfellas in which we sort of watch a criminal enterprise as it rises and then falls, and while this is familiar I do think this movie iterates on the format enough to avoid simply being derivative.  Where it loses points is in the aesthetics.  The movie’s never quite sure whether it wants to be straight-up gritty or whether it wants to go for more of a flashy style in keeping with the Scorsese films that inspired it.  Some of the reviews for this thing have been a bit over the top, I think it’s been the beneficiary of lowered expectations, but it is a quality film that will connect with certain audiences very strongly.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Monos(10/6/2019)

There’s been some quality cinema coming out of Columbia as of late and their submission for this year’s iteration of the Best International Feature category at the Academy Awards suggest that Ciro Guerra is far from the country’s only filmmaking talent.  Monos is set in a remote region of the country and follows a group of teenagers who are enlisted in a paramilitary group called only “The Organization” who I assume are meant as a fictionalization of real life groups like FARC.  This band of The Organization is largely left to its own devices with only one adult commanding officer who only visits them every once in a while to deliver orders.  These kids carry around assault rifles and occasionally engage in drills but do not seem to be very involved in frontline combat, instead their main duty is to guard an American woman that The Organization has kidnapped and is holding hostage, presumably until a ransom is paid.  Much of the tension of the film is in seeing these young people reacting to this extreme situation while still very much being teenagers who are prone to the same kind of irresponsibility as teenagers who live less stressful lives.  The film sports some really nifty cinematography and has a lot of great scenery and environments and things do get rather exciting towards the end when tensions boil over and “Lord of the Flies” is directly invoked but the film meanders a bit in the middle.  The cast is generally quite good but the size of the film’s ensemble sometimes works against it as we never manage to really know any one of these kids all that well and the film never gets into how they found themselves in this situation or what keeps them there.  It’s an interesting piece of world cinema, but I wouldn’t call it a “must see.”

*** out of Five

 

Gemini Man(10/10/2019)

I was not expecting much from Gemini Man, which is an odd thing to say from a movie directed by Ang Lee and featuring a major star like Will Smith, but the trailer really looked awful and the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score is very low.  I had pegged Lee’s continued obsession with high frame rate presentation as the thing that was probably going to torpedo the movie, which was by all accounts the thing that killed his last film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  My first (and until now only) experience with high frame rate presentation was from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 60 fps back in 2012 which, ironically enough, was a film I saw on the very same day I saw Ang Lee’s Life of Pi which is likely the movie which convinced Ang Lee that he should be a technological innovator in the first place.  That viewing of that Hobbit movie was, in many ways, one of the worst theatrical experiences I can remember and I spent most of the movie wishing I’d just seen it in a regular theater (or not seen it at all, frankly).  If any movie was going to be a terrible showcase for the technology it was going to be that one since it invited an apples-to-apples comparison to the previous Lord of the Rings movies and because its medieval fantasy setting invited a certain traditionalist approach.  I could tell that the 3D was a little smoother than usual but that was a movie that probably shouldn’t have been in 3D at all and the drawbacks to the format like the fact that it makes everyone on screen look like they’re moving at something like 1.25x speed at times and that it gives the whole film a sort of sterile look like you’re watching a British soap opera or something.

So it was with some surprise that the thing I dreaded most about the film, the tech, was the thing I ended up being most interested by.  I don’t know if the difference between 60 and 120 frames was the difference or if the technology has just gotten better in the last seven years or if the movie was just significantly more suited to it, but the presentation was way more intriguing this time around.  I say “intriguing” and “interesting” rather than “good” because for me the jury is still very much out on this and there are only a limited number of movies I’d actually want it used for, but this time around I did finally kind of see why filmmakers like Lee, Jackson, and Cameron were chasing this technology.  The 3D in the movie seems a lot deeper than what you usually see from 3D movies and you really seem to see the characters and a lot of detail right down to every pore on their face.  It almost looked less like a movie and more like some kind of VR video game experience, which is both a good and a bad thing.  The movements of the characters is still unusual, you don’t notice it this the whole way through but every once in a while some of the onscreen movement will just seem unnaturally faster than what you expect in movies, but during certain action scenes this actually ramps things up.

Now I’ve talked almost exclusively about this film’s presentation technology to this point because it is frankly the most interesting aspect of what is otherwise a painfully mediocre Bourne Identity ripoff movie.  As I’m sure most are aware, the big high concept here is that it’s a movie where Will Smith is an assassin who has to face off against a younger version of himself who is presumably a clone.  That is of course its own technological challenge as they’re using de-aging technology to bring this younger Will Smith to life, and the do a reasonably acceptable job of doing it.  You do see the seams there and you certainly sense that you’re looking at a special effect while he’s on screen (Captain Marvel remains the gold standard for this technology, at least until I get a look at The Irishman), but technologically it’s acceptable.  What’s less acceptable is Will Smith’s performance in these scenes. As the older version of the character Smith is basically doing a variation on what he usually does when he’s in relatively somber movies and he’s fine at it, but he really doesn’t seem to know what to do when playing the younger version and never finds the right voice or find an interesting way to turn down his usual confidence.  The movie also doesn’t do anything wildly interesting thematically with this setup beyond what giving older Will Smith some really under-developed “regrets” and giving younger Will Smith some lame daddy issues with his creator.  Otherwise the whole thing is totally cookie cutter.  Some of the action scenes are impressive, in part because they’re being given a lot of extra punch by the 3D, but some of them are a lot less effective than others.

On some level I’m glad that Ang Lee is using this nothing of a film in order to act as a guinea pig for his technological experimentation rather than applying it to a movie with real potential for which it would largely be a distraction, but what I really want is for him to stop pretending he’s James Cameron and get back to making small movies about emotions.  That or maybe make an action movie with more of a human touch like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, because with or without technical wizardry Gemini Man is plainly beneath him.  Actually it’s beneath a lot of people; the screenplay has apparently been bouncing around Hollywood since the late 90s and it does feel kind of dated as a result.  It’s one of a lot of spy movies from the 2000s that used rogue fictional spy agencies as the villains because they couldn’t find an international enemy of interest at the time and also didn’t quite have the balls to suggest that the actual CIA might be evil.  In general its conception of how espionage works is idiosyncratic; too ridiculous to claim any sort of realism but not fantastical enough to be particularly fun.  It’s also got some really bad on-the-nose dialogue and boring characters.  I’d normally implore people to not waste their time on such a movie until it’s on HBO or something, but I can’t this time because the only real reason to see this thing at all is because of the visuals and how they play out in 120 FPS 3D and I suspect from the trailer that the movie’s going to kind of look like crap in any other format.  So if and only if you’re curious about the tech give the movie a look if you can do so cheaply, otherwise just skip it.

** out of Five

Advertisements

Jojo Rabbit(10/16/2019)

For about as long as there has been Nazis there have been people making fun of Nazis.  Carlie Chaplin made and released The Great Dictator before the United States even entered the war, Ernst Lubitsch made To Be or Not to Be at the war’s height, and even Disney was known to put out cartoons of Donald Duck wreaking havoc behind German lines.  Granted, those movies were made before the details of the Holocaust were public and some of those jokes about “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” and the like do take on a new meaning in hindsight, but these movies remain prime examples of the power of laughing in the face of evil.  The game of making fun of the Nazis didn’t exactly end there though and through the rest of the 20th Century you can find any number of movies like The Producers or the show “Hogan’s Heroes” that would use the goose stepping and thoughtless hate of Nazi totalitarianism as a source of dark humor and a similar streak of satire tends to run through a lot of other movies that take a more irreverent look at the past like the Nazis in the Indiana Jones franchise or in Inglourious Basterds or even in the Wolfenstein series of video games.  So it wasn’t really a huge shock to me when I learned that the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (who is apparently Jewish) was making a satire about life in Germany during the end of the Second World War which would feature some rather irreverent Hitler imagery, but I was curious to see what he’d do with the concept.

The film concerns a ten year old boy named Johann “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), who is living in a town somewhere in western Germany during the last year of the Second World War.  Jojo’s father is said to be away fighting in the war and his sister apparently died earlier so he is living alone with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson).  Jojo has been caught up in the madness of Nazi Germany and views Hitler as something of a rock star and Hitler (Taika Waititi) actually talks to him from time to time as a sort of hallucinatory imaginary friend and as the film begins he’s excitedly running off to a Hitler Youth jamboree.  This gathering is being overseen by a wounded German officer named Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who at one point demands that Jojo kill a rabbit in front of him to demonstrate his willingness to kill for the Fatherland and despite Jojo’s enthusiasm for the cause can’t bring himself to do this, at which point he is mocked and given the nickname “Jojo Rabbit.”  Compounding his problems he ends up having an unlikely grenade accident, which he survives but is left with some scarring on his face and leg.  Because of that he’s stuck home most days and starts to hear noises from the second floor and discovers a hidden door and when he looks behind it he learns that his mother has been hiding a seventeen year old Jew named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in her attic, a discovery that will make him question his commitment the Nazi ethos.

Jojo Rabbit won the Audience Prize at the Toronto Film Festival this year and I suspect that it will be a pretty big hit with audiences generally; the one I saw it with certainly seemed to like it and gave it a big applause at the end.  I will say, I can sort of see why certain audiences would react that way.  Taika Waititi is a skilled director and does have a certain knack for juxtaposing slightly difficult coming of age stories with wacky humor as evidenced by his previous film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  I can also see why people would find the film to be pretty funny as there are certainly moments in it that are recognizably witty and Waititi’s performance in it as hallucination Hitler is certainly broadly memorable entry in the ranks of Hitler parodies (of which there are many) and the performances in general are pretty strong.  The audience I saw it with was laughing uproariously through much of the movie but while I could recognize some decent comic beats this movie did not really make me laugh all that much, which could mostly be a matter of taste or could be a function of me just not finding all of this as shocking or outlandish as some people may.  As I discussed in the opening paragraph there’s kind of a long history of movies making fun of the Nazis and on some level I’m kind of over it, or at least harder to impress with it.

That having been said, I am glad that Waititi did add that level of overt comedy to the film because without that this movie would really be a pretty insufferable.  I mentioned earlier that this was the winner of the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, and that is an award that has something of a history of not aligning with my tastes as the last film to win it was last year’s inexplicable Oscar winning film Green Book.  I bring that up because this movie and Green Book have more in common than you might think from the advertising campaigns.  At its core this, like Green Book, is basically the story of a white (or in this case gentile) person slowly coming to decide the minority he’s forced to have dealings with isn’t so bad after all and how the power of friendship triumphs over hate or some shit.  This isn’t to say the two movies are identical.  For one thing this is about a child coming to this realization and not a grown-ass man and it’s a child who grew up in a somewhat extreme environment to boot.  But still, I must say I find something kind of trite about this whole message of intolerance being overcome through personal interactions and especially find it to be rather out of place here given that Nazi Germany certainly wasn’t a place that improved their race relations through gradual self-improvement and civility.  On the contrary, it took an overwhelming military defeat at the cost of millions of lives, a series of trials that ended in many of its leaders being executed, and a five year occupation in which all former Nazi organizations and symbols were illegalized, and decades of shame and a conspicuous demand for atonement from the rest of the world thereafter.

If Waititi really wanted to explore Nazism he probably would have been better served exploring what made Jojo (and by extension the rest of Germany) find that party appealing in the first place rather than how he came to dislike it all of a week before the allies were about to force the issue anyway.  The opening credits, set to a German cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” compares the rise of Hitler to Beatlemania, which is the kind of provocation and insight I would have liked from the rest of the film but it doesn’t fully explain why this kid (who would have only just been born around the time Triumph of the Will came out) would be such a fan.  He clearly didn’t get this from his parents, who clearly weren’t true believers in Aryan Ideology and presumably would have tried to instill in him some of those values even if they needed to be careful about preventing him from spilling the beans.  The imaginary Hitler friend also doesn’t provide much insight.  The character is presumably supposed to be a sort of devil on this kid’s shoulder and from time to time he sort of acts in this capacity but more often than not he’s just there to be a goofy onscreen presence rather than some hateful part of his psyche.  In many ways making the film about a child just seems like a bit of a copout, it doesn’t explain why a struggling country would have found comfort in authoritarianism and it makes anti-Semitism into an exaggerated joke about childish misconceptions of people with horns rather than the result of a paranoid conspiracy theory mixed with a strong desire to feel superior to others.

Despite the Audience Award win at Toronto the film’s response at that festival by critics was kind of polarized.  This didn’t get a whole lot of press, in part because the critics were even more polarized by Joker and the endless arguments about that movie have kind of overshadowed any other cinematic divisions.  But Joker is perhaps another interesting point of comparison because I think my view of Jojo Rabbit is not dissimilar from how a lot of that film’s detractors felt: namely that I think it has a premise that promises a strong insight into society that it never really delivers on and ends up feeling especially shallow as a result.  That might not be entirely fair: much as I basically view Joker as elevated genre fare rather than a work attempting true social insight, there will probably be a lot of people who view this as simply a smarter than average comedy which provides a better than average theatrical experience and that’s probably fair enough.  Additionally I could see myself having gone along with this a lot more if it had hit my funny bone more than it did, instead I found some of its quirks kind of annoying especially given the setting and how little insight I think it really has into it.

**1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 9/22/2019

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (9/8/2019)

I was hesitant about reviewing this as an official 2019 release as it was a movie which played in TIFF in 2018 to some good reviews but didn’t get picked up by a major distributor and to the best of my knowledge never played in any theaters before getting a fairly unceremonious VOD release.  Honestly I mainly watched it because I was about to cancel my Hulu membership and decided to quick watch some of the 2019 movies on there before I did.  The film is basically a single location Reservoir Dogs like thing but it’s set at a compound where militia types are held up and are panicking because there was a shooting at a police funeral and they believe they will be blamed for this.  On the positive side I think the movie looks really good and manages to do cinematography in low light darkness a whole lot better than any number of movies with much bigger budgets.  The movie also has an ending which is kind of interesting.  However, if you’re going to make a movie about straight-up domestic terrorists you’re going to have a bit of an uphill climb in trying to get any kind of sympathy or even investment in them from the audience.  The aforementioned Reservoir Dogs was also certainly about unsavory people, but those people had personality, these people just aren’t that memorable.  All in all, despite there being some talent behind this I can’t exactly say it was a grave injustice that this didn’t get picked up, it feels small but not in a charming way and there isn’t much of an audience for it.

**1/2 out of Five

The Great Hack (9/9/2019)

And in the “we need to immediately make a feature film out of every news story” department we get this film about the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  There isn’t really a whole lot to say about it aside from the fact that it’s a slick but not overly revelatory overview of the scandal.  We are given some behind the scenes access as the director follows a subject of the investigation named Brittany Kaiser as the scandal starts to become a big media story but her testimony in the film never quite amounts to a fully argued case and I’m not entirely sure how on the level she is.  Ultimately there’s not a lot here you couldn’t have gotten from simply following the media coverage at the time, which isn’t an automatic deal breaker, but I’m not sure it presents everything in an ideally clear way either.  It’s a movie that’s too muddled for people who don’t know much about this story to use as a starting point but not substantial enough to give people who were paying attention anything new.

**1/2 out of Five

Dogman (9/10/2019)

When Matteo Garrone made the 2008 film Gomorrah he was greeted as one of the premier directors of world cinema and while he’s made a number of well liked films in the years since then he’s never really had a breakout hit and I’m not sure that he’s quite lived up to his reputation.  Honestly I was never really sold on him in the first place.  Gomorrah, to me, was an interesting twist on the mafia crime film but it didn’t really work for me as a cinematic experience and I had similar problems with the execution on his follow-up film Reality.  His newest film, Dogman, has kind of the opposite problem in that it’s an easier watch than those two films were but its ambitions are lower and it generally feels less important an accomplishment as a result.  The film revolves around a meek dog groomer and his odd one-sided friendship with a local bully.  This bully is a gigantic person who’s big enough to basically get anything he wants by brute force and has basically no qualms or morality as a result.  He’s a truly awful person with no redeeming qualities whatsoever and yet this dog groomer seems to be willing to defend him.  That central friendship kept me interested but I ultimately felt a bit let down by the film’s ending which, rather than shed new light on why he would be friends with this guy, instead sort of just bluntly put an end to things.  I’m not really sure what the point of all this was supposed to be in the end and I don’t think the movie itself will prove all that memorable to me.

*** out of Five

The Edge of Democracy (9/21/2019)

Around the world and at home we’ve seen a disturbing rise in far right wing parties and politicians and last year we learned that even multi-racial societies like Brazil were not immune from this when they elected the horrendous Jair Bolsonaro to be their president.  I had expected this documentary to be about that guy’s rise but it’s actually more about the political scandal that sort of set the table for Bolsonaro’s rise, a scandal involving the left wing party that was in power for many years and was seemingly successful but who seem to have occasionally dipped into some of the country’s more corrupt practices in trying to get things done.  The documentary seems to suggest that the investigation into that corruption experienced some serious mission creep and really turned into a total witch hunt.  The film’s director, who also narrates the film, is open about her biases in all of this, which is admirable but also makes it a little hard to quite grasp how much to trust all of this.  The scandal at the center of the film is incredibly complex and the movie struggles to really present all of it while also giving needed context (the film was plainly made with a non-Brazilian audience in mind), and while I sense that what she’s saying is true the film also doesn’t feel like its showing all the facts, though to be fair I’m not sure a two hour film ever could provide all the facts.  In many ways I kind of wish the film had spent less time explaining the details of the scandal and more time explaining who the Brazilian voters are and how and why they responded to this so strongly.  It did definitely provide some strong food for thought though and I’m ultimately glad I watched it.

*** out of Five 

Missing Link (9/22/2019)

Laika has long been a studio more beloved by critics than by general audiences, and that’s only gotten more true as time goes on.  If the place weren’t being run by an heir to the Nike fortune it likely would have gone bust by now, but I’m certainly glad they persist.  That said, not all of their problems are simply the fault of a small-minded public and their latest film was probably their biggest boondoggle both critically and commercially.  Made for $100 million dollars (about $40 million more than their other films) and yet it barely made more than $15 million at the box office.  I’d like to say this failure was unearned, and to some extent it was because the movie’s certainly better than that, but it is certainly a movie that didn’t play into the studio’s strengths.  People like Laika because they make these quirky gothy stop-motion movies that are different from what the conventional animation studios do but with Missing Link they seem to be selling out a bit and taking on a more conventional family movie sense of humor and adventure and frankly I liked them better when they were being goths.  The film follows an arrogant 19th Century cryptobiologist who seeks out a Bigfoot in Washington and upon realizing that Bigfoot is a nice guy agrees to take him to the Himalayas to seek out the Yetis who are rumored to be there but are chased by some bad guys who have too much time on their hands.  It’s not without some charm and the stop motion effects are good, but that darkness you hope for from this studio isn’t really there and the story and characters just seem kind of stock.

*** out of Five

Joker(10/3/2019)

Rather than simply opening the movie Joker wide in early October Warner Brothers decided to premiere the film a month earlier at the Venice Film Festival, which is a move that garnered the film some initial raves and won it the prestigious Golden Lion award.  Ultimately though I think it was a bad move because it meant that critics would spend the next month very publically arguing about a movie no one else was able to see in a way that’s much more visible than it is when they see arthouse movies early, and the discourse has not been pretty.  There were initial grumblings as early as that Venice premiere with people saying the movie was potentially “toxic,” which is one of those imprecise words that headline writers and no one else likes to use.  From there a certain subset the media decided there were clicks to be found in going full Tipper Gore and drumming up a sort of panic that the movie will cause mass shootings or something.  Even ignoring the fact that these articles were making long disproven arguments about violence in cinema and essentially advancing NRA talking points, there also seemed to be an inherit elitism to the whole thing.  This type of gritty violence has long been seen as understandable in limited release arthouse contexts but suddenly they were freaked out because it was in a movie that might be seen by the great unwashed masses.  But what really annoyed me about the whole thing is that there was this widespread argument about cinema going on and I had no way to weigh in or even follow it because the damn movie hadn’t even come out yet.  Well, it’s finally out and I have some thoughts.

Joker presents an origin story for the famous Batman villain as it examines the mental deterioration of a man named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who starts the film with a long history of mental health problems.  Fleck lives with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), herself someone of questionable psychology, and takes multiple medications and has a condition which causes him to laugh uncontrollably at times regardless of his mood.  Fleck is working as a clown for hire and has some rather delusional aspirations at becoming a stand-up comedian and idolizes a late-night talk show host named Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).  None of this is working out very well for him but his life starts to take a turn when he gets his hands on a handgun and ends up shooting three bullies who try to attack him on an empty subway.

It is nearly impossible to talk about Joker and not bring up the two Martin Scorsese films that inspired it: 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1983’s The King of Comedy.  Robert De Niro of course starred in both of those movies and his presence here seems to be a tacit nod to this inspiration.  Like Taxi Driver this is following a man with a clear screw loose as he loses it, begins arming himself, and forms unhealthy stalker-like obsessions with a woman and with a politician and like The King of Comedy this unhinged man has delusions that he’s a talented comedian and wants to find his way on a popular talk show by any means necessary.  That the film is plainly derivative is something of an albatross around the movie’s neck which for many will blunt whatever it accomplishes what with it standing on the shoulders of giants to get there, and I do sort of feel that way to some extent but simply dismissing it as a rip-off seems unfair and inaccurate as well.  First of all, a lot of perfectly good movies do stuff like this.  Boogie Nights is basically Goodfellas in the porn industry, Black Swan is basically Repulsion meets The Red Shoes, First Reformed is basically a hash of ideas from 1950s art films, and perhaps most comparably there’s the movie Logan, which could easily be described as a watered down and comic bookified rehash of Children of Men and The Road.  Let’s also not ignore the fact that Scorsese himself is second only to Tarantino in his propensity to proudly wear his influences on his sleeve.

Of course the thing that does differentiate Joker from the Scorsese movies that inspired it is that this is a comic book movie, a fact that’s often been downplayed when arguing in favor of the movie but which is actually kind of crucial to it.  The things that happen in Joker are generally bigger and more operatic than they would be in a Scorsese movie from the 70s.  Also the film is quite specifically set in Gotham City rather than New York, and not even the kind of hyper modern Gotham that we say in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films but a kind of decaying Gotham of the past.  This isn’t the first time Batman has been done as a semi-period piece.  Tim Burton’s Gotham was a mix of 30s art deco and futuristic technology, possibly as a means of bridging the comic book’s Golden Age origins with modern cinema and other Batman properties like “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Gotham” followed suit.  This film never cites a year it’s supposed to be set in but it certainly looks like it’s straight up set in the 70s or early 80s both in terms of technology (all televisions in the movie are CRTs) but also in terms of social conditions because the city seems to be dealing with the kind of crime rates and budget shortfalls that New York was experiencing when Travis Bickle dreamed of a rain to “wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks.”  Almost like what Tim Burton’s version of the city would have become in about thirty years were it not for the intervention of The Dark Knight.

That this is set in a fictional time and place is, I think, what’s maybe throwing some critics for a loop.  People seem to be expecting this to be a movie that is making a statement about America today when I think it was actually meant to be a bit more off in its own world than that.  This is still very much a comic book movie, just more of a gritty 80s comic book than a fun silver age comic book.  Its set in a city that’s over-run by crime, not necessarily a problem in America today (at least not relative to 1976), but it was certainly a problem in the Gotham City that gave birth to Batman, and while it does have some interest in the plight of the mentally ill Arthur Fleck’s situation is pretty specifically rooted in a fictional condition that’s poorly treated by the shortcomings of a fictional city’s healthcare system.  This isn’t to say there isn’t some relevance to real life conditions here, after all this fictional world was inspired by social problems that have and do exist in the real world, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to be as tapped into the current zeitgeist as it’s been suggested.

This I suppose brings me to the criticism that the film in some way endorses or glamorizes the violent actions of unhinged individuals, which I think is largely unfounded.  First and foremost it should be noted that the Joker in this movie is not exactly what you’d call a mass shooter.  Any violence in the film is generally quite personalized and is committed by small and unglamourous weapons like knives and snub-nose handguns.  There are no assault rifles to be seen and even at his worst this Joker isn’t taking out his anger on random individuals.  Then there’s the rather lazy assertion that the film is some sort of “incel” manifesto, which is odd given that “incels” are a fringe online group who are defined almost entirely by their rage at women who don’t want to sleep with them, and while Arthur Fleck has all sorts of grievances with the world his sex life or lack thereof is not really a focus of the film and also isn’t one of the character’s main stated grievances and very few of his victims are women.  This isn’t to say that the character is entirely free of misogyny, his treatment of the Zazie Beetz character is certainly all kinds of creepy, but he generally seems far more angry about his trouble holding onto a job and random street violence than he is with the women of the world.  Additionally, the movie never falls into the trap of suggesting that Fleck is some sort of kind soul who’s just misunderstood.  The film has enough sympathy with him to not want him to be assaulted on the street and wants him to have access to social services, but it’s upfront about how messed up he is from the very beginning and why everyone around him has very good reasons to keep their distance.

So if this isn’t trying to make a grand statement about society what is it trying to do?  Well, I think it’s trying to say something about Batman.  Specifically it seems to be contrasting the oft filmed origin of the caped crusader with this new birth of the clown prince of crime and suggest that one is the funhouse mirror reflection of the other.  And I’m going to have to get into spoilers here.  Batman was famously born of a tragedy caused by street crime but it’s also said to have been Bruce Wayne’s unconventional means of carrying on the legacy of his enlightened Carnegie-esque millionaire father.  Joker rather cleverly re-casts Thomas Wayne as someone who was also a father figure to Fleck, at least in his own head, but also suggests that he viewed him as being less of a swell humanitarian and more of an out of touch condescending Randian asshole and that Wayne was more the cause of than the solution to Gotham’s many problems.  Where the real son opted to emulate his father (or his conception of him) and rebuild law and order by peaceful means, the fake son opted to rebel against his “father” (or his conception of him) and go on a sort of nihilistic crusade against law and order.  There’s obviously more to Fleck’s descent into madness than that and his murderous ways are of course wrong whether or not he’s “right” about Thomas Wayne, but the movie does do a very good job of decontextualizing the origin story we all know and love.

So how does one make a final analysis of Joker? It’s certainly no Taxi Driver, but then again what is?  I’ve certainly seen lesser riffs on that formula like The Assassination of Richard Nixon and One Hour Photo.  Ultimately I think the choice to draw inspiration from that film is an aesthetic choice more than anything and it makes Joker something rather unique among comic book movies: one that plays like a drama rather than an action movie.  To me that’s something that’s unique and valuable but it’s only an impressive aesthetic choice if you’re looking at the movie as a comic book movie rather than as some sort of realist drama: looked at as a comic book movie it’s one of the most impressive entries in its form but looked at as a realist drama it’s… not, and probably never could be given the fantasy elements that are inherent to its very nature.  Either way it’s an exceptionally well made movie that’s hard to look away from and features a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix.  It’s certainly better than director Todd Phillips has made previously and significantly better than the more conventional superhero fare that Warner Brothers has been giving us through its DC Cinematic Universe.  Just maybe don’t take it too seriously.

**** out of Five

Ad Astra(9/19/2019)

Last year when I went to see First Man and this year when I watched Apollo 11 I came to a slightly depressing revelation: the 60s space program has lost a lot of its luster, at least for me and I suspect with a lot of people of my generation.  I think that’s in large part because at the moment space exploration seems like a bit of a dead end.  Back in the 60s people just assumed that landing on the moon was a giant leap for mankind and that by the year 2001 we’d be regularly traveling to space bases and traveling through trippy alien wormholes to reach our next stage of evolution.  Instead we’ve mostly just learned that the moon and Mars are both barren wastelands and that if there is life (or even worthwhile natural resources) out there it’s so astronomically far away that it would be ridiculously hard to ever get there.  Hollywood for their part has kind of given up on space optimism; they usually just go the fantasy route and jump to distant futures of the Star Trek variety without even suggesting how we got there.  The only movie in recent years I can think of which tried to do science fiction in a way that was closer to our current technology was The Martian, but even that movie kind of marginalized the actual space travel part of getting to the red planet.  Joining that film is perhaps the new James Gray film Ad Astra (which is the Latin for “to the stars), a film which looks at a distant but not entirely distant future which seems at least a little bit plausible.

The film begins with an action scene where Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is working on a massive antenna which stands so high that its basically in space when it’s hit by some sort of power surge and he plummets to the surface before being saved by a parachute.  We soon learn that this is one of many such surges that are wreaking havoc across Earth and McBride is brought into a top secret briefing where he’s told that these surges are the result of a mission from years ago called the Lima Project.  This mission, an attempt to find intelligent life in the universe which required a voyage deep into the solar system, was led by McBride’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who the public believes died heroically when that ship was lost sixteen years ago.  In the briefing its revealed that the government believes Clifford is actually alive and that these surges are somehow being caused by the Lima’s power sources.  As such Roy is being recruited to travel to Mars, via the Moon, in order to send out a personal plea to Clifford.  Roy accepts this mission and begins what is sure to be a fateful journey both for himself and for humanity.

What is immediately striking about the future depicted in Ad Astra is that, more so than in even the most grounded of science fiction, it manages to feel legitimately futuristic while also feeling like a fairly natural evolution of the modern world.  The space ships in it can apparently go to the outer-reaches of the solar system in a matter of a few months but they still resemble shuttles and need to use rockets to exit the atmosphere and the clothing and space suits everyone’s wearing are not wildly divergent from modern clothing trends.  They’ve apparently colonized the moon and Mars, but getting to them involves all the same mundanities we need to deal with at modern airports and parts of both are apparently unstable warzones.  All over the film you can tell that a great deal of thought and research was done to build all these futuristic things, but the film doesn’t feel obliged to stop and explain all of it.  Take that antenna thing at the beginning, what is that for?  I don’t know, and unless I missed something I don’t think the movie ever stops and explains it but it’s certainly a striking image and I do have a certain confidence that they thought it through.  The scientific things that don’t make so much sense to me are things that kind of seem like plot contrivances.  I’m not exactly sure why they would need to go to Mars just to send a signal to Neptune and it’s also a bit convenient that in the third act Pitt is able to travel a pretty vast distance in a relatively short span of time, which would seem to raise some plot questions.

Having said all that, the science fiction in Ad Astra is in many ways something of a background element more than the main focus.  This isn’t a movie that’s trying to be a headtrip in the lineage of 2001: A Space Odyssey so much as a human quest modeled after Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” with Pitt as Marlow and his father as Kurtz.  It certainly isn’t a one to one parallel and the overall thematic message is quite different but the basic structure is more or less there.  This also makes the film a rather inward piece of work that focuses almost entirely on Brad Pitt’s character to the exclusion of pretty much everyone else and as a result the film has to rest pretty heavily on a voice-over narration by Pitt that is a bit of a mixed bag.  I certainly wouldn’t want the voice-over taken out entirely because there are definitely sections of it that are needed but I do think it could have been reduced a little bit.  Pitt’s narration in and of itself is a bit monotone and was made to sound like it was recorded in an echoy spaceship, which may or may not have been the best call.  There are also some plot details that bug me in the film, especially a violent turn of events that leads into the third act which seemed avoidable and kind of undermined the film’s ending.

Honestly I do having a sinking suspicion that there are a lot of plot elements here which aren’t going to hold up overly well to strict scrutiny and I don’t look forward to the “everything wrong with” videos that are eventually going to be made because looking at the movie like that sort of misses the point.  At the same time, the film’s general straightforwardness does make it a bit more susceptible to that kind of criticism.  This isn’t the kind of brainy science fiction film that really forces you to untangle some crazy mind bending idea about aliens or time travel or something, it’s ultimately a character study and the journey at its center is about as literal as it is metaphorical.  While I was watching the movie, I really liked it.  It looks great and it has some very strong scenes, but it didn’t really leave me with the same level of food for thought that we’ve come to expect from this kind of science fiction.  It’s a movie that’s fairly straightforward in its messaging and there are plot elements which I just can’t completely overlook.  This is actually the feeling I get all too often when I leave James Gray movies, he’s a guy with clear talent but his movies always end up being a bit shallower than their trappings suggest.  Still, if the movie has failings they’re failings that are set up by high expectations, looked at in the wider world of commercial cinema this is definitely worth seeing especially for fans of hard science fiction.

***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 9/7/2019

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary (8/24/2019)

The Amazing Jonathan was a magician/comedian who emerged around the same time as Penn and Teller and sort of deconstructed traditional magic acts in an irreverent way and made him a success.  He also apparently lived a hard life which involved severe drug addiction and all of it was brought to an end when he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition and only had a year to live.  Ten years later he’s still alive but knows he’s on borrowed time.  Enter Benjamin Berman, a documentary filmmaker who has decided to step in and film The Amazing Jonathan while he goes on a farewell tour and make a portrait of what his life is like now.  Seems to have all the makings of a compelling but ordinary profile documentary but things take a bit of a twist when Jonathan announces that an award winning documentary producer also wants to make a movie about him and that he’s going to let that competing crew film him as well.  What follows is a movie that’s about as much about Berman and his reaction to the situation as a filmmaker as it is about The Amazing Johnathan and that may frustrate people who are looking more for a straightforward account of the magician and his predicament.  Personally, as someone who’s sick to death of “profile docs” about famous people I found the whole thing to be something of a refreshing deconstruction of that genre and about how there seems to be a rush to send documentary crews to every event that’s in the news.  There is also the question of how “real” any of this is and while I have my suspicions they lead me more in the direction of viewing this as a work of meta trickery like Exit Through the Gift Shop than a genuine attempt to deceive.

**** out of Five

Alita: Battle Angel (8/29/2019)

Asking for original blockbusters is easy, actually liking them when we get them is hard.  Take Alita: Battle Angel for example, which isn’t technically a new IP given that it is an adaptation of a manga but is clearly not trying to be sold to an existing fanbase and is an original blockbuster as far as most audiences were concerned.  Everything about the film made it look like the next Valerian or the next Mortal Engines, so it was a bit of a surprise when its box office performance was merely lackluster rather than disastrous at the domestic box office and was actually a hit in international territories.  I’m not entirely sure why this one took off while other visual overload blockbusters have not (good timing perhaps) but it was a success and a surprise comeback for director Robert Rodriguez, who has never really been trusted with budgets like this before.  I will say that the film is pretty impressive on a technical level.  The protagonist’s face has some uncanny valley issues but it’s otherwise able to bring this world together pretty well and there are a couple decent-ish action scenes.  That said, this is not an easy world and IP to warm up to, it all just looks kind of silly and the film does not introduce it gradually.  Imagine if the original Star Wars trilogy did not exist and audiences were asked to just get on board with that universe from The Phantom Menace.  The film’s story is also pretty standard hero’s journey stuff and the film’s look only takes it so far. Not for me.

**1/2 out of Five

American Factory (9/6/2019)

American Factory has received a lot of press because it was distributed (via Netflix) by the Higher Ground production company, which is owned and operated by Barrack and Michelle Obama.  The film itself was actually an independent production which was picked up at Sundance and was directed by the veteran documentarians Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, a pair I’m not familiar with but from watching this I can tell they are way into the “direct cinema” movement pioneered by Robert Drew, Barbara Kopple, and D. A. Pennebaker.  The film is told primarily through fly-on-the-wall footage taken on the floor of the Fuyao auto-glass plant which opened in Ohio in 2016 with the aim of bringing the Chinese company’s work ethic to the United States, the result was a bit of a culture clash which culminated in an attempt to form a union in 2017.  If that premise sounds interesting you should definitely give this a shot because it’s a very mature and even handed documentary that goes to great pains to paint this factories troubles as a sort of honest misunderstanding between business cultures without vilifying the Chinese executives and managers or discounting the concerns of the American workers.  If I have any problems with the film it might simply be that it isn’t always great at explaining how much time has passed as the film progresses and isn’t always great at conveying the scale of things at the factory.

**** out of Five

The Beach Bum (9/7/2019)

Harmony Korine is one weird dude and I’m not really sure what to think about him.  He’s a filmmaker who isn’t terribly popular and isn’t exactly a critic’s darling but he does have a cult following and his movies are generally a bit to “out there” to completely ignore.  After the relative box office success of his slick but still intrinsically weird 2013 film Spring Breakers he finally had some clout to get a reasonably large budget for his latest film and he’s apparently used it to make a stoner comedy of sorts starring Matthew McConaughey and Snoop Dogg among others about a poet named Moondog who lives in a hedonistic stupor in the Florida Keys most of the time while living off his wife’s money.  If I were to look for meaning in it I might suggest that there’s something a bit autobiographical about all this given that Korine is himself an artist of apparent talent who some would say squanders his potential making movies about depraved weirdos.  If that what he’s doing I can sort of vibe with that, but as an upstanding citizen who’s proud to have a nine to five job there’s only so much sympathy I can really conjure for this Moondog guy and as someone who only gets high on life I wasn’t as amused by all the weed stuff as I think I was supposed to be, though there were a couple of legitimately funny bits here and there.

**1/2 out of Five

Hail Satan? (9/7/2019)

When promoting the book and film “The Exorcist” William Peter Blatty was known to say things like “If you believe in god then you also believe in the devil.” Presumably that would also mean that if you don’t believe in god than you also don’t believe in the devil, and that has been more or less my animating principal as a somewhat militant atheist.  In fact I’ve always found the basic idea of devil worship, authentic devil not the fun unserious heavy metal kind, to be about the stupidest thing imaginable.  Like, if you’re going to believe in a pretend being you might as well believe in the one who’s into good deeds rather than the one who was specifically invented to be the worst villain in the universe.  So it was with some interest that, while watching this documentary about the rise of the Satanic Temple, I learned that most of the people involved in that little movement are not really believers in a literal Satan so much as they’re activists against Christian supremacy in America and around the world.   It’s a position which I’m kind of conflicted about: on one hand I think they’re doing a great good by turning the tables on the religious right and using their rules against them (like when they stopped a state government from erecting a ten commandments monument by proposing the construction of a demon statue next to it) but I also think they’re kind of undermining their position by giving away that they don’t really believe in this shit and they could also inflame passions so much that they generate a backlash.  As for the movie, it’s a pretty good overview of the movement and its history, worth a watch if any of this sounds interesting.

*** out of Five