The Lodge(2/20/2020)/The Invisible Man(2/27/2020)


Horror has almost always run in trends whether it’s the slasher movies of the 80s, the post-modern slashers of the 90s, or the torture porn of the 2000s.  Mini-trends would exist alongside these larger macro-trends and there would of course always be one-offs that exist outside the bigger waves, but generally speaking it wasn’t too hard to spot what’s been in vogue with the genre.  For much of the time I’ve been reviewing films the most dominant trend was haunted house movies with lots of jump scares, not a trend I welcomed, and while I’m sure some of those movies are still being made things do seem to finally be moving on but what are they moving on to?  Well there seem to be two tends that may be contenders for the title of “next big thing.”  Within my personal viewing patterns the most noteworthy trend is almost certainly the emergence of indie horror films like The Witch and Midsommar from studios like A24, which perhaps represent a sensibility more than a specific sub-genre of film.  None of these have been bona fide blockbusters but amongst those who know they loom large and I can only assume that they continue to penetrate the culture after release and that they may well become bigger with time.  The next trend, the one that is likely in the lead if we’re going to view this as a race, is to make horror movies in the mold of Get Out that tackle social issues in a very direct way that more or less make subtext text.  So if these two trends are going to the shape of horror to come it makes sense to take a look at the first two movies of the  year that are seeking to represent each trend: the indie horror film The Lodge and the social issue tackling The Invisible Man.

Like a lot of elevated horror movies, The Lodge opens with a major moment of trauma as a woman leaves her kids with their father, who tells her the time has come to formalize her divorce.  She then goes home and shoots herself.  We pick up shortly thereafter as the father (Richard Armitage) is trying to blend his new girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough) in with his teenage son Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and tween daughter Mia (Lia McHugh) and decides that the best way to do this is to have the whole blended family go to a lodge for Christmas, which Aiden and Mia are strongly resistant to partly because they blame Grace for the death of their mother and partly because they know that when she was a child the lone survivor of a fundamentalist cult that went Jonestown.  His ultimate plan is to leave her alone at the lodge with the two children for a couple of days while he takes care of some business, but this proves to be a very bad idea.  Meanwhile The Invisible Man deals with a very different kind of trauma from its onset, namely the extensive trauma that its main character Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) experienced prior to the film’s beginning when she was apparently the victim of extensive domestic abuse at the hands of her boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).  Griffin is someone who has earned millions in the “optics” business, but is by all accounts a controlling sociopath and Cecilia needs to literally break out of his home at night in the first scene.  Two weeks later she’s in hiding and receives news that Griffin has killed himself, but she starts to wonder about this when strange things start to happen around her.

The thing about the “elevated horror” movement is that it’s definitionally an alternative movement, which is a dynamic we’re perhaps more used to seeing in music than in movies, and when alternative things become popular there’s always the looming threat that they’ll be coopted by the mainstream.  That’s something I worried about when I saw the advertisements for that Gretel & Hansel movie, which kind of looked like the Silverchair to The Witch’s Nirvana.  Granted I didn’t end up seeing it and that impression could be wrong, but it’s a distinct vibe I got from it.  I had a little more hope for The Lodge but that was misplaced as it is very much the Bush to Hereditary’s Pearl Jam.  In fact it’s kind of remarkable just how specifically the film is trying to be Hereditary what with its focus on a grieving family and its tendency to cut to a symbolic model house.  That said it’s not trying to be a satanic cult thing and instead focuses on the tension of whether this woman is crazy and will go after the kids or whether the kids are the crazy ones who are going to go after her.  There’s some interest to be found in that dynamic but it’s kind of lessoned by the fact that this whole setup is patently ridiculous.  Blending families is never easy but trying to go about it through the trial by fire of leaving traumatized and clearly resentful children alone in an isolated building with an also traumatized woman is about the stupidest and most contrived thing imaginable.

The Invisible Man was released by Universal Pictures and is ostensibly meant to be the remake of the 1933 James Whale movie which was in turn based on the H.G. Welles novel of the same name, but the more telling logo in front of it is the Blumhouse Productions logo.  Blumhouse does a lot of things and I wouldn’t go so far as to say he has a house style, but one of the things he tends to do is give his horror films a certain social edge that goes beyond the more subtle allegories that have existed in the genre in the past.  Sometimes that comes in the form of silliness like their The Purge series, sometimes it just kind of feels like desperate pandering like their recent take on Black Christmas, but in general they’re really interested in getting the people who fight about stuff on Twitter into watching their scary movies and when they strike a chord like they did with Get Out there are high rewards.  The Invisible Man’s strategy to do this is to make no bones about the fact that its protagonist is a victim of an abusive relationship and to make her plight through the movie to be an extreme manifestation of the kind of controlling behavior that exist in these relationships and also to show the bad guy’s scheme as essentially a form of gas lighting where he’s trying to make her look and feel crazy when he is in fact being supernaturally awful.

It’s still a little staggering that they were able to make the invisibility effects work as well as they did for the 1933 film using a variety of camera tricks.  I’ve come to understand how they did them through a photochemical tick where things are shot in front of black screens but their challenge is still palpable.  Even when Paul Verhoeven was making Hollow Man in the year 2000 and had a variety of CGI effects it still felt like a showcase of cutting edge ideas.  The effects in this new invisible man movie are probably going to be less mind-blowing to anyone who knows anything about visual effects (I’m pretty sure it was a dude in green spandex on set who was digitally removed) but the scenes are shot with conviction just the same and director Leigh Whannell does seem to understand that he isn’t going to get away with just stringing together a bunch of invisibility gags.  Where the production falters a bit more is in the acting, specifically the supporting performances.  Elizabeth Moss is obviously great in the film and is well cast in her role, but a lot of the other actors here kind of seem like they got their job because the filmmakers were trying to keep their budget under control.  None of the performances are terrible necessarily but a lot of them felt a bit “syndacated television” to me.  I got the same feeling from Whannell’s last movie Upgrade, which didn’t even have a great lead performance at its center, so maybe something in his direction is to blame for that.

The acting is actually one of the stronger aspects of The Lodge.  There isn’t anything in it as noteworthy as Elizabeth Moss’ performance but the cast in it is able to make the material work better than it might have otherwise.  Riley Keough does a reasonably good job of keeping the audience in suspense about whether or not her character is the crazy one and the kids aren’t bad either.  However a lot of the psychology the script gives them really does not pan out.  The movie is trying to create a mix of trauma, mental illness, religion, and isolation to turn the titular lodge into a sort of pressure cooker for its characters but a lot of it just kind of feels like bullshit.  Granted, a lot of “psychological thrillers” probably don’t hold up perfectly but those movies are entertaining and this one is not, in fact it’s quite boring at times.  The movie is trying to do a sort of slow burn sort of thing, which can be thrilling when done right but I don’t think it’s done particularly well here and it’s all leading up to a twist that’s kind of predictable and also completely preposterous in the number of things that would have had to go exactly right and the logistics don’t go together at all.

The Invisible Man is less pretentious but I do think it has some ending problems as well.  The movie is a little too quick to confirm that Cecilia’s suspicions rather than playing out that ambiguity and is far too quick to explain Griffin’s means of becoming invisible and they look kind of silly.  The movie also takes a bit of a turn towards being more of an action piece in the vein of Upgrade, which is kind of fun in its own way but it lacks some of the primal terror that the first half was gesturing toward and I found the film’s final climax to be rather oddly staged and anti-climactic.  None of this is a deal breaker, but it does hold the movie back a bit and keeps it more in the realm of the elevated B-movie rather than any sort of true horror classic.  The Lodge by contrast is a movie that’s trying to be a serious horror classic but is just a complete non-starter for a variety of reasons.  If these movies represent the shape of horror to come I’m not sure either makes a perfect case for their respective approaches.  The Lodge shows that good ideas are not above being misused by wannabes and The Invisible Man kind of shows the limitations of what Blumhouse is going to be able to do at times, but as a movie unto itself The Invisible Man is plainly the stronger of the two and the one I’d much more quickly recommend.

The Lodge: *1/2 out of Five

The Invisible Man: *** out of Five

The Irishman(11/23/2019)

11-23-2019TheIrishman

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Though it has seemingly everything going for it, The Irishman oddly hasn’t really been one of the movies I’ve really been anticipating this year.  The mere fact that it’s a Martin Scorsese film should have been enough to make me excited for it, the guy is as good as he’s ever been these days and is probably the world’s best living filmmaker.  The fact that this film has him re-uniting with Robert De Niro for the first time since 1995 alone should have made it the film event of the year.  Add to that the fact that Scorsese is also working with Al Pacino for the first time ever and that Joe Pesci basically came out of retirement for the movie should have moved it into the stratosphere of excitement.  So why haven’t I been outlandishly excited for this thing?  Well, part of it is that on paper it just seemed too good to be true.  All too often when the pedigree of something sounds that great on paper the final film doesn’t quite pan out and it’s best to keep your expectations in check.  Also something about Scorsese going back to the gangster movie well had me worried this could be a very commercial play intended to make up for the failure of Silence at the box office.  Then of course there’s the Netflix of it all.  But the film is finally here now and it’s a pretty heavy piece of work to wade into.

The film is an adaptation of a confessional memoir called “I Heard You Paint Houses” that was published shortly after the death of Frank Sheeran, a former Teamster official with likely ties to organized crime.  In the book Sheeran takes credit for having perpetrated a number of high profile murders for the mafia including having played a role in the death of Jimmy Hoffa.  The veracity of this book has been widely questioned and it’s likely because of this that the film doesn’t have much in the way of “based on a true story” title cards and much of the film is framed by shots of Sheeran (Robert De Niro) late in life recounting his story to some unnamed person off screen.  From there there’s a sort of “frame story within a frame story” of he and his associate Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) are going on a road trip in 1975 with their wives to Detroit ostensibly to attend a wedding but actually to use that wedding as cover to take care of some illegal business.  We come back to that road trip from time to time in the film and it seems oddly somber and ominous.  From there we flash back even further to the 50s and follow the chronology of what brought Sheeran to that point, namely his exploits as a hitman for the mob and the Teamster ties that would make him a close confidant of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

As I mentioned before, it’s not overly clear whether there’s any truth to Sheeran’s account of things.  From what I’ve read he was indeed a teamster official and friend of Jimmy Hoffa with mob ties, but there almost no evidence outside of his own accounts that he was ever the triggerman for any murders and his accounts contradict the conventional wisdom about a number of the murders he was involved with.  There’s also a bit of a conspiracy theory aspect to his recollection of 20th century history which puts the mafia at the center of certain events including the Bay of Pigs Invasion and possibly even the Kennedy assassination and that makes me increasingly suspicious that all of this is just the rambling of an old man, but parsing the reality of it all is probably besides the point.  Martin Scorsese isn’t Oliver Stone and I’m pretty sure that he was primarily attracted to this material for its dramatic potential rather than as a history text and it’s probably best just to look at it as a work of fiction.

If you’ve heard anything about this film in the press you’ve probably heard that it has become a rather expensive production because it employs some high tech de-aging technology to allow the film’s senior citizen cast to portray their characters at various different ages in this film that’s set over the course of this decades spanning tale.  I was skeptical about this but I think the technology works pretty damn well.  Granted the film never really needs to make them look much younger than middle age, which really would have been a challenge given that De Niro kind of gained some weight in the 80s and it probably wouldn’t have worked to try to make him look like he did when he was really young, but for what’s needed here the technology mostly delivers to the point where you don’t really think about it much.  Of course this would seem to be a rather extravagant expense but I mostly think it’s necessary.  This movie is all about following characters over the course of years and years and seeing their decisions build on them over the course of time.  To simply cast various actors of various ages would have made for a painful disconnect between the various time periods being covered.

Additionally, I think the film gains a lot by having this dream team of mob actors in its cast even if they aren’t 100% age appropriate for their roles for much of the film’s running time.  Much the way Unforgiven stands as a sort of requiem for the film western this seems to be a sort of definitive end to the gangster picture, or at least the generation of gangster picture that Scorsese and Coppola ushered in back in the 70s.  Comparisons will of course be made to Goodfellas and Casino and not without reason.  This is obvious yet another movie where a 20th Century mobster recounts his life of crime through voiceover, but there are some pretty key differences as well.  For one thing, those movies are a lot more interested in what their characters find seductive about “the life” before their eventual downfall.  There isn’t a lot of that here; Sheeran is obviously being paid for his work but he isn’t living a life of immense wealth like Ace Rothstein and he isn’t getting into the Copacabana through the back like Henry Hill.  Sheeran also doesn’t seem terribly interested in his family as a reason to be living like this.  There’s maybe a little bit of that early on but mostly he just ends up pushing them away though his general cold bloodedness.

Instead Sheeran seems to be doing what he’s doing out of sheer blind loyalty for the most part.  There’s a flashback early on (technically a flashback, within a flashback, within a flashback) to Sheeran executing German soldiers during the war when given vague orders to do so and that kind of mirrors what he ends up doing in organized crime as well: blindly following orders without second-guessing whether what he’s doing is a war crime/mortal sin.  When he does get hired to “paint houses” he carries out his assignments with a sort of military efficiency and lacks any sort of remorse or hesitation.  The dude is a psycho.  I suppose the characters in Scorsese’s other mob movies are also psychos in their own ways but they at least weren’t hitmen so much as people who occasionally needed to have people wacked in order to keep their own hustles going and you get the impression that they’d generally rather not have to do that.  But this guy?  You get the impression that if Russell Bufalino told him to kill his own mother he’d do it.  In this sense the movie is almost less like Goodfellas or Casino and more like Raging Bull in that it’s a portrait of a really complicated and hard to relate to character who ends up really losing everything that ostensibly mattered to him out of his life but for opposite reasons: La Motta was too impulsive and wild while Sheeran was too cold and methodical.

There are other key differences between this and Scorsese’s earlier work.  For one thing, Joe Pesci is a lot different here than he has been in the past.  In Goodfellas and Casino he was practically playing the same character: a violent wildcard who kind of screws everything up.  Here he’s playing a much more rational and in control figure and he isn’t leaning on his usual persona in the film.  Al Pacino on the other hand kind of is leaning on the kind of acting we’re pretty used to from him, and that does fit the character to some extent but I would say that if there’s a weakness to be found in the film it might be Hoffa.  The infamous Teamster leader is a guy who they easily could been the center of his own film, and has, and the challenges of doing his story justice after he enters the film an hour in are probably a big part of why the film has such a long running time.  Hoffa’s eventual death is clearly viewed by the film as a sort of Greek tragedy in which a hero is brought down by his own hubris but if we’re supposed to have any particular sympathy for Hoffa I wasn’t really feeling it.  If anything the film lays out a pretty good case that Hoffa kind of had it coming both within the morality of the underworld (dude was not respectful) and within the morality of society (he was legitimately corrupt and needed a “house painter” on the payroll) and the guy seemed to have been given every warning and chance to make things right which he flushed out of sheer pigheadedness.

The larger role of Hoffa’s demise within the film is to act as a sort of wakeup call for Sheeran, the moment that finally breaks through this hitman’s sociopathic resolve and leaves him riddled with regrets later in life, and it’s effective at doing that but there is something rather odd about a movie whose protagonist’s great revelation is simply the achievement of having gained some fraction of the empathy that normal people have without trying.  But then maybe that’s the point, that these gangsters that we’ve been glamourizing for decades are pathetic and cold hearted people who are doomed to either early deaths, long prison sentences, or to die alone and friendless.  It’s almost like a return to the message from the message from the 1930s gangster movies that started the whole genre, but obviously a bit more artfully conveyed than it was in those movies (which were code-mandated to end with the gangster protagonists being gunned down or executed at the end), and it was obviously on some level the message of The Godfather films on some level.  I do wonder if Scorsese feels that this movie contradicts the tone of his own earlier gangster movies, which also certainly didn’t support the gangster lifestyle but were a bit more subtle in their messaging and were more interested in showing the push and pull of this lifestyle being intoxicating and being horrifying.  I think I might prefer that approach more overall, but I can also understand the instinct of an artist late in life to stop and make one hundred percent sure people knows what he really thinks.

****1/2 out of Five

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

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

It: Chapter 2(9/5/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Light Spoilers

I try not to get too wrapped up with box office numbers, but sometimes when the right movie becomes a hit it can feel really good.  The success of the movie It in 2017 was one of those cases.  While not exactly what you’d call high art it was in many the kind of product that you hope for from large studio filmmaking: a solidly made adaptation of a respectable property which didn’t compromise more than it had to.  Seeing that R-rated horror adaptation make $123 million dollars in its opening weekend and later end up among the top ten highest grossing of that year right between two MCU movies was really satisfying.  This success had a lot to do with timing; Stephen King has always been relevant but the popularity of “Stranger Things” had really primed the audience for his brand of horror storytelling and the fact that this was focusing on the suburban childhood aspects of the book and that its milieu was moved from the 50s to the 80s really strengthened that connection.  That’s not to say the movie entirely has the TV show to thank for the money it made but both properties were certainly tapping in to the same nostalgia vein that people really wanted tapped in 2017.  Now, as happy as I was by the film’s success I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was one of my favorite films that year.  In fact in my original review of the film I felt a little hesitant to pass judgement at all simply because I knew this second half was coming and wanted to see if some of the elements I thought were lumpy would pay off and to know for sure if it was going to stick the landing.

Set twenty seven years after the events of the first movie, It: Chapter 2 opens with an attack by Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) which Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) gets word of and realizes that this evil entity has returned on schedule.  As Mike is the only member of “The Loser’s Club” who has remained in Derry all these years he takes it upon himself to call his old friends and reunite them in order to kill the monster once and for all.  The “club” members lives have gone in different directions: Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a horror novelist, Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is in an abusive marriage, Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is a standup comedian, Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) has lost a lot of weight and is a wealthy architect, and Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) has a desk job.  They all reunite out of a sort of obligation but when they arrive many of them have forgotten about their fight with Pennywise as a function of how that entity’s magic works.  Once they arrive and their memory is jogged many of them are reluctant to stay, especially after some scary encounters, but when they learn about the suicide of Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) who the one member who didn’t show up, they become resolved to finish the fight.

The big conversation leading up to the release of this film largely had to do with its running time.  The movie is about 2 hours and 50 minutes long, which is not something I inherently have any problems with because to me that isn’t very unusual; it’s about ten minutes longer than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which I loved, and ten minutes shorter than Avengers: Endgame, which the masses flocked to.  Given that the movie was half of an adaptation of a thousand page book it seemed largely reasonable and I was looking forward to seeing the film and telling all the haters that they were being silly for freaking out about that.  Then I saw the movie and… yeah, it’s too long.  Well, it’s not so much that it’s literally too long, I wouldn’t exactly say I lost interest in it over time or anything, but it has a bizarre structure and becomes repetitive in ways that eventually undermine it.

Take the opening scene, which is a disturbing depiction of a hate crime perpetuated against a gay couple which ends with one of them being thrown off a bridge and then murdered by Pennywise.  It’s a strongly rendered scene, but what is it doing in this movie?  We never see the attack’s survivor again or the human attackers and while it does serve to announce Pennywise’s return that could have been achieved just as easily by moving a later attack against a kid at a baseball game (which is shorter, fits Pennywise’s MO better, and has less baggage) to the beginning.  Then there’s the character of Henry Bowers; in my review of the first film I said “there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel,” and while he does indeed come back his presence in the sequel ends up being as much of a time waste as he was in the first.  His three or so scenes are well made, I can see why a director would be attached to them and want to leave them in, but he ultimately has no effect at all on the plot beyond being one more obstacle and has only the slightest effect on theme, so his presence here only lengthens the movie and does very little to justify is presence in the last movie either.

Superfluous as those scenes were, they can be set aside as merely misjudged extravagances on the part of director Andy Muschietti, who seems to be going into this sequel with a lot more confidence and money than he did before after the massive success of the first film.  The bigger structural problem with the film is that it’s basically a movie with six protagonists and feels obligated to give each of them equal screen time. For instance the film has to begin by Mike making six different phone calls to each of his former friends one after another, forcing the movie to stop and give us six different vignettes about where these people are in their lives.  That might be a necessary expository tool (aside from the weird domestic violence vignette in Beverly’s introduction which is kind of left dangling), but what’s less forgivable is how the film then spends a lot of its first half sending each of the six characters out to find “artifacts from their past.”  In practice that means six episodic segments in a row of a character going somewhere in the town, having a flashback to some moment of their past too inconsequential to have been in the first movie, and then having Pennywise fuck with them in some ineffective way.

Pennywise’s habit of appearing before our main characters to creep them out rather than actually kill them was actually a problem I had with the first movie.  In my review of that movie I said “every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them” but I sort of let it go because you could sort of explain it away as Pennywise underestimating The Losers Club, but it’s harder to forgive here as we see six episodes in a row of him jumping out and going “boo” at our heroes and them getting away from it unscathed.  And beyond simply making the first chunk of this movie kind of tedious it also kind of hurts the rest of the film because it makes Pennywise a bit of a paper tiger who can’t actually hurt anyone, which is kind of a suspense killer.  At its heart I think the problem here is that in the original novel this half of the story with the characters as adults were meant to act as something of a framing story to the scenes with the kids rather than a standalone narrative unto itself.  That makes the film kind of awkward because instead of flashing back to the actual important parts of their childhood (which were all in the first movie) they just flash back to some random crap that belongs on the cutting room floor.

Despite these structural problems there is a lot here to like.  For one thing the casting here is really strong.  These certainly won’t go down as the best performances of James McAvoy or Jessica Chastain, not even close, but they are definitely believable as older versions of those characters from the first film and the same can be said of most of the less famous actors in the film.  Then there’s Bill Hader, who like his fellow cast mates makes perfect sense as an older version of that character and he’s been widely considered to be a standout element of the film because of the comic relief he provides.  This praise is largely deserved, he is quite funny in the film and commands the screen when he’s in it, but his role in the film is a bit of a double edged sword.  There is definitely a place for levity even in the most hardcore of horror cinema but here Hader is doing so much comedy that it does sort of hurt the tension a little, or at least it contributes to the other problems the film has with Pennywise’s general ineffectiveness.  Really the whole movie has a much different tone from the first movie in no small part because of this.  In fact it almost feels more like a summer blockbuster than a true horror film, especially considering that a lot of the film’s scares involve CGI imagery, some of which is more effective than others.

What I’d really like, is to see a supercut of the first and second film put together into an epic five hour movie that cuts between the two timelines.  Maybe in that context the characters artifact hunts would seem less like repetitive time wasting and maybe that long runtime would make Bill Hader’s comedy seem less omnipresent and more like a true relief from the rest of the horror.  As an individual movie though It: Chapter 2 is kind of a weird movie that’s hard to really call “good” or “bad.”  I can rattle off a whole checklist of ways that it’s misshapen and indulgent but it would be hard to really say I disliked it or that I didn’t appreciate having seen it.  The things that do work in it work quite well and frankly I’d rather a movie fail through over-reach than through mundanity.  So if you liked the first movie, by all means see the second but go in with the expectation that it’s meant to give a fairly different experience than you got from the first one and that it’s going to be a bit of a bumpy ride at times.

*** out of Five

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum(5/16/2019)

I really want to like these John Wick movies.  John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 were doing things with the action movie format that I’ve been waiting for Hollywood to do; they’re shot cleanly, their action is hardcore, they aren’t cracking stupid jokes every ten seconds. And yet despite everything they do right I wasn’t really able to fully get behind those first to movies because, at the end of the day there were things in those scripts that were just too stupid to ignore.  I can forgive a lot from the story in certain genre movies.  Comedies can overlook all sorts of logic and get away with it if they’re still funny, martial arts movies and be all kinds of simplistic as long as they’re solid showcases for the skills of their performers, and similarly these action movies like John Wick can get away with a lot simply because they very effectively accomplish the main thing they set out to do: make Keanu Reeves look really cool while killing a whole lot of people.  But there’s a difference between giving a movie a pass for having great action scenes and fulling embracing a movie as a great action movie: for that you need to have the full package and these John Wick movies just don’t.  But just the same I was looking forward to the next fix that the third installment would provide.

The film picks up immediately after John Wick: Chapter 2 with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) having less than an hour before he’s declared excommunicado and a fourteen million dollar hit is put out on him and he’s barred from all assistance from all branches of The Continental and any other organization affiliated with The High Table.  On top of that, The High Table has sent an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to clean house and punish anyone who assisted Wick in the last movie including Winston (Ian McShane) and The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne).  She even recruits an assassin named Zero (Mark Dacascos) to carry out her dirty work.  But first Wick needs to find a way out of New York and much of the film’s first half deals with this chase to find some degree of sanctuary.

Let’s start with the positive, which is largely the same positive that was there in the first two movies: the action scenes.  They’re still pretty good, especially in the first half.  As the movie opens Wick is essentially on an elaborate chase through New York and goes through several landmarks like the Public Library (which closes way earlier than that for the record) and the central part carriage ride stables.  Each of these are accompanied by some fairly creative action beats like a fight against a seven foot tall assassin and a fight through a hall of antique weapons and knives.  I will say though that the movie does kind of blow some of its wad early and some of the later scenes feel more generic like a mid-film gun fight which is well staged but seems to go on forever and a finale which in some ways just feels like more of the same of what we’ve seen before.  In some ways the film seems to be emphasizing unarmed combat more than the previous film, which would seem like a good way to mix things up but Keanu Reeves isn’t really a martial arts expert and that does show a bit in the film.

Of course the complaints I’ve had about these movies are also still here.  There are a lot of people who come to find the world building in these movies to be really charming but I’ve never really been a fan.  These movies take place in a rather strange world where there are so many assassins that it’s hard to imagine there being enough “contracts” to keep them all employed.  I also generally get the impression that they’re sort of making the rules of this world up as they go and it often goes back on some of its own premises.  For example, in the beginning Wick’s excommunicado status is set up as something so firmly set in stone that a doctor can’t even finish stitching up a wound once it goes into effect and yet later Wick seems to very cavalierly enter other Continental locations without even bothering to try to disguise himself in any way. Even worse than that though is that I’m not entirely clear on why we’re supposed to root for Wick in his war against The High Table.  Yes, they’re obviously an evil organization but Wick is himself a mass murderer and their various rules don’t necessarily seem that unreasonable when compared to his ethos of killing thousands in retaliation for the death of a damn dog.

So are the action scenes in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum enough to save it from its shortcomings?  Yeah, probably, but I must say I feel like the franchise has been taken about as far as it can be.  That would be fine if this were a final film to cap off a trilogy but, and I don’t really think this is a spoiler, it isn’t.  The basic arc of the story has John Wick more or less ending right back where he started and the film’s ending is clearly a setup for a Chapter 4, and on top of that much of the film’s second act feels like a backdoor pilot for a spinoff series starring Halle Berry.  That’s a problem because this third installment frankly didn’t leave me wanting more and the fact that it was in many ways an exercise in treading water just left me kind of frustrated.

*** out of Five