REVIEW: “Joker” (2019)

The concept of the new “Joker” movie should have been enough to excite me from the start. A dark, psychological, and unflinching dig into the mentally fractured life of the most iconic DC Comics villain? Right up my alley. And then you top it off by casting the insanely intense and always committed Joaquin Phoenix. All the ingredients are there yet since the very first trailer I found myself more cautious than enthusiastic.

Three concerns kept my expectations in check. 1) The film is from Todd Phillips whose movies I generally struggle with and who has never done anything quite like this. Could he pull it off? 2) Phillips came out early saying “people are gonna be mad“. Did that mean he was straying completely away from the source material and simply milking the Joker name for attention and publicity? 3) Lastly, much of what makes Joker so unsettling comes from the mysteries of who he is and where he comes from. Would lifting that veil strip the character of his signature menace?

The quick answers to those questions: Yes, No, and No. More pointedly, what Phillips has made is pretty spectacular – a relentlessly grim character study of a madman on the edge and a stinging rebuke of the morally bankrupt society that pushes him over it. Furthermore, no one can say “Joker” is politically agnostic, but its societal critique is far from one-sided and the film features more narrative and critical depth than I ever expected. Oh, and it’s also one cracking setup for one of pop culture’s most sinister villains.

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“Joker” is a comic book movie similar to “Logan” in that it was let off the studio leash and allowed to make its own rules. It isn’t bound by any genre convention or expectation and it has no direct tie to any previous DC movie. This gave Phillips and company a ton of freedom and obviously they ran with it. Most surprising to me (a long-time fan of the Clown Prince) is how Phillips impressively balances having an original vision with capturing the essence of such an established character.

The movie’s bleakness begins with its introduction to Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) who lives with his sickly mother (Frances Conroy) on the impoverished outskirts of Gotham City. Arthur is an ambitious but unstable man who works for a rag-tag clown-for-hire agency but dreams of one day being a stand-up comedian. From the very beginning we know the deck is stacked against him and that’s a big part of Phillips’ message.

You could say Arthur represents society’s fringe, the dismissed and disenfranchised. They are vividly contrasted with the powerful upper-class elites embodied in billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). The concept of the ‘haves’ vs. ‘have-nots’ is a central premise and it’s often quite potent. Other times it can be glaringly on-the-nose. But it does feed the idea that Gotham is a powder keg where crime and poverty grows in one community while the other seems oblivious to it.

But it’s not as though Arthur finds compassion among the hardened lower-class. Even there he is considered an outcast. The lone exception is a sweet single mom (Zazie Beetz) who lives in the apartment down the hall. But even she can’t keep Arthur from cracking. Soon his fragile optimism gives way to angst and bitterness revealing something much darker curdling within him. In a way he begins to mirror Gotham City – a ticking time-bomb inevitably bound to explode. This leads the story deeper into the depths of human depravity as Arthur inadvertently triggers an equally vile side of humanity masquerading as an uprising.

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All of those story beats are important but the real genius of “Joker” is in how it puts us in Arthur’s head. The entire story is told from his point of view. It’s a critical use of perspective that drives the movie and infuses it with some unexpected psychological layers. Arthur is our narrator, our guide through a madman’s mind as his derangement festers. But how reliable is he and how much of what we see can we believe? This fact vs. fiction dynamic is key.

There lies the wickedly effective trick Phillips and his co-screenwriter Scott Silver pull off smashingly. And it’s one that has provoked a bevy of different interpretations. Take the controversies that have sprung up since the film’s enthusiastic debut at the Venice Film Festival. Accusations that it incites and/or condones violence comes from very strict and literal readings of a few provocative scenes. But nothing about the story or its structure encourages a strict, literal reading.

I don’t want to completely dismiss the criticisms simply because I can’t speak to how it may effect someone in a troubled head-space. And while the film doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive examination of mental illness, some could find it’s tough-minded and unwavering portrayal of its subject matter to be problematic. Despite that, neither the movie’s message nor its intent is the promotion or acceptance of violence. In fact, its convictions are far more judgmental and damning.

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Perhaps most important is how the script allows plenty of room for Joaquin Phoenix to let loose. His performance is raw, intense and hypnotic. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him. Whether it’s his jarring physical transformation (rumor has it he lost over 50 lbs for the role) or the chilling gaze of his cold, empty eyes. Phoenix brings an astonishing amount of ‘new’ to a character that’s been done many times before. I can’t see a scenario where he doesn’t get his fourth Oscar nomination.

Other standout reasons for the film’s success: Icelandic composer Hildur GuĂ°nadĂłttir creates what is easily one of my favorite scores of the year. Her music is haunting and unsettling yet never intrusive. And so often it’s pivotal in developing and managing the film’s edgy tone. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher shoots both Arthur and Gotham with the same gritty, arresting visual aesthetic and several of his images are still etched in my mind. And I haven’t even mentioned Robert De Niro. He plays Gotham City’s Johnny Carson, a late night talk show host named Murray Franklin. Think Rupert Pupkin if he had made it big. He is who Arthur dreams of one day becoming.

As “Joker” slow-walks us towards its eventual maelstrom of iniquity it never spells out how we should feel about its titular character. It burrows under our skin and plays with our perceptions, but ultimately it’s up to us to sort it all out and reach our own conclusions. Considering the controversies maybe that has backfired a bit. But a more thoughtful evaluation reveals an audacious film that isn’t cavalier towards its violence nor numb to its effects. I saw it as a terrifying warning and an indictment of a society that not only creates monsters but often lifts them up. Then again, maybe that’s all in my head.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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REVIEW: “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum”

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Who would have thought back in 2014 that a meager budgeted action flick about a hitman avenging his dog’s death would turn into a hugely popular neo-noir franchise complete with its own growing mythology and cast of characters? I know I didn’t but I sure have enjoyed the crazy ride.

“John Wick” was a lot of fun. 2017’s follow-up was wilder and added a ton to what we can call the John Wick Universe. Now we get “John Wick: Chapter 3 – “Parabellum” and it takes everything from the previous two movies and ramps it up crazy levels. And trust me, I say that as the highest compliment.

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“Parabellum” (which is Latin for “Prepare for War”) begins with the action dialed to 10. Keanu Reeves returns as the title character and right out of the gate he’s on the run in downtown Manhattan. After breaking some established underworld rules through an unsanctioned killing (see Chapter 2), John Wick is declared “excommunicado” by the ruling High Table. For those uninitiated in John Wick Universe vocabulary, this means he is officially persona non grata and has all of his underworld rights and privileges revoked. No one can help him on penalty of death and a $14 million bounty is placed on his head.

The open contract makes John Wick an immediate target for gangs, assassins, and bounty hunters. Former stuntman and returning director Chad Stahelski wastes no time diving into his steady diet of bullets, blades, and blood. The action is relentless but at the same time exhilarating, intense, brutal, and wickedly choreographed. Obviously there is no Oscar category for fight choreography but if their was this would be your frontrunner.

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Smartly, “Parabellum” never ever takes itself seriously. I mean in the opening few minutes a man gets beat to death with a library book of all things. And John riding horseback through downtown New York City traffic is…well, you know. So the movie knows exactly what it is. And not only is it completely self-aware, but it fully embraces its over-the-top absurdity.

Several new characters appear who help build the mythology. A devious and mysterious person known only as the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) gives more insight into the clandestine High Table. Halle Berry crushes it playing Sofia, a dog-loving former associate of John’s who’s also really good at killing. And Anjelica Huston shows up as the cryptic Director, a woman of immeasurable clout.

Then you have the returning pieces. The wonderful Ian McShane is back as Winston, the owner/operator of the Continental Hotel. Lawrence Fishburne returns as the seemingly good-hearted crime lord The Bowery King. And can I just say I love Lance Reddick as Charon, the Continental’s concierge. He’s always great behind the front desk, but Chapter 3 let’s him roll up his sleeves and really get to work.

Keanu Reeves stars as 'John Wick' in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit to finding the big final fight just a hair exhausting. I think it’s because by that time we had seen everything in the film’s arsenal. Over-the-shoulder flips, sliced limbs, bloody headshots, people tossed through panes of glass, among so much more. But that doesn’t mean the ending doesn’t satisfy. Quite the opposite. I love where “Parabellum” lands and it clearly has its sights on a Chapter 4.

So the John Wick franchise entered Chapter 3 in high gear and left it screaming towards the next installment in overdrive. “Parabellum” is an old-school action-lover’s dream with a body count that easily rivals anything put up by Schwarzenegger or Stallone in the 1980’s. Yet it’s loaded with style and character. It has an ever-present but often subtle sense of humor and Keanu Reeves has charisma to spare. It left me hungry for more and judging by the box office I’m not alone.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Just A Breath Away”

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A lethal toxic fog of unknown origin is the chief antagonist in Canadian director Daniel Roby’s “Just A Breath Away”. French language films set in Paris tend to be romantic comedies, dramas, or period pieces. Roby and a team of three writers offer us a light blend of genres but at its core their movie is very much a disaster thriller. And despite its modest budget, the scale and scope of the disaster is larger than you would expect.

The film’s lone shortcoming is in the development of its characters. It’s not a huge issue since we do get all the information we need to have emotional connections with them. But it does feel like it misses some opportunities to dig deeper into these people and what makes their relationships work.

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Romain Duris and Olga Kurylenko play Mathieu and Anna, parents of a young daughter named Sarah (Belgian actress Fantine Harduin) who suffers from Stimberger’s Syndrome. It’s a genetic condition that restricts Sarah to living in a hermetic bubble chamber. For over 12 years Mathieu and Anna have searched for a cure and it has clearly taken a toll on their marriage. Anna seems content with finally having her daughter home. Mathieu is still looking for a cure and willing to try anything, even an experimental treatment in far off Canada.

Then along comes trouble. A sudden earthquake unleashes a toxic gas from underground. It sweeps through the entire city sending Paris into chaos and killing anyone who inhales it. As the deadly fog-like cloud settles, only those in top floor apartments and on rooftops are left to survive. Mathieu and Anna are forced to leave Sarah in the protection of her bubble as they scramble to the top floor of their apartment building.

What makes the tension even thicker is a city-wide blackout which forces Sarah’s chamber to switch to auxiliary power. With a limited battery life and their daughter on a gas-filled lower floor, Mathieu and Anna must find a way to keep their daughter alive amid seemingly impossible circumstances.

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Ruby cut his cinematic teeth in cinematography and you get a really good sense of that. He and his cinematographer Pierre-Yves Bastard offer up several striking and creative images. Some of the best are rooftop shots looking out across the city while capturing the fog’s widespread effect. Just as impressive is his clever use of camera angles and movement specifically in some of the more action-oriented scenes.

Duris and Kurylenko both give really good performances as does 88-year-old Michel Robin who plays the kind elderly owner of the top floor apartment who gives Mathieu and Anna refuge. They all help give “Just A Breath Away” just enough emotional heft. Daniel Roby does the rest, directing a tense and imaginative disaster picture that doesn’t get bogged down in origins. We never fully know what caused the catastrophe which may frustrate some. I must say it didn’t bother me at all.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”

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If anyone wondered if moviegoers still had an interest in big screen dinosaurs, 2015’s “Jurassic World” seemed to provide the answer. With a $1.6 billion worldwide box office take, these huge CGI Mesozoic monsters showed they can still draw a crowd. Now we get “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”, a nearly $200 million sequel that may be stretching those affections to their limits.

With “Fallen Kingdom” J.A. Boyana directs a screenplay written by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, both of whom worked on the first “Jurassic World” script. And you can tell. It doesn’t take long to recognize a couple of rehashed and repackaged plot points from the previous film. And my issues with “Fallen Kingdom” don’t stop there. Perhaps its biggest problem is that it lacks that sense of awe and wonder we get from the better “Jurassic Park” pictures. That’s not good for a movie about massive dinosaurs.

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Both Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard return from the first film. It’s three years since the events of “Jurassic World”. Pratt’s Owen is a hermit living out of a camper and building a remote cabin in the mountains. Howard’s Claire now works for a dinosaur protection advocacy group. Yep, you read that right.

The two are brought back together by gazillionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), the former partner of John Hammond (Richard Attenborough’s character in the original films). Lockwood tasks Claire and Owen with assisting a team in the rescue and relocation of the dinosaurs that remain on the island. With the inevitable eruption of a powerful volcano threatening the dinos, Lockwood locates a new uncharted island that can serve as a sanctuary. But as you can probably guess, things don’t exactly go as planned and sure enough Owen and Claire find themselves right in the middle of both human and reptilian threats.

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To say the story strays from its roots is a bit of an understatement. The wonder and mystery of the island is quickly tossed as the filmmakers clearly seek to take the series in a different direction. To try something new is certainly admirable and in a way I like the goofiness of what’s going on. But “Fallen Kingdom” tries to be a lot of different things and does none of them particularly well. While goofy in idea, it still takes itself far too seriously. Attempts at being scary fall well short of Boyana’s past efforts (see the much better “The Orphanage”). It doesn’t work as a thriller as there is practically no suspense whatsoever. It’s predictability is disappointing. To the film’s credit it does attempt to once again wrestle with the moral implications of ‘playing God’. But even that gets lost among everything else the movie tinkers with.

Another issue is with the film’s handling of its characters, especially the two main people we are supposed to care about the most. “Fallen Kingdom” doesn’t take Owen and Claire in any new direction whatsoever. They are the same bland people at the end as at the beginning. You could argue that more happens to Claire in the three years between films than in this movie. She’s in an entirely different place than when we last saw her (how she got there is all but ignored). Pratt rarely gets an opportunity to show off his strengths – humor and charm. The material he is given leaves his character stuck in neutral for the entire movie.

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There are several other paper-thin characters that do little more than fill in roles – the antagonist, the comic relief, the disposable military dudes, etc. And the mandatory kid role belongs to Isabella Sermon. She plays Lockwood’s granddaughter Maisie and lets just say her story-thread teases something weird and fun. Unfortunately (like so much) the movie doesn’t capitalize on it.

I know it sounds like I’m brutalizing this film. It’s because sometimes being painfully mediocre is a bigger disappointment. “Fallen Kingdom” isn’t an egregiously bad movie. It’s just a glaringly flat and seemingly rudderless one. The perplexing ending all but sealed that for me. Here’s the thing, I was never bored and I never checked out of the movie. But at the same time I found myself constantly puzzled by the creative decision-making and lack of aim. Overall I guess there is enough here to satisfy series devotees, but I’m not sure. Take my son, a professed “Jurassic” fan. As we walked out of the theater he looked at me and said “I don’t know what to think about that one.” I’m with him.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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REVIEW: “Justice League”

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Going back to the start of the 2017 movie year “Justice League” gave us two of the easiest things to predict. First, “Justice League” would (one way or another) get a lot of attention for Warner Brothers. Second, the majority of film critics wouldn’t like “Justice League”. Okay, perhaps the second prediction was a bit cynical, but lets just say with one prominent exception (this year’s “Wonder Woman”) critics haven’t responded well with the DCEU’s approach.

DC films have a much different flavor than their rival, Disney-owned Marvel. Marvel movies tend to be lighter and often poke fun at themselves for their overall absurdity, so much so that several of their films could be called all-out comedies. DC movies are darker and considerably more serious. In many ways they are more like their comic book inspirations in how they tonally treat their stories. Therefore critics who have a hard time taking comic books seriously equally struggle with DC’s movies.

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Contrary to some, I’ve enjoyed the DC formula (minus “Suicide Squad”) and for the most part “Justice League” sticks to it. Yet this movie is far from humorless and there’s no denying that the creative heads have made it a point to inject some laughs. But the serious tone and dire threat is still there, just to a slightly lesser degree. Personally I think that is a good thing.

The story begins with the world still mourning the death of Superman (Henry Cavill). In his absence an increase of crime can be seen from city to city. Fear sets in which attracts the attention of an interdimensional conqueror Steppenwolf (CiarĂĄn Hinds) and his army of parademons. Recognizing the weakened earth’s vulnerability, Steppenwolf sets out to resume his centuries-old hunt for three powerful energy sources called Mother Boxes.

Batman (Ben Affleck) is the first to get a whiff of the impending invasion. Superman’s death and the reality that he can’t handle it alone drives Bats to contact Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to help him form a team. Enter Arthur Curry a.k.a. Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) also known as The Flash, and Ray Fisher who is called Cyborg. Each have their own demons that keep them on their own, but each are faced with personal trials that eventually bring them together.

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Returning director Zack Snyder once again plays with a lot of moving parts but manages to keep them all within a cohesive working universe. Several smaller characters with connections to past films return – Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Ma Kent, Jeremy Irons as Alfred, Connie Nielsen as Hyppolyta, J.K. Simmons as James Gordon. They never feel wedged in and each have their moments that serve the story well.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio (who worked with Affleck on “Argo”) wrote the screenplay based on a story he developed with Snyder. But Snyder left the project in post-production following the heart-breaking loss of his daughter. Joss Whedon came aboard to finish up and received a screenplay credit. The trio work hard to balance the fantastical with the human element and for the most part get it right. Some personal stories are better and more fleshed out than others. Perhaps the most surprising is Cyborg – a failed experiment whose story pulsates with a Frankenstein’s monster vibe. Fisher is excellent at juggling the proper amounts of sorrow and anger. Ezra Miller is the wide-eyed comic relief who dances close to the line of overkill but never crosses it.

As for the big guns, Affleck has the dark brooding side of Bruce Wayne down and (for better or worse) he’s not asked to do much beyond that. While I’m ready for the character to show a tad more life, I do like how he is written here. He’s older, tired, and unsure of himself. He knows he can’t lead a team and we get a good sense of that internal struggle. Gadot’s Diana hits nearly every note that has made her the star of the DCEU. She’s strong, courageous, and upright yet she too sports her own personal scars. Then there is Cavill’s Superman, long accused of being dry and lifeless (I’ve never fully agreed with that take). We see him in the trailer and I won’t go further than that, but I’ll say this is a strong depiction of what makes Superman great.

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“Justice League” isn’t without a few minor issues. It has been difficult for comic book movies of all sorts to truly nail their villain and it’s no different here. There is actually a cool otherworldly background alluded to but ultimately Steppenwolf comes off as a little thin. You’ll easily recognize him as the familiar cosmic threat here to take over our planet. There is more just under the surface but we never get a good enough taste. There are also instances where the CGI and green-screen backgrounds are far too obvious. The bulk of the action is fun, but those instances do stick out.

It was no surprise that “Justice League” was met with the same consternation as “Batman vs. Superman”. And even though it addresses many of the complaints hurled at its predecessor, “Justice League” and its audacity to take itself and its story seriously is sure to set the film up as a fashionable punching bag. It’s unfortunate because this is a solid DCEU installment that expands the established characters, introduces compelling new ones and does some nifty world building. It will do nothing to win over those uninterested in the DCEU or the superhero genre as a whole. But for fans, especially those who want something that doesn’t strictly adhere to the Marvel formula, “Justice League” is a fun ride.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Jane Got A Gun”

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Aside from its patently awkward title, Gavin O’Connor’s “Jane Got a Gun” still had a draw, namely its two stars Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton and its tight-knit story in a Western setting. Unfortunately it became better known for the carousel of people joining and then leaving the film as well as the distribution turmoil. The Weinstein Company eventually dropped the film into the January wasteland of releases. Predictably it bombed.

It’s amazing that the film was ever completed. Michael Fassbender, Jude Law, and Bradley Cooper were all cast in important roles but left the project. Director Lynn Ramsay left and was replaced by O’Connor. Cinematographer Darius Khondji left and was replaced by Mandy Walker. Brian Duffield’s script received substantial rewrites by Joel Edgerton and Anthony Tambakis. That the film manages the cohesion it does is impressive.

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But I think all of those production woes put up some insurmountable hurdles. While there is a simple but interesting premise, “Jane Got a Gun”struggles to sustain any level of energy. It putters along towards its obvious conclusion giving us a few good character moments but not enough to save the film from its mediocrity.

Portman plays Jane Hammond who has settled down on a patch of land with her daughter and husband Bill (Noah Emmerich). But Bill can’t shed his outlaw ways. After wrangling with a gang called the Bishop Boys and their leader John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), he returns home full of bullets and with the gang hot on his heels. What a great guy.

With Bill incapacitated Jane asks her ex-fiancĂ© Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) to help her protect her husband and house. The two must navigate several emotional mine fields include their past relationship and Dan’s glaringly obvious (and reasonable) disdain for Bill. The movie plants itself here for a bit exploring the history of these two through a number of pointed conversations and flashbacks. It doesn’t add much to the film and only pushes back the inevitable conclusion.

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I certainly can’t fault the performances although there are moments where Portman struggles mightily with her Old West accent. Edgerton is good even though his character isn’t nearly as layered as he could have been. Ewan McGregor is fun in a cheesy, evil, mustache-twirling way. The problem is I’m not convinced the movie is intentionally playing him that way.

In the end “Jane Got a Gun” is the definition of bland. Its faults aren’t egregious or due to creative incompetence. It simply lacks that pivotal spark in the relationships, in the dialogue, and even in the action. The frustration comes in knowing it isn’t a terrible film. It’s just a flavorless western that can’t seem to capitalize on its decent ideas.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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