RETRO REVIEW: “Jurassic Park” (1993)

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Normally my Retro Reviews are chosen by my Twitter followers who vote in a poll to determine what film I’m going to watch (you can follow me @KeithandMovies). But this week someone else inspired my choice of movie. My son just started his freshman year of college and he’s taking a film appreciation course. His first assignment was to write an essay on his favorite film. Interestingly he chose “Jurassic Park”. And guess what film was showing as part of our favorite theater’s ‘Welcome Back‘ promotion? It was written in the stars.

Many consider Steven Spielberg to be the father of the summer blockbuster. “Jaws”, the “Indiana Jones” films, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and of course “Jurassic Park” make a really strong case. “Jurassic Park” would become Spielberg’s biggest money-maker. It shattered box office records becoming the highest grossing film of all-time (until James Cameron’s “Titanic” came along in 1997). The film was a hit with critics and went on to win three Academy Awards. It’s still beloved by many including my son. After seeing it again on the big screen I was reminded of why it has such a following.

“Jurassic Park” was based on a Michael Crichton novel of the same name. Smelling a potential smash hit, Spielberg and Universal Pictures acquired the film rights to Crichton’s novel before it was even published. Crichton was then hired to write the screenplay with David Koepp. They set their story on a fictional island near Costa Rica where a wealthy entrepreneur and his team of scientists have created a theme park around the cloning of dinosaurs. It was a story ripe with potential, but only if the special effects could sell its ambition. “Jurassic Park” turned out to be an incredible visual achievement and a groundbreaking step forward for movie technology.

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Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Richard Attenborough plays businessman John Hammond, a gazillionaire who bought his own island to build his dinosaur park. After an accident leads to the death of one of his dino handlers, Hammond is pushed by his investors to bring in a team of experts to verify whether the park is safe for the public. Hammond invites paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neil) and paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). The lawyer for the investors Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) invites math whiz and chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum).

Once on the island the group are taken to meet Hammond. On the way they are astonished at the sight of a massive living, breathing brachiosaurus. They arrive at the park’s visitor center where Hammond gives them a tour of his laboratory. The group’s amazement turns to skepticism once Hammond reveals the science behind his venture. In one particularly terrific scene they all gather around a table for lunch and discuss the wisdom and ethics of Hammond’s venture. As Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm candidly states, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

In a last ditch effort to impress his guests Hammond sends the group along with his two grandchildren Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and Lex (Ariana Richards) on an automated SUV tour around the park. Meanwhile Hammond’s disgruntled computer programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Night) has secretly been paid handsomely by an outside corporation to swipe dinosaur embryos from the park’s lab. Nedry shuts down the security systems enabling him to steal the vials and escape to a nearby dock where a boat awaits. But he inadvertently shuts down the SUVs leaving three doctors, a lawyer, and two kids stranded outside of a Tyrannosaurus Rex enclosure.

With the electric fences deactivated the T-Rex escapes attacking the two SUVs in what many consider to be the film’s most memorable sequence. Watching it again I was blown away by Spielberg’s masterclass on scene construction. The framing of his shots, the crisp editing, the impeccable sound design, visual effects wizard Stan Winston’s mind-blowing animatronics, and other details such as Spielberg using no score during the bulk of the sequence. It’s a scene full of nail-biting tension even for people like me who already knows what happens.

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Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

In addition to the stand-out special effects, Spielberg, his DP Dean Cundey, and production designer Rick Carter deserve loads of credit for creating a convincing setting that grounds a fantastical concept. Shot mostly in Hawaii, the Dominican Republic, and on the Universal Studios lot, Spielberg and his team manage to sell Jurassic Park as a palpable place full of awe and wonder. And it still sparks the imagination after all these years.

And while I’m doling out credit, Crichton and Koepp earn their’s by putting together a fun and engaging array of characters. Neil and Dern are the leads and they fill the shoes of their characters well. And there is terrific supporting work from Attenborough, Night, Ferrero, Samuel L. Jackson, and Bob Peck. But there is one thing I distinctly remember from my previous viewings and it still holds true today – Jeff Goldblum steals every scene he’s in. His Malcolm is smart, weirdly charming, hilarious, even heroic when he needs to be. Unfortunately he gets put on the shelf in the last act, but Goldblum still makes every scene he’s in better.

This was easily one of my favorite Retro Review revisits so far. It was nice to see how remarkably well “Jurassic Park” holds up, but I wasn’t expecting to have so much fun with it. It’s a movie that really flourishes on the big screen and puts an emphasis on the value of that experience. I can enthusiastically say that I liked “Jurassic Park” more this time than during my original 1993 theater visit. Maybe I’m just starving for a good summer tentpole movie. Or maybe this is simply Spielberg once again proving himself to not only be the father of the blockbuster but also the king.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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RETRO REVIEW: “Johnny Be Good” (1988)

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If you were watching movies in the early to mid-1980’s you might have pegged Anthony Michael Hall as a sure-fire movie star in the making. He was the original Rusty Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Vacation”. He was the quintessential movie geek in the John Hughes films “Sixteen Candles”, “The Breakfast Club”, and “Weird Science”. Things were looking great.

But then Hall made a series of bad choices that ended up changing the course of his career. In fear of being typecast, he turned down meaty roles in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Pretty in Pink”. He was later offered the lead role in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” but skipped out after a lengthy contract negotiation. Instead he decided to star in the 1988 comedy “Johnny Be Good” with first-time director Bud Smith. It was a box office disappointment and a pretty dreadful movie to boot.

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I remember it being a bit jarring to see Hall go from lovable nerd to football jock in such a short span, yet that’s his character in this shallow and often annoying spin on the college recruitment process. Hall plays Johnny Walker, the star quarterback for Ashcroft High School. He’s the toast of his town and the top recruit in the nation.

After the final game of his senior year (and yet another state championship) the offers from major colleges start pouring in. Johnny’s erratic best friend Leo (Robert Downey, Jr.) thinks he should hold out for the highest bidder. His girlfriend Georgia (Uma Thurman) thinks he should stick with their plan of going to State college together. His slimeball high school coach (Paul Gleason) offers his influence to the highest college bidder.

Johnny eventually gets caught up in the attention and begins making campus visits where he’s wined and dined by coaches and alumni all wanting him to play ball for them. He is shamelessly offered money, cars, fancy clothes, even women. In other words, “Johnny Be Good” shows college recruitment in the dimmest and dumbest light – a crooked, hedonistic cesspool all played for laughs but with an utterly ineffective moral point tacked on at the end.

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Hall doesn’t give a terrible performance despite the often dreadful material he’s asked to sell. The problem is he’s miscast. At times you can squint your eyes and buy into him as a football jock. Other times it’s simply too much for him to pull off. At least he’s more tolerable than what we get from a painfully irritating Robert Downey, Jr. In his review for the LA Times, Michael Wilmington compared RDJ’s blatherings to “Pee Wee Herman emerging from a coma“. It’s one of the funnier lines I’ve ever read in a movie review, but it’s also shockingly accurate. Obviously Downey, Jr. has shown himself to be a fine actor, but here he’s asked to do the impossible – make us like and laugh at an obnoxious, doltish, and thoroughly unfunny character.

Uma Thurman may be the lone positive. The script barely allows us to see below the surface of her character. But Thurman does good with what she’s given, showing off why she would go on to have a great career. Unfortunately the movie itself can’t say as much. It didn’t do well in 1988 and it hasn’t stuck with many people sense. It was a serious misfire for Hall who never quite regained his early 80’s form and for Bud Smith who went back to editing and never directed another film. Unfortunately nothing has changed in 32 years. “Johnny Be Good” is still a bad movie and its faults stand out even more today.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Judy” (2019)

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Sadly the well-documented story of Judy Garland is more tragic than beautiful. The incredibly talented but perpetually troubled star of stage and screen was beloved internationally. An amazingly versatile entertainer, Garland would go on to win an Oscar, a Grammy, a Tony, a Golden Globe, and even nominated for an Emmy.

But behind the scenes Garland’s life was marked by mental and physical health struggles, addiction, and financial woes. Director Rupert Goold’s “Judy” takes place on the downside of Garland’s career, from December 1968 and into early 1969, a mere six months before Garland would die from an accidental overdose. It’s an unpretentious and sugar-free account of a falling star’s life as a performer and a mother.

Renée Zellweger commits every ounce of herself to capturing Judy Garland’s many physical and emotional complexities. Essentially homeless and with her two stability-starved children in tow, adult Judy is on the ropes from the start. Her frustrated ex-husband and the children’s father Sid Lift (Rufus Sewell) agrees to take the kids while Judy accepts a five-week engagement at the snazzy London night club Talk of the Town. Her plan is to make enough money to come back to Los Angeles, buy a home, and raise her children. No more performing, no more touring.

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© 2019 Roadside Attractions. All rights reserved

Judy arrives in London and is immediately given a stacked schedule by her assigned handler Rosalyn (a very good Jessie Buckley). Her first show goes great, bringing a rousing ovation from the crowd and rave reviews from local critics. But despite her consummate professionalism and personal drive (she knows what’s at stake), Judy’s fragility and insecurity makes every appearance brim with uncertainty. So she pops more pills, gets less sleep, and crumbles before our very eyes.

The story is occasionally interrupted by a series of effective vignettes which look back to Judy’s teen years at MGM (she’s earnestly portrayed in these scenes by Darci Shaw). It paints a sobering picture of a young girl from Grand Rapids, Minnesota caught in the gears of the greedy, abusive studio-era Hollywood machine. Judy is treated as property – overworked and constantly reminded by studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) that there are plenty of prettier girls out there. And aside from shattering her self-esteem, Judy is fed pills that curb her appetite and lay the groundwork for her crippling future addictions.

While these flashbacks do feel very biopic-ish, they do bring to light a thoughtful cause-and-effect dynamic. The film doesn’t fully exonerate Garland from her self-destructive behavior and poor choices, but it does offer some meaningful context and earns her sympathy from those who may not be familiar with her tempestuous life story.

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© 2019 Roadside Attractions. All rights reserved

Back to Zellweger, she truly is the driving force of the movie and her performance is more than a imitation, it’s an immersion. Zellweger disappears, replaced by a meticulously performed and fully realized likeness to Judy Garland. We see the many distinct mannerisms: the nervous twitches, forced smiles, squinty stares. And there is a genuine awkwardness to her movements befitting someone walking precariously along a psychological ledge.

And Zellweger sings all of her own tunes. While she may not especially sound like Garland, the emotional resonance from her mixture of song and performance makes it an easy sell. And I’ve read that at this stage in her career Garland’s hard living had taken a toll on her voice. It brought a level of uncertainty to every stage appearance and only added to the singer’s many insecurities. Zellweger channels it through a passionate and wholehearted effort.

I want what everybody wants,” Judy tells a prying talk-show host. “I just have a harder time getting it.” These are the moments when “Judy” is at its best – when it is digging into the wounded psyche of one of entertainment’s biggest icons. The film does chase a few rabbits (there is an encounter with a fictitious middle-aged gay couple that comes across as overly scripted and manipulative), her marriage to her fifth and final husband Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) feels shortchanged, and there are moments where the film is too dependent on Zellweger’s performance to carry it. Still, as an unvarnished look at Judy Garland’s last stand against her demons, the movie works better than expected.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Just Mercy” (2019)

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Destin Daniel Cretton’s filmmaking career has been on quite the upward trajectory. He earned a lot of attention with his 2013 indie drama “Short Term 12”. He was given a bigger budget and a meatier cast for his 2017 followup “The Glass Castle”. In 2021 he’s set to enter the big budget Marvel Universe as director of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”. But before that, he has an upcoming movie that’s definitely worth some attention.

Cretton’s new film is “Just Mercy”, a legal drama based on the memoir of tireless civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson. It centers around Stevenson’s early work in Alabama during the 1980’s, specifically on the case of Walter McMillan, a wrongfully accused black man sentenced to death for the killing of a young white woman. Cretton’s film offers no frills, no excess, no attempts to push the envelope. It’s very focused on good old-fashioned storytelling and as a result this powerful story is given the attention it needs.

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Michael B. Jordan plays Stevenson, fresh out of Harvard Law School and eager to make a difference. He leaves his home in Delaware and moves to Montgomery County, Alabama (which is ironically where Harper Lee penned her classic “To Kill a Mockingbird“). He had previously went there to serve an internship and it left a profound impression. Now as a full-on attorney he returns to offer legal assistance free of charge to death row inmates in need of it.

With the help of a local true believer Eva Ansley (played by Cretton favorite Brie Larson) Bryan is able to launch his Equal Justice Initiative. But the ‘good ol’ boy’ justice system doesn’t take kindly to Bryan’s meddling especially when he takes the case of Walter McMillan (who is better known around town as Johnny D). He’s played by a dialed-back Jamie Foxx who gives one of his best performances in years.

Despite there being an overwhelming lack of evidence, Walter was sentenced to death in 1987. Over the next few years he would remain in prison following one failed attempt after another at securing him a new trial. It takes some work, but the understandably cynical and jaded Walter finally agrees to let Bryan take over his case. But as countless obstacles arise, Bryan learns that getting a black man off of death row is no easy task, especially in such a racially-charged environment.

Cretton rarely veers from the McMillan case but one instance where he does happens to be the film’s most powerful scene. It involves Rob Morgan’s heartbreaking portrayal of a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD. He too is on death row for planting a bomb that inadvertently kills a young girl. Morgan is a natural and shows us a man tortured by what he has done but also clearly suffering from post-war trauma. It leads to a devastating sequence that is Cretton’s best work to date.

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“Just Mercy” digs deep into the blatant injustices and frustrating roadblocks put up by the local authorities. There’s no help from the newly elected district attorney (Rafe Spall) who is more concerned about soiling his reputation with the community than considering Bryan’s motions. Even game-changing revelations about the prosecution’s key witness (played by a terrific Tim Blake Nelson) isn’t enough to tip the racially-biased scales.

It all makes for a troubling and eye-opening examination of institutional racism from a time not so long ago (keep in mind this isn’t set in the 1960’s). The movie doesn’t feel particularly fresh or new but it’s unwavering in its honesty and dedication to its characters (with the exception is Larson’s Eva who is terribly underdeveloped). And I can already hear some criticizing it for not being “angry enough”. But in reality not every film needs to scream from the rooftops. Sometimes simply letting a story speak truth for itself is just as effective.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Jojo Rabbit”

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While Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks, and even Donald Duck have taken shots at lampooning Adolph Hitler, Nazi and holocaust humor still falls into touchy territory. But out of all modern day filmmakers, who better than New Zealand native Taika Waititi to make us laugh and squirm by jumping headfirst into hate-fueled marsh of late World War II Naziism.

Waititi earned a lot of attention when he entered into Marvel’s MCU to make “Thor: Ragnarok”. But his biggest fans love him for his more intimate original comedies like “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”. His new film “Jojo Rabbit” falls in with those smaller gems and you could make a strong case that it is Waititi’s best movie to date.

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© 2019 Fox Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved

There are so many great elements at work that make “Jojo Rabbit” such an incredible experience. It’s laugh-out-loud funny with Waititi’s signature off-beat humor hitting most all of its marks. At the same time there are several moments that jolt us back to reality, reminding us that we’re dealing with weighty and often unspeakable matters. Amazingly, Waititi manages these seismic tonal shifts in ways you wouldn’t think possible. And the film’s ability to make you laugh, cry, or be utterly appalled is one of its many strengths.

Set during the waning years of World War II, the story centers on Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old German boy who’s oblivious to the horrors of the war and who blindly loves his Führer. In fact, his imaginary friend is none other than Hitler himself (outlandishly played by Waititi). The bulk of the film is told from his perspective and follows him as he routinely crosses path with the myriad of colorful and often hilarious side characters.

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© 2019 Fox Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved

An early sequence gives us a lot of context. Jojo and his best friend Yorki (an infectiously adorable Archie Yates) attend a Nazi Youth Camp. There they’ll be trained in the youthful arts of recognizing Jews, knife throwing, and tossing live grenades. Oh, and during recreation time they’ll get to unwind by burning books. Running the camp is Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a disillusioned sot recently demoted from the battlefield and keenly aware that the Nazi war effort is on its last leg.

So as you can tell much of the humor is built around some ugly and reprehensible history. This includes the abhorrent child brainwashing, vile antisemitism, and of course the Holocaust. Enter Thomasin McKenzie, the fabulous young New Zealander who was so good in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace”. She plays Elsa, a Jewish teen who Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding in the walls of their home. When Jojo discovers her not only does Elsa challenge his ignorance and blind hatred but also his entire indoctrinated worldview.

McKenzie has a sublime ability to convey so much through the softest voice and most earnest expression. Even when her character is challenging Jojo she does it with a quiet gentleness that earns every ounce of our empathy. She shares a good chemistry with the younger Davis who exudes a ton of personality. Johansson brings a lot of heart to the story. Rockwell plays a sarcastic goof (something he does really well). And there are other smaller but equally enjoyable roles from Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant.

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© 2019 Fox Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved

“Jojo Rabbit” advertises itself as an “anti-hate satire” and while its a fitting description that sounds really good, the historical baggage is sure to be too much for some people to handle. Personally, I loved its audacity and even more its capacity to make me both laugh and cry. And hats off to Waititi for not crossing the line into the tasteless and offensive while never skirting around the hateful prejudices or repulsive ideologies.

But as the film’s ending quote from poet Rainer Rilke’s so appropriately states “No feeling is final.” And that is the timely message of “Jojo Rabbit”. A young German boy perfecting his “Heil Hitler!” salute in the opening scene eventually sees through veil of hate. And through his journey Waititi shows that meaningful change is indeed possible. Sure, it could have dove deeper into the Nazi atrocities, but that would make for a much different movie. Other films have already done that well. Let “Jojo Rabbit” speak with its own unique voice because it truly has something beautiful to say.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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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 Guðnadóttir 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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