Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Movie Review - "Joker" (2019)

I've always had qualms with making super villains the main characters of a movie. While it is natural for popular and established villains like Venom to get their own movie in an age when superheroes are the name of the game, the entertainment of these maniacal, psychotic characters has been the relationship between them and the hero they're always out to prove wrong. Venom is nothing without Spider-Man to antagonize. Lex Luthor would just be a corrupt, greedy businessman/politician if he didn't have Superman around. And the Joker is just an insane, murderous clown without Batman to challenge him and his ethical dilemma of taking even one life to save thousands. Having a villain without a hero around defeats the purpose of being a villain.

What's worse is that Todd Phillips "Joker" takes a strange stance on this aspect, where its titular murdering clown is put in the spotlight like he's supposed to be a hero. Maybe that's where the controversy comes from - the love and admiration for what the Joker does. Even if his crimes don't go unpunished, the society that this film creates makes this mentally-disturbed man seem like he's helping rid of the world of an injustice, when he's really just murdering anyone he wants. Which goes hand-in-hand with the other reason I'm against villains as the main character - this isn't fun to watch. It is a slow descent into madness that can only end in a bloody mess. The fact that the world sees this crazed lunatic as a symbol of the lower class is depressing and asinine.

Of course, "Joker" isn't without its merits. Joaquin Phoenix, as always, gives a William Shatner-esque performance, a mix of scenery chewing insanity and unbridled joy in the chaos he brings to the screen. This is Phoenix's most cinematic performance, putting everything he has on the screen as his psychotic rage fuels every scene. The film is well-shot, with some of the best uses of color and motion we've seen all year, and really sells just how much of a hell hole Gotham is becoming. These things keep the film engaging, even if the tone and crude storytelling become grating.

"Joker" is what would happen if the real Joker made a film about himself - sympathy towards appalling behavior, overly oppressive, lacking any sort of empathy towards a world that is trying to improve, and any sort of subtlety is gone. Every emotional moment or act of violence is beaten into the audience with a crow bar, symbolism is overbearing and ham-fisted, as if the filmmakers think the audience can't put anything together on their own. To top that off, "Joker" is ultimately derivative of so many other tragic or misunderstood character pieces, especially "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy." The fact that Robert De Niro now plays the idol instead of the idol worshipper is infuriatingly over-the-top.

It's as if I were to tell the film that it is dark for darkness' sake and doesn't give the audience room to think, that the film would speak back to me and say "That's the joke! Why don't you get it?"

I do get it. And it wasn't a good joke. I've heard it before and Martin Scorsese told it better.

Final Grade: C

Monday, October 21, 2019

Movie Review - "Suspiria" (1977)

"Suspiria" is a vibrant, methodical nightmare, crafted by a master of cinematography and color. It tells the tale of Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who has moved from New York to a prestigious European dance academy, where every student or teacher she meets is more foreboding than the last. As the night comes though, more tragedies befall the academy, including maggots raining down on the students and murder, all while the teachers and headmistress start showing their distaste for Suzy. One of Suzy's friends, Sara (Stefania Casini), can't figure out how she keeps hearing footsteps in the middle of the night, and starts to suspect that these murders aren't mere coincidence, but the work of witches.

"Suspiria" owes a lot of its inspiration to German expressionist movies, with many scenes where light and shadow are used to brilliant effect, along with haunting camera angles, especially as it nears its terrifying climax. The film is has a slow but satisfying buildup as information is gradually fed to the audience, building up the dread, all while the horrifying atmosphere hangs over every scene, dripping like a slimy haunted house - it doesn't always scare you, but it makes you feel like something terrifying could happen at any moment. It is a visual feast, with the strangest uses of colors I've ever seen, but each used so well that it compliments the strange mystery of the dance academy. As far as Italian horror movies go, "Suspiria" is the best one I've seen to this day.

Final Grade: A-

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Movie Review - "Judy" (2019)

As unlikely as it may seem for some, all stars eventually fade and burn out, even stars so big they could light up the entire night sky. Judy Garland was one such star, quite possibly the most famous movie actress of all time, and her newest biopic, "Judy," shows the melancholy twilight of her career, and her struggle between finding her purpose now that she's lost her star power and finding herself now that she's just Judy Garland instead of "Starring Judy Garland." The battle between the actress and the person is difficult to watch yet oddly optimistic as the film demonizes the way Hollywood actors and actresses were treated in the 1930s, while watching Judy come alive as a person despite losing her childhood.

While Renee Zellweger plays Judy Garland, and she practically disappears in the role, her performance is less than inspiring, lacking any real nuance or flavor. She never fully captures the same energy as Judy Garland, coming across as someone playing karaoke versions of Garland's most iconic songs instead of Judy belting out for her audience one last time. The only time Zellweger nails the gravitas is during the final musical number and can hardly get the words out, knowing that this is how it all ends. I wish I could say that Zellweger brought us the aging Judy Garland we never really saw, but most of the time it feels like an off-Broadway attempt to mimic Judy.

Overall, "Judy" is a rather unremarkable biopic, certainly not helped by Zellweger's less than enthusiastic performance. The pace is slow, many scenes felt like padding, especially Judy meeting with some fans, and it chooses to go out with a whimper rather than a bang.

Final Grade: C-

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Movie Review - "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958)

Normally, I would say a film like "Bell, Book and Candle" has not aged well. It is the modern-day story of a New York witch (Kim Novak) falling for her neighbor (James Stewart), who is engaged to another woman, and puts a spell on him so that he falls madly in love with her despite every logical bone in his body telling him that this doesn't make sense. As it was pointed out to me, this is the same kind of love as "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" - forceful one-sided love, until the other side is left with no other option but to be in love. This witch is practically changing who this man is, just so that she isn't lonely.

Yet at the same time, I find this far more excusable than "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" because it drowns itself in its fictional world, loving every detail about how witches and warlocks operate in modern day society. We see their night clubs and the experimental music they create, as well as old style witches with potions and incantations versus new age witches who work more subtlety and with a bit more ego. Kim Novak's reasoning for making Jimmy Stewart her love slave might be despicable, but given how she's lived her whole life using magic and the bewilderment Jimmy Stewart goes through while under the spell, it is a hilarious result. As far as a entertaining attempt at imagining how witches would take advantage of our unsuspecting humdrum world, this one is boasted by some of Jimmy Stewart's most over-the-top performance, a sultry Kim Novak and some wonderfully slimy performances from Jack Lemmon and Elsa Lanchester.

If the romance between Stewart and Novak feels creepy, it's only because it reminds me of "Vertigo."

Final Grade: B-

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Movie Review - "Ad Astra" (2019)

"Ad Astra" is a rare cinematic experience that simultaneously captures the grandeur and awe of the universe, while proudly showcasing the wonders of mankind. There's an overwhelming sense of optimism while exploring the galaxy, a belief that there's someone out there that shares our sense of wonder and love of exploring and wants to share that as much as we do, not unlike most "Star Trek" series.

The visuals push these beliefs even further, from the opening shot of our own galaxy panning down to our blue marble, to the vibrant colors of our solar system. "Ad Astra" goes the same route as "2001: A Space Odyssey" by capturing how different yet majestic space can be, especially in contrast to our ships and scope. The film also takes time to showcase just how much humankind has evolved, with commercial flights to the moon and a radio tower that reaches up past Earth's atmosphere to contact alien races. Practical progress is both respectful and grand, and always cinematic.

But while "Ad Astra" looks and feels like a spiritual successor to "2001," there's another classic film that it parallels even more - "Apocalypse Now."

The film follows Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a major in the U.S. Space Command, following a series of electrical storms that are happening more frequently and threaten all life on the planet. His superiors believe they've found the source of the storms - a long forgotten spaceship on the outer edge of Neptune, led by Roy's father (Tommy Lee Jones). The superiors lost contact with his father nearly 20 years ago and now believe he's gone insane and now threatens all life if he can't be stopped. Roy is tasked with contacting him and eventually doing whatever it takes to stop his father before it's too late.

Sound familiar? Just replace the Vietnam War with space, and you've practically got the same plot.

If that weren't enough, Roy provides a narration throughout the film, recounting everything from his relationship with his father to his constantly changing feelings on his superiors and what the human race has accomplished in space, very much like Martin Sheen's narration throughout Francis Ford Coppola's movie. There are many small vignettes scattered throughout the film, small journeys to show the size and scope of what we do out in space, especially when Roy reached other stations on the moon and Mars, or even traveling between planets.

Yet the similarities to "Apocalypse Now" are never overt or on-the-nose. The style of the story feeds perfectly into the world building and progression of Roy's frustration with the world, his father and himself. While "Apocalypse Now" is depressingly negative and horrific, "Ad Astra" is overwhelming optimistic about what we will accomplish and that we'll share this knowledge with the universe. There's a deep emotional love for who we are and that our existence is more than we'll ever believe.

I would describe "Ad Astra" as if "Star Trek" wanted to retell "Apocalypse Now" - mysterious, but surprisingly uplifting, wondrous without ever losing its human edge, and always deeply personal. Add in some aesthetic choices from "2001," especially its ideas of how we'd act and behave once space travel is common enough for everyone to do it, and you've got the best sci-fi movie since "Gravity."

Final Grade: A

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Movie Review - "The Mummy" (1959)

Like so many other Hammer horror films, their version of "The Mummy" is a tribute to the Universal horror films that came before it. From the loving attention to detail on the Egyptian artifacts and costumes, to the mysticism of ancient Egyptian society that is both so captvating and so horrifying, this is something that certainly gets better if you've seen the 1932 "The Mummy."

And yet, while the film only takes a few plot elements from the 1932 film, it does take several plot elements of other Universal horror films, specifically "The Mummy's Hand" and "The Mummy's Tomb." It's as this version took all the best plot elements of all three Mummy movies to make the best version of the character that they wanted to see on the big screen. In this case, after a bunch of archologists unearth a long forgotten tomb of an Egyptian princess, a devoted follower of an Egyptian god of death uses an undead mummy, who had been deeply in love with the princess, to get revenge on those who distrubed her tomb. The film has a rather progressive outlook, especially from the villain's perspective who has a great scene explaining that the dead were meant to stay buried and not shown off in museums, while he descends more and more into a manic and obsessed craze. Peter Cushing gives a much more restrained performance, but it is George Pastell as the villain Mehemet Bey that stands out here, always selling is devotion to his death-obssessed religion.

Final Grade: B

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Movie Review - "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943)


"The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" is both an extensive history of Britian and the incurable love of English society and yet is a satire of that same society. This is shown perfectly through its main character Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), a caricuature of many leaders of the British army, who has bottomless pride for his country and his own ego, takes every opportunity to boast about his accomplishment, whether he's out hunting or discussing what he did turning the first World War, never stopping to listen to anyone but himself, and yet is one of the most lovable, hilarious characters from any non-comedy I've ever seen. This is a man fully engrossed in his own flaws that they become shining examples of his personality, making him a pillar of pride and love for England.

Beyond this, I would describe "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" as if "Doctor Zhivago" wanted to be funny. Much like "Zhivago" is a deconstruction of what it means to be Russian, "Colonel Blimp" proudly waves its patriotism and chivalry, even if it often comes back to bite some characters in the butt. Both films take a long look at a country's history, told mostly through one man, and all while showcasing some glorious cinematography that highlights the uniqueness of each countries landscape. But it is between the undeniable love for England and its hopeful look towards the future, even without knowing the outcome of World War II, that makes "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" a fascinating experience that recognizes its own country's flaws while lovingly embracing them, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Final Grade: B+

Monday, October 7, 2019

Movie Review - "Hustlers" (2019)

There's a unique sense of pride and love found in "Hustlers." While I'd describe the film as "The Wolf of Wall Street" but with strippers instead of wall street brokers, the touching and heartfelt bond between these women and sharing their lust for life with one another is the driving force behind this picture. Jennifer Lopez has never been as brilliant as the fun-loving yet commanding Ramona, taking in every moment of her eccentric lifestyle, whether as the highest-class stripper or a diva who has her hand in every brokers wallet. While Constance Wu always keeps the film grounded as the brains of this unlikely operation. Together, they sparkle as if they were long lost sisters who would rather lose everything they have than spend another day without each other.

All the while, "Hustlers" has a uplifting sense of humor that never gets stale. Whether its poking fun at the high-end lifestyle of strippers and how it relates to their sex lives, concoting the recepie they use to make these brokers their pawns, the process they use to recruit others into their gang and the wild bunch they attract, to even Lopez and Wu calling each other Shaq and Kobe and arguing over whose Kobe, there is no shortage of uniquely inspiriting comedy that shows the life of a stripper is far more invigorating than anyone could have thought. This all works to create a smart, funny, surprisingly emotional experience that commands your attention and never lets go.

Final Grade: A-

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Movie Review - "Sounder" (1972)

There's a deeply human and emotional connection with "Sounder" and it's all captured through the brilliance of its characters and actors. From Paul Winfield's performance as the desperate and frustrated father, to the resoundingly powerful role of Cicely Tyson as the mother who has to run the family farm while her husband is sent to prison, and even Kevin Hooks as the confused young man who has to grow up without his father around, the famial bond is not just believable but resounding. Never once did anything feel forced or ham-fisted, but rather a hard earned struggle through the great depression in Lousiana where everything is against this family.

Yet it's difficult to say "Sounder" was always appreciated. Released in 1972, it came hot off the heels of big blacksplotation films like "Shaft" and "Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song." And while "Sounder" isn't exploitative in the slightest, giving a valid and honest look at the black experience in America while also giving a great family cinematic experience, black audiences thought the film hit too close to home and the film never struck well with most audiences in the 1970s. Luckily, "Sounder" has certainly found an audience nowadays that can appreciate it as the truly heartwarming experience it deserves to be.

Final Grade: A-

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Movie Review - "Midnight Cowboy" (1969)

"Midnight Cowboy," the story of optimisticly naive Texan Joe Buck (Jon Voight) moving to New York City in the hopes of getting rich off of sleeping with wealthy women, is just as much of a deconstruction of the western genre as it is a study of how the American dream is dying through our own compliancy. In this case, Joe is the prototypical hero cowboy, from the way he dresses and talks to the way he sets out to do what is right in his heart, Joe feels like he has New York in the palm of his hand, like a whole new frontier ready for the taking. And despite many setbacks, tragedies and hardships, Joe goes throught it all with wide eyes and an honest heart, always believing that he'll do the right thing, like the cowboys he grew up watching on television.

But the brilliance of "Midnight Cowboy" comes from Joe's optimistic outlook running up against a harsh world that doesn't care if you're honest or filthy. What starts out as a hopeful if misguided journey to do something with his life quickly turns to tragedy. It is painful to watch Joe slip so far, everything going wrong and somehow finding a way to make it worse. And yet, Joe remains hopeful, even as his best friend Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) lets him live in his shack without electricity or heating as the winter months arrive. All this shows that the ideals of the cowboys and their "do the right thing" nature is hopelessly lost when morals hold no power.

Final Grade: A

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Movie Review - "It Chapter Two" (2019)

While "It" was built off of the charming charisma and chemistry of its many child costars and Bill Skarsgard's otherworldly performance, most of that is gone with "It Chapter Two," leaving behind a mostly bloated, bland and tonally confused sequel. Despite most of the adult cast looking exactly like their child counterparts and Bill Skarsgard getting even more screen time than before, the film meanders for most of its runtime, giving little vignettes of horror that do not connect to the overall plot. Most of the movie seems like a series of shorts that goes on much longer than it needs to.

At nearly three hours, most of the creepiness gets overplayed and many of the scares are ineffective because of the repetition. While everyone gets a chance to shine, including the child actors of the first film through flashbacks, they're all done individually while moving at a snails pace. The chemistry of the first film feels like an afterthought in this movie. This would be fine if the film built up to a satisfying climax against Pennywise, but instead its more individual challenges for our characters, leading to a big moment that should be triumphant but instead feels hypocritical when the main characters resort to the same tactics as their bullies from the first film.

Ultimately, "It Chapter Two" thinks very highly of itself, like its reinventing horror and the wheel at the same time. But this ego trip gets grating and tedious. There are some effective moments of horror, almost always involving Skarsgard and his knack for creep, but they're always overshadowed by the slow pace and often emotionless acting. Where we cared about these kids in the first film, they've now become bland, forgettable adults with only minor quirks. Despite having three hours to showcase how these characters have evolved, they feel more alien than the living incarnation of fear disguised as a clown.

Final Grade: C-