Monday, October 7, 2019

Joker, 2019 - ★★★★★

Todd Phillips' Joker brings us yet another incarnation of Batman's top adversary following some good performances (Jack Nicholson, Cesar Romero) and one AMAZING performance (Heath Ledger). I was pretty sure I would never see someone reach the heights of Ledger's work in The Dark Knight but 11 years later, the uber-talented Joaquin Phoenix has quickly put himself in the running for best Joker ever.

In a similar vain to what Chris Nolan did with Dark Knight, Todd Phillips crafts his Joker film as a 70's-set dark crime saga that doesn't seem to fit in with the recent superhero genre. The movie seems dirty throughout as we see Arthur Fleck slowly descend into a maniacal killer. Fleck's relationship with his Mom is both caring and flawed at the same time, muddled by a questionable adoption scenario in Fleck's past. While nearly a stand-alone film in DC universe, Joker does touch on elements of a young Batman and there is a clear setup for a follow on film. I just can't believe Phoenix would play this role again, although I'd love to see it happen.

The choices that Phoneix's Joker makes are certainly questionable but Phillips does a great job of letting us inside Fleck's head and understand some of his motivations. The actual killing scenes are brutal and blunt with gunshots ripping through the theater speakers. The scene near the end of the film with Fleck in full Joker dress and makeup as a guest on Murray Franklin's (a game Robert De Niro) talk show is the culmination of pent-up rage. I couldn't take my eyes off of Phoenix in that entire scene from him dancing backstage to his matter-of-fact behavior in the guest chair. It's a riveting performance that totally overshadows the work of legendary De Niro sitting next to him. Speaking of dancing, Phoenix does a weird swaying dance several times in the film and I thought it was a perfect strange addition to an already strange character/actor. His over-the-top cackling laugh that he delivers (along with a card explaining his mental condition to strangers) is powerful and horrible at the same time. Joaquin is just a weird kind of dude and that's what makes him perfect to play this role.

In fairness to Ledger, The Dark Knight earned him the Oscar in a supporting role. Joker is all Joaquin, all the time so it may not be a fair comparison. That being said, I really do feel Phoenix's performance is a notch above Ledger's. He simply does deranged differently and a little better than Heath did. This film is a tour de force showcase of one of the best actors of my generation. I'm not sure if he'll win Best Actor but he should definitely be nominated. Joker is a fantastically entertaining and depressing look at a monster brought to life. This is easily Phillips' best film and I'm curious to see what he does next.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Ad Astra, 2019 - ★★★★½

I don't believe I have seen any of James Grey's prior films, but his first venture into outer space is a very beautiful and emotional one that is powered by a movie star having the best year of his long career. Ad Astra is the story of Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) an American astronaut following in the footsteps of his legendary father Clifford McBride (the grizzled Tommy Lee Jones) on a mission across the solar system. A power disturbance has been detected from the Neptune area which just so happens to be the same area Clifford McBride disappeared from 16 years earlier.

Grey and his cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (probably the third-best cinematographer working today who shot Interstellar and Dunkirk) manage to build a gorgeous and realistic look at how space and planet/moon inhabiting would look in the near future. We get to see an Applebee's on the moon and take a glimpse at what Virgin Intergalactic space travel would look like when commercial flights in space become a real thing. There are a few scenes with action sequences (including Moon pirates which is apparently a thing in the future that I have so many questions about), but most of Grey's film is a slow emotional introspective that is peppered with self-evaluation exercises that the astronauts need to complete regularly to remain employed and engaged in their missions.

Liv Tyler plays McBride's lonely wife in a throwaway role (hardly any real screen time) while Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga and Natasha Lyonne show up in brief but serviceable roles. Jones is solid as the elder McBride as we see his steely non-compassionate way of communicating with his son that adds to the emotional toll of the film.

The real heart and soul of this movie is Pitt's performance. As he did with his portrayal of Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt is cool calm and collected. However, in Ad Astra he emotes so much with his face and eyes, shedding a lot of meaningful solemn tears along the way. Whenever he's on screen (which is quite a lot) you can't take your eyes off him. He simply gives a magnetic, raw and real performance that takes this movie to the next level. You really do feel how isolated he feels in his life and how he wishes he had more of an emotional relationship with his father.

While this film is not really in the same breath as Gravity or Interstellar it is certainly better than some recent sci-fi space efforts (The Martian, Life). This is despite a few completely unbelievable sequences in the last third of the film that help with Pitt's attempt to return from the far reaches of our solar system. The music of Max Richter helps enhance the calm of the movie and heightens the atmosphere of space. This is worthwhile viewing on as big a screen as possible. Go see Ad Astra and witness a movie star at the top of his game. Brad Pitt provides big time acting fuel for two of the 10 best films I've seen this year so-far.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, 2019 - ★★★½

A lot of over the top nonsense including virus-extraction machines that can be repaired by a Samoan mechanic but still survive a helicopter crash, but if you look past all the ridiculous plot elements you'll still have fun watching this movie. Dwayne Johnson is super likable as Luke Hobbs and his awkward ball-busting chemistry with Jason Statham's Deckard Shaw is worth the price of admission alone. The combo of well choreographed action sequences and one-up-man-ship back-and-forth banter is what makes the movie tick. Vanessa Kirby is gorgeous and delightful as the kick-ass sister of Shaw. Her recent turns in this film and the last Mission Impossible prove that she's a bona fide action star that's ready for a lead turn. Thankfully Idris Elba delivers a dependable rugged performance as the film's villain whose motivation and associated sinister syndicate is a bit cloudy.

This movie works as a spin-off to the Fast and Furious franchise but ultimately is just end-of-summer filler. The last third of the movie seems to be forced to take place in Samoa and didn't really work for me. I still had a blast watching it though and it's definitely worth a rental for people who are invested in the Furious saga.

Friday, September 13, 2019

It Chapter Two, 2019 - ★★★★

Way too long of a film but still entertaining throughout, Andy Muschietti's follow up to the 2017 hit Stephen King adaptation excels based off it's carefully crafted cast. Bill Hader, James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain are the headliners, but ALL of the adult versions of the characters we saw in IT Chapter 1 in 2017 were cast perfectly by the producers of this film. Everyone looks like a grown-up version of the child actor that played the same character, but little known James Ransone stands out as a virtual doppelganger of Shazam's Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie.

Despite the strong casting and production value, the story just isn't that engaging at times and I found myself waiting to see the excellent Bill Skarsgard return to the screen as Pennywise. Skarsgard's performance in both films is a total creepy revelation. Something the Academy should honor although we all know they never will.

This movie explores the deep inner fears of the main characters and culminates in a loud messy final 30 minutes. It's not a film I really want to see again but it did entertain and engage me. Every time Pennywise is on screen it's riveting cinema in my opinion. The ratio of Pennywise-to-runtime in this film was not as high as I had hoped for. All in all, this is worth a viewing in the theater, especially if you invested in Chapter 1. Hader and Ransone bring the comedy to help mute the overall ominous tone of the movie. In fact, my favorite scene in the whole film comes during a Chinese restaurant dinner in which the main characters meet back up in Derry and share drinks and jokes. The believable chemistry between all the adult actors is earned instantly.

Kudos to a very spry and fit Stephen King for showing up in a clever cameo. I'm interested to see where Muschietti (only 46) goes from here. It looks like a DC comics "The Flash" film is next on his filmography.

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Peanut Butter Falcon, 2019 - ★★★½

An entertaining road trip movie with some heart that features a very effective Shia LaBeouf performances and a delightful debut by disabled actor Zach Gottsagen (who has down syndrome). The film has DNA associated with Rainman and Sling Blade but shines the most when Gottsagen and LaBeouf get to display their excellent on-screen chemistry. Dakota Johnson is serviceable but forced at times as the love interest for LaBeouf.

As we go along with the two leads in their quest to get Zach to Thomas Haden Church's wrestling camp, there are a lot of convenient meet-ups with the major characters along the way. In particular, the whole sub plot of John Hawkes and Yelawolf trying to collect money from LaBeouf is really a nuisance and should have been left on the cutting room floor. I just found it hard to believe that these people kept meeting up randomly all over several locations in North Carolina. The constant coincidences took me out of the narrative at times.

That being said, this film is entertaining and worth viewing (you can wait for video). Kudos to Gottsagen for giving one of the best disabled actor performances I've ever seen. LaBeouf is at the top of his acting game here and I can't wait to see what he brings to the upcoming Honey Boy.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Good Boys, 2019 - ★★★½

Jacob Trembley puts the horrible The Predator behind him and flexes his comedic muscles in this elementary school Super Bad that surprisingly has a lot of heart. It's way over the top at times and definitely NOT a kids movie. Some big laughs are earned but a lot of what I found funny was hearing all the curse words come out of the mouths of the kids. Keith L. Williams is a find as Lucas and I expect to see a lot out of him as he matures as a comedic actor.

This is a mindless comedy that is probably best viewed at home on video.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, 2019 - ★★½

Really good creature effects but not much else redeeming in this one. It's not very scary and it moves along at a sluggish pace. The acting is forgettable but the monsters save this film from being a waste. Not too interested in the sequel that's set up at the end of the film.