Movie Review ~ Joker

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A clown-for-hire by day, strives to be a stand-up comic at night…but finds that the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence teetering on the precipice of reality and madness, one bad decision brings about a chain reaction of escalating, ultimately deadly, events.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Marc Maron, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olsen

Director: Todd Phillips

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’ve almost been dreading the day I had to see Joker ever since I saw the first preview for it.  Though the internet lost their minds when they got a look at Joaquin Phoenix in costume and there were plenty exclamations of “Take My Money!” (What does that phrase mean, exactly? Anyway…), I didn’t understand what this movie was meant to do.  For audiences.  For the studio.  For the character.  The Joker has been played indelibly before by the likes of Caesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger…did Phoenix really want to walk a mile in those clown shoes and be compared to those titans?  Also, the movie just looked skeevy and drab, clearly aiming to distance itself far from any vision yet of Gotham City.

So it came to pass that the day the screening arrived nothing seemed to go right.  Waking up on the wrong side of the bed doesn’t even begin to describe it.  The day was gloomy, the night was rain-soaked.  The topper was a crazy security line to get into the preview that had the effect of setting a somber mood.  Being slowly wanded by a security guard made me feel like there was something to be wary about, the early buzz of the movie’s excessive violence bouncing around in my head.  Were critics worrying the movie might stir unrest not all that unfounded?  I was on edge from the beginning.

Perhaps all that build-up and early fretting helped me stave off some of the higher expectations others may have going into the movie this weekend.  While it’s certainly as violent as I’d heard and more deeply upsetting than I was imagining, I watched Joker with a transfixed gaze without being able to turn away.  I didn’t always like what I was seeing but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the screen.  It’s a film that starts with a bleak outlook and just goes downhill from there with little reprieve, hope, or kindness offered along the way.  Even so, there’s a certain beauty in all that ugliness.

A standalone story that doesn’t involve the caped crusader (no mention of the B-word at all), Joker basically gives the Clown Prince of Crime the Wicked treatment and makes the character we’ve come to know as the villain the protagonist of the story.  Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover Part III) co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver (The Finest Hours) and borrows liberally from Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Setting the action in 1981 NYC gives Phillips the opportunity to let production designer Mark Friedberg (Noah) and costume designer Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) pull out all the stops and the Big Apple is indeed recreated in all its seedy, smoky glory.  It’s almost worth the price of admission alone to see the way the filmmakers have crafted not only the look of the time but also the mood.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix, The Master) makes a meager living as clown hired out for odd jobs while dreaming of making it as a stand-up comic on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, Cape Fear) show.  Living with his mother (Frances Conroy, Falling in Love) in a one-room apartment, he suffers from brain trauma causing him to laugh uncontrollably when faced with stress.  Entertaining a new friendship with a neighbor (Zazie Beetz, Deadpool 2), Arthur becomes more infatuated with the thought of fame.  His weekly therapy sessions hint at a man with diagnosed mental health issues not getting the kind of significant treatment he needs and, eventually, not even having the benefit of meeting with his psychiatrist. Soon, he’s a man on the edge finally pushed to his breaking point.

While dressed as a clown, he’s assaulted on a subway and strikes back.  Though his identity goes unnoticed, his actions do not, inspiring the lesser thans in a city roiling in unrest to find a common bond and uniting in their shared anger.  Though he claims to not stand for anything, deep down Arthur shares in their feelings, wondering why the world is so messed up and people have become so rotten to one another.  Finding a newfound strength with his painted on persona and with his inner circle closing in around him, Arthur sets his sights on a broader audience and when his path crosses with his favorite television star, he seizes an opportunity to take the Joker global.

There’s a few ways you can look at what Phillips and Silver are going for with Joker.  You can view the movie from a perspective that a terrible society without feeling or order breeds people like Arthur Fleck.  He’s pushed aside and forgotten, left to fend for himself without any real chance to succeed.  How can we expect people to be better, do better, if they aren’t given some kind of opportunity or a means of support?  There’s another way to look at the film and I think it’s more dangerous.  Maybe it’s a thinly veiled battle cry against a humanity that has become self-absorbed and aims to restore some order by introducing a violent messiah messiah-figure to idolize.  I doubt the filmmakers knowingly were aiming for this but our culture isn’t that great at reading into the deeper meanings in metaphor so if some kind of statement on the dangers of societal violence was being made I think it was lost in the telling.  The fears some people have voiced that the movie may be pro mob-mentality aren’t that off the mark.

At the epicenter of it all is Joaquin Phoenix’s polarizing performance as Fleck/Joker which hits the bullseye at times but is wildly weird at others.  Backed by a surprisingly alert performance from De Niro and an eclectic mix of character actors, Phoenix is never off screen, which gets exhausting. Phoenix is known for immersing himself in roles to sometimes concerning levels and I spent most of the movie wondering how long it took for him to bounce back after filming had completed.  That’s a problem.  I was always aware it was a performance while watching his gaunt and greasy figure move from scene to scene.

Losing weight for the role gave him the wan visage intended but you can see him angling his body or sucking his stomach in to show each rib and bone – so it’s clearly all for show.  Strangely, it’s when Phoenix is in make-up as Joker (actually, anytime he’s in clown make-up throughout the movie) that he’s nothing short of electric.  Especially as the film ramps up to its troublesome final act, Phoenix positively comes alive and sheds the more pithy acting choices he’s made up until that point.  Now, there’s more than danger present in Arthur’s eyes, there’s glee in the dread he’s inflicting on Gotham City and happiness he’s being noticed for the first time in his unhappy life.

We’ve had so many interpretations of Batman over the years that maybe it wasn’t all that bad of an idea to have a different take on one of the players in his rogue gallery of villains.  I’m not sure Joker is exactly the movie we needed right now at this point when our nation is so overwhelmed with negativity and a general aimlessness, but it’s a well-made and in your face film that will surely open up conversations.  You can argue the intentions of the filmmakers but you can’t argue that the movie isn’t intriguing in its own weird way.

Movie Review ~ The Killing of a Sacred Deer


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A teenager’s attempts to bring a brilliant surgeon into his dysfunctional family takes an unexpected turn.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone, Raffey Cassidy, Bill Camp

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  We’re moving into a busy time for movies and that means a packed screening schedule. On these plum-full days this part-time critic has to get creative with his multi-tasking if doesn’t want to go hungry between movies. That’s how I found myself unwrapping and justa bout to sink my teeth into a sandwich when Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer began. Lanthimos opens the film with a graphic (and real) shot of open heart surgery, his camera lovingly lingering on the organ coming back to life and pulsing with blood. It’s an arresting image and one that pretty much demands your attention, as does the rest of the movie. Clearly, my sandwich was going to have to wait.

Surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks) has it all.  A successful career, a beautiful house, a loving wife (Nicole Kidman, Stoker), and two children that haven’t yet met their trouble-making days.  He’s also taken a young boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) under his wing for reasons not entirely clear as the movie begins.  All we can tell is that Murphy obviously feels paternal toward the boy, a boy that has a strange way about him.  Actually, everyone in Lanthimos’s parable on suburbia and privilege has a strange way about them.  Murphy and his wife play out some kinky fantasy with her lying prone on the bed as if under general anesthesia, their daughter (Raffey Cassidy, Tomorrowland) is on the cusp of womanhood and awkwardly makes her first steps into her femininity with Martin as her fellow traveler, and Murphy and his wife speak about family matters in public with little regard for privacy.  There’s a staid, robotic-like quality to the line delivery and it’s not unintentional in the slightest.

For the first half of the movie we’re just getting our feet wet with these people and trying to figure out why Martin’s actions feel so odd and what his game plan could be.  When it’s revealed why he’s getting so close to Murphy and his family the movie almost instantly gets a bit less interesting in plot but not necessarily in character.  Martin makes a proposition, an impossible request, to Murphy and the rest of the movie is about how Murphy chooses to respond.  One by one Murphy’s family members start to come down with a mysterious, near-supernatural illness that Martin seems to have control over…or is the other way around?  Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou leave audiences with little concrete answers and we’re never quite sure who the man (or woman) behind the curtain is.

While the plot tends towards the formulaic in its skeleton, it’s the sinews of muscle and tissue that the cast brings to this that make it one that has nagged at me almost daily since I saw it.  The movie can be seen as a twisted take on suburban perfection and personal responsibility or as an outright Fatal Attraction-like potboiler where no one is a winner by the time the credits roll.  Having worked with Lanthimos on his previous film (the equally mind-bending The Lobster), Farrell is aces as a flawed man asked to take action no father or husband should ever be tasked with and Kidman continues her streak of finding the deepest complexities in a seemingly straight-forward role.  Keoghan is a bundle of nerves and energy, presenting a character obviously on some sort of spectrum that feels just in his actions so has no fear of judgement.  That frees him to express himself openly and unfiltered, a refreshing presentation to be sure but unsettling all the same in our current climate of niceties above all else.  Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) has a brief but memorable scene as Martin’s mother, grieving the loss of her husband (whom Murphy operated on) and following her son’s lead on a plan to unite the two families in his twisted imagination.

As you’ve probably guessed, The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t easy viewing and the ending is sure to prove problematic.  Lanthimos doesn’t let anyone off easy and that includes the viewer.  Still, it’s a handsomely made, eerie film and even when you know where it’s headed it still has one or two twists to keep you alert.  Darker than The Lobster but just as interested in social norms and providing commentary on justice, The Killing of a Sacred Deer might not be the hunt you thought you’d be going on but it’s worth the journey.

Movie Review ~ Midnight Special

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers.

Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Paul Sparks

Director: Jeff Nichols

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Hot on the heels of 10 Cloverfield Lane comes another film where spoilers and too much information will pretty much ruin your enjoyment.  My best advice, dear reader, is to go in to Midnight Special with the least amount of knowledge available.  Even if that means you bookmark this page and come back to it after you see it, I won’t mind because I want you to get the maximum impact out of the newest feature from Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter).

OK…you’re either brave enough to trust in my spoiler-free pledge or you’ve just returned from seeing Midnight Special…either way…thanks for being here!

Let’s start off with what I can divulge, which is that Midnight Special is one of those rare movie-going experiences where the filmmakers are wise enough to not let audiences get too far ahead of the events that transpire.  In fact, don’t be ashamed to admit when the movie starts you have no clue what’s going on…it’s ok…I felt the same way.  Nichols plunges you right into the middle of the cross-country pilgrimage of a father (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel) and his son (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent, Aloha) that turns out to be a trek into the unknown.

Nichols draws on elements from old-school paranoid chase films and Steven Spielberg’s late 70s/early 80s sensibilities to fashion his tale of a boy who may or may not possess special powers that the government wants to exploit and who members of a religious cult in the Texas boondocks use to guide their sermons and instruct their belief system.  Shannon has taken the boy from the cult and roped in his childhood friend (Joel Edgerton, The Great Gatsby) to help transport them both to an unnamed location only the boy seems to know.

Picking up the boy’s estranged mother (Kirsten Dunst, Bachelorette) and avoiding a curious NSA analyst (Adam Driver, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) along the way leads to more unexplained phenomena that keep the military and spiritual disciples in hot pursuit.  Through it all Nichols never tips his hand as to what the outcome will be, throwing in multiple surprise moments that act as nifty curveballs in an already eventful ballgame.

Nichols is making his large studio debut with Midnight Special and it would have been easy to style an easily accessible commercial feature and pick up a swell paycheck.  Instead, Nichols has produced a crowd-pleasing sci-fi drama that’s exciting, entertaining, and downright refreshing in its execution.  Even the ending, which could have gone oh so wrong and still may be hard to swallow for the more jaded flock amongst us, feels just about perfect.

One of the nicest surprises here is Shannon’s sensitive turn as a father willing to protect his son at all costs.  Shannon tends to give me the willies but he’s arguably the least creepy he’s ever been here.  Edgerton continues his run as a dependable presence whether in a supporting role or as the leading man. He’s given a lot of good material here and makes the most out of what could have been a low wattage auxiliary role. Driver is well-cast too, though he tends to come up lemons when he’s asked to play overly nebbish and Dunst nearly outshines them all with her understated and delicate performance that’s believably maternal.  The film revolves almost entirely around Lieberher and he proves again he’s a young actor to watch, infusing every line or wordless moment with a truth that’s hard to fake.

They say the fun is in the journey, not the destination and that’s apropos here.  While the ending to Midnight Special is sure to divide audiences, there’s little denying that the events leading up to it are mighty captivating.  Definitely check this one out.

Movie Review ~ 12 Years a Slave

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp

Director: Steve McQueen

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: How do you say that you loved a movie that’s about the horrors of slavery and not sound like a backwards monster?  That’s the question I’ve been pondering weeks after seeing the truly remarkable 12 Years a Slave and perhaps why it’s taken me a little longer to move forward with a review of the movie.  No doubt about it, this is one of the finest films of 2013 and its handsome production design, score, cinematography, and almost flawless pacing make it a triumph on a technical level too.  Still…the subject is so horrifying that it’s thrown me for a loop how to praise it respectfully.

An adaptation of the 1853 novel by Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave is a chronicle Northrup’s abduction from Washington D.C. in 1841 and how he winds up in slavery on several southern plantations.  Though he was born a free man in New York City, Northrup’s rights are discredited and he endures over a decade of life as a slave.  How Northrup survives to write his tale shows a fortitude of the human soul that’s at the heart of this powerful work from director Steve McQueen (no, not that one…the one that directed Shame and Hunger).

Chiwetel Ejiofor is the name you’ll want to familiarize yourself with because you’ll be hearing it at the top of the awards buzz as the end of the year draws near.  A familiar actor with a diverse background of roles, Ejiofor takes the reins of the film ably and leads a starry cast of A-List actors…but make no mistake, this is Ejiofor’s movie all the way.  With a wise earthiness that gives humanity to his oppressed character, Ejiofor delivers a performance of dignity and thoughtfulness that makes the movie even more electric.

Ejiofor is just but one of a long list of impressive performances in 12 Years a Slave…so impressive that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Ejiofor not being the only winner come Oscar night.  Making a powerhouse film debut is Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy, a slave Solomon meets when he comes to live on the plantation run by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus).  Nyong’o’s role is ever so tricky and she’ll knock your socks off the way she handles several of the cruelest scenes the film has to offer.  Fassbender too is monumentally effective as the evil owner that delights in working his slaves throughout the day and whipping them when they don’t meet his criteria of daily success.  This is McQueen’s third collaboration with Fassbender and while Fassbender’s work in Shame and Hunger were strong, they pale in comparison to how he navigates into the truly unforgivable places Epps has to venture.

Among the other impressive actors are Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness) as the first plantation owner Solomon encounters and the one that does the best he can for him even as he struggles with his morality, Adepero Oduye is heartbreaking in her brief turn as a slave separated from her children, and Alfre Woodard is positively dynamite in her cameo.  The only actor striking an off note here is the biggest star of all…producer Brad Pitt (World War Z) who shows up late in the film in the kind of role that probably should have gone to someone else when you consider how it factors into the overall scope of Solomon’s tale.

Yet the reason why the film hits you at such a deep level is the way that McQueen never lets anyone (good or bad) come off as merely “acting”…the characters all feel like real people because they are played with a commitment that was essential.  As evil as the most wicked person is in the film (that’d be either Fassbender, Mud‘s Sarah Paulson as Epps cruel wife, or Paul Dano, even more frightening here than he was in Prisoners) McQueen never lets us forget that these are people with their own set of beliefs and are acting upon them as they feel is right.  We, the audience, know that slavery is wrong but it would have been too easy to craft these characters as simply soulless…that they are following what they were brought up to know gets the message home loud and clear that the root of the evil lies in the history, not the present.

Though the agony of slavery has been captured before in films such as Steven Spielberg’s 1997 Amistad, the landmark mini-series Roots, and yes…even Django Unchained there’s a different feel to McQueen’s work on 12 Years a Slave that sets it apart from the rest.  It’s such a well-made, worthy film that I’m hoping audiences and Oscar voters aren’t turned off by the themes and horrific violence (there’s a whipping scene that I wound up having to avert my eyes for).  To miss the movie would be missing a film that I believe will stand the test of time.