Movie Review ~ Lucy in the Sky


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Astronaut Lucy Cola returns to Earth after a transcendent experience during a mission to space, and begins to lose touch with reality in a world that now seems too small.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz, Coleman Domingo, Tig Notaro, Jeffrey Donovan, Ellen Burstyn

Director: Noah Hawley

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It seems that in Hollywood they have a much easier time giving men kudos for taking on challenging work and, more specifically, challenging characters.  I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve seen based on buzz touting the leading man doing something extraordinary by going the extra mile for a role or disappearing deep within a character.  Hold on to your knickers if that same actor appears as someone unlikable or unrelatable because that’s where the awards chatter begins.  Even in 2019, there are several actors being mentioned for major awards that are doing good work but…work that’s awards worthy?  I’m not so sure.

Natalie Portman has always been an interesting actress to me.  Feeling wise beyond her years from a young age, she managed to bypass the teenage comedies that stunted many of her peers and graduated to adult fare and populist entertainment early in her career.  Nabbing an Oscar-nomination at 23 for Closer before winning one at 29 for Black Swan, Portman never settled into one genre or budget-range, preferring to choose projects based on the scripts and directors instead.  She didn’t get quite enough praise for the divisive Annihilation in 2018 and, well, the less said about the annoying Vox Lux, the better. I was hoping Lucy in the Sky would be a return to the kind of Portman performance I had enjoyed in the past, one that was a little more grounded and connected.

The biggest problem I found in this story loosely (very loosely, it turns out) inspired by the true-life story of a NASA astronaut that traveled thousands of miles and assaulted the mistress of her married lover and former co-worker was that it strayed so far from the truth.  I can understand changing some of the details to protect the innocent but screenwriters Brian C. Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, and Noah Hawley (who also directed) have made so many bone-headed changes that what remains is only a sanitized shadow of what really happened.  Also, one important (and, ok, sensationalized) detail has been completely excised.  So the story has been reduced to just another spurned lover tale we’ve seen done countless times before.

Astronaut Lucy Cola has returned to Earth after a journey to space that has left her, as it has many, a changed person.  As she shares with her fellow astronauts, things just don’t look the same on the ground once you’ve seen the entire globe from space.  Living in Texas with her husband and a niece left with them by her irresponsible brother, Lucy sets her sights on returning to space on the next mission in order to feel that same high she felt before.  During her highly competitive and intensive training, she finds a connection with Mark, another astronaut readying for his own mission and the two begin an affair that will cause Lucy to spin-out of the orbit she has set herself in.  Now, as she feels her stability going out of balance and feeling pressure from Erin, a younger recruit, just as eager as she once was, Lucy’s actions get more erratic until she makes series of decisions that will forever change the course of her life.

Always a problem inherent in movies with cheating spouses is that the cheaters face an uphill battle from the audience when they finally have the face the music.  Are we supposed to feel sorry for these characters for getting caught up in a mess of their own making?  Do we excuse Lucy (Portman) walking out on her husband (Dan Stevens, Apostle) because he’s too…nice?  What about Erin (Zazie Beetz, Joker), Lucy’s competition at work vying for a spot in the next space shuttle mission and for the attention of Mark (Jon Hamm, Million Dollar Arm)?  How much does she factor into what ultimately happens between Lucy and Mark?  Ultimately, aren’t all of these people (save for maybe the jilted husband) kind of awful in their own way?  Hawley also awkwardly places Lucy’s niece on the frontlines for much of this action, alternately as an observer and as a participant and that feels like an inconsiderate adjustment to this story.  Involving a pre-teen in this adult sphere of responsibility isn’t appropriate, no matter how out of touch Lucy begins to get.

Hawley has assembled a hard-working cast that feels like they were possibly signed up for a different kind of movie.  Though it starts with some promise, it eventually comes apart at the seams and not rapidly…it’s a slow slog to the finish line. Along the way there are some quite good scenes with Portman convincingly speaking about how much harder it is for women to get ahead in her line of work and conveying the desperation for perfection and achievement.  I also enjoyed what little we see of Ellen Burstyn (Interstellar), though Hawley seems to only want to use her for a few foul-mouthed punchlines.  The more manic the film gets in its latter half, the weirder Portman’s Texan twang gets and I have to wonder if it wasn’t almost intentional.  It’s as if she’s learned to tone down her drawl to compose herself but when she starts to unravel she reverts back to a Yosemite Sam pattern of speech.

Now, I wouldn’t go so far to say Lucy in the Sky represents the kind of performance that should get Portman the same kind of accolades she received for Jackie or her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan but it is representative of the kind of askew work she seems inherently drawn toward.  Despite a brief foray in recent years into Marvel blockbuster territory with Thor and Thor: The Dark World, Portman has squarely appeared in harder sell pics that take some time to warm up to.  Portman can’t seem to help herself in taking on women with rough exteriors that are cool to the touch but have a fire burning inside waiting to be released.  That she’s found a way to make each one distinct in the way they go about freeing themselves from turmoil is a testament to her creative approach.  It doesn’t quite work to her advantage ultimately in Lucy in the Sky but I can’t imagine anyone else attempting it with such force.

Movie Review ~ Joker

2


The Facts
:

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 ~ Deadpool 2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Foul-mouthed mutant mercenary Wade Wilson (AKA. Deadpool), brings together a team of fellow mutant rogues to protect a young boy of supernatural abilities from the brutal, time-traveling mutant, Cable.

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beetz, Leslie Uggams, Jack Kesy, Shioli Kutsuna, Julian Dennison, Morena Baccarin, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic, Karon Soni, T. J. Miller, Bill Skarsgård, Rob Delaney, Terry Crews

Director: David Leitch

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When Deadpool arrived on the scene in 2016, it sent a much-needed electric charge through the comic book genre that was quickly beginning to grow stale. Proving there was an audience for an R-rated superhero, Deadpool established a new breed of franchise that saluted the foul-mouthed and violent. To date, the copycat factor is low and if anything it’s asked PG-13 audience friendly fare to step up their game and get back to providing entertainment instead of just laying ground for future installments. Now, two years later Deadpool 2 is upon us and it’s poised to create similar sparks.

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds, Woman in Gold) has settled into life as Deadpool, a mercenary for hire intent on wiping out bad guys and gals in all walks of life as indicated in a prologue that brings us up to speed with his recent exploits in bloody fashion. Living with his love Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, Spy) and thinking about starting a family, Wade is just getting comfortable when everything goes wrong. Thus launches a surprisingly complex story involving time travel and Deadpool’s protection of a young mutant (Julian Dennison) from the Terminator-esque hulk Cable (Josh Brolin, Sicario).

There’s little more I could relay here without giving away major spoilers but if you were a fan of the first film you’ll find an equal amount of fun to be had here. I was worried the success of the wisecracking style in the first movie would result in smart-alecky shenanigans that were too self-aware and sure enough the movie struggles with sincerity out of the gate. In all honesty, the film takes a solid 20 minutes to find its feet and a frenzied bit of opening exposition weighs the film down needlessly. Thankfully, director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) and screenwriters Rhett Reese (Life), Paul Wernick, and Reynolds himself get these tiresome trapping out of their system early on.

What I continue to appreciate about this series is its willingness to make itself the butt of the joke. There’s a hefty amount of self-referencing gallows humor that works almost every time and enough inside jokes to keep the most pop culturally adept among us satiated. As was the case in the previous film, no superhero is off limits and one of the first gags employed is a hysterical Logan reference that sets the tone perfectly. Keep your eyes and ears open for a cavalcade of digs and dings at everyone from The Avengers to Brad Pitt – the jokes come fast and furious so stay alert.

Another selling point to this film is that it’s unpredictable and not just because it moves so fast you don’t have time to catch up. No, the film actually takes some turns that feel unique and that creates a sense of engagement to keep you on the edge of your seat. As more and more characters join the mix (and, in one laugh out loud diversion, form the basis for X-Force) it can feel overwhelming but it’s clear Reynolds and company know where this clown car of craziness is headed.

The closing credits of Deadpool 2 are alone worth the price of admission – I wouldn’t dream of giving away any of the surprises but I almost felt like standing up and applauding once they were complete. It takes a lot of balls and brains to pull off the feat of living up to a heralded original film and everyone involved in Deadpool 2 meets the challenge head-on. If you can forgive a rocky start (and I’m positive you will) this is one sequel that feels equal.