REVIEW: Joker

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Joker
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and Frances Conroy

The most interesting thing about Joker is the built-in audience history its main actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro, bring to their respective roles. Director Todd Phillips’ R-rated origin story of the anarchic clown who torments Batman culminates in a late night talk show appearance featuring the two. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a party clown turned unstable killer, goes on the show after video of his disastrous stand-up comedy performance was mocked by the host, Murray Franken (De Niro).

During this scene, it was impossible not to think about Phoenix’s notoriously awkward 2009 appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. I remember this cringe-worthy I’m Still Here-era interview defining my perception of the actor until I saw him a few years later in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which remains one of the greatest performances of the decade.

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Short takes: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood & The Lion King

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Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood — The clock is ticking for Quentin Tarantino. His latest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is expressly billed as his ninth. For years, he has insisted that he will quit filmmaking after 10. ” I just think I’ve given all I have to give to movies,” he told GQ Australia.

If that’s true, and this latest outing really is his penultimate effort, that’s too bad. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood may be his most relaxed and confident movie, luxuriating in its immaculate recreation of L.A. circa 1969 as seen from the vantage point of various people inside, outside and somewhere on the periphery of show business. Focusing primarily on the friendship between the borderline-washed-up actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff (Brad Pitt), the movie follows them through awkward dinner meetings, bungled set visits and drunken nights out (and in).

The two mega stars certainly get their moments to shine- DiCaprio in stretched out scenes of his character filming a villainous guest spot on a western TV show, Pitt in a nerve-wracking scene where he investigates an old movie lot to discover it besieged by followers of a man named Charlie- but the movie’s sprawl makes way for a slew of memorable scene-stealing supporting performances. This includes Al Pacino as an energetic movie producer, Julia Butters as a precocious child actor working alongside Dalton on the western, and Dakota Fanning as Manson family member Squeaky Fromme. (The best of them all, though, may be Cliff’s pit bull Brandy).

While Once Upon a Timein Hollywood shows Tarantino up to many of his old, sometimes exhausting tricks – long, winding stretches of dialogue, obsessive old film and TV references, bursts of grotesque violence – there is also a disarming sense of generosity present throughout. This is mostly due to the third principle character, Dalton’s next door neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who weaves in and out of the Pitt/DiCaprio buddy comedy.

These scenes, of Tate wandering to parties or shyly using her fame to get into a matinee showing of one of her new movies for free, are uniquely captivating and imbue the movie with a sense of haunted menace as it twists and turns toward a fateful August night when a car full of Manson followers pulls up into her and Dalton’s shared private drive. (Mild spoilers ahead) The movie’s power, at least on initial viewing, comes from knowing Tate’s brutal, real-life fate and that there’s virtually no way that the director of Inglourious Basterds will stick to the historical script. Even with that knowledge, though, I was not expecting Tarantino’s most moving and gracious sendoff this side of Kill Bill. Grade: B+

The Lion King — I was warned, but am still in awe of how much of a misfire the new Lion King is. The movie, Disney’s latest attempt at remaking of one of its animated staples, is the exact same story: the young lion Simba flees home after his murderous uncle Scar convinces him he’s responsible for his father’s death; he then returns home as an adult to reclaim the throne. Not only that, it attempts to recreate the movie moment for moment with few deviations.

As in the 1994 2D original, the voice acting here is mostly solid, featuring inspired choices like Donald Glover as Simba, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as his found family Timon and Pumba, and Beyonce as his childhood-friend-turned-adult-love-interest Nala. Nearly everything else about this remake falters, though. The solid voice work is writing checks that the “life-like” (read: lifeless) animation can’t cash, and most of the songs from the original are completely butchered and drained of excitement. The Lion King’s sense of motion is totally off, and its attempt to substitute realism for the original’s flamboyant choreography during the musical numbers falls laughably flat.

This is most notably true of the song “Be Prepared.”  What was a potent villain anthem replete with Nazi imagery is here withered down to a stagnant stump speech made by Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofer) to a small group of unenthused hyenas. I would call the movie a giant miscalculation, but it’s making enough money that that doesn’t seem fitting. I can only hope audiences bear witness to its three-minute sequence tracking a tuft of Simba’s hair as it’s carried, ingested and shit out by various animals and come to the same conclusion I did: Enough. Grade: D

My 2019 Oscar predictions

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Best Picture: BlacKkKlansman,, Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, Roma, A Star is Born, Vice

  • Will Win: Though I wouldn’t put it past the Academy to name Bohemian Rhapsody or Green Book Best Picture, I think Roma will win. 
  • Should Win: This is the weakest line-up of Best Picture nominees in several years. The only one I truly love is BlacKkKlansman, and it would be great to see Spike Lee’s movie pull an upset. 
  • Left out:  I would completely throw out the nominees in this category, except for BlacKkKlansman. The rest of my line-up would be: The Other Side of the Wind, Let the Sunshine In, Madeline’s Madeline, Burning, If Beale Street Could Talk, Support the Girls and Monrovia, Indiana. You can see the rest of my favorite movies of the year here.

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Adam McKay (Vice), Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War)

  • Will Win: Even if Roma doesn’t win the night’s big award, Cuarón is almost sure to win his second Best Director Oscar for it. 
  • Should Win: Again, it would be great to see Spike Lee win here. 
  • Left out: Toss out everyone but Spike and nominate Josephine Decker, Claire Denis, Orson Welles and Lee Chang-dong. 

Best Actor: Christian Bale (Vice), Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born), Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

  • Will Win: I don’t know why it’s between Malek and Bale, but it is. In the end I think Malek’s Freddie Mercury impersonation will beat Bale’s Dick Cheney one. 
  • Should Win: Bradley Cooper is the best he’s ever been in A Star is Born. 
  • Left out: The biggest snub here is Ethan Hawke’s incredible work in First Reformed. I’d also have picked John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind, Clint Eastwood in The Mule, John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman and Tom Cruise in the latest Mission: Impossible.

Best Actress: Yalitza Aparicio (Roma), Glenn Close (The Wife), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Lady Gaga (A Star is Born), Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

  • Will Win: Glenn Close has been winning trophy after trophy for her performance as a woman whose husband’s accolades unearth decades worth of pain and resentment. She will win this one too.  
  • Should Win: Close is very good in The Wife, though the rest of the movie is not. I have no problem with her winning, though Melissa McCarthy would be my choice for her exceptional performance in an exceptional movie. 
  • Left out: Juliette Binoche and Helena Howard gave the year’s two best performances in Let the Sunshine In and Madeline’s Madeline, respectively. I’d keep McCarthy with them and also include Regina Hall in Support the Girls and Kathryn Hahn in Private Life

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali (Green Book), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Sam Elliott (A Star is Born), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Sam Rockwell (Vice)

  • Will Win: It seems like Ali is almost certain to win his second Oscar, though I could see Grant sneaking through. 
  • Should Win: Grant easily gives the best performance in this category, though Driver is good as well. 
  • Left out: I’d leave Grant and add Stephen Yeun in Burning, Tom Waits in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther and Cedric the Entertainer in First Reformed 

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams (Vice), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Emma Stone (The Favourite), Marina de Tavira (Roma), Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

  • Will Win: Regina King is the only acting front-runner who deserves to be the front-runner.  
  • Should Win: Again, King is the queen of this category. 
  • Left out: Though Weisz and Stone are good in The Favourite, I’d take them out and swap in another duo: either Haley Lu Richardson and Shayna McHayle in Support the Girls or Miranda July and Molly Parker in Madeline’s Madeliene. I also would have liked to see Jun Jong-seo get some attention for her performance in Burning.

Best Original Screenplay: The Favourite (Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara), First Reformed (Paul Schrader), Green Book (Nick Vallelonga, Peter Farrelly), Roma (Alfonso Cuarón), Vice (Adam McKay)

  • Will Win: The Favourite, though I regret to inform you that Green Book could take it as well
  • Should Win: Paul Schrader easily deserves this one
  • Left out: Andrew Bujalski for Support the Girls, Tamara Jenkins for Private Life, Oja Kodar and Orson Welles for The Other Side of the Wind, and Josephine Decker and Donna di Novelli for Madeline’s Madeline.

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen), BlacKkKlansman (Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz), Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty), If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins), A Star is Born (Eric Rother, Will Getters, Bradley Cooper)

  • Will Win: BlacKkKlansman
  • Should Win: Any award that BlacKkKlansman wins is fine with me, though I would pick Can You Every Forgive Me? or If Beale Street Could Talk here instead. 
  • Left out: One of the most solid categories this year, though I would have liked to see Lucrecia Martel nominated for Zama and Lee Chang-dong and Oh Jung-mi for Burning.

Predictions in the remaining categories (Will win/Should win)

Cinematography: Roma/A Star is Born

Animated Feature: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse/Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (The only other one I saw in this category was Incredibles 2. Meh.)

Costume DesignBlack Panther/Black Panther

Production DesignBlack Panther/Black Panther

EditingBohemian Rhapsody/BlacKkKlansman

Foreign Language FilmRoma/Cold War (Burning should have been nominated in this category and would have been my pick to win) 

Documentary: I haven’t seen any of these, but will guess that Free Solo will win.

Makeup: Vice/Sure

Original ScoreBlack Panther/If Beale Street Could Talk

Original Song: “Shallow” from A Star is Born/I still listen to it almost every day so yes I think it should win

Visual Effects:  Avengers: Infinity War/Ready Player One

Sound Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody/First Man

Sound Mixing: A Star is Born/First Man

Our favorite movies of 2018

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1. The Other Side of the Wind— After sitting unfinished for decades, Orson Welles has a new film. The Other Side of the Wind, a bleak and bleakly funny dig at the movie industry, centers on Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a drunken, disillusioned movie director.  His birthday celebration becomes an excuse for all manner of people to gather and talk shit about him while enjoying his latest movie (also called The Other Side of the Wind). Shot like a mockumentary from a variety of perspectives of people at the party and interspersed with stunning footage of Hannaford’s movie-within-a-movie, The Other Side of the Wind is as disorienting as it is difficult to shake. Welles’ last completed film is a bitter vision of a rotting, death-stalked Hollywood, and a masterpiece.

2. Let the Sunshine In— Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In moves to the beat of Juliette Binoche. The two French titans prove a revelatory pairing, matching Denis’ inimitable rendering of bodies searching for connection with Binoche’s conjuring of simultaneous conflicting feelings. In telling the story of Isabelle, a painter stuck dancing between romance and disappointment, Denis structures the movie more around the character’s emotional whims than along a traditional narrative. Though her encounters with men end mostly with disappointment, Isabelle’s sudden eruptions of passion, including during a show-stopping, Etta James-backed dance sequence, suggest that her endless cycle of pursuits is not in vain.

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Our favorite performances of 2018

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1. Juliette Binoche- Let the Sunshine In- The key to Juliette Binoche’s performance as Isabelle in Let the Sunshine In is in the way she and director Claire Denis show us the character searching; searching for love among a group of less than stellar contenders, searching for meaning in the space between those affairs, searching for the right emotion in any given moment. Several sometimes wash over Binoche’s face within the span of just seconds. That her performance seems so natural amid such a rapidly shifting emotional landscape is a testament to her brilliance.

2. Helena Howard- Madeline’s Madeline- Easily the year’s great breakout performance, Helena Howard is front and center in Josephine Decker’s swirling fever dream of a movie. Howard and Decker thrust viewers into the head of Madeline, a teenager battling mental illness who is also part of an experimental theater troupe. Howard’s rapid shifts in mood within scenes is astonishing, and much of the movie’s energy is built around the risk of her throwing any given moment into chaos.

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Short takes: Support the Girls, Madeline’s Madeline, Mission: Impossible- Fallout & Searching

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Support the Girls — Director Andrew Bujalski finds the perfect encapsulation of his vision of modern American capitalism in Double Whammies, the Hooters knockoff sports bar where much of his latest film, Support the Girls, takes place. The restaurant operates on bizarrely specific codes built on the unspoken transaction between its jean shorts and tight t-shirt wearing female wait staff and its horny (mostly) male clientele. Bujalski and his ensemble are astute observers of workplace behavior, notably the glimpses of personality that bleed through the faces the characters try to wear at work. Professionalism at Double Whammies means a constant smile, and a tiptoe up to a sexual boundary with customers that becomes awkward and uncomfortable very quickly.

That’s where Lisa (Regina Hall) comes in. Lisa is a compassionate, intuitive general manager, tasked with passing down the vision of the restaurant owner to the staff while also mediating conflicts between them and the sometimes insulting, sometimes worse customers. One of the many pleasures of Support the Girls is in how Bujalski and Hall show the toll patrolling that managerial tightrope takes on Lisa. Much of the movie is focused on a single day, following her on a series of menial tasks that she nevertheless executes with great purpose. Her job is a lonely one; she has to be friendly but not too friendly, stern but not too stern with her staff and customers. The exhaustion seems to be catching up to her, as evidenced by the way it washes over Hall’s face before she snaps out of it and onto the next task. Double Whammies doesn’t deserve someone like Lisa; in fact Bujalski suggests the restaurant and its customers don’t deserve many of its employees, either. Support the Girls finds its humor and quite a bit of emotional resonance in the matter-of-fact exploration of the everyday disconnect between how the employees interact with each other, and how they are trained to interact with customers. Grade: B+ 

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REVIEW: Unfriended: Dark Web

Unfriended: Dark Web
Directed by: Stephen Susco
Written by: Stephen Susco
Starring: Colin Woodell, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Betty Gabriel and Andrew Lees

Note: Unfriended: Dark Web has two possible endings. This is a review of ‘Ending B,’ with limited spoilers.  

I consider Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended one of the defining horror films of this decade, a ruthless slasher that unfolds entirely on the laptop screen of its protagonist, a high school-aged woman named Blair. What could so easily have been a gimmick opens up an expansive realm of digital storytelling tools, focusing on character development and psychology through what Blair types, deletes and rewrites, watches on YouTube and searches for on the internet. This is further deepened by what she reveals in real time in a video chat with five other friends (one of whom is her boyfriend) and what she says in one-on-one typed conversations with others.

While all of this is going on, a mysterious newcomer pops into their chat with just a default blue Skype silhouette instead of a video stream. The group’s attempts to kick this person out and figure out what they want yields to a series of sinister and even deadly games that weaponizes each teen’s most guarded secrets against them and lays bare their most embarrassing mistakes in an effort to make them turn on each other. The movie taps into a true horror of the digital age: the endless documentation and permanence of nearly every facet of a person’s life.

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