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

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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Short takes: Avengers: Infinity War & You Were Never Really Here

Avengers: Infinity War — My distaste for the third Avengers film is due in part to my overall fatigue with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since 2008’s Iron Man, the MCU has become an ubiquitous presence at the movies. Over the last decade, we’ve seen at least one, and often more, of these movies almost every year. They built toward 2012’s The Avengers, uniting the core characters of the previous movies (if you’re not familiar with them at this point, congratulations) for a city-destroying epic. Then they continued building (and destroying), with individual installments culminating in another Avengers film in 2015.

These movies are often exhausting in their mediocrity; generically constructed, often interchangeable battle sequences are peppered throughout blandly sinister attempts to destroy the world. The best movies in the MCU (Ant-Man, Black Panther, the second installments of Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy) are often the ones that have narratives that hone in on building a specific cinematic world rather than a universe. Directorial personality doesn’t hurt, either.

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REVIEW: Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Written by: James Ivory (screenplay), André Aciman (novel)
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar

Not everyone gets a young summer romance. Sometimes you look back a month, a year, a decade later and realize that you had one, and it was perfect, or as perfect as it could have been. When it’s over you might wonder why you wasted so much time fumbling around, doing an awkward dance around what you wanted to say or do. That dance is part of the beauty of it, though. If you’d been more practiced, more put together and guarded, it might not have happened at all.

It happens for Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old boy living with his parents at a sun-drenched villa “somewhere in Northern Italy” in 1983. It’s the kind of place where people come and go as they please; his parents always have different guests for dinner. Elio spends his days transcribing music, reading and flirting with girls. He’s a mass of contradictions, as teenagers tend to be; polite but sometimes condescending, hesitant with bursts of confidence. Chalamet imbues him with a lanky restlessness. It comes out when he plays the piano, or stalks the edges of the many different social gatherings.

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REVIEW: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson (screenplay), George Lucas (characters)
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill and John Boyega

Rian Johnson takes giant, often messy leaps in The Last Jedi, the eighth episode of Star Wars and the second in the (first) post-Disney trilogy. His take feels much more sporadic than the cautious nostalgia trip J.J. Abrams rendered in 2015’s The Force Awakens. It has higher highs and lower lows, hopping from its disparate plot lines with an often jarring inconsistency. While it has some of the series’ strongest set pieces, its clumsy narrative rhythm doesn’t allow it to breathe. As a result, its moments of visual splendor are sometimes lessened or cut short by sloppy pacing.

(No major spoilers, but the basic plot set-up is discussed ahead)

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