Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Joker

How to describe a movie I found so disturbing it was hard to talk with my son as I left the theater? Joker is a grim and unrelenting descent into darkness by a man who strives unsuccessfully to manage his mental illness in an unforgiving world. To call it a “comic book movie” does it a disservice. It is a harrowing meditation on the roots of violence and the nihilism it spawns. As such, it is definitely not for everybody (NBC News and The New York Times hated it). It is dark, somber, and cringe-worthy at times. The first two-thirds has the slow pacing of an art-house film, until it erupts in violence. Then all hell breaks loose. By the end of the film I was reminded of the anarchist riots we have endured here in the Pacific Northwest.

But if you want to see a performance by an actor at the top of his game, you might want to consider it. Joaquin Phoenix is on the screen for the entire running time, and he is outstanding. Slam-dunk Oscar nomination. But be warned: it is not a movie I would even think about bringing my wife to see—and I’m not being sexist in saying that. The movie’s bleak portrait of humanity may leave you desperate for an antidote. If that’s the case, go see The Peanut Butter Falcon, which will leave you smiling and grateful to be human. Or re-watch Yesterday.

Review: True Detective Season 3

I’ve just finished watching True Detective Season 3 a second time, and I enjoyed it every bit as much, if not a little more, than my first viewing. This 8-episode miniseries has a stellar cast: Mahershala Ali as Wayne Hays, State Police Detective and Vietnam War veteran; Stephen Dorff as his detective partner, Roland West; and Carmen Ejogo as Amelia Reardon, who becomes Hays’s wife during the story. The writing by Nic Pizzolatto is extraordinary—in fact, after I watched the show for the first time, I experienced the same pleasure I get when I’ve just finished reading a great novel.

Unlike so many cable productions, this one doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of its audience. Too often HBO, Netflix, and others resort to ultra-dark or ultra-raunchy material out of a misguided fear that viewers won’t be lured in otherwise. Enter TD3, a smart, literate drama that is wholly mesmerizing and would probably be rated as a hard PG-13. I couldn’t take my eyes from the screen for a single minute.

The story is a complex one, taking place in 1980, 1990, and 2015. It’s about the events surrounding a horrific crime–the murder of a little boy and the abduction of his sister (done off-screen—nothing graphic depicted). This crime is the defining moment for each character’s life. Marriage, friendships, careers—all revolve around a crime that refuses to be solved. Amelia writes a best-selling book about the case, jeopardizing her husband’s career in law enforcement. Later in his life, as Wayne begins to struggle with the initial stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, a television film crew invades his home, reopening old wounds and stirring up theories of conspiracy and cover-up. The narrative slips effortlessly back and forth between time periods, slowly weaving the threads of the story together. Plot twists and turns, false leads, and ambiguities abound.

If you haven’t caught up with this show  yet, you’re in for a wonderful surprise. The only greater surprise would be if it’s not nominated for an arm-long list of Emmy Awards.

Movie Reviews: The Favourite and Vice

I hate the overly negative reviews I sometimes see on Rotten Tomatoes, in which the writer is only looking for an excuse to regale us with clever puns at the expense of the film. So it is with trepidation that I approach The Favourite, a movie which I wanted to enjoy and so thoroughly disliked. Perhaps my movie-going friend best summed it up as we left the theater: “I don’t mind if a film isn’t particularly entertaining, if it’s provocative. This film was neither.”

Can I say anything positive about it? The closest I can get is this: it’s a very well-acted, very bad movie. There. The problem with that is, you may decide to see it anyway to prove me wrong. (It can’t be that bad, can it? After all, Rotten Tomatoes gave it a whopping 94%. Olivia Colman just won the Golden Globe for her portrayal of Queen Anne. Cook must have been in a bad mood.) Oh, well.

The movie can be summed up in one sentence: two rivalrous women seek to gain the attention (and power) of the Queen of England by enticing her with flattery and sexual favors. There’s barely a nod to character development or plot. Although there is a chuckle or two along the way, it’s mostly grim going as these three unlikable women strategize against each other for two hours. Keep in mind, these are three consummate actresses at the top of their game, (Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz), but this movie squanders their talents. And then the movie just stops–it doesn’t really end, the credits just start to roll. It was actually startling.

So see it if you must, but you have been warned. The money you pay for the ticket might better be put toward the co-pay of your next dental visit.

Now Vice is another thing altogether. It only got 62% on Rotten Tomatoes, but I thought it was a far better movie. Done by Adam McKay, the same writer and director who did The Big Short, it is a scathing satire on the rise and fall of Bush’s Vice President, Dick Cheney. While it may not be quite so funny as its predecessor, there are still many chuckles to be had, not only at the expense of Cheney, but also at the expense of George W. and Donald Rumsfeld, brilliantly played by Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell, respectively. Of course, the transformation undergone by Christian Bale to play the part is nothing short of extraordinary. Between his gaining 40 lbs. and the work of stellar makeup artists, it’s quite uncanny. But beware: if you are at all of the conservative or Republican persuasion, you may be very offended by this politically incorrect, savage film.

For me, three scenes alone made it worth the price of admission: the restaurant sequence as the waiter reads from the menu, the bedroom scene when Cheney and his wife (played by Amy Adams) lapse into Shakespearean dialogue, and the roll of the credits. I’ll say no more so as not to spoil it.

I’ve overheard some liberal friends say, only half-facetiously, that they yearn for the simpler days of the Bush Presidency. This movie is the antidote to that sentiment.

Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns

Personally, I think it’s time we recognize Emily Blunt as a national treasure. To go from portraying the pregnant heroine in the scariest monster movie ever, to becoming Mary Poppins in the same year, is no mean feat. And who knew she could sing like that! I confess, I had strong misgivings when I heard Disney was doing a sequel to one of my favorite movies. It sounded sacrilegious.  I anticipated a disaster.

Not so. The movie is a wonder, and to say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. I was transported. Yes, it is a reverent homage to the original Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke vehicle, but it is also a great film in its own right. From the impressionistic credits at the beginning, to its heartfelt conclusion, I was enthralled. Truth be told, watching Mary come back down to earth with her umbrella held just so made me choke back a tear.

From cannons to kites, I enjoyed seeing the parallelisms between the two films. In the original, Ed Wynn plays Uncle Albert, whose infectious laughter makes the children float to the ceiling. In the new film, the children are introduced to Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep), whose house turns upside down every second Wednesday–and yes, the children wind up on the ceiling. In MP, the cast jumps into a chalk drawing done by Bert, the chimney sweep, (Dick Van Dyke) and have an animated adventure. In MPR, they leap/fall into the illustration on an antique vase to mingle with animated characters. The first film has a marvelous sequence with Bert and his gang doing an elaborate choreography number. The sequel has Jack, the lamp lighter, (Lin-Manuel Miranda) with his own crew doing their dance. MP concludes with flying a kite and MPR flies balloons. The one sequence without parallel in the original is the bathtub scene, and it is a delight to behold.

Mary Poppins Returns is a feast for the eyes and the ears, worth every penny of the price of admission to the big screen. The sights are eye-popping, the songs are superb. It is aimed at the child in all of us, in the best possible meaning of that term. (My ten-year-old granddaughter gave it two enthusiastic thumbs up.) I intend to see it many more times.

Mary Poppins Returns is as magical as movies get.

Movie Review: First Man

This movie caught me by surprise. I went in expecting to feel again some of the exhilaration and joy I felt when I witnessed live television feed from the moon on that July day decades ago–a human being actually walking on the surface of another world. I knew nothing of Neil Armstrong’s personal life, and if this movie is accurate, its portrait of the man is unflattering. Broken by the death of his daughter, hollowed out by the deaths of fellow pilots and astronauts, Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) is the mere shell of a man, unable to grieve, emotionally unavailable to his wife and children. In fact, he would have left for the moon without saying goodbye to his children had his wife (played by Claire Foy) not intervened. Of course, the difficulty for audiences is that when a main character plays an automaton, we are left without an emotional connection to him. We are bereft, as his family was.

Is it a good film? Yes. The acting is excellent, the space sequences are utterly convincing. But for me, the experience of seeing it was sad. Perhaps it burst an old illusion of mine–that the trip to the moon was a grand adventure. According to the film, it was closer to his wife Janet’s critique: “You’re just boys playing with balsa wood toys.”

I came away haunted by the final scene–Armstrong and his wife unable to touch each other through the glass of the quarantine room, a sobering image of their marriage. Sadly, Neil Armstrong’s walk on the empty, airless moon was a metaphor of his life on earth.

Movie Reviews: Chappaquiddick and A Quiet Place

We all know the story of Chappaquiddick, but to see it told on the screen in such a low-key fashion, examining the facts as we are aware of them, certainly dims whatever light survives of the Kennedy mythos. Jason Clarke portrays Ted Kennedy as a seriously flawed man, ready to abuse political power and privilege to maintain his position in the Senate. That he did survive and go on to be described as “The Lion of the Senate” rather boggles the imagination. We so want to believe Camelot and everything connected to it. I grew up on the East Coast in Connecticut–I was one of those who wanted to believe he was a good man, despite the damning facts. Although the movie is good, something did not quite gel for me–I felt several paces removed from the drama. Because of that, I’ll give it 4 out of 5 stars.

And then there’s A Quiet Place, far and away the best monster movie I have seen in a long, long time. I usually shy away from horror movies because so often they are either violence porn or blood and guts orgies. This film is neither. It earns its suspense and terror honestly. There is no back story–the movie begins with “Day 89.” All we know is that the monsters are among us. They are fast and vicious and locate us by sound. So we cannot speak, cannot play music, cannot bump around the kitchen. If we play Monopoly, we have to use felt playing pieces so we don’t tap around the board. For one family in an isolated farmhouse, it’s an excruciating ordeal. I was reminded of the first time I saw Alien in 1979, when my friend asked me if I realized I had run out into the parking lot when the credits began to roll. When this film ended, my grandson and I both exhaled and began chuckling, unaware we had been holding our breath through the final scenes. This is a truly terrifying film and I give it my highest recommendation.

Movie Reviews: The Shape of Water and Darkest Hour

Maybe I was having a bad day. Maybe we both were. My daughter and I went to see The Shape of Water expecting great things, especially with all the Oscar buzz and ratings of 93% and 84% on Rotten Tomatoes. We were underwhelmed. Instead of coming out of the theater thinking, “That’s on the way to Oscar night,” I looked at my daughter and we both said, “Well, that was a weird movie.” Now don’t get me wrong–I enjoy weird movies, but a love affair between a mute woman and a sea monster (think Creature from the Black Lagoon)? Is it an extreme parable condemning racism and xenophobia in our society? Perhaps. Neither of us are prudes with regard to films, but we weren’t prepared for the graphic nudity/sexuality and violence. Watching a woman masturbate in the bathtub or a man shove his finger into the bullet hole in a man’s face to torture him relegates this film to no more than “B status” in my opinion. But who am I? According to movie news it’s gleaned 7 Golden Globe nominations. Yes, it is entertaining–an exciting story, good actors, excellent monster effects. But for me it was more a guilty pleasure than the stuff of awards.

To cleanse my mental palate, I then went to see Darkest Hour.  I liked this film so much more than I thought I was going to. It is far and away one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Gary Oldman gives a virtuoso performance as Winston Churchill, determined to prevent the British people from caving in to Hitler and accepting the terms of a surrender brokered by Mussolini. He is vilified by his opponents and tortured by his conscience, recognizing that a great number of people will die, but also knowing “You can’t negotiate with a tiger when you have your head in its mouth.” Director Joe Wright can be forgiven for having one of his characters paraphrase JFK’s tribute to Churchill at the end of the film, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Darkest Hour is riveting entertainment–an intelligent and thoughtful alternative to the special effects movies that fill our theaters. I am happy to say that this film reminds me why I love cinema.

Movie Review: The Netflix Original “Bright”

Netflix has given us a Christmas present, and it just might be better than a tax break. Set in an alternative L.A., populated with orcs, elves, fairies, and human beings, Bright is a fresh take on the buddy-cop movie: Ward (Will Smith) is paired with Jakoby, an orc (played brilliantly by Joel Edgerton). Despite the nods to diversity training and racial profiling, all is not well. Scars from a 2,000 year old war have left a very uneasy truce between men and orcs, and all of Ward’s fellow patrolmen want Jakoby dead. Into that heady mix falls Tikka, a young elf bearing a magic wand she is desperately trying to keep from those who would bring back the Dark Lord. Unfortunately, everyone and his brother wants the wand, which one character describes as “like a nuclear weapon with a wish list.” Foremost among those are the elves in the group known as the Inferni, led by a deliciously evil and unstoppable Noomi Rapace. No, Dorothy, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore!

With all the production values of a big-budget Hollywood extravaganza, the film moves like gangbusters. The action is fast, funny, violent and at times, even John Wickian. (Can I say that?) So if you like your entertainment loud and lurid, put another piece of holiday roast on your plate, freshen your drink, sit back and enjoy. I give Bright an enthusiastic five stars.

Movie Reviews: Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Have you wondered why 93% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes liked Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but only 57% of the general audience did? I have my own hypothesis. Do you remember what Daniel Craig as the new James Bond said to the bartender who asked him if he preferred his martini shaken or stirred? He replied, “Do I look like someone who gives a damn?” That iconoclastic moment defined his take on the role. So, too, the new Star Wars film is filled with iconoclastic moments that have jarred dyed-in-the-wool fans. Those who go in to the movie with preconceived notions as to how things should turn out would best follow the warning Luke gives to Rey toward the end of the film: “This isn’t going to turn out as you expect.” The new director, Rian Johnson, takes a much freer approach to the mythos, and I’m afraid this disappoints some viewers. I was not one of them. I feel The Last Jedi delivers on all levels: compelling characters, engaging story, eye-popping action, and a very satisfying conclusion. Not to be crude, but I was tempted to light up a cigarette as I walked out of the theater.

On a different spectrum entirely, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a visceral, gut-wrenching tour de force for veteran actors Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell. Borrowing from the Coen brothers playbook, Martin McDonagh has crafted a sometimes darkly comic and always ferocious film about a mother’s grief for her murdered daughter. I confess that I was afraid the film would end with a graphic depiction of that grisly rape and murder, but it does not–thankfully that remains off-screen. That’s not to say the film isn’t violent, but it’s the violence of savage fist-fights between men. What is unique about this film is the attention to character: even the most minor character is nuanced, complex, more than what is immediately visible. Because of that, a gesture as small as offering someone a cup of orange juice with the straw pointed in the right direction can be redemptive. I do recommend you see it with a friend so you can discuss it afterward. I found I enjoyed it more as I got some distance from it and had a chance to process it with a friend. I will be very surprised if McDormand and Rockwell don’t get Oscar nods for their performances.

Two Movie Reviews: Coco and The Man Who Invented Christmas

I took my nine-year-old granddaughter to see Coco last weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised. I went in not expecting too much (from what I had seen of the trailer), and was treated to a richly and beautifully animated film with extraordinary depth. Happily, it is devoid of the potty jokes that have become  the staple in recent animated films. Instead, it explores family loyalties, personal identity, ambition, and betrayal in a thoroughly engaging way, and yes, mush that I am, I was pretty choked up by the end. This movie has Oscar written all over it. That said, my only disappointment was the animated short that preceded it. We’ve come to expect little gems from Pixar–smart, quirky shorts that burst with creativity. Instead, we get an Olaf the Snowman (yes, from Frozen) cartoon that was dull and unimaginative. But don’t walk out! Stay for the feature! It’s more than worth the price of admission. I’ll be going to see it again.

Then I took my daughter to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. This is a delightful Christmas confection, purporting to be the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. I’m quite sure they played loose with the facts, but for any fan of Dickens, the film is pure pleasure. Dan Stevens as Dickens and Christopher Plummer as Scrooge could not have been better cast. We see Dickens haunted by his characters, who refuse to behave as Dickens would have them. As a writer, I especially liked the way Dickens is portrayed as “trolling” for ideas, paying attention to the people and conversations around him, writing down names that he likes in his notebook, jotting down turns of phrase to use later. Reading A Christmas Carol is a holiday tradition for me, along with watching an assortment of Christmas films. (How can it be Christmas without Chevy Chase and Ralphie and the Muppets?) Anyway, I’m sure I will add this film to my collection for viewing again next Christmas.