Joker

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Joker

“I’m the bad guy?” That’s the question Michael Douglas’s character, William Foster, asks in the final minutes of the movie Falling Down. Despite the fact that the movie, up until that point, solidly aligns itself with Foster’s point of view and his sick sense of vigilante justice, this one line of dialog suggests that Falling Down is a more self-aware movie than director Todd Phillips’s Joker. There’s never any question that Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, who transforms himself over the course of this origin story into Batman’s greatest nemesis, is our champion.

And the movie seems to have no idea how disturbing that is.

The bleak, nihilistic Joker, which, by its final frames, leans into its fascism in a way that even the heavily reactionary Falling Down doesn’t, says a lot more about Phillips’s worldview than the character he is exploring.

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Ad Astra

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Ad Astra

Ad Astra is a work of art that is singularly beautiful but structurally flawed. Writer/director James Gray, working here with cowriter Ethan Gross, attempts a tone of cosmic mystery in his space epic set in the near future. It’s about the personal connections humans make even as we search for extraterrestrial life.

For the most part it works; I found myself falling into the rhythm of Ad Astra even as certain of its elements continued to irritate me.

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Downton Abbey

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Downton Abbey

It’s a delight catching up with all the Downton Abbey characters, both “upstairs” and “downstairs.” Fellowes’s screenplay and Engler’s direction also make it enjoyable enough that newbies can get something out of it, too. The movie retains what made the show work: characters in whom it’s easy to become invested and a marvelously recreated early 20th century setting.

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It: Chapter Two

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It: Chapter Two

So, with (most of) the nostalgia gone from this part of the story, what’s left? The answer is a movie that is, for the most part, consistent with its predecessor in creepy tone and jump-scare fun. Chapter Two also has some of the same problems as the first part, namely that we are asked to believe Pennywise the Clown is a merciless killer, except when it comes to our heroes. Whenever his target is one of our beloved Losers Club, Pennywise is suddenly very bad at his job. Chapter Two is also interminably long at 169 minutes, with a structure that feels more like a video game than a movie.

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100 Essential Films: 6. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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100 Essential Films: 6. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

This is the next entry in my ongoing 100 Essential Films series. If you missed the first one, you can find the explanation for what I’m doing here. Film number six is the first feature-length animated film ever produced: Walt Disney’s (with the help of dozens of artists) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I had the experience that probably most people would have upon sitting down to watch it: I know the basic story, the songs, and the characters (including all of the dwarfs), but I don’t know that I had ever actually watched the whole thing from beginning to end, aside from maybe when I was three years old. The movie is just so ingrained in our cultural memory, it’s easy to assume you’ve actually seen it, even if you haven’t. Just like the other films in the series, I borrowed a Blu-ray through intralibrary loan. It was the 2016 Disney Blu-ray release, and the film looks fantastic.

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100 Essential Films: 5. It Happened One Night

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100 Essential Films: 5. It Happened One Night

This is the next entry in my ongoing 100 Essential Films series. If you missed the first one, you can find the explanation for what I’m doing here. Film number five is the romantic comedy It Happened One Night from 1934. Many hail the picture as the first screwball comedy ever made – although 1933’s Bombshell might have a little something to say about that. Class commentary and romance are the chief preoccupations of both the genre and It Happened One Night. I first saw the movie in college, about 800 years ago, so it’s technically a revisit, but this go-round was almost like seeing it for the first time. In fact, I might have slept through part of it in college; those 8 am classes were a killer… Just like the other films in the series, I borrowed a Blu-ray through intralibrary loan. The disc was produced in 2014 by the Criterion Collection, and although the majority of the film looks sparkling, there are a few shots that show how challenging the 4K restoration must have been.

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Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven)

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Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven)

The horror/fantasy film Tigers Are Not Afraid is being compared favorably to the early work of director Guillermo del Toro. Like del Toro, its writer/director, Issa López, hails from Mexico, but the similarities go much deeper. The American distributor of the Spanish language Tigers – streaming service Shudder – is eager to encourage the connection to the Academy Award winning director of exquisitely crafted fantasy films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. Their publicity material features a quote from del Toro about the movie: “An unsparing blend of fantasy and brutality, innocence and evil. Innovative, compassionate and mesmerizing.”

I wasn’t nearly as impressed as Mr. del Toro.

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The Nightingale

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The Nightingale

At very specific moments throughout The Nightingale, director Jennifer Kent has her characters look directly into the camera. Her main character, Clare, does so both as she’s singing a song to entertain English troops posted in the Australian outback and as the commanding officer of those troops is brutalizing her. Kent even manages to catch a shot of an infant – within the movie, it’s Clare’s baby – looking into the camera as the little one falls asleep.

These moments set Kent’s film apart. They implicate every member of the audience in the horrific violence happening on screen. They also tie the oppressed and dehumanized characters to Kent herself. We’ve seen this kind of story many times before, but almost never from a female perspective. Kent’s vision is a shattering one.

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Mike Wallace Is Here

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Mike Wallace Is Here

Late in the documentary Mike Wallace Is Here, there is a clip of the legendary reporter interviewing playwright Arthur Miller. Wallace asks Miller what the ultimate goal has been of Miller’s decades of work; what he’s been trying to achieve. “Oh, some little moment of truth,” Miller responds. Director Avi Belkin’s documentary about the life and career of Wallace has uncovered much more than that. His film explores not only the driving force of one man’s life, but how he in turn affected the entire profession of journalism, for better and for worse. Mike Wallace Is Here is a perceptive, unflinching look at what made Wallace tick.

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Revisited: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

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Revisited: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

I’m doing something a little different with this week’s review. As I explain below, I have recently fallen down the rabbit hole of Twin Peaks, so I took advantage of re-watching the feature film Fire Walk with Me as a chance to add to my Revisited feature. That’s where I’m going on the record with a movie I’ve seen before but never written about. I’m also mixing in a funny story about the first time I watched the movie with my partner Rachel.

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Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

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Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (OUaTiH) is Tarantino’s re-creation of and loving, yet gleefully revisionist, tribute to this fractious period in Hollywood’s history. Without giving too much away, this film is a spiritual cousin to Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds. That movie incensed more than a few people with its shockingly gory climax that reimagined the end of World War II.

The same will probably be true for OUaTiH. Tarantino puts his unique spin on the bloody, unspeakable events that closed the 1960s. When creating works of art, I have no need for the artist to feel constrained by the facts when representing real events. A big part of art is reimagining the world in new, different, and interesting ways. A possible exception is documentaries, but even those have exceptions to the rule. Mainly, the purpose Tarantino’s divergence from truth serves in OUaTiH, at least for me, was one of catharsis. Just like in Inglourious Basterds, we get to see good triumph over evil, in the bloodiest, most outrageous way possible…

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The Farewell

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The Farewell

It feels like an incredibly trite observation to make that the story director LuLu Wang is telling in her film The Farewell is universal despite being centered around a Chinese family. It’s one of those go-to descriptors us white people love to pull out when we enjoy a story that doesn’t revolve around people who look like us. As if we have to be the ones to swoop in and proclaim something worthy because we were able to connect with an entire cast of non-whites for 90+ continuous minutes. We’re so used to whiteness being centered in virtually all popular entertainment that it feels like the biggest triumph – something on a UNIVERSAL scale – when that isn’t the case.

The Farewell isn’t universal despite featuring an exclusively Chinese cast. The Farewell is universal because it tells a very moving story that is steeped in the messiness of human emotion and relationships.

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This Changes Everything (2019)

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This Changes Everything (2019)

I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert on the subtleties of film distribution. I just watch the movies and react to them. But it’s telling and more than a little ironic that a documentary about sexism and misogyny in the entertainment business isn’t getting a traditional theatrical roll out. This Changes Everything, directed by Tom Donahue and executive produced by Geena Davis, will be seen in theaters for one night only on July 22nd, 2019 as part of a Fathom Events special screening on 800 screens across the U.S.

Those screenings, in conjunction with the documentary’s availability on streaming platforms, has the potential to create a lot of buzz for a movie with a vitally important message. But it also has the potential to fizzle in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scenario. Let’s hope the latter doesn’t happen.

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Toy Story 4

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Toy Story 4

I was 15 in 1995 when the first Toy Story was released. That’s a bit older than the target audience for Pixar’s inaugural feature film, but I vividly remember seeing it and being dazzled by both the story and the groundbreaking animation. I’ll be 40 next year. I’ve been wowed by each successive Toy Story installment released over the last quarter century. Both the astonishing leap in digital animation technology and the touching stories involving old pals Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of the gang – Toy Story 2 and 3 consistently bring me to tears with every revisit – get better with each new film.

That’s definitely the case with the seemingly impossible jump in animation quality between Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4. The plot, however, isn’t quite up to the level of the earlier films, especially Toy Story 3, probably the strongest of the series. While “cash grab” is too strong a phrase, this is the first entry in the franchise that feels like the artistic vision got a little fuzzy.

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Midsommar

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Midsommar

Much like his first effort, Hereditary, director Ari Aster’s follow up, Midsommar, is an exercise in exacting detail. From the meticulous set design, to the beautiful execution of each camera movement, to the painterly quality of almost every shot composition, Aster is an uncompromising film artist. That he uses his skills in order to shock and disgust his audiences (as well as make them laugh) is part of what makes him such a unique filmmaker. Midsommar is Stanley Kubrick meets Dario Argento. At the same time, you won’t see anything like its sui generis sensibility on screen this year.

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Yesterday

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Yesterday

Yesterday set itself a pretty low entertainment bar to clear with its premise. “You mean I’ll get to sit and listen to Beatles tunes for two hours? Yeah, where do I sign?” Screenwriter Richard Curtis – he of Love Actually fame – and director Danny Boyle have crafted a movie that feels slight, yes, but one that is also infectiously charming and just a plain damn good time at the movies. It might not contain the deep and meaningful qualities with which we’ve all imbued the music at its center, but it brought a big, fat smile to my face while I was watching it. On this occasion, and in these bleak times, that was more than enough.

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Late Night

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Late Night

There’s a scene toward the end of the comedy Late Night in which Emma Thompson’s character, the hard-driving talk show host Katherine Newbury, climbs multiple flights of stairs in a Brooklyn walk-up in order to have a heart to heart with Molly, her newest writer. Out of nowhere – or perhaps out of the early 2000s – a cheery, vaguely inspirational pop song comes on the soundtrack as Katherine huffs and puffs up those stairs, stopping at one point to take off her shoes in order to aid her ascent. It’s one of a few cliché moments (also included is an obligatory montage, showing hard work resulting in success) that stand out for all the wrong reasons in what is otherwise a smart, funny, and fresh take on both feminism and cultural diversity in the work place.

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco

I was resistant at first to the The Last Black Man in San Francisco. I couldn’t make sense of the movie’s tone. It seemed funny and serious, elegiac and silly; a study in contradictions. It is all those things and more. Once I gave myself over to it, when I fell into sync with its wavelength, it blossomed before me into the most moving, unforgettable experience I’ve had at the movies so far this year. Director Joe Talbot and his childhood friend, creative collaborator, and star Jimmie Fails have made a singular work of art here.

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Booksmart

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Booksmart

The laughs are the least effective element in the coming-of-age comedy Booksmart. Don’t misunderstand me: Booksmart is a funny movie. There are several gags and one entire sequence in particular that is downright inspired. But with four different screenwriters – Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman each supplied rewrites and revisions to Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins original script during the preproduction process – the movie feels a little overwritten. The comedy style is too frenetic and never settles down enough to deliver really big laughs.

The other facets of the story all work splendidly.

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Her Smell

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Her Smell

I had to watch the opening sequence of Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell twice to make sure I hadn’t imagined that the first 30-odd minutes are one long, uninterrupted take. I ended up watching the whole movie twice; that’s how easily it sucks you into its world. Turns out, I had imagined that one unbroken take. My mistaken impression about the opening is a testament to Perry’s serpentine camera movements and the brilliantly controlled chaos of the scene. I was even more surprised when I learned Perry didn’t shoot Her Smell digitally. He shot it on 35mm film, which would have made a sustained shot like the one I invented in my head that much more difficult.

My faulty memory aside, the real take away is that Perry – as well as his star and co-producer, Elisabeth Moss – has displayed virtuoso talent with this ambitious picture.

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