“KNIVES OUT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Lionsgate

Sharp in more ways than one. 

When Knives Out begins, we’re provided with the typical murder-mystery setup: Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a famed mystery writer whose popularity is probably equal only to Stephen King, is found dead inside his mansion. His throat is slit, the blood flowed out onto the floor uninterrupted, and there were no signs of intrusion or trespass into his study. The detective working the case, Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) thinks this was just a simple suicide and considers the case closed. Meanwhile, private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects something more sinister had a role in Harlan Thrombey’s death: foul play.

The suspects mostly consist of Harlan’s privileged and wildly dysfunctional family. There’s Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard (Don Johnson) and their smug and self-centered son Ransom (Chris Evans). There’s Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) who manages Harlan’s estate and his son, an alt-right online troll named Jacob (Jaeden Martell). There’s Harlan’s spoiled and greedy daughter Joni (Toni Collette) and her posh liberal arts daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). And then there’s Marta Cabrera (Ana De Armas), Harlan’s personal nurse who tended to his every need prior to his passing. All of these people were a part of Harlan’s life and loved him in one way or another. And, one of them supposedly murdered him. Blanc has eliminated no suspects, but as far as he’s concerned, all of them have something to gain from Harlan’s death.

Writing about movies like Knives Out is particularly challenging, not because there’s isn’t enough to talk about, but rather because there’s too much to talk about. Knives Out is a clever, ingenious, meticulous, observant, and deliciously deceptive movie, but it’s one where the audience benefits most from knowing as little as possible about it. I would argue that even the trailers give too much away for a movie like this. Since this is the case, I’m walking on very thin glass here and I don’t want to give away the enjoyment of the film before you can experience Knives Out for yourself.

I will say this: writer-director Rian Johnson is a mastermind behind this murder-mystery. Manipulating his characters like how a maestro conducts his orchestra or how a puppeteer commands their puppets, Johnson puts his characters through one puzzling scenario after another and giggles mischievously as he waits to spill the next big secret on his unsuspecting audience. I went in expecting Knives Out to go in a certain direction, then 15 minutes in Johnson spins my expectations directly on my head and does almost a complete 180. Then he plays with my mind and emotions for the next two hours until he drops one bombshell reveal on top of another, and then another, and then another, and then another.

Films like Knives Out are truly in rare quantity these days. Johnson put a lot of thought into this screenplay, into its characters and their actions, quirks, personalities, conflicts, wants, desires, disagreements, frustrations, and insecurities and then toys with them like he’s playing with silly putty. In many ways, Knives Out is very similar to his most recent film Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which as you may remember divided the Star Wars fan base more sharply than the 2016 Presidential elections divided the nation. Both films pull you in with a sense of anticipation and expectation, then it goes in a completely different direction and just leaves you with a stunned feeling of “what just happened?”

The difference is that Star Wars is an iconic blockbuster franchise, and fans are very passionate when drastic changes are made to characters they deeply care about. Knives Out is more primed for this sort of treatment because A) It is not part of an established franchise, B) The setup is original, and C) There’s much more freedom for Johnson to do whatever he wants with this premise. Part of the joy of this movie is that you have no idea which direction it’s going to go, and figuring it out along the way is just one of its many surprises.

The cast in this film is exceptional. Nobody is wasted in their role, nobody phones it in, and everybody plays their part exactly the way they need to. Granted, with this large of an ensemble cast, that inevitably means some characters will get shelved while others will get more screen time. Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to put any of these actor’s names forward for awards season. They all played their parts to the letter, and I would argue their efforts even deserve the Outstanding Cast accolade at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. And no, I’m not talking about a nomination: I’m talking about a win.

I don’t want to talk much about the cast because again, this movie benefits most from you knowing as little about them as possible. Two names I will bring up as being among the most entertaining performances are Daniel Craig’s and Chris Evans. These guys were hilarious, quirky, sardonic, and gleefully cunning in their own unique way. Craig’s talents as an actor don’t need much elaboration, as he can flip on a dime from being a slick spy action hero in Casino Royale and Skyfall to a mentally unhinged murderer in Infamous. Here he’s playing an old-fashioned Kentucky-fried fellow that would have Foghorn Leghorn laughing his feathers off at his accent. Chris Evans is especially surprising. For a guy who is known for playing such a genuine and good-hearted spirit as Captain America in the most recent Avengers movies, here he comes off as egotistical, condescending, and very full of himself. It’s hilarious watching him tell his entire family off in a pointed, matter-of-fact fashion, especially when you’re so not used to him playing the asshole in a movie.

I can’t sing enough praise about Knives Out. Go and see it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime movie that is rarely done with this much thought, care, and attention to detail paid to it. If he wanted to, Rian Johnson could have taken the pages of his screenplay and turned them into his own mystery novel. Harlan Thrombey would be proud.

Tagged , , , ,

“DOCTOR SLEEP” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Redrum and redemption. 

Doctor Sleep answers a decades-long question that I thought didn’t need answering: what happened to Danny Torrence after his father tried to kill him in The Shining? We know that he survived the encounter with his mother and much post-traumatic stress to spare. But what happened to him when he grew up? Did he let the demons haunt his gentle spirit, or did he grow from the experience and learn to help others that were as afraid as he was?

In Doctor Sleep, Danny’s epilogue is intertwined with two other stories of other people who “shine” as he does. In his elder age, Danny is played by Ewan McGregor as a man who wants to leave the supernatural world behind but is inevitably pulled back into it when an elusive spirit writes messages to him on his chalkboard. His mysterious friend is Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a brilliant and curious young teenager who dreams and shines brighter than Danny ever did. And mixed into these two’s unusual friendship is Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), a huntress who leads a troupe that feeds on the souls of children who shine – and she’s caught Abra’s scent.

Now caught up in a hidden war between psychic wolves and sheep, Danny needs to decide what he’s going to do in the midst of all of this confusion and calamity, and where his place fits in all of it.

I never asked for a sequel to The Shining. I never wanted a sequel to The Shining. Who did? With The Shining being one of the greatest horror experiences ever put on film, who on Earth would have even thought of building upon Stanley Kubrick’s insanity and innovation? What I didn’t realize, however, was that this sequel didn’t spawn from the mind of corporate Hollywood – it came from the mind of Stephen King himself. After penning The Shining in 1977, King revisited Danny’s universe when he wrote the sequel Doctor Sleep in 2013. That puts his film adaptation into a tight pinch, because King infamously didn’t like Kubrick’s 1980 adaption of The Shining. As such, whoever adapted Doctor Sleep for the big screen had a unique challenge: they had to satisfy both Stephen King fans and Stanley Kubrick fans at the same time through the same story.

The great news is that writer-director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil) is more than up to the task. One of the most impressive aspects of Doctor Sleep is how it builds on The Shining mythos without taking away from the appeal of the original movie. The Shining was special because its premise was limited to an enclosed and claustrophobic environment inside of an abandoned hotel, and it worked so well because its characters were slowly losing their minds in lonely solitude. Doctor Sleep is not limited to the madness or the seclusion of The Shining. It is much more free, open, and intentional with its structure and world-building.

You would think that this change in setting and tone would hinder, maybe even harm Doctor Sleep as a whole. Yet, it’s nearly as effective as Kubrick’s original Shining was. Although they’re not locked away in some haunted hotel, the characters inside Doctor Sleep are so caught up in the eeriness and the mystery behind their strange abilities that it feels almost inescapable to disillusion yourself from it – almost like being trapped inside of a cage that moves with you no matter where you go. Flanagan and his cinematographer Michael Fimognari illustrate a forced perspective that feels very vivid and immediate with its tension and unease. I was surprised to find that in many moments, not only was I scared for Danny and the little girl he was protecting in Doctor Sleep – at times, I even felt scared for Rose and her crew as well. It takes a good director to invest you in the plights of the film’s protagonists, but it takes a great director to invest their audience in the film’s antagonists as well. Flanagan does both in Doctor Sleep, and the scares stay with you regardless of whether Danny or Rose experiences them.

Another unexpected element to the movie is its emotion. While it would have been too easy to simply plop its audience halfway into the movie and dive right into the blockbuster horror, Flanagan takes the time to build up Danny’s backstory and elaborate how he came to this point in his life in the first place. That means for about the first hour of the film, Danny isn’t fighting spirits or soul hunters but is simply facing his life as it is, alcoholism, addiction, nymphomania, recovery and all. You might think that this sounds boring or uneventful for a Stephen King movie, but these personal moments were actually very meaningful and significant. One of the most touching moments early in the film was when it showed how Danny got his titular nickname “Doctor Sleep,” and why. I appreciate this movie being able to slow down and thoroughly give its characters the development they deserve, and McGregor likewise does a great job in portraying Danny’s sense of vulnerability, grief, and eventual redemption. It’s too easy to write in a generic one-note horror movie hero and call it a day. Doctor Sleep shows Danny as something much more significant than merely the film’s protagonist – it shows him as a person.

I have one and only one complaint with the film, and that is its third act. While most of the movie pulls you in with its intrigue, wonder, and grotesqueness, the third act slows down to a screeching halt and loses much of the film’s sense of identity. This is especially ironic because the third act has the strongest connection to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Strange, that this movie’s most culturally recognizable element also possessed the story’s weakest crux. The film worked much better when it was exploring its own premise and ideas, not revisiting older ones when they were done first, better, and more hauntingly.

Still, Doctor Sleep is a mysterious, eerie, and memorable entry into the Stephen King mythos, and one that has earned the right to call itself the sequel to The Shining. I’m glad Danny turned out okay after the horrifying events of The Shining, and I’m even more happy that I found it out through a movie that is nearly every bit as captivating and enigmatic as its predecessor is. The film may be called Doctor Sleep, but I guarantee you sleeping will be the last thing you do in this movie.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Joaquin Phoenix Set To Return For ‘Joker’ Sequel

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer multiple choice.”

Those were the words Joker said to the Batman during one of their many scuffles in the pages of Alan Moore’s 1988 hit “Batman: The Killing Joke.” Now, it looks like those words are becoming reality as Joaquin Phoenix is set to return as Arthur Fleck, a.k.a. the Joker for an upcoming sequel to his recent movie.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone, as not only did Joker become the second highest-grossing Batman movie of all time at one billion dollars, but it is also the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, period. A sequel seemed almost inevitable in the face of all of that commercial and critical success.

Still, many fans were surprised to find that The Hollywood Reporter revealed that not only was Joker getting a sequel, but much of the original cast and crew was returning to head it up: including director Todd Phillips and actor Joaquin Phoenix. This is especially surprising because Phillips previously stated that Joker was intended as a standalone movie with no future installments planned. But throw enough money at something, and I guess it’s destined to get a sequel. After all, Toy Story 4 was released earlier this year.

My first thought with this is that I don’t want a Joker sequel, nor do I need one. Joker was a brilliantly self-contained movie that delved deeply into one of the comic’s most iconic characters. Yes, it was a comic book movie, but in many ways, it was a character study on the effects on mental illness, civil unrest and wealth inequality. Like The Dark Knight, Joker wasn’t just a great comic book movie: it was a great movie period, and I feel like people both familiar and unfamiliar to the comics could appreciate it.

With a planned sequel underway, I question not only how much material is leftover that you can put into it, but also how appropriate it might be in a sequel. Imagine, for instance, if Taxi Driver ever got a sequel, or Apocalypse Now, or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Wouldn’t a sequel have seemed redundant to those movies? Wouldn’t it have robbed from the original cinematic experience that you were grateful to be a part of? That is my gut reaction to hearing that Joker is getting a sequel – although I am nevertheless excited to see Joaquin Phoenix reprise the role.

What do you guys think? Are you excited to see Joaquin Phoenix return as the Joker, or do you wish he’d stay locked up in Arkham Asylum? Comment below, let me know.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline

A Ducky Schwartz

It’s funny how fast and how hard life can come at you sometimes. A month ago, my parents and I were planning for when my Poppy and Grandy would fly over to visit us. That same weekend, my Grandy was admitted into the hospital. She died three days later from respiratory failure.

Joan Therese “Ducky” Dolinar was born June 25, 1936, in Chicago, IL to her parents John and Evelyn Cepek. She had three siblings: her brothers Phil and Jack and her sister Jeanette. She also had four of her own children, one of which was my mother. But even with a large family, she always had room to fit someone else into her inner circle. Whenever she met somebody new, she never hesitated to strike up a conversation and listen to other people’s stories. If she knew you long enough, she would bake you some kolaches or jelly cookies, maybe even sew a quilt or a blanket for you. Everybody was family to Grandy.

I can’t recall my earliest memory of her. They all blur together like a flurry of wonderful emotions rather than a series of sequential events. One of the earliest memories I remember was when I played on her Super Nintendo when I was a kid (yes, she was that cool of a grandma). I was playing the SNES version of Pinocchio when I ran into a flock of geese and they beat me up into a cloud of smoke. I couldn’t stop laughing at it, and I purposefully kept running back into the flock over and over again. Grandy would keep getting flustered at me for purposefully losing the game, and her frustration just made me laugh harder each time. I remember her throwing her hands up in the air, exhaling a deep sigh, and remarking to my mother “I don’t know what on Earth that boy is doing.”

That wasn’t my only memory of her. I would often play in her basement with her toys, most often with “Sesame Street” characters such as Burt, Ernie, Elmo, Big Bird, and Cookie Monster. I would also watch old cartoons down there as well, anything ranging between “Spongebob” and “Ed, Edd n Eddy.” She had a sewing machine down there that she would often use while I was playing, sewing another beautiful quilt, blanket, pillow, or anything else she felt like making. I didn’t realize this back then, but I felt like she would go down there to watch over me while she was quilting.

“Grandy” was by no means the only name I called her. Whenever I was five years old, we started watching those old Land Before Time movies that told the story of Littlefoot and his dinosaur friends. One character named Ducky had a huge affinity for a pterodactyl named Petrie and would often say his name in a joyful, high-pitched squeal. Grandy would mimic the same speech and giggle gleefully afterward. Eventually, we nicknamed her “Ducky” because of her cute imitation of the giddy character. We would often buy her joke gifts sans her nickname, such as plush ducks that quaked when you squeezed it and duck-themed gift cards. Ducky sometimes seemed mildly annoyed by it, but she eventually embraced the name as playfully as we did.

The rest of my time with her growing up went by in a flash. I remember small snippets of memories, like whenever we would play an old game called “Chicken Legs” where we had to match numbers together on domino tiles. I remembered when we traveled out to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin and spent a week in the condo during the summer and would swim, play on the boat, and eat delicious BBQ together. I remember when we would go out for ice cream and she would have to wipe my chin off, calling me a “messy boy.” I also remembered whenever we would watch classic movies together like Winnie the Pooh, Micky Mouse, Spider-Man, Star Wars, and several others while she sat on her couch, quietly and contentedly needling or reading.

One of my favorite memories of her was when we would play Farkel together. It was a game where you rolled six dice and tried to get patterns from ones, fives and three of a kind. Three sixes would get the most points, so we would often compete to see who would get the most sixes. Grandy would always plead with the dice to get her “her sixes,” and more often than not I would roll them before she would. She would often spread her arms out and lay her head down across the table, crying out “Noooo, my sixes! How could you do this to me???” Our games would often end up with one of us rolling on our seat in laughter.

One of the things I think I looked past in my childhood was how masterful Ducky Schwartz was in her sewing craft. I always knew she was a skilled seamstress. If any of my favorite shirts ripped or if my dog Dusty chewed a hole into one of my toys, she was prompt and reliable enough to sew it back together in one piece. Still, as I grew older I was mesmerized at how talented she really was. She would often make quilts unique to each member of her family and was extra special to them in one way or another.

My Poppy, for instance, is a big fan of the Chicago Blackhawks, and when they won their first Stanley Cup in four decades in 2010, she celebrated by sewing him a Chicago Blackhawks quilt made from various Blackhawks merchandise. Before I graduated high school, Grandy made my parents and I our own family quilt made from photos of some of our favorite trips together. Wherever she went, Grandy made sure that others experienced the same joys of quilting as she did. She was as good at making people smile as she was stitching a thread.

I couldn’t even begin to tell you how much my Ducky Schwartz meant to me – to my entire family and to the many families outside of our own. When I went to her funeral service, I was proud but not surprised to find that over a hundred people came to support Grandy and Poppy, and they shared stories and memories of Grandy and her little laugh-filled adventures with them. As I looked around the room of the funeral home, I can’t tell you how astounded I was to see all the people in there, all the lives she touched, and all the families she made despite not being related to them by blood. That was the person she was. Whether she knew you for a day or several years, your happiness mattered to her. I think that’s a quality more people need to learn to possess.

I don’t know how to describe the feelings I’ve felt since burying my Grandy several weeks ago. At times, it feels like she hasn’t left at all and I can feel her as if she’s standing right next to me. Other times, there’s a deep, gaping hole in my heart that feels like I could cry all the tears in the world and it still wouldn’t encapsulate how much I miss Grandy. But the one thing I’ve felt most through all of the ups and downs of mourning her is gratefulness. I’m so grateful to have had not just her, but all four of my grandparents for the past 26 years. I’m grateful to have experienced so much with her, to have loved her and to have shared a part of our lives with each other. I’m grateful that out of all of her flurry of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I got to be one small piece of that giant and colorful puzzle. I’m grateful to have known her in her beautiful life because she’s given me something to aspire to, just like everyone else in our sprawling and loving little family.

I love you Ducky Schwartz. I’ll see you on Friday for Farkel.

Joan “Ducky” Dolinar

1936 – 2019

Tagged , , , ,

“US” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

“The only me is me. Are you sure the only you is you?”

We live in a nation where there are two Americas. One is the proud land of the free and home of the brave, the glorious place of opportunity and prosperity where anything is possible if you’re just willing to work hard enough. The other is a cold and pestilent land riddled by corporate greed, income inequality, racism, police brutality, white supremacy, and unregulated capitalism. Which side you see and experience depends largely on the tax bracket you belong to. But either way, it doesn’t make either side any less valid – only more fractured.

In Us, writer-director Jordan Peele observes this social-political divide through a harrowing horror-thriller experience that seeks to inform and entertain at the same time. In this creative, chilling, and deeply unsettling psychological thriller, Lupita Nyong’o plays Adelaide Wilson, a loyal wife and mother to two beautiful children. Her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and her children Zora (Shahadi Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) travel to their Lake House in Santa Cruz where they meet up with Gabe’s affluent friends, Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss).

But while they are there, Adelaide remembers a disturbing childhood memory where she came face-to-face with herself inside of a hall of mirrors. She still doesn’t know whether she came across an actual doppelganger of herself or if she was merely staring at her reflection. That question is soon answered for her when her family is hunted by, well, themselves later that night. The duplicate family calls themselves “the Tethered,” and they are almost exact copies of themselves save for a few ghastly differences. Her children are chased by disturbed, twisted distortions of their younger selves. Her husband is attacked by a scarred, huskier version of himself. And Adelaide is taunted by her mirrored self that is nothing but psychotic and bloodthirsty. Now on the run from their doppelgangers, Adelaide and her family needs to survive from this horrifying episode so they can find out where the Tethered came from and why they are after them.

This twisted and mindbending premise comes from the dizzying and creative mind of Jordan Peele, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay from Get Out earlier last year and co-produced Spike Lee’s smart and satirical black comedy BlacKkKlansman. With Peele reaching such large success in such a short amount of time, all eyes were on Peele’s sophomore effort to see how well his craft would match up against his directorial debut.

I’ll be the one to tell you firsthand that Us is not as good as Get Out: it’s even better. While Get Out smartly and ingeniously balanced between its commentary, scares, and comedy all at once, Us blends all of its elements together masterfully – like it’s mixing a deliciously chilling milkshake as opposed to a stacked ice cream sundae. Get Out was brilliant in how it inserted relevant social issues into its edgy and haunting plot and made you think about all of the implications stacked one on top of the other. Us is much more subtle in its message and its telling, and it’s all the more effective because of that.

One of the immediate issues I thought about while watching this movie was income inequality. In one monologue early in the film, one of the Tethered compared its life to the original and illustrated how every time the original ate, the Tethered starved, every time the original drank, the Tethered was dry of thirst, and every time the original felt happy and fulfilled, the Tethered felt sadness and grief. I at first thought this was just my own interpretation of it, but as the movie went on it kept making small nudges towards the Tethered’s marginalization and their struggle towards being seen and heard. Imagine, for instance, if you were persecuted and suffering in ways that would make you feel inhuman, maybe even animalistic? Imagine the pain, the anger, the hate you might feel from such an ordeal. Then look at the Tethered’s actions through that filter. Do they still seem like mindless, boorish beasts to you, or can you suddenly see intention behind their hollow, dead eyes?

The beautiful thing about this premise is that it doesn’t have to just apply to income inequality – it can apply to any social issue, whether its healthcare, gun control, immigration, racism, or religion. It isn’t specific to any issue because there is no difference for the persecuted beyond their suffering. Who you see in their seat depends largely on where you come from and what life experiences you’ve had along the way.

I have to praise the talented and diverse cast in this movie, because so much rests on their portrayals of not just one character, but two. Lupita Nyong’o obviously deserves the most credit since she pioneers this movie through her portrayals of both Adelaide and her splintered doppelganger. She masterfully portrays the frightfulness and horror of one character while simultaneously expressing the bloodlust and psychopathy of another. She easily expresses the most range out of any other actor in the film, and I would argue she’s even earned Oscar consideration for her passioned performances in this film.

But equally deserving in recognition is her on-screen family – or should I say, families? Winston Duke was great in both last year’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, and here he does just as great a job as both a loving family man and a barbaric giant. Shahadi Joseph portrays just as much duality as her on-screen mother does and shows a lot of promise for her future career. The young Evan Alex is especially surprising. He’s both a curious and charming little prankster in one beat and a savage little pyromaniac in another. It’s amazing to watch these actors express such a vivid contrast between both of their characters, especially given how young some of them are.

Us is a brilliant, haunting, and harrowing horror experience that says a lot about the current state of our political culture while at the same time not playing specifically to either side of the fence. It’s a thought-provoking, contemplative cinematic experiment that keeps you thinking for hours on end after you’ve left the theater, and it makes you think about what monsters you might have created without even knowing it. I suspect the movie’s themes will hit home hard for some moviegoers while others will have the message fly over their heads. That doesn’t mean Jordan Peele is any less masterful in writing, directing, and releasing this cinematic masterpiece. It does, however, point to the divides some people in this country experience. We would benefit much from learning more about those who differ most from us. Perhaps we could start with the Tethered?

 

Tagged , , , ,

“JOKER” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Don’t cry. Just laugh. 

The scariest thing to admit is that we have monsters living inside of ourselves. Part of the reason why Joker has amassed as much controversy as it has is because people don’t want to admit that at some level, they sympathize with a madman and a serial killer. But the thing that some people need to remember is that before they became murderers, killers, and psychopaths, these monsters were people just like you and me, and they were hurt in very profound and personal ways that would drive anyone towards insanity. Any person, through the right circumstances, can be capable of cruelty. It’s just a matter of where and how you apply the pressure.

In Joker, writer-director Todd Phillips (The Hangover trilogy) plunges headfirst into this dark and depressing place through a gritty imagining of the origin story behind Batman’s greatest enemy. Before he became the Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) was a clown, an aspiring comedian, and a son to a loving mother whom he lives with and takes care of. Arthur’s life is by no means a happy one. He regularly has to fend off attacks from criminals who try to intimidate him in the streets, he has chronic depression and several self-esteem issues, and he struggles with a neurological condition that forces him to laugh whenever he’s anxious.

But even though Arthur doesn’t have a fulfilled life, he does have a normal one for the most part. That is, until something starts to unravel inside of his splintered mind. He starts seeing people and things that aren’t actually there. He starts to become more impulsive, irrational, and erratic. And he begins to find humor in situations that would sicken and repulse any other human being. This mental and emotional decay keeps gnawing away at him until there is nothing left of Arthur Fleck. All that’s left is the Joker.

Before this movie’s release, one commentator remarked that in 1989, you created the Joker by throwing him into a vat of acid. In 2019, you created the Joker by throwing him into society. That is essentially how Todd Phillips approaches the character in this film. In fact, for more than half of the movie’s runtime, Phillips doesn’t even allude to the Joker persona or what he ends up meaning to the Batman mythos. For the most part, Joker is a social observation on mankind’s flaws and how they whittle away at our moral integrity. While I was watching, I was surprised to find that the movie doesn’t play as much like a comic book flick as it does a psychological tragedy. The fact that it just happens to feature a comic book character is just the icing on the cake.

I was reminded by another movie while watching Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness, and that was Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. Both movies feel a lot like they are about the same person. Both feature mostly whole people who are going through serious trials and tribulations. Both characters are pieces of a broken world and are trying to make sense of it all. Both start going through a moral and mental decay that wears at the people they once were. And both start committing violent and deranged acts that fit in with their twisted senses of justification.

The movie is, in and of itself, a condemnation of the Joker’s villainy. It has to be, otherwise it threatens to embody the same evil that the Joker himself does. What’s fascinating is that the movie doesn’t just focus on the Joker, but rather all of the elements that help contribute to who he eventually becomes. The movie touches on several issues such as wealth inequality, mental health, infidelity, gun control, entertainment, anarchy, and so many other themes that you would least expect in a comic book movie like this. You wouldn’t think that these serious topics would fit into a movie about the Joker, yet they fit perfectly like pieces into a messy and chaotic puzzle. It’s very easy to simply write Joker off as psychotic and blame all of his cruelty on craziness. It’s much harder to take a deeper look at what turned Arthur Fleck into a murderer and address some of those contributors that had a hand in creating the Joker in the first place.

Since the movie is at its core a character observation, so much of the movie rests on Joaquin Phoenix’s scrawny shoulders as both Arthur Fleck and the Joker. He never buckles under the pressure. Not once. He plays both sides to the character in a beautiful and mesmerizing fashion, playing a meek and cowardly fellow in one beat and then a deranged and psychotic killer clown in another. He embodies the nuances of both characters perfectly and never breaks character in the movie’s 122-minute run time. If Joaquin isn’t at least nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars next year, the ceremony deserves to be boycotted.

You need to be warned that this is not a Batman movie by any means and is not meant for the regular superhero moviegoing public. This movie is equally inappropriate for any children younger than 18, as there is a lot of profanity, blood, gore, and disturbing images. Likewise, there’s also a larger conversation to be had about how movies like Joker humanizes deplorable human beings and gives insight to the horrible actions they carry out.

My argument is that these figures were already humanized through their situations and struggles – the movie’s challenge is showing us that without veering into preachiness or self-absorption. We already know that everything Joker does in the movie is reprehensible and wrong, just like we did for the Italian mobsters in The Godfather, or the gangsters in Goodfellas, or the hitmen in Pulp Fiction. The scary part is not caring when we cross that line – when we intentionally blur it or sometimes erase it altogether because we’ve lost any sense of moral integrity. In those moments, you can’t cry anymore because you’ve run out of tears to shed. All you can do is laugh.

Tagged , , , ,

‘The Batman’ Casts Riddler, Catwoman and Commissioner Gordon

Batman’s rogue’s gallery is starting to pile up for his newest cinematic outing.

Ever since Matt Reeves took over as director in 2017, Warner Bros.’s newest Batman movie has been shrouded in nothing but secrecy. First, it was rumored that Ben Affleck would reprise the role of Batman and would go up against Jared Leto’s Joker, but that rumor fell apart quickly once Affleck officially left the project earlier this year. Then Robert Pattinson, most known for Twilight fame, was cast as Bruce Wayne in Affleck’s place. Now the movie is confirmed not to be another origin story, but rather a neo-noir crime thriller with several villains stacked up against the caped crusader.

Well, we can now confirm at least two names that the Batman will be going up against. The first will be Edward Nygma, a.k.a. The Riddler, who tricks and manipulates the Batman through his several riddles and puzzles. The Hollywood Reporter earlier confirmed that Paul Dano, the fantastic actor behind movies including Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, and Love & Mercy, will be portraying Edward Nygma in the upcoming superhero flick.

But Dano isn’t the only big name attached to the project. Zoe Kravitz, the spitfire woman behind roles in movies including X-Men: First Class, Divergent, and Mad Max: Fury Road was also confirmed earlier this week to be playing Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman. Anne Hathaway was the most recent actress to portray the feline Fatale in Christopher Nolan’s 2013 epic The Dark Knight Rises. Interestingly enough, this is Kravitz’s second time to portray Catwoman, as she first provided her voice for the character in 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie.

Finally, Jeffrey Wright, the actor behind films including The Hunger Games and the newest James Bond movies, and television shows including “Boardwalk Empire” and “Westworld,” will be portraying Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming flick. Since its unclear when exactly the film takes place, Gordon could be either a friend or foe to Batman depending on how long Bruce has adopted the cowl. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing what Robert and Jeffrey’s chemistry will be like and how they work together in the film.

Overall I’m very pleased with these casting developments. Paul Dano is a highly underrated actor and has consistently put out great performance after great performance. Him playing the Riddler is pitch-perfect casting, although I would have loved to have seen what Jonah Hill might have done in the role before he exited the production. Zoe Kravitz is just as intriguing as Catwoman. Although she’s been in several high-profile movies, she hasn’t really been given a role as prominent as this. It’ll be exciting to see what she potentially does in the role and how she plays with Robert Pattinson’s Batman.

The most perplexing to me is Jeffrey Wright. While he’s a talented actor and a great pick for Commissioner Gordon, it’s unclear how he fits into the larger DC Extended Universe. Early on in production, The Batman was pitched as sort of a prequel to Ben Affleck’s Batman in Justice League. But as everyone already knows, J.K. Simmons portrayed Commissioner Gordon in that film and he and Jeffrey look nothing alike. Does that basically confirm that this is a standalone reboot and not attached to the DCEU? Only time will tell whether it is for sure.

What do you guys think? Are you excited that the cast is growing for The Batman? What are your thoughts on some of these casting choices? Comment below, let me know.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: The Hollywood Reporter, Variety

“IT CHAPTER TWO” Review (✫✫✫)

Why, Pennywise! What big teeth you have!

It Chapter Two opens on a scene of horror, not from the titular clown mind you, but rather from the prey he’s supposed to be hunting. It’s 2016 in Derry, Maine, and a gay couple just left the local carnival to go home. But on their way, they are attacked in the street by a gang of homophobic teenagers who beat them, taunt them, and then throw one of them over the bridge and into the river despite knowing that he can’t swim. It’s a harrowing, disturbing, and unsettling scene, especially since it’s something that doesn’t have to come from a horror movie. For many, it’s a reality they have to face every day they wake up. That’s scarier than any clown could ever be.

Of course, this encounter inevitably ends with the murderous Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) eating somebody. Thought to be dead, Pennywise has reawakened after he was defeated by the Loser’s Club 27 years ago. The now older Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) is the first to discover Pennywise’s return and reaches out to the rest of the Loser’s Club. His first call is to Bill Denborough (James McAvoy), a famous writer whose brother Georgie was eaten by the vicious clown 27 years ago. There’s Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), who now works as a fashion designer with her abusive husband. There’s Ben Hapscomb (Jay Ryan), a famed architect who lost a ton of weight and replaced it all with raw muscle. There’s Eddie Richmond (James Ransom), a hypochondriac and risk assessor from New York. And then there’s Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), the smart-aleck of the group that grew up to become a standup comedian.

Mike reunites all of the Losers together for one reason: because they swore that if Pennywise ever returned, so would they and finish him off for good. So the Losers Club reunite to find Pennywise, kill him, and end his reign of terror against Derry once and for all.

If you liked It Chapter One, chances are you will like It Chapter Two just as well. Even with Chapter Two being an obvious two-parter, there are still several elements from the first movie that are replicated faithfully in the sequel here. Take Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise as one example. He was an eerie, hair-raising presence in It Chapter One, and he’s just as creepy, haunting, and darkly comedic here as he was in the first movie. I’ve watched his performances back-to-back in Chapter One and Two and compared them both side-by-side, and the thing that keeps impressing me is how much he’s able to build on the character despite how little we know about him. From his maniacal laughter to his side-eyed stare to his drooling, creepy smile, Skarsgard lines up all of the qualities that make Pennywise a wacky, haunting, and unsettling figure. He surmises all of Stephen King’s appeal into one charmingly twisted character.

But its not just Skarsgard that works so well in this movie: much of the newer cast keeps up with him just as much. James McAvoy does a fantastic job as the stuttering Bill and performs brilliantly under the pressure in expressing his paranoia, grief, anger, guilt, and frustration. Jessica Chastain is just as phenomenal in playing Beverly, and she does a wonderful job in portraying the character’s psychological trauma while at the same time being the glue that holds the Loser’s Club together. Bill Hader is particularly my favorite as Richie. I spent half of the film’s runtime laughing, and most of the time it was because of Hader’s snappy quips and one-liners (especially when it had to do with Eddie’s mom).

What surprises me the most about this movie is how much it relies on flashback sequences to tell its story. It Chapter Two is two hours and 50 minutes long, and probably about a quarter of that time is used in flashback sequences. That means that much of its runtime flips between James McAvoy and Jaeden Martell, Jessica Chasten and Sophia Lillis, Bill Hader and Finn Wolfhard, etc. Mind you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The younger cast members, after all, were great in the first film and are just as reliable here. Still, I wasn’t expecting them to be featured so prominently in Chapter Two. I would have rathered the movie focus more on the adults rather than their younger counterparts. It would have given the new cast more space to build on and more opportunity to dive into the background of their older selves.

The rest of the movie carries out its typical horror movie routine. Pennywise pops out in a few jump scares, there are some heartfelt drama and lighthearted comedy to break up the action, and a giant CGI monster appears for the Loser’s Club to fight at the end of the movie. Granted, it doesn’t look nearly as terrible as the original monster did in the 1990’s television miniseries starring Tim Curry. Still, why do these movies have to end with a generic movie monster battle in the first place? Because it was in the book? Because it was required in Stephen King’s contract? Or because Bill Skarsgard got tired near the end of filming and told the animators to digitally edit him in so he could go home early?

Of course, I have to answer the inevitable question: which movie is better? It Chapter One or Two? My preference is It Chapter One, not only because it was such a lightning bolt of horror entertainment, but because it was a tightly-knit and brilliantly woven story that carried through fluidly without much confusion or interruption. There was a clear beginning, middle, and end to Chapter One, and we were easily able to immerse ourselves in the Loser’s Club’s plight and their terror of Pennywise. Chapter Two is a little more broken up and convoluted in its narrative, and the scares don’t land quite as hard as they did in Chapter One.

Still, It Chapter Two is a thrilling movie and a reliable sequel to one of the most unique and original horror experiences of our time. Movie fans are sure to be pleased by this duology, and Stephen King fans even more so. Just please, please stick to the book’s ending and don’t bring Pennywise back for another sequel. Otherwise, he’ll take the form of my greatest fear as It Chapter Three.

Tagged , , , ,

Spider-Man Back In The MCU… For Now.

SOURCE: Sony Pictures

He’s back, everybody. It may be only temporarily, but for the moment Spider-Man is back in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Sony Pictures left fans with a scare last month after the studio failed to renegotiate their contract with Walt Disney for the webhead’s future with the MCU. Originally, their contract gave Disney a five percent cut of Spider-Man’s earnings while Sony retained exclusive financing, distribution, and creative rights over the MCU’S Spider-Man movies. Talks of renegotiating fell apart, however, when Disney proposed a new deal that included a 50/50 co-financing agreement. Sony wasn’t satisfied with that proposal and wanted to stick with the terms of the original agreement. After neither Sony or Disney could reach a compromise, negotiations fell apart and Spider-Man was excluded from the MCU.

That all changed Friday when Sony and Disney reached a new deal to temporarily keep Spider-Man within the MCU. According to Variety, the new agreement includes a 75/25 co-financing agreement between the two studios. The new agreement allows Tom Holland to appear in a third Spider-Man movie, as well as another Marvel movie outside of his own series.

Fans that were in an uproar over last month’s developments should be able to breathe with a sigh of relief now that this new deal has gone through. With this new agreement secured between Sony and Walt Disney, Spidey will now be able to conclude his arc throughout his trilogy, as well as potentially appear in the fifth Avengers movie whenever that’s slated to come out. However, just because Spidey’s now back in the MCU doesn’t mean it will stay that way forever. It’s important to remember that while Sony and Disney have reached a temporary deal, that deal is temporary. It’s up to Sony and Disney to negotiate future Spidey appearances within the MCU after he’s appeared in his third movie and another Marvel movie, as well as what that partnership may mean going forward.

The third film in Tom Holland’s Spider-Man trilogy is scheduled for release on July 16, 2021.

– David Dunn

SOURCE: Variety, IndieWire

“ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE:

Movies, murder, and Manson.

Long before Quentin Tarantino became a household name thanks to the likes of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Tarantino was just an ecstatic, side-eyed cinephile whose entire upbringing was brought up thanks to the movies. At 14 he wrote a parody screenplay to Burt Reynolds’ 1977 hit Smokey and the Bandit called Captain Peachfuzz and the Anchovy Bandit. At 15 he dropped out of high school and worked as an usher for an adult movie theater called Pussycat Theatre. Then in his 20’s, he worked for five years at a video store before going to work as a production assistant for Dolph Lundgren’s workout videos. It wouldn’t be long after until he wrote his first full-length screenplay for Robert Rodriguez’s 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn. At nearly every corner, movies have come to define Tarantino and a part of his life. If he were any more into movies, he’d be a cinema projector and have film reels flowing through his veins.

I feel his unorthodox upbringing fuels, at least partly, his fascination behind Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a movie that feels equally as crazy and side-wined as Tarantino’s life has been, but in many ways, also serves as a personal and heartfelt homage to the movies. Oh, and Charles Manson and his murderous cult are involved in this movie as well. If movies, murder, and the Manson family tied into one storyline doesn’t describe a Quentin Tarantino movie, then nothing ever will.

In this devilishly wacky and zany dark comedy, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play a big-time TV star and his stunt double, both of which are looking for work in the dog-eat-dog world of 1960’s Hollywood. Their adventures into relevance take them everywhere in Hollywood to meet several famous celebrities, including Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Wayne Maunder, James Stacy, and Jay Sebring. All while this is going on, famed film director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) move in next door to them, all while a strange man stalks them throughout the neighborhood.

How does the Manson family murders tie into this story about Hollywood hijinks and high-profile celebrities? I’m not telling you. Part of the joy of Tarantino’s screenplays is that they play against the audiences’ expectations. That’s one of his greatest strengths as a writer – the unpredictability of his stories. Who could have expected, after all, that John Travolta would die halfway through Pulp Fiction, only to be revived through a flashback much later? Who also could have expected that both Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz would be killed by the end of the second act in Django Unchained and that Django would have to spend the rest of the movie fighting a racist black man? And who also could have predicted that Inglorious Basterd’s ending would include riddling Adolf Hitler’s smarmy head full of bullet holes?

Time and time again, Tarantino has proved how he can flip expectations on the audience’s heads and deliver some of the most quirky, unusual, and shocking stories ever put on film. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is no exception. It has all of the cleverness and wit of a Tarantino screenplay, but with twice as much satire and self-awareness. How do you think this movie will play out? Now do a complete 180 and go the exact opposite direction of what you’re expecting. That is Once Upon A Time In Hollywood in a nutshell, and it’s ingenious because of it.

But it isn’t just Tarantino’s writing skills that are on full display here: it’s also his expert craftsmanship and direction. Most of his movies feature gratuitous blood and gore as a common trademark of his, with it most of the time aimed towards his male character’s genitalia. And like clockwork, this movie also features a variety of violence that has Tarantino’s stamp of approval. What’s curious is that it isn’t a prominent feature throughout the film. In fact, the gory violence is mostly absent until the third act, where Tarantino finally lets loose in his typical nutty fashion. Most of the movie even serves as a staunch critique of violence in mainstream media, how it wears at the mind and desensitizes its audience to macabre bloodshed and sickening imagery. Tarantino’s own filmography is a prime example of this, as his movies have gotten progressively more violent ever since he released Reservoir Dogs in 1992. Does that make him a hypocrite, then, to critique and examine violence and its cultural impact while celebrating and relishing in it at the same time? Possibly, but this movie doesn’t examine cultural violence like it’s an issue to solve but rather as an inevitable quality of entertainment. I appreciate Tarantino’s introspection into observing that issue, even if he isn’t exactly exempt from it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt. Obviously, they are both incredibly talented and charismatic actors that have developed their own style and likeness similar to Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps that’s why they work so well together in this movie. Pitt succeeds in being the sly, slick, Cool Hand Luke-type character that remains level-headed and calm through all circumstances, even when they’re extraneous or unusual. DiCaprio, meanwhile, is an especially ecstatic character. It’s funny to watch him hyperventilate over the smallest of inconveniences, or damn near tear up when he’s told he should star in a spaghetti western. I like that about DiCaprio, how he can switch from such challenging roles such as Hugh Grant in The Revenant to more comedic and clumsy roles such as Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It really demonstrates his range as an actor and shows how well he can take on an assortment of characters, no matter how different they may be.

I feel like Once Upon A Hollywood may end up being incredibly divisive, both towards the passionate fans of Tarantino’s work and those who can’t stand him and his wacky, off-beat style. To me, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood embodies Tarantino’s strongest traits as a writer and a director without veering too far into being excessive or self-indulgent. Dare I say it’s my favorite Tarantino film? I’m not sure if I’m quite there yet, but it’s definitely in my top two alongside Pulp Fiction. However you may feel about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, I can only speak for myself and how I feel about it. On that note, I will say that by the end of the movie, I was shocked, revolted, and incredibly disturbed by what I saw. I was also rolling in my seat dying of laughter. That might say more about me than it does Quentin Tarantino, but hey, that’s the movies for you.

Tagged , , , ,