This is the ultimate story of “the other.” Todd Phillips’s Joker (A-) flips the script in what is ostensibly an original origin story about one of Batman’s most notorious villains. Masterfully played by Joaquin Phoenix, the titular antihero fashions a fascinating and occasionally heartbreaking portrait of a desperate and marginalized loner. The bleak period atmosphere of a dystopian 1981 in Gotham City (essentially a struggling New York) evokes the crime, corruption, gang and peep show filled mean streets of vintage Scorsese, but the real action is interior as Phoenix’s sad clown and wannabe stand-up comic falls deeper into delusion and paranoia. The film’s graphic and nihilistic spirit will be tough for some audiences, but it’s an indelible and engrossing experience built on a complex character. Frances Conroy is effective as his ghastly mother, and Robert DeNiro is smartly cast as a late night talk show king of comedy who mocks the lead character via the airwaves. Zazie Beetz is a warm presence as a kindly neighbor and object of either affection or obsession. The swoop of stardust music with sweet tunes such as “Smile” and “That’s Life!” are juxtaposed against a loony, lost landscape. Phoenix gives a signature performance, high praise after the powerful legacy of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s takes on the character before him. He’s got the ticks of A Clockwork Orange and the tolls of Taxi Driver mixed with his own blend of American Psycho. He’s also got some of the creepiest dance moves since Buffalo Bill put the motion in the basket. This is gripping, immediate and eminently watchable material, with descents and detours into madness beyond expectations.
There’s no place like home on a stage as a fantasy respite from a troubled life. Rupert Goold’s Judy (B) is the anticipated biopic with Renée Zellweger playing actress/ songstress Judy Garland in the fading fog of a salvage effort for money and maternal rights while in residency at a London concert hall. The story is slight, and the supporting characters make very little impression, but “Judy via Z” is a brass band of a performance. Ms. Zellweger finds the soaring voice (literally) and stirring humanity in a tragic real-life legend gone too soon. Through the haze of booze and pills, under puckered makeup and vice-grip hair and in poignant backlot flashbacks of being a controlled child performer in the Hollywood Studio System, there’s a stunning character portrait here. Goold conjures warm nostalgia amidst the melancholy and even captures some witty moments of acerbic humor. The music numbers don’t quite achieve the pulse of the moments in the margins, but you won’t want to miss a trip over the bittersweet rainbow with this talented woman of incomparable smarts, heart and courage.
The true wolves of Wall Street have arrived, and they’re adorned with bling and chinchilla. The latest addition into the hall of fame of superb real-life crime dramas is Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers (B+), buoyed by outstanding performances from Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez as exotic dancers who devise a scam to drain the credit cards of Wall Street clientele in the aftermath of last decade’s financial crisis. Scafaria’s visceral storytelling and exciting camerawork puts viewers directly in the action and elicits sympathy from characters who exhibit mixed motivations. Lopez delivers a performance of a lifetime as the queen bee of an unlikely hive of gangsters. She assumes the demanding role with brute force physically and emotionally. The film’s unapologetic glimpse at a transactional culture and its effect on friends and family gives it a pedigree to be remembered as awards season gets underway.
A feel-good odyssey in the milieu of Mark Twain, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s Peanut Butter Falcon (B+) wins over cynics with career-best performances from two young actors and an introduction to another indelible character plus an easygoing and authentic sense of human adventure. After escaping a residential nursing home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler, a man who has Down syndrome (joyously played by Zack Gottsagen) befriends an outlaw (Shia LaBeouf) who becomes his coach and ally. Dakota Johnson is the counselor on the hunt through North Carolina’s Outer Banks for the coastal castaways. Through boat chases and Baptisms, gun fights and hideaways, the human bonds become increasingly heartfelt. The final reel sputters a bit after already securing the glory of its fabulous fable. Familiar faces abound, including Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and John Hawkes in supporting roles. The film is sweet without saccharine, and the characters stick to the roof of your soul.
All the clamor over the hush of forbidden, guilty secrets really puts the SH… in this IT. Andy Muschietti’s bloated follow-up to his adaptation of the childhood passages of Stephen King’s nostalgic ode to overcoming what scares you is overlong, not remotely frightening, full of half-baked creature effects, sloppily paced and only occasionally charming due to the assets of select cast members. It Chapter Two (C-) flash forwards a quarter century to showcase the “Losers Club” kids all grown up facing off again with evil, especially embodied in Pennywise the Clown. In the body count of who vanquishes themselves as actors in the FX-covered ensemble, Bill Hader and Jay Ryan are a delight, Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy are underwhelming, James Ransone is a mixed bag and Isaiah Mustafa does his role no favors. Most of the characters have been haunted in some way since they became Derry free, but reuniting in the small town brings back all the feels. The film too often flashes back to events in or adjacent to the prior film, and it just feels like a retread. The present danger isn’t particularly menacing, and the adults seem rather casual for a good bit in following the tedious rules of stopping evil in its tracks. The showdown is evocative of the ’80s mainly due to feeling like a neverending story. The much-heralded clown is a bit incidental this time around. The last five minutes are quite nice.
Some things that don’t seem to naturally go together can create nice harmony, like the frustrated Muslim teen in rural Thatcherite England and his newfound muse, working-class American rocker Bruce Springsteen. Having played in a similar milieu with a girl who wants to bend it like her soccer hero, Gurinder Chadha crafts her latest coming of age dramedy Blinded by the Light (B) with a gentle and loving touch that transcends her story’s sometimes color by number conceits. Casting her protagonist with the talented Viveik Kalra is the first win, and although some of the exposition is clunky and techniques labored, you can’t help but root for this spry hero. The handful of songs by “The Boss” provide a fantasy foil to both the teen’s mundane struggles with his parents, finding love and testing his mettle as a writer as well as a larger commentary on the xenophobia and class warfare of 1987 British politics as it plays out in a provincial community. The musical sequences feel as awkward and amateur as the tentative young man being inspired by them (this is in fact a compliment), and the sentiment generally pays off with an authentic supporting cast. It all works better than it should, given some head-scratching plot points which don’t all get resolved. The film is ultimately a marvelous family film and a giddy glimpse at how you should go about borrowing the best traits from your idols when endeavoring to find your own voice.
For a movie about looming death, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (A) is a surprisingly joyous work. Her understated film is a near note-perfect glimpse at family dynamics as ordinary individuals endeavor to unravel the responsibilities of adulthood while confronting cultural dynamics in flux. Aspiring Chinese-American writer Billi, deftly played by Awkwafina, visits her Nai Nai (Mandarin for grandmother), beautifully embodied by Zhao Shuzhen, in Changchun, China for a poignant occasion. Although Nai Nai has a terminal illness, her family chooses to abide by a longstanding tradition to “carry the burden” for the matriarch and engages in a conspiracy to conceal the diagnosis from her. While the spry protagonist initially rejects the notion of deceiving her beloved relative, a series of heartfelt events bring insight and balance to a woman caught between worlds. Wang strikes a magnificent consistency of tone in telling this familial tale of the immigrant family’s return to the homeland, and she draws sincere and sentimental performances from her talented female leads. Although she also displays melancholy dramatic chops to great avail, Awkwafina’s humor is the tender translator at the film’s center. This cinematic family is one to remember and its story one of the delightful sleeper hits of the year.
One of the film industry’s most notorious writer/directors slows his roll into leisurely paced comedy and doesn’t quite succeed until things get violent. He’s clearly better at the Spaghetti Western than The Decline of Western Civilization. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (B-) explores how movie stars are always one step away from their big break, whether because of talent, typecasting or breakout performances or, more commonly, because they join a celebrity entourage or get invited by famous neighbors to a cocktail. It’s no coincidence that two of the biggest stars in the world – Leonardo DiCaprio, portraying a boozy actor in career decline, and Brad Pitt, playing his stuntman and designated driver – steal the show with wile and charm. They deliver a lot of yummy tapas in the movie, but it doesn’t add up to a fully satisfying meal. Pitt is the charismatic one here, with a cadence and style he has honed before in the auteur’s revisionist history universe; quite frankly, he’s really good in his every sequence and has uncanny chemistry with an animal co-star. With a less interesting and underwritten character, DiCaprio lacks intrigue and consistency. He’s ironically at his best in a “movie within the movie” when his character is actually acting. The discarded duo of cowboy and fighter with a backdrop of a classic industry in upheaval almost seems like the makers have Toy Story 2 on the mind. Tarantino is, of course, endlessly fascinated with movie lore, so he includes in his spotty ‘60s pastiche some gorgeously filmed milieus and commentary about the transition of the Golden Age of Hollywood to something much different. He eschews many of his usual flourishes, and without a better style to replace them, they are missed. Subplots with Al Pacino and Margot Robbie build on the film’s themes but don’t ever become center stage in a captivating way. Boy, are there some great set pieces and play sets, including a Hollywood Hills home, two insider Mexican restaurants and a former Western movie backlot inhabited by Charles Manson acolytes. It’s a film full of imaginative notions not fully realized. Like a grindhouse double feature, this feels like a talky two hour character study followed by a thirty minute short in which those characters actually get to do what we’ve been wanting them to do all along.
Disney’s Mouse House has found a way to corral more currency out of Casa Mufasa and despite critical carping blowing across the savanna will likely have hakuna mutata (no worries!) about doing so. Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King (C-) is a largely joyless and superfluous affair, replacing traditional line drawing with a photo-realistic nature documentary CGI animation style. Not one element improves on the original, even though most of the content about a lion’s exile and return to assume control of his kingdom is still there. Voice actors Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen make the most of their Timon and Pumba characters amidst the dirge-like proceedings, riffing with abandon amidst an otherwise overly reverential storytelling format. Some of the best sequences in the original still work once transmitted through the Favreau facsimile, while many other emotional moments are rendered toothless. Donald Glover and Beyoncé deliver more lemon than lemonade in the voice talent department with indifferent line readings. The cuddly animated Simba cub will sell a lot of plush toys. Nostalgia factor and escape from the summer heatwave will lure folks in to the multiplex, but those expecting to have their pride rocked may be better served with a viewing of the delightful original.
Director Jon Watts follows up his Marvel Universe reboot of the web-slinging series with the returning, utterly charming Tom Holland conveying convincing spectacle in the title role of Spider-Man: Far from Home (B), a worthy but overly busy Spidey sequel. This installment finds our hero mourning the loss of a fellow superhero while juggling a high school European field trip in which he’s looking for a romantic hook-up with MJ played with sass by Zendaya and battling emerging supervillain Mysterio, a mixed bag of a Jake Gyllenhaal performance. The teen angst is the best part; the set-up for the epic action in an augmented reality showdown is curiously half-baked. Holland’s Peter parkours, trapezes, amazes and teases through it all and makes this episode worthwhile viewing. The film is fast, funny and occasionally tender.
The venerable Burning Man Festival has nothing on the art house stylings of Ari Aster’s Midsommar (B-), in which a group of Americans including Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and Will Poulter visit the fictional Swedish commune of Hårga for what detours into the realms of hallucinogenic revenge fantasy. This curiosity, buoyed by eat/prey/love storyline stanzas, is more trippy than terrifying and more symbolic than satisfying. The highly effective Pugh plays a complex woman recovering from family tragedy and talented Reynor her overwhelmed lover. Their date with destination goes a bit far afield; and despite the generous running time, it rarely is uninteresting. Poulter is delightful comic relief as the friends find themselves drawn deeper into the shocking traditions of the countryside cult. But the film peaks early and can’t quite maintain its sense of mystery and dread. One of the film’s winning gimmicks is that most of the horrors happen in broad daylight in a setting that stays sunny. But only the most daring or devilish moviegoers will revel in the film’s bonkers final act. Applause for the intellectual take on the horror genre and the creation of an original world; but it ultimately needs a little more seasoning.
Have you ever had that tense dream when you show up for a final exam but missed the entire preceding semester of study? Or you appear on a stage to perform in a play but never memorized the script or blocking? Sure, you can get by with a little help from your friends, but your tour of duty will be dotted with some magical mysteries not easily solved. Even with the witty words of screenwriter Richard Curtis and music and lyrics of none other than The Beatles, Director Danny Boyle’s tonal troubles are here to stay in Yesterday (C-), his fussy maiden voyage into the romantic comedy genre. Sprinkle in a painfully miscast and unfunny Himesh Patel as the lead character, and base it all on a Twilight Zone style premise of “What if only one person on earth knew of the existence and song catalogue of The Beatles, and what if he were a singer who could pass off the tunes as his own?,” and you have a movie director seriously in need of a lot of hand holding. Only a lovely performance by Lily James, who lifts the love interest role into master class territory, keeps the plot grounded amidst Boyle’s kaleidoscopic swirl of perplexing supporting characters, floating fonts and fissures in the space-time continuum. A movie promising the Fab Four’s fanciful fare gets an uncomfortably competing and cloying dose of Ed Sheeran music (the musician plays himself) and very little joy or creativity in the live performances. The lead character is so wound up in guilt about the plagiarized origins of his source material that his music is robbed of its joy. This misbegotten effort is not without its occasional charms. For instance, there was some nice commentary about whether the presence of genius would even be noticed by a society marred by short attention spans. But the smiles and specific song you leave humming at the film’s finale don’t help harvest the fruit of Boyle’s often rotten strawberry field.