Saturday, October 26, 2019

[Review] Joker

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the new Joker movie is worth a thousand jaw drops.

Joaquin Phoenix puts on the clown makeup and suits up as the infamous title character in this dark descent into maniacal madness, and every single second of it is riveting. 

When we’re first introduced to Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), he’s a mentally unstable loner with an uncontrolled laughter condition and a diet of false hopes and desperation. He spends most of his time taking care of his mother, working a penny-paying party clown job, and getting his ass kicked in Gotham City. He’s also an inspiring comedian with dreams of appearing on a late night talk show called Murray (the host is terrifically played by Robert De Niro). And what unwinds is an extremely grimy portrait of how the Joker came to be the Joker. 

This is a deeply disturbing and unsettling watch — the type of thing to make you squirm with discomfort. But it’s also an engrossing character study and a strikingly rendered vision that you can’t look away from but wish you could. It’s a brutal kick to the gut from a sad clown shoe. A rat-infested subway ride to hell. A bombing stand-up set under a pukey pallet of stage lights. It’s a film where face paint mixes with blood. Class warfare, societal ills, and fallen systems litter and permeate the environment like ripped newspaper headlines and hospital records burning in a trash can of flames. 

Phoenix’s performance is absolutely phenomenal. It’s frighteningly great. It’s physically unhinged and hyper-detailed. His appearance is hauntingly gaunt and skeletal. He gracefully sways, swings, and dances like a pile of rattling bones. He’s got a dead-inside smile and the creepiest laugh that will ever pierce your ears. He’s a vessel of dark thoughts and delusion. Every movement, every facial expression demands attention. It’s one of the best cinematic performances of all time. 

There’s never been anything like this in the comic book genre. Todd Phillips’ masterpiece has more in common with films like Taxi Driver and Christine than it even does with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series. It’s grounded in harsh realities and nightmarish circumstances. And what’s so scary about the Joker is how quickly he can lash out. It just takes a flicker. Just one smile. 

*10/10 *

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

[Review] Shazam!

Not be confused with a particular mobile music app, DC’s Shazam! is a superhero fantasy that dazzles and astounds with an electric heart. 

Meet 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a troubled foster kid who moves into a loving new home. One day, he happens upon a sacred curse that allows him to transform into a grownup superhero named Shazam (played by Zachary Levi). From there, he begins to test his powers by fighting crime and saving citizens in between freshman classes. Of course, a story like this needs a villain, and that comes in the form of the vengeful Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).  

This is the type of film that you watch with a big smile on your face. It’s fun, it’s charming, and it’s genuinely touching. It’s essentially a family amusement park ride with warping imagination. It definitely revels in the fantastical elements — there’s wizards, gargoyle-like creatures, and magic portals. Things can get a little too Power Ranger-y at times, and the film doesn’t totally differentiate itself from other current comic book flicks, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for with a great sense of humor and exuberant bursts of earnest wonderment and warmth. The setting even takes place during Christmas time and it lights up with a lot of holiday spirit. You could practically say it’s a superhero Christmas film. Think - A Christmas Story mixed with Justice League

Admirably, at this adventure spectacle’s glowing core is a sweet story of family, friendship, belonging, and sticking up for yourself and others. Shazam! 

( 7.5/10 )

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

[Review] Long Shot

Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron star in Long Shot, a sharp and likable romantic comedy that thoughtfully dabbles in politics. 

Rogen plays Fred Flarsky (there’s a name), a down-an-out journalist and avid windbreaker wearer. At a charity event, he bumps into his childhood crush Charlotte Field (Theron), who is now the U.S. Secretary of State with hopes at a Presidential bid. In an unbelievable turn of events, Field hires Flarsky as a punch-up writer for her speeches. And, well, things eventually get a little messy, especially as feelings arise and motivations are questioned.

Commendably, Long Shot is the movie form of that rare political argument you see on Facebook where the discussion is nuanced and the people politely hear each other out and end up staying friends. The intentions are good, the ideals are sound, and there are plenty of belly laughs and handshakes to go around. It’s a very funny and refreshing script, full of over-the-top gags and witty zingers and winky pop-culture references (shout out to Lil Yachty). Rogen and Theron flex their comedy chops and foiling chemistries, while a couple of supporting cast members steal the spotlight, including O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Flarsky’s hilarious and motivational friend, and an almost unrecognizable Andy Serkis deeply disguised in make-up and prosthetics (and maybe a fat suit) as a slimy bigwig. Oh yeah, and there’s an extended Boyz II Men cameo, which made this nostalgic fan very happy. 

Long Shot is actually at its best when it isn’t focusing on the typical rom-com elements, and you pretty much have to suspend all of your disbelief in order to buy into this thing from the beginning (another reason why Long Shot is such a fitting title), but it’s a mostly agreeable comedy candidate to put your support behind. 

( 8/10 )

Saturday, October 19, 2019

[Review] The Mustang

Wild horses running through a magnificent countryside — now that’s a special kind of freedom. Those are the opening images of The Mustang, a gritty prison drama with the heart of a stallion. 

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Roman, an incarcerated felon with a violent past and a major anger problem. 12 years into his sentence, he’s placed into a rehabilitation program led by a rancher (greatly played by Bruce Dern) where inmates are tasked with training mustang horses. During the tricky process, Roman begins to learn the ways of the animals, and in turn he discovers a lot about himself.

Like training a mustang itself, director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre approaches the film with patience and conviction. It’s an unflinching look at a harsh environment, and it’s orchestrated with the utter rawness of a documentary. It’s quietly powerful, it’s intensely physical, and it’s a delicate balance of bleakness and hope. Matthias Schoenaerts gives an excellent and deeply felt central performance. And while we might not ever feel complete sympathy for his character, the scenes of him bonding with his assigned horse are beyond moving. Out in the dusty fields and the neck-roasting sun, there is a shred of redemption to be found.

I also always appreciate a film with a great final shot, and The Mustang has a phenomenal one. In this story, the beast tames the man. 

( 7/10 )

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

[Review] El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

It seems like forever ago since Jesse Pinkman drove off into the uncertainty of night during the finale of AMC’s phenomenal series “Breaking Bad.”

Now, Netflix picks up the pieces with the feature-length film titled El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. The question with this sort of thing is always: Is it needed? Is there anything more to add to the story? Well, thankfully Vince Gilligan and company make it all worthwhile, as El Camino serves as an effective revisit of the “Breaking Bad” world and a compelling drive into the messy aftermath of Pinkman’s story. 

Emmy-winner Aaron Paul (he’s fantastic here) returns as Pinkman, and the film picks up right where the series left off. At this point, he’s a fugitive who’s wanted by more than just the cops, which makes for a great on-the-run plot. It’s a getaway on top of a getaway. Flashbacks are cooked in throughout, adding some meditative sympathy to Jesse’s character. He always was the true heart of the series — as moral as you can get when you’re caught up in a meth-making empire, I suppose. Is Pinkman’s fate too far gone? Did he get in too deep? One thing’s for certain — he’ll never be the same. 

While El Camino clocks in at a proper two hours, it feels less like its own movie and more like an extended ”Breaking Bad” episode, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given its Netflix home. Familiar faces show up along the way, and old haunts are stumbled into. The cinematography is exquisite and evocative, providing plenty of strikingly crafted shots (and I’m not just talking about the pistol fires), from the more contained images to the stunning views of wide, scenic deserts. Slowly but surely, the pace cruises along like a ticking clock (even the film’s score sounds like one). It’s a burning cigarette. A belt about to snap. A chain ready to break.

El Camino stacks on the intense dilemmas and the quietly explosive scenes that “Breaking Bad” fans love. It’s a rusted vehicle of outlaws and misfits. A cactus-pricked tale of repercussions and rear-view mirror reflections. An oil-soaked shot at redemption. An engine that just won’t quit. 

( 8/10 )

Saturday, October 12, 2019

[Review] Midsommar

Flowers and sunlight have never felt so ominous...

Ari Aster, director of 2018’s disturbing familial horror saga Hereditary, follows that up with Midsommar, an audacious and absurd exercise in surreal dread.

After an unspeakably grim family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) take their decaying relationship to a summer trip in rural Sweden. Between the bizarre behavior of the people and the handfuls of hallucinogenics, it doesn’t take an expert to realize that the couple has just stepped into the territory of cult. A really, really messed up one. 

This is the type of film that makes your jaw permanently drop to the ground. This is the type of film that makes you go “What the fuck?” every five minutes. This is the type of film that makes you question the ingredients in your bowl of soup. This is the type of film that will make you never look at bears the same way again. 

What’s so intriguing is that the whole thing takes place during the daylight. The clear-eyed brightness just renders the creepy events as all the more jarring. It’s beautifully shot terror set with a perfectly arranged bouquet of madness. It’s a nightmare under blue skies. A dance of dread. A festival of bedlam. Ari Aster creates a twisted, trippy, and unsettling atmosphere that rivets and intoxicates. It goes from head-scratching to skull-crushing. 

The deeper you get into it, Midsommar blossoms into a grotesque and shocking and even hilarious experience that manages to keep outdoing itself. It’s the rare and radical horror film where darkness would come as a relief. 

* 9/10 *

Thursday, October 3, 2019

[Review] Ma

It’s ridiculous. It’s hilarious. It’s sinister. And it’s right on the other side of the door. The maternally-titled Ma is a batshit and bonkers B-horror spectacle that features a giddily disturbing performance from Octavia Spencer. 

The story revolves around a group of obnoxious, thrill-hungry teenagers who high-five each other at the sight of free booze. Eventually they meet an unassuming lady named Sue Ann (Spencer), who curiously lets them party in her basement whenever they want. “Call me Ma,” she says. But the fun ends (or just begins - depending on how you look at it) when Ma becomes smothering and stalkerish by dark means.

This comically sadistic and head-scratching film is like a drunken Lifetime movie that stumbled upon a dose of rage-roids and biblical sins. Revenge is served up in the form of sewing and ironing, and I’m not talking about afternoon pastimes or usual household chores. Yes - mouths are sewn and stomachs are ironed. It’s shocking to the point where you’re almost surprised that this movie didn’t tack on a notorious NC-17 rating. 

Octavia Spencer is fully game as the creepy title character. It’s a performance that’s as funny as it is psychotic. She’s warm on the outside but about one inkling of disrespect away from snapping. And once she does snap, she goes all the way. Spencer seems to be having a blast in this role, going over-the-top with skill. As the film progresses, we learn more about that background of Ma through vivid flashbacks and her history of getting bullied and humiliated by the parents of the very kids she’s schemingly taken into her home.

“I was just a kid!”
“So was I, motherfucker!” 

I’m not saying that this is the proper way to achieve vengeance against high school bullying, but it surely is an entertaining watch on Saturday night if you’re in past curfew.  

( 6.5/10 )