Author Archives: Andy Wilson

Movie Review: The Gentlemen – Pure Guy Ritchie Fun, Problematic Takes Included

Guy Ritchie's The Gentlemen movie poster

Somehow in the last decade, noted British scumbum auteur Guy Ritchie pivoted from gritty, street-level crime dramas with accents so heavy you need to turn the subtitles on to being one of the most bankable journeymen who brought us the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and last year’s Aladdin remake. But with The Gentlemen, he goes back to the same well that brought us Snatch and Rock n Rolla. Ritchie’s fans will be very happy, as you can’t imagine two films more diametrically opposed than this and Aladdin.

Our story centers around American-born Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) who parlays his Rhodes Scholarship into an empire of dealing marijuana to Britain’s hoi polloi. But as he reaches middle age and considers getting out of the business, selling to fellow American Matthew (Jeremy Strong) but is beset by competition from rival Chinese syndicates, who mostly control the heroin and cocaine trade, led by up and coming lieutenant Dry Eyes (Henry Golding) and also ends up crossing an MMA-training street gang trained by “Coach” (Colin Farrell) who like to post videos of their crimes on Youtube cut into their rap videos. Seriously. It’s very Guy Ritchie.

Perhaps the most Guy Ritchie thing about it is that the entire film is framed as a conversation where glorified paparazzo Fletcher (Hugh Grant) is trying to shake down Ray (Charlie Hunnam), who is Mickey’s majordomo in this weed empire. Fletcher lays out the story of the film as… a spec screenplay– it’s a movie in the movie! How Ritchie and Grant managed to not to die from exhaustion from incessantly winking at the audience will perhaps never be explained. It’s cute, and it would be unforgivable if it wasn’t so fun. Grant continues his recent run of amazing supporting performances and he’s so effortlessly charming as he runs through his schtick– and spends most of the movie flirting with Charlie Hunnam. There’s an ad campaign to be built just around a bearded Hunnam and all the ways Hugh Grant flirts with him. It’s a nice stretch for Ritchie, who also punctuates this a lot of his other trademark moves.

It’s also very Guy Ritchie in the fact that his schtick which may have worked two decades ago now sticks out as, at best, problematic, and, at worst, racist. Yes, Henry Golding is a bad guy– all of these guys are bad guys– and so it’s expected that they’re going to do bad things. But that doesn’t absolve the film of Orientalist tropes that otherize and homogenize people of Asian origin, such as the fact that the Malaysian Golding is referred to over and over as a “Chinaman.” Please, dude– even The Big Lebowski knew that term was inappropriate two decades ago. One of the characters is even named “Phuc.” Get it? It’s so subtle, let me explain it to you the way the film does over and over in the hope that the joke will become funnier. Hint: it doesn’t. And a scene where Coach calls one of his students “a black cunt” and then explains to him that it’s a term of endearment doesn’t remove some of the racial stigmas. Sigh. Double sigh for the weird anti-Semitic tropes and gay stereotypes layered on Jeremy Strong’s character.

But we don’t come to Guy Ritchie expecting him to be politically correct. He is what he is, and these are the films that he makes. I firmly believe in the philosophy of judging a movie by what it is and what it’s trying to be rather than what it’s not and never could have been. There’s no way to make Guy Ritchie make a movie that conforms to these expectations, the same way I expect Sam Mendes to make exactly the movie he made with 1917.

What IS unfortunate is that Ritchie walks away from a few concepts in the film that needed to be explored more. He is by no means a feminist, so it’s not surprising that his film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test when. . . *checks notes* no, wait. . . it does? An early scene where Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), Mickey’s wife, pulls up to her personal place of business– an all-female car repair shop that seemingly caters to posh British women with high-end sports cars– gets run over so quickly in order to continue to the main storyline and I just wanted to pause the movie right there and live in it.

Stop drilling– you struck oil. I want more Dockery, more sports cars, now, please. That scene was so vivacious and fun and I want an entire movie about it.

Ultimately, the film is what it is: it’s fun, it’s violent, it’s pure Guy Ritchie. And that means you take the good with the bad. But for anyone who is a fan of Ritchie’s schtick and has wanted the old Guy Ritchie back, you’re in for a treat. All others? Your mileage may vary.

3.75 stars out of 5

1917 – Movie Review: Visual Tricks Overshadow War’s Human Story

1917

1917 definitely has a very specific energy, and that is tension built on top of tension on top of tension. But like a meal whose flavor profile is just based on one flavor, the final effect feels a little flat, even if it’s so technically stunning. Director Sam Mendes has always been an arresting visual director, from his award-winning work on American Beauty two decades ago to the comic-adapted Road to Perdition to (the best Bond film) Skyfall. And here he’s aided by (one of the greatest living cinematographers) Roger Deakins (who also teamed with Mendes on Skyfall) and editor Lee Smith, who help him achieve the illusion of a single, uninterrupted shot for the entire length of this gorgeous and arresting movie. The film’s strength and weakness are that the gimmick works incredibly effectively. But the story and characters take a backseat to the narrative and technical constraints, which somewhat hamstrings a technically amazing film.

Said story and characters are simple enough: in the waning days of World War I in the trenches of the Western Front, two English doughboys are dispatched to warn a battalion to call off an attack scheduled for dawn. To make the matter more personal, one of the infantrymen’s brother serves in that battalion, so they’re not only saving the war effort, but a family member. The camera follows the action in what appears to be one interrupted take (although it’s fairly clear where they used specific transitions to hide their cuts) and the results are intense.

Much like in Hitchcock’s classic film Rope, (and used in a somewhat more gimmicky way in Birdman) the lack of cuts helps elevate the dramatic tension. You never quite notice how much we depend on a simple cut to alleviate that anxiety that simply comes from letting a take run long. Especially in our quick-cut, quick edit world, we are simply not used to a filmmaker using a single shot for an extended period of time and it becomes incredibly unnerving. The way the camera moves, and what it chooses to linger on (including disturbing images of the horrors of war) also double and triple down on the dramatic tension.

The downside is that our characters and actors take a backseat to all of this, as a veritable who’s who of acclaimed British actors show up all too briefly. Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch bookend the film as British generals in their strongest stiff upper lip personas, and along the way we also run across Andrew Scott (Hot Priest sighting!) and Mark Strong. But where the film actually works best is in some of its quieter moments, such as encountering a young French mother trying to protect her infant while under siege/occupation by German forces.

1917 surely deserves the awards nominations and attention it has been receiving. As a technical achievement, it is breathtaking. But, then again, so is Avengers: Endgame. And in a year where we’re once again discussing the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of awards nominees, it’s hard to not take a second look at 1917 for what it is: a technical masterpiece which puts all of the talents of Roger Deakins and Mendes on full display, but which is choosing to tell a very traditional story centered around the heroics of white men. I had similar problems with Dunkirk. (However, it should be noted that Mendes does take time to at least cameo the contributions of non-white British soldiers) But this is very clearly a passion project and one where Mendes is cashing in a lot of favors to make the movie he wants to make. And it’s time to stop for one moment and think about exactly what kind of film comes out of that process and why, and how that compares to the barriers faced by some of 2019’s other top films and filmmakers. And is there a reason why Sam Mendes might get a Best Director nomination but Lulu Wang won’t? Which, again, isn’t a reason why Mendes shouldn’t be nominated. But maybe Todd Phillips shouldn’t?

All of that is to say that you should most certainly see 1917 and revel in its technical prowess, but also interrogate it a little. If not one of 2019’s absolutely best films, it’s one of its most technically audacious and certainly deserving of the awards hype it’s getting. My personal recommendations would be to not only watch this but then also delve back into Deakins’ back catalog, from his work with the Coen Brothers to Dennis Villanueve, to understand how much visual sauce he’s able to bring to most films.

4.25 out of 5 stars

Cats Zooms Past So Bad it’s Good Territory

Cats

Look, Cats was always going to be a disaster. There’s simply no way you could take the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and turn it into a coherent film because Cats is and always has been nonsensical garbage dolled up with amazing costumes, dancing, and setpieces. Notice I didn’t say music, because Cats has exactly one great song, “Memory,” and the rest is more ridiculous garbage.

Imagine the amount of cocaine that was ingested in the writing, conception, production design and staging of Cats beginning with TS Elliot’s poetry to the 1981 musical to every production of the musical since then to this film. Every bit of celluloid screams “WE ARE ON DRUGS” up to and including the way the cats’ CGI animated ears and tails WON’T STOP MOVING. Yes, cats can and do move like that, but apparently “Jellicle” cats can and do EVERY 2 SECONDS.

One way the film does improve on the play is its attempts to actually convey some sort of plot: every year on a special night, our band of jellicle cats meet and their matriarch (played by Maggie Smith) chooses one to go up to kitty cat heaven and be reborn. So the cats put on a series of elaborate song and dance numbers to compete for that honor, like you do. Except one of the bad cats (played by Idris Elba) is trying to rig the competition in his favor by kidnapping other top kitties. It is not a plot-forward movie.

Instead, you basically get a dozen little vignettes each devoted to introducing one cat or another and there’s singing and dancing. Ok, the dancing is pretty great. Francesca Hayward plays Victoria, our audience surrogate cat, who is new to the junkyard and this band of jellicles, so we learn through her eyes. She is an amazing dancer. There is no way to oversell how great she is. It’s just such a shame she isn’t in a better film, especially one that doesn’t weirdly sexualize her so much.

What do I mean by weirdly sexualize? Well, you come away from the film with a weird feeling like. . . maybe director Tom Hooper has a cat fetish? If you are a cat furry and love the Cats musical, then this movie is 100% for you. Everyone else? Ehhhhhh. . .

Is it so bad it’s good? Like a cult classic sort of way, like a sneak in some edibles and enjoy it way? No. It zooms past so bad it’s good territory that it’s so bad it’s bad again. I pity anyone who goes to this movie high on drugs. It’s going to be a bad trip.

Cat Meow GIF by Cats Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

This film has such an amazing cast and they are all wasted here. I have no idea what Idris Elba is doing in this movie. I have no idea what Judi Dench is doing in this movie. I have no idea what Ian McKellan is doing in this movie. I have no idea what Jennifer Hudson is doing in this movie. Ok, I sort of know what James Corden, Jason Derullo, and Rebel Wilson are doing in this movie and that is hamming it up as much as possible. I have no idea what Taylor Swift is doing in this movie.

And speaking of Taylor, she has a new song she co-wrote with Andrew Lloyd Webber and it is exactly the unholy abomination a combination of those two would be. Meanwhile, Jennifer Hudson seems determined to make “Memory” hers as much as possible, full-on ugly-crying under the weight of all that makeup and CGI as if to say, “Remember when Anne Hathaway ugly-cried in Les Mes and you all ate it up? Well here’s THIS.” When she finally lets loose and belts as hard as she can, it’s actually pretty good for a few seconds. But it can in no way redeem the rest of this thoroughly inexplicable movie.

Cats will have a fanbase. There will be people who love this. I’m glad they’ll find what they like. And I will say this for it: between this and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, one of these two movies took a big audacious swing. And there’s something to be said for that. Yes, it’s still a giant festering garbage fire, but at least they were thinking big enough to ask, “What if Cats, but with CGI ear and tail twitching and more like humans and sexier?”

1 out of 5 stars

The Rise of Skywalker: An Imperfect Ending, But Provides Populist Hope in Dark Times

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

A lot of digital ink has been spilled already discussing the failures of The Rise of Skywalker. It’s not a bad movie, but it has the weight of literally four decades of expectations and fandom riding on it. It was going to be impossible to deliver something that satisfied everyone.

And yet, it is incredibly clear that this film tried to do exactly that. Unfortunately, in trying to do and be everything to everyone, it ends up doing none of those things particularly well. Its plot twists are predictable enough that they’ve been guessed already by a thousand angry Reddit fanboys. I hope they are pleased with what they got.

Because what this movie feel like is “safe.” It’s the cinematic equivalent of gluing in the firing rocket from Boba Fett’s jetpack because you’re worried someone will hurt themselves with it. Yeah, it’s still a Boba Fett figure and therefore pretty damn cool. But when you create something for mass consumption based on the idea that we have to please an (angry) lowest common denominator, you end up serving up something that is blander than it needs to be.

The Force Awakens worked because despite its reliance on nostalgia and creating a new hero’s journey for our new characters, it was a reinvention of the original Star Wars for a new, diverse, and female-led generation of fans. People got angry. All the right people got angry. Good art should do that. Then The Last Jedi took that and turned it to 11. It subverted expectations and tropes, delivering something that was divisive in all the right ways. The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker could not be more polar opposite of movies in that way– as JJ Abrams described it in The New York Times, a “pendulum swing.” It didn’t need to swing that far, JJ.

It’s as if, after making the 8th highest-grossing movie of all time, “But there’s all these people who are Mad Online about it. Maybe we should make the next movie to try to please them.” And that is exactly how we end up with things like the abomination of a car Homer designs, built for the “average” person:

But great art isn’t built like this. Compare and contrast this with three of the best wide-release films of 2019, starting with Ford v. Ferrari. Shelby and the team at Ford didn’t set out to create a car for the average person. Far from it: they wanted a race car and delivered something that was, in fact, hard to drive. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a crowd-pleaser in all the right ways and delivers in all the ways fans of the detective mystery will enjoy. But it has some sharp corners that you can poke your eye out with. But it also has Chris Evans in a sweater in a scene with Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” playing in the background and him telling basically every other member of the cast to “Eat $#!t.” Sharp edges.

And then we have Avengers: Endgame, which was set up with much the same expectations and weight. But somehow they managed to stick the landing. Why giving us a film that both felt nostalgic and literally traveled through the past of the MCU, but ultimately all of that was done in service a furthering the characterization of our characters, especially Tony and Steve. So when the final “I am Iron Man” snap happens, it’s earned, it’s organic, and it’s beautiful. Yes, the giant Avengers Assemble moment at the end is a bit contrived and designed to please, but it’s so fun we don’t mind that we’re being pandered to.

The Rise of Skywalker differs in that its pandering doesn’t feel earned. It feels focus-group-tested and, frankly, boring.

If The Rise of Skywalker fails to perform at the box office, Disney is going to need to do some serious self-reflection. The first step is admitting that you have a problem with an abusive, toxic fanbase. And maybe you need to break up with them. Because they’re not letting you be your best, true self. And you’ll never be able to please your abuser enough to make the abuse stop. So stop trying to appease the unappeasable.

Now, all that being said, I actually still mostly like this movie. Because Star Wars is like ice cream. Even if it’s not your favorite flavor, it’s still ice cream, dammit. Even if it’s insipid and bland, it’s still pretty damn cool.

The film is a little basic. Most of the first two acts are a giant MacGuffin hunt, culminating in a final showdown between good and evil with a massive space battle raging overhead. It is very on brand for Star Wars. But what exactly were we expecting?

Keri Russell is Zorii, my new favorite character. She’s badass. She puts Poe in his place on several occasions. And their angry/flirty banter is like straight out of Moonlighting. She also offers the film’s populist message (not these exact words, but this sentiment): the powerful divide us and make us feel like we’re alone. But if we remember that there are more of us than of them, we can unite and overthrow them.

Of course, Poe does his same move that he does in The Last Jedi, and take the words of a smart, successful woman and repeat them back to everyone in a rousing speech– and everyone listens to him. But in this case, unlike his foil Admiral Holdo in TLJ, Zorii is sexually available to Poe (her last name is BLISS like she’s a goddamn Bond Girl. . . yikes), so her putting him in his place and explaining the meaning of the movie isn’t going to ruffle anyone’s feathers. I say this more out of a sense of awareness of the sexism at the base of criticism about TLJ than as a complaint about this movie, because I really like all the business between Zorii and Poe, and Russell and Oscar Isaacs have a definite chemistry, even when she is acting underneath that helmet. But that also says more about me as a heterosexual middle-aged white male who has had a crush on Keri Russell since she was on The Mickey Mouse Club than it does about The Rise of Skywalker, except, again, that it feels the film was built to be almost aggressively pleasing to me.

The same is true of the conflict between our two main characters, Rey and Kylo Ren. There is conflict, there is that strange romantic tension that ReyLo shippers pick up on. Oh, ReyLo shippers. . . there is so much in here for you to enjoy. Everyone else? Well, there is at least one thing in the movie that is likely going to be divisive. But the fights between the two of them are a lot of fun.

But some of the best payoff in The Rise of Skywalker comes in its opening moments where (I hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone) there are scenes of Leia training Rey as her new Jedi Master. This film sends off Carrie Fisher in some amazing ways. While some of it seems maybe a little forced, it’s mostly just great.

There are some big hero moments near the end. They’re a lot of fun, but they punctuate a final act that feels a little messy. But we get to see Lando fly The Millenium Falcon again and team up with old friends. Billy Dee Williams has never been better. It almost forgives a lot of the messiness and contrivances that get us there.

My biggest complaint is how so many of the side characters get sidelined, especially my precious Rose Tico. She is given almost nothing to do, and in the final act heroics, Finn is paired up instead with new character Jannah. Don’t get me wrong, Jannah is great and presents some great foil moments for Finn because of her backstory (no spoilers on that), but the problem with this is it feels like in the first movie they tried to pair Finn with Rey, then in the second with Rose, and certain segments of the audience rejected that. So they give him, as with Poe, a foil who is sexually available and also black as though we’re sort of subtly saying “Oh, these two characters should be together.” That gives me oogey feelings because, again, it feels like playing to the lowest common denominator: “Here’s a ship no one can get upset about.”

But then on the other end of the spectrum, there’s C-3PO and Chewbacca. Both play integral roles to this story, and Threepio specifically steals every scene he’s in. If you would have told me C-3PO was the breakout performance of the movie months ago, I would’ve laughed in your face. It is, nonetheless, true, and he’s absolutely amazing. New droid D-O is also a lot of fun. There are also some cameos, especially near the end, that made me squeee with delight. Specifically, one character who I’ve waited the entire new trilogy to show up makes it on screen, if only briefly.

But that beautiful populist message ends up ringing loud and true through that final act. It feels in so many places like a very direct middle finger to Donald Trump, to Boris Johnson and Brexit, to all the other forces in the universe who stand with the dark side. Just don’t tell Xi Jinping, or else Star Wars will get banned from China. And no way will Disney be willing to take that.

For all the complaining about The Rise of Skywalker, it isn’t really a bad movie. It just isn’t the great movie it could’ve been. I shouldn’t be arrogant enough to expect that Star Wars is always going to cater to my tastes and be my wish fulfillment (in this case for more complex, subversive material). But, it’s incredibly important to let people like what they like. I’m sure there will be millions of Star Wars fans who love this, and I’m determined to let them have their fun. It’s doubtful the toxic parts of the fanbase will be so kind or will even like this. Maybe Lucasfilm can learn a thing or two from their corporate cousins at Marvel.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil poster

Maleficent in 2014 made a killing at the box office. It was a critical success, and (along with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) set off Disney’s current craze of remaking all of their IP as live action blockbusters. So the sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil was a sure bet, right? Yes and no.

Angelina Jolie returns as the eponymous and misunderstood queen of the fey. Elle Fanning is back as her adopted daughter, the Princess Aurora. Prince Phillip has proposed to her, so now it’s time to meet the parents! Michelle Pfieffer sinks her teeth into the juicy role of Queen Ingrith, who bears a giant grudge against the magical moor lands and all magic users. This great feud breaks out between her and Maleficent. It’s like if Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s squabbles were also all a pretense for war. There are certain elements in this film that seem to condemn the military-industrial complex. . . or at least its equivalent in a pre-industrial medieval setting.

Maleficent also discovers her heritage as she discovers a near-extinct species of dark fey that once lived all throughout the land but who have hunted by humans and driven into hiding. Their tribes are divided between wanting to pursue war or peace with the humans, with the peace faction being led by Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the war faction led by Borra (Ed Skrein).

The giant action sequences and production design of this film are phenomenal. The only problem is that it’s the personal interactions between Pfieffer and Jolie that are the best parts here. The giant action scenes where they are literally fighting one another are altogether less interesting.

While visually stunning, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is missing some of its edge. I loved the first Maleficent. It’s an amazing film that dared to turn the essence of a classic Disney tale on its head. It features a strong feminist message about not pitting women against each other. This sequel feels like nothing but pitting powerful women against each other.

Still, the aesthetics of the film are amazing. Maleficent’s costumes and makeup/CG-enhancements make her absolutely stunning to look at. Maybe it’s the wings, maybe it’s those cheekbones, maybe it’s the CG-coloring that makes the green magic swirl in her eyes, but it’s gorgeous.

While maybe not as good as the first, like most modern sequels this film does it bigger and brashier. That’s not necessarily a good thing. If you’re a fan it’s a good enough reason to go ahead and make sure you see this on the big screen.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Joker

Joker poster

Joker is a schizophrenic film. I’m loathe to use that term because it’s both a bit too on the nose (because of mental health issues explored in the film) and the term schizophrenia is largely misunderstood. However, it’s the best description (literally “split head”) of what is a gripping and gritty but at the same time somehow both banal, disturbing and irresponsible film.

In that way it is very much like its protagonist and the comics character he is based on. But the film also tries to draw from such a deep well of other films (better films) that it’s really hard to fully recommend to people when they’re probably better off just going back to the original source material.

Let’s start with the good. Joker is trying to present a complex character of someone who has been largely marginalized by society and essentially indicts the system that led to his emergence as a supervillain. I get that, and I really respect it, but I also wish it had just been done better. It’s also hard to feel bad for someone who is at their core a sociopath as we see someone falling down into that rabbit hole through escalating acts of violence. Some of them are warranted but most of them not.

Joaquin Phoenix does a great job here in presenting the multiple different layers of this character. The physicality alone he brings here is astounding and part of what makes this film so visceral and so (intentionally) unpleasant. The film also makes him a great classic unreliable narrator, so you’re left wondering how much of the film is real and how much might be delusional. However, you have to ask yourself, how much sympathy do we really need to give to a psychopath? This film doesn’t offer any good conclusions to that question.

To the extent this film inspires conversations about mental health care and the systemic ways in which we fail people on the margins of society, that is a good thing. To the extent that it inspires us to discuss growing income inequality and the marginalization of the poor and the true class warfare — the 1% beating down the disadvantaged — then those are good conversations.

The problem is that the film will also inspire other conversations that will be far less nuanced and will take all of the wrong messages from this film. These messages will inspire violence, creating more heat than light. That is ultimately this film’s downfall is that it has no sense of responsibility for what it is unleashing into the culture.

WARNING: The following contains very minor SPOILERS. They are not major plot points but includes a single line of dialogue, a discussion of songs used in the film, and how Joker draws from other films. If you’re familiar with those films, knowing their plots may be considered “spoilers” for how this film lays out its plot. However, I maintain none of these will actually spoil your enjoyment of the film. If anything, hopefully, it inspires some critical conversations. BUT if you don’t want to know these, skip to the final 2 paragraphs. Ok, minor “spoilers”:

In this same way, Joker as a character tries to absolve himself of all responsibility for the effects his actions have on society, eg, that he has inspired others to engage in violence. He doesn’t see himself as the leader of any sort of movement, even going so far as to say “I’m not political.” That statement is the Rosetta Stone for understanding why this film is flawed. In its heart of hearts, it probably believes this.

Furthermore, this is likely writer and director Todd Phillips giving himself an out and abrogating any personal responsibility for how others might interpret his film– in essence re-enacting the final act of the film where Joker goes on tv and uses the power of the media to spread his gospel of violence and nihilism.

Joker doesn’t care whether he’s inspiring people in the streets or not. He’s not a savior or a leader. But angry, disaffected people will listen to his message and go out and commit atrocities.

So, no, you don’t get to just say, “This isn’t political.” That is the mantra of privilege because you know that the effects of what you are putting out there into the culture is never going to personally affect you.

This film is political in the same way all the best art is political. Its best pieces and moments indict entire systems and ways of thinking. It exposes the corruption and indifference of a society who turns its back on the people who most need help. So saying it’s not political is both a cop-out and completely negates all the positive you’ve created.

Needless to say, this very specific moment in October of 2019, this film feels wholly irresponsible to put into the cultural zeitgeist. I have never worried about widespread mass shootings happening at screenings of any other film, even given the crowds Star Wars and Avengers were always going to attract. But I really worry about this weekend. Todd Phillips would have been far better to simply crank out another tired Hangover sequel and give us all a few laughs, even if they weren’t politically correct ones.

Which brings us to Phillips saying he stopped making comedy because he’s tired of “woke” culture. Bad news, Todd, there’s plenty of woke takes on dramas and comic book movies as well. Joker deserves all of the woke takes it can get, and I’m especially interested in hearing from black female critics about the treatment of Zazie Beetz‘s character in the film. By the way, Beetz’s performance is astounding, and every bit as good and layered as Phoenix’s, even though she gets 1/15th the screen time and 1/20th of the lines and character development.

The treatments and marginalization of other women of color in this film is also a great topic for discussion. We also see 0 representation and therefore a complete erasure of Latinx and Asian characters of any kind.

And because one good woke take deserves another, much ado has also been made about the inclusion of a song by Gary Glitter in a scene later in the film where Joker is dancing on a stairway, which can be seen in the trailer.

In so many ways, the inclusion of Gary Glitter on the soundtrack is incredibly on-brand for the film. It represents either complete ignorance of the fact that Glitter has been a known pedophile for decades, or a complete apathy to that fact.

Perhaps this is an attempt to be knowingly edgy and push people’s buttons in an attempt to troll “cancel culture.” But most likely it is that Phillips is just totally indifferent.

The entire film reeks of a practiced indifference and air of privilege that, ironically, the subject of the film is trying to skewer. Joker falls all over itself in its subtext and talking about how it doesn’t care too much. It, therefore, can’t possibly have the edge and satire it needs to actually say something coherent about an indifferent society that steps over and marginalizes people who have been hurt by the system or forgotten. You literally can’t be both.

The film also begs, borrows and steals from so many other films it becomes tiresome. This is a bad bar band covering hits from the 70s, but instead of singing Journey and Fleetwood Mac, it’s a remake of Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. Both of those films would fit in many critics’ and organizations’ top 25 list of the greatest films of all time. It’s doubtful Joker will even make it into my top 25 of this year.

You know how most of the Die Hard sequels weren’t actually originally written to be Die Hard? They were just action scripts floating around Hollywood and then someone said, “Take that script for WW3.com, and put John McClane in it. Now it’s Die Hard with a Vengeance.” This movie feels like someone’s script that tried to remake King of Comedy and then someone came along and said: “Let’s make this main character the Joker.”

The other film that gets most name-checked in Joker but has been perhaps the least discussed (the parallels to Scorsese were apparent from the trailers alone, so much so that it’s almost too easy a comparison) is the parallels to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Joker uses both a scene from the film at a pivotal point in the movie, and also uses its signature song “Smile” as a sort of theme song– so much so that it’s in the trailer.

On the surface, there are some real similarities. Both films are about the marginalization of regular people due to growing inequality. Both films deal with mental health and police brutality as well as crackdowns on organizing/protest movements. The main difference is their endings.

In Modern Times, after 90 minutes of factory work, abuse, a mental breakdown, being arrested, beaten up by the police, losing more jobs, having their dreams taken away from them by the rich and powerful on a couple of different occasions, Chaplain and his gamin girlfriend literally walk into the sunset after saying they can’t give up and never should no matter how many times they’ve been beaten down. They still need to work hard and will eventually come out on top.

Joker conveys the exact opposite message of that, so it feels like such a disservice to such classic a film as Modern Times to so explicitly reference it. It feels more like if Todd Phillips were standing in a movie line talking about Modern Times and Joker, Woody Allen would pull Charlie Chaplin out from behind a sign to say “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work.” (That’s an Annie Hall reference, folks, since we’re talking 1970’s movies. And yes I’m still talking about Woody Allen even though he’s #cancelled.)

Given the ersatz quality of the filmmaking here, would you rather hear the classics played by the crappy bar band, or just pull out your records and listen to the originals? Don’t go see Joker if you haven’t seen King of Comedy. Or Taxi Driver. Or Modern Times. Your time will be better spent on the originals and classics rather than these pale imitations.

END “SPOILERS”

All of this is to say that Joker is a complicated and often contradictory mess. But it isn’t wholly bad. The tragedy of it all is that there are moments of sheer brilliance. Despite all my problems with it, I hope the film does incredibly well at the box office to send the signal that DC can/should abandon–for now– the pretext of a shared universe and simply churn out character-driven individual films. And sometimes they can be R-rated and gritty and complex.

And sometimes they can be whatever it is they’re doing in that new Birds of Prey trailer, which is everywhere I want to be. And sometimes it can be James Gunn making a Suicide Squad movie. But my hope is that next time they try to swing for the fences like this with something like Joker, they’ll bring someone more talented than Todd Phillips on to make sure we don’t get a self-contradicting warmed-over-King of Comedy remake with the clown prince of crime somehow shoehorned in.

3 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Abominable

Abominable

Abominable is a movie we’ve seen dozens of times before, so even though it runs on rails it isn’t altogether bad. The one thing that switches it up even a little bit is its Chinese setting. In the dozen of other iterations of this film, this would have always been set in America. Likely the most interesting thing about Abominable is what it says about the future of Sino-American relations and global culture as even American animation studios with American creative teams try to go after the Chinese market more explicitly.

But otherwise, this is just an animated E.T. with a Yeti.

Our main story revolves around Yi, a teenage girl played by Chloe Bennet (Marvel’s Agents of Shield), herself a Chinese-American, who finds this runaway creature, befriends it and decides she needs to take it back to Mount Everest where it came from. This trip ends up mirroring a planned trip that she and her recently deceased father had always meant to go on. The trip ends up healing her and her grief as they discover more and more of the yeti, who she names Everest, and his magical powers.

But also this seems like a tourist travel video promoting the beautiful and varied landscapes of China. If this movie had been set in America, they would have stopped at the iconic places we all would think of– Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, etc. They do the same with the Gobi Desert and the Yangtze River as it seems Everest’s most powerful magic is to completely distort space and time so that each of these things are within walking distance of one another. But hey, it’s a kids movie.

The animation is crisp and beautiful. It’s everything we expect DreamWorks to do. Everest’s playful design is quite reminiscent of another Dreamworks Animation main creature– Toothless from the How to Train Your Dragon films. Kids will absolutely love him.

It’s also worth noting that writer and director Jill Culton is a veteran of Pixar who worked on not only the Monsters, Inc. films but also several of the Toy Storys. Everest is essentially Sully mixed with Toothless, and that’s not a bad combination. But as I said, we’ve seen this movie before. And frankly, it’s been done better. Monsters, Inc IS this movie, except the human Boo is the magical monster. But if you’re going to steal, then stealing from that and ET isn’t a bad place to start.

One of the most interesting choices of the film is that its antagonists, played by Eddie Izzard and Sarah Paulson read as English and American. That can’t be accidental, as it’s their greed, pride, etc that leads them to want to capture the yeti for their own nefarious purposes. It’s hard not to read something into that, although perhaps it’s completely earned.

Or perhaps we shouldn’t read anything more into it oh, the same way we don’t particularly read Maleficent or Cruella Deville as being “English” in an American context. Maybe it’s just a cute movie about a teenage girl and her friends who go on a magical adventure with a yeti.

Regardless, while you can do far better then this by-the-numbers animated film, you can also do much worse. If your kids drag you to Abominable, you won’t hate it, and you might even enjoy aspects of it. It’s not Pixar or How to Train Your Dragon, but it’s trying to be. And that’s not so terrible.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Hustlers

Hustlers movie poster

Who would have thought a movie about grift and strip clubs could be so boring? And yet here we are with Hustlers. Despite some hard work in the performances by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, despite a feminist sensibility brought to the film’s cinematography and feel thanks to writer and director Lorene Scafaria, the end result is just boring.

The film is “based on a true story,” specifically, an article published by New York Magazine entitled “The Hustlers at Scores” written by Jessica Pressler. As the story goes, prior to the financial crisis of 2008, everything was hunky-dory in New York strip clubs. Idiot bankers were loose with their cash and made it rain.

But as with all things in the financial crisis, when Bear Stearns and Countrywide went down, it was the little people who got hurt– like the strippers. Suggesting that they are now like modern-day Robin Hoods taking advantage of the people who got bailouts, a group of former strippers begin a scam to start running up massive bills for bankers and brokers.

There’s a strong element of sisterhood and feminism as these girls stick together. Indeed, the film opens with Janet Jackson’s “Control,” providing a sort of thematic layout for the film. Lopez and Wu are always, in fact, in control of the situation, not the horny bankers who want to get rubbed on in a champagne room. So, good on you, girls!

While this isn’t saying much given her cinematic history, Hustlers might be the best performance by Lopez in a film ever. She’s the center of the story and is extremely compelling. Wu is also extremely good– at least on par with her star-making performance in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians or on Fresh Off the Boat, and certainly gives her more opportunities to stretch her dramatic acting chops. It just isn’t enough to save this film.

For those who might be interested in this film because of advertised cameos by Lizzo and Cardi B, those are literally little more than cameos. Blink and you’ll miss them. You will be disappointed. You will see more of them by watching one of their music videos on YouTube. However, Julia Stiles does show up as the journalist writing this story, which always sort of puts the brakes on the story– one of the many flaws in this film’s storytelling.

And for those coming to this film hoping for a little bit of sin and nudity, you are also going to be mostly out of luck. Please remember that there is free pornography on the internet, and you shouldn’t come to this film looking for cheap thrills. You won’t find it.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating things about this film is the feminist filmography. While there are some shots of nudity, most of it is actually not very sexual and presented almost in a businesslike fashion. The longest portion of nudity that you get is actually a naked man seen from the waist down as he is being taken to a hospital. Yup, there’s equal-opportunity nudity in this film. But that really isn’t what this movie is about. Again, if that’s what you’re looking for, there is porn on the internet.

But mostly this film is just plain boring. It feels much longer than its two hour run time and despite good character work by Wu and J-Lo, there really isn’t much more to see here. However, this film was definitely not made for me. Others may find a sense of enjoyment out of it even though I did not.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Kitchen

The Kitchen

The Kitchen is a great late-summer surprise. It’s that perfect blend of familiar formula (gangland drama in 1970’s New York City) with a new twist (a feminist anthem about the women taking over.) Oh, and it’s an adaption of a Vertigo comic from writer and director Andrea Berloff, who previously scripted Strait Outta Compton. Add in a trifecta of some of today’s most interesting working actresses– Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss— and you have my full attention. Summer 2019 has been a deluge of franchises, sequels, reboots, and remakes. The Kitchen breaks that mold by being something new and original.

And, folks, I am sick and tired of hearing people complain, “Hollywood never makes anything original!” “There aren’t enough female directors!” Well, here’s a chance for you to put your money where your mouth is. The only way to send a signal that you want more of this is to support it with your dollars. Support this with your dollars.

McCarthy plays Kathy, a streetsmart wife of a ne’er-do-well member of the local Irish mob in Hell’s Kitchen. Haddish is Ruby, who married a real piece of work but who is a member of the top Irish family in the neighborhood. And Moss is Claire, abused and cowed by her husband. When their husbands get sent up the river for a botched liquor store robbery, they band together, and then take over and show the lowlifes running their neighborhood how it’s really done.

Moss has the most interesting character arc as she learns to take her agency back — by force if necessary — and also forms a really beautiful Bonnie and Clyde type romance with Domnhall Gleeson, a messed up Vietnam vet who is important as the muscle of their nascent gang.

Haddish brings great energy to the mix, bringing to light her outsider status because of her skin color even though she married into a powerful mob family. As she begins to take her own power, she is a great character study in both what to do and what not to do to take your power back.

McCarthy is one of the most versatile and talented actors working today. Comedy, drama, action, sweet, spicy, salty, dirty, or squeaky clean, she can play anything. As in the best of her roles, she is a giving performer who pushes her costars to shine, even as she shines herself. Berloff’s direction and writing are the right touches here, forging and melding both a textual and metatextual message through McCarthy’s giving performance and the story itself into a powerful, feminist message about how patriarchy tries to divide women and make them compete with each other, but the better way is a femme-forward cooperation that makes everyone profit. McCarthy could’ve hogged the spotlight. Instead, she shares the bill perfectly with Haddish and Moss. Way to go, sisters.

It’s also a smart, cool gangland story that lets these three be badasses. As I09 founder Charlie Jane Anders wrote a few months back, we don’t just need “strong” female characters– we need complex characters “who make mistakes, and screw up, and hurt people, and learn from their disasters.” McCarthy’s portrayal of Kathy is motherly, but she’s also as complex and flawed as Al Pacino in The Godfather, Robert DeNiro in The Godfather II, Denzel Washington in American Gangster.  She gives that same nuanced performance here–although running off a very different kind of energy–and it’s dynamite.

Haddish and Moss do as much wrong as they do right. They’re strong and they’re weak. They are working for something bigger and better, and they also fall prey to their own humanity. These are the complex, strong female characters we need.

And perhaps in a refreshing turn, the only character who feels a little thin is Gleeson’s, whose character is really only motivated as an accessory to the women in the story. Does that make you uncomfortable? It might be a signal for all of these generally underwritten female characters in these male-driven gangland dramas.

All of this adds up to a refreshing late-summer cocktail that’s the perfect blend of sweet, sour, and strong like a spicy frozen margarita.

Some critics have compared this to last year’s Widows, and while that’s not a terrible comparison, it’s also a relatively facile one. The only real comparison is they’re both female-cast-forward films, but Widows is a heist film. The Kitchen is a gangland movie. It’s like comparing Godfather Part II and Heat just because they both have Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in them. But they’re fundamentally different kinds of movies. Widows never felt quite as explicitly feminist, but it did have a more subversive political message about Chicago racial politics. The Kitchen is also far more gritty, thanks to its 1978 Hell’s Kitchen setting compared to 2018 Chicago. Also, I’m not sure on what planet comparing a movie to another good movie is in any way a put-down. “It’s a lot like Goodfellas.” “Oh, ok, then I’ll definitely pass.” What?

August is normally a dumping ground for films studios don’t quite know what to do with or how to market. The only reason people might be concerned about the film is discomfort with its Gloria-Steinem era second-wave feminist ethos, which almost seems quaint 40 years later. Don’t be fooled by the lack of buzz, The Kitchen is worth getting back into.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw

David Leitch is one of the most kinetic directors working today. From his background in stunts and parlaying that into the masterwork that was the first John Wick, he catapulted into being one of Hollywood’s most visually interesting directors by following it up with Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2. And now with Hobbs and Shaw hitting theaters, you may wonder if we’re getting a watered-down- by-franchise Leitch, or if we’re getting more of the same of his brilliance. It is decidedly the latter, as Letch takes the mismatched buddy cop action comedy and destroys it in a giant explosion. This is a comic book movie that isn’t based on a comic book.

It’s not high art, but it’s a lot of fun.

The film begins with one of its most interesting visual flourishes, showing our two protagonists played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham as they go about their days and tracking down, unbeknownst to them, the same bad guys. Their settings and methods are different, and therefore Leitch lights them in very different ways but often splits the screen between the two to show a stylistic contrast.

This is classic Leitch, and especially some of the Shaw moments feel right out of John Wick or Atomic Blonde. It’s almost like the rule that dialogue should come from character, but as a visual medium, film has the ability to develop their characters based on their movement, lighting, and editing.

Leitch just shoots The Rock differently– like he’s this giant wall, a force of nature. But a final sequence set in Samoa is something that none of Leitch’s previous films felt: personal, important. Placing native Pacific Islanders and showcasing them in a way that highlights what is special about one of the most overlooked groups in popular media (indigenous/native people of any type, really).

While we have Executive Produce Dwayne Johnson to thank for insisting as part of doing this film that it include representation for Pacific Islanders, Leitch is able to make this come alive and feel special and, dare I say, cool. It’s sort of a mini-Black Panther moment for Samoans, and that’s unique and a great example of using your privilege to uplift others.

But the best performance here is Idris Elba as Brixton, the bad guy. Also, his motorcycle, which leads me to ask, “Should David Leitch do a Transformers movie?” But, as the leader of a cult of technology-obsessed-and-enhanced bad guys, he’s not really that different from most action movie bad guys. But his keniciticsm is unsurpassed by anyone else. Essentially, his cybernetics and AI upgrades allow him to analyze and dodge almost all attacks. It’s the 21st-century version of what Sherlock Holmes/Robert Downey Jr is able to do in the Guy Ritchie films.

We also have Vanessa Kirby as Hattie, an MI-6 agent who is the third wheel to the Hobbs and Shaw axle this film is built around. Similar to the way Leitch has been able to elevate his femme fatales in Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2 as major asskickers, so too is Hattie incredibly capable– easily able to square off against The Rock and Statham.

Leitch is a gifted comedic director (as showcased by his work on Deadpool 2), and this comes through in Hobbs and Shaw, where he even has his Deadpool 2 stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob Delaney cameo. In many ways, Deadpool 2 is the most similar of Leitch’s films to Hobbs and Shaw: they’re both the least visually experimental and groundbreaking, but they take the successful formula and kinetic action and place them in the bounds of a franchise. And fans eat it up.

However, as I said, this film is pretty braindead and expects viewers to completely ignore the laws of space, time, and geography. Jaunts from Moscow to Samoa seem to take mere minutes, and London to Moscow is an overnight red-eye flight. Also, apparently Moscow and Ukraine are really, really close to each other.

But perhaps the most egregious is a final climactic action sequence with a literal ticking clock running that expects us to believe that in the space of a half-hour we go from complete darkness before dawn, to golden-bathed morning on a clear summer morning to a torrential downpour. Time and weather do not work that way. Oh well. At least it all looked cool. Just don’t think about it too hard because its ridiculousness strains all credulity.

All this makes me think how absolutely spoiled we were by last summer’s Mission Impossible: Fallout. It’s instructive that director Christopher McQuarrie started in scriptwriting and Leitch started in stunts. Both of these films are the culmination of decades of their work in Hollywood– and it’s sort of a “two roads diverged in a wood” parable. McQuarrie brought the tight storytelling aesthetics of his early masterwork scripts like The Usual Suspects to become Fallout, and Leitch brought the kinetic popcorn sensibilities of his early stunt work and stunt directing to make Hobbs and Shaw feel all killer, no filler. But not everything needs to be so cerebral.

Still, I was not expecting to like Hobbs and Shaw as much as I did. It’s braindead, but it’s fun and lets Leitch paint on a much bigger canvas than before. Whether or not you have any investment in the Fast and Furious franchise, you could walk in and be entertained. Oh, and make sure you stay through the credits — all the way through — because the guy who made Deadpool 2 isn’t going to leave you without a tease for what’s next, would he?

3 and 1/2 stars out of 5

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