Starring: Brian Emond, Zach Lamplugh and Jeffrey Stephenson Directed by: Zach Lamplugh Rated: R Running Time: 90 minutes
I used to work as a morning news producer in the Kansas City metropolitan area. One of the strangest things I ever came across during my time was during the closure of the Wentworth Military College in Lexington, Missouri. Cpt. Scott Nelson, an instructor at the former private university, believes to have tapped into the language of Bigfoot (or is it Bigfeet?). He believed in it so thoroughly, he served as a keynote speaker at several Sasquatch conventions. I guess what I’m trying to say is, not every Bigfoot believer is some backwoods simpleton. That’s one of the few charming takeaways you’ll get as well if you happen to catch “The Vice Guide to Bigfoot.”
Vice reporter Brian (Emond) loathes his job. He entered journalism in hopes of tracking down a juicy story or saving the world. Instead he’s chasing after clickbait stories and highlighting war torn Crimea’s craft beer scene. Brian’s constant in life, other than the terrible stories he reports on, are his cameraman and producer, Zach (Lamplugh). Brian reaches his breaking point when the two are tasked with going on a hunt for the infamous, Bigfoot, along with Youtube Sasquatch hunter Jeff (Stephenson).
“The Vice Guide to Bigfoot” is almost a mockumentary in the same vein of “What We Do in the Shadows,” but it’s more focused on mocking other things, like the current state of journalism and Vice’s attempts at it. It also has a lot of humor at the sake of online cryptozoologists, hillbillies and social media. While there is a lot of comedy, at a character’s expense, the film is never cruel. Everyone is given their own backstory that’s sympathetic, so that they can have their own form of redemption by the film’s end.
In a lot of ways, the movie is far from being about Bigfoot which works to its benefit. Especially since some found footage or mockumentaries prior, like “Willow Creek,” more or less tread familiar tropes despite a change of scenery. While it’s a pretty damn funny movie, it’s hard to see myself watching this again by myself. I may watch it again if I want someone else I know to watch it, since some jokes work better with a group. In some ways that’s a knock at the movie, but I feel that it’s sufficiently funny and entertaining enough, that it’s worth a watch.
Starring: Jeremy King, Noah Segan and Toni Trucks Directed by: Courtney and Hillary Andujar, Anthony Cousins, Emily Hagins, Aaron B. Koontz, Chris McInroy, Noah Segan and Baron Vaugh Rated: R Running Time: 103 minutes
For a moment if you could, look at two different subgenres; horror anthologies and horror parodies. There are some strong candidates in each category. For anthologies, you got “Creepshow” and “Trick R Treat.” For parodies, you got “Scary Movie” and “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.” I know I’m leaving a few movies out of the categories, but there’s a reason I want you to think about these two. How difficult do you think it is to combine them? I know what some of you are thinking. “Cabin in the Woods.” But what if a horror anthology parody film even subverted that?
I know my opening salvo promises grand things, but for most horror aficionados, I promise that you’ll love “Scare Package.” Very rarely do I want to immediately rewatch an anthology film or parody after leaving the theater, so this is a rare occasion for me. The main reason is that anthologies stay out their welcome and parodies require an audience to soak up the hit or miss laughs. “Scare Package” is the kind of film that’s prime for an audience, but will certainly make most people sitting at home alone smirk at its mocking nature.
The one thing that makes “Scare Package” work, is Aaron B. Koontz, the man in charge of the wrap-around story, as well as the overall product. One caveat that Koontz revealed at Panic Fest, which this movie was screened at, was that he allowed creative freedom to all other directors and writers, while providing oversight. He wasn’t a guiding hand, but he certain was able to cherry pick the scripts that best fit his overall vision. It’s a delicate balancing act, which pays off in dividends. While some shorts in the anthology fit the ridiculing nature, other shorts don’t sneer as much, but still pay homage to an idea or manage to riff on a pop-culture idea.
I’d really like to dive into the individual shorts, but I’d feel it’s unfair and that I’d fall into the stereotype of reviewing anthology films; breaking each one down, outlining strengths and weaknesses while revealing which ones I favored. For a movie like “V/H/S,” I’d find that as a completely fair form of critique, but for “Scare Package,” it feels unfair. While a film like “V/H/S” is so scattershot, “Scare Package” is a, not to sound cliché, complete package. Everything is so fluid, you sometimes forget you’re watching an anthology.
The one thing “Scare Package” avoids is length. Sometimes these movies linger too long, even if the shorts and movie as a whole are good. A movie like “ABCs of Death” can work, but you find yourself fast forwarding on rewatches. With “Scare Package” you’ll undoubtedly find yourself finding some new nod or wink every time. The movie as a whole, and each individual short, serve as little bows to the ideas and genres that they parody. But like I said at the beginning, it also parodies “Cabin in the Woods,” which is becoming a genre on its own, where characters knowingly acknowledge or reference the tropes of the genre that are currently on display. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but Koontz does it well, without disregarding the merits of the idea altogether.
“Scare Package” not only serves as a blueprint for future horror anthology parodies, but a blueprint for anthologies and parodies. It’ll make horror fans roar with laughter, and for those who aren’t into scary flicks, they’ll find fun in all the pokes and prods at the films they can’t stomach. I enjoy the fact that the horror community enjoys comedy, even when it’s directed at themselves. “Scare Package” is damn near a revelation, especially considering that one of the modern lovers of horror/shock films, Joe Bob Briggs himself, arrives on scene. “Scare Package” pulls out all the stops to make the audience laugh and grin. Koontz talked about the makings of a sequel, with a promise that it’ll parody sequels. I look forward to the promise, and the possibility of a franchise that’ll inevitably parody franchises, remakes, and nostalgia culture.
Starring: Kyle Gallner, Ryan Guzman and Alix Angelis Directed by: Damien LeVeck Rated: R Running Time: 94 minutes Shudder
Can found footage survive anymore? 2014’s “Unfriended” and 2018’s “Truth or Dare” played with the idea of realism by showing us that the paranormal can seep into social media and the Internet. Enter 2020’s “The Cleansing Hour,” a movie about an online stream that televises exorcisms to curious onlookers and morbid fans around the globe. Although the exorcisms, aren’t real.
Expanding on his 2016 short, Director Damien LeVeck squeezes out every drop of fun he can have in “The Cleansing Hour.” Reverend Max (Guzman) is far from being the man of God he portrays. Max and his friend Drew (Gallner) stage exorcisms, working with an online encyclopedia of demons so that every episode is fresh with a new other-worldly villain to fight. Afterwards, they generally drink and Max takes home a girl to record performing sexual acts. Their lifestyle is interrupted when things go awry during their latest broadcast though. The actor who was going to show up and be “possessed” never shows, so Drew’s fiancé Lane (Angelis) substitutes. But her acting is too good. Her voice changes, she digs her fingers into the chair she’s strapped into, shattering her nails, and her eyes have turned a stained yellow.
The movie doesn’t necessarily criticize or turn a mirror towards society, but it does take subtle digs at the social media culture permeating throughout the globe. While some people watch in horror, fully believing it’s real, others watch laughing. A livestream chat shows people who type trollish remarks as people on set begin to die, believing that it isn’t real. Or maybe they do and the Internet has made them soulless creatures. Although when the demon inhabiting Lane decides to poke fun at the digital age like one of the Evil Dead, the commentary and humor fall flat.
What helps “The Cleansing Hour,” as opposed to a film like “Truth or Dare,” is the small budget charm. The practical gore and blood effects explode, figuratively and literally. The actors, while not the best, may have a career after this film, especially Angelis who gnaws on the scenery like a demon hungry for human souls. It’s easy to forgive the cast and crew since they had a shoestring budget for a lot of the film’s flaws. Just don’t expect anything new to the exorcism genre other than the setting.
“The Cleansing Hour” is late-night fun that blends a couple of original concepts and tropes of the genre. Some might say the film has a twist, but for veterans of these movies, they’ll be able to spot the set-up. Even though I suspected the eventual outcome, I didn’t mind because of how brisk the pacing is. “The Cleaning Hour” is a surprise for those who come across it on Shudder, but don’t expect the 21st century equivalent of “The Exorcist.”
Starring: Meave Higgins, Barry Ward and Will Forte Directed by: Mike Ahern and Enda Lougman Rated: R Running Time: 94 minutes Wildcard Distribution
Driving instructor Rose has a bit of a secret. Only a few people know about it, and every once and awhile, someone who is told about that secret will seek her services. That secret is her ability to communicate with the dead. But an even bigger secret, is the key to her psychic abilities which is her father, who is no longer with her. She saw the disastrous and absurd result of those abilities and refuses to use them, even if it’s for good. That is until a cute, recently widowed father, Martin (Ward), comes along because he’s been pestered by his recently deceased wife.
There’s more to the spiritual rom-com “Extra Ordinary” than just Rose and her pursuit of happiness. Causing an equal amount of commotion in the background is a one-hit wonder musician, Christian (Forte). He’s looking to rejuvenate his deceased rock career, but not with a catchy new song. He’s on the hunt for a virgin sacrifice that’ll be offered up to Satan during the blood Moon. He enters Rose’s realm when the virgin he has an eye on is Martin’s teenage daughter.
One of the biggest strengths about this film is its irreverent humor. It’s never too peculiar, it’s never too crass or mean towards it’s cast and it seems to hover like a specter in this gray area where it remains charming, no matter how outlandish it gets. Credit goes to the directors and writers, Mike Ahern and Enda Lougman, but an equal amount goes to Forte and Higgins. Higgins provides this warmth and sincerity to Rose that’ll charm your pants off, or hopefully Martin’s. Forte, a mainstay in the bizarre comedy scene of America, taps into his natural off-the-wall humor and makes every scene with Christian an absolute delight.
As much as I’d love to give this ghostly rom-com a higher grade, it still feels like the plot has been stretched a bit too thin. If it wasn’t for the consistent jokes, this movie could have easily outstayed its welcome, and nearly does. It easily could have benefited from having a five to 10 minute shave off the runtime. However, when things start to feel a little bit too long the final third of the film, “Extra Ordinary” goes straight for the comedic jugular in its final act. So without that ending, as well as the performances, this movie came precariously close to failing to live up to its title.
From the silly things ghosts inhabit to Rose’s attitude towards life, this film is a pleasant surprise. It may be a hard sell, especially since the movie begins like a “Tim and Eric” sketch and Forte’s gonzo slapstick can be a bit much for some. If you find “Extra Ordinary” on a streaming service late at night, I guarantee it’ll find a way to put a smile on your face.
Between us I’d have to estimate that Mike G, Lauren, Jeremy, Michael D. Smith, Becki and myself see no less than 150 films a year here at Media Mikes. So when the year comes to an end, many of us like to share with you what films we felt were the Best. And, because they can’t all be winners, we like to tell you which ones we wished we had stayed away from. Ideally, if you haven’t seen any of these particular films you will either be intrigued enough to seek it out…or make the mental note to avoid at all costs! Enjoy!
#1. 1917 Sam Mendes has created an epic film that thrives on its small cast and “continuous shot” presentation. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot many of the Coen Brothers’ films, will surely earn Academy Award nomination number fifteen for his work here. (He won previously for “Bladerunner 2049”)
#2. JUST MERCY This film doesn’t open wide for another week but it has been playing in select cities since Christmas. An emotional look at the injustice heaped upon one man and the attorney who works tirelessly to find the truth. Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx give award-worthy performances. #3. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN Edward Norton laid it all on the line as he not only starred in this film but wrote and directed it. His eye as a director is keen and changing the time setting of the story from the present to the 1950s was a masterstroke. #4. JOKER Todd Phillips’s look at an almost dystopian society and the people who inhabit it. In my mind, it’s between Joaquin Phoenix and “Marriage Story” star Adam Driver for the Best Actor Oscar. #5. KNIVES OUT When I was a teenager I loved the Neil Simon-penned comedy “Murder by Death” and, when I saw the trailer for this film I thought it would be similar. Wrong! Funny? Yes. But amazingly crafted. Extra credit for Daniel Craig pulling off a southern accent. #6. YESTERDAY What if you woke up tomorrow and found that the Beatles never existed? A true masterpiece that pays tribute to the universal joy brought to us by the four lads from Liverpool. Also contains the year’s most emotional moment. I won’t spoil it but, if you didn’t tear up, it’s quite possible that YOU’VE never heard of the Beatles. #7. (tie) LINDA RONDSTADT – THE SOUND OF MY VOICE / DAVID CROSBY-REMEMBER MY NAME Two amazing documentaries that give viewers an inside look at two of the most influential singers and musicians of their time.
#8. THE IRISHMAN When people look back at the history of film making they will probably be flabbergasted to see that Martin Scorsese won his first directing Oscar for “The Departed.” The creator of arguably the greatest film of the 1980s (“Raging Bull”) as well as “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy,” “Goodfellas” and “Gangs of New York” just may take home his second one for this 3 1/2 hour masterpiece. #9. ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD I will admit that, while I enjoyed the film, I didn’t LOVE it when I reviewed it. But a second viewing put it on my list. Great performances and a beautifully recreated Los Angeles, circa 1969. And boy…that ending! #10. AVENGERS: ENDGAME The final film in a 23-film series, the likes of that Hollywood will never see again (unless Marvel does it). When Robert Downey, Jr declares, “I AM Iron Man” the emotional explosion in the theater is jaw-dropping. HONORABLE MENTIONS: US, MARRIAGE STORY, BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, STAN and OLLIE
When a web site includes your name you have the opportunity to stay away from most of the stink-burgers that come out. Luckily (and sadly) these two lured me in. ANGEL HAS FALLEN: There is a great “Mean Tweet” in which Gerard Butler reads, “Does Gerard Butler have a lot of student loans to pay off? He’s always doing shitty films?” To which Butler replies, “No, I don’t have any student loans. I just like doing shitty films.” Add this one to the list. DUMBO: Damn you, Tim Burton. My wife and I skipped the critic’s screening of this so we could take our granddaughter. She hasn’t talked to us since!
#1. PARASITE Wild, entertaining, shocking, gripping and a movie you’ll be thinking about for days, if not weeks. This is Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus. This isn’t just the best movie of 2019, this is easily one of the best movies of the 2010s. #2. 1917 We’re treated to way more WWII movies than we are WWI. “1917” is not only a visual masterpiece, but the kind of movie that reminds us why WWI shouldn’t be forgotten and just how devastating it truly was for the brave soldiers in it. #3. THE LIGHTHOUSE If it wasn’t for “1917,” this would have been the most visually impressive film of the year. Marketed as a horror, I’d say it’s more a suspenseful comedy, with a pair of tour de force performances.
#4. TOY STORY 4 Not to be a narcissist, but to quote my own review earlier this, “I would have never guessed back in 1995…that these plastic toys come to life would make me cry twice later in my life.” #5. JOJO RABBIT Channeling Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks, Taika Waititi has given audiences one of the most heartwarming, tragic and uplifting films of 2019, and it’s about a boy and his Hitler. #6. THE IRISHMAN I wouldn’t say this is Scorsese’s best, but he certainly has book-ended a beloved genre and given several actors a much-deserved swan song. #7. MIDSOMMAR An unsettling nightmare in broad daylight. Besides the unforeseen horrors happening in the sun, there are plenty of laughs to go along with this outstanding horror film. #8.US Jordan Peele raved about “Midsommar.” So I’m sure he wouldn’t be upset to see his stellar sophomore outing below “Midsommar.” I can’t wait to see what he does next. #9. BOOKSMART I absolutely adored this film and its messages. But just as impressive as the script, were the performances by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, as well as the direction by Olivia Wilde. #10. CLIMAX If you’ve ever been on the fence about trying LSD or any other kind of hallucinogens, I wouldn’t recommend “Climax.” It’s a delirious technicolor nightmare that entrances viewers.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: HONEY BOY, LORDS OF CHAOS, ONE CUT OF THE DEAD, EL CAMINO, UNCUT GEMS, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD, SHAZAM, THE REPORT, MARRIAGE STORY
#1. AFTER Everyone involved in this should be ashamed of themselves. What’s that you say? They’re making a sequel? This is further proof we’re living in the darkest timeline. #2. SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2 Illumination knows exactly what it’s doing and they feel no shame. I wish people would stop giving them reasons to make awful sequels. #3.A DOG’S JOURNEY Sappy sentimentality tries to mask the flawed and unethical morality. I love dogs, but this is a crap story and film. #4. MIDWAY When Michael Bay said, “No one can top my crappy WWII movie,” Roland Emmerich said, “Hold my beer.” #5. DETECTIVE PIKACHU Knowing that some people loved this movie makes me hate this cliche, predictable, trite flick even more.
Here’s my Top 9, leaving open that 10 slot as the end of the year has so many films on offer that I’m sure one I’ve missed would be bound to swoop in!
#1. MIDSOMMAR Oh “Midsommar,” how much did I love this film? Enough to come back for the 171 minute director’s cut at Lincoln Center this August for even more. Ari Aster’s follow up to “Hereditary” showcases yet another powerhouse female performance in Florence Pugh. The film is hard to call a “horror”, unless you’re in the middle of a fight with your romantic partner, but it definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. Aster packs this film with so much visual detail that return trips continue to prove satisfying. This film also has a pitch dark streak of savage humor that gave me one or two of the most morbid laughs of the year. #2. JOJO RABBIT I elaborated in my five star review of Taika Waititi’s WW2 satire, but this is for me the funniest film of the year while still tugging on a ton of heartstrings. For me, it is Scarlett Johansson’s best performance (and yes, I’ve seen “Marriage Story”)
#3. KNIVES OUT Chris Evans and Daniel Craig played wildly against type in Rian Johnson’s murder mystery whose twisty turny finale was a delight, or maybe it was a donut… #4. AVENGERS ENDGAME I may not be fully on board with all of the character choices for Marvel’s epic Infinity Saga conclusion, but man, if this didn’t do justice to the 21(!) films whose job it was to wrap up. The “Portals” sequence playing to a sold out crowd on opening night was chills, cheers and tears inducing in a way I have never experienced at a movie theater. #5. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLEM In a year without a “Mission: Impossible,” John Wick came to the rescue in terms of just absolutely satisfying stunt sequences. That knife fight IN a knife store alone earned the whole movie’s placement on this list. #6. FORD v FERRARI I fortunately saw this one in IMAX where the roar of the impeccably edited racing sequences could be felt in my bones. James Mangold delivered a solid spectacle lead by the always-reliable Matt Damon and Christian Bale. #7. ROCKETMAN “Rocketman” was everything I wished last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” would have been. From star Taron Edgerton actually recording a slew of Elton John classics himself to the integration of said songs into lively and visually fun musical numbers. Bonus points for a lovely turn from Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin. #8. LITTLE WOMEN Greta Gerwig’s sterling adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic assembled one of the strongest acting ensembles of the year and showed the March sisters in a whole new light. #9. THE LIGHTHOUSE Robert Eggers’s follow up to 2015’s “The Witch” was just as steeped in atmosphere–this time of an isolated New England lighthouse in the 1890s where Robert Pattinson’s Thomas is taken under the lunatic wing of Willem Defoe who may or may not have a supernatural connection to the beacon they tend to. In stunning black and white, Eggers produced some of the most memorable imagery of the year.
In lieu of a Worst list–since I don’t see enough to pull a whole list confidently–I’m sorry to say MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL was the biggest disappointment. Taking Hemsworth and Thompson, who have a proven comedic chemistry and just throwing them into this lazy script was a huge wasted opportunity.
MICHAEL D. SMITH
#1. 1917 Selected by the Kansas City Film Critics Circle as the year’s Best Film, “1917” is simply a stroke of genius. Nominated for three Golden Globes, “1917” is not only a masterful example of the war film genre, but it is also a masterpiece of cinema in general. Directed by Oscar-winning British filmmaker Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “The Road to Perdition”), who co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”), “1917” is an accurate depiction of the Great War with an edge-of-your-seat plot that is essentially Great Britain’s “Saving Private Ryan.”
#2. KNIVES OUT An impressive piece of creative writing, “Knives Out” deserves to be in the pantheon of great murder mystery flicks. With a terrific cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Christopher Plummer and Michael Shannon, “Knives Out” is led by Daniel Craig in a wonderfully entertaining performance that makes you forget all about his more famous alter egoJames Bond. Whether you guess who done it within 15 minutes or not until the very end, “Knives Out” provides a great way to spend the night out at the movie theater. #3. JOKER Featuring by far the best male lead performance of the year, “Joker” is the most in-depth character study captured in cinema in 2019. Joaquin Phoenix goes to Herculean lengths to tap into the essence of a man so ostracized by society that when his last thread to sanity is cut, he becomes something that lies somewhere in the middle of being a villain and a hero. Dark, gritty and violent, “Joker” is not your typical comic book or even graphic novel movie. It eclipses both. Phoenix is supported by a memorable supporting performance from Robert De Niro. #4. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN Edward Norton’s effort is a triumph of cinematic art and deserves to be an Oscar contender in multiple categories. Adapted from the 1999, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel of the same name by American novelist Jonathan Lethem, “Motherless Brooklyn,” written and directed by Norton, is a brilliant, throwback detective story with an all-star cast that delivers the goods. It mirrors early 1950s Brooklyn in such a palpable way that it makes you feel like you are there. Despite its arguably long, two-hour plus running time, the puzzle-like central story is so engrossing with its twists and turns that you can end up losing yourself in it. #5. US Academy Award-winning writer Jordan Peele followed up his magnificent horror thriller “Get Out” with another stroke of genius thatwhich should not be watched immediately before bedtime. An inventive work that will give you goosebumps throughout as the Wilson family, led by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, tries to stay alive in the face of eerie doppelgangers who want them all dead. Nyong’o was recently selected by the Kansas City Film Critics Circle as 2019’s Best Actress for her memorable performance. #6. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD Love or hate him, there is no denying the talent of Quentin Tarantino. In this, his ninth and allegedly next-to-last film, Tarantino pays tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age by putting his own unique spin on the August 1969 Sharon Tate murders. With enthralling performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, Tarantino dug deep into his imagination with an entertaining “what if?” story with a climax that will drop your jaw to the floor and imagery that will be stuck in your head for days afterwards.
#7. THE IRISHMAN At three hours and 29 minutes, “The Irishman” is a Martin Scorsese film not to be tackled lightly. However, if you are a fan of not just mafia-related stories but also a trio of iconic actors – Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino – then you will be greatly rewarded. It is the supposed story of mob hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran who worked closely with the mob for decades and claimed that he was the one who made labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa famously disappear. Of the three, it is Pesci who outshines everyone as a mob boss. It is nothing less than the greatest performance of Pesci’s long career. #8. QUEEN & SLIM Ideally, a great work of art, especially one that is controversial, will have a deeply emotional and/or intellectual impact on the viewer. It is no different with the genre of cinema. Erroneously labeled by some as a Bonnie and Clyde-type story, “Queen & Slim” explores the fear and outrage felt by many in America over numerous fatal shootings in recent years of black men, often young ones, by white law enforcement officers. While its climax is heavy-handed and the overall portrayal of the police is too generalized, “Queen & Slim” remains a terrific specimen of cinematic art. #9. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD Last year, I had the fantastic documentary “Won’t You be My Neighbor?” in the eighth spot of my 2018 top ten list. This year, another Mister Rogers film makes my year-end highlights. Inspired by true events, Tom Hanks puts in a mesmerizing supporting performance as the late, beloved PBS show host as he tries to help a jaded newspaper reporter remember what is most important in life. It is a sweet, lovely story amidst harsh times. #10. AVENGERS: ENDGAME Ten years’ worth of Avenger-related movies, some better than others, culminated with “Endgame” and it was all worth it with a tremendously rewarding finale. What made it so spectacular was not that it had great special effects or a cast with enough stars to fill up the nighttime sky. Rather, it contained an emotional story that did not have a neat and tidy ending. It was a true struggle of good vs. evil with many of those on the side of good having to pay a terrible price for their collective success. It does leave one to wonder how the gang at Marvel Studios will do with the next phase of Avenger flicks. HONORABLE MENTIONS: AD ASTRA, I AM MOTHER, PEANUT BUTTER FALCON
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett and Idina Menzel Directed by: Josh and Benny Safdie Rated: R Running Time: 135 minutes A24
Just like “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Punch-Drunk Love” before it, “Uncut Gems” will certainly fire up the debate about whether or not Adam Sandler is a good actor. I believe he’s good, if given a precise role that caters to his natural man-child characters we’ve seen in his comedies, as well as a film that allows him to let his unchecked rage loose. However, “Uncut Gems” does more than reignite that debate, it gives us what is undoubtedly Sandler’s best performance.
Sandler isn’t a traditional man-child in “Uncut Gems.” He plays somewhat successful New York City jewelry store owner, Howard Ratner. He not only sells jewelry worth tens of thousands of dollars, but has NBA superstars like Kevin Garnett coming into his store. He appears to make enough money to sustain a double life. He spends half his life at a suburban mansion with his wife and kids, and the other half at a downtown apartment with his young, attractive girlfriend who also works at his jewelry store. Undercutting his entire life though, is a crippling and dangerous addiction.
It doesn’t take audiences long to recognize that Howard’s metaphorical “chasing the dragon” is sports betting. Throughout his day he pawns items, gets chased down by criminals and thugs he owes money to, and places ridiculous parlay bets so that his payout is astronomical. Howard never backs down from a threat. He puffs his chest, talks a big game, and demands respect. But we’re shown throughout the movie that he’s not a strong man. He can barely raise a fist in a fight, cowers at a strong enough threat, is far from being physically fit, and doesn’t even own a single firearm. Howard’s a proverbial powder keg.
Just like in “Good Time,” the writers and directors of “Uncut Gems,” the Safdie Brothers, have crafted an anxiety-inducing criminal journey. The path they create for their characters is a master class in suspense and dread, but we’re never concerned about the leads. Howard is a scumbag, through and through. He’s not someone to root for, and if anything, we’re hoping that he has an ill-fitting end. It’s everyone around him we’re concerned about. He has a brother, who’s with the mobsters that are demanding money from him, who only shows concern when the criminals stuff Howard in a trunk naked. Howard has a family at home that’s oblivious to the vultures circling above. He has a girlfriend, who while naive, doesn’t deserve the danger that Howard attracts. It all makes for some riveting scenes, where guns are never shown, but the threats and words exchanged foreshadow an exciting third act.
Just like Martin Scorsese, who serves as an executive producer on this film, the Safdie Brothers love chaotic scumbags. It’s not that they’re smart or cunning. They use what little power and money they have to push everyone around them to their limits. For fans of crime thrillers, “Uncut Gems” is a must-see. For Sandler fans, you’ve never seen him like this.
Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and John Lithgow Directed by: Jay Roach Rated: R Running Time: 108 minutes Lionsgate
I’m sure regular Fox News viewers still believe that former CEO Roger Ailes was a “victim” of the #MeToo movement. But those people probably never troubled themselves to read the avalanche of allegations leveled against Ailes, which spanned decades. The truth, which still hasn’t necessarily seen the light of day, attempts to be told in “Bombshell.”
When we’re first introduced to Ailes (Lithgow), it’s through Megyn Kelly’s (Theron) narration. She’s breaks down the structure of Fox News and how each part of the multi-floor business in downtown New York City functions. During her walkthrough, we see Ailes, micromanaging every detail, from the chyrons on the TV to the length of a news anchor’s skirt. It not only shows how disgustingly creepy he is, but how obsessed he is with the content that Fox News puts out on a daily basis. While it’s certainly interesting to see the monster and his tentacles at work, “Bombshell” isn’t necessarily about him, it’s about the damage he did. It’s when we meet Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) that the wheels are set in motion. We learn that she’s waiting for the hammer to fall because she’s slowly been building up a case against Ailes.
As much as I enjoyed “Bombshell,” I can’t help but feel it could have been better. Writer Charles Randolph, who previously worked on the magnificent film “The Big Short,” doesn’t dig in deep enough to reported mudslinging that was happening behind-the-scenes. It doesn’t help that he’s working with director Jay Roach, who was criticized for the inaccuracies riddled throughout “Trumbo.” With their combined forces, they’ve put together a film that never swings as hard as it should. That may be because there isn’t enough evidence to support some of the more inflammatory and horrendous incidents portrayed on the screen.
Like I said though, this is an enjoyable movie. There are moments that feel like they’re trying to emulate Adam McKay’s style from “The Big Short” and “Vice.” They don’t quite match that style, but they do a tremendous job making us sympathize with some incredibly flawed individuals. Kelly, as pointed out in the film several times, has made some comments and remarks that are not only divisive, but intentionally offensive. One scene in particular shows her arguing that Santa is white and should always be white. It’s an unnecessarily despicable belief that’s intent is to infuriate, offend and divide, but it’s far from being a belief that warrants the kind of treatment she received by her colleagues or the sexual harassment she was subject to.
As for the main cast, they do a magnificent job with everyone they’re portraying, whether they’re the spitting image of their characters or replicating their mannerism to a ‘T’. Theron does a tightrope act with Kelly that’s unmatched, and Lithgow channels the monster that was Ailes. Some of the “cameos” are more distracting than they are funny, like when Richard Kind portrays Rudy Giuliani. “Bombshell” is equally energetic and unnerving, making it a rollercoaster of a time, but despite its title it doesn’t have any Earth-shattering revelations, and it certainly won’t change any of the minds who tune into Fox News every day and night.
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins Directed by: Todd Haynes Rated: R Running Time: 126 minutes Focus Features
“Dark Waters” sounds like the title to a horror movie, and it kind of is. Potentially, probably, most likely, sitting in your gut right now is a chemical that you didn’t know you were being poisoned with. It was marketed as safe and did what it was supposed to do, help make life a little more convenient. The solutions to some of our minor inconveniences means that these secret chemicals will take forever to break down. That means even after we’re dead and decomposed, they will still be there.
“Dark Waters” is about the moral journey of corporate lawyer, Andrew Billott (Ruffalo). He goes from defending the big boys to defending the little guy. It comes after he’s approached by West Virginia farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). Not only are Tennant’s cows dying at an alarming rate, but their remains reveal startling organ problems and grotesque mutations. Tennant believes the American conglomerate, DuPont, is to blame. Tennant says their landfill upstream poisoned the water that his cow’s drink from. What Billott doesn’t know, is that he’s about to uncover a decades-long public health crisis, that’s been kept under wraps.
Based on real-life events documents in a New York Times Magazine article, “Dark Waters” is a 21st century David vs. Goliath. It’s not only about corporate wrongdoing, but the bureaucratic red tape that’s allowed it to fester outside the public eye. We learn how DuPont stepped through gaping loopholes in the EPA’s regulatory system, and then attempted to take advantage of the political system, at the local, state and federal level, when Billott busts out the flashlight and begins digging through DuPont’s dirty laundry.
Ruffalo, whose characters should be foaming mad, and sometimes is, plays Billott as a modest, soft and well-spoken attorney. He’s angry behind-the-scenes, but when coming face-to-face with DuPont’s legal team and leaders, he’s methodical and calm. It’s the kind of performance that makes it seem like every other actor is overacting, especially when Tim Robbins sticks his head in. This is Ruffalo’s vehicle, as it should be since his name is all over it, and he takes command of the ship with extraordinary confidence.
Despite the message and Ruffalo’s performance, “Dark Waters” suffers from a choppy pace and the overwhelming feeling that’s it outstaying it’s welcome towards the end. Granted, it’s a two-hour movie that tries to condense a decade and a half or more worth of actual content. But there’s still a lot of odd editing choices. At times, the movie smartly condenses years with on-screen text to show the passage of time or fill the audience in on some key plot points. Other times, it appears to be twiddling it’s thumbs, content with unnecessary back story and a handful of bizarre cameos. Cameos that feel a little grotesque considering the movie’s content. It barrels forward at full-steam in the beginning, but begins to lose a lot of its punch as the movie comes to a close, which is a bit unfortunate.
“Dark Waters” is the kind of film that should make us all feel concerned about the kind of toxins that have been deemed safe by the government, as well as the products that are continually marketed as safe by unchecked corporate America. Even though this movie is far from perfect, Ruffalo should feel proud to have his name all over this. Anyone who sees this movie will think twice about the marketing fed to them daily, the companies that promise to have their best interest, and the politicians who say “Trust us.”
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern Directed by: Noah Baumbach Rated: R Running Time: 136 minutes Netflix
It’s an impressive feat to reach out to an audience and make them feel something, especially when those audience members aren’t able to relate to the plight at hand. I say this because I’ve never been married, so I haven’t experienced the painful complications surrounding divorce. Despite that, I felt the pain, sorrow, and heartbreak experienced throughout “Marriage Story.”
When we first meet the New York couple, Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johansson), they’re narrating all the little things that they like about one another. We come to find out they’re both mentally going over a list of things they love about one another. The lists were at the behest of a mediator because their marriage is falling apart. Both stay silent over the list, choosing to never read them. Charlie, a playwright, and Nicole, an actress, have decided that marriage counseling isn’t right for them, and maybe their union isn’t right for them as well. Things erode further as Nicole accepts an acting job in Los Angeles, taking their son with her. Things crumble even further once Nicole is told by a friend about a divorce lawyer.
The narrations at the beginning feel like a distant memory midway through the movie. The split reaches a point where it becomes about who can do the most emotional damage, no dime spared. Even their more cordial conversations, feel tense because they’re on the verge of lunging at one another a delivering another blow to the other’s heart. Thankfully some of the tension is undercut by sardonic comedy and moments where ancillary characters simply help the two main characters breathe.
There is no right and wrong in “Marriage Story,” because it’s all messy, just like a real-life divorce. Now granted, director/writer Noah Baumbach does a fantastic job of layering each character with relatable and detestable attributes. We see moments of selfishness and selflessness from Charlie and Nicole. Baumbach does slip up in the middle and towards the end as he tends to focus more on Charlie’s distress and misery, rather than giving the audience a peek at what kind of turmoil is going on with Nicole.
“Marriage Story” offers up two of the best performance to date from Driver and Johansson, who are simply magnetic together on-screen. The dialogue is brutal, honest and straightforward, which bats away any potentially dull moments. Their divorce is a slow-moving car crash that you can’t look away from because of how engrossing it is, but because of how well Charlie and Nicole have been written, you can only hope that they both make it out OK in the end.
Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas Directed by: Rian Johnson Rated: PG-13 Running Time: 130 minutes Lionsgate
About two years ago, around this time of year, I was criticizing Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” as being stuffy and unimaginative despite the ensemble cast and production budget. Unlike that dreary and forgettable whodunit, “Knives Out” is a welcome addition to the murder-mystery genre.
The mystery in “Knives Out” is spun around the apparent suicide of the Thrombley family patriarch, Harlan (Christopher Plummer). The suspects are the surrounding Thrombley family, made up of a cast characters played by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and others. Each of the Thrombley’s has their own selfish reasons or reasoning for wanting to kill Harlan. Simply put, they’re leeches. But the police aren’t the ones looking into the possibility of foul play. Private detective, Benoit Blanc (Craig), was tasked with finding the killer after a mysterious letter arrived at his door. So he enlists the help of Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Armas), to track down clues and interview family members.
Just like “Clue” and “Murder by Death” before it, “Knives Out” works first as a comedy, and second as a mystery that twists and turns until the very end. Even when you think you’ve figured it all out, the movie manages to unravel a little bit more. If I was to nitpick, just a wee bit, it’d be that the movie reveals a little bit too much, too early on, and takes its time revealing a few more of the twists. However, the comedy masks a lot of its pacing flaws. The silliness of the characters is inevitably undermined by their ulterior motives by the end of the film. The final frame serves as an unmasking for the film’s allegory, which writer/director Rian Johnson has carefully pieced together over the course of a few hours.
“Knives Out,” a modern throwback, works best when it’s delivering one-liners and verbal gut punches during family squabbles. The material moves so fast, that I’m certain there will be some people giving this a re-watch to see what kind of jokes they missed out on. “Knives Out” is engaging, fun, and clever, and what more could you want from a whodunit?
Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Benning and Ted Levine Directed by: Scott Z. Burns Rated: R Running Time: 120 minutes Amazon Studios
It’s easy to lose sight of things that happen with all the constant distractions that we have nowadays. Especially in 2019, it’s difficult to keep up with all the headlines, much less remember ones that happened in 2014. “The Report” is a reminder about one of those headlines that may have skirted under the rug, but it’s a sobering reminder that we shouldn’t let it go away anytime soon.
Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a real-life Senate investigator tasked with looking into the use of torture by the CIA during the War on Terror. It’s established early on that Jones is a meticulous, by-the-books staffer. He’s ready to shine his light into every crevice in the search for the truth, but he has one hand tied behind his back. The agreement between the Senate and the CIA means that he doesn’t get to take any findings with him from a pale, bleak, windowless underground office space at the CIA, and he regularly finds that files are being deleted as he searches. However, those hurdles aren’t going to stop Jones from uncovering what the CIA did and what the CIA doesn’t want anyone to know.
Despite the dense information that “The Report” has to condense, it does it in a reasonable amount of time. It’s the kind of movie that can feel like its three to four hours long, when in reality it’s barely two. That’s not necessarily a knock because Driver is magnificently engrossing as Jones, delivering these exciting monologues when everyone else is procedurally discussing things. This is the kind of political thriller that you’d expect to be flashy, but it’s not. Much of the scenery is straight-forward, the surroundings are bland and some of the characters have to repress their outrage or disgust because of the D.C. environment they’re in.
While Driver is a tour de force in this, its director/writer Scott Z. Burns who should deserve a lot of credit for making this film as entertaining as it is. He manages to whittle down a nearly 7,000 page report into a movie, while also hopping along a lengthy timeline flawlessly, without confusing or talking down to the audience. Anyone who keeps up-to-date with the news will surely be able to follow along and know what’s coming next, but most of the general public will be stunned, if not upset depending on their political affiliations.
Much of what Jones’ and the audience find out as the film progresses is absolutely horrific. Not only is the U.S. participating in immoral techniques, but they don’t work. There comes a point in the film where the CIA plays defense, saying that the facts are misinterpreted and that Jones’ work is nothing but a witch hunt. It might be saying something about temporary day and what’s going on in the nation right now, but I’d like to believe that “The Report” is doing its due diligence at highlighting the work of public servants. Jones’ was in a thankless position, under threat of prison time and espionage. He was doing, what many seeing this movie would believe to be, his public duty and looking for answers that the public needs to know.
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci Directed by: Martin Scorsese Rated: R Running Time: 209 minutes Netflix
There’s a lot of background noise surrounding Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” On one hand, you have the general movie-going crowd groaning over the stuffed runtime, and on the other hand, you have industry insiders bemoaning the dispute that Netflix has had with cinemas. In a lot of ways, these issues stem from an older generation, wondering why they need to sit through a movie this long or would want to seek out a movie that isn’t at their local conglomerate movie theater. These feel like such miniscule problems when you watch this film and realize it’s one of the best movies of 2019.
When we first meet Frank Sheeran (De Niro), he’s beside himself in a nursing home. No one pays any mind or bothers talking to the WWII veteran turned truck driver turned hitman. He has a wild story to tell, but no one to tell it to. So, he tells it to the audience. It begins in 1950’s Pennsylvania, where his stonewalling in court earns the respect of local gangster, Russell Bufalino (Pesci). The two quickly develop a bond and appreciation, so Bufalino starts having Frank do odd jobs, not petty crimes mind you, but murder. Frank makes a big enough splash that he’s soon introduced to infamous teamster, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). That’s when things get weird and violent.
Unlike Scorsese’s previous crime and mob movies, this film moves at a confident, quiet pace. It’s not sexually bombastic like “Wolf of Wall Street,” or violently speedy like “Goodfellas.” It has a lot to say and it’s going to take its God damn time. It has two and a half decades to cover, along with various flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks. The narrative structure is built around the most shocking revelation of this movie, which most anyone with an understanding of criminal history in the U.S. should know before turning this movie on, but just in case, I won’t reveal it. Despite the lengthy runtime and the years of story the film pours over, this movie is rarely boring.
Scorsese is a master at making overly long films. He makes three hours seem like a walk through the park. It’s the style in which he shoots, the way he tells the character’s story and the outlandishness that he captures on screen. It’s almost like he taps into this primal ID, making us feast on the depravity of others. But “The Irishman” takes on small, but major step towards a different path. “Goodfellas” or “Wolf of Wall Street” doesn’t end well for the film’s antagonists. Their punishment is generally a mundane end to their life, but “The Irishman” takes it a step further. It shows that this wild lifestyle, filled with action and fun, ends alone. The final 30 minutes are bittersweet.
It unfolds in such an interesting way, that we become more wrapped up in Frank’s life and how he manages to balance these violent side gigs with a picturesque home life, with a wife and kids. We get little breadcrumbs about the Bufalino crime family and how much their tentacles have penetrated the East Coast. We also get a lot of intriguing political dramas as Pacino pushes the limits of overacting through Hoffa. Pacino never quite reaches the unnecessary acting heights of a film like “Scent of a Woman,” but he comes precariously close. Hoffa is crafted in such a flawed manner, that you come to sympathize and loathe him from scene-to-scene. Meanwhile, Pesci, in his most reserved role, is just as menacing as ever behind the wrinkles of Bufalino. There’s a lot of creative supporting work here as well from the likes of Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Harvey Keitel.
Putting a sweeping epic like this on Netflix seems bizarre to many. Decades ago, folks would have lined up around the block to see this film and theaters would have slapped an intermission in the middle so that people could refill on sugar drinks and salty popcorn. Instead this movie will be watched by people on their TVs at home, their computers, or even on their smartphone. There are a lot of people wondering why this film isn’t being shown the classic way. Maybe Scorsese recognizes the direction the industry is heading. He recently caught flack or making a negative comment about Marvel films, even though they were grossly taken out of context in the never-ending effort to satisfy today’s outrage culture. “The Irishman” feels like a bookend to a beloved genre, as Scorsese reflects on his past and says goodbye to the murderous crooks that made his career.
Starring: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson and Luke Evans Directed by: Roland Emmerich Rated: PG-13 Running Time: 138 minutes Lionsgate
I haven’t seen the 1976 war epic, “Midway,” but unfortunately I’ve seen the 2019 “Midway.” Even though I haven’t seen the 70’s dramatization, I’m sure it’s still better than Roland Emmerich’s bombastic vision. Whereas the Jack Smight film had star power like Charleton Heston and Henry Fonda, Emmerich decided to see which one of the Jonas Brothers was available, what unheard of actor Ed Skrein was up to, and if Woody Harrelson could do some work for pennies on the dollar.
“Midway” is about one of the most pivotal battles in the Pacific Theater during WWII. This update begins with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, before it slowly transitions to the formulation of the Battle of Midway. The nitty gritty of this film, the abundance of characters, is at the core. Going over all the characters in this movie would be pointless, since the majority, while being real-life heroes, are forgettable. That’s because their heroics are delivered by wooden actors or are shifted into place in front of the camera so they can deliver some cliché dialogue and unnecessary exposition. This is the kind of movie that’ll make you appreciate “Dunkirk” if you weren’t a fan of that movie.
The big question though, for people interested in watching this film, is whether or not it pays tribute to the brave men and women who fought in the Second World War. Kind of, minus the brave women part. The only time we see women, they’re bothering their brave significant others or saying “I’ll go powder my nose,” as a euphemism for crying over the potential loss of their husband. “Midway” is the kind of movie you could compare to Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” because of the way they both handled their subject material. It reaches a few gimmicky crescendos, plucking at the American heart strings, but not enough to be sappy, but slightly enough to honor the real heroes during this battle, especially towards the end. Throughout we’re introduced to characters that don’t matter or whose deaths should mean something, but it’s handled so haphazardly that you’re more likely to question who died, rather than mourn their loss.
I think my biggest complaint with this movie is how pandering it is to Chinese audiences. There’s been a lot of talk in the mainstream lately about China’s influence in sports and pop culture. The biggest finger pointing has been towards the NBA and Disney, who can’t be blamed for obeying the almighty dollar, who has commanded them to submit to Xi Jinping. “Midway,” Emmerich, and Lionsgate seemed to have committed the ultimate sin in this regard. Their intent ultimately feels disingenuous because they’ve decided to tell a tale about American perseverance, while bending the knee to their Chinese financiers. I think theatergoers expecting nothing, or unaware of China’s influence on Hollywood, will be pleasantly surprised by “Midway,” and may even have a positive reaction. I feel like most people will have the same problems I had with it. “Midway” has so many ethical and moral problems, that ultimately, any good intentions are torpedoed.
Starring: Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson Directed by: Robert Eggers Rated: R Running Time: 109 minutes A24
When “The Lighthouse” opens, we watch as two lighthouse keepers sourly look towards a tiny island dotting the vast ocean ahead. Towering above the horizon is the lighthouse that they’ll be in charge of for the next four weeks. We won’t learn who these lighthouse keepers are, much less their names, until much later in the movie. That’s because both don’t know each other or seem concerned about exchanging pleasantries. The younger lighthouse keepers, Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), is given the more strenuous duties on the miniature island, while the older lighthouse keepers, Thomas Wake (Dafoe), mysteriously secludes himself in the lighthouse.
Taking place in the late 19th century, Wake, a curmudgeonly veteran of the lighthouse trade, holds on to several superstitions, which he rambles on about like its Sunday gospel. He warns his counterpart about bothering or harming the seagulls that permeate the island because the pesky seabirds house the souls of dead sailors. We also hear from him that the previous lighthouse keeper went mad, claiming to have been beckoned by the call of nearby sirens. Winslow, who’s initially suspicious of his superior and the tales he tells, finds a mermaid token stuffed into his mattress as he settles in. That seems to trigger an avalanche of bizarre happenings and sights on the miniscule space of land.
“The Lighthouse” finds a multitude of reasons for these lighthouse keepers to go inevitably go mad. Everything from cabin fever and mistrust, to the mass consumption of alcohol and the reality that their four weeks may become longer as a storm approaches. As the film progresses, it’s difficult to tell which lighthouse keeper is telling the truth, which one is hallucinating, and what exactly is happening, if anything, on the island. Dread drips throughout this film, thanks to a bombastic soundtrack and the movie being filmed in black and white. The terrors of the night and day are enhanced by the monochromatic landscape and sets.
On a technical level, this film is hauntingly gorgeous. When we see the lighthouse at night, we expect a monster to be perched on top, but instead it’s Wake, who appears to be bewitched by the light he claims to protect. When Winslow moves about the island with his work duties, whether it’s during blustery rain storms or in the dead of night, it feels lonely and isolated because all he has are his thoughts and visions. Neither have anything to attach themselves to, other than their work, especially since neither appears to have a busy work hobby, much less a book. Yet if something is on the island with them, we know that Winslow and Wake have no way to escape.
“The Lighthouse” manages to feel claustrophobic despite all the space given to these actors to play in. Despite their tiny lodging, they appear to have all the room in the world when they need to yell at or lung at one another. Dafoe, a natural in acting, seems to go through the motions at the beginning, as if he’s stretching the sea legs of his conniving character. He shines as bright as a lighthouse in the final act though, specifically in one scene I won’t reveal and another where his character delivers a chilling soliloquy. Equally impressive is Pattinson, who has the heaviest lifting throughout as his character descends into madness. The nightmarish visions and back-breaking work eventually tears down Winslow’s tough guy persona at the beginning. Pattinson channels fear and paranoia through his piercing eyes.
As evidenced by some of the more horrific or horror-centric films of 2019, “Midsommar” and “Climax” come to mind, “The Lighthouse” is a movie that you let digest. Having a gut reaction afterwards would do a disservice to the craft presented on-screen. As a reviewer, I’m in a pinch because a second viewing would solidify my overall attitude towards this film, but I do know that my initial experience was positive. Even though we’re trapped with these characters for nearly two hours, the film never feels long because it’s unnerving. Director Robert Eggers finds the right moments to be overtly creepy, violent and sexual, just like he did in his previous film, “The Witch.” There are also numerous light moments of humor that help undercut a lot of the palpable tension. “The Lighthouse” won’t make you jump or have you turning on a night light when you get home, but it may haunt your dreams like any good campfire tale of terror.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro and Zazie Beetz
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Running Time: 122 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures
Much like the Joker’s origin in “The Killing Joke,” Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is an aspiring stand-up comedian. Before he can reach that pie in the sky dream, he makes ends meet as a clown-for-hire, takes care of his ailing mother in a rat-infested apartment, and attempts to deal with several mental illnesses. There’s actually nothing particularly extraordinary about Arthur, and that seems to be casually ingrained into him by his co-workers, passersby on the street and even his own mother. But if the title of the film wasn’t a big enough clue, there’s a lot in life that’s in store for Arthur.
It’d be disingenuous to try and rank all those who’ve portrayed the Joker (minus Jared Leto) because of the drastically different material they were given. However, “Joker” stands tall in its own category because it’s surrounded by subpar films. Villain origin stories aren’t great fodder, just look at “Venom” and “Hannibal.” But “Joker” isn’t just an origin story for the clown prince of crime, it’s a character study, something that’s never been done before on screen. Breaking down the Joker is a tricky task and there’s really no right way to do it, but there’s definitely a wrong way to do it. While Phoenix does it magically nuanced way, director/writer Todd Phillips handles it in ham-fisted fashion.
Phillips is more well-known for his “Hangover” trilogy or juvenile 2000 film, “Road Trip.” Behind the camera, Phillips is more than capable of telling a gritty crime story, drawing from what I can only assume is movies he grew up on and influenced him to become a filmmaker in the first place, “Taxi Driver,” “Kings of Comedy” and “Network.” He encapsulates that late 70s/early 80s glow well, emulating its style, color palette and nihilism. Where he falls remarkably short is writing a script that’s on par with those classics. Phillips makes a lot of leaps in logic, despite grounding the main character in a very realistic Gotham.
There’s nothing supernatural or superhuman about Fleck’s life. There’s no vat of chemicals to fall in or scars that he’s telling conflicting stories about. Everything that makes Fleck the hero and villain of his own story, is inside. So what makes a lot of the “Joker” work is the acting and not Phillips. That’s because the director gives away several mid, and late, storytelling reveals by relying on clichés early on. Anyone familiar with the Batman lore or movies involving psychosis will be able to spot plot twists and turns involving characters or the plot. Phillips’ maturity with his hands behind the camera unfortunately doesn’t translate when the pen meets the paper.
I’ll give credit to Phillips for one aspect, and that’s at least using one of the film’s tropes to set-up discussion about the ending of the film. Since Phillips has noted this is a stand-alone film (meaning it doesn’t fit into the DC Cinematic Universe and won’t have a sequel), there’s a lot to take away from the final 15 minutes. That’s where I assume a lot of the pre-release controversy stems from. Several people have weighed in on what they believe Phillips is intending to say, but I’m in the minority because I’m not sure Phillips is actually trying to say anything in particular. I believe he structured it in such a neutral fashion, that the discussion will simply be guided by the ideology of the viewer.
But for all the hype, controversy, praise, condemnation and mystery, the only thing worthy of discussion for years to come is the performance by Phoenix; everything else feels like contemporary background noise. Phoenix, as he’s done in nearly every role he’s been given, is absolutely magnetic. Despite the derivative nature of the script, Phoenix keeps his character wildly unpredictable while combining antihero elements and sociopathic tendencies. We’re not just witnessing the birth of a supervillain, we’re watching a true descent into madness.