Joker

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 12:42 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Prescription drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic bloody violence, murders, stabbing, guns, assaults
Diversity Issues: Some insults
Date Released to Theaters: October 4, 2019

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers
“Joker” tries hard to be dark, disturbing, and meaningful. It is dark, but it is sour, superficial and gross, the darkness not especially significant and therefore not especially meaningful. Its call-outs to past and current real-life events and other movies are not illuminating in any way; they just seem like training wheels borrowed to keep the movie from falling over. And we’re stuck once again with the tired trope of disability leading to criminality.

One of the highest compliments an actor can give another actor is “committed.” And for sure Joaquin Phoenix is fully committed to the role of Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire and would-be stand-up comic who experiences repeated abuse and betrayal. After he is fired, learns a family secret, and then is cut off from counseling and medications, he spins out of control.

This is a non-canonical version of the origins of Joker, not connected to any of the previous depictions of the character in comics, movies, or television. In this version, Gotham resembles the New York City of the 70’s, when the city was teetering on financial insolvency. As it opens, they are in the midst of a garbage strike. Piles of trash are everywhere and large rats are running through the streets. Arthur is twirling an Everything Must Go sign in front of a store that is going out of business. Some boys grab the sign and, when he chases after them into an alley, they beat him with the sign until it shatters. Later, Arthur’s boss takes the cost of the sign out of his pay. Yeah, this movie is not subtle. The boys beat Arthur with the sign and the movie beats us with the metaphors.

Arthur lives in a squalid apartment building with his frail mother (Frances Conroy), and he cares for her tenderly. bringing her food, giving her baths, and sharing their favorite television shows including a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (a badly miscast Robert De Niro). Arthur dreams of being on the show.

Arthur’s mother always told him his purpose in life was to make people happy. And he tries hard. He makes funny faces to get a toddler to laugh on a bus, but the child’s mother snaps at him. He gets fired for bringing a gun to the hospital where he is entertaining sick kids. He struggles with mental illness that undermines his grip on reality and a nervous condition that causes grotesque involuntary laughter when he is under stress. He has a little laminated card he hands out to explain this unsettling symptom to bystanders.

His fragile support system unravels. He loses his job. The city cannot afford a social safety net, so even the haphazard counseling he has been getting is cut off and he no longer has access to the seven different psychotropic medications. He loses his job. He feels betrayed by his mother. And then, on the subway, he is confronted by three arrogant finance bros.

Crossing the line to breaking the law feels liberating to Arthur and to similarly resentful protesters throughout Gotham, leading to some expressions of concern that this portrayal itself could inspire copycats. It does draw from current conflicts in the news to attempt a gravitas that this film cannot sustain, leaving only sensation and a bitter sense of entitlement in those who consider themselves victims. It teeters on the brink of telling us that if only we were all nicer to (listening to, having sex with) people who weird us out, they wouldn’t be weird anymore. Director Todd Phillips’ bitter comments recently about how it’s no fun to be funny now because you have to be so sensitive all the time underscore the resentment on display here.

Similarly, it litters the film with pieces (I’m sure they would call it homage, but it’s just stealing) from two Martin Scorsese classics, “Taxi Driver” (the descent into madness triggered by the despair and corruption around him) and “The King of Comedy” (the descent into madness triggered by a distorted obsession with acceptance and celebrity). Significantly, in case we miss the unmissable point, the star of those two movies, Robert De Niro, plays someone very much like the talk show host his “King of Comedy” character was obsessed with. As we saw in “Comedian,” De Niro, for all his immeasurable gifts, is not able to convey the oily geniality or vocal rhythms of a stand-up comedian, even if this one were far better written.

This movie wants to be daring and provocative but it is just depressing, less for the degrading, sordid storyline than for the failure of all of the time and effort and money that went into making it to produce anything worthwhile.

Parents should know that this film includes very disturbing and graphic images, peril and violence, mental illness, murders, stabbing, guns, strong language, sexual images

Family discussion: Could anyone have helped Arthur? What stories in the news or history or other movies inspired some of the plot developments? How does this Joker compare to other depictions of the character?

If you like this, try: Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver”

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Batman’s Nemesis Joker — Who Played Him Best?

Posted on October 2, 2019 at 8:10 am

As Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” comes to the screen this week, we take a look at previous incarnations of Batman’s most popular villain:

Copyright DC Comics 1940

1. The Joker made his debut as a serial killer whose poison left victims with a gruesome rictus “grin” in the very first Batman comic, created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson. He was originally intended to be killed off, but the editor at DC liked him and he appeared in nine of the first twelve Batman issues.

2. Cesar Romero played Joker in the campy 1960’s television series.

3. My personal favorite — Jack Nicholson played Joker in the Tim Burton “Batman” movie opposite Michael Keaton.

4. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his Joker, in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight movie with Christian Bale.

5. I’m not a fan of Jared Leto’s Joker in “Suicide Squad,” but you have to admire his commitment.

6. The great Mark Hamill provides the creepy laugh and voice of the Joker in the animated series.

7. And now Joaquin Phoenix takes over in the first film to make Joker the lead character (we only glimpse future Batman Bruce Wayne as a young boy).

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Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted on June 28, 2019 at 7:32 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, mayhem, destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 23, 2019

Copyright Sony 2019
Okay, three key points before we get into the details of “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” First, see this smart, funny, heartwarming and entertaining movie on the biggest screen possible, IMAX if you can. Second, yes, you have to stay ALL the way through the credits. There are some big developments/revelations/surprises you will need to know. Third, if you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame” be aware that there are spoilers, so watch that first if you can, so you will better understand some of the conflicts and believe me, you don’t want to be distracted by figuring out what you missed because this movie deserves your full attention.

Just a reminder, as we’ve had a variety of Spider-Men on film, including Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and a whole bunch of Spideys including a pig and an anime girl in the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” In this version of the Spider-verse, Tom Holland has played high school student Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and in two Avengers movies. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) took a special interest in Peter, and had his aide Happy (Jon Favreau) act as messenger and mentor.

Now that that is all out of the way, let’s get into it, unless you have not seen “Avengers: Endgame,” in which case stop reading now as there will be spoilers. The movie begins with an in memoriam tribute to the characters who died in that film, as Whitney Houston sings “I Will Always Love You.” It’s touching but it’s cheesy and sappy and we find out why: it’s on a high school closed-circuit news program with student announcers who help bring us up to date. The people who turned to dust when Thanos snapped his fingers have been returned and their absence is called The Blip. But the returnees are five years older, while for the people who were not dusted no time had passed. Everyone is still getting used to the idea that the world has been saved and beginning to get back to normal or get used to the new normal.

Peter thinks he deserves time time off, so when Nick Fury calls, he does not answer his phone. Even though Tony Stark left him in charge of the Avengers, his priority is to go on the class trip to Europe and let Mary Jane (Zendaya) know that he likes her. As in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” this film combines adolescent angst and romance with special effects superhero extravaganza fights (remember what I said about the big, big screen), with a skillful blend of humor, action, and growing up. Sometimes that combination creates a problem for Peter, as when he gets jealous of a rival for MJ’s affection and accidentally calls a drone strike on the tour bus.

The school trip provides lots of picturesque (before they get trashed) European locations, including Venice and Prague, as Nick Fury keeps “upgrading” the trip to reroute Peter to where the action is.

I know I always say that the make or break for superhero movies is the villain, but I don’t want to tell you too much about the villain here because the details should be a surprise. So I will just say that the surprises are great and this one is a lot of fun, with a very clever updating of the comic book version of the character that create an opportunity for some trippy and mind-bending visual effects. And Peter gets a great gift from Tony Stark — be sure to listen carefully to what the acronym EDITH stands for.

The settings, fight scenes, and special effects are all top-notch, but it is the cast that really brings this story to life. Holland is a little less soulful than Maguire or Garfield (or Shameik Moore), a little more heart-on-his-sleeve energetic, with a natural athleticism that lends a gymnastic, almost balletic grace to his web-swinging and slinging. Zendaya’s MJ is smart, edgy and vulnerable. The villain is…surprising, and a welcome relief after the stentorian-voiced blowhards we have too often seen in superhero movies. Plus, Led Zep, Samuel L. Jackson gets to say, “Bitch, please,” and we get to see London Bridge (or the equivalent) falling down. This is just what a summer movie is supposed to be — fresh, fun, exciting, and with a wow of a post-credit scene to shake things up for the next installment. This one made my spidey-sense tingle.

Parents should know that this film includes intense comic-book/action-style peril and violence with massive destruction and mayhem, with characters injured and killed. The movie also includes teen kissing, some strong language, a crotch hit, someone giving the finger, and mild sexual references.

Family discussion: Should Peter have answered Nick Fury’s call? Why did Tony Stark pick him? What does it mean to say “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” and where does that expression come from?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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Men in Black International

Posted on June 13, 2019 at 5:49 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, some language and suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/comic book style peril and violence including weapons and explosions, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 14, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 9, 2019

Copyright 2019 Columbia Pictures
So, you watch “Thor Ragnarock” and you say, “Boy, I’d watch Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in anything!” And you watch the original “Men in Black” and you say, “Boy, this is one of the best movies ever, funny, smart, exciting, with wonderfully vivid and engaging human and non-human characters. I’d like to see more of this world.” And so, someone put it together and we have Hemsworth and Thompson taking over for Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and F. Gary Gray (“Straight Outta Compton,” “The Fate of the Furious”) taking over as director from Barry Sonnenfeld, and it turns out “Men in Black International” is just okay.

For example, among the many understated, near-throwaway jokes in the first movie, we saw a bank of television monitors tracking people on Earth who are in reality aliens. Unless you were watching it on a DVD player with a pause button, you would miss most of it, but the “aliens” included “Today’s” Al Roker, singer and psychic promoter Dionne Warwick, Tony Robbins, Sylvester Stallone, and fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. They use the same joke again, but it’s just Ariana Grande. Really? That’s the best you’ve got? Much of what made the first film such a wonder was the sense that there was a fully-imagined, world where supermarket tabloids were the only non-fake news, that somehow made more sense than the one we think of as real. It never winked at its characters or the audience. This one goes for a cheap laugh by having Hemsworth reach for a sledgehammer. He’s Thor, get it?

Thompson plays Molly, who had an alien encounter as a child and was accidentally not neuralized with the MiB’s memory eraser. She helped the fuzzy green alien escape and even learned a couple of words of its language. Since then, she has been so obsessed with learning more about the way the universe works that most people, including the man who was impressed with her record on the tests for government service, dismiss her as nutty.

By tracking an alien arrival, she sneaks into the MiB office, where the director (Emma Thompson as Agent O) agrees to take her on for a probationary period and sends her to the London office, where the top agent is H (Hemsworth), whose character seems to be based on the roles Rock Hudson played in “Pillow Talk” and “Lover Come Back,” a rakish playboy who hangs out with aliens at card games and nightclubs. While he is a legend in the office for having defeated The Hive with his then-partner, Agent T (Liam Neeson), he has pretty much checked out, sleeping at his desk and annoying his play-by-the-rules colleague, Agent C (Rafe Spall). H takes a visiting alien dignitary out for a night of drinking and debauchery but things go wrong and the alien is killed, with just enough time to pass on to Molly, now Agent M, a small object that seems to be very important, but he does not tell her why.

This fourth in the “Men in Black” series owes as much to James Bond as to its original (in both senses of the word) off-best, off-kilter, world-building story-telling. Our heroes hop around glamorous and exotic settings: Paris, London, Marrakech, a mysterious fortress on an island. Characters and incidents from the past are confronted and characters from the present may not be what they seem. A new character, voiced by “Silicon Valley’s” Kumail Nanjiani nearly steals the film with a reminder of the understated but pointed humor of the first film.

It has an awkward twist that indicates some struggles over rewrites, but H and M are so blandly conceived that even two of Hollywood’s most versatile and appealing performers can’t make them vibrant.

Parents should know that this film includes action/comic book-style peril and violence, powerful weapons, mayhem, characters injured and killed, monsters, disturbing images, some strong language, and a non-explicit inter-species sexual situation and sexual references.

Family discussion: Why did H change after his experience with the Hive? What did M want to understand about the universe and were her questions answered? Which alien was your favorite?

If you like this, try: the other “Men in Black” movies and the comics, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Paul”

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Dark Phoenix

Posted on June 6, 2019 at 4:42 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book action peril and violence with some disturbing graphic images, guns, explosions, superhero fights, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 7, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 16, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
The Marvel Avengers movies showed surprising range for very different characters operating in a single universe, from the outright comedy of “Thor Ragnarok” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” to the “Captain America: Winter Soldier” hark back to the political paranoia films of the 1970’s, the grappling with historical divides and cultural identity in “Black Panther” and the existential issues of “The Hulk.” But “Dark Phoenix,” this latest entry in the not (yet) integrated X-Men franchise, also based on Marvel comics, veers unwisely into a genre best left out of the superhero category: soap opera.

In this version of the X-Men universe (don’t try to tie it too closely to the original series or we would have to try to understand how Professor X and Magneto could age several decades in seven years, not to mention several other major disconnects), Jean Gray is brought by Professor X (James McAvoy) to his school, a sort of Hogwarts for mutants, when she is a child. Devastated by the loss of her parents in a car accident and terrified by powers she does not understand or control, she at first refuses. Professor X assures her that he can fix whatever she breaks, and that she herself is not broken. Note that just before the car flips over and crashes, which Jean survives without a scratch, the radio plays two significant songs: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Werewolves of London.” The first is a reference to the regenerating mythical bird that will give Jean her new nom de superhero/persona. The second is likely a nod to Jean’s relationship with Wolverine, otherwise not referred to in this film.

By the time Jean grows up (played by “Game of Thrones'” Sophie Turner), she is in a strong romantic relationship with Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and very much a part of the group of young adult X-Men. (Raven/Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, points out that the women have been saving the men so often they should consider changing the name to X-Women). The team goes on their first mission to outer space, to rescue a crew of American astronauts. Jean is almost killed, but is exposed to and possibly saved by some mysterious cosmic radiation. She says she is fine and nothing shows up in a quick medical examination, but later that day she faints, and when she is tested again, her powers are literally off the charts. As in, so far past anyone else they need to build a new machine to measure.

Whatever she has learned from the trust, guidance, and support of Professor X dissolves as the new powers bring back the same feelings of guilt, shame, defiance, and being out of control that we saw in her just before her parents’ car flipped over. She will try to find answers from her past, including a visit to the secret place where Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and his team are hanging out, a hidden safe zone that is off the grid.

As in all X-Men movies (and in last week’s “Godzilla” except with monsters), the core tension is between those who want to find a way for humans and mutants to live together in peace and mutual support (astronaut rescue!) and those who want to wipe each other out. This war seems to be going on inside of Jean, as she discovers that her real and substitute fathers lied to her and as she fears she will not be able to control her new powers.

Meanwhile, some aliens have landed and taken over human bodies. Their leader (Jessica Chastain) is searching for Jean to help them take over the planet. It is a shame to see this versatile, classically trained actor relegated to one of those roles where all of her lines are recited in the same languid but threatening monotone and her superpowers is primarily striding around in stilettos without mussing her impeccably shaped blonde hair.

The action scenes are capably staged, but the non-action scenes are close to inert and some of the special effects look cheap and insubstantial. Can we just all agree never to ask an alien character to say that emotions make humans weak? This is a disappointing placeholder that suffers by comparison with the vastly more dynamic and imaginative superhero movies we’ve already seen this year.

Parents should know that this film has extended fantasy/comic-book peril and violence with characters injured and killed and some disturbing and graphic images including characters being impaled, shot, and dissolved, and some strong language including one f-word.

Family discussion: Why did Professor X lie to Jean? Did he “fix” her? Would you like to have Jean’s powers and what would you do if you had them?

If you like this, try: the “X-Men” movies and comics and “Captain Marvel”

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