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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Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel Drama Fantasy movie review Movies Movies Thriller

Lucy in the Sky

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 12:34 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and threats of violence, gun
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 4, 2019

In 2007 a female astronaut furiously jealous because the male astronaut she was sleeping with was also sleeping with someone else, drove from Texas to Florida with the intention of attacking the other woman. “Lucy in the Sky” tells us it is inspired by a true story, and while it draws some of its details from what really happened, there is very little inspiration evident on screen.

Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019

Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola, who has made up for the chaos and dysfunction of her family by being competitive and ultra-capable. Her mother drank, her father was a deadbeat, her brother is an irresponsible single dad who disappears now and then, leaving his teenage daughter with Lucy and her husband (Dan Stevens). Lucy is intensely competitive, always keeping her eye on triumphing over whatever challenge is next. “You’ll just have to work harder,” the grandmother who raised her (Ellen Burstyn) advises, and we can tell that is her standard advice. She has succeeded at everything because she refuses to stop until she does.

We first see her floating in space. Ordered to return to the ship, she insists on a little more time to absorb the vastness of the universe. (With “Ad Astra,” this is the second film in a month to show us a personal and existential crisis in outer space.)

On her return, Lucy is in that most mundane of ordinary tasks, waiting in the carpool lane to pick up her niece at school. She has a routine debriefing with a counselor (Nick Offerman) who gently asks her whether the experience was disturbing. He quotes Apollo 11’s Michael Collins, who wept as he piloted the rocket behind the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic landing. He was “consumed by darkness” and said he was profoundly alone. “It’s hard to put into words,” Lucy says. But she liked it and wants to go back.

He urges her to take a break. “Can you stop?” But she only knows how to achieve mission objectives. Without a fixed mission, her mind starts spinning.

And then, another astronaut invites her to go bowling with others in “the club” — those who have looked at Earth from outer space and have had their perspective permanently changed. He is Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), recently separated and a bit of a mess, unlike Lucy’s stable, sweet, hand-holding-grace-before-meals husband (Dan Stevens). They have an affair. And then things spin out of control. And so does the movie.

There might be an intriguing story here about how seeing things from a — literally — broader perspective could make someone rethink choices and priorities or how the pressure of being perfect can stem from deep insecurities which can cause distortion and collapse. This film touches on all of that but we keep being distracted by Portman’s efforts at a cornpone accent, some camera tricks with the aspect ratio of the frame, and shifts in tone. The actors do their considerable best, but at times they seem to be acting in different movies. The overly cutesy idea of naming the character Lucy so that The Beatles song can play on the soundtrack is jarring and out of place.

The story could have made a pretty good Lifetime television film, a soapy melodrama starring some third-tier actors. Instead, it is an awkward, wildly uneven film that shoots for the stars — quite literally — and falls far short.

Parents should know that this film include very strong language, some peril and threats of violence, sexual references and a brief explicit situation.

Family discussion: Why was Lucy so different from her parents and brother? How did being in space affect her? What did it mean to be “in the club?”

If you like this, try: “Ad Astra” and “The Martian”

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Drama Inspired by a true story movie review Movies Movies

Ad Astra

Posted on September 19, 2019 at 5:31 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some startling and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 20, 2019

Copyright 20th Century Fox
James Gray, the writer/director of Lost City of Z. has given us another story of a father and son who leave women behind to explore unknown territory. “Lost City of Z” was based on the true story of Percy Fawcett, who traveled through South America in search of the legendary city of gold, inspiring a generation of adventurers. In “Ad Astra” (“to the stars”) an astronaut goes to the farthest reaches of the solar system in search of answers that range from the most cosmic and existential to the most deeply wrenching and personal.

In both films, Gray is better with the settings than the characters and better with the characters than the storyline. And Brad Pitt’s acting is better than every other part of the film.

The look and sound of “Ad Astra” is spectacular. It creates a completely believable, fully-imagined near-future look and feel of an era of space travel and planetary colonization. It is difficult in a sci-fi movie not to want to show off the coolness of the technology, and make the most of the extrapolations of our time into the worst (or occasionally best) possible outcomes, for example, Earth destroyed by human failings or hubris. But this film makes its imagined future all the more believable by making it fit seamlessly into a world that seems just minutes from where we are now. So of course there will be bomb-sniffing dogs in the rocket hanger; just because we develop the technology for routine travel to outer space does not mean we will develop a safer world at home. And of course there will be a Subway (the sandwich place, not the mode of transportation) in a space outpost because why wouldn’t fast food corporations line up whatever territory they can.

I will not spoil the adventures along the journey; I will just say that the characters acceptance of them as ordinary and expected also underscores the vastness of the imagined world and deepens the impact of the dangers Roy faces.

The score by Max Richter, cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (“Intersteller”), and the sound design by Grant Elder shape the story-telling, making the exploration seem so completely realistic that we can believe it is already an ordinary part of our daily lives, but keeping things exciting and suspenseful when the time comes.

And then there is the story. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut, like his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared on a voyage to Neptune when Roy was a child. Now someone needs to go to Neptune to investigate a mysterious electrical surge that is creating great damage on earth. And it seems possible that Clifford is involved somehow, that he has survived all this time.

The astronauts are required to do regular self-assessment check-ins on their mental and psychological states to determine whether they are stable enough for space travel. But it is not at all clear as Roy goes through the list of questions whether he is saying what he really feels or what he knows they want to hear. “I am focused only on the essentials,” he says, “I do not allow my mind to linger on that which is not important.” Can anyone believe that is possible? Or that it should be possible? What Roy’s superiors know is the data that they have received, showing that his pulse never goes above 80, even when the situation is very dire. So, should he have one of those “Houston, we have a problem” complications, they believe they can count on him to be level-headed and focus on practical solutions instead of getting emotional, frightened, or angry.

And so he seems to be the right choice for “a crisis of unknown magnitude,” unprecedented electrical surges that put all human life at risk and that seem to be connected to Clifford’s long-ago mission. Roy agrees to go to Neptune, requiring stops on the moon and Mars, to see if he can find and stop the surges. But there’s a warning. “We have to hold out the possibility that your father may be hiding from us.” “I remain mission ready,” Roy assures them.

But we learn that Roy understands rage. He has seen it in his father and he feels it in himself. There will be sacrifices along the way, and decisions with tragic consequences. I found the ultimate encounter less than satisfying, not up to the ambitions of the premise and the settings. But Pitt’s performance and the world of the film provide more than enough reason to watch and wonder.

Parents should know that this film includes sci-fi style violence with peril and some disturbing and graphic images, themes of parental abandonment, characters who are injured and killed, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Was Roy honest in his answers about his emotional state? How was he like his father and how was he different? Would you like to explore space?

If you like this, try: “2001,” “Gravity,” “The Martian,” and “Silent Running”

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Drama movie review Movies Movies Science-Fiction

Downton Abbey

Posted on September 19, 2019 at 5:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Assassination attempt, scuffle
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: September 20, 2019
Copyright 2019 Focus Features

There’s a reason the hugely popular “Downton Abbey” television series is named for the property, not the characters. The part of Downton Abbey the building, or, I should say, the estate, is played by real-life historic Highclere Castle. It is over a thousand acres and has 200 rooms. And (which you can stay in via Airbnb). The story began in 2010 (1912 in Downton years) with the vital question of the future of the estate, which like most British great homes, was entailed. That means that it would always be inherited by the eldest male of each generation. (For more on this issue, see Sense and Sensibility and Moving Midway and let me just have a brief aside here to say that one completely revolutionary decision of our founding fathers that does not get enough credit for deciding that in the United States people could leave their property and land as they wished.).

The noble family occupying Downton Abbey are the Crawleys, headed by Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville of “Paddington”), who with his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) has three beautiful daughters and no sons. The property will thus go to to a cousin, who conveniently has become engaged to the oldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Unfortunately, as the first episode begins, he had been traveling to the United States on the Titanic, and he has been killed. Lady Mary is very sorry to lose her fiancé, but the family is in a complete upheaval because the next male relative is someone they don’t even know. Meanwhile, one of the great strengths and points of interest in the show is that it devotes equal attention and respect to the extensive staff below stairs, the servants, who all have complicated characters and conflicts and lives. They include Mrs. Patmore, the cook (Lesley Nicol), Carson, the head butler (Jim Carter), Tom Branson, and the chauffeur (Allen Leech), who crosses the uncrossable line by marrying one of the Crawley daughters. And there’s everyone’s favorite character, the acid-tongued Dowager Duchess exquisitely played by Dame Maggie Smith.

There is a ton of drama and romance over the run of the series, plus World War I and other seismic historical events.

And so now, here we are with the first Downton Abbey feature film, picking up the story in 1927, and once again the issue of property and inheritance is at issue. Writer Julian Fellowes had a daunting challenge. He had to take two dozen characters the fans were deeply invested in and were used to being able to watch through long-form storylines over the course of months. It’s kind of like “The Avengers” for the PBS/Anglophile crowd (I consider myself happily and proudly in both camps).

And, you know what? He pulls it off, with a brilliant mechanism for bringing everyone together in a high-pressure situation that gives even the most devoted fan many sigh-worthy and highly satisfying developments. As the movie begins, we follow a very important letter from its creation to its receipt. They are to receive a visit from the King and Queen of England (that would be King George and Queen Mary, the parents of future abdicator Edward VIII and “The King’s Speech” younger brother who became George VI, father of the present Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history). This is an honor that no one can turn down. And so Downton is made ready, every tiara and silver serving piece polished, every piece of furniture in every one of the 200 rooms shined, and every arcane protocol meticulously followed.

There are ups and downs, none of the downs too terrible, all of the ups reassuring and satisfying. If we think about it for a moment, we will remember why we do not want to return to that world. It will take less than a moment if we consider the possibility we would be returning as the servants, not the nobility; the Crawleys may worry about money, but they get to worry in some beautiful clothes and settings while they are nicely cared for. We are aware that both the upstairs and downstairs characters struggle with the restrictions of their positions but somehow it all seems like a fairy tale to escape to in this lush and beautiful version, where we can all imagine ourselves dressing for dinner and receiving a visit from the royal family.

Parents should know that this film includes references to terminal illness, family conflicts, assassination attempt, scuffle, an out of wedlock child, and some mild language.

Family discussion: Why did the servants rebel? Why did Violet change her mind about the property? Do you agree with what Thomas told the princess?

If you like this, try: “Gosford Park” and the “Downton Abbey’ television series

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Based on a television show Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues movie review Movies Movies

The Goldfinch

Posted on September 12, 2019 at 5:25 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug use and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug use by adults and teens
Violence/ Scariness: Terrorism and crime-related violence, drunk driving, child abuse, characters injured and killed including death of five different parents
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 13, 2019
Copyright Amazon Studios 2019

There are three major problems with “The Goldfinch,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt. The first is that it is long, nearly two and a half hours. The second is that it is dull, so it seems much longer. And the third is that it is a mess, and not in an interesting way. It tries very hard to be many things all at once — to be meaningful, to be significant, to be dramatic, to be exciting, and to illuminate issues of grief and loss and love and identify. Most of all it aspires to be an awards-worthy film, as the adaptation of an acclaimed literary work should be. But it succeeds at none of them.

What it does have are way too many of the indicators of pretentiousness and of telling (which is what books do) instead of showing (which is what movies do, the good ones anyway). Every item on the check list gets ticked off as the film lumbers on: affectedly literary voiceovers with aphoristic sounding observations that are not especially illuminating or insightful, a pinkly pinkly piano on the soundtrack, flashbacks, and w world where even in New York City our character just keep running into each other all the time because there are only six people in the world and everyone else is just background.

Theo (Oakes Fegley as a boy, Ansel Elgort as an adult) and his mother were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when his mother and many other visitors were killed in a terrorist bombing attack. Theo blames himself, because his mother was only there with him because she was on her way to see the principal about a bogus complaint that Theo had been smoking at school. Or, perhaps he blames himself because he lagged behind while she went on to the next room because he was mesmerized by a pretty red-headed girl. Or, it could be he blames himself just because he survived and she did not. In the chaos following the explosion, we will learn, Theo had an odd but portentous conversation with a man who was dying. And, in one of the defining moments of his life, Theo took a small, priceless painting from the museum, a picture of a goldfinch.

Theo initially stays with a wealthy, cultured family (headed by Boyd Gaines and Nicole Kidman), then in Nevada the feckless, alcoholic father who had abandoned him (Luke Wilson), then a kindly antique dealer/restorer (Jeffrey Wright) connected to the man whose death Theo witnessed in the museum and the girl who caught his attention just before the blast. He is befriended by a skinny Ukranian immigrant in his class named Boris (“Stranger Things'” Finn Wolfhard as a boy, Aneurin Barnard as an adult), who has the pale skin and unruly hair of Edward Scissorhands. Events lumber forward without any real emotional connection, only hammered-home reminders that life is fragile, grief is inevitable, and a leaf may wilt but a painting of a leaf will not, though it can be stolen.

There. I just saved you a soapy 2 1/2 hour slog capped with a preposterous shoot-out. You’re welcome.

Parents should know that this film includes terrorism and crime-related peril and violence, drunk driving, characters injured and killed including deaths of five parents, child abuse, attempted suicide, drinking and drug use by children and adults, and strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Theo take the painting? Why was the wilted leaf in the painting important? Why didn’t Boris join Theo in New York?

If you like this, try: the book by Donna Tartt and the book and movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (also featuring Jeffrey Wright),

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