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Lucy in the Sky (2019)

I don’t really know what this movie was trying to say. I think co-writer/director Noah Hawley (TV’s Fargo, Legion) was better trying to humanize the story of Lisa Novak, the astronaut who drove 900 miles, while wearing diapers to skip bathroom breaks, to confront the current lover of an ex-boyfriend, all three NASA employees. It was a story so bizarre, so tabloid ready, that a big screen adaptation was inevitable. What I wasn’t expecting was an artist to take this and discard the attention-grabbing details and turn this into a ponderous existential meditation. Lucy (Natalie Portman) has recently returned from Earth and our big blue planet doesn’t feel the same after she’s touched the majesty of space. Her life seems small, meaningless, boring, and she can’t shake her terrestrial depression. She begins an affair with a co-worker (Jon Hamm) to feel that same special sensation again, but she’s chasing something uniquely elusive. Lucy in the Sky is structured like a meandering Terrence Malick movie was crossbred with a heavy-handed addiction melodrama. It’s not a good fit. The ever-changing aspect ratios are meant to convey her emotional state, but just when I thought I had a handle on how to decode them, Hawley would frustratingly break the rules with them. As far as I can tell, the wider ratio (during space) is meant to convey… good things, and the smaller, boxier ratios (Earthbound) are meant to convey… not good things. But then wide shots will be filmed in super widescreen and it throws away that interpretation. It’s an annoying visual tic in a movie that feels over-directed. The blunt characterization for Lucy fails to open her up beyond that of a self-destructive addict. She had a demanding mother (Ellen Burstyn), an existential crisis, and a boring husband (Dan Stevens), so does that explain her behavior? Portman commits to the madness and I give her credit, though her thick Texas accent made me rear back (it sounded like Reba McEntire). The movie is almost worth watching just for her game performance, kind of like last year’s similar artistic misfire, Vox Lux. Lucy is definitely unhinged by the time she’s making her fateful cross-state road trip. She mutters that women are regarded as “too emotional” as a common slight to sideline, but her behavior isn’t exactly dispelling this criticism. Maybe trying to turn “diaper astronaut love triangle” into a symbol for female discrimination wasn’t exactly the best call. Lucy in the Sky is an arty mess that is trying so hard to say something profound but loses the very appeal of its source material. Either you embrace “diaper astronaut love triangle” or you don’t.

Nate’s Grade: C

Joker (2019)

There has been a lot of discussion over Joker, a new dark R-rated spinoff unrelated to other comic book movies and directed by the man who gave the world The Hangover films. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips desired to tell a character-driven drama that explored how Batman’s most notorious villain, and perhaps the most widely known villain of all pop culture, became exactly the clown he is. Some people said the Joker didn’t need a back-story, others said that Phillips had no place dabbling into the realm of superhero cinema, and there were plenty of others who expressed unease that the movie might inadvertently serve as an inspiration for disaffected loners looking for encouragement to make others feel their pain and suffering. After all those think pieces and cultural hand-wringing, Joker, as the actual movie, isn’t quite the transgressive experience that others feared and that the movie very much wants you to believe.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a quiet, pathetic man who is being ground down by the forces in his life. He has a unique medical condition that causes him to break out in hysterical laughter when he’s nervous or upset, which only makes others feel nervous and upset. It’s hard for him to keep his job as a for-hire clown and his therapy and medicine are being eliminated thanks to budget cuts. He cares for his elderly mother (Frances Conroy), crushes on an attractive neighbor (Zazie Beetz), and dreams of being a stand-up comic who will one day grace the set of his favorite late-night talk show host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur’s life changes from one night of extreme violence and how it shapes his concept of himself and society. He’s tired of feeling bad for who he is and he’s going to realize his true potential on the biggest stage.

There’s something, excuse the modern parlance, quite “edgelord” about the film and its artistic approach. It’s very eager to be dangerous, edgy, disturbing, and there are certainly extended moments where it achieves these goals, notably thanks to Phoenix’s performance. However, I was cognizant of how eager the film was to be gritty, and dark, and different, to the point that it felt like the whole enterprise wasn’t just trying too hard to be different but wanted you to know it was trying. After a while, you just have to shrug and say, “Hey, movie, I get it.” This guy’s life ain’t too hot. The first 45 minutes could probably be condensed in half. The first two acts feel redundant as they establish the many trials and tribulations of this man on the edge of a broken society that has abandoned him. Because of this, Joker can be an entertaining experiment in solo superhero stories but there is a critical absence of depth that keeps the film from going beyond a stellar lead performance. It’s a Martin Scorsese hodgepodge, a cover song for a famous villain.

This is the kind of movie where subtlety is rarely used, which increases the sensation that it’s trying too hard because it seems like it’s saying all of its points with exclamation marks. Even in the opening minutes, while Arthur is applying his clownish makeup, we hear a voice over narration from a TV newscaster who is essentially screaming to the audience all of the important social contexts for the setting (Things are bad! People are mean! The economy is bad! People are getting desperate! What has the world come to?!). There’s a fantasy experience where the characters are just openly explaining their desires. The visual metaphors are pretty simple, like the idea of hiding behind a mask (don’t we all wear masks, man?) and the intimidating set of stairs ascending to Arthur’s apartment that he must climb. So many supporting characters act like mouthpieces for larger collective groups, like a paid therapist who tells Arthur that the people with money don’t care about her or Arthur, the little people caught in the machinery of runaway capitalism, or Thomas Wayne as the callous and cold business elite who seems disdainful about any sort of empathy for others that challenge his responsibility to a larger society. De Niro’s talk show host feels like an amalgamation of a lot of different themes, like daddy issues, the media, but also the representation of ridicule as comedy and mass entertainment. There aren’t so much supporting characters as there are ideas, and in a weird way this could have worked, as if each figure represents some different level of psychosis for Arthur, almost as if it was repeating the 2003 movie Identity and everyone really is a reflection of Arthur’s damaged personality. The inclusion of Beetz (Deadpool 2) is more a plot device meant to humanize Arthur, but the entire premise feels like it’s missing development to make it believable, and ultimately this is the point of her character but it’s a long wait for a reveal for a character that is superfluous at her core. It’s the kind of movie that thinks we need to yet again see the definitive formative act of every Batman movie.

The movie does pick up a momentum when Arthur starts to get set on his way toward becoming the clown prince of crime. When the Joker gets his first taste of violence, in self-defense, the clown vigilante becomes a symbol for a reactionary contingent of Gotham’s lower classes. The groundswell of support provides a welcomed sense of community for a man who has been secluded for his idiosyncrasies, but it’s a celebration of a loss of morality, and so to fully embrace this tide of supporters he must give away the last of vestiges of his soul. This downfall allows for the movie to feel like it’s finally committed to something, where the setups are finally starting to coalesce around a character who is now driving his story rather than being the recipient of misfortune. The violence becomes more shocking and Arthur stops caring about hiding who he really is, and that’s when the movie becomes the full force it had been promising. I was tapping nervously throughout the final thirty minutes because I was anticipating bad things for anybody on screen. Phillips can use this anxious anticipation for unexpected comedy too, like where a character was trapped due to their unique circumstances and whether they too were in mortal peril. I wish Phillips had pulled back because there’s a perfect visual to conclude his movie, that brings the entire self-actualization and loss of morality full circle, and yet the movie gives us another two-minute coda.

Joker certainly feels like Phillips’ version of a Scorsese movie, for better and for worse. If you’re going to imitate anyone, it might as well be one of the greatest living filmmakers whose crime dramas have reshaped the very language of the movies and how we view violent crooks. The go-to response I’ve seen is that Joker is a combination of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I’ll readily agree with the Taxi Driver comparisons. It’s everywhere. We have a disaffected loner who is turning sour on an increasingly hostile and unstable society he views as beyond repair. Even the shot selections, camera movements, and 1970s era set design evoke that influence. The King of Comedy is more a facile comparison, as Arthur is a disturbed man trying his luck at standup comedy, failing, and becoming more unhinged. The real reason reviewers seem to be making this connection is the inclusion of Robert De Niro, and it feels like that is the only reason he’s actually involved, to ping back to King of Comedy. The idea of a stiff actor like De Niro being a glib talk show host, even in the 1970s, seems like a bad fit. The other real film influence I don’t see getting as much recognition is Network. This is a tale of one man tapping into a vent of anger and starting a movement that ripples out beyond them into something uncontrollable.

Phillips is best known for his comedy work but I could feel his leaning to do a straight genre picture. In other reviews, I’ve cited Phillips’ keen eye for noir-flavored visuals (think of the car traveling across the desert as seen through the reflection of sunglasses in The Hangover). He had the chops to tell a straight genre crime thriller, so it’s not surprising that Joker is a slickly made, unsettling, and effective movie when it counts. This is a grimy-looking New York City, I mean Gotham City, where the garbage piles high (another not so subtle visual metaphor) and the city feels like a maze all its own crushing our main character. The cinematography is great with several strong moments that amplify the mood of unrest and distaste. The crafty costumes by Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) lend to the overall authenticity of the period. The cello-heavy score by Hidur Guonadottir (HBO’s Chernobyl) is very evocative and ominously conveys the turmoil bubbling below the surface in a manner that doesn’t feel like pandering. This is a good-looking production made by talented technicians and Phillips has enough skill to pull it all together, even if that aim is really to recreate a style of another filmmaker and the time and place of his films.

I’ve purposely saved the best for last, and that’s Phoenix as the titular character. He is mesmerizing as a broken man trying to find his place in society and flailing wildly. His uncontrollable cackling is so unsettling that when he broke into laughing fits, I could feel myself getting more and more unnerved. At first it was the awkward sympathy of watching a man struggle to get through his disability, trying to compose himself, and embarrassed for the discomfort he was projecting. The very sound of the cackling trying to be contained, as a friend and co-worker Jason credited, watching the laughter catch in his throat, it had such an immediate, almost physical reaction in me. Later in the movie, I cringed because it made me worry what was going to happen next because I know it’s a precursor to bad feelings. When he’s becoming more comfortable with his impulses and dark thoughts, you notice the cackling starts to ebb away. There’s a small moment that I loved where after he flees from his first murder he runs into a bathroom, and once his breathing calms, it’s almost like his body is commanded by some spiritual serenity as he begins to dance. Phillips allows the scene to breathe and play out, to invite the audience to join. This little motif probably appears a few too many times, but it’s a beautiful little moment of physicality that expresses the chaos becoming harmony within a man. Phoenix lost 50 pounds for the role and his gaunt, haunted frame reminds you how much of a shell of a human being this character feels like. He even tells his therapist that he questioned whether he was even a person or not. Phoenix burrows deep into the character and unleashes a committed intensity that is impressively communicated through his sad, reedy, sing-songy voice, his slippery stances and body language, and the madness that seems to resonate from his bulging eyes. Even when the movie is repeating its steps and tricks, it’s Phoenix that constantly gives back to the audience. It’s a performance certainly worthy of Oscar attention and plaudits, though in my mind it’s still a step or two below the instantly iconic, and Oscar-winning, performance from Heath Ledger.

Joker is a movie and should not be held responsible for the actions of others and what they may read from the film. I don’t sense Phillips and his team condoning their protagonist’s lawless actions, and the violence is often undercut so that it feels more disturbing than triumphant and exhilarating. When Arthur does get his first kill, the audience has likely been silently rooting for him to fight back, to punish the wrongdoers, but the movie draws out the scene in a manner that’s akin to a wounded animal panicking as it scrambles for its life and a cold execution. It’s not meant to be cool. Phoenix’s performance elevates the entire enterprise and will unnerve as much as it ensnares. It’s not a subtle movie at all, and it hugs the works of Scorsese a little too closely, both in tone as well as visual symmetry. It’s trying very hard to be nihilistic, edgy, and provocative (this isn’t your “normal comic book movie” it wants to scream with every frame). Arthur just wanted to make people laugh, the movie tells us, but the joke was on him after all (subtlety). If anyone is inspired from this movie, I hope it’s to seek out other Scorsese movies.

Nate’s Grade: B

Deadpool 2 (2018)

It took the leaked release of the Deadpool test footage, and the ensuing enthusiastic fan response, before Fox finally decided to invest in a big screen, R-rated superhero movie. The result was 2016’s Deadpool, a huge smash and proof that a lucrative audience will turn out for more adult-oriented, outrageous, grisly versions of comic book movies. Because of Deadpool, we finally got an R-rated Logan that proved to be an outstanding swan song for Hugh Jackman’s iconic hero. Now Deadpool is getting the spotlight he has earned with a big, splashy summer release, but with success come expectations. Can it live up to the ever-increasing hype? In short: if you were a fan of the original, you’ll be happy enough, because Deadpool 2 isn’t much more than the sum of its zany parts.

Wade Wilson a.k.a. Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is killing bad guys for hire and considering starting a family with the love of his life, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Trouble emerges when Cable (Josh Brolin) travels from the future to kill a rebellious, troubled young mutant teenager, Russell (Julian Dennison), who will one day grow up to be a monstrous villain. Deadpool reaches out for help and forms an elite squad of determined heroes, notably the luck-assisted Domino (Zazie Beetz). Can Deadpool save the kid, save the day, save the future, and save himself from incessant fourth wall breaks?

I was worried that a Deadpool sequel would fall into some of the same detractions that a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel did, and this is still applicable. Deadpool, much like the original 2014 Guardians film, was a breath of fresh air and a far looser, weirder, funkier super hero movie with a nose-thumbing, prankish attitude. We didn’t know what to expect from a Deadpool movie and now we do, and with that knowledge comes an anticipated formula of checklists to adhere to, and so any resulting sequel will invariably feel less fresh. It happened with Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 so to compensate James Gunn concentrated on fleshing out secondary characters into people you might shed a tear over. Deadpool 2 doesn’t bother because Deadpool 2 doesn’t take anything really seriously. That’s one of the hallmarks of the series and also one of the aspects that holds it back. There can never be a sense of stakes with a gleeful, fourth wall-breaking cartoon of a character who bounces back like Wile E. Coyote. The sequel introduces a sense of stakes with a startling turn in the first ten minutes of the movie, but by the end, even that will be corrected so that the Deadpool universe returns to stasis. The limitation of the Deadpool universe is that nothing feels meaningful or even ambitious. The movie wants to be a cheeky, transgressive good time and it achieves this single goal.

The appeal of Deadpool 2 is still its comedic voice and unpredictability. The laughs will be frequent and there are some subversive and unexpected directions that fully take advantage of the R-rating and the anarchic, nasty comic spirit of the franchise. The formation of the X-Force team and how their first big mission plays out had me howling with laughter. The meta humor commenting on the nature of super hero movies, as well as the film industry in general, begins with the very opening image (a nod to another successful R-rated super hero movie of last year) until the very last moment where Deadpool goes back in time to prevent some stinging cinematic grievances (there is no post-end credit scene, so you can skedaddle early). This is clearly the role Reynolds feels a spiritual kinship with, and his caddish, charming, persistent persona makes the perfect conduit for the film’s vulgar insanity. Whether it’s spitting insults, splashing in over-the-top violence, or making odd observations about the similarities between the songs from Frozen and Yentl, Deadpool 2 is first and foremost a bloody, depraved meta comedy.

Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) steps in for the departing original film’s director, Tim Miller, and continues his hot streak of stylish, action thrillers. Leitch has shown a propensity for staging intense action sequences to best showcase intricate choreography. With Deadpool 2, the most exciting moments are when the camera and editing allows the audience to fully appreciate the creativity of the choreography and stunt team. A shot of Cable leaping over the speeding caravan about to smash into him brings on a well-earned wow. Coming from that bruising world, I’m continually impressed with how Leitch approaches his action and finds organic points to develop and complicate matters. The prison caravan attack is the action peak with well-constructed, parallel lines of activity to follow and collaborate upon. It’s our first taste of Deadpool and X-Force versus the might of Cable. The characters enter the fray at different points and get separated from the runaway caravan, which keeps the momentum going. While the comedy is prioritized, Deadpool 2 can still unleash enough exciting, silly, and satisfying action.

The biggest additions to the sequel are an adversary and an ally, and both leave a favorable impression while still making you wish that Deadpool 2 had done more with them. Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War) bulked up considerably to play the gruff cyborg from the future, and his super serious, macho straight man provides a terrific comic foil for Deadpool, much like the stuffy Colossus in the first film. Brolin’s character is a capable fighter with a pretty streamlined back-story (shades of Looper abound) but it’s hard not to feel a little disappointment with how he’s ultimately utilized. He’s a great asset that feels put away for too long. Zazie Beetz (TV’s Atlanta) has a fun introduction especially as it relates to her mutant power, great luck. Deadpool scoffs at this as a power, and “being deeply un-cinematic,” but Domino proves otherwise as she’s able to dodge split-second danger in grand, complicated, Final Destination-like circumstances. Every time she’s onscreen, Domino brings a curiosity quality to the movie, and it’s usually something imaginative and fun. Beetz has an innate spunky energy, which makes it sad when the movie often asks her to be dour and dismissive. It’s taking such a lively character and constricting what makes her amusing and unique.

The biggest thing holding back the film, besides a general sense of “more of the same” or its inherent lack of stakes, is that the entire storyline is built around saving a mutant teen…. and I kind of hated the kid. My first impression was not good and it didn’t get much better from there. Part of it may be that Russell is meant to be an angry, obnoxious teenager, and maybe part of it is the generally grating performance from Dennison (Hunt for the Wilder People), but I could not care about this kid. Unfortunately, a lot of thematic emphasis is placed on saving the soul of this one annoying, wayward teenager. He’s supposed to be a point of redemption for Deadpool and a promise to be fulfilled, but my pal Ben Bailey came up with an instantly better revision. Instead of introducing this new teen character who will one day grow up into a super villain that slaughters Cable’s future family, why not have it be Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand)? We already have an investment in her character and it would provide a better, more personal sense of stakes for the story. Plus, Hildebrand (Tragedy Girls) is actually a good actress.

If you were one of the many fans who enjoyed the irreverent antics of the first Deadpool, then you’ll enjoy Deadpool 2 as it’s more or less the same movie with a slightly limited freshness date. These movies are fun, funny, and ridiculous, but they’re also good for little else than a wicked good time, and that’s okay. There isn’t much ambition to be anything more than an irreverent satire on super heroes with edgy humor and explosive violence. The running theme of the sequel questions what Deadpool has to keep on going, and he’s told it’s one very specific F-word: “family.” I think it’s a different F-word, namely “franchise.” Fox (Disney?) will need the services of the merc with the mouth for an extended engagement as long as audiences do not tire of the same studio brand of naughtiness reheated with a few different ingredients added per revisit.

Nate’s Grade: B

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