Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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I was not one of those people who grew up with memories of watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Yet, I knew who he was and I knew he was very popular. It was not until I was much older that I realized the man was not just a popular host of a children’s show but a true hero.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood may be honestly mistaken as a biography of Fred Rogers, especially if you’ve only watched the trailers. But it’s more about how one man, by being kind, by listening and drawing out the pain from others can make a difference in our everyday lives. Yes that person is Fred Rogers, but the real main character of this film is Lloyd Vogel as played by Matthew Rhys.

There is some creative fiction in the story that this film tells and it comes together within the structure of what seems like an extended episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with Tom Hanks portraying Mr.Rogers in his iconic opening to the show and showing a picture of his “friend” Lloyd who is troubled . He asks if we would like to meet him and thus begins our story.

Lloyd is a damaged man with deep issues that have never been resolved, specifically issues with his father with whom he had been estranged from for many years. When we first meet Lloyd, he is at his sister’s wedding where he gets into an altercation with his father and ends up with a black eye. Lloyd is a writer for Esquire magazine, mostly known for his investigative articles. When he is assigned an interview with Fred Rogers profiling American heroes, he is disdainful of it and thinks it beneath him. All his editor wants is a 400 word profile of the beloved children’s television host. Lloyd is a cynical writer unconvinced that Rogers is the genuine article. But in trying to get to the real story behind Mr. rogers, it turns out that Mr. Rogers uncovers Lloyd’s real story.

Rather than being a straightforward biopic of Mr. Rogers, we end up with more of an example of the effect a person like Mr. Rogers can have on someone and others around him. In a way, it also plays like an episode of Highway to Heaven where an angel helps a common person who is under personal pain come to address that pain and deal with it. In the case of Lloyd, it is primarily focused around unresolved anger towards his father. Now if it were anybody but Fred Rogers or an Angel, his weaving himself into Lloyd’s life would be creepy but this case it is a form of healing.

Lloyd’s story is not all that unique or that different than many other back stories of millions of men in America. And I believe that is what makes this movie so relatable. It is a common story that speaks for common people. The magic of Fred Rogers as it is shown in scenes he has with children is his gift of not being judgmental or talking down to them. As Lloyd tries to get at Rogers’ real story he discovers that there is no Mr. Rogers screen persona and that what he sees on screen is a genuine caring man.

Matthew Rhys does a very good job as Lloyd Vogel. This is a role that could easily been performed as an unlikeable character but under the direction of Marielle Heller, he becomes a sentimental figure that loves his newborn son and has a loving relationship with his wife. And as he begins to realize he doesn’t want to ever become estranged with his family like he has with his father, we see it too.

But of course, it is Tom Hanks that will draw the most attention from everyone. Let’s be honest about Tom’s performance. He does not look or sound like Fred Rogers, but he captures his mannerisms and way of speaking perfectly. He is still Tom Hanks under that sweater. That is not a bad thing as Tom Hanks is known as one of the warmest and nicest guys in Hollywood. There is genuine heart in the way Hanks portrays the iconic children’s host and brings humble sincerity to a role that requires a sincere approach.

Chris Cooper plays Jerry, Lloyd’s father who a first comes across as that embarrassing relative that probably drinks too much and says the wrong thing at the wrong time. But Jerry is also a character that needs to heal as much as Lloyd. And Cooper, like Rhys, takes a role that could easily have been made into a jerk and gives a sentimental nuanced glimps of a genuine human being trying to make things right.

Even though this film is “based on a true story,” we know that it is code that some dramatic liberties are going to be taken. That is certainly true for the subject of Lloyd as much of his background relationship is fictionalized from the real story of the Esquire writer. Much what you see of Fred Rogers story is more true to history, however. Some of it has been re-arranged for the purposes of film, tough. The film as mentioned before is framed like a two-hour episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and it even uses models similar to those used on the show’s set to illustrate transition scenes and cityscapes. Yes, it is as charming and nostalgic as it sounds. These filmmaking choices give it a near fantasy storybook fee to it. That fantasy world certainly comes across in a funny dream sequence where Lloyd finds himself on the set of miniature Mr. Rogers with the other puppets like King Friday XIII and Daniel Striped TIger.

The structure of the main story and the framing of the the narrative as a piece of journalism which is itself framed as an episode of Mr. Rogers’ is unique. But the back story of Lloyd Vogel’s story about his relationship with his father is not unique in itself. And that simple narrative is also what makes this movie so effective. Lloyd is just like many men in life who have grown cynical with the world and has issues from their past that have never been resolved. He’s just like you, he’s just like me.  By incorporating Mr. Rogers as a  supporting character this becomes more than a story of a guy with daddy issues, it becomes a story of how human kindness and the willingness to forgive can cause a ripple effect around you like a pebble dropped into a pond. And in a way that is a lesson that Fred Rogers has always been trying to teach us, understanding, compassion, and that you too were once a child.

Final Score: 9/10

Update: The original Esquire article can be found here.

For comparison of the real life events compared to the film, check out this from The Hollywood Reporter. Cinema Blend also has a one with spoilers.

Re-watch review: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

It seemed like a perfect idea at the time, one of the great horror novels adapted to film by one of the greatest directors of the time. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining will go on to become one of the most highly regarded horror films of all time. It is also famously despised by Stephen King and as a fan of the book, I can sympathize with Mr. King as it diverges gravely not only in scenes, but in character as well. But if you are not familiar with the source material, then, yes, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining belongs on the list of classic horror films that is still watchable to this day.

So in anticipation of Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, I decided to take another look at the film. Using the recent 4K UHD home release for my viewing experience was the perfect way to watch this horror classic as it is the best presentation that it has ever gotten on home video.

Jack Torrance is about to transplant his family and himself to be the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in the high mountains of Colorado. Right away it is mentioned that the hotel is built atop old Indian burial grounds. So you know bad things are going to happen.

Jack’s young son, Danny is a bit odd and like many kids his age, has an imaginary friend, that he talks back and forth to. We and his parents are privy to this as he uses his finger to inexplicably communicate with his family as “Tony,” his imaginary friend.

The hotel is about to close for the season as winters tend to cut it off from the rest of the world. The parting chef, Dick Holloran notices that Danny has what is known as a Shine or Shining. Like Danny, DIck has it too, psychic ability. Danny has it strongly though and DIck tells him not to worry about seeing ghosts in the hotel, they can’t harm him. But if h ever needs help, give a holler by way of shine, and he’ll come.

So, Jack goes on a murderous rampage, his wife Wendy screams a lot, and Danny calls for help because those ghosts of the Overlook really seem to take a shine to his shine. The story is pretty well known by now.

This is one of Jack Nicholson’s most iconic roles and it is well deserved. From the opening you already get the sense of “Yeah, this motherfucker’s gonna end up trying to kill his family.”

Now, having recently re-read Stephen King’s original novel that Kubrick based his movie on, I can see why King took issue with Kubrick’s interpretation. Yet if one were to watch the film on its own merits, it is in my opinion one of the most effective horror films ever made. Imagery such as the hand holding ghostly twins have been seared into the subconscious of horror fans and non horror fans all over the world.

From the opening notes of music by Sibelius, adapted by composer Wendy Carlos, we feel a sense of something ominous approaching. Accompanying it is long establishing shots of Jack Torrance driving up to the hotel, emphasising that wherever the car is going, it is going somewhere isolated.

Kubrick is known as a perfectionist in vision and his films are incredibly engaging visually. This is true of 2001, and it is even more so with The Shining. However, he has been pegged sometimes as emotionally cold, and in the case of 2001, it is rightly so. Yes, the performances are great from everyone, but we never get a sense of who the characters are in the film other than the basics of their characters.

Jack’s character get the most shortchanged in this interpretation as his past and continuing struggles with alcoholism have been cut down. And it is even in the end that the real Jack and the love of his son that allows his family to escape. Dick Hallorann is played memorably by the late Scatman Crothers, but his character is underused and quickly dispatched by Jack’s axe whereas he was integral in the saving of Danny and Wendy.

Kubrick’s extensive use of the steadicam camera was almost dizzying when it was first shown and was a bit unnerving to audiences that were not used o this new technology of smooth tracking and it was employed as a visual feast to the eyes as we travel through long labyrinthine hallways and eventually a labyrinthian hedge as well.

The 4k Ultra High Definition release from Warner Brothers is a visual marvel I am more impressed by older films receiving 4K transfers than I am modern films. It is because 4K resolution, when taken from original elements shine the best with older films since they were originally shot on film which has a natively higher resolution than 4k. Nowadays with digital presentations, studious cut costs and master their films in 2K and when it comes time for home releases, they simply upscale the 2K image to 4K. In most cases it’s good enough, especially for a HD Blu-ray release which has a native resolution of 2K. But when upscaled to 4K the improvements is often minor. The Shining takes full advantage of the technology of improved resolution and add in the HDR Dolby Vision color enhancement, the color reproduction is the best this film has ever looked since it was first shown. Now, this sounds really nerdy even for me, and I am not savvy enough to comment fully other than to say this movie looks phenomenal on the new 4K release.

Approach The Shining movie as a separate entity than the novel and I think you will find that Kubrick’s vision is a classic in horror and suspense. It’s latests home video release is also the best that it has ever looked and sounded. It is one of the few horror films that was made by a true auteur and visionary director and shows that taking the time to be meticulous in direction and vision, can result in a film that stands the test of time.

FInal Score: 8.5/10

Review: Harriet

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The story of Harriet Tubman may sound vaguely familiar but like most history concerning people of color, it isn’t covered much in detail in most school curriculums. She has, however, not been forgotten. We know her as a powerful woman who led slaves to freedom and a fighter for women’s suffrage. She was slated to not only be the first African American to be placed on US currency but the first African American woman to be accorded this honor. And it was great fanfare that she would replace Andrew Jackson’s $20 bill portrait, a president who has long been proven a racist and a major factor in the genocidal Trail of Tears relocation of Native American. That plan would be later nixed by the Trump administration and the Treasury secretary for no believable reason.

You would think that a woman of such significance would have quite a few screen depictions of her. And unfortunately the last time she was portrayed outside of a documentary was in 1978 television miniseries A Woman Named Moses, starring Cicely Tyson. Now in 2019, Harriet rectifies that oversight. It does the best it can with an outstanding performance but does not cross over the finish line without a few bruises as far as story and script are concerned.

In the years in Maryland leading up to the Civil War, the slave Araminty “Minty” Ross is already married to a free Black man named John Tubman. It is revealed that there are provisions  from a previous owner called manumits, which allowed for  her father to be freed at 45, which was honored. The manumits also allowed the Minty’s mother and her children to to be freed when the mother turned 45. But the family refuses to honor it and as the family farm is falling into debt after the death of the patriarch, they decide to sell off some of the slaves. Minty is one of them.

Rather than being sold, she decides to run away to freedom. She ends up leaving her husband behind who is a free man knowing that if he were caught with her her he would be killed. She eventually makes her way to Philadelphia which is a haven for runaway slaves. There, she finds the local Anti-Slavery Society offices, where she meets William Still who helps her settle into a life of freedom. With her new life she discards the name given to her as a slave and takes on the name Harriet from her mother, and Tubman from her husband.

All this time, she still fears for her family and husband and decides that she has to go help them to freedom as well. Against the advice of William Sill, she leads members of her family to freedom. This is regarded as her first run as a “conductor” in the underground railroad and she becomes part of the movement to conduct slaves seeking freedom or even outright leading slaves off the field.

Before long, legend spreads of an mysterious figure known as Moses who leads slaves out of the fields to freedom. They do not have any idea that it is not only a runaway slave but a woman. They mostly believe it is a white abolitionist in blackface.

Harriet is fueled by a magnificent performance by Cynthia Erivo, an up and coming actress who has stood out in Widows as the runner. Her characterization ranges from an initially unsure woman who would eventually become a powerful presence that will not be denied her way. She bring strength and emotional nuance to one of history’s heroes.

Leslie Odum plays the real life William Still as a rather patricianly character who is hesitant to take too many risks and gains great respect and awe for Harriet in just a short amount of time.

Janelle Monáe, who has been popping up a lot as a voice actress makes an impressive screen presence as the fictional Marie Buchanan, the owner of the boarding house, and mentor, that Harriet finds herself bonding with.

Harriett as a biopic is relatively accurate in that it covers major events in her life. And it is that historic accuracy that may turn some heads, but they are accurate even though the execution of how it is portrayed may not ring authentic.

Historically, Harriet Tubman was a deeply religious woman and it is portrayed as such in the film. It is also true that she suffered from spells, either fainting or epileptic. She believed these spells also provided her with vision from God. The film, treats it almost like a sort of Spidey sense, especially in times where she is on the run from slave catchers and she is given visions from God not to take a certain road or to cross a certain point across a river. The way this is portrayed may take some audience members out of the picture. It comes across more like a super power than an insight from God. but then again I guess there is really no authentic way to portray visions from God. There are also a few scenes where all Harriet has to do is sing a few bars of a gospel hymn and suddenly slaves know where and when to run.

This film could have easily run a lot longer than the roughly two hour running time as much of her later exploits during and after the civil war are given short mentions just before the end credits roll.  Historically, Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War and after the war she became a leader for women’s suffrage. She did all this while still being illiterate.

Director Kasi Lemmons who may be best know for Eve’s Bayou does a competent job and definitely knows how to draw out great performances. This is possibly her biggest budgeted film to date and it does suffer from some tropes of big budget films such as a poorly developed villain in the guess of her obsessed former slave owner. Lemmons makes a conscious choice to not submit audiences to the cliched trope of slave whippings or beatings. It is mentioned, and we see scars but often times directors feel a need to graphically portray it on screen as if to remind audiences America’s great sin.

Yet despite a few stumbles in pacing and script, the performances are stunning especially Cynthia Erivo’s. It, like many other  biopics elevates its subject to a larger than life hero for our times. And in the case of the subject, Harriet Tubman really is a genuine hero in American history.

Final Score: 8/10

Review: The Lighthouse

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Should pale death, with treble dread, make the ocean caves our bed, God who hears the surges roll deign to save our suppliant soul.

Director Robert Eggers made quite a splash with the unsettling horror film The Witch. With The Lighthouse, he ramps that sense of unsettlement up to eleven and creates a horror movie that centers around madness and features two incredible performances from a pair of actors that are often underappreciated for their craft.

The Lighthouse is set entirely on a small island where a solitary lighthouse is to be manned by two men who are also the sole human occupants of the island for four weeks until the next relief comes. Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake is the old grizzled sea dog of the pair who is the senior in charge and has been doing lighthouse duties for a long time now — perhaps too long. Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow, is the young newcomer who has taken his first lighthouse duties thinking there would be good money in it by the end.

The pair are strangers to each other and it’s not even until about halfway through the film that they even exchange names. Tensions begin on the very first day as Pattinson’s character refuses to drink during dinner with the veteran, saying it is against regulations. The old man treats Pattinson as nothing more than a hard laborer. He has him doing all the repairs, all the hard work, and the cleaning. All this time he is noting everything in a log book and makes it clear that he is the only one that maintains with the lighthouse lamp.

As the days and weeks go by, nerves begin to fray as Winslow becomes tired of Wake’s old sea stories and verbal abuses. Winslow begins to see things that he is not sure is  real or imagined. All this time, the relationship between the pair wax from friendliness to outright physical fights as they while away nights drinking alcohol.

Throughout the film, Eggers creates a feeling of dread and unease as we and Winslow question whether what he has seen is either real or not. It does not help that Wake questions the youth’s own grip on reality about questionable actions that are presented as those of Wake’s.

Their confines are claustrophobic and made to look even more so as the films was shot in the narrow aspect ratio of 1.19:1 which is even more narrow of an aspect ration than old tube televisions which were 1.33:1. It is also shot with stark black and white film which adds to the atmospheric nature of dread that permeates the entire movie. The cinematography is by Jarin Blashke, who had also shot The Witch for Eggers previously. While that was a film that was muted in colors, the decision to go black and white for The Lighthouse makes every shadow and every scene all the more unsettling. Location filming took place at the real lighthouse on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia. The normally attractive tourist spot becomes a menacing gothic figure surrounded by crashing waves and angry storms under the lens of Bashke.

Accompanying this beautifully shot film is a menacing score by Mark Korven, another alum from Egger’s The Witch. From the opening shot, ominous deep minor notes immediately make you aware that an impending dark tale is about to unfold and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Throughout the narrative, Korven’s score looms over scenes like a heavy anchor around the necks of the characters, weighing the feel of the film down with moods of unease, even in the most mundane of scenes.

Much of what makes this film work hinges on the ability of just two actors to carry this film with a minimum of budget and special effects. Fortunately for us, Eggers draws out some of the best performances on the year from the two cast members. Robert Pattinson has steadily been building a solid acting resume, post Twilight and he is steadily maturing as one of the most respected and accomplished actors of his age. Willem Dafoe turns in what is possibly his best performance ever as Thomas Wake, channeling a dark abusive old sea dog, chewing on a pipe, and dripping salty, often vitriolic lines.

 

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Despite this being a horror film, it won’t appeal to all horror fans. There are no jump scares and there is no masked slasher slowly stalking victims trying to run away. Much of the horror in this is psychological and builds up as characters begin to lose their grips on sanity. Soon both men will descend into their own form of madness and we as a viewer are left to wonder whose vision of reality is true — or even if both of them are not seeing things as they are. Most certainly, the ending may not make much sense to average horror fans but even so, it will be one of those endings that will make you think about it after the lights come on in the cinema. If there is a universal lesson that we can all take from this film it’s that it’s bad luck to kill a seabird.

Robert Eggers, with his follow-up to The Witch is carving a niche for himself in the horror genre that elevates him to an auteur status that is currently occupied by artists of vision like Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) who are changing how we see modern horror movies. Instead of going for cheap jump-scares and torture porn deaths, they make you feel dread, fear, and unease. And in the end that is those things make for good horror.

Final Score: 9/10

Bonus Content: While watching The Lighthouse, I could not help but think of an episode of The Simpsons. And true to the South Park meme, The Simpsons already did it with an episode titled Mountain of Madness where Mr. Burns and Homer are trapped in a cabin together and they slowly go mad. Of course it’s not the exact same story but it is a little fun to compare the two.

So for legal reasons, and for my declaration of fair use, below is a clip from that episode.

Review: Parasite

South Korean Cinema has really grown in its ability to cross on over to western consciousness. Their films are celebrated for their action films, and crime dramas. K-dramas have become a sensation online and K-pop has taken its share of the US pop music charts. Director, Bong Joon Ho has been at the forefront of the Korean wave. He gained notice with The Host, a Korean monster movie that was unique in that it had a good monster along with a good story and acting. He crossed over into Western films with the science fiction dystopian film Snowpiercer which had some moderate success. Unfortunately not all his films are easily accessible to the West like the brilliant Memories of Murder. With Parasite, Bong Joon Ho has achieved what no other Korean film has ever done, and that is to win the Palme d’Or, the grand prize at the Cannes film festival.

Parasite is a dark comedy that gradually becomes darker and less comedic as it unfolds over it’s narrative. The Kim family is a family living in abject poverty, that somehow manages to get by in life by doing odd jobs, and leeching wifi from neighbors or nearby cafes. Their apartment is below ground with their only window to the outside world is a gutter level view to a the street at gutter level view to an alley where drunks o to pee. And in a symbolic piece of set design, their toilet occupies the highest elevation in their abode. This family is a giant “your family is so poor” joke.

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Opportunity comes knocking when a friend of Ki-woo, the Kim’s only son, asks him to take over the job he had tutoring English for the attractive daughter of the rich Park family since he will be studying abroad.  Ostensibly it’s because his friend doesn’t want other college brats fawning over her while he gone. (Yeah, you know bro-code is gonna get broken) Ki-woo, isn’t really qualified as he’s never been to college, having failed the entrance exams several times, but he does have experience. His sister Ki-jeong just happens to a Photoshop whiz and easily forges college documents for him.

He manages to get the job and while there discovers from the mother that their young son is very interested in art but had gone through several art teachers who could not handle the boy’s wild nature. He recommends a highly praised art therapist who is a friend of a friend who is highly sought after but not cheap named Jessica. Jessica is, of course, his sister.

The Kim family is a family of hustlers. And the Parks are the perfect marks, rich and gullible. The Kims quickly adapt to whatever they need to adapt in order to achieve that hustle. And bit by bit, the rich Kim family finds that the entire Kim family is under their employ, even displacing the currently employed driver and housemaid.

Much of the film is darkly comedic, but is also a commentary on the differences in the class differences between the haves and the have absolutely nothings. The differences between the two families is mainly money. Both are quite likable and both are closely bonded together. As poor down and out that the Kims are, they are still a loving family. True, they are a scheming family of grifters, but there is no doubt that they are closely knit and  they truly care for each other. The Parks, for all their riches and are also a loving family. It is evident that the parents truly care for their children. The Park’s true feelings about social class is revealed most tellingly when Mr.Park keeps mentioning how much he dislikes it when people, meaning the help, cross the line.

The dark comedy soon gives way to just plain dark and enters into near grand guignol territory as dark secrets are revealed and it turns out that the Kims are not the only ones in the house running a hustle.

Parasite is filled with great performances from a cast that finds itself in a combined with a great story and direction. The film is also shot incredibly well. The cinematographer was Hong Kyung-pyo who shot the gorgeous dreamlike film about the artistic muse, M. Even the lower class sections of the city that the Kims occupy has beauty to it as bright neon lights up streets shops and golden warm lights illuminate the streets. Director Bong Joon-ho knows his craft and draws out great performances and is able to craft a story where every characters is memorable.

Song Kang-ho, who seems to be in every Korean film, turns in an exceptional performance as Kim Ki-taek, the father that leads the grifting family and has the bearing of the common man, a man who has been through much in life and deals with it as it comes along the best he can. Jang Hye-jin is Chung-sook, the mother of the Kims who wavers from her lower class upbringing to the matronly act of refined housekeeper with ease.

Parasite is wickedly funny and engaging. You’ll find yourself caring for every character, especially when things eventually turn tragic. It also has subtle messages that you will think about later as it pertains to class. And the ending may be ambiguous, but if you really pay attention, it is ultimately tragic as certain things in life won’t ever change and if they do, it’s only in dreams.

Final Score: 9/10

Review: Maleficient Mistress of Evil

Disney has made a cottage industry of remaking their animated films into live action films. The Lion King falls somewhere in-between with it’s photo-realistic computer animation. Almost all of them have been financially successful with varying degrees of critical reception. Two-thousand-fourteen’s Maleficient stands out to me as significant in its quality and unique take on the story of Sleeping Beauty it was based on. Instead of doing it as a remake, it is a retelling from the point of view of the animated film’s villain, Maleficient, and her motivations. It did well in the box office and it was definitely a fun scene chewing role for Angelina Jolie as the high cheek-boned villain.

Maleficient: Mistress of Evil is the direct sequel to its predecessor and continues its story with the now older Aurora (Elle Fanning), the legendary Sleeping Beauty and now Queen of the fairy inhabited Moors, is set to wed Prince Phillip(Harris Dickinson). Maleficient, as Aurora’s Fairy Godmother, is not too fond of the union but is willing to accept it for her sake, even meet with the Prince’s parents, the king and queen of Ullstead.

Though King John (Robert Lindsay) is hopeful that the union of Aurora and Phillip will bring peace between the two kingdoms of humans and fae, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), however, has no such hope or optimism. And in one of the most transparent first act plot turns of modern film, she orchestrates the cursing of the king so that Maleficient can be blamed for it. Driven from the palace and wounded in the process, Maleficient finds herself taken in by the Dark Fae, the fairy folk that she is descended from. Hated and hunted through history the remnants of their kind have retreated to a hidden island sanctuary. Wile there,there is a similar debate of whether to pursue peace or seek out war with the humans. And it is revealed that  Maleficient is especially special among them. Yes, Disney plays the Chosen One card.

Meanwhile, with the King suffering the curse of an unwaking sleep, and the mother of the bride missing, the wedding is going ahead as planned mainly because the plot requires it, I guess. But Queen Ingrith is plotting against the fairy folk who have all been invited to the wedding. Prince Phillip spends much of his time worrying over the sleeping form of his father while Aurora suspects that the Queen may not have the best interest of the fairy folk in mind. She uncovers the conspiracy pretty easily — very easily, like she walks into it.

This is a movie that really did not need to be made. Yes in the Disney cartoon, there is a wedding at the end and I guess it’s the reason for the plot of this sequel, but what could have been a direct to video one hour sequel in the old days is a full on high budget vehicle with large battles and a padded story that stretches it just long enough to make it a feature film.

What makes the film work, however, are stand-out performances by both Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer who stare great daggers at each other in the few scenes they have together. If their were more scenes of that, the movie would have benefited from it. It is also visually stunning at times with images of the Moors that pop on the large screen, especially on large formats like IMAX. Fans of costuming will love the work done in this film as Jolie sports some great outfits, even with basic black. Michelle Pfeiffer looks absolutely regal in her queenly regalia despite exuding absolute menace.

The plot is quite simple, easy to digest, pretty predictable, and yet it will keep you engaged enough only because the audience has already invested in the characters established in the last film. It most definitely winds up with an easy ending that ties everything up to easily. In other words, the ending is a very Disney ending.

Bearing in mind that this is still essentially a tale for a younger audience, there are some dark images and ideas that are portrayed in it. Warwick Davis plays Lickspittle, someone who works for the queen and is in charge of developing weapons to kill fairies. His research involves experiments on living fairies in fact. Now, the nature of fairy tales is dark and it may surprise some that there is such dark themes in the film but I take that as par for the course. Young children may find some of it unsettling. But young teens will probably be fine.

Despite its flaws, the visual style, and the fine performances do elevate the film into something that is definitely worth a watch, maybe at a matinee.

Final Score: 7.5/10

Review: Joker is No Joke

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Be warned, Joker, directed by Todd Phillip’s, may be based on a comic book character that has had a long history in comics but on screen, but it will change the way you look at the character and the genre. If you had changed the names of some of the characters, the result would be a powerful modern noir film about a man’s fall from his already precarious grip on sanity to full chaotic madness. This is not a film for everyone and if you go in thinking it’s going to be some “comic book movie,” you may be off-put by it’s heavy nature and uncomfortable themes. Yet it is also an exemplary work of cinematic art.

When we first meet Arthur Fleck, he is a clown for hire. And in the opening scene he is one of those we most ignore on the street as we pass them by, someone holding a going out of business sign for a store. Nameless kids steal his sign and after a chase, they corner him and beat him up.  This is also our introduction to Gotham, a city that is reminiscent of the seedy streets of New York from the 70s and early 80s as portrayed in films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. But as a narrative, Scorsese’s King of Comedy is perhaps the biggest influence on Joker, as Arthur Fleck has spells of delusion where we glimpse into his imaginary world where he is accepted and even loved.

Gotham is a powder-keg city on the brink of exploding. Garbage is piling up on the streets because of a city-wide garbage strike. Unrest among the populace brews throughout the film as public tensions between the disenfranchised classes escalate steadily as the film progresses. There is rampant poverty and the Gotham itself is a decaying grimy city crowded with its own mad identity. Arthur Fleck may be insane, but so is the world around him.

Without a doubt, Arthur Fleck, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is the center of the film. It is not just a character piece, it is practically a one-man show. Sure there are other characters in it, but most of them are unnamed and just stepping stones towards his dark madness. Much of this is uncomfortable to watch as Phoenix’s portrayal of an already unsettled and unhealthy Arthur Fleck finds himself drowning in a system that has not only given up on him but the city as well. An early scene shows him with a social worker where it is revealed that he has already spent time in a mental institution, yet he can not answer the reason he was there in the first place. He is already on seven medications, yet he doesn’t feel it is doing anything for him. Later, city budget cuts will halt his sessions as well as his prescriptions. His social worker frankly tells him,”The city doesn’t give a shit about people like you. It doesn’t give a shit about people like me.”

The Joker is not just about the decay of a single human being but of a society. Society and and the uncaring system that created it let down not only a person that could have been helped but a city that could have been helped. And much of the the narrative displays that as Fleck’s personality spirals, so does the city as it become more violent and chaotic. And towards the end as the Joker is truly born, Gotham City becomes its most chaotic, reflecting the made state that Joker has now embraced.

This movie definitely has its violent moments but they are not, and I repeat, not, glorified or over the top like in Tarantino’s least violent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Now some of the violence may be disturbing or even unsettling. Good. It’s supposed to be because you don’t want him to do it, yet he does. Even in one instance of self defense, you think he’s defending himself, but then he crosses the line beyond self defense.

Joaquin Phoenix crafts an amazing performance as the troubled Arthur Fleck. He initially starts off as an awkward and apprehensive character who seems harmless at first but unfortunately as he progresses and gains confidence, he is also progressing into his darker nature. It is certainly one of the best performances I’ve seen all year and I would be surprised if he does not get at least a nomination for an Academy Award.

Francis Conroy plays Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother who as we see in the very beginning is home bound and dependent on her son . And as it will be easy to see almost just as early on is not that mentally stable herself. She obviously does not have as much screen time as Phoenix, but her performance does stand out for its subtle nuanced portrayal of another troubled person.

Robert De Niro turns in his usually impressive performance as Murray Franklin, a late night talk show host who is very reminiscent of Johnny Carson, right down to the rainbow colored curtains and his Ed McMahan lookalike co-host.

As much as joker was planned as a standalone movie, almost to be seen as an Elseworlds tale, somehow they just could not leave the connection to Batman and the Wayne family out of it. There is a subplot involving Thomas Wayne, played by Brett Cullen that it works for the most part, especially as the Thomas Wayne comes across as a bit of a jerk. But frankly including Bruce Wayne as a child in the movie was not necessary.

Hildur Guðnadóttir composed a score that is both haunting and oppressive at times. AT times it feels like a score for a horror film as an atmosphere of dread haunts her score in anticipation of fell deeds. Cello solos are featured throughout as Guðnadóttir is herself a celloist who had worked on scores for Sicario, and also composed the score for its sequel Day of the Soldado

Todd Phillips knows how to direct drama well, considering this is his background has been in comedies such as The Hangover Trilogy. He certainly knows how to shoot his film and get everything he needs out of his actors. But his script and direction are not perfect. Much of the plot is predictable, especially when we know what the end result will be. There are a couple of double twists that work though. But the is also an unneeded shoe-horning of Batman lore in to the narrative.

Lawrence Sher’s cinematography can best be described as beautiful ugliness. The grime and worn look of locations and interiors look authentic for a world that is meant to look like it is rotting. Much of it is shot in real locations in New York and every stain of rust and hue of graffiti shows.

There has perhaps been too much talk about various controversies that are connected to this movie. From fears that it may inspire someone to go out and commit violent acts like a mass shooting or that it fuels the rage of incels, it seems as people were determined to see it fail for the sake of seeing it fail. In my opinion it does not do that. I would recommend not only seeing this film with an open mind and no pre-conceived notions of it being based on a comic book character, but to see it as a quality film. Comic fans may be disappointed. Good. They need their views challenged. I believe this film succeeds in challenging pre-conceived views of not just the Joker but comic book based movies. What Zack Snyder failed to do with his Ayn Rand influenced attempts at grim and dark deconstruction of Superheroes, Todd Phillips succeeds in his auteur deconstruction of a iconic villain. This movie is highly recommended.

Final Score: 8.5/10