Joker Drowns Under its Desire to Be Groundbreaking

The discourse surrounding Joker has been happening for so long, you’d be forgiven if you thought the movie had already come out by this point. Long before the movie was named the (surprising) recipient of the Venice Film Festival’s coveted Golden Lion (which in years’ past has gone to films such as Short CutsBrokeback Mountain and most recently, Roma) there was anxiety about its impact in a world being ravaged by armed, white men. Director, producer and co-writer Todd Phillips (The Hangover) has spoken at length about why the seriousness of Joker appealed to him (Comedy was too PC for him, boo hoo!); this isn’t just another comic book origin story, Phillips wants you to know that this is a serious, gritty character drama. Then there were the stories about just how far Joaquin Phoenix went down the rabbit hole in preparation for his role as Gotham’s Clown Prince have earned him the status of frontrunner in this year’s very crowded Best Actor race. It has all been exhausting to say the least. But now the movie is finally here to be judged on its merits, for what it is and not the controversy and “what ifs.” The most offensive thing about Joker is how bland, boring and toothless it is. 

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“Hustlers” is Even Better Than You’ve Heard

 

“This is a story about control. My control.”

The opening to Janet Jackson’s 1986 hit are the first words we hear before director/writer Lorene Scafaria’s retelling of “The Hustlers at Scores” begins.

Hustlers is the story of control, something that is desired above all else, including the lavish money, fur coats and new iPhones our main characters flaunt over the film’s running time. It’s what Dorothy (Constance Wu), who also goes by Destiny, is desperately chasing. She longs to have the control of her own situation, so she can care for her elderly grandmother and go shopping, occasionally. The year is 2007, and Dorothy is just scraping by as a stripper, watching others succeed and walk away with large sums of money. But everything changes when she sees Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, incredible) perform a captivating routine set to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” Ramona takes Dorothy under wing and teaches her the ways of stripping. Soon the two roll through the club like “hurricanes,” making enough money to not just take care of ailing relatives but afford the finer things in life, and then some.

But as anyone with knowledge of the mid 2000’s will tell you, nobody was going to stay at the top for very long. The financial crash of 2008 strikes, and soon the women at the club are forced to find other sources of income as the money that once rained down on them during their routines dries up. Dorothy is now a mother and fails at finding any work outside of stripping while Ramona lands a job at Old Navy with some help from Mercedes (Keke Palmer, once again proving her strength as a comedienne). Both women find their way back to the strip club, and each other. From there, the two make the decision to go “fishing” but with a twist: Lure those lingering rich men, drug them, bring them back to club and run their card while they’re knocked out while taking a cut of the profits. They’re joined by Mercedes and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) before eventually expanding and outsourcing their operation. Then, once again, things come crashing down.

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Photo: Courtesy of STX Entertainment

Based on the marketing material, I was expecting Hustlers to be fun in the style of 2017’s Girls Trip. The involvement of Cardi B and Lizzo was heavily publicized, with Cardi’s “Money” soundtracking the trailer. It seemed like a flashy, star driven ensemble with some fun moments. And it is. But the true brilliance of Hustlers lies in its effectiveness in being both an Ocean’s 8-esque romp and an empathetic look at those who were left scrambling in the wake of the financial crisis. Scafaria’s script deftly walks that fine line, never leaning too far in either direction. And while she empathizes with our band of thieves she never exonerates them either. The story is framed through an interview between Dorothy and Elizabeth (Julia Stiles, the film’s anchor) that will eventually turn into the article the film is adapted from. We see Dorothy grapple with her decisions as she recounts the events that brought her here, and are left to draw our own conclusions. It’s a masterclass of screenwriting and directing from a writer and director who has proven she excels at exploring difficult situations and emotions before (seek out 2016’s brilliant and undervalued, The Meddler).

Scafaria deserves endless praise for bringing this story to the screen, but it’s hard to imagine the film succeeding without its crown jewel: Lopez’s career defining performance. What else can be said that hasn’t been said already? After the film’s explosive Toronto Film Festival premiere, there was talk of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. When buzz like this pops up, sometimes it’s easy to be skeptical. The Oscar game is rarely about the strength of the individual film/performance, and more about the strength of PR team and narrative of the studio can hype up.

That said, Lopez shouldn’t just be nominated, she should absolutely win. It’s a performance that I can’t imagine being given by anyone else; Lopez dominates every single scene she’s in, finding new ways to captivate us and give us a peek into who Ramona is, whether she’s on the pole or offering her fur coat while she smokes a cigarette on the roof (easily the film’s money shot, though the cinematography in this movie is to die for). Few possess the kind of insane charisma a star of Lopez’s caliber does, but she uses it to her advantage, fully immersing herself into this role in a way she hasn’t since Selena or Out of Sight. It’s the kind of performance the Oscars should reward more often, one that isn’t written or created with the intent to be an awards showcase, but is based purely on the strength of Lopez’s performance alone.

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At its core, Hustlers is a love story between two women doing whatever they can to succeed in a world where the cards are stacked against them. Though there’s plenty of entertaining set pieces and hilarious moments, the film is at its best in the quieter moments shared between Ramona and Dorothy; Wu and Lopez absolutely kill it in a moment shared in an empty diner after their characters find one another after the financial crisis hits. Much like Ramona at the film’s end, we’re left wondering what if? In a fairer world, would things have been different for these women?

It’s certainly a fair question. But again, Scafaria isn’t interested in casting judgement even if she feels for her protagonists. It’s the kind of gentle touch I can’t imagine coming from a male filmmaker (all the more reason to let women have the opportunity to tell their own stories).  In Hustlers, she has crafted the biggest surprise of the year, one that manages to entertain and pull at your heartstrings (I’m not embarrassed to admit I teared up). All hail the emergence of a new American classic.

Grade: A+

“Booksmart” is the Best Movie of the Year (So Far)

I’m just going to say what everyone is already thinking (and what some of us have already said): Booksmart is the best movie of the year. Sure, it’s only the end of May. We still have a whole other half of the year left to go! Am I crazy? Probably (yes). But my insanity is not a cloud over my judgement. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a tenderly assorted, rip-roaringly funny love letter to the tradition of best friendship and high school debauchery.

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Jordan Peele’s “US” is A Terrifying Hall of Mirrors

Mirrors have been a tool in the horror genre since its inception. I think of the shattered mirror in Carrie as she gets ready for the prom, the REDRUM laden mirror in The Shining and more recently the sinister, inescapable reflections terrorizing Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Just like those movies, Jordan Peele’s US uses the mirror (literal and figurative) to send a message to his audience. 

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Academy Award Predictions: Roma vs. Green Book vs. Black Panther?

All good things must come to an end, though based on your personal opinions this awards season may not have been a good thing. Films came and went (First ManMary Poppins ReturnsFirst Reformed) and others (Bohemian Rhapsody, Green BookThe Favourite) stayed to varying degrees of anger or pleasure. A Star Is Born kicked off the season as the de-facto frontrunner and fumbled when things started to get competitive; it hasn’t been able to regain any of the lost momentum as the season has drummed along. 

Roma has seemingly taken its place, but there’s still a bunch of uncertainty swirling around its chances as an actual winner. With wins at the Golden Globes, the PGA and TIFF’s People’s Choice Award, Green Book is seemingly next in line despite a ton of controversy and valid criticisms against the film. Also not a stranger to controversy, Bohemian Rhapsody‘s success both financially and awards wise despite it being a terrible film continues to confound even the most tenured Oscar watchers. Do people really love Queen that much? Evidently, yes. The heat around Vice was extinguished the moment the embargo was let up. Eight nominations is nothing to balk at, but nobody seems to be rushing to give this Frankenstein of a movie any awards. There seems to be a lot of love for The Favourite, but it doesn’t sound like it translates into the widespread kind of love needed to succeed on the preferential ballot. 

And then there’s Black Panther, which has both the box office receipts, critical acclaim to and a SAG ensemble win that makes it a worthy Best Picture winner. But a disappointing nomination count, despite a win at the Screen Actors Guild, is giving me pause from thinking it’s as big of a threat as the other aforementioned films. 

With each film having their own list of pro’s and con’s, it feels like a huge toss up in predicting who will win. Nevertheless, I take a stab at it below. 

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The Best Movies of 2018

2018  was one of the most grueling experiences in recent memory and as a result I’ve unfortunately been neglecting this blog. It was something that used to give me a lot of joy, and through personal and professional setbacks I have to admit that finding the drive to do anything outside of my day to day demands has been seemingly impossible. But one thing that has continued to give me joy, however, has been film. Without film and escapism, I’m not sure I would have made it through such an emotionally taxing year. Like a warm hug on the coldest, most bitter day, I knew I could always just take myself to the movies and forget my troubles for a few hours. I feel like I say that every year, but it has not stopped being true. 

Recently I’ve been re-discovering the joy in things I had thought I had lost, writing being one of them. It’s a chore I’ve avoided for too long, both recreationally and professionally.  I’m in a much better headspace than I was last year, with a renewed drive to continue to pursue things that give me joy. Let this be a promise that I hold myself to throughout 2019, that I push myself not only to continue the upkeep with this little blog of mine, but in the other endeavors I’ve been ignoring.

So, without further adieu, my favorite movies of 2018. 

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Surprises and Snubs: Screen Actors Guild Nominations

Oh the SAG awards. I know that the Golden Globes get a lot of flack for being out there with their choices, but this is the same voting body that is responsible for nominations like Judi Dench in Victoria and Abdul, Naomi Watts in St. Vincent and everyone’s favorite, Emily Blunt for The Girl on the Train

This year we have shockers like Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scotts, no love for If Beale Street Could Talk (huge loss to Regina King this morning who was also snubbed in television), continued love for BlackKklansman, a double whammy for Emily Blunt and a Bohemian Rhapsody ensemble nomination (YIKES).

Take a look at the full list of film nominees below. 

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76th Annual Golden Globe Nominations Include “A Star Is Born” and “Black Panther”

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (otherwise known as the people who vote on the Golden Globes) have announced their crop of nominations. As usual, they marched to the beat of their own drum; and while there was nothing as shocking as The Tourist being nominated in 2010, there were some surprises.

The HFPA went hard for BlacKkKlansman, a film that needed a boost after coming out much earlier in the year, Green Book (despite its under performance at the box office) and of course, A Star Is Born. Bradley Cooper was nominated for both Director and Lead Actor (Drama), while Lady Gaga was nominated for her performance and songwriting for “Shallow” in Original Song.

Black Panther solidified itself as a formidable contender after getting a nomination in Best Motion Picture (Drama), while both Vice and Mary Poppins Returns planted their flags as late breaking contenders.

Read the full list of nominations below.

Best Motion Picture- Drama:

  • Black Panther
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • If Beale Street Could Talk
  • A Star Is Born

Best Motion Picture- Comedy or Music:

  • Crazy Rich Asians
  • The Favourite
  • Green Book
  • Mary Poppins Returns
  • Vice

Best Director:

  • Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
  • Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
  • Peter Farley, Green Book
  • Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
  • Adam McKay, Vice

Best Performance By an Actor in a Motion Picture- Drama:

  • Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
  • Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
  • Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased
  • Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
  • John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman

Best Performance By an Actress in a Motion Picture- Drama

  • Glenn Close, The Wife
  • Lady Gaga, A Star is Born
  • Nicole Kidman, Destroyer
  • Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
  • Rosamund Pike, A Private War

Best Performance By an Actor in a Motion Picture- Comedy or Musical:

  • Christian Bale, Vice
  • Lin Manuel Miranda, Mary Poppins Returns
  • Viggo Mortensen, Greenbook
  • Robert Redford, The Old Man and the Gun
  • John C. Reily, Stan & Ollie

Best Performance By an Actress in a Motion Picture- Comedy or Musical:

  • Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns
  • Olivia Colman, The Favourite
  • Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
  • Charlize Theron, Tully
  • Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians

Best Supporting Performance By an Actor in a Motion Picture: 

  • Mahershala Ali, Green Book
  • Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy
  • Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
  • Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
  • Sam Rockwell, Vice

Best Supporting Performance By an Actress in a Motion Picture:

  • Amy Adams, Vice
  • Claire Foy, First Man
  • Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
  • Emma Stone, The Favourite
  • Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Best Screenplay:

  • Roma
  • The Favourite
  • If Beale Street Could Talk
  • Vice
  • Greenbook

Best Original Song:

  • “All the Stars,” Black Panther
  • “Girl in the Movies,” Dumplin’
  • “Requiem for a Private War,” A Private War
  • “Revelation,” Boy Erased
  • “Shallow,” A Star Is Born

Best Original Score

  • A Quiet Place
  • Isle of Dogs
  • Black Panther
  • First Man
  • Mary Poppins Returns

Best Animated Film

  • Incredibles 2
  • Isle of Dogs
  • Mirai
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Capernaum
  • Girl
  • Never Look Away
  • Roma
  • Shoplifters

 

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” Named Best Film at New York Film Critic’s Circle

The New York Film Critics Circle have announced their winners for their annual awards, swinging big for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Cuarón’s follow up to 2013’s Gravity was named Best Film, and won two additional prizes for Director and Cinematography. After winning the top prize at Venice Film Festival this past fall, it’s hard to not consider it the film to beat. 

Other big winners include Richard E. Grant for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Regina King (hot off her win at the National Board of Review) and Ethan Hawke (hot off his win at the Gotham Awards). 

Take a look at the full list of winners (with some brief commentary) below.

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“Sweetener” Review: We’re Gonna Be Alright

People were waiting for Ariana Grande’s fourth album, a collection of music that would be inextricably tied to the tragic terrorist attack at her Dangerous Woman tour in the city of Manchester last year. Though understandably devastated by the event, Grande bravely returned to put on a benefit concert to honor her fans and bring everyone together. She then dropped off of social media, only offering a cryptic teaser that hinted at new music featuring her heavenly vocals with the caption “see you next year.” As the year rolled on, albums and singles came and went. Though still largely out of sight, rumors continued to pop up that Grande was prepping something big, her most personal album yet according to industry insiders. By the time the singer started teasing lead single “no tears left to cry,” fans were insatiable, and all signs seemed to point to a power ballad about moving past tragedy that would no doubt showcase Grande’s soaring voice. Instead, they got a quirky, buoyant pop song that tricked listeners in the first 15 seconds after a somber intro explodes into an infectious UK garage beat. “I’m lovin, I’m livin, I’m pickin’ it up” Grande sings on the hook.

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