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+

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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Again and Again: “Happy Death Day” is A Surprisingly Subversive Horror-Comedy

Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) just can’t catch a break. After waking up in a strange boy’s (The Blind Ring’s Israel Broussard) dorm room after a night of heavy drinking, Tree is fighting a killer headache and must do the walk of shame, in which she tries to unsuccessfully attempts to dodge a pesky student protestor, a guy she’s been ghosting, and her sorority sisters. Later, she will be confronted with the wife of the professor she’s been having an affair with, but now she’s late for her surprise party because there’s a masked murderer trying to kill her. Oh, did I mention it’s also her birthday?

If this sounds like life is playing some cruel joke on her, then just wait till you hear the punchline. When the masked killer does in fact kill Tree (and they do), she wakes up again on the morning of her birthday, doomed to live out the same excruciating day again and again, and again until she can solve the mystery of her murder. 

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Oh “mother!” Darren Aronofsky’s Lurid Fever Dream

Darren Aronofsky’s first film since 2014’s Noah is, to put it simply, a lot. That’s certainly saying something; this is the director of Requiem for A Dream and Black Swan after all. But mother! makes those films feel like an warm up in a much larger exercise in psychological terror. The marketing campaign for mother! has revolved around keeping direct details about the film’s plot shrouded in secrecy. As the film has played at various film festivals, Aronofsky has moderated Q&A’s and screenings, hyping up the movie’s disturbing and polarizing nature. 

“Sorry for what I’m about to do,” he said on the stage at the Toronto Film Festival, going on to describe the film as “an assault” and “a cruise missile shooting into a wall.” “At the film’s premiere, he told reporters that, “You’re all really going to hate me in about an hour and a half.” 

There’s something to be said about a director wearing the negative press about his film like a badge of honor (Cinemascore revealed yesterday that audience members gave the film a rare F grade). In the case of mother! and Aronofsky, it only adds to my frustrations about the film. As I said, mother! is certainly a lot, and I did find my mouth hanging wide open during some moments, including the ludicrous climax, but not for the reasons the director/writer may have been hoping.

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“Alien: Covenant” Review: In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

It’s been several years since Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a film that deserved more critical praise than it received upon arrival.  Marketed as an attempt to lay the groundwork for what would ultimately become the prequel series to the wildly successful Alien and Aliens, Scott’s return to the series he created and then abandoned delivered a story that was not as concerned with its predecessors as some would have liked; rather than jump right into telling the story of how the xenomorphs came to be, he began laying the groundwork for something else entirely. Pivoting away from the horror and action themes that made the original films so popular, Prometheus instead delved into mythology and the origins of humanity, asking and raising many more questions than it answered by the time the credits began rolling. Some were swept away by the tense music, haunting visuals and attempt to breathe back life into an otherwise dead series. Others found themselves disappointed and angered by the gaps left unfilled and questions left unanswered. 

Enter Alien: Covenant, a film that manages to find a happy medium between the grand themes of Prometheus and the outright horror of Alien. Where its predecessor made constant strides to distinguish itself from its source material, Covenant attempts to build a bridge to connect the two, laying the groundwork for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley to go head to head with the Queen Alien many years later. 

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Anne Hathaway is Back and Better Than Ever in “Colossal”

If you’re anything like me, you might have been wondering “Where in the world has Anne Hathaway been?” for the last couple of years. 

After the one two punch of her Oscar-winning work in Les Miserables and The Dark Knight Rises, Hathaway took a step into the background. That may have had something to do with the unfair, sexist press coverage she received during the 2012-2013 awards season. It may have also had something to do with her personal life; she got married shortly before she began the press junket for Les Miserables and had a baby a few years later. She was still acting of course; she had a cameo in Don Jon, reprised her voice-over role in Rio 2, starred alongside Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar, headlined The Intern alongside Robert DeNiro and even popped up in the ill-fated Alice Through The Looking Glass. But there was a stark contrast between Hathaway before she won an Oscar, and after. 

Where Hathaway’s post-Oscar roles weren’t exactly the worst roles the actress could have taken, they did little to showcase the full range of her capabilities. But in director/writer Nacho Vigalondo’s black comedy Colossal, Hathaway has found a role that superbly showcases the best of her abilities as a performer. 

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“Personal Shopper,” A Ghost Story For the Modern Age

I hope Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart plan on making a dozen more films together; I would easily watch 100 more if I could. Stewart, who has been extremely selective with her roles since leaving the world of sparkling vampires behind, has found a match made in heaven with the French auteur. He directed her to a César award in Clouds of Sils Maria, making Stewart the first American actress to ever win one, and has once again captured a truly exceptional performance in Personal Shopper, which finally expanded into my town’s independent theater this past weekend. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the film since I had the pleasure of watching it on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I walked in knowing close to nothing about the film besides the fact that much of my Twitter timeline has been filled with raves about it since its continued to open in theaters around the country, which is probably the best way to experience it. In a genre that is filled with clichés and story beats that have beaten to death, Personal Shopper is a chilling and thought-provoking piece of work.

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“Beauty and the Beast” Feels Like A Wasted Opportunity

It feels like Disney’s live-action remakes of their animated classics have all been leading to this moment. Though everyone is sure to have a different favorite, Beauty and the Beast is the most iconic of their catalog, next to The Little Mermaid (which is next to receive the remake treatment). The original was the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture, and even managed nominations in Sound Mixing and three for Original Song. Alice in WonderlandSleeping BeautyCinderella and The Jungle Book have all been remade with varying degrees of critical success and huge, record breaking returns at the box office. Beauty and the Beast is bound to be their biggest endeavor yet.

And yet, for all of the hype, star power and magic, Beauty and the Beast winds up being just a straight and very soft pitch down the middle, never slipping into train wreck territory but never achieving the moments of grandeur and greatness that it so clearly desires. 

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