Tag Archives: Brad Pitt

Joker

3 Oct

‘Joker’: Phoenix tries to hold it all together, but eventually film lets loose, breaks down

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Throughout Batman’s long history, the Joker’s been played by some pretty mighty performers. Standouts include Jack Nicholson, who pretty much hijacked Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989), and Heath Ledger, who won a bittersweet, posthumous Oscar for his deeply felt portrait of derangement in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008) – and let’s not forget the comic genius of Cesar Romero during the 1960s TV series. Nolan and Burton felt like the right hands to shepherd a dark superhero/villain origins tale, but Todd Phillips, with such swinging steak comedies as “Old School” (2003) and the “Hangover” films to his credit? Odd as it may seem, it’s a somewhat logical evolution from drunken vomit awakenings to blood-splattered foyers with a panicked dwarf who can’t reach a chain bolt to escape.

The real reason Phillips’ “Joker” succeeds is simple: Joaquin Phoenix makes the anti-antihero psycho-saga all his own. There’s also the script by Phillips and Scott Silver that plays with the Batman mythology artfully without getting bogged down in the bigger picture – though we do briefly see Bruce Wayne at a young age, when dad and mom are with us – but without Phoenix, I don’t think “Joker” takes flight. It’s a bravura go, and Phoenix should be right up there at year’s end (like Ledger was) with Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio when Oscar nods are called out. With maybe the exception of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000) it’s hard to find a movie in which Phoenix doesn’t shine with brilliant quirk and dour doses of menace. He delivers all that here and more; it’s a total immersion. For the part of clown turned Gotham icon and sociopathic perp, Phoenix lost a ton of weight, something done with equal austerity by Christian Bale (who took up the bat cowl for Nolan) in Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist” (2004) or, inversely, when Robert De Niro added 50 pounds as Jack LaMotta in “Raging Bull” – and if as on cue (send in the clowns), the Martin Scorsese-forged actor shows up in “Joker” as beloved late night TV show host Murray Franklin, whom Arthur Fleck (the Joker’s birth name) and his not-quite-all-there mother (Frances Conroy, excellent in the small complicated part) watch religiously. Continue reading

Judy

27 Sep

‘Judy’: She knows there’s no place like home, but can’t get any closer than stage in London

 

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“Judy,” the biopic about stage icon Judy Garland, is just right focusing on her “hot mess” last chapter as an in-residence performer at a London theater club, her better days interspersed through deft editing and seamless narrative framing. It is a tad oversentimental at times, but overall a bittersweet pill that finds its mark effectively, and three-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner Renée Zellweger knocks it out of the park as the it girl whose star has faded; she’s about as sure a bet to be in Oscar talks as Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.

The script, written with purpose and verve by Tom Edge (“The Crown”), sets us up with Judy and her two youngest, Lorna and Joey (played by Bella Ramsey from “Game of Thrones” and Lewin Lloyd) circa 1969, being evicted from their hotel digs. She’s broke and broken and just wants to be a mother to her children, but there are bills to be paid, no one in the states who will give the unreliable pill-popper a role or a gig and a custody battle brewing with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). Before London calls there’s a brief L.A. house party with older daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux – stunning) and an uplifting but ultimately unfortunate encounter with a mod hipster Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who would become her last husband.

The whole saga is sad, with fleeting moments of uplift: Judy is always “on” when on stage or talking to an adoring public, but her own worst enemy sodden with booze and pills after the curtain drops. In flashbacks to her younger days (Darci Shaw crushes it as the young Judy), she’s simultaneously given an avuncular embrace and manipulated malevolently by MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) on the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” where studio handlers forbid her food and feed her uppers and downers instead; and men in general attach themselves and milk her throughout her life. About the most love and respect the star gets beyond her progeny comes from her stiff-upper-lip handler in London, Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley) and her young bandleader, Burt (Royce Pierreson). One of the film’s more whimsical and fun moments comes when Mickey comments in a bar about a new, experimental Beatles album – and floats the idea of Judy performing with The Rolling Stones. The crowd is nonplussed, but Judy drinks up hungrily the shot of possibility and confidence.

Director Rupert Goold, who’s mostly orchestrated stage theater, and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland stage and frame the performances stunningly, especially in the use of light and closeups, and with engrossing intimacy. Of course, it all hangs on the star who’s on in every take. One telling scene comes during a TV interview, when a journalist tries to dig in on the former starlet about her “unreliability” and messy custody proceedings and gets blowback: “I’m Judy Garland for one hour on stage and then I’m a member of family just like anybody else.” Sadly, that never really became the case, and you can feel that palpably in Zellweger’s performance. 

Fictional films such as “A Star is Born” (Garland starred in the 1954 version with James Mason) and “All that Jazz” tackle the toll of stardom and its perils, but “Judy” lives it, and through it, you live it too. It breaks your heart, not from the usual distance, but deep down inside with the painful desire of someone who just wants to be loved unconditionally.

Ad Astra

19 Sep

 

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The title of James Gray’s latest epic odyssey as translated from Latin simply means, “to the stars.” It’s a pretty highfalutin term for a film that’s fairly slack on the sci side of this sci-fi quest that takes us to the moon, the red planet and beyond. Its biggest boost is its star, Brad Pitt, coming in reentry-hot after an Oscar-worthy turn as a bum-around stuntman in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” He’s solid here as Major Roy McBride, a man with a low resting heartbeat and few emotional attachments. He’s distant from his wife (Liv Tyler) and has no kids, so he’s cool, calm and able to MacGyver his way out of any hairy situation no matter how impossible or far out in space.

The film begins with a bravura sequence (worthy of “First Man” comparisons) where, in the not too distant future, Roy is working on an antenna projecting up and out of earth’s atmosphere that gets struck by a rogue energy wave. The massive spire implodes, collapsing back to earth in a long, slow chain of events that call eerily to mind the 9/11 attacks. Roy, with some cool thinking, survives, but more than 40,000 people are killed by the surge from somewhere out in the galaxy.

The purpose of the tower, we’re told, is to communicate with other intelligent life, because humans cannot survive much longer on their own – the implications being that we’ve messed up the planet and are looking for someone to bail us out, though that’s never really articulated. If you’re thinking the Tower of Babel or “Contact” (1997) you’d be correct, but with the death toll from the wave and more on the way, phoning ET gets dropped as the surge and its source become job numero uno. Naturally the brass at Space Command (a branch of the military) pick Roy (can anyone ever pass over Brad Pitt?) for the need-to-know mission, and also, what’s that? Those in the know think the shockwaves are coming from Neptune, where some years earlier Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones) led a mission and may still be alive.

Yup, daddy issues run deep, but not with much emotional effect. The journey to Neptune is a damn fine amusement ride, beginning with the running of a gantlet of pirates on the dark side of the moon to the abandoned spaceship where a lab experiment has gone wildly amok and the penultimate stop, Mars, run by an effete with a mini-man bun and myriad agendas. But it’s there on Heinlein’s precious planet and beyond that the film begins to drift. The mission and the stunts lose their importance, the sense of urgency and peril get nipped, and all we’re left with is something of a stripped-down existential quest, a diet lite posturing of “Apocalypse Now” (1979) or “Interstellar” (2014) without a credible force (or fully baked cause) to reckon with (i.e., Brando’s Kurtz or Matt Damon’s rogue astronaut). All of a sudden, the slog to the outer limits feels all for naught. Also challenging to logic and scientific principal, these guys hop planets like catching the noon Greyhound to Penn Station. There’s no warp speed, wormhole or stasis sleep – in short, the sense of time and space feels distorted, if not ignored.

Gray, who cut his teeth with gritty crime thrillers such as “Little Odessa” (1994) and “We Own the Night” (2007), last turned in “The Lost City of Z” (2017), an account of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s quest to find signs of early civilization in the Amazon. That film, another journey into the vast unknown, feels like boilerplate for “Ad Astra.” It’d be fair to call it a Z-peat, but in the real-life account, Fawcett always seemed one fateful decision away from ruin. Here, Pitt’s Roy, while steeped in palpable, reflective soulfulness, is so can-do capable that Kryptonite has no shot of buckling a knee. Pitt, for better or for worse, has become something of an icon and a brand, like Tom Cruise (impossible to separate the celebrity from the performer) – and while that worked to everyone’s advantage (shirtless scene and all) in Tarantino’s Tinseltown fable, Gray never imbues his hero with enough vulnerability, or even a hint of it. “Ad Astra” is like a 5 Hour Energy drink: a sharp, pure blast of wow, until you come down and it leaves you empty and wanting.

Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

25 Jul

‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’: Stardom loses some luster in dusty, bloody wilds of L.A.

 

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Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” isn’t a rescripting of historical events the way “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) envisioned the Nazis toppled by a handful of hard-hitting Jews, but there are definitely some major ripples in time. No, “Hollywood” is more a tongue-in-check, kick-in-the-pants modern fairytale with a hefty side of cinematic homage; it rambles some, to be sure, but it’s more sincere and genuine in execution than the video store clerk-turned-auteur’s last outing, “The Hateful Eight” (2015). It may be Tarantino’s most personal and intimate film to date (tying with “Jackie Brown” on the latter) as the director talks about tapping out after 10 films – which this would be if “Four Rooms” counts, but I digress.

The setting is the late 1960s. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), something of a Clint Eastwood or Chuck Connors, came to fame in a fictional hit television western called “Bounty Law” a decade earlier and now finds it hard to get lead work – he plays mostly heavies on (real) shows such as “The F.B.I.” and “Lancer.” Front and center too is Dalton’s shadow and heyday stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a smooth, angular chap with an aw-shucks facade and a deeply dark side that gets leveraged to glorious and disturbing effect. Because the two are loyal bros, Dalton, during his downward fade, employs Booth as driver and gofer. Dalton also lives next door to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski – and, yes, on the eve of the Manson family murders – and in a separate silo we get Margot Robbie as an ebullient Ms. Tate looking grand and fabulous as she dances poolside at a Playboy mansion gig and taking in a screening of “The Wrecking Crew,” which she stars in with Dean Martin.(At the box office, she asks if she can get a free pass, because she’s in it.) Robbie may not say much, but she’s intoxicating in every scene she’s in. Doomed in real life as a Manson victim, Tate is held up by Tarantino as the essence of a sunsetting era.

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Greta

28 Feb

‘Greta’: Good deed introduces a mother figure, who must be survived with a surrogate sister

 

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Neil Jordan, who’s always existed somewhere between the arthouse and the cineplex, is responsible for such notable films as “Mona Lisa” (1986), “The Crying Game” (1992) and “Interview with the Vampire” (1994), for which, he famously paired heartthrobs Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. The Irish filmmaker hasn’t produced a feature film in more than six years (since the 2012 female vampire foray, “Byzantium”), so it’s something of a relief that we get “Greta,” a boilerplate psychological thriller that flirts deliciously with camp but sadly enjoins cliche.

At least Jordan has Isabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz and Maika Monroe, who leave it all up on the screen. Moretz, so lethally infectious in “Kick-Ass” (2010), stars as the object of obsession, Frances McCullen, a recent Smith College grad from Boston living in a swank New York City loft and working at an even swankier midtown eatery. The wished-you-lived-there pad comes courtesy of Frances’s bestie from Smith, Erica (Monroe) whose dad bought it for her as a graduation present or something. Life’s good, and even though this duo don’t seem to want for much, they’re relatively down to earth – maybe with the exception of Erica’s predilection for avocado colonics.

Trouble comes in the form of a Kate Spade or Gucci handbag (I can never tell them apart) that Frances finds on a subway car and returns dutifully to its owner, a widowed French woman named Greta (Huppert) who lives in a quaint country-styled bungalow tucked down a dingy back alley. It’s an odd juxtaposition, to say the least; a Hobbit shire in the middle of the Seaport (which, given the harbor shots from his office, is where Frances’s father works) might be less conspicuous. Nevertheless, little of the action takes place on the streets of NYC; “Greta” is an intimate and cloistered affair.

Not to give away too much, but the bag’s a plant by Greta, who’s not even French (she pretends to be, even through she’s from Hungary) and leverages the return to sow a motherly bond with Frances (who coincidently just lost her mother) and wheedles her way into every aspect of her surrogate daughter’s life. What begins as cute and a tad clingy becomes creepy real fast. You could think of it as “Single White Female” (1992) – the mother edition – or “Unsane”(2018), where a frustrated stalker begins to take on the ubiquitous and near-superhuman qualities of Michael Meyers.

Much hangs on Huppert, who casts a long, menacing shadow over Frances. The French actor, who rightfully earned an Academy Award nomination for her 2016 performance as a stalked woman in Paul Verhoeven’s rape-revenge psycho-sexual thriller “Elle,” has been making films since the 1970s. She’s played opposite France’s other great thespian export, Catherine Deneuve, in François Ozon’s murder-comedy, “8 Women” (2002) and appeared with Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken in Michael Cimino’s epic, post-“Deerhunter” letdown, “Heaven’s Gate” (1980). But my favorite Huppert film to date has to be France’s 1983 Best Foreign Language nominee, “Entre Nous,” about two women trying to survive occupied France during the World War II.

Moretz holds up her end of the film. Her Frances is more actively resilient and nuanced than most victims in these types of endeavors, though plot wise she’s more the focal point for Huppert’s maniacal moonshot to orbit. The real revelation here is Monroe, who might feel like a fresh face but appeared in Sophia Coppola’s “Bling Ring” (2013) and more notably, anchored the quirky cult chiller, “It Follows” (2014). Here as the compassionate can-do roomie she exudes a tang of Sharon Stone moxie, but the real win is the sisterly bond she and Moretz form on screen – a touch of Huppert and Miou-Miou in “Entre Nous.” It’s genuine enough to raise the stakes and Jordan, clearly aware he’s playing with genre, tries to avoid the usual trappings. For the most part he does, but not completely.

The Big Short

25 Dec

The 2008 economic meltdown, that mega-shitstorm triggered by avarice, complacency and cronyism that left the taxpaying public with a mop and bucket even as many lost their homes and jobs, was no laughing matter, but it gets a sharp-witted rewind anyway in Adam McKay’s “The Big Short.”

122415i The Big ShortBack in 2010, Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job” made a point of big money’s deep connections to the White House, regulatory agencies and academia. Who ran Capital Hill didn’t matter; red and blue allegiances were irrelevant as long as the talk on the table was about more green. McKay’s “Short” homes in on the gamblers who profited from that giant economic sucking sound, those who were alert to the rigging of the system and rampant neglect and, in the end, opted to hedge it. You could call them visionaries or vultures and both would be true; the film, however, paints them as more accidental heroes, opportunists and scientists who saw the sky falling and, when no one took them too seriously, put their money where their mouth was.

McKay’s best known for the “Anchorman” comedies, so tackling serious material from author Michael Lewis (the guy responsible for “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side”) about the inner workings of complex financial instruments might seem like a stretch. But McKay’s sense of satire and lightness in the face of darkness pays off nicely – not always mind you, but enough, and it helps tremendously that he’s blessed with an A-list ensemble who clearly went deep in preparation for their roles. Continue reading