Tag Archives: New York

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

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.

Good Time

25 Aug

It’s “Rain Man” meets “Eddie Coyle” in this up-in-your-chest New York City heist flick. The film, by Boston University grads Benny and Josh Safdie, is imbued with the type of on-the-street grit that made Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” so indelible, and the riveting electric score by Daniel Lopatin notches up the emotional disarray in every frame. If there’s one thing “Good Time” is not, is short on mood. The setup bookends the central narrative with scenes of a baby-faced young man by the name of Nick (played convincingly by Benny Safdie, doing double duty) under duress while in therapy sessions with a wild-haired psychiatrist (Peter Verby, whose face is a cinematic wonder in its own right). In the opener, Nick’s asked to give free association responses to random terms. His answers to “scissors and a cooking pan” (“You can hurt yourself with both”) and “salt and water” (“The beach”) are telling – not in the actual response, but how he responds. He clearly has some form of developmental handicap.

The scene smolders in tight closeups, but before the grim gravity of Nick’s prospects can take root fully – or the psychiatrist can dig any deeper – Nick’s brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) bursts through the door and extracts his sibling. Has Nick been saved? For the moment, yes, but not in the bigger scheme of things. The two are incredibly tight (the Safdies are clearly drawing on their own sibling bond) but pretty much have only each other to draw on and limited financial resources; to keep the pack together, Connie cooks up a plan to rob a bank in the middle of the day, the execution and choreography of which is so hauntingly reminiscent of “Dog Day Afternoon” you half expect Al Pacino to pop out with chants of “Attica.” The lads do make off with the cash, but matters with ride sharing, dye packs and Nick’s emotional instability provide steep obstacles. It’s a riveting game of cat and mouse as the brothers dash down littered alleyways and into a mall atrium with the police a hot breath away. Just as they look to be in the clear, Nick crashes through a glass pane and is taken into custody. Where the story goes next is as unpredictable as its protagonist. Continue reading

The Wolfpack

20 Jun

Crystal Moselle’s intrigue documentary “The Wolfpack” follows the secluded lives of the six Angulo brothers, who were raised in relative isolation – never leaving their small Lower East Side apartment in Manhattan – for nearly 17 years. Homeschooled and without access to the Internet, the boys drank in such modern crime classics as “The Godfather,” “Reservoir Dogs” and the “Dark Knight” films and recreated them, transforming their claustrophobic confines into a sound stage of sorts.

061915i The WolfpackThe roots for the documentary go back to when Moselle ran into the boys, a.k.a. the Wolfpack, on the street, caught by their eye-catching long hair (down to their waists) and demeanor. What unfolds is talking heads and recreations looking back to their early childhood, when the boys were kept under lock and key. Their father, Oscar, a Hare Krishna who met their mother, Susan, in his native Peru, blessed all his offspring with uber-long Sanskrit names. As a patriarch and a man, Oscar’s more hippie than overbearing despot, but his logic – to lock the boys within the plastered walls of a tenement apartment in the projects to keep them safe from outside harm and violence lurking in the streets – seems odd given the blood-soaked nature of their cinematic diet.

Surprisingly, the boys are all reflective, polite and articulate, and tinged with varying degrees of disdain for a father who ran the family as something of a cult colony – “our own race,” one of the boys says – where his law was long taken as God’s law. You don’t meet Oscar for most of the movie, but when you do it’s a bit of a letdown, given he’s a nonworking, rather unintimidating alcoholic whose great plan was to accrue money in New York and move the brood to Scandinavia where he felt the state would provide a better quality of life. Then there’s Susan, seemingly intelligent and caring, yet complicit. She’s on camera much more more than Oscar. Her big moment comes when she calls her 88-year-old mother, with whom she had not spoken in decades, largely because Oscar forbade it.

There’s a tipping point when one of the elder boys finally walks out on his own – wearing a Michael Myers mask, no less. As tensions in the apartment rise, the film ends on a note of promise and change. But given the enigmatic journey, there feels like some things go undivulged or unexplored, like the Angulo’s sister, who is mentioned as being “special” but is seen only in home movie footage. Then there’s the odd calm when Oscar and the boys are in the same room, starkly juxtaposed with their harshly rebuking him on camera for restraining them. The compelling quality of Moselle’s exploration get a great boost from the motion-creating editing and frenetic metal score, not to mention her caring touch. Perhaps her her objective lens got fogged.