Joker–No Laughing Matter

Joker the movie

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. 

This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. And it is no small feat to have a performance which overshadows the also remarkable previous Jokers played by Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Heath Ledger.

In Joker a marginally employed and aspiring stand-up comedian, Arthur Fleck (played by the astonishing Joaquin Phoenix), has a series of menial gigs as a clown holding a banner declaring a store’s bankruptcy or performing in the cancer ward of a children’s hospital.  He is a disposable, invisible Gotham resident faithfully caring for his invalid mother with whom he shares a dreary low-rent apartment.

Bullied, brutally abused and cruelly mocked by almost everyone around him, Arthur Fleck devolves into the Joker as the demented, bipolar mask of comedy and tragedy. Not yet evil or vile, but more ignored and humiliated, his community fails him and his mental illness isolates him.

In close-up shots of his clown-face mask, this Joker is no clown, pulling down roughly on the corners of his face to force a grin, more grimace and silent scream than a smile. The viewer feels that Arthur Fleck is becoming ever more deeply damaged.

 Joaquin Phoenix gives such an unforgettable feral performance, this viewer was left wondering how the actor could maintain his sanity after this manic act as the Joker. We are taken on a journey to  see the dissolution of sanity under a psychological microscope. 

Joker with Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix’s exposed bones and emaciated frame are part of the Joker’s makeup. His physicality is a range of movements in madness, alternatingly unhinged and heartbreaking as he dances after each horrific act, struggling to communicate and connect until he surrenders to his insanity.

This is a  character-driven plot, intensely cerebral and at times subversive and disturbing.   This character study of the Joker will become a classic and a certain Academy Award nomination for Joaquin Phoenix.   A great joke is inseparable from its ability to subvert, to say the unsaid and the unspeakable.  Joker pushes all boundaries in its portrayal of a  deeply disturbing, subversive character and I cannot think of a film with which to compare it–a must-see!

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2 Replies to “Joker–No Laughing Matter”

  1. Interesting review. This review intrigues me, perhaps I’ll go see the film. I hadn’t planned to see it after some media anger at the film. I gather he’s always manic and not too depressed? I’ll be interested to see if he gives an accurate portrait of mania. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for the enthusiastic report on Joker. I’ve been reading about the divergence of response — those who view it as a boundary-pushing cinematic exploration and those who see it as a reckless exploitation of violent behavior. Good to have a movie that stirs up such strong conversation. We can all benefit from that. look forward to seeing it!

    Jerry Ludwig

Infamy–The Terror (Season 2)

The Terror: Infamy is the second and current season (ten episodes) of AMC’s historical drama/horror  series. Infamy takes a dark and infamous chapter in US  history and attempts to give this shameful period both a humanizing and ghostly touch. 

The often  overlooked or little-known story of Japanese American internment is the historical centerpiece of  Infamy and asks the question:  What does it truly mean to identify as an American? From 1942 to 1945, more than 145,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians were forced from their homes by presidential executive order and into internment camps by their respective governments, simply because of where they or their ancestors were born. Mostly set in a fictional “war relocation center” in Oregon a month after Pearl Harbor,  Infamy reveals a family drama of the many injuries and conflicts of Japanese American incarceration. 

The Terror: Infamy opens with a bizarre, perhaps most viscerally frightening, death scene that haunts a Japanese American community shortly before Pearl Harbor.  Chester Nakayama, a young American, who has some bewildering relationship with a ghost (Yuko), is the connection between the ghost world and the concentration (“internment”) camp throughout time-jumps from 1910 to about 1950. At one point we see Chester and his friends and family be evacuated from California, to the internment camp. The many indignities an entire community of Japanese Americans suffered under forced relocation and detention is depicted in detail and in horror. Real-world and supernatural horrors collide in Infamy as a Japanese ghost (obake) story creeps under the viewer’s skin.

Infamy displays an intriguing composite of two plots, one supernatural and ghostly, the other historical.   But they are not tightly woven nor is the mythological importance of the ghost clarified for the viewer who is not familiar with Japanese folktales.   Is the obake ghost (“Yuko”) a demon, or someone reborn who behaved badly in a past life and is suffering her karmic consequences? She seems to be a culturally specific “monster”  who, in order to understand her,  requires a basic familiarity with Japanese folklore, not the typical ghost or zombie familiar to American audiences.

It is possible that the director and writers also could not decide what genre to emphasize–horror Japanese-style or American.  But what develops is a production, so frequently subtitled  that it seems like a foreign film at times.  But it isn’t.  So  what we need is a statement once in a while about the motivation for the ghost’s targeted actions, a backstory for Yuko that should appear before episode 6, and a brief description of obake (and yurei, which is more equivalent to a European notion of a ghost).  Addressing these needs  would result in a more comprehensible and  visceral connection with the plot. 

I wanted to love this series for its originality:  combining the “old world” system of beliefs and values with the American.  The intergenerational misunderstandings between immigrant parents and their American children is one of the more moving themes.  However, the  effect is dampened, rather than amplified, by some of the show’s ghostly horror which is not tightened together enough to see that the two universes–supernatural and earthly–are inextricable.   The promise of the ghost story (think of the Japanese horror movie Ringu) mirrors the pain and suffering of humans.  But Infamy rarely stops to explain Japanese concepts or relevant historical details, and their tradition of ghost folktales is very complex with a pantheon of different types.  And as the season moves on, it sometimes fails to sustain the intense and wordless fear in the first two episodes.

Nonetheless, I still recommend Infamy.  The most intriguing question to be raised: What is more horrific—a ghost with supernatural powers, or some government authority, wielding a gun, who knocks on the door and smiles as he destroys your life and that of your family? The show attests powerfully to the fact that the U.S. has a long tradition of enacting policies and holding up institutions that target communities of color. The timing of Infamy may draw comparisons with the caging of children at the border, forcing us to wonder what will be unleashed by the current horrors in our country.

Perhaps the writers of Infamy intended to focus on another, more subtle kind of danger: the danger of forgetting, of  historical amnesia.

Note:  The first season of “The Terror” was based on the disappearance of a ship and its men in the Arctic in the middle of the 19th century as they tried to discover the Northwest Passage, also crafting a story of monsters (human and otherwise) on the ice.  See my May 2018 review of “The Terror–A Chilling Northwest Passage. .

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One Reply to “Infamy–The Terror (Season 2)”

  1. This is an impressive review. You’re great with the details that make it interesting. In general, I don’t read much historical fiction. I’m more future oriented than past oriented. Nonetheless, thank you!

Years and Years–Our Future?

The HBO six-part series, Years and Years,  is a  dystopian drama of the near future that rivals “The Handmaid’s Tale” but with a focus on technology and financial crisis. 

In Years and Years the viewer witnesses a 15-year projection of nuclear strikes, technology that allows sulky teens to project Snapchat-style filters over their faces, and concentration camps for refugees and dissidents in Great Britain. 

The  harrowing image of Vivienne Rook MP (Emma Thompson), as an outspoken celebrity business woman turned political figure à la Trump, divides the nation with  her controversial opinions and policies.  In tandem, a second parallel story of one family– the Lyons family–details the impact of an unstable world on their lives.

Beginning in 2020,  three generations of the Lyons family watch the rapid change occurring around them due, in part, to the radical demagoguery of Vivienne Rook who eventually rises to power in 2027.  With a mix of horror, confusion, and occasional glee individual members align with Rook or resist her autocracy.

In rapid-fire time-jumps from 2020 to  2035, Years and Years  has Trump winning a second term as US president, Pence succeeding him and Rook seizing  power and proclaiming policies in similar autocratic style in England.

In 2020 air raid sirens blast over all regions of the UK,  with news that Trump has fired a nuclear missile at a Chinese island.  Panic and misinformation spiral out of control.

In a series of unfortunate events, there is a financial  crisis due to the collapse of an American investment bank.  A compulsory national IQ test is administered to exclude low-IQ individuals  from voting.  Arrests and detention become the rule of law for refugees, homosexuals, and dissidents.

By 2027  the coalition government of Great Britain has collapsed, and Viv Rook becomes the Prime Minister, backed by unidentified corporate moguls. Countries become unstable with similar governments being put into place.   

By  2028, Viv Rook promises freedom to her supporters but begins arresting her opponents, contracting with a giant corporation to maintain two “Erstwhile” concentration camps, intended as death camps with fascist oversight. 

By 2029 attacks on journalists increase, and the BBC is forced to shut down, having had its charter withdrawn. Muriel Lyons, matriarch and grandmother, blames the family and global citizens at large for the rampant dictatorships worldwide.  In one of  the most powerful monologues (see video clip) in television this year, she eloquently tells her family that many small acts of indifference have had a snowball effect,  creating the toxic environment everyone now lives in. Today perhaps?  And so it now seems that there is little control the Lyons have over their destinies.  The military isn’t storming parliament. The change is more insidious. Dictatorship creeps up on us very, very slowly, and yet with increasing speed, suddenly we are rendered powerless while ordinary life goes on.

Years and Years, through its flashbacks, forecasts the next decade-and-a-half  with a pessimistic, quasi-nihilistic lens.  A sum of the problems and anxieties currently playing out in Trump-land, this dystopia is a world-weary projection,  resonant of a   prequel to Black Mirror’s astringent tales.

Note:  The sixth and last episode took me by surprise.   The tone seemed off, shifting  gears into much more futuristic  science fiction. We’re being given fake videos with fake news, but this seemed to me like a  fake ending.

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Locked Up–Spain’s “Orange Is the New Black”

In this riveting Netflix series, we see a psychological drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat..  A combination of “Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”, and “Orange Is the New Black” (OITNB), Locked Up is darker, more sinister, and more brutal and violent.  [Alex Pina is the creator of both this 2015 television series and 2017’s Casa de Papel. ]  Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

Every episode will keep you wanting more.  Perhaps a more realistic point of view of prison life than OITNB, Locked Up is binge-worthy and definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Macarena Ferreiro (played by Maggie Civantos)  is a twenty-nine year old professional financier who ends up in prison, after an affair with her manipulative boss who coaxed her into embezzling funds.  Sentenced to seven years at the Cruz del Sur Prison for women while her boss absconds jail-free, Macarena has to navigate her new and unfamiliar home where mostly murderers and drug dealers are her fellow cell mates.  At first, Macarena believes the justice system will realize that she was as much victim as perpetrator and will be released. Slowly she realizes survival in prison for a seven-year sentence will mean developing the cunning of her fellow inmates. 

The title of the Spanish version, Vis-à-Vis (literally,”face-to-face”), is also a colloquial term for conjugal visit used not only for the expected titillating aspect of sexual activity, but also for hiding, a metaphor for secrets and lies.  In a secondary plot, Macarena’s loving family–including her father, a former police officer,– are determined to help her get out of prison by any means necessary 

The ensemble cast could not be better. Brilliantly acted,  Locked Up never loses steam. Each episode surprises and leaves the viewer  wanting more and more. All the characters are an unnerving blend of good and evil, even the two obvious antagonists.  While the audience is never in doubt as to where its sympathies are supposed to lie, there are nudges of understanding for even the most vile.

Locked Up boldly and savagely challenges racist and homophobic attitudes. This prison drama makes OITNB  seem like summer camp, whereas in Locked Up  the inmates are  forever changed at almost a cellular level.  

Note:  Season 4 of Locked Up will be released September 25 on Netflix.

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La Casa de Papel –“Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids

La Casa de Papel (“Money Heist”)

La Casa de Papel (Netflix English title: “Money Heist“) was the most-watched non-English language series of 2018 and one of the most-watched series overall on Netflix.  This is a Spanish  “Ocean’s Eleven” on steroids.

A criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have nothing to lose.

Named after cities, each robber has a backstory and the motivation to move on with a different, less desperate life. In La  Casa de Papel “Tokyo” is the unreliable narrator,  with a winner-take-all attitude, and no impulse control but lots of unhealed wounds.  She narrates each character’s backstory in flashbacks, time-jumps, and unmitigated judgment of her fellow team members. Dressed in red jumpsuits and wearing masks of the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, the burglars take 67 hostages as part of their plan in negotiating with the police.

The Professor oversees the heist from a different location, using state-of-the-art computer systems and an extraordinary psychological analysis of the police. Soon the charismatic, albeit excessively cerebral  Professor  wins over  the public, who are angry at the powerful banks and corrupt corporate and government elite.

The actors, in often tight camera shots, reveal the emotions and alienation at play as they have to deal with each other, the Professor, the hostages, and the police–particularly one vulnerable and needy police inspector.  An extraordinary string of plots over thirty-five episodes, La Casa de Papel rarely sags throughout an entire episode, but ratchets up tension, drama, and unexpected twists in psychology and power dynamics. A highly  unpredictable chess game between the police and the robbers, you will be surprised by almost every move, even with its “telenovela” elements. Can’t wait for  the next season!

Note:  There are three Parts [=Seasons].  Part 1 has  13 episodes;  Part 2: 9 episodes; Part 3: 8 episode and  were released December 2017 through July 2019.  The filming of Part 4 of La Casa de Papel ended last month and will be released sometime next year.

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3 Replies to “La Casa de Papel –“Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids”

  1. Thanks for the heads-up. This is one of the most well-crafted, jet-propelled series ever! Plus well-rounded, fresh characters. It also brings to mind the classic “Dog Day Afternoon.”

Lizzie–Quiet Desperation

Lizzie— a psychological thriller– is a reinterpretation of the story of Lizzie Borden, the  accused murderer of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892. Starring and produced by Chloe Sevigny and premiering at Sundance Film Festival last year, the viewer sees the highly restrictive circumstances of  women in a patriarchal society and what happens to them when they actively fight against a lifetime of subjugation.

Lizzie Borden, a thirty-two year old single woman,  has very few options other than  residing with her tyrannical father, a wealthy corrupt banker and real estate mogul.  Her  passive stepmother, Abby (the wonderful Fiona Shaw), and elder sister, Emma (Kim Dickens) all live under Andrew’s oppressive roof. An Irish immigrant, Bridget Sullivan (a fine-tuned performance by Kristen Stewart), moves in to the Borden residence as a maid. At first, seeking perhaps solace and a kindred spirit in Bridget, Lizzie teaches her to read.  Soon Lizzie and Bridget form an intimate but conspiratorial relationship.

The theme is female empowerment in a Gilded Age of punitive patriarchal strictures. Lizzie’s uncle and stepmother  provide no practical escape from  her father’s brutal supervision.  She is a woman on the verge  of a mental and physical breakdown.   Several scenes with pigeons that Lizzie nurtures and loves provide a brilliant metaphor for Lizzie’s own free-spirit: living in a cage, yearning for freedom and release from her entrapment.

Lizzie‘s cinematography (by Noah Greenberg) expertly conveys the dark, foreboding patriarchy in camera angles of candle-lit windows, doorways, behind stair-railings and bedroom doors. The lighting alone elicits the sense  that Lizzie and Bridget are both trapped, living a claustrophobic, spiritless life.

Although the pacing will challenge the patience of  some viewers, the opening scenes justifiably hook the viewer in. There is much to praise here besides the fantastic sepia-toned and black-and-white camera shots.  Lizzie is a thought-provoking and elegant Victorian-period tale of women attempting to take their destinies into their own hands when society will not allow that. 

Lizzie may, at times,  lack energy, due to slow pacing, but the hushed and mute austerity of the action plot and the character development are engaging and well-worth seeing.   Sometimes things unsaid increases the dramatic tension necessary to sustain a film.  Lizzie reflects on the abuse of power, class and sexual dynamics of a male dominated society that existed not so long ago. Today’s Handmaid’s Tale? 

Note: DVD available on Netflix

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2 Replies to “Lizzie–Quiet Desperation”

  1. Not a fan of this sad event. Probably won’t see the film. Your review is fine, but it doesn’t entice me to see another story like this. Yes, another handmaid’s tale. Thanks for your good review.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood–A Lackluster Fairy Tale

Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to movie buffs.  And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood continues to feature the themes Tarantino cherishes.  With a fully-loaded cast of A-list actors, especially Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio,  what we witness is more a “buddy film” than the advertised “tribute to the final moments of Hollywood’s Golden Age”. But for the audience who does not know the story of Charles Manson and his grasp on the American collective psyche,  the film needs more backstory to fill in plot holes. On the plus side, Tarantino loves cinematic history and Once Upon a Time’s references to the landscape and artifacts of 1969 Hollywood are thoughtfully and minutely reconstructed.

The world around the aging Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio), along with his loyal body double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is both fictional and not. Both are co-dependent and struggling with declining careers.  The first moon landing a mere three weeks before the Beverly Hills massacre of five people, including the nine-months pregnant Sharon Tate, actress and wife to Roman Polanski, a top movie director of the time, August 1969 was a time of both horror and jubilation.

The viewer who knows about Charles Manson and his notorious bloodbath prepares for the pending violence Tarantino is often criticized for:  gratuitous depictions of violence against women. But no one escapes. Without giving too much away, Once Upon a Time builds upon a  “what if” narrative.  But for viewers who are not  familiar with the Charles Manson saga, there is no “what if,” just a senseless action thriller without the irony and fictionalization of history. 

And, to add to Once Upon a Time‘s reliance on shock value and stomach-churning bloodletting, especially of one woman’s skull, the only depictions of  the two women who have any roles more than a few lines–Sharon Tate (a waste of talented Margot Robbie) and Squeaky, one of Manson’s cult followers (played by the always reliable Dakota Fanning)– are cardboard cutouts in the Tarantino style, posturing with long-legged shots that focus more on their extremities than on what they are saying.    

I am not a fan of most of the films produced by Quentin Tarrantino, but  there is still something to admire about the attention to detail in reconstructing the time and place, and in the chemistry between Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.  And this is  a generous reading of what to like about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Note:  At almost three hours in length, the “saggy middle” of this movie could have been eliminated with less footage of driving, walking, smoking cigarettes, as well as the pointless Bruce Lee scene.

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6 Replies to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood–A Lackluster Fairy Tale”

  1. I’m not a big Tarantino fan for the reasons you stated, but for some odd reason, I love Pulp Fiction. I imagine this is a similar weird ride. Looking forward to seeing it. Good review!

  2. I loved it, but then I am an avid fan of Tarantino’s films. It was obvious from your review, without you actually having to state it, that you are not.
    I do not agree that it was “saggy” in the middle. Tarantino’s films are known for being long and slow building. That’s one of the things I love the most. This film had an amazing, climatic end, that was definitely worth the wait.
    I do enjoy reading your reviews, but it is evident that we have completely different views on what constitutes a great film.
    Once Upon A Time In Hollywood gets ***** from me, it was definitely Tarantino at his best, hilariously violent with excellent casting as usual.

  3. Hi again,
    I think you nailed this review! Without seeing the film I guessed it wouldn’t be one to watch. The Manson so-called “family” and their murders were horrifying while happening and later. Not surprising, Manson had severe mental illness, at a time when less was known about diagnosis and treatment.

    I could count on one finger the number of Tarantino’s movies I’ve seen.

    Cheers,
    Lenore

  4. Right on. Tarentino’s latest is full of painstakingly recreated details about tragic 1968 events, but the blend of REAL and REEL doesn’t gibe. To those who recall the Manson gang and what was then known as the Tate-LoBianco Murders this picture plays like a Shaggy Dog story turned into a Butch&Sundance Bromance for Brad&Leo. Why bother?

  5. Really enjoyed this film, although the ending was a bit strange (and a little too violent). As someone who worked in Hollywood during this era, I can testify that he got it all down — how it looked, how people acted and sounded, the values, etc. Way to go, Quentin. And way to go, Diana, for spreading the word about one of the best films of the summer.

Wild Rose–Mothers and Daughters with Impossible Choices

Wild Rose, an indie film about a young aspiring country singer

Wild Rose centers on a young single mother and ex-con who dreams of moving from Scotland to Nashville to become a country singer.  This indie is currently in theaters.

Rose-Lynn Harlan (newcomer Jessie Buckley) dreams of becoming a country music star, while grappling with the regaining the trust of  her two school-age children who have been cared for by her mother (the always remarkable Julie Walters)   during her incarceration for drug dealing.

Why should she give up something she knows she is so good at? On the other hand, is success worth sacrificing her relationship with her children?  This is the impossible, heartbreaking dilemma Rose finds herself in. And dividing her time between maternal responsibilities and personal is rife with obstacles as anyone knows in struggling with work/balance issues.  She’s trapped between two worlds.  the tax on working mothers that will always affect career choices.

Wild Rose  is a powerful portrayal of the resentment that both Rose and her mother have endured in not following their own dreams.  Her mother is the foundation that has provided the love and stability for Rose’s children when their mother could not.   And the  consistent disharmony and disconnect between mother and daughter is contextualized and nuanced, adding a searing dynamic of two women with  unhealed wounds striving to be made whole.

Having to find employment fast as a condition of her parole, Rose’s mother, through a friend, finds a position for Rose as a “daily woman”, a housekeeper for a very wealthy family.  Soon the employer becomes Rose’s  benefactor (Sophie Okonedo), who generously supports her dream to go to Nashville.  Rose is a small-town-girl with big-city dreams, a familiar narrative, but with some unexpected twists.

Wild Rose showcases relationships between women, both maternal and supportive,  without power dynamics, but with a very strong sense of empathy.  This film is a real original!

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The Farewell–Family Matters

The Farewell movie

This comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.”  The universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring  secrets and lies,  told and sometimes motivated by love.

In the opening scene of The Farewell, taking place in a local hospital in China, the winsome and irrepressible grandmother, Nai Nai, has a complete physical, but has no idea of what it portends. Her sister and doctor tell Nai Nai everything is fine,  she need not worry.  She has stage 4 lung cancer.

Determined to spare Nai Nai bad news, her adult children, under the pretext of planning a wedding for one of the grandsons, gather the family for what is to be presented as a family reunion.  The granddaughter, Billi,  a young millennial living in New York City (played by the extraordiary Awkwafina of “Crazy Rich Asians”), does not approve of the decision to hide the truth from Nai Nai. 

The rationale and Chinese tradition (similar to US medical practices forty years ago) believes that the shock of the diagnosis would worsen and hasten Nai Nai’s death due to her advanced age.  So, at the wedding, there is forced merriment as the family pretends to celebrate a happy occasion while secretly mourning their beloved Nai Nai.  Only Nai Nai doesn’t know she is dying and is in a joyous mood.

The cultural and geographical distance between Nai Nai and her granddaughter, Billi, becomes irrelevant as The Farewell progresses. In some ways, despite the gulf between them, Nai Nai seems to know and understands her granddaughter better than her American parents. Hilarious scenes discussing Billi’s weight and dating options underscore their closeness. 

But,  The Farewell also  delivers some powerful emotional blows. In its unflappably honest depiction of coming to terms with death, this disarming film examines family bonds and forced compromise, personal sacrifice, and the complexity and ambivalence of expressing emotions.

Awkwafina’s performance is raw, authentic and delicate in switching from humor to seriousness seemingly effortlessly.  The Farewell is  a winner!

Note:  The American director, Lulu Wang, has deftly constructed a very American film that seems like an independent foreign film, with subtitles, and cross-cultural shifts in perspective and comic nuance.

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Rocketman –Seeing the Light through the Darkness

Rocketman , the recently released biopic of the music superstar, Elton John, will inevitably be compared to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody.  The two movies are portraits of flamboyantly-dressed gay rock stars from relatively the same era (1970’s and 1980’s) but they also shared the same manager and had the same director, Dexter Fletcher.   (Ironically, music manager John Reid was played by two actors from “Games of Thrones” fame).

In the opening scene, Elton John emerges, dressed in a satanic red “Hell Boy”-like costume with devil horns, wings, and dramatic cape. He marches directly at the camera, –backlit and sinister– as his face, partly disguised by heart-shaped sunglasses, comes into focus.   Theatrically plopping down on a chair in a circle of addicts in  group therapy, Elton John is there to exorcise his demons in a flashback revealing why he is where he is.  The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

In spite of being afflicted with unhealed wounds,  Elton finds comfort and motivation from recognition by a prestigious music academy and from a developing friendship with Bernie Taupin (a scene-stealing Jamie Bell in a beautifully touching performance). Taupin is an equally unknown musician, whose lyrics would come to inspire a  lifelong collaboration. The friendship between Elton and Bernie –Bernie calls it a brotherhood– is the film’s love story. Since Bernie is straight, there’s no sexual tension but there is such a strong emotional bond, the intimacy is palpable.

Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

For the closeted Elton the handsome, suave agent John Reid, (heart throb Richard Madden, Robb Stark of “Game of Thrones” and star of  “Bodyguard”) exudes a seductive eroticism, equal parts dazzle and danger. He  triggers Elton’s sexual desire.  They fall in love and then comes the  darkness, manipulation, and opportunism.

The major problem with the narrative arc is that Rocketman seems to want to be a biopic with songs, and inconsistently, also a musical that sings dialogue and dances away the drama. Rocketman becomes giddy and silly, especially earlier, in choreography and staging reminiscent of 1960’s jukebox ensemble dancing.  They distract, at least temporarily, from the demands of the storytelling–a “fourth wall”, namely  confronting the viewer with scenes that break the momentum and pacing using lyrics as dialogue.  [An analogous “fourth wall” occurs when a character talks to the screen and viewer, dislodging time and place of the story.]

A successful example of using the “fourth wall”:  when John’s estranged parents sing “I Want Love”, this interjection of song for dialogue is more effective.

Rocketman ends with Elton in rehab in 1990, singing “I’m Still Standing”, a shout-out to his survival. In the credits, there are facts about his notable generosity on behalf of HIV/AIDS international projects, his family life with his husband and two baby sons. And his sobriety  for nearly 30 years.

There’s  one crucial difference that, in the final analysis, makes Bohemian Rhapsody a more satisfying film, although not by much.  While Rhapsody climaxes with a feel-good stadium-rocking Live Aid concert, maintaining the over-the-top “party animal” style of Freddy Mercury, Rocketman is a more somber psychological study of a shattered psyche, insightfully epitomized in the therapy scene towards the end when the adult Elton John faces his little-boy wounded self in the same Hell Boy costume from the opening scene.  Coming full circle with who he now is, in the redemption he finally achieves, is the true end of this film. Rocketmanwould have been more inventive, adhering to the tone of the drama with such a final scene instead of trailing off to a triumphant burlesque song-and-dance routine at the end.

Dozens of lesser films fail to sustain a dramatic arc from assemblages of disparate hits, but Rocketman soars through both darkness and light in most of the second half .  The  electrifying Taron Egerton gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the gifted, complicated Elton John.  He immerses himself in the role and that is the major reason to see Rocketman.

Go see this movie –a universal story about redemption and survival, an underdog wrestling with his wounds from childhood, his sexuality, and a need for love.  Taron Egerton’s performance and the music are reasons enough to be entertained.

Note: Currently in theaters.

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3 Replies to “Rocketman –Seeing the Light through the Darkness”

  1. I watched Bohemian R. on HBO. Pretty good but not great. Didn’t see Rocketman because the previews weren’t intriguing. I did like Lady Gaga’s song to Elton at some big event. She had on his glasses and feathers – her singing was great!

    Just saw great film about a young woman, Scottish, who wanted to sing country music. “Wild Rose.” Worth seeing and reviewing.

Victoria and Abdul (2017)–An Imperial Friendship

Victoria & Abdul

In Victoria and Abdul the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria (the majestic Judi Dench) is about to be celebrated in all its pomp and circumstance.  The year is 1887 and Queen Victoria is  sixty-eight years old. An honorary gold coin– a Mohur– has been minted as a token of appreciation from British-ruled India recognizing Victoria as the Empress of India.   Two Indians are conscripted to deliver the Mohur: Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar).   

The early comedic scenes tease with the warm-hearted, kind and generous nature of an elderly queen with her young, handsome Indian clerk.. She  is surprised to find that his company and his cultural differences are a refreshing respite from the hypocrisy of her retinue.

Victoria questions the role she is expected to play as the head of the Indian subcontinent, and as their unlikely friendship deepens, she becomes aware of the cultural richness of India and her ignorance of the country she reigns over.  Devoted to learning Urdu and the philosophy of the Qur’an, and writing in its script, the Queen regains her enjoyment of life in her old age, at the same time soon evoking jealousy and suspicion among members of the Royal Household. Her inner circle–particularly her ne’er-do-well eldest son Bertie (a remarkable Eddie Izzard), who has no affection for her,– wish to ultimately destroy Victoria and Abdul’s friendship or even the Queen herself.  Bertie,  who will become Edward VII upon her death, bemoans that she has lived so long. 

Abdul’s  swift rise to high status, including honorary memberhip in the Royal Household, immediately rankles her son, and other members of court, since royals and British in general never mingle socially with Indians except those who were royalty themselves.  For an Indian to be put very nearly on a level with the queen’s white servants was all but intolerable.   To eat at the same table as the aristocrats and  to share in their daily lives was viewed as an outrage. Racism was intolerable for the Queen, and her “dear good Munshi”–Victoria’s Urdu title of  “advisor” for Abdul– signaled Abdul was deserving of the utmost respect as her trusted confidante.  For  the final fourteen years of her reign, Queen Victoria continued to have an extraordinary friendship with Abdul, in spite of conspiracies and plots to undermine her maternal affection.

In the climax of Victoria and Abdul,  the Queen, despite her advisors’ prejudice and outright lies, insists they  welcome Abdul into their midst.  She gives an extremely moving “insanity” speech  which is  a masterpiece of acting. It serves  as a memorable meditation on her life in her twilight years.

Queen Victoria  is a role made for Judi Dench, who epitomizes both the loneliness and tiresome burden of a monarch ruling for over six decades. Learning a new language, a new religion, and a new role as the mother of a son she always wanted is typecast for Dench,. She plays weary and obstinate with equal believability and effectiveness.  In one poignant moment of dialogue, Victoria announces joyously that she has fallen back in love with life as she fights off  the inevitable “banquet of eternity” (mortality).

And Ali Fazal holds his own opposite Judi Dench in a compassionate, complicated role as the Munshi.  He exudes a purity, warmth, and compassion that seems well-balanced, not obsequious or fawning, towards the most powerful ruler in the world.

 Highly recommended.

Note:   Following Victoria’s death at the age of 82 in 1901, her son and successor, Edward VII, returned Abdul to India and ordered the confiscation and destruction of his correspondence with Victoria. Abdul subsequently lived quietly near Agra, on the estate that Victoria had arranged for him, until his death at the age of 46 in 1909.  The relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul remained  little-known until the discovery of Abdul’s journals a century later.

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4 Replies to “Victoria and Abdul (2017)–An Imperial Friendship”

  1. I, too, loved this depiction of Queen Victoria and her advisor, Abdul.

    If one recalls the movie “Mrs. Brown,” Judi Dench plays Queen Victoria as a recent widow in which she accepts the companionship of her late husband’s servant, John Brown.

    So, “Victoria and Abdul” is a reprisal for Dame Dench as Queen Victoria with a new male companion with the same kind of gossip that she has had to endure before and after her beloved Albert.

    Both movies are delightful, insightful and a little historical, especially if you are a Dame Judi Dench fan.

Chernobyl–An Ignominious Reaction

Chernobyl HBO miniseries

          Chernobyl  is an HBO historical drama  miniseries depicting the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the unprecedented coverup that followed. The  flawed reactor design operated by inadequately trained technicians is jaw-clenching and chilling.  That lack of transparency and flagrant disregard for human life depicts greed, lack of moral integrity, and political corruption.  Chernobyl is a cautionary tale for today’s political climate.

A  tour de force of unprecedented tragedy, Chernobyl is a masterpiece showcasing Russian heroes who have been unknown or forgotten by history.   In some ways, Chernobyl is a horror movie of the bio-disaster kind: the dramatization of that fateful morning when thousands of residents experienced the horror of intense radiation without any warning by the bureaucrats who knew or should have known what was at stake.  More than three decades later, the disaster remains haunting The creeping dread of  the suffering endured is portrayed starkly and brutally. A grim understatement of what can go terribly wrong at any moment, the viewer witnesses  the heroes who bear testimony to the unspeakable errors of human operators ordered to cut corners, threatening public safety. 

Chernobyl is difficult to watch.

Recreating this small city in 1980’s Ukraine, Chernobyl‘s producers carefully evoke the clothes, nuclear facility, hospitals, and  residential life in grim grey light, foreshadowing probably the worst nuclear accident in history.

“We seal off the city,” Zharkov–the manager of the nuclear reactor,– tells everyone in the plant. “No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor.”

The Soviet system of propaganda and corruption existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with lies, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.

But, unlike Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis, Chernobyl  is not only about nuclear-plant safety. Chernobyl is about a coverup of the worst kind: the most egregious arrogance and indifference to suffering  by a bureaucratic brotherhood  pledged to  secrecy.  Consequently, information was  shared only among a narrow elite obsessed with their own interests and survival.

Note:   The former Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant area won’t be safe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years.  Ukrainians are being reminded of the consequences of Chernobyl by a government that has slashed health benefits for the men who heroically fought to contain the Chernobyl disaster, instead reserving funds to develop Chernobyl as a tourist attraction.  For deeper research into the Chernobyl disaster, listen to the podcast, “Uncovering the Story of Chernobyl” on NPR: https://www.npr.org/2019/07/02/738019227/uncovering-the-story-of-chernobyl

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2 Replies to “Chernobyl–An Ignominious Reaction”

  1. Good review for what sounds like should be compulsatory viewing for all especially the millenials. Our young who depend on social media for info and facts without the least understanding of History and facts. They follow those who yell the loudest and do revionishst history. Too bad its on HBO that I don’t get. Maybe Netflix or Amazon will pick it up down the road.