Joker – DeaconsDen Reaction

JOKER as a film manages to capture the essence of The Joker as a character. Anchored by an amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix, JOKER is a look into a man’s descent to darkness.

Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, a man with issues who lives with and takes care of his sick mother Penny. Arthur works as a clown for hire while suffering from mental health concerns where he takes many different medications. He also has aspirations to become a stand-up comic. From the outset, we are made to sympathize with Arthur’s situation and you do for a time. He’s picked on, he’s ignored, he’s in dire straights. However all of that changes and Arthur begins a transformation that will have lasting consequences for the city of Gotham.

There have been many questions and thoughts about JOKER. One being about its director Todd Phillips. Could the director of THE HANGOVER trilogy handle something so volatile? I would say depending on your read of the film, that could be yes or no. For me it was a yes. The reason going back to my opening line, the way this film is constructed, is similar to that of the Clown Prince of Crime. It’s hard-hitting, it’s chaotic, it’s indecisive. After leaving the theater, I can see this one being discussed for years. The polarization of the film is why I found it a great watch. This isn’t a BATMAN v SUPERMAN type of split, this is something different. And honestly, I love seeing something like this for the comic book movie genre. Even if it was widely disliked, I like that this managed to get released.

The construction of the film is outstanding. Phillips and his team really recreated a decaying urban American city in the 1980s. This isn’t the stylized Gotham of the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films. This is more like the origin of the decline of Gotham seen in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Despite the grimy look, there is a beautiful sheen to the look thanks to gorgeous cinematography by Lawrence Sher (who should get awards consideration).

Then there is the haunting score by Hildur Guonadottir. She brings an underlying note of tragedy to the film. The score is strong, but never intrusive. It doesn’t have a distinct theme for the character like Hans Zimmer or Danny Elfman have in the past. I found that a positive because it really highlights the fact that one of Gotham’s biggest threats came from an ordinary citizen.

Much has been made of the film’s lack of a stance. I felt this was by design since the character of The Joker has no stance. I would not disagree with those whose criticisms see it as shallow and empty, this is true, I however saw it as true to the character. The Joker never commits to anything. Never an ideal, never a purpose except mayhem. Even the use of certain song once Arthur’s transformation is complete feels in line with the character as I can see him doing something like that, just to get the rise out of people. Honestly, the character is empty, which is why his battles with Batman are always intense due to Bruce Wayne’s mission. The Joker’s perspective on the world is always made known by him. To accomplish this. JOKER the film is built entirely on Arthur’s perspective. We descend as he does. You question what you see because you know something isn’t right with Arthur. We don’t get the answers, and I loved that. I love a film intentionally setting itself up for different views. The film is intentionally ambiguous in its leanings which lend credence to the whole “multiple choice” path the character takes when describing his origins. While JOKER definitely feels like a one and done origin, I must say I would love to see a short film, set 10-20 years down the line, that includes a conversation between Phoenix’s Joker and his future nemesis.

JOKER is a fascinating piece of entertainment that I am happy to have taken a moment to experience for myself. Its open ended structure and viewpoints are perfectly aligned with the character it covers. It’s a sad, uncomfortable and when it needs to be, visceral film showing the decline of a man. We may say the movie feels empty, but no matter which side of the fence you fall on the film, you will feel something. Arthur becomes the Joker, and the audience knows definitively that they are not.

Ad Astra – DeaconsDen Reaction

AD ASTRA is the latest in a line of existential, thought provoking science fiction films. It clearly shows its inspirations from movies like, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, SOLARIS and even more recent fare like GRAVITY.

Brad Pitt is Roy McBride. After an accident that is the result of powerful surges that threaten the safety of the earth, McBride is recruited to search for the source of the surges. It is believed that they are the result of experiments performed by his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who disappeared on a mission to search for intelligent life called the Lima Project.

To understand what AD ASTRA is, you need to understand what it is not. This film is slow burning personal odyssey despite the huge stakes presented at the opening. Action sequences are lightly peppered in the film. As these sequences occur, more individuals who are part of the mission Roy has to accomplish are removed resulting in each instance, Roy having to compete the objective on his own. As I mentioned earlier, this is more along the lines of a film like SOLARIS and not STAR TREK.

Brad Pitt gives another great performance in 2019. In AD ASTRA, he portrays Roy as far more reserved and somewhat conflicted about his demeanor and its influence on those around him. Throughout the film, Roy is subjected to psychological evaluations that he must prove he has shed emotion and will accomplish his mission objectives pragmatically and logically. The organization Roy works for SpaceCom what’s all emotion she and Roy has to dig into those emotions so that he can do what needs to be done. In a way, it sort of presents an effort to fight back against the coldness of a film like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. My only issue is that the film brings up questions about the search for life outside of the Earth and it actually answers that question. However, I don’t feel that was needed as the main text of the film was very prominent and that was just a secondary plot device in retrospect.

AD ASTRA begins with a mission to discover life beyond our solar system, yet what it manages is to ask another question. What good does it do to explore outside our space, if we’ve not yet understood ourselves and the reasons why we choose to explore? AD ASTRA reminds us that we have to carry these things with us. There is no future without them.

Rambo: Last Blood – DeaconsDen Reaction

Sylvester Stallone returns to screen as Vietnam veteran John Rambo in the fifth installment of the Rambo series of action films that began in 1982 with the thriller FIRST BLOOD. This is the first film in the franchise since 2008’s RAMBO which was directed by Stallone. This go around, he is directed by Adrian Grunberg with Stallone sharing script duties with Matthew Cirulnick. How does LAST BLOOD fare?

LAST BLOOD involves Rambo traveling to Mexico to rescue his niece from a sex trafficking cartel. From there the story moves to a bloody version of HOME ALONE.

There really isn’t much to discuss about LAST BLOOD. It’s said to be a send off for the character of John Rambo, but this film doesn’t do that at all. It’s a competently made action-revenge thriller but it never felt like it was in the world of Rambo. Even with the often parodied action of FIRST BLOOD PART II and RAMBO III you always managed to remember the man who was harassed in FIRST BLOOD. In this film, the character may be named Rambo and you may have flashbacks to prior films, but this easily could have have a different title and character name without changing a thing. That’s how standard it is. Now I like standard, I love seeing stuff blow up, but I really thought this was going to close the story of the Rambo and it never was that. In all honesty, the 2008 film does a better job of that and it’s not even a swan song.

As far as the action goes, it’s brutal and bloody just like the 2008 film. It definitely showcases the the effect these various weapons have on the human body. That violence is a criticism I slightly disagree with only because it’s something that was already present in a prior film. Another talking point is the portrayal of the Mexican antagonists in the film. Now I’m someone who grew up watching action films with all sort of nationalities used as villains. I’m not saying to ignore it, more so that it’s something I was already familiar with, however in the current sociopolitical climate, it’s something that is to be noted. So for that mileage may vary with the viewer, but I fully understand the apprehension with the choice.

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD is not the send off it claims to be. Despite its pretty cool end credits (which it did not earn) and well staged action, it’s does nothing to close out the story of John Rambo. It’s passable action at best and maybe loathsome at worst depending on the viewer. Would I watch it again? Sure. Yet I’m also sure nothing will ever revisit the broken man from FIRST BLOOD.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” A DeaconsDen Reaction

Director Quentin Tarantino has entertained audiences as well as polarized them since bursting onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs in 1992. His work has mixed and matched a range of genres that show the man’s love for movies and movie history. So how does he fare when he jumps in a time machine and recreate 1969 Hollywood? It is here that Tarantino crafts a historical fairy tale with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” stars Academy Award winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth respectively. Rick is an aging television who starred on the series “Bounty Law” and Cliff is his longtime friend and stunt double. The film focuses on the two men as they navigate the changing landscape of the entertainment industry. Simultaneously, a young actress whose career is on the rise arrives named Sharon Tate, played by Academy Award nominee Margot Robbie. Lastly, in the background creeping its way to the forefront is a cult with a powerful following that may play an integral role in shaping events to come.

My initial reaction to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is that it felt like the nexus of Tarantino’s career. Everything that made the man who he is cinematically, from the dialogue to the references, the music choices and yes even the violence seemed to meld to a perfection where no one of these elements overtook the others. It feels like Tarantino’s most humane and mature film. 1997’s Jackie Brown would also fit into those categories, but part of that I attribute to it being an adaptation. There is a thoughtfulness and dare I say, sweetness that permeates the film. This is due to the strength of the three lead performers and their characters. First let’s look at Rick and Cliff.

The crux of the story is Rick’s path to recapturing his former stardom. He senses his entertainment mortality where he wants an opportunity but isn’t keen on just any opportunity. Once he finally takes on a job, we witness his struggles and insecurities and take joy in once things begin to turn up for him. DiCaprio’s performance is outstanding as a man who is uncertain of his future. Then there is Cliff. Cliff’s present and future are tied to Rick as he is Rick’s gofer and driver. He is a character I’m sure folks will deep dive into in subsequent writings. Cliff also has issue with getting work, but that could be due to the possibility that he may or may not be a criminal who got away with something with nary a consequence. There is an ambiguity that Tarantino plays with Cliff’s character that leaves it up to you. Pitt is so charismatic in the role and presents Cliff where you might or might not actually be able to trust what he says. I love when the interpretation is left to us. As far as Rick and Cliff’s relationship, it is described in the film as more than a brother, but less than a wife. Tarantino presents a very mature friendship between two men where they speak on their highs and lows and there is a level of openness that I don’t believe we are used to in a Tarantino film.

Then there is the third part of this trifecta, Sharon Tate. The story of Sharon Tate is well known as she was tragically murdered by members of the Manson Family in 1969. This has made Sharon a tragic character and at times it takes away from the potential she possessed and would never get to share with the world.

The moment the film was announced along with its subject matter, there was concern over how Tarantino would handle the events on screen. Another issue arose when the question of Margot Robbie’s screen time was brought up. I won’t speak on the handling of the historical events due to spoiler potential, however even though Robbie may not get the screen time as equal to DiCaprio and Pitt, her impact might be the strongest in the entire film. It was one of the most expressive and physical cases of acting I’ve seen. There is a scene about halfway through where we basically spend the day with Sharon while she is out. She spends the day surrounded by people and you know what? It worked. We know what the history is, but I felt Tarantino did something special with Margot Robbie and that was to give Sharon her story back. For the duration of the film, I felt close to Sharon. I felt I got to know her dreams and ambitions and not see her through the lens of infamy. It’s a touching performance. If Rick and Cliff are the fading past, Sharon is the light leading the way for the new generation of superstar.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” instantly made a spot in the top 3 of Quentin Tarantino films for me. It’s a patient and reflective piece. You do not have to be an actor to relate to its themes. Time passes, and things will change for us all, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the end. There is still an opportunity, there is always still time.

Us – DeaconsDen Reaction

“Us” is the second film from director Jordan Peele. After a very successful career in comedy, Peele dropped the mic on his debut film, “Get Out.” That film won Peele his first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and was also nominated for Best Picture. Now will he continue his fantastic directorial start with “Us,” or does he hit a sophomore slump?

“Us” is the story of the Wilson family who is terrorized throughout one night by what appears to be their doppelgängers. The family is led by matriarch Adelaide, portrayed by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. Her husband Gabe is played by Winston Duke, giving us a reunion of two actors from 2018’s “Black Panther.” Their two children, daughter Zora and son Jason are played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex respectively. All four actors give great performances, with Nyong’o in particular showing all emotional ranges with some of the best work of her career.

Peele’s direction continues to amaze with some great shots and keeping things very well paced. I was asked, “will it scare me?” I don’t think it’s a jump scare sort of movie, but with a movie like this it’s all about the atmosphere for me. It’s the situation that’s terrifying. To help highlight the horror is the score by Michael Abels, returning from scoring “Get Out.” Abels operatic orchestral sounds permeate the film with a haunted vibe that really underscores the beauty and horror of the people and their twins.

One question you will ask about “Us” is if Jordan Peele creates another “Get Out?” This film is different animal from its predecessor. With “Get Out,” Peele was making a specific point within the bounds of the horror genre. “Us” can be interpreted multiple ways. I will not speculate so as not to spoil anything, but the end of the film really brings home (at least for me) what sets in motion the events of the film. I’m not one for calling an up and coming filmmaker “the next” anyone because I find it unfair. However, as a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, “Us” really reminds me of his film “The Birds.” In that film birds attack the people with no explanation at all and it’s a masterclass in suspense while offering the viewer to make their own choice on what the events represent. “Us” works in that same regard.

Jordan Peele definitely continues this hot streak with the mind bending “Us.” It’s just as layered as his prior film while allowing us (pun not intended) the opportunity to see how we view it and view ourselves as well. I look forward to getting this on blu-ray for back to back views with “Get Out” and breakdown more of Peele’s commentary on society.

Aquaman – DeaconsDen Reactions

The King of the Seven Seas arrives in his first full fledged motion picture. Aquaman is the sixth film in DC’s cinematic universe, taking place after 2017’s Justice League. Jason Momoa reprises his role as Arthur Curry and what we receive as viewers is a visually ambitious story of a man simply wanting to understand his place amongst his people.

From the jump, Aquaman, probably more than any recent comic book film I’ve seen (at the of this writing, I have not seen Spider-Man: Into the SpiderVerse) embraces the overall feel of a comic book. To me it felt like a silver age story. Really basic, easy to follow. I did not see that as a negative. I know people are familiar with Aquaman, but he is not a character on the level of popularity as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman or even The Flash. I think director James Wan made a smart choice in the way he chose to adapt the character.

Visually, as I mentioned earlier, Aquaman is very much ambitious. I don’t know how else to imagine Atlantis looking like, but I did not expect it to look like that. Atlantis is vibrant and bold yet detailed. It reminds me of the digital world in Tron: Legacy. To me it’s the most visually impressive film since James Cameron’s Avatar. This is further highlighted by Rupert Gregson-Williams score that really gives the feeing if both being underwater and techno driven.

One of the biggest questions about Aquaman might be, how are the performances? Momoa in particular?I felt everyone involved do their best to bring this world to life. Amber Heard bring steely determination to Mera as she knows what she wants for her home, as does swollen Dafoe as Vulko, who trains Arthur as a child and teen. Also we get to see a screen legend in Nicole Kidman get her badass moment and it is certainly badass. The best overall acting I believe belong to Patrick Wilson and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Arthur’s brother Orm and Black Manta respectively. Two of Aquaman’s greatest adversaries and I believe both actors channel different forms of rage that define their characters. I hope there is a sequel and I want both to return.

This bring me to Momoa himself. He’s not a particularly good actor, but more of a strong presence. This works strongly in his favor as some of the material can be a little hammy at times, it works for him because hammy appears to be a strong area for him. However, I feel this works in the context of the film as well. We get multiple flashbacks of young Arthur with Vulko and he asks about his mother and Atlantis. He’s constantly told to be patient and the years pass with no resolution. This makes his attitude and the beginning of Aquaman even in Justice League more understandable. James Wan knows his lead actor doesn’t quite have the chops as his supporting cast, so he simply lets Momoa be Momoa. This isn’t his take on a particular iteration of the character, this is if Jason Momoa has superpowers. For this reason, it works for me.

Aquaman plays like a mashup of 80s sword/sorcery/adventure films. From its plotting, to its style and music. I had a blast from start to finish and I can not wait to go back to Atlantis with Arthur and Mera.

A Simple Favor – DeaconsDen Reaction

This one, took me by surprise. I expected to enjoy A Simple Favor because it seemed like the type of mystery-thriller I’m accustomed to enjoying, but I legitimately loved this and it is the second time a film with Blake Lively has become one of my favorites of the year (the first being The Shallows).

A Simple Favor is directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters) with a script by Jessica Sharzer based on the nice of the same name by Darcey Bell. It stars Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively and Henry Golding.

Stephanie Smothers (Kendrick) is a single mother with a Vlog dedicated to cooking, is investigating the disappearance of her best friend Emily Nelson (Lively). Emily had asked Stephanie to pick up her son after school (the simple favor) and never returned. From there, whatever can happen will happen.

There are quite a few elements that make A Simple Favor a great fun time at the movies. One of these is the perfect casting and chemistry of Kendrick and Lively. Their conversations with each other in the first third of the film is a blast to watch because you have a fusion of Kendrick’s awkward yet adorableness and Lively’s liberated and assertiveness. The combination of the two is undeniably potent.

Now you might be able to telegraph the beats that come along with a film like A Simple Favor and while I feel that is certainly by design, the ride is what you are here for. You basically have a modern Hitchcockian comedy-thriller. When it wants to be funny, it is hilarious. If the film decides to take itself seriously, it absolutely does and you manage to switch gears with it just as easily. Anything you know about a noir film and those tropes and cliches are present but it is not trying to reinvent the wheel. It just wants to have you enjoy the wheel and it certainly entertains. It gets twisted and even slides to the dark side for a moment, but it all works and never felt disjointed.

With all the focus now on major tent pole films, I adore the opportunity to enjoy experiences like this that take something familiar and just manage to give you something new with something old. A Simple Favor is simply fun.