Promise: No Spoilers, “Joker”‘s Wild

(Public Service Announcement: DO NOT TAKE ANYONE UNDER 17 TO THIS!)

Joker, directed and co-written by Todd Phillips is worth seeing. I don’t usually see super dark films since I’m sensitive to violence, a hide-behind-my-sweater-type, as well as a staunch believer that what we ingest visually has the psychological nutrition equivalent of gorging on a deep dried bologna sandwich with a side of deep fried Twinkie. But considering Mr. Phillips’ previous films were mostly comedy; (Old School, Hangover) AND given that his co-writer, Scott Silver, wrote one of my favorite movies of all time, The Fighter, I took a chance.

As a huge Joaquin Phoenix fan, my two favorite Phoenix performances being “Two Lovers” and “The Master”; I knew the performance would be breathtaking and indeed it was. With ribs protruding from his skinny physique, Joaquin giggles maniacally and dances like a mixture of Fred Astaire meets Justin Timberlake. His poignant performance gives us a slightly similar feeling to the closure of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, emphasis on slightly.

No plot spoilers, but the cinematography in Joker’s dancing scenes, in the public bathroom and on the super tall ascension of outdoor stairs, are mesmerizing. Likewise the multiple subway scenes, both quietly eerie and violently chaotic have a deep impact. I’d like to think that Phillips and Silver wanted to wake our distracted ignorant technology fixated society in one of the most impressionable scenes where a wall of tv screens shout their competing cacophony drowning out human suffering.

A topnotch soundtrack added to the film’s hip milieu: Smile
(Jimmy Durante) written by the great Charlie Chaplin (who gets his own cameo shown on the big screen in one scene), Laughing (The Guess Who), and White Room (Cream) to name a few. My favorite, That’s Life (Frank Sinatra), is used in a Johnny Carson-like late night show (hosted here by Robert DeNiro) that Joker watches religiously, added to the mad mix of emotions I felt leaving the theater. I got in my Uber with that other worldly feeling great movies give you, even if it wasn’t the happy face the Joker’s mom always told him to wear.

As I rode along in the dark, listening to NPR News detail separate stories that President Trump wants Biden and his son investigated since their new business made millions and yet Biden raised ‘only’ 1.5 million far below Elizabeth Warren 4 million….I couldn’t help feel like our political system has become surreal; coincidentally a core foundation of Joker the film, that the fat cat Governor of Gotham, doesn’t truly care about us average Joe’s, I mean, Jokers. The solution isn’t violence, but positive, loving changes to our mental health system AND restrictions on guns meant for warfare.

Tel Aviv on Fire: Firing on All Cylinders

‘Tel Aviv on Fire’, directed by Sameh Zoabi, winner of Best World Cinema at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival, provides what movies are made for: the tonic and affability to temporarily assuage real life troubles.

Yet due to Sameh Zoabi and co-writer Dan Kleinman’s complex web of conflicts and sharp dialogue, Tel Aviv on Fire is also an astute person’s film even if romantic comedy is the overarching motif. Savvy audience members will appreciate the movie’s other premises; real love as defined by two people who attentively listen and the question of whether art’s purpose should be to reflect or direct sociopolitical culture.

Individual testimonials would be the true test on the latter question, probably studied by social scientists, but I wonder if mass media, such as Norman Lear’s hit television show All in the Family, a reflection of American’s biased ignorance, actually influenced people to be better, less racist, human beings.

In the case of Tel Aviv on Fire, the argument becomes whether it is naive to think a soap opera could heal or at least ameliorate the centuries old Israeli conflict. Few American rom coms take on such heady issues, yet Seth Rogen’s “Long Shot” this year did in its attempt to convince us that Republican or Democrat, we are all humans searching for love and acceptance. Let’s hope we can keep that in mind as we head into 2020.

The lead actors are all outstanding: a very charming Kais Nashif as the aspiring unfocused writer who eventually reaches out for help with the soap opera’s story within a story.

To the same degree, his girlfriend, portrayed by Maisa Abd Elhhadi, is a competent, not to mention gorgeous, actress as the ambivalent object of Kais’s affection. In the third and fourth layers of conflict, Lubna Azabel is terrific as the fussy t.v actress, and Yaniv Britonover just as good as the check point captain in Kais’s daily life, who becomes the overinvolved director in the serial’s screenwriting as he aims for more adoration from his wife.

So here here for Tel Aviv on Fire, a gift for sapiosexuals who prefer intellectual word play with their flirtation.

Everybody Knows Farhadi’s a Master at Moral Dilemma

I’ve loved every Asghar Farhadi film, specifically four to be exact: About Elly, A Separation (Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Film), The Past, and The Salesman (Academy Award Winner!). Each as hauntingly memorable in its own right, that try as I might, I can’t choose one that is notably better, they’re all fine films. Feel free to search for my past reviews of those gems by plugging in Asgahr’s name in the search engine.

Signature to Iranian director Farhadi’s style is the moral dilemma. In his newest film Everybody Knows playing at Burns Court, this is no exception. Secrets are revealed that bind people together, in this case the ever gorgeous Penelope Cruz and her real life husband Javier Bardem. Without giving spoilers away, you often hear true life stories where teenage love haunts us well into adulthood. While Cruz and Bardem are not married in the film, Farhadi’s choice of pinning them as star crossed unrequited lovers is a work of genius.

Javier Bardem, in fact, is the Atlas of the film, doing the mountain share of nuanced inner struggle and portraying this beautifully on screen. His exasperation in his line to friend Fernando, “Oh don’ don’t f*** with me Fernando,” is gut wrenchingly real.

Set in Madrid, Farhadi also takes his time in establishing the passionate culture, the duty to family, the wild celebrations. His layering of difficulties, wanton teenage behavior, rain storms and power outages, never seem cliche. His ending as with all his films is a non-ending, meaning there are more moral dilemmas that ripple like a rock thrown in a stream that grant further discussion once you leave the theater.

While not his most superior film, Farhadi’s Everybody Knows is worth seeing and with any smarts other writers and directors will pair Cruz and Bardem together again.

Shoplifters (a Foreign Film up for Best Oscar) Will Steal Your Heart

If Shoplifters directed by Hirokazu Koreeda does not bring you to tears, can you call me? Because I’ll bet if you’re not moved, the next time you check the box “I’m Not a Robot”, you’ll be discovered for your cold internal wires.

I’m not saying Shoplifters is perfect (editing definitely was an issue), HOWEVER, seeing this make shift family navigate the sometimes brutally cold Japan (both in temperature and social/economic climate) and sweltering (you’ll see pitted sweat shirts and sweaty post coital nudity) will make your heart ache.

It’s about who really is your family, how titles such as biological mom and dad are not always accurate or healthy. Best of all, you’ll feel for this family and forgive them their trespasses.

Shoplifting doesn’t look so bad when loving human bonds and play bring joy. Lily Franky is a genius as the loving but wayward father as is Sakura Ando as his romantic (and the children’s maternal) counter part.

In preparation for my Oscars guest role on Gus Mollasis’s At the Movies Facebook Live show (airing tonight at 630 pm EST 2/21/19), I decided to count the poignant beats in my favorite movie of the year (tune in to find out which one it was that scored 7). In Shoplifters, I’ll list the same:

1. Lily Frank’s sweet “we’re connected here (heart) not just here (crotch)”
2. the subtle nuanced love making scene and shower scene
3. the beach scene (“grandma telling her she’s turned out to be beautiful)
4. women’s fitting room scene
5. sex trade woman hugging the mute customer, sharing self-abuse stories
6. Lily Frank and his ‘son’ played so well by child actor Jyo Kari in the ocean and at the movie’s end

Just a fantastic film that you need to have patience wading in slowly, but you’ll come out awash in emotion and tenderness….if you’re really not a robot (smiley face). American film makers should start taking notes!

“The Square”, Way Outside the Box

There were many reasons to escape into the cinema today; 11 hours (in two days) of intense retail work (100% friendly customers though), wide angle steer clear of some who haven’t found their zen, and an ice cold message from a former college sweetheart. Need I go on?

I was even willing to go solo to “The Square” knowing how much I loved the director’s (Ruben Ostlund) previous film “Force Majeure” which was nominated for a Golden Globe back in 2015. But to the companionship rescue galloped my friend Dave, who went way outside his box by attending a foreign film of considerable length, 2:22.

And just like Mikey in the old Life commercials, he liked it! And so did I….but….

Ok positives first:
Tremendous screen writing*. This film had that verisimilitude that the phrase “you can’t make this sh*& up” implies. I won’t give away any of the ‘what the bleep just happened’ moments, but three stand out specifically to me.

The acting was top notch: Claes Bang, who rarely leaves the screen, was totally believable as the museum director who slides down the slippery slope of megalomaniac justice seeker. Elisabeth Moss’s character is if the Handmaid (she’s in the Margaret Atwood novel inspired tv series) got revenge by going off the deep end.

Cinematography, again, gorgeous, from the sex scenes to the art work, to the spiral staircases that symbolically end in a square, just fabulous.

And if the *one wild loose end that isn’t tied up is a message that we care more about the impact of fictional work then we do human reality, then let’s give this movie the Academy Award. Though Ruben should really have a flyer ready to explain that to people on their way out.

My only gripe (besides the obscurity of the aforementioned) was the last 15 minutes. If Ruben had ended it at the press conference, hand the Oscar over right now. But to go on and on meandering to a cheerleader’s competition and then a near miss at a dumb ass parent move (never leave your kids in a car in a strange place) which negates character development (like hello, wasn’t that what got you in the mess to begin with?) was a disappointment. Like a Fuji apple I have thoroughly enjoyed only to find a rotten spot on the last bite, that’s “The Square”.

But all is forgiven. One last bite can’t spoil the wonderful surprises, much needed escape, and calm company this experience supplied. Go see this.

Now I Get the Hyperbole: L’Iceberg

Ok, last week I saw Lost in Paris and was unimpressed. Yet I now see this as a Woody Allen analogy after seeing Abel’s earlier film L’Iceberg which was a knockout. So, it’s like seeing Woody Allen’s Match Point and going, ‘what’s the big deal about this guy?” and then seeing “Anne Hall”.

L’Iceberg was from 2005 and is the perfect suburban-neglected-wife-and mother-who-runs-away story. While watching this fun film over the course of two nights (I work a lot), I was also reading Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman. Coincidentally, both the film and book had intriguing sub-plots that kept you involved. In the movie L’Iceberg, the story is bookended by a Inuktitut woman explaining how she met her husband. In Horse Walks Into a Bar, while we watch the stand up comic from the childhood friend’s POV, we are also cognizant of the fact that the friend has lost his wife.

Like Lost in Paris, Dominque Abel and Fiona Gordon wrote this film. And now I clearly see the Buster Keaton comparison. The physical comedy in L’Iceberg was phenomenal and I watched with mouth open at how Fiona bent her legs and body (without serious injury). The scenes on the sailing boat were entertaining as well, especially since some of the splashes were clearly produced by a bucket of water thrown in the air. And I’d be remiss not to mention Philippe Martz who plays the sailor in L’Iceberg, an entertaining Peter Boyle in Young Frankensteinesque performance. In Lost in Paris, Philippe is underutilized as the neighbor.

Since this is a foreign film, it may be hard to find on some library systems. I was blessed that Selby Library in Sarasota was able to procure it for me. Next up is Rumba, which I am equally excited about.

I implore Dominque Able and Fiona Gordon to keep writing. Woody Allen kept going after Match Point to find better material and success (Blue Jasmine for example). Keep going, aim higher!

Unsupervised Teens, Always Big Trouble “L.I.E.”

Wow, just finished a recommendation for a PPLL, L.I.E. directed by Michael Cuesta. Was surprised I hadn’t heard of this director considering how well written and how artistically directed this film was from ‘way back’ in 2001. And while an Emmy for Homeland is nothing to sneeze at, I would have expected his subsequent films to be accolade worthy.

A sucker for Paul Dano, I will admit seeing him so young was disconcerting, given the unpleasant obstacles facing his teenage character. Sure, the film is 16 years old, but I’ll bypass plot details, not wanting to spoil this for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Suffice to say, Paul Dano’s Long Island existence is basically without any supervision.

Tawdry and damn depressing, the movie is compelling due to the verisimilitude of the characters and actors. Not since the film Little Children 2006 with Jackie Earle Haley have I seen a sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile. And I realize this film was actually a predecessor (in this case Brian Cox) I simply had not seen.

Much like Philip Seymor Hoffman in Scent of a Woman and Ethan Hawke in Dead Poets Society, Paul Dano’s teenage performance was surely prescient of his acting brilliance. So much so, that I can forgive him for Swiss Army Men, which is his only clunker. Love & Mercy, 12 Years a Slave and Youth certify him as a favorite of mine no matter what he chooses to do next (which appears to be a mini series of War and Peace).

I’ve been to Long Island’s* suburbia and always seem to see seedy articles about the area’s violence and crime reported in the New York Times. Sad that this area is a fine setting for such a dysfunctional plot. And yes, I realize I’m saying this ironically, from the king nutville of the U.S., Florida:)
*Long Tsland has beautiful areas as well, obviously. The Hamptons and a gorgeous park (Eisenhower) where I saw Soulive with Martin, Medeski and Wood.

The Lives of Others, a PPLL edition

Following my pattern of occasional pre pension library loan reviews, is this Oscar winner for best foreign film in 2007, The Lives of Others. Both a V.I.P and a P.I.P recommended this film which always makes it a bit tenuous to review.

First a bookend coincidence to the day I watched the film: the morning of, I was listening to WSLR while run/walking the Ringling Bridge. Tuesday mornings on WSLR is a show called Soul School with Troy, where r&b tunes from the past make me smile with bittersweet nostalgia throughout my workout.

One of my many random thoughts while running was if only the most recent San Bernadino shooter had been listening to live Luther Vandross or Prince, perhaps he wouldn’t have committed a violent act, which led to a thought about musical chip brain implants to prevent violence…ok Big Brotherish I realize.

The strange coincidence which occurred the same evening following the film happened when I watched the director’s comments (perhaps one of the longest names I’ve ever typed: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) when he described his inspiration after hearing someone ponder whether listening to Bach could have stopped the Stasi from committing some of their evil acts. Spooky, right?

At any rate, I found The Lives of Others moving, but not better than say a more recent German film nominated for an Academy Award: Toni Erdmann. BUT, I believe this is a gender difference and not a fault of the film. And true confession, I was interrupted a few times in viewing, hence my concentration was not 100%. But to my gender difference point, the end sum of The Lives of Others is that one man saved another, so there’s a subtext of a bromance in this film. This is NOT a criticism, but perhaps the reason the film appealed to two men I know. Likewise, Toni Erdmann had a female centric story, and yet did not involve a woman saving another however, which is probably why I liked it, as I’ve always had more comfort in the friendship of men.

What I did love about the film were the three main actors; Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Muhe (my favorite of the three) and Sebastian Koch, the latter of which I am super excited about his participation in a film version of the musically moving Ann Patchett book, Bel Canto. THAT I will see in a heart beat.

What possibly could have moved the movie from good to great for me also smacks of gender bias; I would have liked more love scenes between Martina and Sebastian’s characters increasing my angst if and when they were torn apart (no spoilers, right? though surely the statue of limitations is up on a film this old). The sex montage scene nor the brief affectionate encounters didn’t provide enough of the intimacy I needed to buy in. Though perhaps this simply reveals a subconscious need which until recently has been a deficit, which in turn makes me very much like the character played by Ulrich Muhe. Who needs Freud?:)

My next PPLL review will be of Mildred Pierce, which is in my current Joan Crawford/Bette Davis fixation ever since liking the FX show Feud, inspired by the iconic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”.

Neruda, Who Knew Ya?

So I go to Neruda after work, thinking my cursory review of Rotten Tomatoes said it had a comedic air. Little did I know, I was in for lightening quick subtitles. Holy Chilean speed read!

Well worth it though and while I did not see “No”, Pablo Larrain’s other famous movie also starring Gael Gracia Bernal (referred to hereafter as GG B), I have always been intrigued by GG B, after seeing him in Y Tu Mama Tambien back in 2001, my mere youth as a filmologist (yeh I made that up).

Ok, so Neruda is a rough biographical foraging of Pablo Neruda’s (poet, political activist) joining the Communist Party in the 1940’s. The movie centers on Neruda’s bombastic nature juxtaposed against the over seriousness of an Inspector Clouseau type character played by GG B.

What I enjoyed most was: a. the pacing of the movie, a taut clip that kept me engaged throughout, b. top notch acting, not only by GGB, but also the actors playing both Neruda and his wife (Luis Gnecco and Mercedes Moran respectively). Neruda is made out to be a Svengali and after selling 250 tickets in a flash to a Stephen King book signing at my store this week, I understand the hypnosis authors have over their adoring fans.

Chilean films always remind me of how uptight Americans are (myself included). We’re shy to dance, to sing, to cry as opposed to the free love and emotional outpouring of our South American counterparts.

I won’t spoil the movie’s end, but enjoyed it thoroughly. According to IMBD, it has already been submitted fr next year’s Oscars. This doesn’t mean it’ll be nominated, and to be honest, I wasn’t awestruck, but the film is worthy of a theater or at home movie rental.

What I learned from incidental research:
Neruda may have died from a North Korean type of poison (not from a noxious facial rub at an airport), but from a ‘doctor’s injection) at the age of 69.
And that the show Mozart in the Jungle of which GG B has won Golden Globes, is based on a book that has been compared with one of my faves Kitchen Confidential (now another book on my ‘to be read’ list).

O’ Captain, Middling Captain: Captain Fantastic

Red Box Rental: While my best buddy was here in Ft. Meyers for the last time until the next yule tide, we rented Captain Fantastic (Oscar nominated Viggo Mortensen), after I pulled my movie snob card and outvoted his Melissa McCarthy as girl scout master coach pick. But before you place the Oscar medallion around my neck (let’s pretend they have one of the statuette), please note that I took a turn to the dark side and went with my friend’s policy of “fast forwarding is perfectly ok”. Meaning, this movie was ok, but not worth relishing every moment.

The most fun takeway, which we look for being cut-ups, were two lines that have now surpassed one of the lame Bourne Identity films “We’ve got a situation.”: “Stick it to the Man” and “Power to the People.”

What was the problem, you say? Well, Viggo Mortensen certainly was good, but his character’s actions sometimes didn’t ring true. I won’t divulge the whats and hows to preserve your experience, but I guess I didn’t buy some of the story aspect. Matt Ross (both writer and director) is no slouch at technique. I felt creeped out by the opening scene and the undercurrent of something terrible about t befall the children.

The kids (Viggo has an excess of them in this film) were also decent, the two stand outs being the oldest son, George Mackay and the brooding middle son who’s the non-conformist to non-conformity, Nicholas Hamilton. The female standout of the film is Kathryn Hahn, who, would someone give this girl a nomination? I mean, talk about being able to do both ends of the spectrum. Here she’s the guarded distraught pc sister-in-law to Viggo, there she’s sticking her tongue in the ear of Jennifer Aniston (Meet the Millers). One last person I’d be remiss not to mention is Frank Langella, who has that John Goodman quality of hitting even the smallest roles right out of the park.

I don’t mean to take away from Viggo, he did have to play a fine line between abuser and strict Dad and gain our sympathy which he did by portraying an almost mythical fatherly archetype. But, if I think it’s best to push the FF button, you know something’s not quite right. But see for yourself.