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.

American Factory; Teeter Totter

I actually had to google teeter totter just now having not used the word in so long. In fact, I miss teeter totters and should go find one. Of course, I’d have to find a partner, not the bully types who back in grade school bumped you up too high and too fast where you feared you’d be read about in a newspaper article, like those tragic car accidents where someone gets ejected from a vehicle.

But I digress, instead of talking about American playground apparatuses (which I will make an analogy of, promise), I should be talking about ‘American Factory’ directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar. Reichert is known as the ‘godmother of the American independent film’ and has been nominated for Oscars, most recently for Seeing Red (1983).

In American Factory, a Chinese billionaire buys a failed GM Plant and turns it into a Chinese factory for automotive glass. Fair enough right? No, say wrong, or wong to use a bad politically incorrect pun.

This documentary shows both sides, hence, the teeter totter and if you’re objective like me, you’ll be seeing the middle; the sometimes beautiful friendships between Americans and Chinese, the ‘at least we have jobs’ gratitude of the down and out Daytonites (Dayton, Ohio), the horrific conditions of workers in China which has slowly bled back into American culture. As one of the pro union supporters seconds in the doc, and I paraphrase, ‘didn’t we already fight these battles and win? Why are we sliding backwards? A la Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire as well as many more…

The film does inspire a person to want to discover new human jobs as the last footnote explains that over 375,000 human jobs will be replaced in the next ten years. This is a crisis in my opinion, as people need to be productive to feel self-esteem (is that a clue to the gun violence and suicide rate increase?). I’d like to see a 2020 political candidate address this concern or any person of means, including Mr. and Mrs. Obama. You want the stories told and are willing to fund them, but how about HELPING TO FIND A SOLUTION!

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.

Mid film screenwriting is: Blinded By The Light

“Blinded By the Light” written and directed by Gurinder Chandha, most famous for “Bend it Like Beckham”, could have been an award contender, but some silly elf must have helped co-write the middle sections of the film.

The movie premise and last twenty minutes were profound, yet a segment of the middle reminded me of a lesser Beatles “Help” or goofy B level Monkees episode*.

[Reviewus Interruptus Special Bulletin:
*Podcast listening addendum: Having a podcast now with my friend and super movie guru Gus Mollasis, I listen to other film podcasts to get ideas on programming, etc. One must listen to podcast I’ve discovered as a result is The Big Picture, available on Itunes.

I bring this up as after I had written this fresh out of the theater review, I listened to Sean Fennessey interview the director of Blinded by the Light, mentioned in paragraph one-Gurinder Chandra. Here’s where I say mea culpa in the tone, as Sean so delicately said, ‘the cascade’ of tones, the odd whimsical, what I called silliness mid-film. Gurinder helped teach me that living the Muslim/Indian/Easterner in London experience meant that you could be mocked or abused in the morning and by mid-day, laughing and joking about it with friends. While this sounds cavalier to us sensitives Americans, her mindset is not making light of the racial tension, but a zen way of living life. she certainly concluded the interview by saying she will not allow the racists to win, yet her viewpoint of (my paraphrase) ‘don’t let the bastards get you down’ is something we can all embrace and be better for.]

Now back to our regular scheduled review:)

The acting was terrific, the main character, Viveik Kalra as Javed, was spot on as beaten down Paki, word nerd and hero worshiper. Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra were more believable parents BY A LONG SHOT than the two written for Bohemian Rhapsody. Aaron Phagura is also good as Javed’s best friend. A super thrill for me was seeing Rob Brydon pop up in a scene, one of my favorite guys of all time (from his role as Steve Coogan’s buddy in The Trip) as an older Bruce fan who bonds with Javed.

Bruce Springsteen’s music plays a pivotal role which was fine, yet here’s where I think the screenwriter’s went awry. If you want to play Born to Run in total, ok, but find something evocative to do rather than a frivolous dance and running montage(my aforementioned “Help” comparison).

The film sticks the landing in the end and also does a nice job weaving in 80’s socio-political history. Again, had the middle of the film been more even and meaningful, we would have had an award competitor.

Blinded By the Light is still worth seeing, just tone down your expectations and you’ll be fine. That said, it kicks “Yesterday”‘s caboose any day of the week both in impact, story AND acting.

Mike Wallace is Here: A Convergence of Ideas

I’m having a convergence of ideas culminating in a life changing philosophy. Contributors are: Martha Gellhorn’s Lettters as detailed in an October 2019 release book by Janet Somerville, a song by The Wood Brothers “Postcards From Hell”, a 2014 commencement address by Jim Carrey and last, but certainly not least, the documentary “Mike Wallace is Here” directed by Avi Belkin.

I’ll focus on the documentary first since that’s why you stopped by. (Smiley face) I’ve seen my share of biographical docs this year; Maria Callas, Pavarotti, Dr. Ruth, Leonard Cohen and have to say that “Mike Wallace is Here” and Ask Dr. Ruth rise far above the others. Reason being they both show people totally engrossed by their passion; Ruth’s to inform and dis-inhibit the populace about sex and Mike to search for the journalistic truth.

The others, while obviously covering the person du jour’s passion, didn’t capture the essential character. Sure we see Leonard’s ‘sides’, but do we fully understand his drug and sex fueled middle years. Or perhaps Cohen, Pavarotti, Callas either changed more throughout life or are simply too elusive or diluted to understand. In comparison, “Mike Wallace is Here” is more accolade worthy.

We see Wallace, far ahead of his time as one of the first reporters to ask the tough and real questions. Let go as a result of these being too shocking for conservative times, Wallace made money where he could, as ad spokesman, sometimes actor and game show host. He bided his time and eventually met Don Hewitt with who their synchronicity in search of the truth led them to make 60 Minutes into a must watch weekly television show. I’ll let you view the doc to get the rest of the story, but suffice to say, if we all searched for truth the way Wallace did, we’d be a better society. One last rationale is that Wallace didn’t need to demean or attack, he simply had to ask pointed questions. The KKK leader he interviewed in full garb doesn’t need to be put down, his ridiculousness and utter weakness is on full display simply by him speaking ignorant racial views. Truth, if you allow it, will always rise to the top. Shouting it down only serves to keep evil lurking in the shadows.

Back to my epiphany, I continue to love being 55. The epiphany that’s come from an amalgamation of music, literature and film is that I am slowly breaking free of inhibitions which for a near professional worry wart is a feat and a half. “Mike Wallace is Here” helped to strengthen that, ‘be who you want to be and f%$# everyone else’s opinions’, which also demands avoiding toxic people.

My favorite physical fitness hobby speaks to that notion, so it’s high time my mental health followed suit. Long distance runner means running at my own pace, at the time that works for me. It’s now time to run the rest of my life in that order. Enough guilt and paranoia about what I may have done wrong or ‘why doesn’t so and so like me? And more, ‘well? sucks to be you if you don’t respond or if your cockeyed response speaks to some dysfunction that blocks caring and supporting a fellow human’.

So thank you Avi Belkin, for adding another layer of shellac on my ever increasing shine.

How Many True Loves Fit into One Lifetime? Marianne & Leonard

Despite some luke warm reviews, I chose “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” today over the much lauded “Maiden”. Why you ask? My rapturous viewing of last year’s Nick Broomfield documentary masterpiece, “Whitney: Can I Be Me?”. Don’t get me wrong, Whitney Houston’s music is close to my core, whereas Cohen’s singing seems, dare I say it, close to Robert Goulet. But because Broomfield’s a solid director, I placed my bet on him for an afternoon.

And I’m so happy with my choice! Broomfield proves once again, his uncanny ability to show a warts and all life story, yet portray the focal humans as sympathetic and redeemable.

While I don’t read full reviews before I see a film, I had caught a glimpse of one critic’s complaint that said the film was one sided. I’ll look back to see who that foolish person was, but this was anything but one sided. We saw Cohen in all his Tiger Woodsesque whoring years, we see Marianne Ihlen as both maternal friend and yet ironically neglectful mother. Not one sided in any way shape or form. You see Cohen as he moves through years of acid dropping tripster to Buddhist temple dweller. Rich and poor, Cohen was a multidimensional artist.

What intrigues me is how fickle our culture is, treating men like Cohen with kid gloves, but ripping to shreds other men who ‘like the ladies’. I’m shocked that Cohen was never hit with a “Me, Too” moment, but perhaps his death in 2016 happened before the tidal wave, or more likely, he had a Mick Jaggar mystique which hypnotized women into consensual sex 100% of the time and 0% ever felt exploited.

As far as his love for Marianne there is no question that he loved her. When you look back at your life, especially if you’re past the half-time show as I am, you realize not many pairs can withstand years apart and still keep in touch in a loving and reverential manner. Those couples who can and do are truly special. I am grateful that I have one ex-husband who touches base now and then honoring what we had (and because of this still have, like the Faulkner line, “the past is never dead, it’s not even past”), and I’m also fortunate to be loved by a current very dear friend with whom who I still hang out. I wish there were three more actually (JB, JE, and RA) who let emotional pain, emotional restriction and/or pride get in the way of at least an annual (or even once or twice a decade) phone call or letter honoring wonderful memories. Does that mean they weren’t true loves? Gee, I hope not. They certainly still mean something to me, all in a very individual and deeply moving way.

At any rate, the documentary “Marianne & Leonard” has enough peaks and valleys to keep you going. The depth of Leonard’s love for Marianne is indisputable even when the narrative seems uneven in their crooked line relationship, but that’s just the point. While his celebrity got in the way of his fidelity, the doc’s harmonious finale induced many sniffles in a sold out showing at Burns Court Cinema. Bravo Mr. Broomfield and Bravo Burns Court!

Innovative, but Obscure: “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

It’s no surprise that “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is garnering rave reviews. The film speaks to pertinent societal concerns, race relations both inter and intra, gentrification, environmental ruin and the breakdown of the American family. And it’s also adventurously shot, with wide pan outs of skate boarders on San Fran’s famous topography, slow motion shots, poignant close ups, and simplistic but uber creative costuming and set design.

As it should be since “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is based on Jimmie Fails life story written by Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot (who also directed).

The performances were drop dead gorgeous, Jimmie Fails was terrific, and equally if not slightly more so, Jonathan Majors who plays his friend Montgomery. There wasn’t one character that seemed miscast and Danny Glover who concerned me as potentially being a cliche in the trailer, was authentically perfect.

This is the second night in a row I’ve been awash in positive male friendships (Tarantino’s epic the previous) and I couldn’t be more thrilled. With all the toxic masculinity talk, it’s refreshing to remember, that not all males are creeps.

Part of the problem with this film might be solved with a second viewing as I thought in the beginning a character mentioned the year in which this was set (very futuristic) as a man in a haz-mat suit gingerly picks up waste with a pincher, while a little African-American girl skips uncovered. Yet, further on in the film, waste workers were not covered. The ending, unless its totally symbolic, is also a mystery, as there was no foreshadowing to its content.

I also can’t stop myself from saying that two African American films from last year were respectively better artistically, more solid story-wise, and more subversive than The Last Black Man, namely “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Sorry to Bother You”. That doesn’t mean we should be done, just that The Last Black Man did not outshine its former like minded films. Equal, but not greater than as the old math phrase goes.

That being said, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a great film very worth watching.

That’s not thunder, it’s Hitchcock applauding: Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s penultimate movie to date; finally a substantive story over ridiculous violence. Granted, he packs the latter in at the ending, but Miss Violent Images No Mas hid merrily behind a sweatshirt. And when I’ve been entranced by beautifully portrayed good guys cleaning the clocks of well written villains, I can handle hearing the audio carnage.

Brad Pitt, hands down should get an Oscar. Stick him into Best Supporting though, otherwise, Tom Hanks will run him down like Droopy Dog on the train tracks as Fred Rogers in the Thanksgiving opening biopic.

And while Leonardo was also incredible, he’s had his moment in his best role in The Revenant.

The movie harkens back to such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in that it’s the love story of friendship between Brad and Leo. Woven in are subplots of Leo’s fading acting career, Pitt’s dark past, and of course an homage to Sharon Tate, and her horrible fate at the hands of Charlie Manson’s minions.

As for the women in the film, most are simply eye candy, Margot Robbie the most prominent. Yet painting her as a saint is primo in great storytelling and the nausea it evokes in a movie audience who knows her real fate. However, two standouts, who spun gold out of small parts, were Julia Butters and Margaret Qualley, child actress and Andie McDowell’s daughter respectively.

One other male making a strong presence was Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, in one of my favorite scenes in the film.

The sound in the movie also deserves an award, from the AM/FM radio 1969 stations, to the television shows, were all perfectly unique. As was the editing.

My only tiny complaint was probably in one of Leo’s western acting scenes, where I challenge Richard Roeper who chastised Her Smell as bloated, but praised this as perfect. I think the aforementioned scene and possibly a bit of Brad Pitt’s driving fast, could have excised.

But that’s nothing compared to the absolute joy and heart in this movie. I’ll see it again for sure!

Alex Ross Perry Deserves More Love: Her Smell

In Stephanie Goodman’s New York Times “The Best Films of 2019 (So Far)”, she compiled among others, AO Scott’s pick “Her Smell” written and directed by Alex Ross Perry.

Having loved Elisabeth Moss in “The Square”, I was up for the scent (get it, her smell). Adding to my enthusiasm was my previous shock and thrill (respectively) by previous Alex Ross Perry projects “The Color Wheel” and “Listen Up Philip” (see previous blogs).

And voila`! “Her Smell” solidifies Perry’s significance in artistic and powerful cinematic story telling. In fact, Perry deserves more attention and love!

“Her Smell” is precisely organized into five long scenes each with an equally different, but engaging impact. The ensemble of actors was perfect (save one). First, the acting super stars: no hyperbole, Moss deserves an Oscar nom making Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash work look like a walk in the park. The other ladies of Moss’s punk rock band were also stellar: Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin both superbly raw.

To Eric Stoltz’s agent I’d like to say, ‘You’re fired! This man should not be languishing in lame tv shows!’ He was tremendous as the ‘pull my hair out’ band manager. Dan Stevens was terrific as Moss’s husband and in one of my favorite scenes (part 4 in a face to face with Moss).

The only wrong note or to go with the scent analogy, who stunk, was fakey fake fake Amber Heard who’s permanent shit eating grin simply should be the quintessential poster she-devil on a Hitchcock billboard that screams: Revenge is sweet and not fattening. Heard looks like she’s going to a Halloween party in every scene. But then again, maybe we needed the off key just appreciate all the perfect notes.

Unfortunately for whatever b.s. mass media rules, you can see Captain Underpants on the big screen, but for this quality gem, you have to view it at home. At least it’s available on Itunes!

Dear Riley Stearns, Please Hire Me: The Art of Self-Defense

After listening to a Riley Stearns interview, the writer and director of “The Art of Self-Defense” talk about his favorite comedies, one obscure one that’s also on my list of greats (Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”), I skipped and frolicked to see his film last night at Hollywood 11. Dead pan humor is my cup of tea.

And the beginning held such promise with my laughing out-loud in the first five minutes. And then? And then? And then? (an allusion to another fun comedy “Dude Where’s My Car?”‘s drive thru scene)….Crash. Awkward Record Scratch. Extreme Violence.

Hence, Mr. Stearns with all due respect, you could have substituted three out of the seven graphically violent scenes with your equally smart dialogue by employing me as your script doctor:

1. Casey has a tryst with the grocery clerk who comes on to him after his ‘yellow’ shopping spree. She’s getting off work just as the pick up truck dude accosts him and takes him to her apartment where she seduces him. Casey thinks he’s found a warm genuine girl who comforts him ater the mean pick up car driver, but for comedic purposes, once back at her abode, she’s suddenly an s & m freak. He hides in her bathroom before the actual act, but then faces his fear in the mirror, has a mini recovery to go back out and have a great experience. When he wakes up the next day at her place, he’s alone, a note on the pillow giving him a 2 star lover rating, but that’s there’s potential. He notices now that her apartment’s filled with paintings she’s done. They could even be Klimt paintings to follow your German thread. Casey learns how to paint (poorly, like his karate skills) and tries to present a painting to Sensei who tells him his paintings need to be angrier. Sensei could say: “Casey, the belts were a masculine touch, but paintings, ugh, too feminine, unless of course your Rothko.”

2. In awe of Casey’s transition from Milquetoast to Iron Man, the three macho dudes from Casey’s work place break room try karate, and after one gets pummeled (gently for God’s sake) by Anna, they run home like babies.

3. Add a comic back story to Casey’s wimpiness, a domineering or overly religious mother who shamed him into introversion, who comes in at the end in admiration of Casey’s rise to child karate teacher.

The acting in this movie was perfection: no one but Jesse Eisenberg could have played Casey, Alessandro Nivola was perfection as Sensei and Imogen Poots was terrific as Anna. Again, that’s what makes the reliance on ignorant excessive violence such a shame.

The Act of Self-Defense is worth seeing, especially if you’re a lover of violence. But a better, smarter film could have been made if substantive comedy had been written, instead of gore.