Joker

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Joker is either a senseless, plotless ploy, perfectly embodying its title in the viewer’s experience of the film (the joke’s on you), or it’s an urgent message meant to warn us about the terrifying implications of metaphysical emptiness. Whichever it is hinges on a single line chillingly uttered by Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the mentally ill and disturbed Gotham resident, who claims the name Joker less as an alter ego meant to terrify and more as an apt description of his own miserable existence. About three-fourths into the movie, Fleck tells the talk-show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) right before accompanying him on stage, “I don’t believe in anything.” This single sentence infuses what precedes it with meaning and provides an apt premonition for what will follow. 

I hear statements like these thrown around often in my world, but I have never believed that someone actually means them as much as I believe Arthur Fleck. Because for Arthur these words have transformed his reality, and what we see evolve on screen for two hours is the world one experiences when nothing is at stake. When nothing is real.

We are a value-driven species. We experience, we evaluate, we act. Our actions are chosen based on our values. And our valuations are based on what we believe to be true about our experiences. Arthur is no different than any one of us. He experiences, he evaluates, he acts. But at a specific point in his life, a point with a long history unseen, but a climax which we experience as viewers, the bridge between experience and evaluation breaks down. Without belief in anything, without a firm commitment to, and thus distinction between, reality and falsehood, Arthur’s evaluations are deflated, stripped of meaning, and essentially eliminated. He experiences, he acts. And the result is appalling, plain and simply so. 

In a brilliant way, though, the film enacts this experiment in metaphysical nihilism on its viewer, not only presenting Arthur as an example, but causing the viewer to ask herself what about the film is really happening and what is merely a delusion. One wonders why this is such an uncomfortable experience, as it was indeed for me. It’s because we experience what it’s like to not believe in anything. Our ability to evaluate our experience based on truth and falsehood is eradicated. There are no standards for what is real because we only see the movie through the delusional eyes of Arthur Fleck.

It’s been hard for me to compare this movie to anything else. It follows no formula, no guide, and it has no expectations for itself. I credit this achievement to the near-perfect performance from Phoenix, who disappears before your very eyes, and the uncanny ability of Todd Phillips to contain almost every single scene within the deranged subjective perspective of Fleck’s mind. As a comic-book movie, Joker is especially important, as it subtly critiques the incessant releases of big-budget superhero films, which tend to distract us from our own forms of nihilism. In an ingenious way, Joker, a sensuously bleak and nihilistic film, filled with rare repetitions of mundane moments (like Fleck’s walk through the halls of his apartment), becomes a quiet critique against the excessive materialism and constant consumerism of our own day. For it is these things which hide our own tendencies to not believe in anything at all.

 

Free Solo

“There’s got to be a rope we just can’t see.” – Elijah Weaver

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There is little to like about Alex Honnold. He’s arrogant, he’s somewhat obtuse, and he’s emotionally distant. But he possesses an uncanny ambition, a relentless drive to accomplish the impossible. Undoubtedly the best free solo climber in the world, Alex has dreamed for years of scaling Yosemite’s daunting El Capitan, a 3,000 ft. wall of sheer granite, which in his estimation is the pinnacle of free-soloing achievement. Chronicling the year leading up to his monumental ascent, Free Solo provides a glimpse into the surprisingly tranquil world of Honnold and his starkly minimalistic existence. The film has its share of unforgettable moments throughout that will keep your palms clenched or your jaw ajar, from one especially intriguing episode of Alex receiving an MRI on his brain only to discover that his Amygdala – the part of the brain triggered by fear and stress – doesn’t show normal responsive activity, to the climactic climb itself. The time it takes to finally witness the climb is well worth the wait, and what the film captures during the climb, the interspersed emotionally visceral reactions of the filmmakers – all Honnold’s friends – as they prepare themselves for the worst, makes for a unique film-watching experience.

Filmmaking team Jimmy Chin, a professional climber himself, and wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (see their 2015 film Meru), go to great heights to show the soaring grandeur of El Capitan. In the shots of Alex gliding in a seemingly effortless fashion up the wall’s face, one feels the noble indifference of nature to humankind’s never-ending exploration of its limits. Most importantly, though, Free Solo invites you to meditate on your own mortality. It prompts you to recognize your finitude and to ask yourself what matters most, what you are willing to give up in order to pursue your greatest aspirations. Alex deliberately flirts with death in a way that most of us never will. Nevertheless, his story, his earnest attempt to conquer the unconquerable, is but a mirror into the life of each viewer, as one will leave with a nagging question mark. Am I pursuing what I love in the short time I’ve been given? And if I am doing so, is it at the cost of something, maybe relationships, that will be rendered more important to me in the end? Alex Honnold’s relationship with Sanni McCandless, his likeable and surprisingly supportive girlfriend, provides a window into Alex’s own struggle between these poles. And his insight with regard to these questions becomes clearer at the end, though open to decipher. This film is truly a mountain-top experience, a worthwhile climb indeed.

 

RATING:

Must See Now

Must See in Theaters

Must See, but You Can Wait

Completely Optional

Don’t Watch This Movie

 

OSCAR PREDICTIONS (NOMINATIONS, NOT WINS):

This one is obvious…

(definitely) Best Documentary Feature – Free Solo

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Star is Born

“Lady Gaga is the next Meryl Streep, but better.” – Elijah Weaver

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REVIEW:

There is a certain magnetic quality definitive of the new rendition of the classic tale A Star is Born. It forgoes any slow-simmering exposition or excessive climactic build-up. Within seconds we are standing before Jackson Maine, a seasoned rocker with an old-time country charm played by Bradley Cooper, as he glides through a stadium-crushing anthem. Cooper’s vocal abilities are also surprisingly evocative. But this is a movie full of surprises, and it isn’t long before Lady Gaga stuns us with the full gamut of her talent, her electric stage presence accompanied by the chilling range and depth of her voice.

We are shortly transferred from awed audience members into intimate observers, as the unapologetically sincere love begins developing between Maine and Ally. Cooper, in his well-delivered directorial debut, presents an unabashed portrayal of the firm integrity and truthfulness of love, while making sure not to glamorize it as realistically unattainable, a portrayal too often conveyed by Hollywood. There is no such thing as completely selfless love, and this is proven throughout, especially through the subtle envy and resulting self-destructive tendencies of Maine, as he struggles to come to terms with Ally’s swift rise to stardom.

In its completeness, A Star is Born is a bitter-sweet tragedy. It is a warning about the entanglements of love, envy, and success, questioning the possibility of them coexisting harmoniously. But it is also a celebration of hidden talent, a triumphant exploration of one musician’s much deserved recognition. The movie has its pitfalls, especially in its pacing, as it can be hard to track any clear timeline and progression of events. Plus, the second half drags, the captivating climax arriving too early. Nevertheless, the acting is superb all around (including Sam Elliot’s stirring performance as Maine’s brother), the directing brilliantly humanizes these characters, and the music is simply magnificent. You will be left aching for more when the credits role. Luckily, we have Spotify.

 

RATING:

Must See Now

Must See in Theaters

Must See, but You Can Wait

Completely Optional

Don’t Watch This Movie

 

OSCAR PREDICTIONS (NOMINATIONS, NOT WINS):

We should expect this to steal the largest number of nominations. Unless something totally surprises out of the woodwork this Winter.

(definitely) Best Picture – A Star is Born

(probably) Best Director – Bradley Cooper

(definitely) Best Actress – Lady Gaga

(definitely) Best Actor – Bradley Cooper

(definitely) Best Supporting Actor – Sam Elliot

(definitely) Best Song – Shallow

(definitely) Best Soundtrack – A Star is Born

Probably more. Adapted Screenplay, maybe?

 

First Man

 

Every great movie has Ryan Gosling as its star. – Elijah Weaver

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REVIEW:

As the title suggests, First Man is a movie about a man, not an event. Spanning across eight years of Neil Armstrong’s life, the film maintains intense focus on Armstrong’s reactions and responses to the rollercoaster of a ride that NASA enrolled him in during the 1960s. Ryan Gosling’s take on Armstrong is somewhat disappointing, though. The cameras themselves rarely look away from Gosling’s face, attempting to catch every subtle change of demeanor or flick of his altering countenance. But Gosling seems more dispassionately distracted, rather than pensively engaged, the latter of which might have better represented the temperamental subtleties expected from someone involved in such demanding conditions. Claire Foy, who plays Neil’s wife Janet, steals the show, even with her relatively few appearances. Her portrayal of Janet complicates any sixties familial stereotypes by presenting a wife fiercely independent, while also being solemnly attentive to and aware of the gravity of her husband’s calling. Her support for Neil is obvious, though reluctant, if not at times plainly skeptical, a response expected from a partner without control over her spouse’s precarious occupation.

The film as a whole, with its scope focused deliberately on the human perspective, annunciates the first part of Armstrong’s perennial words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Damien Chazelle gets the job done, reminding the world that the events that history renders significant are always only the results of the small steps, the daily occurrences, and the emotional poignancies experienced by individual human beings. This is a movie about subjects, making for an intimate encounter by pulling the viewers in and allowing them to feel with Neil and Janet the tensions, the traumas, and the joys of what it must have been like to be pivotal agents in an event that would be deemed so monumental in the grand scope of humankind’s history.

 

RATING:

Must See Now

Must See in Theaters

Must See, but You Can Wait

Completely Optional

Don’t Watch This Movie

 

RATINGS AMONGST DAMIEN CHAZELLE’S OTHER FLICKS:

1)Whiplash

2) First Man

3)La La Land

 

OSCAR PREDICTIONS (NOMINATIONS, NOT WINS):

This will have a presence at the Oscars, for sure, making a splash with nominations, but likely only taking home a few wins.

(probably) Best Picture – First Man

(maybe) Best Director – Damien Chazelle

(probably) Best Actor – Ryan Gosling

(definitely) Best Supporting Actress – Claire Foy

With an array of technical/editing nominations, too.