Joker

Imagine a film based on a popular comic book property that’s been adapted before into billion-dollar successes, but this time has no action, no CGI, and focuses solely on character development and delivering dark themes about our society. That’s exactly what Joker is. It’s no Dark Knight — the Joker never robs banks or blows up buildings, and it’s certainly no Suicide Squad — no gang wars, alien armies, or apocalypse-level stakes. Joker aligns more with the likes of Scorsese — certain scenes reminded me very much of The King of Comedy, as well as the filmmaker’s darkest classic Taxi Driver. It always sticks to a very old-fashioned, noir-like style, gracefully shot with every prop feeling like it belongs in a frame of a painting. The roaring music feels perfectly done for a haunting and tense crime thriller that focuses deeply on the protagonist’s descent into darkness. Joaquin Phoenix has always had a spot on my favorite actors list, but he manages to own the show in a completely new way here — different than Ledger’s spectacular take on the character in 2008’s The Dark Knight, but equally worthy of praise. He disappears into Arthur Fleck, a man living in poverty with mental illness who feels like an outcast in society and is soon pushed over the edge. Phoenix’s speech, menacing laugh, and weight loss all contribute to how impressive his performance is, and I seriously think he deserves an Oscar nomination. Also outstanding is Robert De Niro as a talk show host whom Arthur idolizes, resembling Jerry Lewis’ character in The King of Comedy whom Robert De Niro’s character in that film develops an obsession over. Joker does occasionally tie-in to characters or events from the Batman universe which may feel slightly forced, but for the most part it stands on its own as a deep and unpredictable story. For such a large studio to adapt such a large property but then include such little action in the film is a huge risk which completely pays off. It’s a character study and a drama with meaningful social commentary, such as the marginalization of those with mental illnesses by the rest of society, or how the less privileged or fortunate are looked down on and ridiculed by the elites. Even though it takes place in the early ’80s, it asks difficult questions like how our modern society could be taking part in creating criminals like the Joker. It’s more unsettling, resonant, and inventive than any comic book film I’ve seen in recent years, to the point where it could also speak to non-superhero-fan audiences like those who are only expecting a dark crime film. In terms of the concerns about the film’s violence, there isn’t much graphic content (definitely not as much as other R-rated superhero films like Deadpool and Logan) but the implications the violence has are more disturbing, serious, and grounded, but hence the R-rating.

Joker is a finely acted, thought-provoking chcracter piece that takes place in a world of gloomy uncertainty and takes more risks than almost any other franchise film recently. It’s not focused on the big fights, or post-credits scenes teasing another film, instead being a brilliant stand-alone piece that leaves you thinking for a long time, and hopefully paves the way for more variety in blockbuster filmmaking, as well as likely remaining one of the films that will be discussed until the end of the year for its strong filmmaking and top-notch writing and themes.

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Ad Astra

In Ad Astra, the galaxy’s only hope is Brad Pitt’s interstellar mission to find his long-lost father and his experiment-gone-wrong, which is causing deathly surges across the galaxy. In real life, our only hope is projects as ambitious, imaginative, and captivating as Ad Astra. From scene one, I was gasping for air and holding onto my seat — in the opening moments, the camera reveals Pitt walking on a space tower standing thousands of feet above the Earth. Immediately, the space between your seat and the setting feels no more, and you are transported onto that tower with him, gazing down at the heights beneath you, as anxious and fearful as Pitt’s character would be on such a high structure. You don’t have to imagine how he’s feeling, because you’re no longer in your theater, you’re there with him. Director James Gray immerses you into a futuristic version of our galaxy, where traveling to the moon is a casual pastime — and they even have Subways there. Nothing quite feels like Ad Astra — the originality shown as we journey through otherwordly military bases, territory wars, and space guns, demonstrates the spark of imagination this film has, and it feels like it could become the Blade Runner of our generation. Nothing looks like a set or a computer-generated effect — like Interstellar and First Man, it feels like we may as well be looking at HD footage sent back from the Hubble telescope. The visuals are so gripping and with a clearly fictional setting that still feels so real and will keep you on the edge of your seat, and the camera makes you part of an immersive journey to the other side of the solar system. For a filmmaker who’s never established himself as a high-budget director to suddenly make the jump to a visually impeccable galactic sci-fi adventure, it’s truly incredible. The cinematography achieves its goal often by putting you in Pitt’s perspective or showing the things going on through the reflection of his space mask where we also see his reaction. Even the wider shots that establish the scale of the scenes serve as immersive eye candy.

Our stunning ventures with Roy McBride bring him closer to our heart, but it’s really Pitt’s delivery that will makes its way into your emotions. For a character who spends a lot of the film trying to distance his emotions from those around, Brad Pitt makes you feel very close to him by subtly delivering his reactions to the screen scene by scene so that when he finally does crack and get sentimental, all the emotion comes pouring down on you. You will certainly be rooting for Pitt to find his father and achieve his objective and feel devastated when his character faces another emotional obstacle. The movie also raises some strong themes about humankind’s search for what’s beyond the stars and our lack of appreciation for what we have down on Earth. But there’s also more personal themes, like the impact that the abandonment of a child by their parent has on them growing up. Gray relies less on dialogue and heavily on the visual movement to carry the story forward so that you still deeply care what will happen and your heart will race during the most intense sequences. The story is rather simple as opposed to mind-blowing sci-fi hits like Interstellar and Arrival where the plot is so complex that some may have to talk it out to really take in what happen, but despite the simplicity, you can never really tell what’s going to happen next because of the immersive scale and the outstanding screenplay. If I had to change one thing, it’s that the movie is heavy on narration from Pitt, which for some, this may make up for the scenes that have less talking. However, I personally felt that in certain scenes, simply telling us how to feel rather than showing it actually lowers the emotional punches of some scenes, when relying more on visual storytelling, like flashbacks and Pitt’s expressions, strengthens the effect it has on viewers. I would have omitted most or nearly all of the narration, because a lot of the time, as cliche as it may sound, less is more. Other than that, I need to see that Ad Astra is a mezmerizing visual masterpiece and a gripping voice through space. It’s originality, imagionation, and ambition make it a striking standout this year, but the storytelling requires more patience than the average moviegoers today than are experiencing exposure to more and more franchise/genre films and not much else. Yet what makes it so great is the terrific leading role from Pitt, which continues his winning streak from earlier this year in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — plus the beautiful cinematography and visual effects that make the experience so thrilling, and the meditative and poetic themes and tone that lie beneath all the beauty. Yes, it may only be truly appreciated if seen on the big screen, but that’s why there’s no excuse to not watch it in theaters.

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Hustlers

A group of strippers learn to cheat their way into wealth by luring greedy, wealthy Wall street clients and drugging them into spending all their money at their club, in a desperate attempt to take their lives back after the 2008 economic collapse cuts into their profits.

What could’ve easily been a laughable, terrible misfire instead shines at the hands of its two leads and an engaging screenplay boasted by a vibrant style. Jennifer Lopez sticks out as the “mentor” of the gang who I’ve never seen with this much depth on the screen. Lopez’s energy and her chemistry with Constance Wu make the film, with Wu’s turn here being grounded, layered, and far above her work in Crazy Rich Asians. The casting also brings back names that haven’t been prominent on screen before — I was afraid Julia Stiles’ career had died with her Jason Bourne character, and Keke Palmer was last notably seen ten years ago on in her True Jackson role on Nickelodeon, which not many remember either. Lili Reinhart also hasn’t really had a known big-screen role before and was only popular before for her leading role on the teen series Riverdale. One cast member, however, that I was glad we didn’t see a lot of was Cardi B, whose irritating, unbearable presence is only around for one scene, almost as if the studio forced the writers to put her in just to gain more audiences. However the rest of the cast proves you don’t need more than one or two popular names to attract audiences for this kind of concept. The script often hits the same notes as every other scam film, like The Wolf of Wall Street, Catch Me if You Can, War Dogs, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and so on — so it’s not hard to see where the movie will end. But it’s the seemingly ridiculous/over-the-top yet true concept, and the sisterly connection between the two leads, that make Hustlers worthwhile. The flashy, fast-paced style sometimes makes for some strong energy but it also leads to some parts being rushed past or feel undermined, like some scenes that include music in the background that would’ve worked better without the background score. There’s also some inconsistencies in the style, with some distracting handheld cam that thankfully calms down as the film goes. Also, though the film is quite funny, the writers choose to play it safe in the first act with mostly sex jokes or physical humor (“character who throws up often” cliche, characters getting drugged and passing out, etc. I was glad things got especially crazed in the second half where the plot is very engaging and sticks the landing towards the end. Hustlers can be viewed both through the lens of a comedy and a drama, andwhile it soars but occasionally stumbles at both, it’s got a spark of intrigue and excitement at its core that it makes it, while not a must-watch, stand out above other big genre players out right now like Hobbs and Shaw or It Chapter Two.

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It Chapter Two

Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until they must return to Derry and band together once again when their worst fear returns.

The massively hyped duology adapting one of Stephen King’s most beloved and terrifying novels comes to a close with It Chapter Two, following the mighty success of the first It. In the first film, a group of kids banded together and formed the Losers Club, using their camaraderie and their heart to defeat the being that feeds off their fears, but now that same being has returned and summons them back together as adults. The leading cast is great, including James McAvoy who shines as Bill, a fearless kid from the first film who led the group, though his on-and-off stutter make his performance slightly confusing. The standout was certainly Jessica Chastain who blesses the screen with her marvelous presence yet again, with her range, from joy to remorse to terror, all make Bev a standout character once again. But also worth noting is SNL alum Bill Hader in what’s definitely his best film role ever, playing the hilarious Ritchie who also gets more layers as the film progresses. Also impressive is Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, although this time around, he has less moments to strike fear into audiences again.

It Chapter Two‘s main strength definitely lies in its cast, as well as the theme of how being together is what helped these people become their best selves and overcome their fears. However, where Chapter Two stumbles is finding merit outside of what viewers already learned in the first film. There’s a lot of flashbacks to the Losers Club when they were kids, but above that, it seems like Warner Bros. felt like they kept having to remind us what the first movie was about, resulting with the pacing being dragged down with repetitive scenes of Pennywise taking advantage of each individual member through their fears — both through flashbacks and present day scenes. Of course every character needs layer, but extending the runtime so long to the point where they had to bring back nearly every plot point from the predecessor feels unreasonable and tiring. The movie keeps treading this same ground for a while, reminding us for too long about the character relations, arcs and events from the first film, until it ultimately becomes a rehash of that movie. It brings back every character including an irritating side character who we thought was gone for good but wastes screentime here with an awful performance. Above all that, there are less horror scenes that will catch the viewer’s attention, although a very note-worthy scene is a terrifying moment in a mirror maze that I cannot spoil.

When the climax finally arrives, it takes place in the exact same location as the first movie’s final standoff, has the exact same “villain tactics” or obstacles as last time, and ends with the same theme yet an even tackier resolution. There’s also an awful subplot thrown in about a ritual that must be performed, and it goes too deeply into the origins of “It” instead of subtly dropping hints that would leave us guessing. There’s a moment in the film where an old woman tells Bev that her “father joined the circus” — the camera then pans up to a picture of a man in the early 1900s near a sign that says “Pennywise” — this is a perfect example of planting small clues about It’s origin, but it didn’t need to actually reveal the whole deal to us, which slightly undermines the mysteriousness and threat of the entity. What director Andy Muschietti unfortunately did not understand is that less is more, when it comes to storytelling. On the contrary, this film becomes unreasonably long and repetitive without finding as much of a purpose or effect as the first did two years ago. If this one didn’t feel the need to be as long as The Hobbit or Interstellar I could definitely see a slightly more effective story coming out without forcing the audiences through too much of the same thing over and over again.

It Chapter Two feels more like an epilogue to the last movie than a sequel or its own film. There are certainly some touching themes and great cast members — especially the wonderful Jessica Chastain and the hysterical Bill Hader. However, there are definitely less memorable horror moments for the general audiences, but worst of all, Chapter Two fails to justify itself as its own film, rather borrowing all the ideas from the first film and saying, “this is how they deal with this stuff, but this time they’re older!” I was definitely looking forward to this but looking back now, the first It certainly holds up just as well as its own story, and this may just be another case of Hollywood stretching out existing franchises beyond a breaking point. Perhaps this follow-up would have worked better if it was actually released 27 years from now, where relying on nostalgia from the first film to craft another crowd-pleasing success may had actually worked instead of just remaining a myth inside of the Warner Bros executive’s heads that makes a for an often tedious and familiar three hours.

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Blinded by the Light

In England in 1987, a teenager from a Pakistani family named Javed aspires to be a writer but feels learns to live his life, understand his family and find his own voice through the music of American rock star Bruce Springsteen.

Blinded by the Light is an urgently needed breath of fresh air from all the big franchise films studios tend to release, so the fact that Warner Bros. picked this film out from Sundance to distribute in a wide release really means a lot. Without much exaggeration or many large Hollywood names, Blinded by the Light has a slightly familiar formula but remains a grounded, touching human story that’s inspiring in just about every way. If I had to describe it in some way, it feels like Yesterday meets Sing Street meets Bend it Like Beckham. It ‘s not only entertaining, funny, and uplifting, but also takes themes such as racial tensions and applies it to a creative and fascinating premise, elevated by a strong cast all around, that doesn’t include many known actors although I’m sure they all will be one day with the talent they deliver here — the one face some viewers may recognize is Captain America‘s Haley Atwell does have a memorable supporting role. But this movie isn’t about seeing the big stars, or the big visual effects, or Oscar worthy acting. This is a film you go to not just to enjoy but to also learn about the importance of passion, dreams, dedication and hard work, but also about family, love, and the bonds that make us who we are. While most these kinds of movies are about following your dreams even when everyone is doubting you or bringing you down, this movie emphasizes pursuing your passion but above that embracing your family and the ones closest to you even when it seems like they’re bringing you down. The great takeaway is that power of dreams, passion, and talent don’t mean the same without familial bonds and togetherness. The movie is also able to add some strong themes about the hardships especially faced by minorities, when the “American dream” seems even more out of reach for this poor immigrant family facing racism, which also connects to today’s time with Islamophobia being a prominent topic in the news. This adds a whole extra layer to the film and makes the themes about dreams and finding your voice even more meaningful. But don’t worry — there’s also lots of humor, musical numbers, and overall positive themes that allow us to have fun while also reflecting on the impact of pop culture on the individual the way Yesterday did. Although it’s currently not shining at the box office, I feel like this is the kind of film that will grow on people over the years and more people will come to watch and love it later on, even if the blockbuster-filled climate of modern cinema prevents audiences from choosing to see it on the big screen. But it’s universal themes will certainly reach out to audiences of all ages and backgrounds — whether or not you’re a fan of The Boss.

Blinded by the Light Movie Poster

The Farewell

Billi (Awkwafina) and her parents return to China to visit her dying grandmother, who knows nothing of her terminal illness which her entire family is keeping a secret.

The Farewell is big-screen storytelling at is most raw and personal. Every moment of The Farewell feels genuine and nothing about it feels dramatized to feel like a Hollywood movie. Awkwafina completely flips the “annoying side character” perception that I’ve felt from her in past roles, like Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, to deliver a stunning performance. Every emotion she delivers lands because feels authentic enough to not be too dramatic but still be a realistic reaction to a situation. She plays an interesting character who doesn’t have lines that feel scripted or forced for the sake of humor, and when she finally arrives at the “Give me an Oscar” monologue, it really delivers because everything she shows throughout the film really leads up to that very moment where it feels like Billi’s arc naturally needs to come here. Zhao Shuzhen also does excellent in the role of Nai Nai, with such great on-screen chemistry with Awkwafina that for the runtime I was able to believe they were actually grandmother and grandaughter. The family relationships are all portrayed very realistically and some of the characters may even remind viewers of their own family members.

I must warn you, however, because I also found The Farewell to be very saddening at times. The dilemma that’s raised throughout the film about whether or not to tell the grandmother that she has mere months to live is always compelling and it’s so sad to imagine this lead character having to say goodbye to her grandma while the grandma doesn’t even know that it’s goodbye. Yes, it is a really sad movie but there’s also the positive side to it, which is to embrace your family and to love every moment with them, and of life in general. This movie was also able to hit me on a personal level like no film has in a long time. As the son of a mother and a father who immigrated from the other side of the world, I too have been felt torn between two cultures and felt conflicted about my identity. The idea of “east vs. west cultures” has always been in my life as the atmosphere in America and my family’s home country aren’t completely the same, though it’s more dramatic in the context of this film. But I too, like Billi, live very far away from my grandparents and the rest of my family and I visit them every summer. It hurts every time I leave because though I was raised American, the people I love the most have always been distant from me, which is why I’m so grateful whenever I’m with them. This movie, despite its tear-jerking premise, is also able to connect with audiences and raise the theme of embracing the relationship with your family and the ones close to you and enjoy every moment you have with them.

The Farewell is beautifully heartfelt, sad, funny, and impactful and will grab onto your heart, not letting go for a moment until the credits roll. It never feels overly Hollywood-ized and all the characters feel real, thanks to fantastic writing and performances that knock it out of the park. Even though it is a PG-rated movie, I do think the emotional weight of the story fits more for a 15+ age range, but I’m sure most teens and definitely all adults will love this film with ideas that speak to all cultures and families.

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Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Frenemies Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw must reteam two years after The Fate of the Furious in order to stop a genetically enhanced criminal mastermind from unleashing a deadly virus onto humanity.

I’m normally quite an admirer of this franchise; their storylines aren’t always amazing but they’re ridiculously fun and something that I can’t miss on the big screen. These kinds of huge action movies bring audiences together and normally put a smile on my face. So while I wasn’t expected to be moved by Hobbs & Shaw or see something particularly unique, I was at least expecting more than what I ended up getting. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw lacks the energy and personality that makes this series exciting and memorable. Fast & Furious is about people using cars to pull of unbelievable stunts and going on impossible missions. Meanwhile, Hobbs & Shaw is just another action movie. Is The Fate of the Furious necessarily a great movie with masterclass choreography or some sort of strong message? No. But what makes these movies work so well for what they are is moments like Dwayne Johnson pushing a torpedo with his bare hands or Vin Diesel flying his car through different skyscrapers in Furious 7 that allow the past movies to indulge in the ridiculousness that it is and find merit through crazy popcorn action and likable characters and dialogue. Nothing about the action in this movie has any of that personality that makes the rest of the series’ action, while ridiculous, ultimately entertaining. It’s only in the climactic final battle where the movie allows itself to up the ante, get over-the-top, and actually have somewhat lively fight scenes. The cinematography and editing are also sometimes poor and either too choppy or just not consistent or interesting. The humor, despite some good moments, also falls flat many times and gets tiring. Dwayne Johnson still breathes light and liveliness into his role but after a while him and Jason Statham roasting each other gets old. Also, they made amends at the end of the last film so it’s not even clear why they still hate each other. Another thing that really bugged me is the villain, played by Idris Elba. His character is nonsensical and laughable (I mean you can expect that from this series but can we also ask for a villain that isn’t so absurd you want to laugh at it?). I mean, that’s what this movie is, absurd, and that’s what its supposed to be. But the movie tries to make Elba’s character deep and motivated but it really is hard when his evil organization feels like something out of a bad Ninja Turtles show. His purpose is questionable and his motive is nearly the same as another big villain this year from the film Avengers: Endgame. His antagonist was probably even as bad as Charlize Theron’s character in the last movie. Fortunately, the movie does make up for it with some awesome and unexpected celebrity cameos that are perfectly utilized.

I’m a fan of David Leitch’s directing for Deadpool 2, as well as some spectacular action for an otherwise mediocre debut film Atomic Blonde, and while sometimes the lighting and settings are well selected, the action feels either too quickly edited so it’s hard to take in what’s happening, or just too dull and boringly choreographed. Like I said, Hobbs & Shaw‘s action lacks personality so it feels like this could’ve been out of any standard spy action film worth passing over. The plot has a somewhat cool device involving a virus, but really nothing interesting is done with the story until Hobbs is forced to confront his past and his family in Samoa. The scenes where we see Hobbs’ family and culture being embraced are some of the best parts of the film story-wise, and every other attempt to craft a compelling story fails and there are some lines that don’t really belong. Like I said, I’m not looking for an incredible script with these movies, but at least the past movies were able to make their themes of family and friendship work. Hobbs & Shaw aims for this but it only really lands towards the end, like I said. It feels like writer Chris Morgan, who has worked on this franchise for seven films, has started to lose grip on how to make effective humor and conflict to craft a truly worthwhile blockbuster like he has several times before. When the final act utilizes a unique setting and culture, it becomes amusing, but Hobbs & Shaw unfortunately takes many of the wrong things too seriously and when it does go for comedy, it sometimes doesn’t hit the mark. There’s also a very forced hinting at a romance that thankfully never happens but the writers felt they had to push it into there just to check off a studio box. There’s also an ending that’s pretty abrupt and for some reason the movie decides to tell its entire epilogue through the credits. Believe me, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is quite ridiculous, but it doesn’t succeed in having that personality that makes everyone enjoy the hell out of this franchise, and lacks that energy that got me pumped while watching Fast 5, 6, 7, and 8. Instead this movie feels tiring and doesn’t allow the audience to indulge in the lack of believability, instead it takes the plot too seriously and the humorous banter doesn’t always succeed either. Perhaps this movie would’ve worked better if it was marketed as some sort of parody rather than a real spin-off to a franchise I’ve had better times with. I’m glad next time we’re getting a different director and writer, and some more of Dom, Roman, and Tej. If you want to watch an action comedy where Dwayne Johnson fights people, well, this movie has that. But what I was also hoping for was that spark of energy and exhilaration that has always made the absolute insanity of the Fast & Furious franchise worth it.

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