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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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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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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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

In the golden age of Hollywood in the late 1960s, actor Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth seek to breathe new light into their careers in an ever-changing industry, while a dangerous cult led by the infamous Charles Manson plans to strike at the heart of Hollywood.

By simply putting the name “Quentin Tarantino” on a film poster, your film is guaranteed to generate excitement and audiences. As a huge fan, I’ve seen all his filmography and wouldn’t say he’s made a bad film yet. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is both the least like Tarantino’s other films, but also the most Tarantino-y of them all. It has less violence than his past movies but it’s also identifiable as a film of his because nobody has more of an attachment to old cinema than Tarantino. Firstly, Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent in his welcomed first role in over three years as an actor trying to revitalize his career and pushing himself to become the best. Brad Pitt is a standout as one of his best characters in years, a hilarious and skilled stuntsman who does questionable things but also takes on challenges head-on and just loves to drive. And did I mention the dialogue for his character is incredible? There’s also plenty of Tarantino frequents like Kurt Russell and Michael Madsen as well as other famous actors such as Al Pacino, Damian Lewis, and the late Luke Perry. Margot Robbie’s presence as Sharon Tate has lots of energy and is fun to watch although her character plays a rather minor part in the story.

Tarantino writes many entertaining scenes with funny dialogue as well as a great soundtrack, with outstanding production design and strong cinematography to support the film. However, there are some scenes that unfortunately drag, like an extended scene involving the filming of a fictional movie that’s only there to build up one great moment at the end, and a long scene in the desert that has some tension — until it leads nowhere. The movie is 161 minutes but it doesn’t feel like there’s much of a storyline — I don’t expect a linear narrative or formidable character development when it comes to Tarantino, but it ultimately does feel like too little stretched too thin, unlike Inglorious Basterds and Pulp Fiction where the all-over-the-place stories and long sequences actually led to more going on with something rewarding and unpredictable happening. The real reward here comes at the very end — the climax of the film is pure Tarantino. Violence, laughs, and pure insanity and entertainment make one of the best film sequences of the year — I just wish there was a little more of an interesting buildup to make the rest more rewatchable as well. Tarantino does an excellent job with world-building, and a phenomenal job directing and adding eye-catching production. However, I was surprised when the movie ended because sometimes it felt like he relied on witty dialogue and awesome world-building than plot. There are some very entertaining sequences but some of the long runtime is wasted on scenes that go on too long or weird conversations like an underage girl trying to make it work with a much older man.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a love letter to the golden age of cinema. It has fascinating direction like always, with so much passion from Tarantino who takes an unorthodox approach to writing a screenplay like no other modern film, and delivers with extremely memorable characters and dialogue. However, some scenes feel a bit stretched or don’t serve much of a point to the overall idea of the film and there could’ve been a bit more to make the film feel worthy of its long runtime, though there’s an awesome and fulfilling climactic final scene that’s Tarantino at his best. It may be one of his lesser films to me but it’s still worth going to see because there’s enough originality and style to make it interesting, even though some scenes don’t have strong pacing or merit like the genius filmmakers’ other masterpieces which felt more worthy of their extended lengths.

Yesterday

Jack Malik is a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town whose dreams of fame are rapidly fading, until a freak bus accident during a mysterious global blackout, after which Jack wakes up to discover that nobody except him can remember The Beatles. Soon Jack makes a life-altering decision that sends him to fame as he starts taking credit for the band’s forgotten songs.

Yesterday is a movie with a fantastically original premise, compared to the same recycled formulas in a lot of genres. Though it does sometimes get stuck in mediocre rom-com tropes, like a cheesy romance in the second act that doesn’t know where it’s going until the very end, this movie takes advantage of its genius idea and makes for a fun, humorous, and interesting two hours. Himesh Patel is not only fun and charming but also sings really well and was well-cast — he hasn’t been in much before but may soon make a name for himself after his starring role here — and also entertaining are Lily James as his best friend, and Ed Sheeran as himself — the singer who helps Jack skyrocket to stardom. However, one character I found to be annoying was his manager played by Kate McKinnon, whose comedic turns I usually enjoy on Saturday Night Live, but here her character was simply irritating and unlikable. It’s no surprise the music is so enjoyable — they chose the best band to make this movie about, and as a huge Beatles fan myself, it’s great to hear them all through the film, and luckily they cast a great actor who can sing as well. There’s also plenty of humorous moments I didn’t expect and the jokes almost always land. Like I said, the second half does lose a little bit of steam but once you see where it all ends up, you get to take in some of the themes the movie is going for. There’s also another sweet theme about how the most iconic of pop culture is what touches people’s hearts and should be kept alive. As one character says, “A world without the Beatles is a world infinitely worse.” So I have to applaud director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curits for creating one of the most original films of the year that sometimes doesn’t avoid genre tropes but the fresh plotline makes for some truly great moments, and there’s also plenty of excellent musical moments as well. When everything that’s out has to do with killer toys, superheroes, and animated animals, why not try something new for a change and support this one-of-a-kind film I bet you won’t regret seeing in theaters.

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Rocketman

Rocketman is an epic musical fantasy about the incredible human story of Elton John’s breakthrough years. Taron Egerton proves that he was perfectly cast as the titular role. His singing voice is so fitting and perfectly delivers on these classic Elton songs which are not only integrated into the film through his concert performances but also by musical and dance sequences where Elton’s lines connect to the situations in certain scenes. Egerton also delivers on showing how the leading character felt pride, love, anger, and rejection at certain points in his career. Also great is Jamie Bell as Elton’s best friend, and Bryce Dallas Howard who was an odd choice to play Elton’s mother but still does a solid job. Dexter Fletcher was the one and only person who should’ve directed this film and he brings so much style to the film that makes it easy to enjoy. The sets, cinematography, and editing add to an already interesting script with an artsy feel that heightens the audience’s connection to the protagonist and will make you want to sing and dance along to some of your favorite Elton John songs. What the film does so well is depicting both the highs and lows of Elton’s career and also spends a lot of time addressing and depicting his sexuality, so expect some strong sexual content as well. We see Elton display talent and receive fame, but we also see him deal with rejection from those closest to him, as well as suffering from addiction resulting from a downward emotional spiral. Yet by the end, Rocketman will feel like a rewarding time at the movies with great music, acting, and story that those who love his music will very much enjoy.

My only gripe about Rocketman is that despite its 2-hour runtime, I think a few aspects could have used a little more screentime, like how audiences were affected by his music or how those around him reacted to his addiction, which we could have seen a bit more of. Other than that, Rocketman is entertaining and emotional yet uplifting and very well-directed and acted.

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