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Joker: Origins of psychosis and villainy

It can be said that there’s no true originality left in cinema.

Everything seems pulled from pieces of movie history, homages or outright rip-offs of films gone by.

Audacious and transgressive, Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is clearly influenced by the work of cinematic legend Martin Scorsese, particularly his 1976 classic “Taxi Driver” and the 1983 cult of celebrity dramedy “The King of Comedy.”

It also happens to be deeply rooted in comic book lore, taking on the origins of a classic Batman villain already played to perfection both by Jack Nicholson in 1989’s “Batman” and by Heath Ledger in an Oscar-winning turn in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”

There shouldn’t be a need to take on this maniacal character yet again, but Phillips’ film is exceedingly unique in its interpretation and cements its place alongside movies like 2006’s “V For Vendetta” and 2017’s “Logan” as auteur comic book cinema.

Set in the backdrop of a downtrodden New York City during the late 1970s, “Joker” serves less as an origin story for a Batman villain than as a character study of a deeply disturbed man.

Professional clown-for-hire Arthur Fleck has dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian like his hero, Murray Franklin, but acts of violence and delusions of grandeur set Arthur down a path he’s unable to come back from.

“Joker” is a better film the further writer/director Phillips stays away from the movie’s comic book origins and hones in on Arthur’s wavering grasp on sanity.

The film only works as well as it does thanks to three-time Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix dropped more than 50 pounds in order to transform into Arthur Fleck.

Phoenix infuses the character with a chilling realism that transfixes and haunts viewers as he descends into madness, adopting clinically diagnosable conditions like uncontrollable laughing and paranoia to add intricate flourishes to his complex performance.

Though “Joker” doesn’t fully focus on mental health issues, Phoenix takes great care to deliver nuance throughout in a turn that rivals Ledger’s more chaotic work in the role.

Just as disturbingly provoking is the physicality of Phoenix’s performance as the actor twists and contorts his body so intensely that his spine and ribs almost burst through his skin. There is a considered theatricality to the way Phoenix moves throughout scenes, often gliding across the screen in a frantic, unchoreographed dance.

“Joker” doesn’t take full advantage of its supporting cast as much as one might expect.

Robert DeNiro was cast as talk show host Franklin more for his performance in Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” than for what he could bring to the role itself. Phillips keeps DeNiro’s Franklin at a distance, often only allowing viewers to see the character through Arthur’s pensive gaze.

Zazie Beetz is considerably effective in limited screen time as Arthur’s neighbor and love interest, though the film fails to fully realize their connection and one or two additional scenes between Beetz and Phoenix could have cemented these unlikely kindred spirits.

The true standout among the secondary performers in “Joker” is Frances Conroy, who gives a dazzling turn as Arthur’s frail mother, Penny. Largely empathetic, her Penny goes through her own trials in limited screen time and is the most engaging and interesting in scenes opposite Phoenix out of the whole cast

Violence in “Joker” is gaudy and unapologetic, though rarely as terrifying as the general sense of inevitable dread that lingers and haunts most scenes. There isn’t as much as gun usage as one might expect given the dialogue surrounding the film, yet when Arthur commits violent acts, there is considerable carnage to the scenes that younger audiences used to comic book films will not understand.

“Joker” feels ripped straight out of another filmmaking era, stylistically and visually, with a gritty texture to each frame. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher harnesses the energy of 1970s crime dramas into his work and frames the entire film around Phoenix’s contorting body to enhance the eccentricity of his performance.

Shots are stylized and/or lifted from the works of Scorsese with an overt homage to “The Dark Knight” appearing in the final moments.

There’s an all or nothing prospect to the film’s award season chances. “Joker” will either be a top contender for Best Picture, cinematography, original score, adapted screenplay and direction or will get largely shut out altogether.

The exception here is Phoenix, whose special performance as the titular character should be a mainstay in the lead actor category regardless of how the movie performs as a whole.

Winner of the Golden Lion top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, “Joker” played to considerably less enthusiasm at the Toronto International Film Festival and has divided critics and regular audiences alike ever since.

“Joker” requires considerable buy-in from viewers in order to be effective. Those accepting of the way the film washes over audiences will find Phoenix’s Arthur complex to be complex and compelling as “Joker” struts its way to an almost nihilistic conclusion.

Skeptical audiences, conversely, will likely revile the film for its unfiltered chaos and increasingly manic lead.

The year’s most divisive and sure to be most talked about film, “Joker” is definitely worth seeing either on the big screen or at home for any ardent cinephile.

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Ad Astra: Hello darkness, my old friend

In space, no one can feel your pain.

At least, that’s the conceit of the latest space odyssey to hit the big screen, writer/director James Gray’s “Ad Astra.”

Melancholy and malaise abound in a slow-burning film ripe with wistful soliloquies delivered as a character-informing score for Gray’s expressionless short story drawn out over two hours.

Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut tasked with a classified mission to travel across the solar system in search of his long-lost father, a heralded astronaut and scientist in his own regard thought dead until the doomed expedition of the elder McBride rears its ugly head on Earth.

Each moment in “Ad Astra” is deliberate and considered, allowing events to breathe naturally without rush. In this art-house film with a big studio budget, what happens plot-wise takes a backseat to emotional subtlety.

Pitt gives one of the best performances of his career as the younger McBride, delivering a stoic, magnetically pensive turn reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s work as Neil Armstrong in last year’s “First Man.”

The performance is largely internalized with Pitt only letting audiences into Roy’s psyche through a haunting narration and the faintest whisper of emotion on his face. Roy’s primary character trait – an exceptional cool under pressure calculated as never exceeding 80 heartbeats per minute – serves as the film’s narrative pulse and lays the foundation for Pitt’s entire performance.

As audiences follow Pitt throughout the solar system, the emotional wear and tear begins to bubble under the surface in a complex, understated performance that will resonate fully with viewers who can identify with Roy’s personal struggles. Those who fail to buy in to Pitt’s subtextual work will likely find “Ad Astra” too tedious and pedantic for their liking.

In limited screen time, Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones haunts the entire project with his looming presence as Roy’s father, Clifford. Without much development of his own, Jones’ Clifford challenges and provokes Roy in compelling, interesting ways that will leave audiences pondering the ramifications long after leaving the theaters.

Everything – and especially everyone – else doesn’t really matter in the greater context of the film except in how their appearance and/or disappearance affects Pitt’s Roy.

There is a strong supporting cast in “Ad Astra,” but on the whole, they wander in and out of the periphery of Gray’s film in such a tertiary way that even Donald Sutherland is only of use to provide character context to Roy’s journey than serve any actual purpose to the plot.

Technically proficient and understated in its beauty, “Ad Astra” has moments of action grandeur largely obscured by extensive sequences that highlight the vast emptiness of space.

Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema subtly acknowledges the loneliness felt by Pitt’s Roy by keeping the visuals sharp yet elusively unremarkable, as if the voids Roy looks out on are as desolate and unremarkable as they seem to the average viewer.

The camerawork keeps audiences framed in on Roy in every moment either by pushing in on Pitt’s somber profile or placing viewers within his mind’s eye as events unfold around him.

While it may be off-putting to some audiences, what doesn’t happen in “Ad Astra” is often more important than what actually does, forcing viewers to feel the dread of inevitability surrounding Roy’s mission.

“Ad Astra” is exactly the kind of artistic, character-driven drama that usually succeeds come awards season, though Gray’s film may not gain the widespread support necessary to gain serious consideration come Oscar season.

Pitt’s terrific performance here may actually prove to be more useful in a run for the veteran actor in Best Supporting Actor for Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” as voters aggregate his work for both films to justify voting for a nomination/win for a single film as a celebration of Pitt’s year.

Some audiences may find the film’s slow burn style too tedious for their liking and not in line with the aggressive marketing and trailers for “Ad Astra.”

Those willing to look beyond the simple plot structure will find Gray’s film a wonderfully nuanced character study that’s bold enough visually to enjoy on the big screen, especially in the IMAX format.

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The Goldfinch: Pretty, shallow bird

Perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of quality filmmaking is solid editing.

If done properly, audiences will almost never notice the intricate amount of work it takes to cut together hours of footage, alternate camera angles and multiple takes into a single, cohesive feature film.

When things are off, a bad edit sticks out like a sore thumb. It may be a weird transition, a continuity error or even several minutes of footage that could be consolidated to make a film better that stays in for unclear reasons.

“The Goldfinch,” a theatrical adaptation of Donna Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, is poorly edited for a different reason: there’s no depth or substance to the characters and storyline.

Clocking in at just under two-and-a-half hours long, “The Goldfinch” is the rare film that’s simultaneously too long and too short to make for a quality piece of cinema.

This isn’t to say that there’s not a lot of beauty in director John Crowley’s film.

“The Goldfinch” is an exceptionally artistic film with high-minded philosophical discussions of criticism, fine art and the world of antiques; and yet the whole affair is remarkably distant and vague.

Viewers follow Theo, a 13-year-old boy traumatized by the death of his mother from a bombing he survived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After sneaking out a painting from the rubble, his life is constantly, impactfully changing because of the single portrait of a small bird.

At nearly 800 pages, Tartt’s novel is substantial enough to support a television miniseries and “The Goldfinch” would have been much better served as a six-part event on HBO or Showtime.

Motivations are rarely clear in Crowley’s film as characters often do things because they have to in order to advance the story rather than for a significant purpose.

This is most apparent in Ansel Elgort’s relatively monotonous performances as the elder Theo, which Elgort plays with a mild combination of shock, bewilderment and apathy. Though his Theo has an addiction to pain medication, Elgort vaults Theo into a constant state of malaise that keeps the character floating through situations rather than actively engaging in them.

Narratively, “The Goldfinch” doesn’t make enough good use out of a compelling turn from Nicole Kidman as the mother of a young family that takes Theo in after the attack. Her work of quiet, demure empathy is a welcome change early in the film and helps draw viewers into a film that doesn’t hold up as well when she leaves the screen.

Similarly, there are solid, yet lesser turns from Jeffrey Wright as an antique shop owner who takes Theo in, Luke Wilson and Sarah Paulson as Theo’s father and future stepmother, and Finn Wolfhard as a Russian immigrant who befriends a young Theo.

But none of these performances are given enough context or character development to shine on their own and are largely wasted by the film’s haphazard, disjointed final 30 minutes.

If there’s a reason to seek out “The Goldfinch,” it’s the technically profound and stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins, who took on this project immediately after his Oscar-winning filming of “Blade Runner 2049.”

Each stroke on the color palette of his camera work is carefully chosen and crafted to match the mood of the scene as much as it enhances the natural lighting moment to moment. Even when nothing of consequence is happening on screen (as is often the case with “The Goldfinch”), Deakins always comes through with a striking visual depiction of Tartt’s words brought to life.

The only real possibility of an Academy Award nomination despite high expectations for the film as a whole prior to its release, Deakins is more likely to be recognized come awards season for his work in the yet-to-be-released World War I epic “1917” from director Sam Mendes that arrives in December.

Visually arresting but slow as molasses, “The Goldfinch” is much better conceptually as a work of art than in practice as a feature and should prove to be a film that audiences need to wait until it hits a streaming service to take a chance on.

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Hustlers: Economics of the stripper pole

Sometimes a good movie is all about the performance, not the content.

Once adrift on an endless cycle of middling romantic comedies and voice-over work, Jennifer Lopez delivers her best work in more than two decades as a stripper looking to swindle rich men at any cost.

“Hustlers” provides the talented former Golden Globe nominee her most challenging role in years and is the best film to star Lopez since 1998’s “Out of Sight.”

Based on a 2015 New York magazine feature about dancers at New York City’s infamous Scores men’s club, “Hustlers” takes audiences into the world of adult entertainment as Dorothy works at a downtown strip club to make ends meet and take care of her aging grandmother. When she becomes mentored by veteran stripper Ramona, the pair begin a Robin Hood-esque scheme of milking rich stockbrokers for their own profit.

In literal terms, “Hustlers” is a film about strippers, but it’s the endless, relentless pursuit of the almighty dollar that fuels the fire and not the shock value of exposed breasts. It’s a film that cares more about who these women are than what they do for a living.

“Hustlers” is far from flawless, but director Lorene Scafaria makes perfect use of her talented ensemble cast, especially Lopez in a career-best turn as a veteran stripper turned criminal mastermind.

Lopez becomes an instant contender for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination with a compelling, layered turn as Ramona.

The brilliance of casting Lopez is that viewers are unable to fully separate Lopez’s cult-like celebrity from her performance in the film, making Ramona’s entire character arc naturally complex and more intriguing.

This imprinting of pop culture status has the same effect on viewers that Denzel Washington finally going bad in 2001’s “Training Day” or Ben Affleck being unnervingly charming in 2014’s “Gone Girl” had on their performances when the films came out.

This isn’t to say Lopez doesn’t bring anything to the table besides her notoriety. Her ability to calculate situations and adapt her personality to fit changes in tone works exceptionally well amid the film’s varying narrative structure.

Lopez demonstrates immense control in her performance as if Ramona were metering out her actions like a well-choreographed dance.

Her presence dominates the screen from start to finish and yet always feels elusively just out of reach, helping audiences to share Dorothy’s idolization of Ramona almost to the point of mythicizing her.

The film is also confirmation that the promise Constance Wu showed transitioning from television to the silver screen with last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians” was no fluke.

As Dorothy, Wu carries the emotional burden of “Hustlers” as well as narrates large segments of the film in a very knowing homage to “Goodfellas.” She does a great job of building Dorothy out of simple naivety into a more complex, confident character as Ramona takes her under her wing.

Both Wu and Lopez offer performances that compellingly draw viewers in and then push them away again as the moral ambiguity of their actions resonates more harshly over the course of the film.

Scafaria draws great performances from the film’s secondary cast, which often feel like extended cameos in comparison to the screen time for Wu and Lopez.

Julia Styles brings much needed gravitas to the film as a reporter investigating the women, while Keke Fisher and Lili Reinhart are exceptional as Ramona and Dorothy’s co-conspirators. Rapper Cardi B is a boisterous on-screen presence that distracts only slightly from the overall storyline as a fellow stripper.

The film is exceptional visually, especially in the dimly lit world of New York’s nightlife. Scafaria and cinematographer Todd Banhazl vibrate the film with electricity as audiences pulsate their way around the strip club. The expert use of light and camera placement puts viewers right in the center of the action while still feeling like a third-party observer.

Structurally, the film borrows liberally from filmmakers Scafaria certainly admires like Martin Scorsese and there’s probably one too many montage sequences better left on the cutting room floor.

“Hustlers” pairs perfectly with the 2015 Oscar-nominated dramedy “The Big Short,” which also closely examines the world of high-end New York business during the 2008 financial crisis.

This unlikely hit opened well at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, usually a breakout point for eventual award winners. “Hustlers” shouldn’t become a major contender come Oscar season, although a nomination for Lopez is certainly a possibility.

A film that should prove just as popular commercially as its strong critical reception, “Hustlers” is well worth a trip to the movie theater to catch with a large audience for Lopez’s mesmerizing work alone.

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The Peanut Butter Falcon: Two bandits on the run

Anyone can tell a story.

How you tell it is often as important, if not more important, than the story itself.

When we talk about feel-good stories – tales that warm your heart and ease your mind – there’s a tendency for certain storytellers to emotionally manipulate their audience with a piece of dialogue, burst of somber music or a plethora of other ways.

When a movie comes along that is pure and genuine in its feel-good storytelling, that has to be celebrated.

Raw and unrefined, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a testament to the power of independent filmmaking.

Writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz create a world that has an almost primal authenticity and tells a story so plainly that the lack of a saccharin sugar-coated texture feels infinitely refreshing.

The best feel-good stories are those that are genuine and authentic, often with a grit and edge that propels the story forward in unique and interesting ways.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” follows Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome and dreams of becoming a professional wrestler like his hero The Salt Water Redneck. After escaping from the retirement home he lives in, Zak makes his way through the great outdoors towards wrestling school with the help of a man on the run.

What holds “The Peanut Butter Falcon” together are a pair of unlikely performances that work incredibly well together.

Newcomer Zack Gottsagen steals scene after scene against much more famous costars as the earnest yet determined Zak.

Gottsagen infuses the character with a matter-of-fact naivety about the world outside his home that underlies how remarkably warm and genuine both the character and the actor are moment to moment.

Nilson and Schwartz crafted “The Peanut Butter Falcon” for Gottsagen after being drawn to his presence, which reverberates off the screen. It’s a perfect match of performer and screenplay.

Gottsagen’s strongest moments in the film are smaller, intimate conversations opposite Shia LeBeouf as fellow wayward traveler Tyler.

The bond the two actors are able to develop feels uniquely authentic as LeBeouf’s Tyler takes a mentorship role to Zak in much the same way audiences see Tyler’s older brother care for him in flashbacks.

LeBeouf is a terrific choice for Tyler as the troubled young actor seems to be pursuing a similar path of redemption amidst rebellion as the character he portrays. Presumptions about his real-life persona leak into audiences’ reaction to Tyler, making the journey his character takes with Zak all the more effective.

Dakota Johnson gives an admirable turn in a woefully underwritten part as Zak’s caretaker out searching for him while Zak and Tyler travel south. Her chemistry with LeBeouf doesn’t work nearly as well as either actor does opposite Gottsagen, who provides the emotional core of the film with his boundless heart.

The film is scattered with a number of wonderful smaller performances from the likes of Oscar nominees Bruce Dern and John Hawkes, former professional wrestlers Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley and character actors Jon Bernthal and Thomas Haden Church that help to build the world of the film.

Though the screenplay certainly evokes Mark Twain, where a natural Americana truly sinks in is in the film’s visceral cinematography.

Much of the outdoor camerawork shines through a faded haze as if audiences are peering through panes of glass to watch Tyler and Zak on their Tom Sawyer-esque adventures.

Visually, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” reinforces the notion of wayward travelers as director of photography Nigel Bluck makes great use of the film’s wide scope to bring the expanses of the southeast U.S. coastline to life as a secondary character.

A true indie darling without the notoriety or star power to drive audiences to theaters, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” will likely be one of those underseen gems that viewers will find by happy accident on a streaming service one day.

Those who dare to take an adventure to their local cinema will be thoroughly satisfied with the raw simplicity of the filmmaking and charmed by Gottsagen’s winning performance.

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American Factory: The price of globalization

There have been a number of exceptional documentaries released in 2019 covering a range of political, historical and pop culture topics.

Perhaps none sits quite on the threshold of where the United States stands currently in an everchanging global economy than the latest Netflix release, “American Factory.”

A top non-fiction film and award winner to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this immersive look at international business, the daily struggles of blue collar workers and the growing threat of automation to large scale employment was recently chosen by former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle to be the first film produced under their Higher Ground Productions label.

Co-directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert embed themselves for several years at a closed General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio which was in the process of being reopened to mass produce automobile glass for the Chinese company Fuyao.

The filmmakers have incredible, unfathomable access both to employees on the floor and at home, but more astoundingly to top level execs at Fuyao speaking frankly in closed door meetings filmed as part of the documentary.

Though viewers are likely to take one side or the other, Bognar and Reichert tell the story of Fuyao Glass America (FGA) as impartially as possible which allows their subjects remarkable authenticity as a result.

“American Factory” approaches the Dayton plant from socioeconomic perspectives, but it’s nearly impossible to remove a viewer’s political biases from factoring in as audiences decide whether or not to support Fuyao’s corporate agenda or a growing effort on the floor to unionize labor.

Perhaps the first scene that truly showcases the uniqueness and access of “American Factory” relates to the film’s lone political figure, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown.

Brown gives a speech at the grand opening of the FGA facility and includes unprompted support for the unionization of Fuyao employees, the first major reference to the theme in the film.

Almost immediately, Bognar and Reichert take audiences behind the scenes with furious Fuyao executives railing against Brown’s brazen politization of their event, leaving one exec to swear that the senator would never set foot on the property again and suggesting that he would use ribbon cutting scissors to decapitate Brown.

In this regard, the filmmakers do a remarkable job of showcasing the feelings audiences would expect the subjects to have off camera by somehow getting all involved to be exceptionally candid in their remarks.

Since the film’s release, Fuyao has disputed some of the translations in the film, specifically remarks made by FGA chief executive officer Jeff Liu, where he is shown telling company chairman Cao Dewang that American employees supporting unionization efforts at the company had been fired.

At its core, “American Factory” is a film about the cultural divide between blue collar Ohio workers on one side of the spectrum and Fuyao corporate management and supervisors sent from other facilities in China on the other.

The duality of the struggle for these two cultures to co-exist in business is a tenuous balance and one that Bognar and Reichert go to great lengths to ensure their film tells both sides of this international tale.

Viewers get incredible insight into how the American and Chinese subjects perceive each other at the outset and how that perception changes over time. What appear to be cultural sensitivity training seminars for incoming Chinese staff are perhaps the most surprising and telling scenes in the entire documentary as Fuyao execs frankly describe American workers as uninspired and entitled.

The filmmakers include a wide array of subjects that color the documentary well, though few aside from Chairman Cao play a significant enough role in the film to be especially memorable on their own.

This generalization affords “American Factory” the ability to universalize the stories of over 2,000 workers while still feeling extensive.

Cinematography is bold throughout and often makes the seemingly mundane routine of making automobile glass feel artistic and beautiful.

“American Factory” should prove to be a major player come awards season as Bognar and Reichert took home the Directing Award: U.S. Documentary at Sundance.

With Netflix continuing a strong push in the category and the film being the first produced by the Obamas’ Higher Ground, “American Factory” seems likely to be an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary next winter, if not the presumptive favorite.

An easily accessible film thanks to Netflix’s decide to stream it day and date with its limited theatrical release, “American Factory” should be atop any ardent cinephile’s queue and is the best documentary to date in 2019.

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Blinded By The Light: Connecting through good tunes

Pop culture can transcend all sorts of boundaries.

People from different walks of life can identify with one another over a favorite sports team, the filmography of a terrific actor or director or a classic album by a prized musical artist.

It’s this cultural bridge building that’s at the heart of director Gurinder Chadha’s latest feature, “Blinded By The Light,” inspired by the true story of a British Pakistani teen in the 1980s obsessed with an American rock icon.

Chadha is best known for the 2004 adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” and the 2002 family sports film, “Bend It Like Beckham,” the only feature film to be distributed in every single country on the planet.

Universal themes of family and finding one’s place in the world are the foundation of “Blinded By The Light,” which follows Javed, an aspiring writer living in Britain during a time of political and economic unrest under Margaret Thatcher.

He longs to leave his hometown and chart his own path while maintaining his relationships with a strict Muslim family and finds himself intoxicated by the promise in the music of Bruce Springsteen.

There’s a lot going on in Chadha’s work and some audiences will be off put by the film’s inconsistent tone.

At various times, “Blinded By The Light” is a musical, a political period piece, a romantic comedy and a family drama. Rarely do these genres mix together as Chadha smashes styles against each other like a compilation album.

But invariably, the individual pieces of the film are held together by two powerful forces: the bellowing, unforgettable tracks of Springsteen and a star-making performance from Viveik Kaira in the lead role.

An avid fan of “The Boss” herself, Chadha seamlessly integrates Springsteen’s discography into the film, relying on touchstone songs like “Badlands,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “Hungry Heart” to accentuate the tone of the film and bring audiences inside Javed’s mind.

Because Springsteen’s lyrics often unlock the emotions of a scene, Chadha occasionally cuts out the dialogue and cranks up the volume of the tunes while inventively showing the words dancing around Javed. This helps establish a kindred spirits relationship between Javed and the unseen rock and roller.

Musically, “Blinded By The Light” doesn’t go full bore into Springsteen’s catalog in the same way as recent musical films “Rocketman” with Elton John or “Bohemian Rhapsody” with Queen do.

“The Boss” is more the soundtrack for moments rather than the subject of the film.

A pair of dance numbers choreographed to “Born To Run” and “Thunder Road” don’t exactly fit with the rest of the film but work incredibly well on their own in a sort of homage to classic 1980s John Hughes films.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the quality of its cast, comprised mainly of fresh faces to American cinema.

Kaira brings an emotional earnestness to Javed, a conflicted teen struggling to find himself amid familial, societal and political pressures. Usually, these coming of age tales focus on a single major obstacle, but “Blinded By The Light” forces Kaira to take on a lot very quickly and the young actor succeeds at rolling with the challenges presented on a scene by scene basis.

The actors pushing Javed are exceptional as well and Kulvindir Ghir’s excellent work as Javed’s father Malik cements the father/son dynamic as a core piece of a film that tries and largely succeeds at being more than a simple love letter to Springsteen.

Everything about “Blinded By The Light” has been done before in one way or another, but the way in which this particular story is told, its special lead performance and the universal themes it espouses make the film something almost every moviegoer can readily identify with.

A film that doesn’t particularly excel at any one aspect but is more than the sum of its parts, “Blinded By The Light” is the rare August release that must be seen in theaters.

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Good Boys: Super bad on a sixth grade reading level

Why is “South Park” an animated series?

Couldn’t creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have made their crude and frequently violent show about prepubescent boys a live action series just as easily, if not cheaper?

The reason they don’t is simple: an animated overweight boy using expletives every other sentence while making sex jokes is funny because the animation separates the joke from reality.

“Good Boys,” a new live action comedy that tries to be one part “South Park” and two parts “Superbad,” isn’t really successful at either.

And it’s true, the first time audiences see three sixth grade boys look up “porb” on Google to see people kissing or use anal beads like nunchucks is decently funny.

The problem with “Good Boys” is that the longer this gimmick goes on, the less funny and more sad things get.

A comedy from the minds that brought such middling fodder as “Bad Teacher” and “Year One,” writer/director Gene Stupnitsky and co-writer Lee Eisenberg’s new film follows Max, Lucas and Thor – three outcast sixth graders calling themselves “the Bean Bag Boys.”

Through a typically ridiculous series of convoluted events, the trio must trade a medicine bottle filled with ecstasy for Max’s father’s drone helicopter that crashed into a neighbor’s yard in order to attend a “kissing party.”

What “Good Boys” has going for it is three likeable young stars, led by one of the best child actors in Hollywood today, Jacob Tremblay.

Best known for the 2015 Oscar-nominated drama “Room” and the 2017 family drama “Wonder,” Tremblay exudes a wholesome kindness that radiates off the screen. He brings this naturally endearing quality to Max that quickly fades away once he tries on S&M leather and the swear words start flying.

Brady Noon plays Thor evenly as the character’s bad boy exterior naturally clashes (for the sake of comedy) with his love of singing and musical theater.

The best performance of the trio is offered by Keith L. Williams as Lucas, the most strait-laced member whose parents are about to get a divorce.

Williams hits his punch lines hard knowing they’re intended for laughs, but this is rarely as overdone as it may seem.

The film’s supporting cast isn’t given much room to play with; “Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte is here for show more than anything.

A surprisingly effective cameo from Stephen Merchant does bring one of the film’s few genuine laughs, however.

The crude premise of “Good Boys” isn’t exactly the film’s downfall. In better hands, this could be a largely entertaining affair.

But Stupnitsky and Eisenberg bring so little new to the table that “Good Boys” feels like an empty middle school rehash of “Superbad.”

That this film is being dropped in the middle of August while school starts back up should be a red flag. August is where underperforming movies go to die.

Same with the fact that one of the film’s producers, Seth Rogen of “Superbad” fame, is touted in marketing for the movie despite not appearing in it.

It’s the kind of comedy helped by watching the trailer as few times as possible. When all the jokes can be crammed into a two minute sizzle reel, you know you’re on the wrong track.

“Good Boys” is the kind of movie that will live on in frat houses eight years from now when the sixth graders this film is actually intended for will be old enough to drink while watching it.

It’s the third best film to be released this weekend behind the feel-good Bruce Springsteen- infused period musical flick “Blinded By The Light” and the better than it could have been Richard Linklater dramedy “Where’d You Go Bernadette.”

Save your money and watch this middle-school raunch fest on basic cable as it’s intended.

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The Souvenir: Love and other drugs

Joanna Hogg doesn’t make life easy on her audience.

Subtlety and layers of hidden context abound in her latest feature, “The Souvenir,” a semi-autobiographical drama she wrote and directed about a young film student’s destructive love affair with an older man set in the 1980s.

Audiences are shown bits of Julie and Anthony’s time together in a piecemeal, fragmented way that’s part slice of lice, part melodrama and unlike any romance film viewers have likely seen before.

“The Souvenir” plays out like a memory piece, following Julie down the rabbit hole of a relationship she’s unprepared to have consume her so deeply.

Honor Swinton Byrne is astonishing as the idyllic ingenue of privilege whose inexperience living in a middle-class world is overwhelmed by Anthony’s increasing presence in her life.

Byrne approaches the role with a genuine naivety that goes beyond the fact that “The Souvenir” is her first major on-screen performance. It’s often as if Julie is dipping her toes into the real world for the first time, scene by scene, growing and changing in subtle ways that even she fails to recognize.

Tom Burke gives Anthony a dismissive distance that evokes an impression of callousness warmed or at least charmed by Julie’s infatuation. Over the course of the film, Burke reveals Anthony’s darker eccentricities slowly and meticulously so as to remove the veil from the eyes of both Julie and the audience in such a way that reveals Anthony’s true self while keeping Julie’s heart in the palm of his hand.

“The Souvenir” is a portrait of an artist struggling to define herself based on a submissive relationship with a domineering personality. Whether that portrait is of Julie the character, Joanna the filmmaker or somewhere in between is the film’s greatest unanswerable question.

Some audiences will find “The Souvenir” inaccessibly distant and cold for a variety of reasons: the film languishes in minutia rather than advancing plot in a significant way, there’s always a hidden double meaning lying under the surface of every scene, many conversations are technical meta-commentary on Hogg making the film audiences are watching in real time.

Viewers have been conditioned to expect reliability from filmmakers on a narrative structure and other basic conceits of dialogue and character development that Hogg ignores here.

It feels impossible to fully determine on an initial viewing whether events in “The Souvenir” happen linearly, are spiraling downward in circles or mismatched across the timeline as if they are moments in a dream coming into focus at random.

The same can be said about the reality of “The Souvenir” in a much more compelling way.

The things that happen to Julie within the main structure of the film appear to coexist with Julie’s work filming a fictional world based on her experiences that’s also layered within Hogg’s semi-autobiographical screenplay.

Complex cinematography also plays a role here. Hogg layers her film with old photographs and Super-8 footage Hogg took in her youth that’s meant to represent Julie’s developing work.

Blended with director of photography David Raedeker’s work in both film and digital crafted to look like 16 mm film, “The Souvenir” has a constantly fluid, changing visual style that magnifies the haze of memory the film aspires.

Acute audiences will rightfully find themselves questioning each scene, wondering where things are going or, more to the point, where things might have been. It’s a rare and provoking concept to formulate a feature film around, incredibly meta and a way to accent mood and character over plot.

“The Souvenir” seems better suited for a major showing at the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) rather than the Oscars as Hogg’s feature is likely to be a frontrunner for Outstanding British Film and the Rising Star award for Byrne.

A complex look at the power of infatuation, “The Souvenir” certainly earns its place among the year’s best films and multiple screenings can only enhance one’s understanding and appreciation for Hogg’s introspective work.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette: Charmingly quirky

Film adaptations of popular novels are pretty commonplace.

There’s an agreed upon story structure, character development and even dialogue to pull from source material for the screenplay. Films become the living embodiment of the images we get in our heads while reading.

But what happens when you’re traditionally adapting untraditionally written storytelling?

Such is the case with director Richard Linklater’s newest film, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” a theatrical take on Maria Semple’s bestselling 2012 novel of the same name.

Written largely in Semple’s novel as emails, memos and transcripts, “Bernadette” the film is just as exceptionally eccentric as its titular character.

Cate Blanchett is delightfully strange as Bernadette, a reclusive mother and former architect who disappears suddenly just before leaving for a vacation to Antarctica with her rich husband and bright-eyed teenage daughter.

At first, Bernadette’s peculiarities are presented as humorous frivolities, but these traits hold deeper meaning and give Blanchett ample room to work within a unique character.

Armed with a wry wit on a quick trigger, Blanchett is ideal to bring Bernadette to life as the Oscar-winning actress has a confident matter-of-fact-ness in the role that is believable rather than caricature.

As audiences join Bernadette on her journey of self-doubt and discovery, Blanchett makes the character so winning that’s hard not to want to spend endless time with Bernadette at any point along the way.

Viewers’ attachment to Bernadette is also attributable to a charming performance from newcomer Emma Nelson as Bernadette’s daughter Bee.

Nelson is refreshing to watch on screen and a perfect foil for Bernadette, a woman Bee simultaneously challenges and adores in an idyllically quirky mother/daughter relationship. The young actress, who also narrates segments of the film, gives audiences someone to identify with easily and Bee’s wide-eyed, unwavering fondness for her mother impresses similar feelings onto the viewer.

Billy Crudup gives a solid effort as Bernadette’s caring but inattentive husband Elgie while veteran comedic actresses Kristen Wiig and Judy Greer are likable in limited screen time.

Yet the whole supporting cast – save for a terrific scene with Lawrence Fishburne – seems to structurally take a backseat to Blanchett.

Their subplots and scenes without Bernadette are less enjoyable as they are largely inconsequential, and it often feels like time better spent following Blanchett around some more.

This could be attributed to the screenplay, which nails Bernadette’s voice but lacks in cohesion.

Linklater works with co-screenwriters Holly Gent and Vince Palmo to adapt Semple’s novel in creative ways.

Bernadette dictates emails into her smartphone; her backstory is segmented in old news broadcasts and YouTube videos.

The filmmakers work tirelessly to bring a two-dimensional Bernadette off pages of written documents unusual in a normal model but fail to develop the world around her as thoroughly.

In this respect, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” feels a bit thin.

For Linklater, this represents perhaps the softest, gentlest film he’s ever directed. It’s a meandering, unbalanced effort that often lacks the panache his most ardent fans might come to expect from the director of “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock” and “Boyhood.”

But “Bernadette” is a quaint, simple movie that will warm hearts over the course of two hours and should have a long shelf life as an easily rewatchable film you might put on in the background while cooking or trying to relax on the couch.

Though its luster may wane the further removed you are from it, “Bernadette” is a refreshingly charming film with another exceptional Blanchett performance that’s well worth a trip to theaters.

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The Farewell: The value of a good lie

Many of the best films are personal, whether they be exact recreations of past events in the lives of those making them or simple adaptations of real life.

Writer/director Lulu Wang took a unique cultural moment from her own life for her second feature film, “The Farewell.”

“Based on an actual lie” as the film’s title card states, “The Farewell” fictionalizes a pivotal moment in Wang’s family as the structure for an intimate examination of life, joy and identity, both personal and cultural.

Billi, a Chinese-American immigrant, returns to China when her grandmother Nai Nai is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The film is a touching portrait of a multi-generational family in turmoil as they decide not to tell Nai Nai of her diagnosis but plan a rushed wedding as an excuse for family to see her one last time.

Designed as an ensemble piece, the acting in “The Farewell” is strong throughout and yet it’s the relationship between Billi and Nai Nai that carries the heart and soul of Wang’s film.

Actress and rapper Awkwafina gives her best, most dramatic performance to date in her first leading role as Billi.

The usually demonstrative performer takes a measured approach to the character, often saying more with a look than words in an emotional, personal turn. This isn’t to say that Awkwafina lacks comedically here, as the moments of humor are delivered with ease.

Awkwafina’s ability to take heavier material and play it authenticity is a wonderful surprise that makes “The Farewell” something special.

However, the film’s true star is Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai, a perfect burst of warmth every time she appears on screen.

The first-time performer is tailor made for the pivotal role of grandmother and family matriarch with a presence that is equally regal and vibrant.

“The Farewell” works as well as it does because audiences are able to easily relate to and fall in love with Zhao’s natural performance. For 90 minutes, she is the audience’s “Nai Nai,” the Chinese word for grandmother.

Subtle and soulful, “The Farewell” is a masterful demonstration of restraint. It’s a film that could have easily been pushed to its comedic and dramatic limits with forceful, awards-bait exaggerations of dialogue.

Wang and her cast take a carefully considered, nuanced approach to the storytelling, giving moments time to breathe naturally without pulling away from the invasive awkwardness viewers will certainly feel at times throughout the film.

This does not mean that “The Farewell” is excessive with its time. Wang smartly jump cuts from scene to scene (or occasionally within the same moment) to give audiences the feeling of time or location changing without actually spending the time to show the action on screen.

Wang insists on a present audience to engage with her film, one that can react to moments as they happen naturally without prompting on the part of the filmmakers.

This is especially true when it comes to the shrewd decision to make “The Farewell” a multi-lingual piece of cinema.

Rather than force characters to speak English instead of their native language to accommodate American audiences, much of “The Farewell” is spoken in Mandarin with English subtitles. This language barrier plays as a character point for Billi, whose Chinese is admittedly not great, and allows for her to openly communicate with family members in English without Nai Nai understanding.

“The Farewell” is assured to be a top awards contender on the independent circuit. Though its place come Oscar season is less certain, Wang’s film is one of two features to be released so far in 2019 – “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” being the other – that could make major waves at the Academy Awards.

Wang could easily be nominated for her well-crafted screenplay and direction, while Awkwafina and Zhao are certainly worthy of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominations respectively.

Powerfully subdued and thoughtful, “The Farewell” is a terrific independent film that will remain among the year’s best and one that is worth seeking out in theaters.

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Hobbs And Shaw: 2 Fast 2 Furious 2 Care

Remember that small dramatic action flick from 2001 about boosting cars?

Seven movies later, it’s harder and harder to remember that “The Fast and the Furious” was about a Los Angeles cop going undercover to infiltrate a gang of automobile thieves.

A prime victim of the money-hungry quest of studios to franchise everything, a small crime drama has become an international box office sensation that’s now spinning off characters into their own burgeoning franchise.

Hence, “Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw,” a bombastic, jet-setting adventure hoping to draw interest from moviegoers to watch the intelligence officer from “Fast Five” reluctantly team up with the bad guy from “Furious 7.”

This concept alone isn’t a draw. But when action heavyweights like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham are involved; studios start to dream in dollar signs.

As each movie in the franchise becomes more outlandish, the stakes continue to rise exponentially.

With “Hobbs and Shaw,” intelligence agencies force the titular rivals to work together to locate Shaw’s sister Hattie, an on-the-run MI6 agent who has injected herself with a virus that could wipe out half the planet’s population.

Johnson has the charisma to take another blandly written character and inject enough vibrant humor to make a two-hour joyride at least engaging, while Statham is best ripping off dry witticisms at Johnson’s expense rather than anything he’s doing on his own.

Golden Globe winner Idris Elba plays a cybernetically enhanced villain bent on unleashing the deadly virus world-wide. Though it’s clear Elba is only here to cash a paycheck that will allow him to continue high-quality independent film work, it’s still sad to see the talented actor and potential next James Bond mail in a performance like this.

Appreciably funnier than any “Fast and the Furious” installment, “Hobbs and Shaw” relies both on the solid chemistry of Johnson and Statham as well as some painfully obvious cameos to give the spinoff its own identity.

Director David Leitch pushes the film more towards his “Deadpool 2,” but rated PG-13 territory rather than his significantly better small action hit “Atomic Blonde.” The stuntman turned director shows promise with his vision, but it’s often uneven and panders too much to “Fast and the Furious” tropes rather than set the film apart too much.]

The best scene in the entire film is a well-choreographed, story advancing slow motion action sequence that pits Johnson and Statham against Elba late in the third act. Leitch blends fight mechanics that hint at his uncredited work co-directing the original “John Wick” film with a classic “Fast and the Furious” kinetic energy to pay off much of what the prior two hours lazily sets up.

Action throughout the rest of the film is less successful as much of the frenetic driving sequences feel ripped straight off the cutting room floor of other “Fast and the Furious” installments.

Things are also hindered by the fact that contractual stipulations as reported by the Wall Street Journal this week limit the amount of damage Johnson and Statham’s characters are able to take, often giving them superhuman resilience that weakens the story overall.

“Hobbs and Shaw” is not a comic book film, but casual audiences could easily mistake it for a new superhero flick given just how incredibly well both leads come off in the film.

Stakes in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, for example, continue to accelerate at an exponential rate, but those films succeed in a more grounded nature as Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt’s mortality comes to a fuller bear.

The outlandishness of the stunt-work in “Hobbs and Shaw,” combined with the limitations put upon the storytelling due to the egotistical stars, makes it significantly harder for audiences to suspend disbelief.

Written at a “straight-to-DVD” level but produced on a blockbuster budget, “Hobbs and Shaw” has its moments, but wavers considerably on the enjoyment level.

It’s a film that would be best to catch while flipping channels on basic cable right before “Fast & Furious 9” hits theaters next year.