+

Jojo Rabbit: A funny thing about Adolf Hitler

Comedy is the ultimate playground for escapism, for letting the worries and cares of daily life fade away in order to decompress and unwind.

The best comedies, though, usually have unexpectedly a little bit more to say on their minds than first glance might suggest.

There’s a hysterical new comedy hitting theaters this fall that combines a stellar, side-splitting screenplay and award-worthy performances.

It’s also about Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust.

“Jojo Rabbit,” the latest creation from avant-garde New Zealand writer/director/actor Taika Waititi, is brazenly unlike any other movie in 2019, boldly colorful and wildly subversive, a constant romp of a good time sure to put a smile on many adults’ faces this fall.

Loosely adapted from the 2008 novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens, “Jojo Rabbit” peers into the world of Nazi Germany through the eyes of 10-year-old Johannes, a deeply patriotic boy attending his first Hitler Youth camp alongside his imaginary friend, a childlike caricature of Adolf Hitler. After finding a Jewish girl in hiding, Jojo’s world changes drastically.

Making his feature film debut, Roman Griffin Davis is a perfect protagonist for Waititi’s dark comedy. Easy to root for in spite of the outrageous venom that spews from the mouth of a Hitler youth, Davis displays genuine heart and naivety that transcends the hate and allows the dialogue to feel comically satirical.

The openness Davis brings to his performance works wonders with the film’s female cast, especially Scarlett Johannson in a winning supporting turn as Jojo’s mother and indie darling Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the Jewish teen in hiding Jojo stumbles upon.

Waititi assembles a terrific supporting cast to bring the humor while maintaining dramatic heart with Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant as a Gestapo agent as standouts among the secondary characters.

As is the case with many of his films, however, the comedic scene-stealer in “Jojo Rabbit” is Waititi himself, demonstrably absurd and quirky as the imaginary Adolf. Waititi brilliantly creates this version of the Nazi leader through the mind of his 10-year-old title character, which gives his Adolf a buffoonish quality for comedy. This also allows audiences to peer inside Jojo’s mind as he grows and changes over the course of the film, with Waititi’s Adolf reflecting the inner conflict of a child in war-torn Germany in a sensationally original way.

“Jojo Rabbit” is smarter both as a film and a screenplay than its colorful, simplistic exterior might suggest. It’s true that Waititi’s latest feature is creatively absurdist and revels in the comedy of truly hateful speech.

It also has earth-shattering moments of poignancy in stark reminder that the lessons of the past need to be heeded lest they return. The film’s unofficial moniker of being an “anti-hate satire” is incredibly apt.

The satirical ridiculousness of “Jojo Rabbit” lands big laughs throughout, but there’s some unintended collateral damage that may find audiences uncomfortably giggling at Jewish stereotypes in a more derogatory fashion than one might find in a Mel Brooks film.

However, there’s a deceptive amount of heart to the film, thanks in large part to Davis’ brilliant innocence in the title role and Johannson’s earnest compassion. “Jojo Rabbit” may be a lighthearted romp for most of its 100-minute running time, but it packs a wallop of dramatic punch at the core of the film.

It’s quite conceivable that an outlandish, almost garish satire like “Jojo Rabbit” could be a major player come awards season as Waititi’s movie is certainly one of the 10 best films of 2019.

An outside contender for a Best Picture Oscar nomination, the film is more likely to receive an adapted screenplay nod than anything else, although Johannson’s strong work here should boost her nomination and win chances for a leading role in the upcoming Netflix drama “Marriage Story.”

Boldly creative in the style of Wes Anderson but with his own satirical quirks, Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” is among 2019’s best films and a movie certainly worth seeking out on the nearest big screen.

+

Parasite: South Korean masterpiece one of decade’s best films

Spoiler alert: The best film of 2019 doesn’t star Leonardo DiCaprio and isn’t directed by Martin Scorsese.

Average American audiences probably haven’t heard of filmmaker Bong Joon Ho or his frequent collaborator Kang-ho Song, but their latest feature together is the best South Korean film of all time and a top five movie of the last decade by any measure.

“Parasite,” a haunting and arresting drama with elements of comedy and paranoia, took home the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with a dynamic, unflinching look at families at the top and bottom of South Korea’s social strata.

The less audiences know about the film before seeing “Parasite,” the better the cinematic experience will be.

Twists and turns masterfully crafted into the story will be offset by moments of extremely poignant subtlety as Bong envelopes audiences in a world that seems infinitely close and yet constantly out of reach through perfect shot selection and camera movement that puts the viewers’ eyes on exactly what they need to see at the exact moment they need to see it.

In the simplest terms, “Parasite” is about two families, the affluent Park family living in a walled manor on a hill and the impoverished Kim family leeching off open Wi-Fi and free extermination in their semi-basement flat.

When the Kim’s son is hired to serve as an English tutor for the Park’s teenage daughter, it sets in motion a series of events that will irrevocably change both families for life.

“Parasite” relies on eight actors to deliver memorable, pitch-perfect performances in order to pull off Bong’s layered screenplay and there isn’t a false step among the entire cast.

Each member of the family – father, mother, son and daughter – is in sharp contrast from their mirror in the other family, as if they were playing the opposite side of the same coin, but not in a duplicate style as in Jordan Peele’s horror film “Us.”

The cast of “Parasite” excels in the variety of tones Bong moves through and the expressions lingering on the face of Kang-ho Song often allow viewers to peer inside the soul of the film.

“Parasite” translates perfectly for American audiences as Joon Ho maintains a universality to the film through thematic elements of economic class conflict, greed and deception. Its biggest hindrance to mainstream success is a relative unwillingness for subtitled films, though Bong has crafted a theatrical experience that far transcends any language barrier.

“Parasite” uses the camera frame as a reflection of the contrasting world views of the poor Kim family and rich Park family. This is most evident in the film’s geography, where staircases are frequently used to depict the upward mobility of the Parks and the downward descent of the Kims.

Production design in “Parasite” is stunningly effective as Bong’s team constructs a multi-layered mansion from scratch on an outdoor studio lot that seems all too perfect not to be an actual home.

The Parks’ living room is adorned by a massive wall-sized window into the enclosed front yard, framed to match the film’s 2:39:1 aspect ratio and enhance viewers’ ability to visually peer inside the mindset of the well-off family.

Cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong gives “Parasite” an expansive visual style that provides unique geographic perspective at all times, highlighting the space the Park family enjoys in beautiful contrast to the cramped tightness of the Kim family’s world. No matter how close the camera gets to actors, Bong maintains a wide depth of field to constantly change and accentuate the audiences’ peripheral vision.

Perspective is of key importance to “Parasite” as viewers are left questioning events in the film from every angle, not knowing what’s coming next or where it’s coming from. It’s an unparalleled combination of tension and release that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats.

“Parasite” will become the first South Korean film to be nominated for an Academy Award, an almost certain lock to win the Oscar for Best International Film. There’s potential for much more acclaim for the Palme d’Or winner from this year’s Cannes Film Festival as “Parasite” deserves to contend for Best Picture, direction, cinematography, production design and supporting actor for Song Kang-ho.

A contender for the best film of the decade, “Parasite” is a thrilling, absolute masterpiece from one of the world’s greatest auteur directors. Visually stunning and arresting from start to finish, there won’t be a better cinematic experience in theaters all year.

+

Dolemite Is My Name: Return of a comedy legend

From the moment he begins a verbal diatribe that drowns out Marvin Gaye, it’s apparent that Eddie Murphy has a special passion for his latest role.

It’s evident in the way he carries himself, in the timbre of his voice and the cadence with which he recite lyrical tongue-twisters with effortless repetition. Murphy melts into his homage to one of his mentors and heroes, actor/comedian Rudy Ray Moore, the creator of cult classic blaxploitation film “Dolemite.”

Told in a traditional biopic style, “Dolemite Is My Name” finds Murphy’s Rudy struggling to find a creative outlet after failed singing and dancing careers. When he turns the ramblings of neighborhood homeless men into a comedy act, Rudy creates the character, Dolemite, as a lyrical poet that later became known as “The Godfather of Rap.”

The film follows Rudy through many career paths and hijinks, maintaining a frantic, cavalier pace that would normally be disengaging for some audiences. But Murphy holds “Dolemite” together with an invigoratingly charming turn as Moore.

For a movie that’s as crude and risqué as the original subject, Murphy gives such an affable twist to each poetic slander and crass comment that it’s nearly impossible not to root for his Rudy regardless of how many four-letter words fly out of his mouth.

His Rudy oozes a relentlessness that reflects the passion Murphy clearly shows for the real Moore and there’s a surprising amount of emotional depth that Murphy is able to draw from that separates this performance from an average biopic. There are subtle parallels between Rudy’s rise from obscurity that pair wonderfully with the career resurgence Murphy makes in the role that critics and awards season voters will eat up.

Thankfully, this is clearly his best work since an Academy Award nominated turn in 2006’s “Dreamgirls” and perhaps the most ideal use of Murphy’s unique comedic talents since the mid-1990s.

A strong supporting cast gives “Dolemite” the depth needed to elevate beyond a simple character study and among more famous male actors, Da’Vine Joy Randolph steals large segments of the movie as Rudy’s protégé Lady Reed.

While it’s a humor-filled underdog story throughout, “Dolemite” truly hits its stride in the latter half when Rudy attempts to take his act onto the big screen by self-producing an action/comedy feature film and shooting it in an abandoned drug den.

This leads Rudy into the path of actor/director D’Urville Martin, masterfully portrayed by an almost unrecognizable Wesley Snipes. Snipes portrays D’Urville with a refined arrogance from a screen credit as an elevator operator in “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Paired in scenes opposite Murphy, Snipes attacks the dialogue with a vigorous dismissive attitude that matches Murphy in intensity but in a distinctly opposite style that elevates both actors.

The screenplay from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski follows a note-by-note underdog story that has been done many times over, but the humor and heart director Craig Brewer is able to pull from his performers along with a strong visual style thanks to cinematographer Eric Steelberg elevates “Dolemite Is My Name” to the top of the biopic genre in recent years.

Murphy deserves his second Oscar nomination for his special turn as Moore, though comedic performances like this rarely get as much recognition as dramatic efforts.

Costume designer Ruth E. Carter should be a frontrunner to win her second consecutive Academy Award in the category after taking home the trophy last year for “Black Panther.” Clothing leaps off the frame with a vibrant, charismatic flair that elevates the entire production and cements “Dolemite” in the 70s blaxploitation era. There’s a finesse to the design that keeps the costuming from becoming a caricature while maintaining an authenticity that is usually only found in rigid British character dramas.

The downside to the film’s swift release on Netflix is that “Dolemite” is the perfect film to enjoy with an enthusiastic audience as the communal nature of the comedy is ideal for a shared experience like those depicted in the film itself.

As a niche biopic, however, “Dolemite” simply won’t garner enough broad support to warrant a large theatrical run and a streaming service will give better opportunities for curious, yet unsure viewers to watch the first 10-15 minutes without committing to a whole moviegoing experience.

 

If audiences can tolerate or enjoy outright the crude humor throughout, there’s too much to like about “Dolemite Is My Name” not to give it a chance.

+

The Laundromat: The muddled world of international finance

Taking risks in filmmaking can be a bold way to put a unique spin on stories we already know well.

Biopics and other movies about historical events and figures are often chronological and stale, though recent efforts to infuse life into the genre have proven to be a welcome change.

Since writer/director Todd McKay’s darkly comic take on the financial crisis of 2008 won him Oscar nominations for his film “The Big Short,” filmmakers have blurred the lines with comedic attempts at retelling history from former White House officials in “Vice” to ice skating scandals in “I, Tonya” to the sexual harassment claims at Fox News in the upcoming “Bombshell.”

A new Netflix film attempts to join these ranks as director Steven Soderbergh takes on international tax evasion and the Panama Papers with his new feature, “The Laundromat,” a star-studded mess of a movie that bounces around far too much to be largely enjoyable.

Told in a series of vignettes, the film follows a pair of lawyers who create shell companies in order to conceal money for greedy clients. A series of seemingly unrelated incidents like insurance scams and infidelity find a common denominator in the Mossack Fonseca law firm.

In his first major role since winning an Oscar for 2017’s “Darkest Hour,” Gary Oldman ramps up a quirky accent and a wry, knowing smile as attorney Jürgen Mossack. It’s a surprising, almost baffling choice for the veteran actor who plays for the laughs that only come once in every three attempts.

There’s not enough time for Oldman to develop anything beyond a mild caricature of a man that many have heard of but few know anything of significance about.

The same can be said of Antonio Banderas’ Ramón Fonseca, the relative straight man to Oldman’s more comic portrayal. Charmingly refreshing yet forgettable, Banderas is a welcome salve for the chaos of “The Laundromat” and not memorable enough to warrant a bigger role in the film.

Oscar winner Meryl Streep stands in for hundreds of Mossack Fonseca fraud victims in a composite role as a woman digging into a fake insurance policy.

It’s vastly entertaining to watch Streep bumble about in scarves and pantsuits with a broad performance and yet there’s still a lot left on the table as Soderbergh reorients audiences to other characters despite a concerted effort to rally them behind Streep’s Ellen.

This is further exacerbated when it comes to the deep supporting cast including the likes of Jeffery Wright, James Cromwell, Sharon Stone and a host of others who feel more like passing shadows rather than characters in an ongoing story.

While “The Big Short” does a magnificent job of simplifying economic concepts for a broad audience, “The Laundromat” wobbles through these explanations and often leaves unfamiliar viewers wondering what’s actually going on.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns attempts to break these complexities apart by allowing Mossack and Fonseca to narrate each segment of the film as a sort of de facto explanation of their greed, but it becomes far too messy the further down the rabbit hole the movie travels leading to an inexplicable and poorly contrived conclusion.

It’s unclear whether this is a directorial choice or simply a poor screenwriting decision, but “The Laundromat” is significantly the lesser of Soderbergh’s two Netflix features to arrive in 2019.

His sports drama “High Flying Bird” is much more dynamic visually thanks to inventive use of iPhone cinematography and well worth checking out on Netflix over “The Laundromat.”

An October release with mainstays like Streep and Oldman in leading roles usually spells awards season success, but “The Laundromat” is far too strange a film for most voters to take seriously.

Netflix has backed off Soderbergh’s film as a contender in order to push all their chips in for writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest, the yet-to-be-released drama “Marriage Story,” and Martin Scorsese’s crime drama “The Irishman.”

Banderas has a strong likelihood for awards season consideration as well, though voters will be praising his work in Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” rather than his turn as Fonseca.

“The Laundromat” isn’t the kind of film that requires going out of the way to see in theaters but is certainly worth taking a chance on now that it’s available to stream.

+

Judy: There’s only one true Garland

When the term “Oscar bait” gets thrown around in film criticism, it’s usually in reference to a film like “Judy.”

Typically a movie with one central performance based on true events featuring showy, clip-worthy monologues destined for an awards season reel, “Oscar bait” is a film cliché used to describe movies that wouldn’t exist if studios couldn’t buy their way to winning accolades.

The story writes itself, a former Academy Award winner with nothing much of substance on her resume in many years makes her comeback bringing to life a classic Hollywood icon.

Critics, audiences and, most importantly, award voters are supposed to revel in this sort of pandering because it honors not just the performer bringing the part to life, but the person being honored with the biopic.

It’s a standard model used to great success by the likes of Rami Malek in last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Gary Oldman in 2017’s “Darkest Hour” and Meryl Streep in 2011’s “The Iron Lady.”

This time, the performer is Oscar winner Renée Zellweger and the role is that of Hollywood starlet Judy Garland in the final years of her life.

“Judy” finds the illustrious Garland in her mid-40s, broke and trying to make a living with a concert series at London’s Talk of the Town revue so she can purchase a home for her two young children.

It’s a meandering, melodramatic biopic adapted from the award-winning play “End of the Rainbow,” that veteran stage director Rupert Goold brought to the big screen as a sweeping musical drama hinging on a knockout lead performance which just doesn’t get there.

Zellweger’s Garland feels like her Roxie Hart from 2002’s “Chicago” imitating Liza Minnelli, an over-exaggeration that neither says anything new about the subject nor comes across as anything but someone delivering lines as if every word were italicized.

The Oscar winner has no discernable on-screen chemistry with anyone she shares a scene opposite, least of all Finn Wittrock and his caricature turn as Garland’s future husband Mickey Deans.

This makes the quick, deep relationship the two form at a party hosted by Minnelli all the more baffling. Audiences can’t buy into their connection and when things inevitably begin to get rocky, Garland’s devastation feels excessive and frivolous.

The film relies heavily on nostalgia on the part of its viewers to enjoy montages set to classic Garland tunes like “The Trolley Song” and “Get Happy” that establish the illusion of a quality performance. Zellweger genuinely sings her heart out, but the entire affair is far too contrived to ever really resonate with audiences.

“Judy” goes to great lengths to inform Garland’s final years by showing a young Judy in flashbacks being tormented by the weight of stardom and a Harvey Weinstein-esque controlling producer Louis B. Mayer.

These flashbacks are done in traditional biopic style and yet lack consistency throughout the film. A large 45-minute segment in the middle third of the film could have used one of these flashbacks to break up the monotony of the latent melodrama.

Darci Shaw gives the film’s best performance as a doe-eyed young Garland, though Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge don’t give her Judy much to do besides being mildly rebellious before submitting to the rigors of the studio system.

Much of the rest of the supporting cast is talented, yet entirely forgettable as the screenplay muddles through Garland’s London run with a bittersweet awe culminating in the most ridiculously contrived final number in recent movie musical history.

Regardless of the picture as a whole, Zellweger is far too popular in much too big a role not to be a surefire nominee for Best Actress come awards season and is the clear frontrunner to win her second Academy Award. However, viewers looking for a dynamic performance about a singer coming apart at the seams should check out the vastly superior and shamefully underseen “Her Smell” with Elizabeth Moss.

Somewhere over the rainbow, there’s a good film to be made about the life of a Hollywood icon like Garland.

Unfortunately, “Judy” largely misses the mark and will be forgotten as soon as Zellweger’s seemingly certain acceptance speech concludes.

+

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.

+

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.

+

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.

+

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.

+

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.

+

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.

+

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.