Friday, October 11, 2019

Joker (2019) - Review

Joker, the movie, is very much like a detailed sculpture that was crafted by a true master craftsman. I've been reflecting on what I experienced for almost a day now, and find myself still peeling layers and identifying new ways to interpret the film. From this perspective, I dare call this sculpture a masterpiece. But for sure I don't want to have this sculpture in my living room... or even see it again!

First, let me preface this review by saying that I am a hardcore fan of the Batman mythology and hence, better-versed in the history of Joker than the general public. I have read most (if not all) of the seminal Joker stories, and consider The Killing Joke (by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland) and Mad Love (by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm) to be the top two defining character studies. One thing that both have in common is depicting the Joker's chaotic thought process vividly. A key quote from the Killing Joke, by the Joker, is: "if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!". The Mad Love also shows how Joker fabricates different stories in order to manipulate others - in that particular case, his mark was his psychiatrist, Dr. Harleen Quinzel who later transformed into Harley Quinn. Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight also adopted this in Joker's characterization. Case in point: "You wanna know how I got these scars?"

I initially had an apprehension towards the 2019 movie thinking that the "multiple choice" aspect of Joker's past is going to be lost with a movie focusing solely on the character's origin. While the movie covers one cohesive story line, it makes the viewer question what part of it was real and what was in Arthur Fleck's mind. His name even could be a sad joke, implying that he was just a fleck of little to no significance.

The Arthur in this story is a mental health patient who laughs uncontrollably when he gets emotional (happy, sad, nervous, or stressed) and lives with his ailing mother, Penny. He earns a living as a party clown working for the HaHa agency in the rougher parts of Gotham City. After the city cuts down the budget on social services, Arthur is left without professional support and access to his medication.

On one bad day (referring to the theme from The Killing Joke), Arthur is fired from the agency for taking a gun to a children's hospital - a gun that maybe a colleague gave it to him or maybe he bought it himself... On a train ride, three businessmen pick on Arthur. He kills two of them in self-defence and chases after the third one on an empty train and catches up with him in an empty station to shoot him in point blank. The murders are reported in the press in the following days - some call it an abhorrent crime by a serial killer, and some call it vigilante justice by the disenfranchised...

The two other plot threads that we follow before the third act are the romantic relationship that Arthur establishes with his neighbour, and also the information about Arthur's parentage and childhood. The final act takes a leap of faith in how Arthur instigates a revolution in the city, but again, we are just seeing what Arthur sees.

The themes of ambiguity and unreliable narration make it much in line with Joker's personality and chaotic mind. The audience is left questioning how much of it was real, and how much of it was actually happening in Joker's mind. One clue that I'm certain was not accidental was two clocks (one in the asylum in the very beginning of the movie, and one at the HaHa agency) showing 11:11 - the exact time that many people make a wish upon noticing.  Is it all wishful thinking inside Arthur's mind? Was he at the mental hospital the whole time? Or did most of it actually happen? Well... a good Joker story keeps it multiple choice!

Joaquin Phoenix's acting is certainly Oscar worthy. The pain in his eyes, the laughs (from crying laughs to the one that was actually genuine), the body language to the the way he ran, are all going to be studied by acting students for many years to come! Todd Phillips is also deserving of all the praise that he's receiving for his masterful direction. He was a writer and producer on the film as well!

It might be obvious from all the praise that I consider this film a masterpiece and worthy of a 10/10 score! However, it was an uncomfortable experience and I may never watch it again. I only recommend it to true fans of the character, and those who appreciate a finely crafted character study (although very disturbing).

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Rambo: Last Blood (2019) - Review

As a life-long fan of Sylvester Stallone, I was very much excited for the supposed last entry in the Rambo franchise. What seemed to be an analogue to Logan (2017 - Wolverine's swan song) , turned out to be a cross between Taken and Home Alone!

The movie picks up almost a decade after the fourth film with John Rambo breeding horses in his father's ranch. We are quickly introduced to the two other residents on the ranch: a family friend (a middle-aged Mexican woman) and her niece, who is seemingly Rambo's god-daughter. The young girl is about to leave town for college, but before getting too far from her hometown, despite Rambo's warnings she decides to go on a road trip to Mexico to meet her long-lost biological father .

The god-daughter meets and gets rejected by her absentee father, and later that night, is abducted by the cartel and forced into prostitution. Cue in the plot from Taken where the old man goes to save the young girl... After the rescue operation, the cartel is looking for retaliation and they decide to attack Rambo at his home. The last 30 minutes of the movie is split between Rambo setting traps, followed by the cartel facing violent deaths.

The plot is thin and derivative, and the characters are poorly developed. John Rambo does not change much compared to the previous movies - the only bit of development comes from a short monologue by Rambo explaining how his love for his god-daughter changed his outlook for a while... The characters are also either extremely evil in case of the cartel members, or portrayed as heavenly angels (i.e., the god-daughter and her aunt). Worst of all, the pacing is slow too. The 89-minute runtime felt much longer...

I've been a fan of both Rocky and Rambo franchises, and have a lot of respect for Sylvester Stallone and how he started from zero and made himself the powerhouse that has been for the last four decades. Despite this favourable bias, I only recommend watching this movie to hardcore fans once it hits the streaming services.
I give Rambo: Last blood a 5/10.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019) - Review

Quentin Tarantino's ninth movie is a love letter to Hollywood and filmmaking. Tarantino the director is at his very best in constructing beautiful long shots and getting the best performance from his actors. Tarantino the writer, however, has written a fan fiction with inconsistencies, non-organic tonal changes, and unearned subversion of expectations.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the character of Rick Dalton, a former A-list TV actor who is past his prime and has been relegated to guest appearances as the villain in other TV shows. His loyal stunt double, Cliff Booth - played by Brad Pitt, has his destiny tied to Dalton's star power. Besides these two fictional character, the rest are real people acting or residing in Hollywood in 1969.

The first 90 minutes out of the 161-minute runtime of the movie is very much about how movies and TV shows were (and still are) made, rise and fall of fame, and the struggles of show business. As a life-long fan of movies, I very much enjoyed this part and I simply couldn't get enough! Not tonally, but spiritually, it was similar to Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar from 2016. DiCaprio was phenomenal acting as an actor on a production (very meta!), and how he dealt with an identity crisis. Brad Pitt also made me believe he had been a stunt performer all his life! As the trailers have shows, there are short appearances by other prominent Hollywood figures from 1969 (including Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski, and James Stacey).

The latter hour of the movie transforms from a character study to a horror film when Brad Pitt's character visits the Spahn Movie Ranch after giving a ride to a member of the Manson family. The horror and thriller aspects reach their peak with Manson's disciples trip to Hollywood. This section is where the tone changes unexpectedly with a rather long narration by Kurt Russell.  What was disorienting most about this narration was the fact that Kurt Russell had appeared earlier as a stuntman, and really had no reason to be the omniscient narrator 90 minutes into the movie!

We also spend a few minutes looking at Margot Robbie (acting as Sharon Tate), watching a Sharon Tate movie! It's bordering on spoilers territory, but inclusion of Sharon Tate in "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" did not contribute to the plot one iota other than subverting an expectation near the end!

Tarantino has expressed in interviews that he was a huge fan of Sharon Tate in his childhood, and this gives the impression that he simply wanted to write a fan fiction to appease his teenage self. I'm sure almost everyone has created scenarios about their childhood celebrity crushes in their minds. Of course, only an infinitesimal portion of us have the power and resources to make a movie based on the fan fiction. Quentin Tarantino is among that select few...

The movie's high points are its actors' performances as well as the beautiful shots of Los Angeles. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is still a pretty good film, but I'd rank it seventh out of the nine that Tarantino has made (above Hateful Eight and Death Proof), and give it a 7.5/10.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019) - Review

Calling the last five years a Spider-Man renaissance would be an understatement! Tom Holland's rendition stole the show in Captain America: Civil War in 2016. We saw his solo movie - Spider-Man: Homecoming - in 2017.  It was followed by Spider-Man's major role in Avengers Infinity Stone and Endgame, and now we have the character again in Far from Home. In addition, alternative versions of the character starred in the magnificent PS4 game and also the spectacular genre-bending Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 2018... In this particular (and rare) situation, too much of a good thing is still good!

Far from Home picks up a few months after Avengers: Endgame and shows the world in the aftermath of that event. Considering the huge personal toll of those events on Peter Parker, our hero needs a vacation more than ever, and luckily, his school is going to take the class on a tour around European. Keeping up with the spirit of the comic books and every prior portrayal, Spider-Man can never have an easy time and something needs to go wrong... The emergence of the "Elementals" in Europe makes Nick Fury draft Spider-Man into action to assist Quentin Beck - the stranger from another Earth! Beck or "Mysterio" is indeed a mysterious character with mind-bending powers. His full set of abilities manifest after the 75-minute mark, and in my opinion, this film's portrayal of those powers blows everything that comics and cartoons had done in the past right out of the water - this by itself is a truly commendable feat to make live-action more fantastical than animation!

Since this review is intended to be spoiler-free, I'll avoid discussing the plot twists, which may not be too surprising to those familiar with the lore, but even for them, there are still quite a few pleasant surprises! Once the twists were fully revealed, I saw parallels with Iron-Man 3 and Batman Forever, but as always, Marvel and Kevin Feige take escapism to its highest level and give the audience a truly fun and pleasant experience. There are also two after-credit scenes that give you a different perspective about the film and somewhat warrant a second viewing...

Taking a step back from this particular movie, I never saw any part of myself in Spider-Man (even as an idealized fantasy); hence I never wanted to be him. But he is a great character that I always enjoyed; whether it was the cartoons or the video games. Going back to something I had written in the past, a good protagonist is someone that you either want to be, or be with (not necessarily in a sexual way) - better say spend time with... Tom Holland gives the best live-action portrayal of that character, and the fact that we can still enjoy that many appearances of the Spider-Man within the last four years is a testament to how great his interpretation is!

Going back to this particular movie though, it was a solid a 9/10!

Friday, June 28, 2019

Good Omens (2019) - Reivew

The TLDR review of Good Omens mini-series: zany comedy, bromance, biblical!

It is rare in Hollywood when the writer of a book gets to adapt it to screen. Neil Gaiman, who co-wrote Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, is continuing his conquest of the small screen (after the fantastic American Gods) with another societal commentary with dark comedy undertones in the mini-series co-produced by Amazon and BBC.

The story starts at the Garden of Eden when Crowley, in his snake form, tempts Eve to take a bite from the forbidden fruit. We all know that the fruit of knowledge came with a hefty price, which was exile from heaven. To help them survive on vicious earth, Aziraphale, the guardian of Eden's east gate, gives Adam and Eve his flaming sword for protection. The show sets its tone when Crowley the demon and Aziraphale the angel (masterfully played by David Tennant and Michael Sheen) stand by the walls of Heaven and debate whether they acted according or against their nature; that is, did the demon actually perform a good deed for Adam and Eve by offering them the fruit of knowledge? Did the angel actually doom humanity by giving them the flaming sword?... These moral questions continue on throughout the rest of the show, particularly in the fantastic episode three, where we see how the angel and demon became best friends during the 6000 year biblical history.

Aziraphale and Crowley are merely ambassadors of their respective head offices on earth. Heaven and Hell are of course at constant battle, which may come to an end soon with the birth of Satan's son, the Anti-Christ. Aziraphale and Crowley have grown fond of life on earth, hence, want to prevent armageddon at all costs. They keep a close eye on Anti-Christ -- ironically named Adam -- and constantly ask us whether there is such a thing as absolute good or absolute evil? What is the role of nature versus nurture? Are we supposed to understand every plan or should we accept "ineffability" of the Almighty's plans? As I mentioned, the show is strongly rooted in biblical mythology, but does not take a religious stance with regards to its underlying message.

While the show sets up a possible sequel, it is still a self-contained story with fantastic acting by the leads and a phenomenal soundtrack (well, all Queen's songs). My only gripe is with some of the computer-generated images that look outdated for 2019, but the story is interesting enough that the CGI does not distract at all.

Good Omens is a solid 9/10!

Friday, May 31, 2019

John Wick 3: Parabellum (2019) - Review

John Wick and the highly stylized world of suave assassins and sophisticated murderers have not lost their appeal yet! Actually, the deep lore of this universe is ripe for the picking in future instalments of the franchise. Needless to say that John Wick Chapter 3 is not a dramatic movie with a touching story, but a purely entertaining experience with new genre-defining standards for stunt work.

The movie picks up mere minutes after the previous chapter with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) on the run from all the assassins in New York - who are interestingly a significant portion of NYC's population. Winston (played by the incomparable Ian McShane), the manager of the Continental Hotel in New York, declared John exocmmunicado from the guild, but gave him an hour head start. Once the grace period is up, a bounty of $14 million is placed on his head and goes up by the hour.  John reaches out to different factions of the guild, who all still operate under the supervision of the High Table, and cashes in all the favours they owe him in an attempt to buy in more time...

As I mentioned, it is not a deep story and can be simply summarized as 'John Wick fights to save his life'. But the visual spectacle of Keanu Reeves going through hordes and hordes of increasingly tougher enemies is a sight to behold. Very much like Mad Max: The Fury Road, it is a cinematic experience that needs to be seen on the big screen. Stories of John Wick and Mad Max may not make the best and most rewarding reading material, but they saturate your visual sensory channels in the most pleasing way!

My two minor gripes with John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum are the following: i) John's reason for wanting to stay alive was thin and was not really necessary to express in the first place, and ii) some of the fights in the last act dragged on for a little too long and desensitized me to the stylized violence - maybe it was just too much of a good thing... But these two minor issues aside, John Wick chapter 3 "has served and it will be of service" to the fans of the genre.

Hats off to Keanu Reeves for his dedication to the craft, and Chad Stahelski - the director - for the magnificent visual experience. Despite minor flaws, it was a 10/10 for me.
Si vis pacem, para bellum! 

Monday, May 20, 2019

Game of Thrones - S08E06 Recap and Review

SPOILERS follow...

Picking up from sacking and burning of Kings Landing, we catch up with Tyrion and Jon Snow who are visibly shaken and in shock. Queen Daenerys finally lands on the ground with Drogon in the background taking off shortly, giving the image of Daenerys spreading her wings. She addresses her unsullied and Dothraki soldiers and tells them that the conquest of Kings Landing was just the beginning, and she plans to 'liberate' every city and kingdom on the map. Jon Snow is not quite comfortable with these sentiments, but as a man of his word, he does not dare question his queen. Tyrion, though, takes off the hand-of-the-queen pin and throws it away in disdain. Daenerys is of courses offended by this insult, and orders her unsullied soldiers to take Tyrion to a cell (rather than burning or executing him right there, which she should have).

Jon visits Tyrion in the cell. Both are concerned with the mental state of their queen. Jon is in love with Daenerys and is also loyal to her by oath. He remembers Maester Aemon (a Targaryen by blood) of the Nights Watch and his quote of "love is the death of duty". Tyrion flips it around and says sometimes "duty is the death of love". This wordplay, along with a reference to Sansa, is enough to turn Jon against Daenerys. He goes to the throne room and meets up with Daenerys. She is walking towards the Iron Throne and examining one of the thousand sword hilts that formed the throne; this image is an exact recreation of a vision that Daenerys had back in season 2... Jon voices his concerns with Dany's "liberation agenda", but she tries to convince him that they (the Targaryens) know best... Jon tells her that she is and will always be his queen and then proceeds to kiss her. Daenerys suddenly pulls back in horror and we see a knife piercing her heart. Jon's duty to the realm made him end the life of the woman he loved.

Drogon shrieks and comes to his mother's side. He nudges Daenerys hoping to wake her up, but soon realizes that it's too late... He contemplates burning Jon (or Aegon Targaryen VI), but decides against it and instead melts the iron throne with his fire breath. Maybe he sensed the Targaryen blood in Jon and couldn't bring himself down to executing him considering the fabled blood connection between Targaryens and dragons... Drogon grabs Daenerys and flies away, hopefully to Volantis where the red priests and priestesses believe in her and might be able to bring her back to life...

We catch up with an unkept Tyrion, supposedly months after the death of Daenerys, as he is escorted by Grey Worm to the dragon pit. All the lords and ladies of the big houses are there to decide the future of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Tyrion takes the stage and says that the most important qualification for being a king is having a good story (and not benevolence, governance experience, or a competent track record...). Among all the people we know -- including Jon Snow the rightful heir who was thought to be a bastard for most of his life and served as the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, who once died and came back to life to lead the war against the undead, or Arya Stark the master assassin who travelled the world and then single handedly killed the Night King -- Brandon Stark (or Bran the Broken)  is the person with best stories, and hence, he should be king. Bran's character development in the show included being thrown out the window in the very first episode, and from that point on has only been a plot device for flashbacks, In the books, Bran is a point of view character, so we get to hear his inner thoughts to some extent. But in the show, he has been merely an empty vessel. Even a few episodes ago, he said that he was not human anymore... Only a storage device for keeping the past history...

Tyrion asks Bran the Broken if he will accept the crown, and Bran responds "why do you think I came all this way down here?" (or something equally stupid to that effect). Starting with Samwell Tarley (whose proposal of a democracy was rejected a few minutes earlier), everybody pledges fealty to Brandon Stark. The only house that refuses to accept Brandon Stark as king is the Stark house. Sansa says that the North had been independent for thousands of years and it deserves to be independent again, to which Bran gives a nod. This logic applies to the six other kingdoms as well, as they all had been independent until 300 years ago when Aegon 'The Conquerer' Targaryen united all of those kingdoms. Hence, this was a legitimate enough reason for all the other lords to ask for independence as well. Moreover, why should they accept a member of a separatist house (or the citizen of a foreign country) as their new king? Wouldn't citizenship be a necessary requirement for ruling the united kingdoms? Obviously the plot armour is thick enough, and nobody bats an eyelash.

Bran the Broken is dubbed the King of the Six Kingdoms (Seven minus the Winterfell) and forms his small council (or cabinet) with Tyrion as the Hand, Bronn the sellsword as the Master of Coins, Sir Brienne (who had pledged to protect Sansa till her death) as the new Lord Commander of the King's Guard, Samwell Tarley as the Archmaester, and Sir Davos as the Master of Ships. Like an office sitcom, they gather to bicker and banter with one another about whether to rebuild the brothel or fund the navy. Bran the Broken decides that his top priority is wargging into (or hacking into the brain of) Drogon rather than concern himself with the boring chores of ruling the realm... Considering Bran's ability to see the past, present, and future, and also controlling animals and humans, I wonder why he did not do anything to stop Daenerys from burning all the innocent citizens of Kings Landing in the previous episode? Was it all part of his plan to become the king in the end? Is he any better than Daenerys who was accused of being a power hungry tyrant?

The show ends with a montage of Arya sailing to west of Westeros on a ship with a direwolf figurehead, Sansa wearing a weirwood themed robe and crowned Queen in the North, and Jon Snow (whose real identity did not matter at all during the whole show) arriving at Castle Black. He finally pets Ghost (his direwolf) and then rides with the wildlings beyond the wall. Is he fleeing from Castle Black to finally live a normal life with the wildlings, or is he just escorting them to their now-safe lands? This is left to interpretation by the viewers.

Final Words:
After the showrunners (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) had lowered my expectations gradually with each episode of season 8, my disappointment is only moderate! Daenerys' extreme change of character in the last episode made no sense. She was not a merciful ruler, as she executed anyone who refused to bend the knee and refused to forgive mistakes, but neither was Ned Stark - the epitome of morality in the show. Daenerys was a pragmatic ruler for 71 (out of 73 total episodes of the show), and then suddenly turned into a blood-thirsty tyrant. Even Emilia Clarke (the actress playing Daenerys) thought it came "out of f**king nowhere" (according to this interview). Isaac Hempstead Wright (the actor playing Brandon Stark) was also caught off guard by the plot and thought Bran becoming king was a prank (see this article). The actors who embodied these characters for almost a decade know them better than almost anybody (except for George R. R. Martin who knows them better), and yet, these plot points did not make sense to them either, let alone us the viewers... I'd give this episode a 4/10.

I have been a fan since Day 1, and read all the books back in 2011. So, I consider myself in (at least) the 95th percentile of the fans who know more than enough about this universe. The poor execution of this final season (from illogical character changes to #woke agendas and thick plot armours saving all the major players till the end), ruined the whole show for me. There are also many plot points that were left unanswered, including but not limited to Children of the Forest, the Azor Ahai prophesy, the three heads of the dragon, the spiral shapes that white walkers left behind, and many more... Game of Thrones was a 10/10 for me, but these last few episodes knocked it down a couple of points to an 8/10.