Review: The Green Knight

Visually impressive and very weird, David Lowery’s film is set in the time of Arthurian legend and it is very atmospheric and heavy with symbolism. I enjoyed it, though it is slow and parts of it were fairly inscrutable.

Dev Patel plays young Sir Gawain, who stands out from the court of King Arthur when he accepts the challenge of the Green Knight, a supernatural entity brought to marvelous life by Ralph Ineson under a ton of make-up and aided by a soundtrack of rustling trees and creaking bark marking every move. He arrives one Christmas to find a challenger who can land a strike on him and then receive back the same strike one year later. Gawain succeeds, and when the time comes, he goes to confront the Green Knight at the behest of an aging King Arthur (Sean Harris).

What follows is a weird journey through a medieval countryside where the theme seems to be the never-ending struggle by civilization to stamp out nature, yet the green always comes back. Gawain encounters highwaymen, ghosts and a couple who seem to symbolize the coming enlightenment. The visuals are always great, heavy with foreboding and gloom, which reflect the turmoil in Gawain as he confronts his own cowardice time and again.

It’s not a perfect movie and it is perhaps a bit too slow in some places and a bit too on-the-nose in others, but for an atmospheric piece it succeeds brilliantly. The cinematography and the art direction, the costumes, the music, the score and sound are all very evocative of a dark, creepy world of weirdness that isn’t always explained. It doesn’t have very compelling characters, everyone seems to serve a function more than existing organically, but I believe the whole film exists largely on an allegorical plane. Your enjoyment will depends on how well you tolerate ambiguity.

The Green Knight is a creepy, weird dark fantasy film which I enjoyed very much.

(516) The Green Knight | Official Trailer HD | A24 – YouTube

Review: Promising Young Woman

Revenge is an interesting subject. We’ve all felt wronged or angered by someone else’s suffering and it is cathartic to see revenge exacted upon parties responsible for injustice, but the dark side of revenge is that it destroys the avenger as much as anyone. This idea is cunningly brought forward in Promising Young Woman, an exceptional film written and directed by Emerald Fennel.

In the film, Carrie Mulligan plays a woman consumed by revenge for the loss of a dear friend who was raped and subsequently lost the will to live, destroyed by the event. As Cassandra, she goes out clubbing, pretending to get drunk in order to trick men into revealing their predatory intentions when pretending to look out for the defenseless maiden and then dealing out some sort of punishment.

It’s a great hook and the film plays things with a great sense of ickiness at the creep factor on display. These guys always imagine themselves as nice guys and the casting of familiar faces known for nice guy roles, such as Adam Brody, goes a long way. Cassandra does develop a relationship with a pediatric surgeon played by Bo Burnham but the film is ultimately nihilistic and love cannot last. The most tragic figures in the movie are Cassandra’s parents, played with wonderful empathy and love by Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown, long-suffering to see their daughter’s listlessness ever since the loss of her friend.

The film is really good. It moves along at a good pace, never lingering too long on the unpleasantries. It’s very funny but icky and dark at the same time, which is a really interesting blend, and ultimately tragic for all parties. I found all of the characters relatable and I really liked the unexpected turn of Alfred Molina as a lawyer facing a crisis. Carey Mulligan is fantastic as the central character, carrying the film very ably with a haunted confidence as she slowly exacts revenge after years of plotting, someone whose motivations you can understand but is told again and again by those around her, including the victim’s mother (an understated Molly Shannon) to move on.

I really like Promising Young Woman. I think it is a smart, funny yet tragic movie that is more than just a revenge film. I loved how it challenged me and made me squirm while also kind of giggling at the same time, not a lot of movies can do that to me. I highly recommend it.

Why I Love Return of the Jedi

Return of the Jedi (1983) is a wonderful movie. It has some flaws and while it may not be my personal favourite of the original Star Wars trilogy, it is the one that I think has the most emotional impact and depth. It certainly has the best score, in my opinon. Though it has its detractors, it’s hard to imagine a better ending to the Star Wars saga and I adore it.

I am, of course, speaking from the perspective of a man of 45 who saw them when they first came out. I understand completely that the films George Lucas set out to make were intended for an audience of 8-10. I was exactly in that range when I saw Return of the Jedi in theaters and had already spent all of my years since the age of 2 surrounded by the posters and toys that my older brother decked out his bedroom with. Although he was the premier fan of the family, being 10 himself when the first Star Wars was released six years prior, my sister and I could not help but become fans ourselves by osmosis, if nothing else. Of course, it helps that they were (and still are) high quality films enjoyable from many different points of view.

“…many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

Obi-Wan Kenobi

That phrase is key to appreciating the Star Wars movies, or anything else, for that matter. In the scene where Luke accuses Obi-Wan of lying to him about Vader murdering his father, Obi-Wan’s reply is that when Anakin turned to the dark side and became Vader, the good man he had been was destroyed, “so what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.” It’s sublime. He then goes on to say: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view” and I really agree with that.

The Star Wars movies that George Lucas made were intended for children. I think a lot of complaints that people have about Return of the Jedi and the prequel movies is that they are too childish, but then what are you watching them for? I mean, would you moan about the lack of plot in a porn movie? No, because that’s not what you want to see. If you want complexity, look for it somewhere else. In the case of Star Wars movies, if you stopped liking them after The Empire Strikes Back, then I would bet good money you were of the target demographic in 1977-80 but had aged out by 1983. Many disgruntled fans I talk to point to the Ewoks as the boundary that defines what kind of fan you are and they almost always fit the age group.

“Greetings, exalted one.”

Luke Skywalker

I think Return of the Jedi has a really fun energy to it which balances the gravity of Luke’s destiny. The rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt is a really good time, like a little heist movie within the movie, with just the right amount of comedy to leaven the action. I mean, the design of Jabba himself is just the perfect embodiment of greed and pettiness, a repulsive gangster of zero moral character surrounded by pathetic beings. “Exalted one” is a very sly way of putting it, Luke. I love the dragon-in-its-lair aspect of the Rancor sequence, which is brilliantly executed, and the battle of the Sarlacc Pit has echoes of a pirate movie underlying the visuals, complete with walking the plank.

The middle of the movie gives you time to breathe and figure out all the exposition, setting everything up for a big finish. It’s here that Luke has his confrontation with Obi-Wan, which is preceded by the death of Yoda, a moment of truly exceptional puppetry. It’s just a piece of rubber with a man’s hand inside it, yet you genuinely feel there is a life there ebbing away and then he quite literally fades out of existence. It’s a hell of scene, when you think about it.

The finale is awesome, with three big action set-pieces intercut superbly: the space battle, the forest battle and Luke’s climactic duel with Vader aboard the Death Star while the Emperor watches with sick glee. All of that throne room stuff is terrific, from watching Luke try to resist the Emperor’s relentless taunting to his unwilling fight with his father and especially to the moment when he snaps and turns on Vader, attacking him hard. The music in that scene has such a power to it I get chills every time I think of it.

I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.

Luke Skywalker

My favourite scene in the entirety of the Star Wars saga is that peak moment when Vader is down and the Emperor is telling Luke to finish him and take his place and Luke sees the stump of Vader’s severed wrist reminding him of his own mechanical hand, the realization that he is on the precipice of following his father’s fate checking him just in time. Faced with the impossible choice, he simply refuses to take part in the cycle of violence any longer. He switches off his light-saber, throws it away, and says the best line: “No. I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, your highness. I am Jedi, like my father before me.” That is the most graceful “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” I’ve ever heard in a children’s movie.

Return of the Jedi has an amazing emotional power to it for what is essentially an updated Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers adventure movie for kids. I think one of the many qualities that makes the original Star Wars trilogy so exceptional is the level of craftsmanship and complexity in the execution surrounding what is a very basic and elemental storyline. There can be no doubt that the music in the films is a gigantic boon and George Lucas himself has said one of the few things that turned out better than expected in making them was the music by John Williams. And of the original trilogy, I think Jedi has the best score; not only do you get the familiar themes established in the previous two movies, but new pieces like “The Emperor’s Theme” or “Luke and Leia’s Theme”, as well as some of the most rousing battle music ever recorded, in my opinion.

Of course, nothing is perfect and, as someone who was so massively impacted by the movie as it was when it came out in 1983, I think some of the later changes Lucas made to it kind of detract a little from my otherwise unending adoration. I think I understand most of them, but the only one I truly miss is the closing music of the Ewok celebration. The original “Yub Nub” was a lot more distinctive and fun than the somewhat generic-sounding flute music that now plays out the end of the movie, in my opinion, but I do think the galaxy-wide celebration montage is a perfectly apt addition.

I love Return of the Jedi. I love the original Star Wars trilogy. Each one has its strengths over the other two, the first is pure fun, the second is darker and trickier, and the third strikes a fine balance and ends the story in an extremely satisfying way, but I think Jedi has the strongest emotional stakes of the trilogy and deserves to be recognized. It’s a great film.

Review: Hamilton

I finally had a chance to see Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton by way of the Disney+ presentation. I went in fairly indifferent, being suspicious of hype, but I quickly became impressed, then engrossed and then astounded. Hamilton is even better than they hype.

I know very little about the early days of the United States beyond the broad strokes of history and a slightly more than passing familiarity with the names involved. However, the last place I go to for an accurate history lesson is entertainment. I approached Hamilton as a work of fiction with some basis in fact. That doesn’t lessen its impact for me in the slightest.

I found in Hamilton that perfect balance of a simultaneously simple story with a lot of complex subtext that touches upon our modern world. It is as much about now as it is about then. The writing is wonderful, eliciting sympathy and admiration for characters like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and others without being fawning. The music is great, the cast is great and the stagecraft is wonderful, with a revolving floor and fly-away sections that only reinforce the action with spectacle that never distracts from the story or the emotions.

Most of all, however, I felt inspired by the show. It was electrifying in its optimism and love. It was as if I was witnessing a sea-change. The show has so much more going on besides the simple biography it presents. It’s expansive and inspiring and I am so, so happy I watched it. Absolutely astounding.

Retro-Review: Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves (1991)

This movie is one of the most perfect examples of how casting can ruin a film. It has been at least 20 years since I saw it last and many of the film’s stronger elements remain clear in my mind, but so does the woeful miscasting of Kevin Costner. It’s a frustrating film, excellent in many respects but dragged down by one central flaw.

The film begins with Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) who has gone to the Holy Land on a crusade and been captured. He escapes with the help of Azeem (Morgan Freeman) and returns to England where the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman stealing every single scene) is plotting to steal the throne of the kingdom from absent King Richard with the help of a witch Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan). Robin assembles his band of outlaw revolutionaries and the whole thing ends in a climactic battle and a duel between Robin and the Sheriff.

First of all, the film is really well shot for the most part, with only a few early-90’s excesses (extreme close-ups with a wide-angle lens, or rock-video backlight on the hero shrouded in mist, for example). The locations are excellent, as are the costumes and production design. The pace of the film is brisk and action-packed, never a dull moment in what is a serviceable script told with exciting imagery and tight editing, though it does tip so far into melodrama at times it almost becomes pantomime. Maybe I’m being kind, but as someone who lived before the Lord of the Rings made sword movies cool, I had to appreciate the crumbs I got. In my opinion the script is fine as far as these kinds of movies went at the time, but I am aware of its flaws.

Except for Kevin Costner and Christian Slater, the movie’s casting is very good. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio makes for a fiery, independent Maid Marian, Morgan Freeman turns in an excellent performance and Alan Rickman absolutely runs away with the film. How ironic is it that the Sheriff of Nottingham steals the movie from the titular Prince of Thieves? Makes you wonder who the subtitle is actually referring to.

There is no doubt that Costner is the biggest deficit in the movie, and with him carrying the whole thing it’s hard to see past him. It’s not just the fact that his fake accent, when he bothers to attempt it, is distractingly dreadful. His delivery is so uninspiring that I just can’t believe the band of Merry Men would follow him into harm’s way. Every time he opens his mouth to speak his lines the film falls flat. He is like a black hole at the center of an otherwise decent movie.

By far, though, the best part of the whole production is the score by Michael Kamen. I remember owning the CD back in the day and listening to it over and over. The hero’s theme is suitably rousing and the love theme is quite beautiful, although it has the unfortunate distinction of Bryan Adams’ rendition of it as the hit single “Everything I Do” which got played out during the decade at weddings and on soft rock radio. The orchestral version used in the film is really lovely.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a movie I want to like. It’s got a lot going for it but everything is just weighed down by the lead actor. It’s unfortunate, because there is a lot to like, but it is so hard to overcome that one, glaring central flaw.


Retro-Review: Hook (1991)

A few weeks ago, I heard by chance the music from Steven Spielberg’s Hook playing on the radio which brought back warm feelings, as I owned the soundtrack on CD back in the 90s and listened to it over and over. I think it’s one of John Williams’ greatest scores and I put it in heavy rotation again.

A little while later, I saw a thread on Reddit discussing the film and how everyone commenting had such positive memories of it which don’t seem to jibe with the film’s reputation. At about the same time I heard that Spielberg himself has never been particularly happy with how it turned out, and, as someone who loved the movie when it came out, I thought it might be time for a re-evaluation. So, I watched again for the first time in over 25 years.

Robin Williams plays Peter Banning, a workaholic lawyer out of touch with his family and largely amnesiac about his life before the age of twelve. On a trip to London, Peter’s children are kidnapped and he is visited by the glowing pixie Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) who tells him Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) is behind it, wishing to provoke his old foe Peter Pan into a final fight to the death. Peter Banning is Peter Pan, only he has forgotten, and it is up to Tinkerbell and the Lost Boys to help him unlock his memories and take up the battle to rescue his kids.

First of all, I think the movie is still great, though not Spielberg’s best. It suffers from over-sentimentality at times and some of the special effects are dated and not as convincing as today’s fare. It’s also very long, well over two hours, and could have been tighter in places (getting to Neverland could have been quicker, for instance). All that being said, the set-design, costumes and make-up are really amazing in scope and the action is typical top-notch Spielberg. Special mention goes out to the fact that Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman appear to have done almost all of their own sword-fighting, and they look very impressive.

Speaking of the cast, everyone is great but the real stand-outs are Dustin Hoffman as Hook and Bob Hoskins as Smee. Hoffman really has fun with his part, dominating every scene he’s in as the cartoonishly psychotic Hook, all the while underscored by his capable henchman. They are such a fun duo to watch, much like Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty in Superman, and every scene they are in is a joy. Robin Williams is so right for the role of a grown up Peter Pan who has forgotten who he is but still shines when his inner Pan returns that I can’t imagine anyone else in the part.

The film’s themes of maturity and responsibility are well-handled, I think, for a blockbuster family film. In fact, as a 44 year-old who has friends and family with kids of their own, I found a special resonance in some scenes that hadn’t rung so strongly for me when I watched it 25 years or more ago. For all its excesses, the film still stirred some powerful feelings in me which I didn’t expect, due in no small part to the music which is powerful, sweet, melancholy, mirthful, epic and just plain beautiful. This is among the best John Williams has ever done, in my opinion.

Nearly thirty years have passed since Hook was released and it has aged well, though it has aged. Even though some parts of it are a little long and it sometimes suffers from over-sentimentality, I still had a fun time watching the cast, the art direction and the stunt-work. I think it’s very good, and that’s not rose-tinted spectacles talking.

The trailer

I also found this video essay about re-examining Hook and I think it’s worth a watch.

Review: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Birds of Prey is a movie I have wanted to see for a very, very long time. I think we are way overdue for an action movie led by a female cast and I’m thrilled that it is as good as it ought to be. The film has a scrappy, can-do vibe populated by vivid characters who are very well cast. The action scenes, and there are plenty, are a lot of fun and I didn’t really feel like there was a wasted moment. I love this movie.

Margot Robbie returns as the Joker’s ex-flame Harley Quinn who, after breaking up with her psychotic boyfriend, discovers the only reason nobody tried to kill her before was because of fear of the Joker’s reprisals. Now that she is on her own, she finds she has a huge target on her back. Ewan MacGregor plays crime boss Ramon Sionis, aka Black Mask, who is especially interested in killing Quinn until she makes a deal to get him a diamond he is anxious to possess but has been stolen by street thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Also in the mix are Rosie Perez as Detective Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Valerie Bertinelli/Huntress and Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Dinah Lance/Black Canary, plus Chris Messina in a surprising turn as Sionis’ sadistic henchman, Mr. Zsasz.

The storyline, narrated by Harley Quinn, jumps back and forth in time, breaking up a straightforward McGuffin-hunt into entertaining sections that give each character enough backstory for us to actually care about them and understand their motivations (a rare thing in superhero movies). Christina Hodson’s script is very ably brought to life by Cathy Yan’s direction and the actors are all great. I thought everyone was terrific in their roles, especially MacGregor who threatens to steal every scene he is in. Jurnee Smollet-Bell was a real discovery here for me; I thought she did a great job with Dinah Lance/Black Canary. I also loved Mary Elizabeth Winstead and her super-seriousness which everyone makes fun of.

This movie, along with Joker, Shazam! and Wonder Woman, is a great example of why I prefer DC to Marvel. DC has had more than their share of missteps, but I appreciate the unpredictability of their movies over the tedious formula used over and over by Marvel. Birds of Prey is definitely for mature audiences, not only for the frequent salty language but also the bone-crunching and bloody violence on display. It also treats its sexual politics with a knowingly serious but deftly light touch, which I really appreciated.

Birds of Prey is the first movie of 2020 I was seriously looking forward to and it did not disappoint. The production design is colourful yet gritty, the characters well-served by a good script and great casting and the action is a lot of fun to watch. I found myself laughing more than I expected and, although it does get a bit silly in places, it’s no different from other films in the superhero genre in that regard. I never felt insulted by what I was watching and I will certainly be seeing it again.




Here is my list of my favourite movies of 2019, now that I have caught up with the late releases of December. And, while we’re at it, I feel I should list my favourite movies of the past decade as an addendum, so keep scrolling.

#1: 1917

I saw some good ones this year, but for me Sam Mendes’ 1917 was jaw-dropping in its execution of a seemingly single-take narrative of two soldiers tasked with delivering orders across No Man’s Land. The imagery is powerful and evocative, the cinematography astonishing (especially the city in ruins at night lit by rising and descending flares) and the performances by everyone are beautifully understated. I’ve seen it twice and the second time was even more powerful than the first. Truly awesome.


#2: Toy Story 4

When I first heard they were making a fourth installment in a series that ended over a decade before on an impossible-to-beat note, I thought it was a terrible idea. Never in a million years would I have expected the filmmakers to top the untoppable, but I was wrong. Toy Story 4 did it with such heart and sincerity and empathy that I was completely floored. Whereas the third film saves all of its emotional power for the finale, this one is an emotional roller coaster from start to end that had me in tears as often as laughter. I adore this movie.


#3: The Lighthouse

As much as I love traditional glossy Hollywod product, I love the other end of the spectrum at least as much. The Lighthouse is a dark, weird and minimal story about two men trapped together in a lighthouse, slowly descending into madness. The black-and-white cinematography and the square aspect ratio lend a lot to the oppressive atmosphere and Willem DaFoe is mesmerizing.


#4: Parasite

This Korean film is a wicked satire about class antagonism which I loved. The tone is light until it starts twisting in truly unexpected ways as it progresses. I loved the dark sense of humour that toyed with my sympathies at first playfully, then more conflictingly as everything unravels toward the end. What I love most about it is how multi-faceted it is; there are a lot of ways to look at it and pick it apart which, to me, is the sign of real art.


#5: Joker

Another film I thought was a bad idea from the outset but turned out to be just right. Humanizing a psychopath like the Joker is very dangerous, in my opinion, but the brilliance of the film is in the ways that it tests your sympathy. Initially, you feel sorry for the guy, but at a certain point he crosses a line. Where that line is for different audiences is interesting to note, but I do think the movie is good as an overall look at the narcissism and lack of empathy that poisons society. Also, after Heath Ledger, I didn’t think there was anywhere left to go with the character, but Joaquin Phoenix proved me wrong.



This is not a list that can easily be arranged in any kind of order. Looking back at the movies that came out in the past ten years, it has been a truly astonishing decade for film. I could have simply put the movies from previous years’ favourites list, but instead I chose movies that have stuck with me for one reason or another since I saw them. Here they are chronologically.

  • Inception (2010) – What a way to start the decade! Inverted heist movie with a star-studded cast under Christopher Nolan’s masterful direction.
  • Bridesmaids (2011) – Great comedy, gut-bustingly funny stuff with a really sweet heart at its center.
  • Cloud Atlas (2012) – Unbelievably ambitious narrative, packing six stories spanning several centuries into a single movie that I found to be so compelling I had to put it on my top ten all-time favourites list.
  • Gravity (2013) – The most thrilling ride I’ve ever had in a cinema, I had to see this one five times and it is one of only two movies I believe are enhanced by the 3D experience.
  • 12 Years A Slave (2013) – Quiet, understated but tremendously moving for all its subtlety. The poetry of its images is still strongly in my mind.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – Absolutely delightful comedy that balances whimsy and tragedy like no other. And what a cast!
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – The best X-Men movie, in my opinion, with character motivations as compelling as the plot is complex.
  • Birdman (2014) – Wonderful characters and hilarious situations are everywhere in this story of showbiz madness, ego and death told in a single take.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – Phenomenal. Wall-to-wall action, mind-blowing production design and eye-popping stunts combine to make this quite possibly the greatest action movie ever made.
  • Arrival (2016) – It’s hard to think of another sci-fi film that approaches alien contact so intelligently, but the real power in this movie is its emotional core which squeezes tears out of me every single time I watch it. Absolutely beautiful.
  • Moonlight (2016) – One of a handful of movies I’ve seen that truly made me feel transported into another person’s life, this is one of the most amazing exercises in empathy I’ve ever seen.
  • La La Land (2016) – A really sweet story of love and respect that swept me away with its charming leads and the most surprising and satisfying ending of any rom-com ever.
  • Toni Erdmann (2016) – This German film about a practical-joking father trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter swings the pendulum from the ultimate in cringe-humour to the most heart-breaking empathy. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed and cried so hard in one movie.
  • mother! (2017) – This movie is black as pitch in its scathing portrayal of humanity’s confused struggle with nature and religion. At least, that’s what I got out of this surreal, oppressive, incredibly dark fever dream that is unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen. Intense.
  • Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – That rare beast of cinema, a sequel that improves upon the original. Tonally consistent with its predecessor but with a far more satisfying emotional payoff.
  • Sorry to Bother You (2018) – This movie is full of surprises and is a wonderful example of scrappy indie spirit making the most of meager resources to create something really different, funny and smart.
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – The best Spider-Man movie ever, in my opinion, told with a really fresh and dynamic animation style.
  • Eighth Grade (2018) – Simultaneously hilarious and heart-breaking, I was amazed at the universality of the story: no matter the era, being 13 is the worst time of your life.
  • Hereditary (2018) – The most fascinating horror movie I’ve seen in a very long time, this movie has a terrific story with some truly shocking turns, but it’s Toni Collette’s performance that is really something to behold.
  • 1917 (2019) – Single-take journey across the war-torn fields of Europe in World War I, this movie shows you things you’ve never seen before and has some of the most rousing moments in any war film.

And those are just twenty examples of the amazing movies of the past decade. Here’s hoping the next decade is as exciting!

Film Review: Bombshell

Among the best films of 2019

Great cast and a terrific script make this one of 2019’s best movies. Written by Charles Randolph, who also wrote The Big Short (2015), the movie has a breezy, whip-smart style that is very similar. The film hits the right notes and the characters are all well-defined, brought to life by very talented actors from top to bottom. I found it funny and moving, which is as much as I can expect from any movie, and among the best movies I’ve seen in 2019.

Based on the sexual harassment suit that brought down Fox News mastermind Roger Ailes (John Lithgow, wonderful as always), the story focuses on Margot Robbie’s Kayla, a composite character who serves as the audience’s cypher. She’s the daughter of a conservative christian family who only watch Fox News, convinced that the mainstream media is sending the country to hell. She comes to the attention of the predatory Ailes at the same time as Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) launches her lawsuit after being demoted. Charlize Theron also features as Megyn Kelly, the most high-profile of the women connected to Ailes’ sexual harassment.

Making a deal with the devil

The sexual politics of Fox manifest strongest in Ailes’ talent for pitting women against each other so that when his behaviour comes to light, none will support each other. The movie does a good job of showing the compromise each of them faces, having become used to the money and attention their jobs afford them, but at the price of ignoring abuse and tolerating it when it comes at them. The theme here seems to be how to come to terms with making a deal with the devil, as each woman feels utterly isolated in her plight and afraid of repuercussions beyond job action that turning on their boss might entail.

First of all, I think the performances all around are terrific. I found Margot Robbie’s Kayla immensely sympathetic despite her right-wing conservative naivety. She’s clearly someone who is a victim of lifelong brainwashing. Nicole Kidman does a great job of making me actually feel something for Gretchen Carlson, whose endless schilling of rightwing crap on Fox made me detest her. Charlize Theron is almost unrecognizable in prosthetics and speaking with the clipped, uptight elocution of Megyn Kelly and she manages to create a compelling characterization of someone whom I disdain as much as Gretchen Carlson. It’s quite a thing when actors make repulsive people sympathetic, I think, but when it comes to John Lithgow as Roger Ailes there doesn’t seem to be any point in aiming for sympathy and instead we get Jabba the Hutt in human form and I love Lithgow for it.

Taking the money and looking the other way

The supporting cast is full of welcome surprises, from Mark Duplass as Megyn Kelly’s husband to Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch and the always delightful Allison Janney as Roger Ailes’ attorney, but it’s the strength of the script and the able direction that allows them all to shine. The movie has a lot of laughs but when it needs to be serious it delivers strong emotions. In the end you are left with a sense of some sort of justice being done, but also a strong sense that the only reason these situations continue is because people won’t stand up and call out bullshit. Taking the money and looking the other way enables such injustice to prevail. Taking a stand means putting yourself at odds with the establishment and risking ostracism from ones peers, but who needs peers who are so unprincipled that they’ll stand by and allow the victimization of others?

Bombshell is one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2019. It has an intelligent script, a wise director and superb actors at every level. It’s funny, poignant, moving and rewarding. I highly recommend it.

Review: Joker

Great movie. It is complex, operating on a lot of levels, but also quite emotionally powerful and very, very mature. It is possibly the most grounded and realistic interpretation of a DC comics character yet and Joaquin Phonex is phenomenal as the central character. I loved the way it was shot and the tone of it, so much like Taxi Driver that it felt like it was made around the same time. I think Joker is a really great movie, among the best of 2019.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a clown-for-hire with aspirations of being a stand-up comedian but plagued by mental illness of which one of the symptoms is uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times. He lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) a shut-in who idolizes Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and writes letters to him from a very run-down apartment in a rough part of town. Arthur makes a bid for comedy at an open-mic night but bombs so badly, Gotham’s top-rated talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) puts the clip on the air as an object of ridicule. After being assaulted on the job, Arthur is given a gun for protection which he uses to shoot three Wall Street bullies who assault him on the subway. This sets off a city-wide class conflict when the “vigilante clown” is taken up as a hero by the resentful poor of the city who all don clown masks to descend on city hall at the climax of the film, which coincides with Arthur’s appearance as a guest on the Murray Franklin show, booked after the unexpected hit episode where he was made fun of. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is perfect, given the character and his questionable mental state.

It’s really a story about denial and narcissism

First of all, the story is excellent, with Arthur’s struggles front and center but writ large on the canvas of the city around him. The time is roughly 1981 and the world we see is truly the world he inhabits. The bleakness of Raegan-era recession is presented in piled-up garbage everywhere symbolizing societal decay, an outward reflection of Arthur’s social decay and illness which only gets worse when cutbacks to social programs force him off his medication. The influence of films like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy are as strong as the character’s comic book lore and I found lots of Easter eggs for fans of both sources. The script (by director Todd Phillip and Scott Silver) and Phoenix’s performance generate empathy for the character on the one hand but also revulsion at the heinous acts he commits. What you end up with is not so much sympathy as understanding and, I think, a positive sense that facts have to be faced and the need for empathy and kindness in our world. It’s really a story about denial and narcissism, of seeing only what we want to see and shutting out everything and everyone else. It felt to me as much a story about the breakdown of society as much as the breakdown of a man. Very compelling.

Joaquin Phoenix is amazing in this movie. I thought, after what Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger each achieved, followed by Jared Letos’ failure to measure up, there was nothing left in the character, but I was very wrong. Phoenix brings a powerful, repressed intensity to it that is new and sad and scary. His physicality is astounding, from his wiry physique and clownish dancing to what he does with his eyes while laughing to convey that there’s really nothing funny about the situation. It’s an absolutely fascinating performance and he dominates you attention every second he’s on screen. The rest of the cast is great too, everyone inhabiting their roles authentically, but nobody comes close to what Phoenix does here.

We don’t need more insanity

The cinematography and production design are all terrific. The movie feels as if it was made in the time it was set. There are some very interesting design choices as well, such as the use of simple Halloween clown masks echoing the Joker’s gang of bank robbers from the opening sequence of The Dark Knight as well as mirroring the use of the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta as a symbol for global protest. There is violence, for sure, though not as much as you might think. I felt it was at a totally appropriate level, harsh enough for you to feel the brutality but not gratuitous. The soundtrack is great, filled with weirdly nostalgic music which further makes it feel from another time. Despite all of its trappings and mood, however, I found it also feels very contemporary and cautionary for today. I don’t think Joker is political so much as it is apolitical, pointing out hypocrisy on every side. I think what it says is more along the lines of “we don’t need more insanity.”

I loved Joker. I think it’s intelligent, complex, fascinating and darkly funny. There is a lot to chew on and it is worth seeing more than once. Joaquin Phoenix is amazing to watch and the story gives him a lot to work with while also being a cautionary tale about social breakdown. It is certainly the most mature treatment of comic book superhero material I’ve ever seen on screen.

I also think Mark Kermode’s review is on-target.

Mark Kermode’s review
Official trailer