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3 (out of 4)
The appropriate prescription for drafting a movie review suggests a pun here or there is just good fun and, especially as a headline or parting sentence, often inevitable. With The Current War the fruit has never hung so low – no matter how you come down on this picture it's just too easy to joke about, so I’ll just get it all out of the way now and say the film is enlightening if not electrifying and has enough battery life to bypass short circuiting etc. etc.
Before it was shelved a result of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal, what would become the original version of the predictably tailored Oscar bait premiered to general derision at the 2017 TIFF. Thus after the film was acquired by the ashes of The Weinstein Company (Lantern Entertainment oddly enough) and entirely re-edited in eventual post-post-production – the ineffectual subtitle Director's Cut used in advertisements was at least stupid for a reason – The Current War picked up distribution at last. Two years ago the film would have arrived with the muted response deserving of the least trustworthy device for Academy awareness. Today the circumstances are not too different except this historical drama doesn't conduct itself (damn it) like an awards sweetener firsthand.
A multifarious biopic, turn of the century period piece, hoity-toity costume picture – the film has all the mandatory accoutrements of past, proven Weinstein-backed snores. The secret ingredient is Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, director of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, who is enriched with his cache of filmmaking sleights and strategies and was not hesitant to enforce his final word as head honcho. He found a clause in executive producer Martin Scorsese's contract securing creative control including reshoots deemed artistically necessary because of the rushed post-production of the first cut. However deficient the early draft of The Current War may have been, Gomez-Rejon's renovation can’t help but spin the stodgiest of historical topics and trifling rivalries into an intriguing exercise.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla, Matthew Macfayden as J. P. Morgan all ensure their roles are not overstated caricatures but suitable embodiments of towering Industrial Age figures. Hollywood's always calling on Cumberbatch to be the face of curt robotic thinkers real and fictional – Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, his stint leading Sherlock and I guess playing the WikiLeaks guy counts too – but his analogously contemptible and smug Edison is apparently in accordance with historical memory. Shannon and Macfayden have never disappointed and don't here. Meanwhile Hoult could have easily disgraced the most important innovative magnate to the story, but his Tesla, while no David Bowie in The Prestige, measures up to the young actor's best attempts.
But really it's Gomez-Rejon stealing the show, eagerly snatching from his grab bag of influences and techniques to ward off possible boredom as his rendition of the dawn of the 20th century unfolds. The Current War is also written with unthinkable wit by playwright Michael Mitnick, who initially envisioned the AC/DC contention as a musical in the making before dozens of subsequent drafts. The script also refuses to congratulate or condescend to today's audiences for common knowledge, at least not as egregiously as some of its genre equivalents. The screenplay spells out the authorship of invention in a fascinating fashion, finding truths on business, politics, journalism and the global direction of technology applicable to our removed 21st century existence.
Usually generous explanation and exposition can be a waste of time – Mitnick, although he takes the popular route, realized that the social concerns relating to the intellectual and economic contest of the countrywide alternating versus direct current Westinghouse/Edison skirmish would be more captivating than some patronizing science class. Even if Gomez-Rejon wasn’t pulling out all the cinematographic stops – whips pans, low angles, zooms, overheads, breathless tracking shots, headlong editing, literally you name it, there's a movie moment like it – there would still be an engrossing chapter of the past left to uncover.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Daunting, stupefying and tactile, The Lighthouse is the American cinephile's moment of bliss for 2019. Doused in gothic, Poe-inspired gloom, Lynchian soundscapes, an expressionist aura and early surrealist spontaneity, director Robert Eggers' formal freakishness is one of such consideration that the mere montage of this scrupulous digression of sanity already easily supersedes contemporary attempts to cerebrally bewilder like Shutter Island or A Tale of Two Sisters, placing the film in the discussion of maddening psych-horror classics like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby.
And for all its pedigrees in a primitive cinematic approach, Eggers' film and his touch will be everlasting to the art form by emphasizing the surest signs of great filmmaking: ceremonious performances, palpable production and the orchestration of motion or stagnation through all the consummate, painterly beauty you can muster. Rounding out a year of superlative second features for thriving horror saviors – Eggers’ film joins Jordan Peele’s Us and Ari Aster’s Midsommar as unquestionable evidence to the genre’s relentless revival – The Lighthouse lives up to every capacity of excellence demonstrated in that one sick New England Folktale instant classic debut that was The Witch.
But Eggers’ latest is really its own act of separate genius regardless of its forthright influences both mythological and cinematic. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are phenomenally convincing, the period garnishes are exhaustively researched and the dreamlike downward spiral is deliciously grotesque. The antiquated 1.19:1 aspect ratio and orthochromatic color spectrum, which gorgeously invokes the likeness of 18th century photography, is a decisive element of The Lighthouse's particularly illusory nature.
The psychological thriller has been the bedrock of classic horror for ages, and Eggers’ spectacular imagination is completely evocative of former filmmaking eras where philosophical drama was not incongruous with invitingly strange fables. But for every painstaking piece of the minimalist bedazzlement, the Shakespearean parlance and prose of Eggers' and his brother Max's script is primarily and staggeringly brought to life by Dafoe’s otherworldly conviction; he's doubtlessly true to his Melvillian character. Otherwise the hallucinatory passages are wonderfully implicit and chilling, so much so that the lofty ambiguity precisely employs the intended essence of mythic allegory, enrapturing theatricality and playful puzzlement. The editing and cinematography are as faultless as Eggers’ most obviously praiseworthy assets. The prolonged plunge into hysteria is hard to withstand.
The Witch’s sense of storytelling is more unadorned which is why I believe I prefer it to the more volatile obscurity of The Lighthouse – but neither film can be diminished when auteurism so astounding allocates so much attention. So far Eggers is so attracted to the area where the fundamentally real intersects with the supernaturally indefinite, and this fiber interlacing his two films is also a crucial condition of this corner of horror's history. His work as of now is the precise equivalent to campfire stories directed by Kubrick. The morose sequences of gaslighting, absurdist humor, suggestive poetry and spiraling monotony are so methodically arranged it’s impossible not to be hypnotized by blinding promise of Eggers’ brilliance. Whatever necessary pretensions lay within, The Lighthouse is an uncontestable, mesmerizing masterwork worthy of every and any morsel of praise it reaps.
2 ½ (out of 4)
With a decade of horror-comedy hindsight, the ingenuity of Zombieland rings considerably fainter than it did in 2009. Whereas Shaun of the Dead is a legitimately animate genre-niche template reinforced with as many iconic touches as its flesh-eating progenitor, Zombieland is really just as boorish and haphazard as you’d expect any latent American counterpart to be.
Besides beating a couple of catch phrases into the ground and securing an uncommonly fair profit for Sony, there was no reason why this afterthought of a sequel to the first Z-land demanded creation. Whatever the present momentum behind such a follow-up, the questionably aged modesty of Zombieland has been remotely improved with a new installment – but the trivial, hardly noteworthy adjustments are too slight to celebrate. The original movie and now Double Tap’s reliance on rom-com remedies ultimately places them closer to the forgettable mashups of Warm Bodies (recollect that one if you can) than little cultural moments inspired enough to treasure.
But most of the audience is there for the cast rather than spoofs and trashy gore. Of course the most bankable performer is Woody Harrelson, who thank god has dropped the Twinkie thing and pleases most reliably as himself and himself alone. Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone follow suit although to far less dependable results – Harrelson's essence alone can shift lifelessness into revelry with satisfaction guaranteed but Eisenberg’s meekness, inseparable from his shtick, hasn't matured much. And although Stone has retracted the bangs and excessive make-up, the Academy Award-winning actress is barely removed from the Queen of Sarcasm status she was known for in her Easy A days. Meanwhile the former innocence of Abigail Breslin doesn’t hold weight when the young lady is 23 years old – as the smallest celebrity on the poster, the writers do what they can to remove her character from the centerfold of the movie. The search for an absconded, impulsive 18-year-old is more of an actual story than the near-sketch comedy of the former movie and the additional characters apart from undead cannibals are the film’s only antidote to sameness.
Borderline cameos by Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch lead you to a gleefully choreographed one-take sequence, making up the best second act action-comedy excerpt you could ask for from something like this. But it takes Zoey Deutch (of Everybody Wants Some!! and other far worse movies) playing a stereotypical mid-20s dumb slut to secure some decent chuckles and give this Z-quel a specific flavor. Unfortunately Deutch's character is just a pawn in Double Tap's labored attempt to shade the Eisenberg-Stone romance with a new hew, but this reliance on the most shopworn sitcom jealously angles severely limits the degree of charm these movies exude.
In theory, the idea of misfits surviving a zombie apocalypse is genre gold, maybe once; in practice, it’s marginally strained and underwhelming in either case. The continuation of Eisenberg’s narration exacerbates things, tying together faint, unrelated themes in a passable enough perhaps for a random episode of Scrubs. Both Zombieland flicks fall just short of the laugh-out-loud funny threshold, and if this new movie didn't revise the sloppiness that had a hand in the previous film's popularity – accommodating sharper self-awareness, inserting a twist or two beyond the accidental murder of Bill Murray – Double Tap would be hazardous to your health rather than a mid-October evening-killer.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Even with a resemblance to Lynne Ramsay’s fiery You Were Never Really Here a few years back and roots soundly planted in Martin Scorsese’s revered early history – Taxi Driver and most directly The King of Comedy – Joker is nonetheless a 2019 movie mile marker all its own. DC's latest standalone success is more meritorious than your garden-variety comic book movie, but is it as hazardous to mass consciousness as was preordained? Would it be such a bad thing if it were?
So despite an unwarranted forecast of devastation before this film's debut, obviously no one was slaughtered and anyone who feared and/or expected some eruption of white male aggression at the cinema should have felt a tart combination of shame and chagrin. As a film alone though, my prior wariness to whatever variety of villain exposé I was walking into was due entirely to Todd Phillips' place at the helm. With the overrated quintet of Old School, the Hangover trilogy and Due Date behind him, the symptomatic normalization of boyish men seemed to make Phillips precisely the wrong choice to handle material so potentially inflammatory and disruptive. Little did I expect some realist themes, such gorgeously candid digital cinematography or third act risks so ballsy – the cumulative moments of insanity alone are enough to destine Joker the status of cult favorite at the very least and deservingly so. This near-masterpiece enriches DC with the best of the brand's preceding year of consecutive solo features: the underrated Aquaman, Shazam!'s undeniable appeal and now Joker's timely, ferocious acting showcase.
The remarkably provocative movie around Joaquin Phoenix eclipsed my middling expectations, but it is the Method (acting) Man himself who quickly quiets every other reservation. Phoenix's marvelous commitment exponentially amplifies the film's cinematic power – then again, try not capturing documented gold after a spell with Phoenix and an expensive camera. Sure, Heath Ledger’s role will reign supreme forever as the exquisite capper to an all too brief legacy because, ya know, he's the best part of the cultural touchstone that was The Dark Knight – though when you watch Phoenix there’s nothing reminding you of Ledger, Jack Nicholson or anyone else. It’s almost as if you didn’t need Phillips or any direction whatsoever to mold Phoenix's utterly feral exertions, especially after a decade of mesmerizing performances (The Master, Inherent Vice, YWNRH). His magnetic, impeccable role-playing averts not only foolishly portraying mental illness but also pissing off comic book disciples.
Of course, given how divisive this film has been even ahead of hitting theaters, there’s no denying how many feathers have been ruffled, or maybe even plucked, in public or critical circles. The philosophical backbone of the film – that seedy, spiteful nihilism – will rigidly appeal to the most dejected members of the audience, the 4chan-browsing incels we should be oh so cautious of at the local cineplex. Just like the folks with common sense who exasperatedly oppose those claiming that callous video games and Tarantino films manifest real carnage, all I can say for the crowds using the ideology of the Joker as a liberating model for their own dispirit is let them enjoy the movie and vicariously rid themselves of a few repressed impulses as each one of us subconsciously does when we enter a dark theater.
Still, the very fact that Warner Brothers has to remind people this film is not a call to incite actual anarchy should tell you how explosive the narrative substance is and, more importantly, how little implicit trust can be placed on the general public's facility to process any subtextual satire, irony or motifs nowadays. This is without mentioning how swiftly pop culture journalists and easily offended social media users will scramble to scandalize anything incongruous with their worldview. The whole sick escapism/heinous portrait angle of Joker, in addition to the unreliable narrator ticks and classist rage within, screams American Psycho more than any Marty film. Hilarious, horrifying – it's an incredibly fine line and Phoenix is there to disguise the spaces between pity and empathy, catharsis and disgust better than the much less enthralling script.
Even if you loathe this film in its entirety you’re bound to ponder it significantly more than the movies you casually despise. Certain screenwriting tropes are so completely smoothed over by Phoenix's unshackled lunacy – clichés become a non-issue when trying to distinguish between a main character's prescribed nuttiness and our lead actor's eccentric, undefined personal level of crazy. I'm sure many will find fault in aspects of the film's composition, but my only real grievance is Arthur Fleck inflicted revolutionary change occurs almost entirely without his impetus. Fleck's largely accidental V for Vendetta-esque symbol of collective resistance doesn't really reflect the character's renowned ingenious mastermind.
In fact, other than the intriguing psychopathy, all Joker really seems to have in common with DC is the new wrinkle in portraying the Wayne's as ignorant, elitist yuppies. DC and WB apparently have learned antithetical prudence is the way to outsmart, or at least counter, Marvel’s epic monopolizing – simply by stripping the blockbuster masquerade to the essentials with thrifty filmmaking, Joker became the most profitable superhero film of all time in the wake of Endgame's record-annihilating run. Whether absorbed by overeager nerds or average Joes, it's rather infrequent that a mainstream standalone character study warranted intense dissection or considerable pondering, let alone one billion dollars in earnings (a first for R-rated films). From whichever perspective, if all else is overlooked, it's impossible to ignore Phoenix's rare sensibilities.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
The Rise of Skywalker
A Hidden Life
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice