This is my business card. I’m showing it to you today because this is the review that’s going to get my critic card revoked. You’re going to ask to see it, and you’re going to rip it up.
I considered seeing Waves at TIFF but couldn’t make it work and wasn’t that sad about it until the buzz started going around the festival that it was good. That it was this year’s Moonlight. Damn.
But no worries, these movies hit theatres eventually and I recently made my acquaintance with it. Waves, how do you do?
It’s about an overachieving suburban family – a mom, a dad, two kids – but particularly about golden boy Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a hard-working student athlete who excels socially and academically, at home and at school. He has a girlfriend, a part-time job working for his father, skill with the piano, power on the wrestling mat. He trains faithfully with his loving but domineering father, Ronald (Sterling K Brown). He is loving toward his little sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and mother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry). But nobody makes a movie about a good life that stays good.
The truth is, Waves keeps me at arm’s length from the get-go, the camera spinning panoramically inside a car, my stomach lurching. The teenagers inside are idiotic, driving so distractedly I brace myself for the an accident that never comes. But try telling that to my nervous system. I watch the film on tenter hooks; never has a film so quickly and so fully established a sense of foreboding. I cannot relax. Tyler’s life looks perfect, but perfection has a habit of being fleeting. You’re sure that something is coming, something bad, but what? Slowly things start to cave in: riffs between he and his father, a fight with his girlfriend, an injury in the ring. Tyler internalizes it all, self-medicates, keeps to himself. Surely something’s about to give. And as awful as it is, it’s almost a relief when it does. I’ve never been kept on the edge of tachycardia at a non-horror film before. But as I allow my body to relax, my blood pressure to fall back into the safe zone, I wonder if I can possibly claim to have liked the film when it was so hard to watch. It was interesting though – well told, well acted. Beautiful, really, and thoughtful. And just as I rise to my feet to head home, the screen begins to tell another story. And I begin to lose my mind.
It feels like we should be done, but we’re not. We’re starting a second chapter, this one about Tyler’s little sister, Emily. Her family has ruptured, is wounded. She isolates herself and you start to dread her following in her brother’s footsteps when she is “saved” by meeting a boy, Luke (Lucas Hedges). Witnessing Luke lose his estranged father to cancer gives Emily a new perspective on family, but I had little tolerance for it. The first story felt whole and complete to me; now I felt duped. I resented this second story for keeping me in my seat after I had so triumphantly survived sustained angina. I could only survive this new onslaught by whispering to Sean about manatee poop (somewhat topical) and taking long, meandering pee breaks (chicka-cherry cola) after which I’d return reluctantly to the theatre 10 minutes later and Sean would lean over and fill me in: “They went fishing.” Oh the agony.
There’s the agony the film is causing me, and the agony I’m causing myself, beating myself up for praying for the end of a film I just can’t like despite its being universally, critically praised. It’s an embarrassing time for me, embarrassing to have preferred a Jumanji sequel to this Oscar bait. But I just can’t. I’m sorry guys, but I just can’t.
When Aditi (Priyanka Chopra) and Niren (Farhan Akhtar) Chaudhary find themselves pregnant for the third time, it’s not exactly a happy occasion for everyone. They have a son, Ishaan, but lost a daughter and are afraid of it happening again. Niren doesn’t want to risk it but Aditi, once a Muslim now a Christian, won’t abort. But Aditi and Niren both carry a tricky gene that runs a 25% chance of passing SCID (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency) on to their child, which means the baby would have such a compromised immune system that he or she would be prone to severe infections with no ability to fight them off. Such babies rarely live to see their first birthday. Their baby, a daughter, is born, and they name her Aisha, which means life. But a trip to London confirms that Aisha does in fact have SCID and without very expensive bone marrow and stem cell transplants, she will die.
Despite all this drama, Aisha (Zaira Wasim, who is narrating this from some point in the future) insists this is a romantic film, about her parents. Married 8 years at this point, they are suddenly in a long distance relationship, with Aditi in London with Aisha, and Niren back home in India with Ishaan. They had married out of caste, a true love marriage. But having a sick kid and being away from everyone you love is a real test on any relationship. But a worse test is coming: Aisha the narrator has already told us she is dead. What will losing a(nother) child do to Aditi and Niren?
Priyanka Chopra is stunning, even in late 90s mom jeans. More than that, she’s really good in this, even as she shifts between mother caring for her daughter’s health to caring more for her happiness. And as one half of a complicated couple, She’s got great chemistry with Akhtar, who brings his best to the film as well. This film is based on a true story, and it feels very much like the actors respect their real-life counterparts while also making the characters very much their own.
At the end of Aisha’s life, Aditi and Niren are faced with impossible choices and they don’t agree. The strain is of course further complicated by the loss of their first baby, who Niren has tried to forget. The death of a child is…unfathomable. Many couples separate in their grief. What will become of Aisha’s mom and dad, who never stop being exactly that? Writer-director Shonali Bose makes great use of flash backs and flash forwards to lighten the mood or break up the bleakness. The movie is overlong but keep going, it’s worth it. It’s emotional and trying but ultimately rewarding.
The Torture Report is based on real events as I’m sure you’ve not failed to notice. In the aftermath of 9/11, the CIA went rogue. Or went roguer. It was panicky because as the country’s central intelligence agency, it sort of had a responsibility to avert disasters such as these. And technically speaking, it knew about the specific 9/11 threat and had failed to do anything to stop it. It was embarrassed and tried to cover its embarrassment and perhaps culpability the only way it knew how: with an aggressive show of force. So it started acting both above and below the law, doing whatever it deemed necessary to get things done, but not running anything by anyone else, and not actually getting things done either.
Cut to: Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) puts together a task force led by staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) to investigate the CIA’s so-called Detention and Interrogation Program. And the thing is: the work is easy. Their guilt is dripping off each and every report he reads, and poor Jones reads literally millions of pages of documents. Jones of course finds evidence of torture, but also that the CIA then attempted to destroy evidence, subvert the law, and keep things secret from even the highest offices in the country. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the truth was that their torture techniques didn’t even work. Although they were so brutal that more than once the prisoner died while being tortured, not once (worth repeating: NOT ONCE) did their EITs result in information they didn’t already have. So either the torture was ineffective or the prisoners truly didn’t have any dirt to spill, and the CIA couldn’t tell the difference anyhow. In fact, afterward even the CIA admitted that at least a quarter of its prisoners should never have been detained in the first place – and keep in mind that people died in their custody. And that’s just what they admit to.
By ‘things’ I mean torture. They basically invented a whole new kind of torture to get information out of terror suspects and they called it ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (EITs) in order to not have to call it torture. But that’s what it was. Meanwhile, the president of the United States is strutting around telling the world that the USA does not torture prisoners, confidently saying as much because the CIA was saying that to his face while crossing their fingers behind their backs.
Adam Driver is playing a desk-sitting paper-shuffler in this, and it can be hard to make that very cinematic but the truth of his performance lays in how passionate he is about the work. After spending more than 5 years in a secure, windowless office, working nights and weekends to put this thing together, and being constantly confronted by the shady, unlawful, and shameful actions of his country, it wears on Jones. He can’t help but be emotionally invested.
The film, directed by Scott Burns, earns its tension in that despite this being his life’s work, and obviously vital knowledge, there are tonnes of people who want to bury the report. Even Senator Feinstein wavers. The CIA is not just torturing people abroad, they’e keeping secrets from their president (and openly lying wherever necessary), and spying on their own people, including on the Congress of the United States of America.
It’s kind of amazing that the film ends up feeling gripping and vital. There’s a momentum to it that really brings the subject alive and Driver injects the thing with urgency and humanity.
Marriage Story picks up long after most romances have wrapped up. Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) were once in love, but as disagreements piled up, they grew apart. Now, as the film begins, they can barely tolerate each other, and they now have to figure out how to uncouple. Of course, since Charlie and Nicole have had trouble agreeing on day-to-day things, agreeing on terms of separation is next-to-impossible.
My synopsis might make the film seem dry, boring, or depressing. Marriage Story is none of those things. Certainly, it is often sad and difficult, but just as often, it is sweet and funny, and all the while, it is insightful and real.
There are many wonderful moments in Marriage Story, and the starting point for all of them is that neither Charlie nor Nicole is a bad person. Director Noah Baumbach never asks the audience to choose sides and never assigns blame for this breakdown. Charlie and Nicole are simply two people who have grown apart and who are being pulled in different directions.
Many films try to gloss over these stresses or claim that love will overcome them. But sometimes love is not enough. Marriage Story tackles that reality in a way that will ring true to anyone who has ever been in a serious relationship.
Marriage Story is one of those rare films that transcends genre. More than that, it is a film that is remarkably relatable and has something to offer for everyone. It is one of the best films of the year, and one you should watch as soon as it becomes available on Netflix on December 6. And if you have the chance to catch Marriage Story sooner (a limited theatrical release is scheduled for November), take it. It’s that good.
Sean and I both saw Joker at TIFF last month, at back to back screenings. We met up for lunch afterward (I believe we had a slight pause before seeing the Harriet Tubman movie) because boy did I have thoughts, comments, and questions, which I tried not to yell too loudly because: spoilers.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck in a totally new but not entirely unfamiliar way. He works as a professional clown (semi-professional, maybe? – he gets sent to hospitals or going out of business sales by a central booking agency that employs many other clowns besides) but dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. He’s not a great clown – he gets complaints a lot. Maybe it’s because he breaks clown rules with the way he does his makeup. Real clowns prefer to paint in large circles because pointy-ended makeup gives kids a subliminal fright. As you can see, Arthur paints both eyes and mouth with sharp ends, normally prohibited in the clown community. But there was another rule-breaker, historically. His name was John Wayne Gacy, and Joker’s makeup is likely a subtle nod toward this man, a serial killer who entertained kids on the side as Pogo the clown. He raped, tortured and murdered at least 33 teenage boys during the 1970s.
Arthur has a complicated relationship with his mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he lives. She’s not well, and depends on his support, meager as it is. She may be somewhat delusional because she writes long-winded letters about her poor living conditions to one-time employer Thomas Wayne, hoping his outrage will be enough to improve their circumstances. Until such a time, mother and son alleviate their suffering by cuddling up every night to watch their favourite late night talk show, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro).
Arthur is dangerously thin, but people aren’t just uncomfortable about his physical self. There’s also the laughing. He laughs often, and inappropriately. It’s a neurological condition, and he hands out cards to strangers to ease their discomfort when his laughing goes on just a little too long. Still, it gets him into trouble. Joker’s laugh is iconic, and Phoenix taps into something so deranged, so haunting, it’ll nail your feet to the floor. The laugh alone justifies casting him. It is at distinctive, different, perfect. Unforgettable. Scary as hell. It sounds almost painful for Phoenix and it sent shivers down my spine.
Meanwhile, Gotham City is a total shit show. Garbage is piling up everywhere, home to super rats that terrorize the city. It’s never explicitly stated, but I’m guessing it’s 1981. The clothes are very late 70s/early 80s, you can still smoke indoors, and both Blow Out and Zorro The Gay Blade are playing at the movies. People are starting to agitate. The city’s becoming increasingly dangerous. There’s an undercurrent of discontent. It isn’t safe. Arthur gets robbed, jumped, beaten. There’s a certain electricity in the air. We all know Joker to be a villain, but the way things are going, these people may see him as more of a hero. Kill the rich – that’s their slogan. Not a great time to be the Wayne family. But is Joker the symbol this rebellion needs?
Arthur Fleck is nobody’s idea of a hero. He’s a mentally unstable man. He’s been in psych wards. He takes 7 different kinds of meds but still feels bad all the time. He keeps a joke diary filled with suicidal thoughts. “The worst part of having a mental illness,” he writes, “is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” I’ve lost count of how many Jokers we’ve seen on screen now (feel free to help me out in the comments section if you can), but it truly feels like Phoenix doesn’t fuck with any of them. Truly, he and writers Todd Phillips and Scott Silver have created Arthur/Joker from the ground up. He is an amalgam of childhood trauma, torment, debasement. You really get the sense that if anything had gone even just a fraction differently, you’d end up with a different guy. Arthur’s natural reaction to the world isn’t insanity or violence or evil. He genuinely seems to want to bring joy to the world. He wants to make the people laugh. He is searching for a way in. He is searching, I suppose, for identity. For something that makes him real, makes him feel like there’s a reason why he exists. But for one reason or another, this guy just keeps slipping through the cracks. There’s nobody to help him. If one person had reached out when he needed it, this would be a very different story. And I suppose that’s why this movie is so good. It doesn’t feel like a comic book movie, it feels more like Taxi Driver. It’s a character study. This man feels unpredictable, and yet we know his ending. There is a surprising amount of tension for a movie that can really only end one way. But director Todd Phillips creates this constant sense of swirling stress and anxiety, this emotional tautness by repeatedly having Arthur reach out. He doesn’t want to be a weirdo, or a loner. He wants that same connection that we all do. But society is keeping its distance. He’s isolated. He’s forgotten and ignored. We have countless opportunities to save the world from the Joker but we never do – we fail Arthur Fleck. Does the film show empathy toward him? I suppose it does, in many ways. Or at least to people who fall through the cracks, who get left behind. Personally, I had a hard time feeling empathy toward his first victims. Arthur is a complex man living in some complex times. There is no single reason that tips him over into villainy. There are just an awful lot of cracks in the pavement. A chasm is bound to open up, which is maybe the scariest way to look at it. There is no vat of acid. Joker’s descent into madness, or crime, or evil, or whatever you want to call it – it’s grounded in reality.
Comic books and super hero movies tend to deal in quite general archetypes of good and evil. This makes the characters instantly recognizable as hero or villain, but it also serves to put a distance between audience and character because there is little to relate to. Todd Phillips’ Joker is much more layered, which means at times you’ll root for him, and other times you’ll be disgusted by him. It’s a push-pull that few actors could pull off, and it’s why Joaquin Phoenix, already one of this generation’s biggest and truest talents, deserves an Oscar nomination, and as of right now, I’d say even the win.
Joker, however, is not just a great performance. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful film, a send up to gritty character studies of another era. Todd Phillips has said “The goal was never to introduce Joaquin Phoenix into the comic book movie universe. The goal was to introduce comic book movies into the Joaquin Phoenix universe.” Goddamn I love that quote. I think it shows great appreciation for Phoenix’s body of work. This isn’t just another origin story, this is a deep dive into a man’s psyche. Phoenix tends to gravitate toward the broken and tormented, but they’re not one-dimensional. They are faceted individuals. Different actors have interpreted Joker in many ways: a fiend, a terrorist, a thug, a psychopath. But Joaquin Phoenix goes with something else: human.
So I wrote all of that last month, after seeing Joker at TIFF. Since then, certain media outlets have tried to whip up a story about possible violence at Joker screenings and whether this movie sends a terrible message. I have wondered whether I should contribute to that noise at all but find that I do have something to say about it. Feel free to debate.
Does the movie treat the Joker too sympathetically? In a word: no. This is not the Joker from Batman comics. That Joker doesn’t exist yet. Arthur Fleck is a sad man with mental health problems. When he kills, he has a reason. None that justify the violence of course, but it’s not senseless or diabolical or insane.
Is Joker gratuitously violent? Actually, no. There is some violence, of course, but compared to other films, relatively little – in fact, probably relatively little even compared to other Batman movies. This is primarily a character study, so a lot of the interesting stuff is introspective, in his head, as his character transforms.
Is the film inviting violence from incels? Of course not. An incel, if you haven’t heard, is a man who believes himself to be INvoluntarily CELibate – ie, no one will sleep with him, and he blames it on some big female conspiracy. Incels have found each other in chat rooms and encourage each other to be nasty and wrong and gross, and angry toward women generally, and perhaps even violent toward them. They somehow think they are owed sex and even more confusingly, plot revenge for all the sex they aren’t getting. And somehow no one stops to think: this is why. This is why no one wants to date me. I am a creep. Women get a creep vibe from me, and they stay away because they sense I am an angry, dangerous dude. Maybe I should try…being nice? But the situation in the Joker movie doesn’t apply. There’s a woman he fixates on but even a criminally insane Arthur Fleck doesn’t blame her for his failures. He’s not an incel and I don’t think they even tread into that territory, so people trying to associate that with the movie are just being deliberately inflammatory.
Let’s remember that this movie is only the Joker’s birth. He’s a Joker fetus. He isn’t a criminal mastermind. There is no Batman yet; Bruce is still just a boy and Arthur is just a man finding his identity on the dark side. Where society has rejected him, the underbelly accepts him and raises him up. Of course it’s intoxicating. And of course it’s wrong. But if we’re talking body count, he’s responsible for only a fraction of Blade, or The Bride, or Rambo, or Walter White’s. And if we don’t protest every instance of violence, why are we targeting Joker? Especially when we could instead read it as a plea for early intervention, as a workbook for reaching out to the Arthur Flecks instead of merely condemning the Jokers.
If you love Julie Delpy, as I do, you probably love her talky scripts, her hyper-verbal, over-analytical characters who leave no thought unspoken. She has a knack for combining drama and comedy and elevating both with intelligent commentary. My Zoe is quite a departure. Which isn’t to say that it’s not smart or insightful. But it is very, very different.
Isabelle (Delpy), loving mother to Zoe (Sophia Ally) is going through a divorce from her husband, James (Richard Armitage). Their daughter’s custody is their battleground. They both love and want her desperately, but they might also have the need to hurt and wound each other however they can. It hasn’t been easy. Zoe is a sweet little girl who is too young to understand the animosity. When James notices a bruise on Zoe’s arm, he is not un-accusing of Isabelle. When Isabelle hears Zoe sneeze, she is not un-accusing of James. They are suspicious of each other’s parenting, determined to be the Best and Most Devoted One. I wish I could say that all dissolves when it turns out Zoe is gravely ill.
A mystery illness strikes quickly, and severely, and the waiting room where the two parents wait is a literal tiny glass box where their tension just bounces off the walls and back into their bodies, ratcheting up the hostility with each allegation lobbed. Is it love gone sour that has them at each other’s throats, or just fear and frustration? Truly, to be the parent of a sick child is the most helpless one can feel. It’s no wonder they seek their scapegoats. Up until this point, the movie is riveting: emotional and raw, full of anger and spite. But then it makes a u-turn.
The next half is so materially different that you might wonder if you’d fallen asleep and woken up during an entirely different movie. It’s still Julie Delpy, still playing a devoted mother, obsessed, even. But everything else has changed: the characters, her surroundings, and most of all: the tone. It’s disorienting trying to get your bearings in this new reality.
Delpy is of course quite good – sometimes astonishing, sometimes vehement, often dangerous and despairing. Her performance is a wail heard by mothers everywhere. But if also reaches beyond the normal, natural borders of motherhood and asks: what else? The answers are not necessarily comfortable.
Grace (Annette Bening) and Edward (Bill Nighy) are a many-years married couple. She bickers and snipes at him, he slumps his shoulders and takes it. Over 30 years together, they’ve found lots of things to agree and disagree on, but they’re definitely united on one front: son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) doesn’t visit nearly enough.
When he does visit on this particular weekend, his mother does her usual thing, wasting half the visit dressing him down for not visiting her enough, thus making him less inclined to visit next time. But that’s her way. She speaks her mind. He’s used to it. He also fends off her religious overtures, and ultimately she goes off to church alone, which is when his father surprises him.
After some hemming and hawing he just says it: “I’m leaving your mother.”
Now hopefully we’re all groaning on the same page here: he’s told his son before he’s told his wife. And of course his wife feels blindsided, hurt, and not a little angry. Mostly that there was no warning. She never saw it coming. Now, Edward has some excuses for this: that she’s domineering, that she’d only try to stop him and his mind is fully made up. But to her, this is a 30 year relationship we’re talking about, and it’s worth a little effort, worth an attempt or two to save it. Not that this has stopped her from any of her heated squabbles.
Edward is not a complete idiot. He’s timed this so that he could abandon his wife quite quickly, leaving his son to pick up the pieces. Grace is understandably bitter and Jamie feels trapped. His mother isn’t just sad, she’s depressed, perhaps suicidal. It’s a lot to ask of a son.
This film is based on writer-director William Nicholson’s own experience of his parents’ divorce. It’s a little light on plot or direction, driven mainly by some great performances. Neither Grace nor Edward come off as particularly admirable people but Bening and Nighy give them a little more sympathy than is truly deserved. The collapse of a marriage is always an aching thing. The grown son being pulled between two grieving parents acts as a proxy for the audience, but because neither character comes off as entirely blameless or even likable, we actually feel pulled in neither direction. Instead, we remain unmoved somewhere in the middle, which doesn’t make for a very bracing or rewarding trip to the movies.