Tag Archives: 2019

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: JOKER (2019)

Todd Phillips’ The Joker (2019) is a tedious, derivative manifesto for the “woe is me” white American male.  “I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire f—ing life,” says Arthur Fleck () and that sentiment is all too contagious while sitting through this self-pitying exercise of hackneyed seventh grade psychology. There’s more fun to be had here twirling one’s straw while waiting for the paint-by-number soundtrack accompaniment. Do a countdown while checking off “Send in the Clowns,”  “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” “That’s Life,” and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2” (its inclusion is a blatant, adolescent attempt to be provocative, given Giltter’s history). At least you’ll stay awake, if your straw is strong enough to endure all that twirling.

Still from Joker (2019)Another way to enhance what little entertainment that can be squeezed out of this lesson in masochism is to locate the the slivers of other films embedded in it: King of Comedy, Taxi Driver (cue the Robert De Niro cameo) ‘s Modern Times, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, The French Connection, and ‘s Batman, to name a random few (throw in at least one reference to ‘s “Dark Knight” comics as well).

For all its derivativeness, The Joker is yet another comic book based movie that’s embarrassed of its comic book origins. Angst-ridden fanboys, who haven’t seen a movie that’s not comic book-based in a decade or more, will hardly care. They’ll heap a ton of praise (and money) on it, proclaiming it profound, with an Oscar worthy performance from Phoenix, which will validate their own basement profundity.

It seems to be set in the 1980s (i.e. the Mark of Zorro marquee has been changed to Zorro, the Gay Blade) and it is essentially plotless. Fleck works for a clown agency, understandably gets fired for not being funny, rages against swamp-entitled self-righteous public figure Thomas Wayne (hint, hint), has mommy issues, sees conspiracies afoot (mostly involving Wayne) and descends into … whatever. End of story. It takes 90 muddled minutes (!) for Fleck to get into the makeup—but the makeup is rather a pronounced point of the Joker, a bit like the suit is a pronounced point of the superhero.

Phoenix’s may be the worst  portrayal of the character to date. Cesar Romero, (who’s looking better with each new portrayal), and each brought a sense of glee to the role, albeit a  maniacal one. Not so with Phoenix. He’s a tiresome gray, and when he does finally go black, he does not enjoy a moment of it.

The Joker is certainly bound to have a huge opening, but is it worthy of the controversy its generating? It deserves neither. Nor does it deserve to be remembered, celebrated, or mistaken for art, or cinema, for that matter. The Joker is merely a tasteless nothingburger.

366 UNDERGROUND: BLOODSUCKER’S PLANET (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Beal

FEATURING: , , Adrienne Dobson, Joe Grisaffi,

PLOT: Responding to a distress signal, the crew of a cargo spaceship find themselves on a remote mud-harvesting planet inhabited by the charming Bartlett, who harbors a dark secret.

Still from Bloodsucker's Planet (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: While it’s difficult to tell the deliberate weirdness from simple budgetary limitations, there’s no denying that this film’s minimalistic approach to its seemingly simple tale of vampires in space gives rise to some creepy and trippy visuals.

COMMENTS: The idea of vampires in a science fiction setting has a great deal of promise, but it’s been largely restricted to B-movies. It’s hardly a more ridiculous conceit than that of many films that break box office records. Yet personally, my sole encounters with the genre have been 1985’s Lifeforce, a film whose genuinely intriguing concepts were hard to take seriously thanks to the film’s needless sexualization, and Dracula 3000, an embarrassing bore from South African Darrell Roodt.

Point is, Bloodsucker’s Planet—which, really, spells out its whole concept right there in the title—has a promising premise right off the bat. It’s true that there are parts of it that, through no fault of the filmmakers, I probably didn’t fully understand (I unfortunately never saw Bloodsucker’s Handbook, the film that this is a prequel to; and I’m not especially familiar with 60s-era sci fi, from which Planet draws many cues); but still, I can recognize a solid and underutilized concept when I see one.

Bloodsucker’s Planet evokes the classics right from the opening, with the crew of a small cargo ship responding to a distress signal that leads them to the isolated planet of Mara, home to an abandoned mud harvesting operation now occupied only by the charming Bartlett and his gynoid assistant Adrianna. The sci fi parallels to the classic vampire tale are evident almost at once. The solitary Bartlett has that gentlemanly charm and likeability befitting the more romantic sort of vampire overlord (though he himself doesn’t seem to be afflicted with the condition); Adrianna brings to mind one of Dracula’s concubines; the somber graveyard on the planet’s surface evokes traditional horror imagery; and the vampiric disease, it seems, is spread by a native species closely resembling (and, indeed, explicitly referred to as) bats.

Unfortunately, this intriguing setup, which promises a sci-fied take on a classically Gothic setup, ends up feeling underexploited. A big reason is clearly the limitations of the budget.

I don’t look down upon a film for having a low budget. I don’t think any fan of arthouse or independent cinema could ever justify such an attitude. But I do think that, to execute certain concepts, a certain level of resources is required. Low budget charm is all well and good; but sometimes, a film’s resources can be so limited that a great portion of its central concept gets lost. And in this case, the plain sets and scenery don’t evoke a far-distant future to any significant degree. And while this might be forgivable in a film where the  setting was more incidental, it becomes noticeable in a movie that is centered on the novelty of “vampires in space.”

There are moments of brilliance, to be sure, where the limited budget evokes the setting in a creative, surrealistic manner (most prominently in several brief shots of uncanny, slightly-off miniature models of characters wandering the planet’s surface or hurtling through space). Moreover, there’s a classic subplot centered on Adrianna struggling to reconcile her emotions with her artificial nature, and all that. I get the sense that it’s there to reinforce the connection to classic science fiction; but despite taking up a good portion of the film’s midsection, it doesn’t go anywhere or relate to the plot in any significant manner (though, not being an expert in classic vampire lore, I’m more than ready to admit I might be missing a reference). If nothing else, I’d have appreciated a few more scenes of the wisecracking space roach; sure, he also had little bearing on the central plot, but he was far and away the most entertaining character.

As much as I genuinely hate saying this about any indie effort, I do feel that Bloodsucker’s Planet attempts to tackle a concept a bit beyond the reach of its resources. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad effort by any means—there are moments where that surreal shoestring charm does its job, and Joe Grisaffi, at the very least, takes to his role with an elegant charisma. But all in all, Bloodsucker’s Planet has more promising potential than solid execution.

Either way, Planet made me more than a little curious to check out Bloodsucker’s Handbook—a film which, allegedly, was far weirder than this one. It struck me that embracing the inherent weirdness of the premise could have spiced up Bloodsucker’s Planet and helped it overcome its limitations. After all, weirdness is one of the few things that, personally, I don’t believe can be held back by budgetary constraints.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Viewers who love such recent mind-bending indie retro outings as Joe Badon’s The God Inside My Ear (2017) and Drew Bolduc’s Assassinaut (2019) are bound to have a blast with Bloodsucker’s Planet, which is an absolute delight from before its ultracool animated opening credits to its postcredits cracker jack.”–Joseph Perry, Horror Fuel (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SPACE NINJAS (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Scott McQuaid

FEATURING: Yi Jane, Damien Zachary, Briane Narelle, Dirk Benedict

PLOT: Five high schoolers are doomed to spend their Saturday night at school in detention, then doomed by an infiltration of space ninjas.

Still from Space Ninjas (2019)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Some movies are so bad that they’re good, some are so bad that they’re weird, and some suffer from the misconception that you can try to be that bad. I could not figure out which of these (or what combination) Space Ninjas falls into: suffice to say, I never lost my “WTF?” expression throughout this mash-up of The Breakfast Club, ’80s horror, and low-budget flair that seemed to oscillate between winking at the audience and accidentally tripping over itself.

COMMENTS: A big part of me wonders if this whole thing was just a massive set-up to allow Scott McQuaid (the writer and director of this gem) to slip the line, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead!” into a Teen-Sci/Fi-Horror movie. That’s the kind of picture this is. Slippery. Some poking around online suggests it may be doing what it’s doing on purpose, and I’m inclined to believe it. However, the whole exercise gives off the vibe that McQuaid & Co. only mostly know what they’re doing, using a charming kind of amateur ineptness as a crutch to carry them across the “self-aware” finish line. But hold on a second, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Enter five teenagers: the jock, the nerd (Damien Zachary), the prima donna, the punk (Yi Jane), and the Japanese exchange student. These archetypes find themselves, for various not-altogether-specified reasons, confined to a classroom for detention on a weekend—the only way, it appears to the school’s “Deputy Head,” Mr Hughes, to actually punish them. (I’m bothering to tell you his job title because, like so much of the rest of the plot, it’s established to set up a hack n’ slash joke later in the movie.) Quips fly, barbs are jabbed, and the lights go out. A dark figure appears from nowhere. And for the rest of the movie, our band of teenagers finds itself increasingly failing to escape the menace of… Space Ninjas!

Two questions came to mind about halfway through watching this movie. First, how does 366’s radar pick up this kind of nonsense? Second, what drives a man to make this kind of nonsense in the first place? The visual tone is thrown from the get-go, appearing to have been captured on digital film from the early ’00s (those who remember “mini-DV” tapes will know what I’m talking about). The dialogue was—probably—dubbed in after the fact. The gore shots were achieved with, once again, some early ’00s-looking CGI. In fact, the whole movie, on the surface, felt as if Mark Region had finally gotten a correspondence school degree in filmmaking and decided to do a horror movie to follow up his taut psychological thriller. This extends to the delivery of the dialogue, which in Space Ninjas hews somewhere between “realistic” and “high school film class” in quality, but is pretty regularly (and obviously intentionally) funny.

The movie is bookended by a campy Mysterious Mysteries-meets-Horkheimer’s “Star Hustler” television show, which sets up the premise (its host, “Jack ‘don’t-call-me’ Strange”, is played by B-movie stalwart Dirk Benedict, who is mysteriously omitted from the IMDb credits). Judging from how those scenes play out, I am inclined to suspect that McQuaid (probably) knows what to do. I’m impressed that he was somehow able to obscure this skill set for most of the movie. Had I not been given grounding, I’d have readily slipped Space Ninjas into the “” category. I consider it far more impressive a specimen for having (probably) pulled the wool over my eyes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…fans of B-movie horror comedies will love this.”–JB, Talk Nerdy to Me

CAPSULE: THE DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE (2019)

Recommended

CREATED BY: Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews

FEATURING: Nathalie Emmanuel, , Taron Egerton, Mark Hamill, , Donna Kimball

PLOT: For over 1,000 trine the Skeksis have ruled over Thra, and its Crystal of Truth, corrupting them both in their quest for immortality; Aughra, the guardian and incarnation of Thra’s spirit, emerges from a cosmic slumber when she hears the planet crying out, and goes about her way to save her world.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though Thra is teeming with bizarre creatures, wondrous magic, and sinister devices, this is an epic fantasy, and we expect those sorts of things. That said, the creativity and scope here are nothing short of monumental.

COMMENTS: Pity the poor Skeksis: all they ever wanted was to live forever. That’s about as much empathy as I can muster for them having watched (decades ago) the original Dark Crystal and (days ago) the Netflix series, Dark Crystal: the Age of Resistance. Thinking myself on a deadline that proved to be non-existent, I binged all ten hours over the course of a day without interruption. That alone, I feel, speaks to its quality. It appears that the prequel is at least partly based on print material made since the original movie. Still, it was fresh to me, but not entirely unfamiliar. Working with puppets, as Henson & Co. did for the first go-around, The Age of Resistance maintains the timeless feel of that movie I watched over and over as a child.

Cramming ten hours of epic fantasy plot into one paragraph is beyond my ability; suffice it to say, The Age of Resistance brings the modern viewer as much of the Skeksis, Aughra, and Gelflings as one could ever want. After opening narration hinting at the Skeksis’ origins and explaining the socio-ecological history of the planet Thra, it dives into some (very well executed) fantasy character-introduction, follows that up with some (very well executed) quests and side stories, before finishing with a (very well executed) climax and final confrontation between the Gelfling heroes and the Skeksis overlords. Of course, how “final” the confrontation is, to anyone familiar with the broader story, is doubtful; judging from the show’s byline and the beginning of The Dark Crystal movie, this series finishes at what I shall dub “peak Gelfling”. The story’s coda sets things up for the staggeringly dark chapter in Thra’s history that is (hopefully) doubtless to come.

But the show! My word, I had forgotten how impressive things could be when the Henson name is slapped thereupon. Thra’s ecosystem bubbles over (sometimes literally) with all manner of exotic creatures: woodland faeries that fly and spin along air currents, deadly carnivorous plant tendrils called “gobblers”, paper-eating library imps, and of course the landstriders and “fizzgigs“. The humanoid characters fill out the perquisites for fantasy adventuring yarns: the troubled soldier, the bookish princess, the knight-errant with humble origins. Obviously there are technical limits to emoting when we’re talking puppets (particularly, it seems, when talking Gelfling puppets), but the combination of voice acting (Mark Hamill and Simon Pegg are a real treat) and the puppeteers—each responsible for their own character (my apologies to those under-credited virtuosos)—made the whole world, at least by a few hours in, seem real, in its own special way.

My main criticism with a lot of fantasy I’ve seen and read (including that which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed) is the conflict seems to boil down to “infinite skill” (the good guys) versus “infinite resources” (the bad guys). Dark Crystal: the Age of Resistance does not suffer from this distillation. The Skeksis are pure sociopathic evil doused in cunning (they’ve been running the show for a millennia); the Gelfling (and their various allies) have passion, surely, and some have skill. But it never comes across as a close fight. Indeed, there was a pall over the whole affair as I knew what was coming. The Age of Resistance‘s narrative arc stops before that dark period, so things  end on a hopeful note. But for those in the know, the Gelflings have much more to fear than any “winter” coming; their story is primed for genocide, and you can’t say that about many PG adventure shows.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…quite simply, one of the all-time great fantasy epics, as well as the masterwork of puppetry most closely aligned with Jim Henson’s humanistic philosophy… Despite being rated TV-PG, ‘Age of Resistance’ never flinches when tackling the harrowing aspects of its subject matter. It is chockfull of nightmarish imagery guaranteed to frighten some young viewers and fascinate many others. Part of what appealed to those who grew up with The Dark Crystal was its sense of danger and conspicuous lack of sentimentality, giving kids the sense that they were embarking on territory more adult than the reassuring fairy tales of Disney.” –Matt Fagerholm, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

REPORT: MIDSOMMAR DIRECTOR’S CUT (2019)

First, the bottom line: if you saw Midsommar (review) in its original summer run, there’s no pressing need to revisit it so soon. In all likelihood you’ll barely even notice the new director’s cut material. If you missed it the first time around and a theater near you is showing it, however, this is a nice opportunity to catch the summer’s sunniest folk horror on the big screen. (Apparently, the only other way to see the extended cut will be via Apple TV beginning on September 24, where it will screen exclusively—for the time being, at least.)

Midsommar (2019) Promotional imageAs far as what’s new: twenty five minutes of restored material is not a lot, but it pushes the overall runtime to a taxing 2 hours 50 minutes. The additions change nothing significant, and maybe in one case blunt the film’s impact. Some of the early scenes, such as the trip from Stockholm to the Hårga commune, are extended for character development purposes. Christian, Josh and Mark all come off worse.  There are also a few additional scenes of pagan rites.

The most noteworthy departure occurs when the commune stages another pageant, but this time set during the few hours of midsummer darkness. The ritual itself is effective, playing with our expectations, but will only surprise those who didn’t see the theatrical cut. It’s followed by an explosive argument between Christian and Dani, which I think was too on-the-nose, and likely a minor mistake. The movie works better when we glimpse the rift between them as just a hairline for as long as possible, making the final crack more devastating. I appreciate the appearance of a nighttime scene, which dramatically breaks the film’s sunshine motif, almost exactly at the film’s midpoint; but the payoff doesn’t justify such a dramatic formal departure.

Overall, I think the extended version proves that the cuts the studio requested of writer/director were wisely chosen. Given the choice, I’d save twenty-five minutes and watch the shorter theatrical cut.

The bigger question, I think, is why did A24 bother to re-release Midsommar to theaters at all? They aren’t going to squeeze enough juice out of this specialty berry to pass Avengers: Endgame in the all-time receipts race. I think it signals one of two things: either Aster’s two hits for the studio have given him enough pull to dictate programming strategy (maybe he made the extended theatrical release a condition for accepting the requested cuts); or, A24 thinks that they have a long-shot awards season contender on their hands (Florence Pugh), and want to keep Midsommar fresh in the minds of critics. I’m going with the second explanation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Most of the additional footage serves to reiterate or unpick points that landed better as hints and asides.”–Ryan Gibley, The Guardian

“…the newly released Extended Cut expounds on the misery felt by both members of the couple and allows a deeper glimpse into the alien culture they are drawn into.”–Brad Gullickson, Film School Rejects