Four Films in 26 Hours

In the past day or so I’ve seen four recent films, two in theaters and two while flying today. This is the same number of movies I might normally watch in an average month, so it’s a bit out of character for me but a welcome surprise nonetheless.

My wife and I went to see Ad Astra yesterday on a date. Today, I watched X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Tolkien while flying to Boston and I saw Joker in a 70mm film print at the historic Coolidge Corner Theater. In this post, I’m going to write a brief (mostly spoiler-free) reaction to each of the four, and I’d like to delve into a few of them more deeply later on in a spoiler-filled review if there’ s anyone interested in reading it. Let’s jump in!

Ad Astra – 9/10

Ad Astra focuses on the struggle of what lies beyond our reach even as it questions whether the cost of that pursuit is justified. It does this by balancing multiple interweaving narratives, individual leitmotifs that eventually sing in harmony as they build to a majestic finale.

This is an achingly beautiful voyage “to the stars” with strong meditations on duty to both nation and family, masculinity, one’s own legacy, living outside of the shadow of one’s father, and the search for ultimate meaning. It is very much like Interstellar in both visuals and in themes, although the journey and the consequences of that journey are very different.

I spent the better part of two hours mostly looking at Brad Pitt’s face as well as glorious space imagery and whether the camera lingered on Pitt’s understated performance or on the visuals, it was riveting. The cinematography, score, and dialogue elevate this film beyond most other “think piece sci-fi films” and it is worthy to share the same air with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gattaca, and The Arrival. It has big ideas, big performances, and elevates each aspect of its creation in the artistry of its composition.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix – 3/10

Dark Phoenix was disappointing, much as I expected, but I also found a few redeeming moments.

I liked how we see the highest regard the American people hold the X-Men after the events of Days of Future Past and Apocalypse showing that they have all but become a government agency. A triumphant return scene after near tragedy where children wear mutant face paint and hold X-Men action figures asks the question of whether or not the lives of mutants are being risked as a PR stunt is worthwhile or not to preserve the peace. The background of Jean Grey is also quite interesting, but the eventual nemesis is a bland one-note threat that feels like a type of comic book movie villain that existed prior to Nolan and the MCU. We’ve gone too far beyond that now, you’ll have to do better if you expect us to care.

From my understanding, Singer rushed through the production of this film as he was battling sexual assault allegations and the hacked-together third act was a result of this situation. I can understand how that would have an impact on Singer, but that doesn’t explain why Apocalypse was so much weaker than First Class orDays of Future Past and I think a lot of that blame for the failure of this film can be placed on the shoulders of Sophie Turner. She does a good enough Jean Grey as a background character, but she can’t carry Dark Phoenix. One thing I enjoyed in this film are many of the character development moments for the other characters. There were a lot of intriguing ideas here, which is why it’s so infuriating that the resulting film is so lackluster.

Tolkien – 8/10

I was utterly enthralled by Tolkien and felt the film did not deserve the criticism it has received from many in the Christian community.

I think a lot of people weren’t disappointed by what was in Tolkien but were instead let down by what was not in the film. We do not have any of Tolkien’s time with the Inklings in general or his friendship with C.S. Lewis in particular. We do not have much visible manifestation of how important his Catholic faith was in his life. We have very little mention of Hobbits or of Middle-Earth.

Enough of what is missing—what do we have? Tolkien, after a brief interlude to establish his mother imparting a love of language and mythology and then orphaning poor John Ronald his brother, the bulk of the film concerns Tolkien’s time as a scholarship student at a boarding school and at Oxford before enlisting as an officer in World War I and fighting at La Somme, one of the bloodiest battlefields in human history.

The film concerns forging a brotherhood with three other students who declare they will engage in a battle for art and die on their swords if necessary in the attempt. The bonds between the young men might remind one of the deep and abiding filial fellowships found in The Lord of the Rings. As one reviewer pointed out, the group of young men is similar in some ways to the youths of Dead Poets Societ, but instead of a revolutionary zeal to seize the day, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S.) is concerned with creating culture and not in mounting a countercultural movement.

For as much time as Tolkien spends on the T.C.B.S., it spends an equal amount of time on both Tolkien’s pursuit of the fellow orphan Edith and in his abiding love for language. It is not surprising that in a film with these three rich subjects that all exist in his youth, that the focus does not extend into later aspects of the life of professor Tolkien we’d like to see onscreen.

Joker – 7/10

Because Joker is a film about a broken man who uses sensational violence to try and find some semblance of agency, it is no wonder that it has elicited strong opinions from either side of the culture war. Joker wants to be a comic book version of Taxi Driver but it is too nihilistic to achieve that level of character depth—nevertheless it is a solid apotheosis of the archetypal villain.

That said, it is quite a task to try and make a film like Joker in the current cultural landscape, much less from the director responsible for The Hangover series. There are many people who enjoy watching Joaquin Phoenix unhinge himself onscreen—a glorious mashup of the performance styles of both Daniel Day Lewis and Nicholas Cage—and they won’t be disappointed here. Phoenix outdoes his performances in both Gladiator and The Master with his riveting portrayal of Arthur Fleck, a low-level clown who wants to be a stand-up comic and can barely keep his psychoses in check for most of the film.

The Gotham setting looks to be in the early 80s and shows the city as it is in the midst of a garbage strike – the streets are dirty and graffitied, with garbage bags strewn about as characters walk down sidewalks. It’s easy to forget in 2019 how grimy cities like New York and Chicago were in that time period, and Joker brings out the seedy underbelly of external city and within the souls of many of the characters.

Those who are expecting a typical comic book film will be disappointed. Joker is a character study with a few brief action set pieces. It is also a hard-R rating, so please don’t take your kids who want to see their favorite Batman villain.

All that said, is it worth seeing? Yes, if you have the stomach for it. Not just a stomach for brief scenes of stunning violence, but mostly for two hours of unending psychological assault where revealed secrets forever ruin relationships and people who want to live innocent and productive lives are beaten and abused until they too become monsters.

I am reminded of the Nietzsche quote, “if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you”. As I left the theater today, I overheard two dramatically different audience reactions. A group of college-aged students were applauding and laughing, taking a destructive glee from this film that was quite chilling to me. I could imagine them putting on clown masks themselves and glorying in violent rallying against the powers that be. Another man, a few years older, turned to his date and said, “I think I need a shower after watching that.” I can understand the feeling. When watching a film such as Joker, Taxi Driver, or Requiem for a Dream there is an uncleanliness that attaches itself to us for a while, an artifact of having viewed the depiction of callous disregard for human life. To seek cleansing afterward is an appropriate reaction.

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