TIFF Film Thoughts: Part II

Now for three films that will probably get some Oscar buzz.

Joker:

Whilst I still need time to digest whether I loved this movie or thought it was just okay, this was a really effective experience. It disturbed me, it surprised me and it engaged me more than any comic book movie of 2019. This is not even a horror movie, but it is scarier than any that I have seen this year. Loved every technical aspect and many of the performances. The score and cinematography are some of my favourites of the year. Joaquin Phoenix is just as great as you’ve heard and he strikes a balance between being sympathetic and terrifying. 

The script is a bit more flawed. Some of the dialogue is awkward, there is too much going on narrative wise and some sequences aren’t nearly as effective as intended. The third act is intense and gripping but it becomes a little bit messy because of how many storylines need closure, so you have a lot of interruptions that prevent the story from feeling like it is building to a climax. The handling of heavy subject matter does not always work either, but for the most part I found Joker’s social commentary to be very intelligent. 

It’s also far more thematically rich than certain critics are giving it credit for, having themes of the cycle of violence, celebrity culture, toxic fandom, the desire to be appreciated and how obsession and hatred can destroy your humanity. Probably the best aspect of the movie is that it does what no other comic book movie in history has done, it allows room for interpretation. Has any Marvel or DC film before this ended on a note that leaves huge room for analysis of what happened? It’s a big step forward for the genre and I’m very happy that that Director Todd Phillips managed to pull it off. 

4/5

Just Mercy:

Civil rights activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson gave a speech before the showing I attended that was profoundly effective and moving. I also loved Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s first movie Short Term 12. It’s unfortunate that Just Mercy does not entirely live up to both of these heights, although it is still a worthwhile watch. 

The subject matter of Just Mercy, that being the inequality and flaws of the US justice system and death row, is enough to give it a sense of importance as a story. Yet what’s holding this film back from full greatness is its direction and storytelling. Cretton’s understated style aims for realism and fact, yet the result is uninteresting, not helped by the film version of Stevenson having no development or characterisation beyond just being in the right, which is a problem that persists all throughout. Without a protagonist that has a clear arc, the story has nowhere interesting to go other than just showing him doing his task of trying to free his client Walter McMillan. It’s not entirely ineffective, as Stevenson’s various struggles with being respected is well portrayed, there’s a harrowing execution scene and the injustice displayed creates a sense of anger within you that the film does not overcompensate for by employing cheesy or heavy-handed imagery. But in general, the purely factual storytelling is not that entertaining and would have been better with more style or characterisation.

Thankfully, the two central performances do raise the material. Michael B Jordan is very restrained, but he tries his best to make Stevenson feel like a proper character and manages to carry the duller sections. Jamie Foxx as McMillan provides some of his best acting since Collateral, really selling the despair and hopelessness that his character is going through. It is refreshing to see Foxx in another solid dramatic turn and hopefully he does more of them. Unfortunately, the rest of the acting is not as strong. Brie Larson does not have much to work with dramatically and her character has little purpose in the narrative other than to be an assistant to Stevenson. Tim Blake Nelson as an inmate central to the case eventually grew on me, but to start with his intentionally awkward performance did not work. Rafe Spall is probably the most out of place, as his sleazy District Attorney is very over the top and caricatured, not helped by an OTT southern accent.

What saves this film from being totally average is the third act. The story manages to go places that I did not expect and quality-wise, this movie makes a drastic leap in its direction, which becomes stronger and more hard-hitting. The actors have some of their best moments and the finale is very emotional. This section makes me comfortable recommending that you see it, even if I don’t think the journey leading to it is hugely riveting.

3/5 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood:

One of the scriptwriters said before the film that Fred Rogers had a very important saying: “It is not about what someone does, but who they are”. What is ironic is that A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is both about who Fred Rogers, a national media icon in America for his positive values and loving personality, is and what he does. Rogers is a major character in this story, yet he is mostly used as the basis for another true story, that being the story of how the life of a journalist that interviewed him was changed by his influence. This choice makes the film stand out from standard biopic fare, as another film would probably just be about Rogers’s life. 

Director Marielle Heller previously made Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a film that I felt had an excellent script but an average directorial style that muted a lot of its potential impact. The opposite is the case for this film, as the script is on paper merely decent yet unspectacular, but the direction is beautiful. The style is something that works best as a surprise so I will not spoil it, so let’s just say that it emulates an episode of Mr Rogers’s Neighbourhood very accurately. The general cinematography is strong, the tone is serious yet optimistic and the film is not afraid to get a little weird, as shown by a fantastic dream sequence towards the end.

Matthew Rhys as Matthew Vogel, the main journalist, gives a standout performance, playing a vulnerable, reserved and hate-filled man well. Whilst Tom Hanks is charming as always, this is really Rhys’s movie, although Hanks takes Fred Rogers and makes him feel like a human being rather than an unrealistically saintly figure. As for Chris Cooper, if anyone else were cast as Jerry Vogel, the father, then I might have seen him as undeserving of forgiveness. But Cooper is the kind of actor who can perfectly play someone who is riddled with guilt, so I did feel for him.

As for any flaws, the drama at the centre of the film can’t help but feel simplistic because of the one-sided approach taken. The running time does feel overlong as well, as the third act probably could have been trimmed. Also, there’s a moment towards the end where an apology is delivered yet it weirdly does not acknowledge a key character who should be central to that apology. It must have been either an intentional choice or a mistake, but it does undermine what could have been a powerful moment. 

The thing I took away the most from A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood was the relevant and effective message. Letting anger, bitterness and hatred rule your life is not worthwhile, instead it’s better to resolve things and move on. The message alone is what makes this film valuable and I hope that plenty of people take it onboard, because I think that many people need to learn that lesson.

4/5

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