Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Bob Grimm

Joker, a new take on DC Comics’ Clown Prince of Crime, will go down as one of the year’s big missed opportunities.

Director Todd Phillips, best known for his Hangover movies, apparently got the green light to do whatever he wanted with the Joker mythos. In a feat of perfect casting, he managed to get Joaquin Phoenix to sign on for the title role. This was a chance to tell a dark origin story from Joker’s point of view.

Phillips blew this chance. Phoenix is otherworldly good as Arthur Fleck, a severely troubled clown and standup comedy wannabe (and momma’s boy) with a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate moments. Phoenix physically and mentally disappears into the part—to the point where it’s reasonable to become concerned about the actor’s well-being.

He accomplishes this in a film that has a major identity crisis, in that it wants to be a DC movie utilizing a DC icon without really being set within DC lore. Could that have worked out OK? Sure, but the movie builds to a conclusion that frustratingly teases, but only teases, the great Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. Why not do a film that tells the story of The Dark Knight Returns entirely from the Joker’s perspective, instead of dancing around Batman lore in a way that feels like the filmmaker is merely trying to be cute and clever? The experience of watching this left me unfulfilled. Phillips borrows many elements from comic books, Bernie Goetz, Death Wish and Martin Scorsese movies, resulting in a muddy work that feels oddly rote given the crazed and wonderful performance at its center.

When we first see Fleck, he’s dressed as a clown, spinning a sign and generally having a good time. He promptly gets his ass kicked; we then see him in therapy and living in poverty with his quirky mother (Frances Conroy). Fleck slowly but surely starts to lose all sense of his humanity as he grows into a criminal monster.

We’ve seen all of these plot mechanizations before, in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Heck, Phillips even casts a game Robert De Niro to play a talk-show host who winds up being a nod to Miller’s David Letterman riff, David Endocrine, in The Dark Knight Returns. At its most derivative, the screenplay echoes A Beautiful Mind, filmed in a way that feels like a hackneyed Shyamalan twist.

Is the violence too much? That depends upon your personal threshold for fake mayhem in movies. I, for one, was appropriately shocked at times by how visceral the movie got; it goes well beyond your typical Avengers movie or the playfully crazed violence of something like, say, Deadpool. The violence in this movie is ugly and extremely downbeat; it will leave you with knots in your stomach.

Phoenix does a thing with the hysterical laughing early in the movie, where he shows Fleck struggling because it hurts his throat and challenges his smoker’s lungs. As the film progresses, it appears that the Joker’s hysterical laugh muscles are strengthening—as if in training for his criminal career when that laughter will cause no pain, and flow out of him with no need for lozenges afterward. Touches like these, as well as the depiction of Gotham as a city reminiscent of pre-Giuliani New York City in the 1970s (I assure you folks, that place was a hellhole), are impressive.

This impressive work is done in by paint-by-numbers plotting. Fleck’s standup comedian aspirations don’t make a whole lot of sense; they simply make for a convenient plot device to reach the movie’s predictable finale. Everything to do with Fleck’s mother plays like a poor man’s Psycho. For a movie that was supposed to be an entirely original approach to the Joker, nothing really feels original other than the spark of creativity Phoenix brings to the enterprise. It’s boringly familiar.

Joker won the Golden Lion for Best Film at this year’s Venice Film Festival? That voting panel must’ve been on mushrooms.

Joker is playing at theaters across the valley.

There have been plenty of looks into the making of Ridley Scott’s Alien—most notably the director’s-cut Alien DVDs, followed by the special-feature-saturated Blu-rays.

Memory: The Origins of Alien, a new documentary from director Alexandre O. Philippe, is one of the best, although it lacks new interviews with the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Ridley Scott. (The film does include a handful of archived interview moments.) Instead, it talks to folks like Roger Corman, who almost made Dan O’Bannon’s original Alien script on a shoestring budget, and gets the likes of Tom Skerritt to sit down for some original insights on the filming. Veronica Cartwright is also interviewed, once again recounting the great story of witnessing the chest-burster scene live.

The movie goes beyond typical behind-the-scenes looks, tracing the origins of Alien back to some old-timey comics depicting Navy sailors accidentally eating alien eggs.

For fans of the movie and moviemaking in general, Memory: The Origins of Alien is quite fascinating.

Memory: The Origins of Alien is available via online sources including iTunes and

I have never seen a single episode of Downton Abbey, the Emmy-winning British TV series that aired its finale almost four years ago. I didn’t intentionally avoid it; there are just some TV shows I never get around to watching.

So, walking into Downton Abbey the movie, I knew next to nothing. I knew it was set in the early 20th century; I knew it was British; and I knew the awesome Maggie Smith was in it. I also knew Dan Stevens was probably not in it due to situations his character encountered during the run of the show—TV events that made the news.

Well … this movie is a mess—although it’s the sort of mess a true fan will be willing to tolerate. Director Michael Engler works enough subplots into this movie to fuel an entire season of the former TV show, and it’s painfully apparent in the pacing, especially in the film’s first half. The big screen is not serving this cast well.

The big plot point here is that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to Downton Abbey—a big estate with a reasonably sized staff—for a quick visit during one of their tours. The staff, excited and taken a bit by surprise, must prepare for the visit.

Much of this movie shows the staff running around and trying to prepare for the visit. They go to the store for eggs; they try to fix the boiler so the queen will have hot water; they endure some minor staff shakeups in anticipation of the big visit. Then the visit happens. Then the visit ends. That’s the main thrust of the movie.

In the background, there are all sorts of little affairs and plot threads that even the most hardcore fans might have a hard time following. There’s even a blink-and-you-will-miss-it assassination plot involving King George that just sort of happens, without any attention to anything resembling details. Hey, a movie where King George V almost gets assassinated should be at least slightly exciting, right? Nope. It’s just something that happens in this movie, as inconsequential as one of its characters taking a bath.

The presentation of the film’s first half is rushed, as if Engler was worried someone would accuse his film of being bloated and dragging. Quick little scenes happen, connected by a plucky string soundtrack that does more to annoy than enhance. Honestly, the kinetic pace of the first half reminded me of Michael Bay’s scattershot Transformers movies.

I wanted this movie to slow down and allow some of its sumptuous set designs and obviously decent cast to be seen and breathe. Example: The Downton staff winds up preparing a meal for the king and queen, and not a single detail about what they prepare is shared. I’d like to know what the maid prepared for Queen Mary. Was it duck? What did they have for dessert? Clearly, the makers of this movie never saw Babette’s Feast.

The last act of the film is its best. A showdown between Violet Crawley (Smith) and Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) comes to a satisfying conclusion, proving their part of the story probably deserved its own movie. There’s no question why Smith won Emmys for her portrayal of Crawley on the show. She’s not in the movie a lot, but when she occupies the screen, the movie takes on life.

The film did make me slightly curious about the TV show, so I could get a little more background on some of its characters (although I probably won’t actually go back and watch it). I can see why the enterprise has gathered a huge throng of fans … but I can’t come even close to recommending this movie.

Downton Abbey is now playing at theaters across the valley.

George Romero’s Creepshow, released in 1982, is an all-time-great horror movie—easily the man’s best film outside of the zombie genre he helped create. With a screenplay by Stephen King, the anthology film was based on EC Comics, and it was camp horror at its best.

Shudder, the horror/thriller streaming service, is releasing six episodes of a reboot series, with the help of Greg Nicotero as an executive producer and sometime director. Nicotero, the gore maestro behind the makeup effects on The Walking Dead, has an undying love for the comics, the film and the genre.

That love is evident in the first episode of the show, which presents two stories. The first, Gray Matter, is directed by Nicotero, and it feels very much like a continuation of Romero’s film. For starters, it’s based on a short story by King. On top of that, it co-stars Adrienne Barbeau, who played a big part in the original Creepshow’s best segment, The Crate. The second story is also a good one, featuring a haunted doll house.

Unlike Netflix, Shudder doesn’t release all of the episodes at once: You will have to be patient, as a single new episode will be released on a weekly basis (on Thursdays), just like in olden times.

Creepshow is now streaming on Shudder.

Sylvester Stallone takes his iconic John Rambo character and places him in what amounts to little more than an ultra-violent MAGA wankathon in Rambo: Last Blood—easily the worst film in the franchise, and one of the worst films in Stallone’s career.

The Rambo movies have been on a slow downhill slide all along, but have always been watchable. First Blood was awesome; Rambo: First Blood Part II was fun and silly; Rambo III was passable action but a little tired; and Rambo (2008) was bit of a drag, albeit with some decent action scenes and carnage.

Alas, Rambo: Last Blood is an abomination in the way all the Charles Bronson Death Wish sequels were terrible: This film does absolutely nothing to merit its existence. As a Rambo/Stallone fan, I wish I could pretend it didn’t happen, but it has, and it is pure dreck. Stallone has said he will continue to play the character if the film is a success. Well, I almost want this piece of crap to be a success so we can get a better swan song for Rambo—because it would be a shame for the saga to end this way.

The film picks up 11 years after the last chapter, with Rambo sporting a clean haircut and a cowboy hat, and him living a peaceful existence on his late father’s farm in Arizona. He rides horses and hangs out with the housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) and her niece, Gabrielle (Yvette Montreal), who has taken to calling Rambo “Uncle John.” Rambo finally has a “normal” existence.

Gabrielle starts talking about going to Mexico to visit her long-disappeared father … and it becomes apparent where things are going: No, she doesn’t have a nice reunion down there; instead, she winds up a sex slave who is addicted to drugs in one weekend. Rambo to the rescue!

It all builds up to a final half-hour in which Rambo finally goes into Rambo mode, fighting a Mexican drug cartel on American soil in the tunnels he conveniently built under his daddy’s farm. He manages to booby-trap the place in the few hours it takes for the cartel to reach him from Mexico. (The Mexicans are fully armed and ready to kill, mind you. Damn that void-of-a-wall Border Patrol!)

Did this have any chance at being good? I don’t think so. At this point in Rambo lore, you could go two routes: Examine Rambo’s incurable PTSD, during which he goes crazy and becomes a vigilante who hunts American, homegrown terrorists and the KKK; or take a plot like that and go the pure camp route, giving us a wall-to-wall experience of Rambo blowing shit up and taking out bad guys—with no attempt at serious exposition.

This one starts with a “Mexico is bad” angle that is very biased and one-dimensional. It tries to be serious about Rambo’s condition, but not really. (We see him popping a lot of prescription pills, but with no explanation.)

David Morrell, author of the original First Blood novel and creator of the John Rambo character, has disavowed this film, calling it “a mess” and “a clumsy exploitation film.” Thank you, Mr. Morrell! At just less than 90 minutes, Last Blood was rumored to have gone through a lot of reshoots and rewrites—so it’s pretty clear Stallone and company really didn’t know what to do with this movie. Need evidence? The preview trailers are full of scenes not in the film. Maybe this one got massacred by preview-screening exit polls and meddling studio dummies? Whatever happened, there’s a persistent stank coming off what wound up onscreen.

At the end of this Trump propaganda reel—excuse me, movie, the sad, familiar Rambo theme starts to play, and they show us a montage of the past movies behind the credits (just like Twilight!). It drove home the fact that this movie didn’t earn the right to associate itself with those past efforts, even with Stallone’s participation. It’s a cinematic disgrace.

Rambo: Last Blood is playing at theaters across the valley.

Director James Gray and star Brad Pitt came up with a decent-looking, meditative, unsettling and messy attempt at meaningful science fiction with Ad Astra.

Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut following in the footsteps of his father (Tommy Lee Jones) decades after his dad disappeared on a scientific expedition searching for alien life somewhere around Neptune. When major power surges start threatening Earth, it’s believed Roy’s still-possibly-alive father is the culprit, so Roy is sent on a mission to reach his father and get him to knock it the fuck off.

This leads to a journey that involves a lunar buggy shootout on the moon; an unimaginative visit to Mars; and, finally, a trip to Neptune. On top of the scientifically impossible things that happen in this film, the plot is stitched together with the ultimate crutch—the Apocalypse Now voiceover. Pitt is restricted to sad-puppy-eyes duty as his character deals with his daddy issues in a cosmic sort of way. They throw in a space-monkey attack to try to liven things up, but it doesn’t work.

The movie is a missed opportunity. Ad Astra is strung out and a little too boring and listless.

Ad Astra is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie gives a backstory to the terrific online acerbic talk show hosted by Zach Galifianakis—and while the whole thing is, frankly, unnecessary, the outtakes during the closing credits alone are enough to warrant a watch.

When Zach, doing his show in North Carolina, almost kills Matthew McConaughey due to a ceiling leak, Will Ferrell, his boss, sends him on a mission to tape a bunch of shows … or else. So Zach and his crew go on a road trip.

Yes, it’s a dumb premise, and not all of the jokes land, but the interviews with the likes of Paul Rudd and Tessa Thompson are a riot, and some non-show-related gags work. (I loved the moment when Zach checked his e mail on his laptop while driving at night.)

Ninety minutes of back-to-back Ferns interviews would’ve been better than this, but then we wouldn’t have the scene in which Zach and his crew steal Peter Dinklage’s Faberge eggs, so I guess I’m happy this exists.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie is now streaming on Netflix.

Hustlers, starring Jennifer Lopez as a stripper who goes smooth criminal during the Great Recession, is getting great reviews.

Alas, I find it derivative, boring and hampered by a shallow script. So … why has the film, directed by Lorene Scafaria, been receiving Scorsese comparisons (Hey, it has tracking shots!) and high scores on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer? I’m thinking it must be because of power of Jennifer Lopez’s multi-million-dollar ass.

There’s no question: Lopez is a talented actress (including good performances in Selena and Out of Sight; shit, I even liked her in Maid in Manhattan). But her calling card has always been her much-ballyhooed ass. Her ass beckons to you like an evil genie. Her ass has its own economy and solar system. In fact, as Jennifer Lopez did a pole dance in this film (for the obligatory “This is how you pole dance!” scene), I could swear I saw a little astronaut just off to the left of her ass performing a spacewalk.

This is a movie in which Lopez often displays her crazily potent ass. She’s held it back at the movies until now, but it is the most dominant character in this cinematic experience. So, I’m thinking this has caused some sort of distraction—a disruption, if you will—in the movie-critic ecosystem. People they are so hypnotized by her ass that they are failing to recognize that movie kind of stinks.

Based on a true story that appeared in a New York Magazine article, Hustlers focuses on Destiny (Constance Wu), a newbie stripper trying to find her way in the big city. It appears she’s stuck in the minor leagues of lap dancing—until Ramona (Lopez) takes the stage and shows her how to take control of her situation through determination, calculation and, yes, showcasing your cosmically empowered ass.

Because most of their big tickets come from Wall Street, the Great Recession hits them hard. That’s when a team consisting of Destiny, Ramona and some other girl who always vomits when things get tense go rogue: They go fishing for suckers that they can drug while they max out their credit cards.

At this point, the film hints at becoming something interesting, but the crimes these girls commit aren’t all that compelling. They drug a couple of high rollers; they max out a few cards; and that’s it. I was waiting for them to kill somebody or pull off a major diamond heist—anything to justify this movie beyond the gratuitous exhibition of Jennifer Lopez’s ass.

Wu is good here, and Lopez’s Ramona has the makings of an interesting character. None of the characters really talk all that much, and just when things seem like they will get interesting, the story goes flat. It’s also worth mentioning that when this movie goes flat, Lopez’s ass goes into hiding, like a fat bear with a bellyful of honey hibernating for the winter.

As stripper movies go, this is far from the worst. Hell, it might even be the best one. It’s better than Showgirls, which featured Elizabeth Berkley’s strange ass at its core. (I still have nightmares where it is trying to kill me.)  Striptease with Demi Moore is a non-starter, for her ass, although enviable, didn’t possess any powers that I could detect.

There’s another great Jennifer Lopez movie to be had, but Hustlers isn’t it. It will forever be known as the film where Jennifer Lopez said, “Ah, screw it!” and finally unleashed her greatest physical asset upon the world of film. For some, that will be enough.

Hustlers is now playing at theaters across the valley.

It Chapter Two gives moviegoers a needed, yet mediocre, conclusion to a saga started by the previous, far-superior film.

Translation: If you saw and liked the first movie, you need to watch this one to get the full story. You’ll also be witnessing a decline in quality.

In a strange way, I’m happy It Chapter Two exists, because it does have some good scares, and Bill Hader rocks as a grown-up Finn Wolfhard. It closes out the Stephen King story in much better fashion than that spider sequence in that TV miniseries. If you look at It as one long movie consisting of two chapters, the overall experience is still cool. But if you look at this sequel as a standalone … it’s a big mess—an editing-room fatality.

The first movie focused on the Losers’ Club as children, concluding with them seemingly defeating Pennywise the Clown (an always-frightening Bill Skarsgard). This one picks up 27 years later, welcoming the likes of Hader (Ritchie), Jessica Chastain (Beverly) and James McAvoy (Bill) to the proceedings.

When evil seems to revisit their hometown, the adult Losers return for a rematch with the morphing clown … and that’s it for the plot. The adults split up, suffer some individual horrors at the hands of Pennywise, then wind up back together for the finale.

A big problem in this movie is that the kids from the first film, who actually play a large part in this one, have aged a lot since the first chapter wrapped. While there have been some nice advancements in digital de-aging, this film does not show that. The kid scenes are a mixture of newly filmed scenes and flashbacks. The kids, often filmed in the dark, look very odd with their digitally altered, disproportioned faces; in some cases, their digitally de-aged voices make them sound like chipmunks. The producers should’ve filmed the extra kid scenes during the original movie’s production, saved themselves some dough on special effects, and had a better-looking movie.

There’s a lot of whining out there about this film’s running time, as it clocks in at 2 hours, 49 minutes. I actually wish director Andy Muschietti would have taken three films to tell this story, because at nearly three hours, this movie actually comes off as oddly rushed and haphazard. There’s talk that the original cut for Chapter Two was four hours long. Perhaps that hour will be restored in a home-video release; it might fill in some gaps and make the experience feel more complete and less compressed.

Hader rules this movie in the same way Wolfhard ruled the original. He’s funny; he’s aces at looking scared; and he can handle the heavy drama. Surprisingly, McAvoy seems a little lost in the role of grown-up Bill, while Chastain doesn’t really have much to work with during her screen time. Hader and Skarsgard make good chunks of this movie worth watching.

After a solid start, the performers run around from set piece to set piece, setting the table for some CGI scares mixed with occasional practical effects. (The old lady freezing during her tea chat with Beverly is perhaps the scariest/funniest moment in the movie, and it required no software.)

Again, I have a feeling It Chapter 2 could be somewhat redeemed by a director’s cut that could reinstall some of the connective tissue between the scenes. Right now, the film is just a bunch of thrill sequences smashing into one another in the second half, with no real sense of direction.

The story of It, as a whole on the big screen, is easily superior to the TV series that came before. It Chapter 2 drags the overall grade for both movies together to somewhere around a B-minus.

It Chapter Two is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Linda Ronstadt is one of the most versatile musicians to have ever walked the planet. Country music, pop, rock, opera, Mexican folk music—her resume is crazily full of wide-ranging, bold leaps into all corners of the musical landscape.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, with her full participation, covers her career from her Tucson, Ariz., roots, through her band The Stone Poneys, and on through her amazing solo career.

Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Don Henley, Jackson Browne and many others sit down for interviews—and it slowly hits you that, dammit, this is one amazing entertainer, perhaps more amazing than you realized during her heyday.

Ronstadt has basically retired, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but that doesn’t stop her from offering up a jewel at the end of this movie—a short but very sweet moment of her singing with friends. This documentary is nothing unusual from a filmmaking standpoint, but it is a treasure trove of Ronstadt performances, and a consistently enjoyable historical study of a great gift to the music world.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice opens Friday, Sept. 13, at the Camelot Theatres at the Palm Springs Cultural Center (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565); and at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).