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I rarely get to see a film on opening weekend, and getting to see more than one movie in the span of a weekend almost never happens in my busy world. However, I was able to enjoy two films on completely different levels this past week. The first, Ad Astra, critics seemed to love while audiences were apparently bored to tears by it. And the other, Joker, was plagued with controversy before it even made it into wide release.
I liked them both but for different reasons, and certainly one much more than the other. The first I'm fine with seeing only one time, and the second I already know I'm buying the day it hits stores.
I am not going to give you a straight-up movie review of either film, because I have learned that every movie experience is different for every individual. If you are begrudgingly dragged to a film you have no desire to see, you might find every little flaw magnified for peak annoyance. But if you're among friends, you could see one of the worst films in history and it would make for a great (and more often than not hilarious) conversation afterwards. For example:
I Took My Dad to see Ad Astra.
Ad Astra is a space opera set in the near future. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) learns his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who he had thought to have been killed around 27 years ago on mission to find intelligent extracurricular life, is still alive. Dear old Dad also may be the source of some potentially solar system-destroying cosmic waves. As such, Roy sets out on a planet-hopping quest to find him and send him a message. It doesn't go well. The Moon is like a tourist-heavy airport with space pirates. Mars is like a slummy DMV office, and Dad...well there's plenty of spoilers here.
For me, I was able to rescue my own father from a little of his daily isolation. He is 79-years-old and in chronic pain from back and leg issues. He is far from being a shut-in as he goes to meetings and has friends he sees. This still doesn't take from the fact much of the daytime hours are spent alone when others are too busy to spend time with him. He had been hinting several times he wanted to see this film, and finding time to take him to it meant everything.
I did like being able to watch this with my dad, who was great at leaning in and pointing out flaws others might overlook.
"No one really says 'over and out,'" he reminded me. He loved the cinematography, but found the characters cold and unlikable, and the story not boring, but sad. I agreed. Pitt was an aloof, philosophical downer, so this is a film we both said we wouldn't have enjoyed if on a television. It needed to be on a big screen to show off its strengths, which is the realism of the world-building.
When I drove him home, we talked about how we both think setting up a base on both the moon and Mars may be reality in the not-too-far off future. He seemed a little sad he won't get to see it happen, but thinks I may, and that my daughters will "for sure." It was one of the better conversations we have had in a long time.
What I will be able to remember is that no matter what life brings for my dad or me, he had a good time at the movie. He ordered his favorite appetizer (fried pickles), and I paid for the whole thing before he could reach for his wallet. All adults with parents still alive know how satisfying it is to be able to give a little something back.
I will forever associate Ad Astra with a time I was able to do something, no matter how seemingly insignificant, for my dad; weirdly appropriate considering the movie's underlying theme was someone reconnecting with their own dad.
Now, there's a completely different set of memories I will take from my second movie outing of the weekend:
I Took My 17-Year-Old to see Joker.
Yes, I took my teenager to an R-rated film I wouldn't have taken her to two years ago. In those past two years, that "teenager" has become a licensed driver and a high school senior studying forensics and taking college-level courses. Yeah, I'm not worried.
She had heard things at school from some kids telling her the movie will be filled with crazy incel types looking for a reason to shoot people. Of course I worried a teeny bit the media may have put ideas out there that weren't there before. Then they could "blame" the movie if something happened.
When we got to the theater, there were no crazies, of course. There was one big guard but as I live in El Paso he has been there since the real horrors El Paso experienced on Aug. 3. We went to an Alamo Drafthouse where there is full food service, and food staff were coming and going, Ninjalike, all through the film. It would be hard for anyone to get past all the activity at the entrance. The audience was easily half female and there were groups of friends, people on dates, and tons of college age kids.
The whole theater reacted to every shocking plot twist as one big group, and the comments were similar to when Health Ledger's Joker slammed that guy's head on the pencil (remember that...in a PG-13 film). "Whoa! I can't believe he did that!"
What was spot on about this movie is Joker is an unpredictable character. Crazy, unpredictable people are fun to write. Many heroes and villains have their own set of goals and rules, so we tend to know what to expect. Joker, as he has been for the past eight decades, is a true "chaotic evil" character who never follows the main road. That is why he is so fun to write about. That is why people love stories about him, and Joaquin Phoenix might have jumped to the top of great Joker portrayals in my book. That's saying something, because I loved every Joker performance I've seen from Tim Burton's, to the television series Gotham. Actors who have portrayed Batman, not so much.
We talked after about the idiocy surrounding the movie, such as the "Joker will cause violence" claim, or that it was so terrible some people had to leave the theater. I told her about some other "heavies" I've seen in my time: American Psycho, Clockwork Orange, The Departed, every other mob movie Robert De Niro was in, and television shows like Game of Thrones and Dexter. They were all ten times more violent and disturbing. There was also no nudity or gratuitous sex (outside very brief and hard to see glimpses in Arthur Fleck's journal), so sorry to disappoint the boob and butt hunters out there.
This movie was just about the continued bad vibes that would turn someone into something as bat-crap crazy as Joker, as well as (spoiler) a quick peek at the beginnings of a certain "dark knight." I thought this movie was a fantastic portrayal of Gotham City in a "realistic setting," and it made mob mentality look pretty terrible.
My daughter asked me if I ever had to walk out of a film.
"One," I told her. "Ernest Goes to Camp. That stinkaroo was painful to watch."
This cracked her up, but I told her there have been films and television shows with mountains more violence and cussing than Joker. There were about three times in this movie I think were pretty brutal, but most of the film was watching one man's spiral from sympathetic mental illness to full-on villainous madness. I was so impressed with Phoenix's performance in this.
"THAT was the guy in Gladiator?" my daughter asked? "That's crazy!"
Seeing as this film just set an opening weekend record, a whole lot of other people didn't listen to the naysayers as well. Good.
We talked about politics in the film, and said the one thing I think director Todd Phillips really expressed was the fall of comedy. When the Joker made a very dark joke during his television interview and was told, "You can't joke about that."
Well, yes he can. Was it appropriate? Not even a bit. Was it offensive? Plenty. Yet dark humor is an incredible coping and healing mechanism, and if that's what it takes to overcome and deal with tragedy, then yes, you "can" joke about anything.
This led to more discussions on what is happening in her own life, as well as her fellow students. Joker helped me have a more meaningful conversation with her than I've had in a while.
What I will remember about this is how grounded and mature in thought my daughter is. She has those "teen moments" like everyone her age, but she knows her goals, she knows her values, she knows her God, and of most relevance that weekend, she knows how to laugh, and tell a great story.
I think my movie expectations have changed over the years in that I know if they come out of Hollywood they more than likely will try to preach some left-leaning virtue at me, but I've been able, for the most part, to ignore them. I also know movies come out so quickly on home release or streaming services, I have to really justify seeing it on the big screen.
Yet when the movie itself becomes part of an excuse to do something fun and meaningful with others, and to create a shared experience for later conversations, I'm more apt to shell out my money for tickets and over-priced — and really, really oversized — popcorn.
To paraphrase Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight, "It's not about the movie, it's about making a memory."