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Thanksgiving Movie Update

I’ll start with the season’s most controversial and polarizing film.
Joker (US/Canada 2019
Winner of the “golden lion” at the Venice film festival, it’s helmed by Todd Phillips (best known for “The Hangover” trilogy) and features a no holds barred performance by a skeletal Joaquin Phoenix in the role of Arthur Fleck, a bitter unhappy middle-aged loner who lives with his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy) in a grungy apartment. The scene is a rat-infested New York/Gotham City circa 1981 during a garbage strike.  Among Arthur’s afflictions is an uncontrolled maniacal cackle that is more grimacing cry of pain than laughing fit.  The mother used to work for the wealthy Wayne family which leads to a backstory connection to the comic legend of Batman (aka Bruce Wayne) with the Joker as nemesis. Channeling allusions to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Arthur, who aspires to be a standup comedian, is also obsessed with a late night TV talk-show host Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro no less).
Working as a clown Arthur gets badly beaten in an early scene after which a coworker gives him a gun. That leads to an incident that gets Arthur fired.  You just know that he is set to snap, with the first murderous consequences on a subway train. Adversity and humiliations set the stage for more lethal incidents to come.  Arthur’s social services are cut. His failed attempt at standup comedy gets held up to ridicule. As Arthur’s derangement deepens he transforms into the character of “joker”.  He becomes a vigilante antihero—the avenging instrument against a corrupt and uncaring society.  As protestors don clown masks there’s an attempt to portray this as a revolt against the 1%.  But Arthur’s personal “joker” nihilism eschews any politics even as he revels in incendiary scenes of mob violence. His fraught relations with black women bring another disturbing undertow to this fable of extreme alienation.       
In sum, this is such a dark, dire, and depressing picture it may leave you with a mental hangover.  It’s not a movie I can say I like but there’s no denying it makes a powerful impression on the strength of an acting achievement that’s no laughing matter.  A-
Before You Know It (US 2019)
Set in a much less threatening New York City, this debut feature by actor-director Hannah Pearl Utt revolves around  two sisters Rachel and Jackie Gurner trying to hold on to their home and Greenwich Village theatre after the untimely passing of their father Mel (played by theatre legend Mandy Patinkin). Only then do they discover that the mother they long thought was dead is very much alive and a co-owner of the theatre. Sherrelle (a delightful Judith Light, also in the wacky eighth episode of Netflix’s “The Politician”) turns out to be a flamboyant soap opera diva who invites them into her world. The sisters are a study in contrasts. The flighty Jackie (Jen Tullock), who has a precocious 12-year old daughter, wears skimpy revealing outfits.  Sensible Rachel (Utt) goes about in shapeless dark attire, except for one occasion when given an extreme makeover by Sherrelle. Gentle comedy gets teased out through the sometimes awkward interactions among three generations of women as the sisters try to preserve their father’s legacy and find a way for the show to go on.  B+ 
This fascinating documentary directed by Adam Bolt is a deep dive into the promise and perils of genetic engineering that have emerged out of the discovery of a revolutionary gene editing technology known as CRISPR which stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”.  Bolt uses archival footage, interviews, and science-based sequences with graphic illustrations to show how years of research on gene therapy and microbiological resistance have produced breakthroughs in altering genetic code using a protein called “cas9” and RNA molecules.  The possibilities for making changes to the human genome raise profound ethical questions. The positive side would see using CRISPR to eliminate genetic disorders that cause serious life-threatening conditions.  For example, one of the subjects is a young boy with sickle cell anemia. And we see Asian researchers working on genetically modified pigs that could supply organs for human transplants. But could “editing” human embryos also lead to a “brave new world” eugenics of “designer babies”, to in effect “playing God” by altering human evolution.  Reference is made to the controversial work of geneticist George Church on the prospects for reverse engineering human ageing or bringing back extinct species like the woolly mammoth.  Is this welcome progress or a slippery slope in the direction of dystopian science fiction? As biological science continues to extend the frontiers of genetic manipulation, societies will have to come to terms with issues that challenge our very understanding of being human. A    


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