JOKER (2019)

October 3, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The first thing to know is that this is not a Superhero movie. In fact, there are no heroes in the movie – unless you would like to apply the label to a single mom who lives down the hall from Arthur Fleck. Mr. Fleck lives at home with his invalid mother in a grungy, run-down apartment. He works as a clown-for-hire, dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, and depends on social services to supply the 7 medications he takes since being released from Arkham State Hospital. It’s a bleak existence at a bleak time in a bleak city. Gotham is in the midst of a garbage workers’ strike (only the ‘super rats’ are happy), political upheaval, and a growing chasm between the classes. And then it gets worse for Arthur.

The second thing to know is that this is a standalone Joker film, and one mostly unrelated or not connected to previous projects featuring the colorful Clown Prince character played (and voiced) by such memorable actors as Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Mark Hamill, Jared Leto and even Zach Galifianakis. Director Todd Phillips (who co-wrote the script with Scott Silver) is best known for such extreme comedies as “The Hangover” franchise and OLD SCHOOL, so he’s a bit outside of his usual wheelhouse. Phillips and Silver seem to embrace not just the history of the character, but also the look, texture and tone of filmmaking from an earlier era. The gritty and outcast feel of Scorcese’s TAXI DRIVER and THE KING OF COMEDY is present, and so are numerous tributes to familiar Joker moments of days gone by.

Three time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, and he delivers Arthur’s slow descent into madness, or shall we say further descent. It’s clear from the beginning that Arthur views himself as ignored by society, while all he wants to do is bring joy and laughter to others … and be noticed. His daydreams or visions of himself in a better world send a strong message. Phoenix shows us what full commitment to a role looks like. He lost 50 pounds, leaving a frame that contorts, moves and dances in a manner unlike what we’ve seen before. In fact, it’s a toss-up on which shows up more frequently, his dances moves or his maniacal, pained laughter. We are informed Arthur suffers from Pseudobulbar Affect, also known as emotional incontinence, which causes that creepy laughter to pop up at some inappropriate times. Of course, the comparisons to Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning turn in THE DARK KNIGHT are inevitable. The roles and films are written quite differently, and it’s safe to say both actors were all-in.

Action sequences and special visual effects are both noticeably absent, but the violence is sure to shock. This is not one for the younger kids, no matter how much they enjoy THE AVENGERS or WONDER WOMAN (or any other DC or Marvel film). This gritty, visceral approach is often a tough watch, and is much more a character study of mental illness than a costume drama … although Arthur’s clothes and make-up are front and center. When Arthur states, “I have nothing but bad thoughts”, we believe him. And the sympathetic back story explains a great deal, and will likely prove quite controversial.

Phoenix dominates the film (as he should), and supporting work is provided by Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, a TV talk show host in the Johnny Carson mode; Zazie Beetz (DEADPOOL 2) as the single mom neighbor Sophie Dumond; Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother; Brett Cullen as a not so empathetic Thomas Wayne; and Shea Whigham and Bill Camp as police detectives. I’ll hesitantly mention that Dante Pereira-Olson makes a couple of brief appearances as an adolescent Bruce Wayne, and just for fun, we get a shot of the young man honing the batpole skills he will use later in life. Just don’t expect any “real” Batman references.

Director Phillips delivers a film that looks and feels and sounds much different than other comic book movies. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher is a frequent Phillips collaborator (all 3 Hangover movies) and the dark look and gritty feel are present in most every shot. Hildur Guonadottir (this year’s Emmy winner for “Chernobyl”) serves up a foreboding score – one that never overwhelms, and one that contrasts perfectly with the more traditional songs utilized throughout: Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”, Jimmy Durante singing “Smile”, Cream’s “White Room”, “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra, and Gary Glitter’s familiar “Rock and Roll Part 1 and 2”. The “Smile” song is especially relevant as its origins can be traced by to Charlie Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES, a silent movie classic featured in this film. Phillips even uses the Saul Bass designed Warner Bros logo to open the credits, making sure we understand the time period (no cell phones, etc).

The film traces Arthur’s slide into crime … a transition that he wasn’t seeking, and one that he believes was forced upon him. His rise as a savior to the working class is secondary to his own journey, and the chaos is handled on the perimeters of the film, preventing this from becoming a Super Villain movie. Keep in mind JOKER played at Venice, Telluride and Toronto – three prestigious festivals. This is just another thing that sets it apart from others in the genre. Despite the 1981 time stamp, the consistent anti-rich message and class disparity is prevalent throughout. This appears to be Phillips’ way of including a contemporary theme in a decades-old setting. And it’s a cautionary tale that there should be no clown left behind.

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STONE (2010)

October 24, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Psychological thrillers have long been my favorite genre of film. The best ones cause us to examine our own thoughts while analyzing the actions of others we probably don’t quite understand. Unfortunately, most scripts fall short in complexity and stimulation, and leave us with a half-empty character study. Director John Curran (The Painted Veil) and writer Angus MacLachlan (the superb Junebug) offer up a just-miss.

Robert DeNiro plays a parole officer on the brink of retirement. He is the guy that lives and works by the book to suppress his inner demons of which we get a glimpse in the film’s opening. Despite the horror, he and his wife stay married for decades … the relationship is built on a false worship of scripture and plenty of nerve-deadening booze. DeNiro decides to finish out his current files, one of which belongs to Edward Norton. He is an 8 year convict, serving a sentence for a crime that ended with the death of his grandparents.

The real fun begins when Norton enlists his schoolteacher wife, played by Milla Jovovich, to invade DeNiro’s cold facade. So really what we have is: DeNiro trying not to feel anything, Norton trying to pull one over on DeNiro either by himself or with his wife, and Jovovich trying desperately to obey her husband while playing evil mind and body games with DeNiro. This is the point I like to call “the table is set”.

Unfortunately, none of these story lines really go deep. The best seems to be Jovovich and DeNiro, but even that falls short of real grit. So much potential here and the actors all seem up for anything. It’s just the script lets them off way too easily.

Frances Conroy is excellent as DeNiro’s wife who had had her soul locked away. We never really get the full scoop on the Norton/Jovovich connection, but by the end, that doesn’t seem to matter. Is the film watchable? Yes. Could it have offered more deliciously evil interaction between these characters? Absolutely.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have been patiently waiting for Edward Norton to put his hair in corn rows OR swigging whiskey while reading biblical scripture is a family tradition you could embrace

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you get frustrated when a promising premise of intellectual battles fizzles right in front of your eyes OR if the mere thought of a Robert DeNiro / Milla Jovovich hook up causes you to reach for the Pepto Bismol.