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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THE HANGOVER PART II

May 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Two years ago, director Todd Phillips presented a highly creative, hilarious, raunchy, unique film comedy called The Hangover. And now, he does it again. No, not the creative part.  I mean he presents that SAME film again. I am unsure whether this is a sequel or remake. The only substantial change is the setting … Bangkok instead of Vegas.

Now I fully understand WHY most sequels follow the formula created by the successful original film. Filmmakers want to keep their built-in audience satisfied. The theory is: If it worked once, it will work again. Especially when the first film grosses a half-billion dollars! So the chances are very good that if you liked the first one, you will also enjoy this one. But for me, I get excited for creative filmmakers … not re-treads.

 The key characters are all back and played by the same guys: Bradley Cooper (Phil), Ed Helms (Stu), Zach Galifianakis (Alan), Justin Bartha (Doug), and Ken Jeong (Mr. Chow). All of these guys have worked constantly since the first film, but it makes perfect sense to return to the scene that put them on the Hollywood map.

This time around, Stu (Ed Helms) draws the long straw and has the storyline based on his pending marriage to Jamie Chung (Sucker Punch). Stu’s “wolfpack” buddies agree to a one-beer bonfire beach bachelor party, but of course, something goes very wrong. The next morning finds our boys staggering to regain consciousness in a sleazy Bangkok hotel with no recollection of the previous night’s events. The only clues are a monkey, a severed finger, a facial tat and international criminal Mr. Chow (Jeong).

 No need for me to go into any details or spoil any moments. You know the drill if you have seen the first. What follows is nearly two hours of debauchery and moments of varying levels of discomfort, gross-out and comedic skits.

Supporting work is provided by Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Tambor, and Mason Lee (Ang Lee‘s son). There is also a cameo by Nick Cassavetes as a tattoo artist. This role was originally meant for Mel Gibson, and later Liam Neeson. Cast and crew protests kept Gibson out and Neeson’s scenes were cut when re-shoots were necessary.  And rest easy, Mike Tyson makes another hilarious appearance – it may be the most creative moment of this remake … err, sequel.

I feel tricked by Mr. Phillips. The first Hangover had me excited that a new comedic genius had entered Hollywood and would quickly blow away the Judd Apatow recycle jobs and copycats. Instead, we get Todd Phillips copying Todd Phillips.

This is certainly an above-average comedy and there are plenty of laughs from the characters we kind of feel like we know – though, wish we didn’t. Just know going in that you are witnessing a clear attempt at cashing in, not a desire to wow.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: like many, you thought the first one was one of the best ever film comedies OR you just want to see how closely Ed Helms resembles Mike Tyson

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you saw the first one and wish you hadn’t OR you never saw the first one and think maybe they have “cleaned” this one up (they haven’t)


DUE DATE (2010)

November 7, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Todd Phillips has become comedy director du jour thanks first to Old School and the more recent mega-blockbuster The Hangover. This film is not quite at the level of the two prior films, but it certainly holds it own in today’s multiplex. In other words, it has some laughs … even a few laugh outloud moments. Especially if you have somehow managed to avoid the trailers.

The best way I can describe this one is as an updated Planes, Trains and Automobiles, only with Todd Phillips humor, rather than John Hughes humanity. That being said, Mr. Phillips does work hard at minimizing the gross-out factor and does try to instill some true character development with Robert Downey, Jr and Zach Galifianakis. The element of fatherhood, both loss of and becoming one, plays a role as these two polar opposites bang heads for 3 days.

Ethan (Zach G) is an actor-wannabe, motivated by the sitcom “Two and a Half Men”. He is an excessively annoying individual who displays only the rarest moments of rationale behavior. Downey, Jr is reunited with his Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (a former DF Best of the Year) co-star Michelle Monaghan as an uptight architect (Peter) and his soon to deliver first child wife (Sarah). They get little screen time together, but the relationship plays a role. Circumstances cause Ethan and Peter into a rental car and cross country race to get Peter home before Sarah delivers.

The road trip includes a Western Union run-in with Danny McBride, a pit stop for glaucoma “meds” with Juliette Lewis and a quick ride from Jamie Foxx, after Ethan falls asleep at the wheel and they fly off a highway ramp. Just when things seem better, Ethan partakes in some of the medication, takes a wrong turn and the two find themselves at the Mexico border, glassy eyes and all. This all occurs while Ethan and his dog work to befriend Peter, while transporting not only the “meds”, but also Ethan’s deceased father’s ashes … in a coffee can.

Many of the gags are predictable, but some are quite funny. It doesn’t have near the gross-out element of The Hangover, except for Ethan’s pre-bedtime ritual and his matching dog. Would have liked a few more segments with cameos – maybe the other guys from The Hangover, because the attempt at making these guys appreciate each other falls a bit short. The soundtrack includes Neil Young, Cowboy Junkies, Cream and Pink Floyd, so there is usually a nice background tune playing. Additionally, RDJ and Zach G prove once again that they are forces of physical comedy when provided decent material.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you recognize the shooting star known as Zach Galifianakis OR road trip humor is your cup of coffee

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a masturbating dog is an automatic scene-killer for you OR you believe no one can match Steve Martin and John Candy