Scorsese Influences + Clown Makeup = Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

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CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Wigham, Marc Maron

Director: Todd Phillips

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rating: R for Inappropriate Laughter and Shocking (in Many Senses) Violence

Release Date: October 4, 2019

Can’t a man just get attention for wearing a wonderfully colorful suit without having to also go through the trouble of becoming an unpredictable, violent criminal? With his forest green shirt and tie, goldenrod vest, and maroon jacket and pants, Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime has never looked better than he does in Todd Phillips’ Joker. That outfit is a welcome bit of unique playfulness in a film that easily could have been a thoroughly dark slog. I’m very ready to embrace Joker’s continued relevance as a style icon, but as for what this particular origin story has to say about him, I’m a little conflicted, though generally impressed by everything that made it to the screen.

All new Joker portrayals now live in the shadow of Heath Ledger’s rendition in The Dark Knight, which I, and many others, consider to be the epitome of the character. That chapter may be the best way to tell a Joker story, but it’s not the only way to tell a story about a villain, and by corollary, it’s not the only way to tell a Joker story. But the prospect of a Joker origin is nonetheless concerning, as his most striking power lies in the nihilism matched with his thoroughly ambiguous beginnings. Ledger played him like an elemental force who was somehow also a human being even though it felt like he sprung from nothingness. Any origin would seem to be the antithesis of that, no matter how much mystery Joaquin Phoenix might bring to his performance.

Ultimately, though, Joker somehow mostly works despite all this baggage. That’s mostly because by the end it rejects its own origin story, or at least the one-to-one explanation of “difficult upbringing = supervillainy.” True, Arthur Fleck, the man behind the persona in this iteration, has been beaten around by a thoughtless society that doesn’t understand him, but his propensity for violence isn’t about revenge or the fame that comes with notoriety, or at least not only and not primarily those things. No, he just has an insatiable appetite for crime, the more shocking and well-timed the better. He gets his first lick almost by accident, when he protects himself against some fratty Wayne Enterprises employees with a pistol that a co-worker lent him. From this moment on, you can see the euphoria rising within him as he begins to shed any desire for normal human connection.

I am thoroughly impressed by Joker‘s craft, though I’m a little hesitant to embrace it fully. That’s not out of any discomfort with the message of Arthur’s transformation. It’s clear that he’s not meant to be emulated, despite how intoxicating his act can be once fully embraces his true self. What’s really nagging me is that this is a film that is a little too indebted to its influences. The premise is very much “What if Joker, but Taxi Driver?” Although, unlike Travis Bickle, Arthur isn’t interested in cleaning up the streets so much as making them his own. That’s different enough that Joker can fairly say that its overall tapestry is a new creation, but it never breaks fully free of its constituent parts. It’s like one of those magic eye posters, but in this case you can see the individual pieces whether you’re looking close or from a distance.

Joker is Recommended If You Like: It If Every Movie is a Direct Response to Taxi Driver

Grade(s): 4 out of 5 for the Craft/3.5 out 5 for the Message


This Is a Movie Review: The Sisters Brothers

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CREDIT: Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures

I give The Sisters Brothers 3.5 out of 5 Gold Sifters:

This Is a Movie Review: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

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CREDIT: Scott Patrick Green, Courtesy of Amazon Studios

I give Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot 3 out of 5 Motorized Wheelchairs:

This Is a Movie Review: Only the Most Hardened of Souls Should Trek Into the Stylistic Bloodbath of ‘You Were Never Really Here’

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CREDIT: Amazon Studios

This post was originally published on News Cult in April 2018.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Rating: R for In-Your-Face Bloody Violence, Some Disturbing Behavior, and a Little Bit of Nudity

Release Date: April 6, 2018 (Limited)

As my moviegoing has evolved over the years, I have come to appreciate, even love, films that are more sensory experiences than narrative adventures. But that positivity does not extend to Lynne Ramsay’s latest, You Were Never Really Here. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a combat veteran suffering from PTSD, and the film seems to have adapted his mental state. The editing is jarring and cacophonous, which is an effective stylistic choice, but after a while it becomes exhausting.

Joe makes his living now as a specialist in the field of rescuing young girls from trafficking. His latest assignment is Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a state senator’s daughter who he seems to have a spiritual connection with, or at least that is how it plays out in this film’s dreamy environment. He saves her, but then they get separated, then a conspiracy that I cannot begin to make sense of is uncovered, people get shot in the head, he saves her again, more people get shot in the head. It is all a bloody mess, both literally and metaphorically. We the audience are all stuck in this with no room to breathe, just like Joe with his face under a plastic bag in the opening shot.

I appreciate the thoroughness and relentlessness that Ramsay has applied to this experience, but she is on a frequency that I am just not on. Phoenix reliably gives the kind of intense performance that makes you worried about his mental health, and that only adds to the despair. There is no grappling with the oppressiveness, nor is there much in the way of relief. The final scene does provide a notable exception, though, as it at first appears to underscore the endlessness of the violence, but it then pulls off a trick to suggest that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel.

You Were Never Really Here is Recommended If You Like: Jacob’s Ladder, Stylization above all else

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 PTSD Flashbacks