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’ is the Ultimately Charming Tale of Two Fraternal Wild West Hitmen

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CREDIT: Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed

Director: Jacques Audiard

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rating: R for Wild West Gunfire, Saloon-Based Vices, and the Aftereffects of a Spider Crawling Into Someone’s Mouth

Release Date: September 21, 2018 (Limited)

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix have teamed up as a couple of brothers whose last name is “Sisters.” Reilly is Eli and Phoenix is Charlie. They’re killers-for-hire out on the frontier in the middle of the 19th century, but eliminating their marks just is not their preferred way of spending their time, plain and simple. Charlie is too busy drinking and whoring, while Eli has too much of a conscience to last too long in this business (and honestly so does Charlie). There are plenty of people who don’t like their jobs, and plenty of movies about that predicament. Certainly, “the hitman who wants to get out of the game” is a tried-and-true trope. But this is different from your John Wick‘s or your Sexy Beast‘s. Eli and Charlie aren’t hard-bitten, they’re just tired and would prefer to find something to be happy about.

The Sisters’ target is Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has devised a new method for discovering gold. It seems a little fantastical in theory, but Warm sounds like he knows what he is talking about. So when Eli and Charlie catch up to him, they decide they would much rather collaborate than kill. Same goes for Detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who was supposed to be aiding the Sisters in this assignment but instead becomes drawn into Warm’s machinations. (This team-up is miles away from Gyllenhaal and Ahmed’s partnership in Nightcrawler, with the two giving performances that barely share any DNA with those earlier roles.) It’s heartening watching this quartet work together, for while riches do play a motivating factor, they are really more after a more general sense of fulfillment. The menace of the boss coming to collect is always lurking, but the moments of finding a mutual understanding (along with Alexandre Desplat’s surprisingly jazzy score) are enough to convince you to focus on life’s pleasures where you can find them.

The Sisters Brothers is Recommended If You Like: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix When They’re a Little (But Not Completely) Goofy

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Gold Sifters

This Is a Movie Review: In ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,’ Joaquin Phoenix is a Recovering Alcoholic Quadriplegic, And Jonah Hill is There to Help Him Out

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CREDIT: Scott Patrick Green, Courtesy of Amazon Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Mark Webber, Udo Kier, Kim Gordon, Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein

Director: Gus van Sant

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: R for General Alcoholic Behavior, And Maintaining a Sexual Appetite Even When Your Body Can’t Move Freely

Release Date: July 13, 2018 (Limited)

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, based on John Callahan’s memoir of the same name, stars Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan, a recently paralyzed recovering alcoholic who discovers a passion for and makes a career out of wry, off-color cartoons. His moment of rock bottom could not be more dramatic, as an all-night session of non-stop partying ends in a terrible car crash that renders him a quadriplegic. There is plenty to Callahan’s story, but for my money, Don’t Worry is really about Jonah Hill’s weirdly transfixing performance as Donnie, John’s AA sponsor.

Hill was on hand for an interview after the screening I went to, where it was noted that Donnie’s homosexuality was probably the least interesting thing about him, and not even all that noticeable. While Donnie is certainly well-rounded enough to not be defined by his sexual orientation, that orientation is in fact clear eno9ugh. Although, the possibility that a straight man could be as fey and as much of an aesthete as Hill plays Donnie is plenty intriguing. He is an inspiration for everyone to be themselves. It is a lesson that John takes to heart. Extreme trauma is a roadblock that is always lurking; if you survive it, you shouldn’t let it stop you from discovering who you are.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is Recommended If You Like: 50/50, ’70s Style and Interior Decorating

Grade: 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 review 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