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: ‘First Man’ Captures All the Stresses of Neil Armstrong’s Trip to the Moon

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CREDIT: Daniel McFadden/Universal

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Wigham, Brian d’Arcy James, Pablo Schreiber, Olivia Hamilton, Ciarán Hinds

Director: Damien Chazelle

Running Time: 141 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Psychological Fallout of Preparing for Space Travel

Release Date: October 12, 2018

There are a few things I want to say about First Man, Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic. First of all, it’s the best I’ve ever seen a film portray the stresses of going up into space. That certainly is not to say that the likes of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 have made takeoff and its aftermath look like a cakewalk, but in focusing on one individual, First Man burrows in and exposes so many extra levels of intensity. We’re right there with Neil as he staggers to the bathroom following a stint in a g-force simulator, and when he endures multiple tragedies. This is a man who must deal with the accidental deaths of multiple colleagues as well as the loss of a young daughter from disease. Accordingly, Ryan Gosling plays him as a man wearing the weight of the world on his face for basically 2 hours straight.

Next, I have plenty to say about Claire Foy as Neil’s wife, Janet. She gives a hell of a performance, displaying the sort of fiery emotion and desperate toughness that you can’t look away from. She is definitely enough of her own person that we can clearly see her as more than just a wife and mother. But this is very much Neil’s film with everyone else orbiting around him, and as such, Foy is playing The Wife. One example of such gender disparity between lead and supporting roles is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it is part of a Hollywood history that favors men’s over women’s stories. This is an issue that is better discussed than pontificated upon, so please, let’s continue to have these conversations. And let’s not place too much blame on First Man in the meantime, but instead work to expand what stories are valued by the historical record.

Finally, a note on some technical matters. Composer Justin Hurwitz triumphs with a quiet, but forceful score that gives First Man the stamina it needs to maintain its intensity over 2-plus hours. It is a bit of a lullaby that plants the expanse of space right into our souls in a way similar to how it surely felt for Armstrong. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, on the other hand, while similarly technically accomplished, is more than a little exhausting. A constant (subtly vibrating) handheld setup is just too much to bear for such a significant running time. That’s just one little bit of too much intensity in a film that’s otherwise so acutely calibrated.

First Man is Recommended If You Like: Intimate Biopics

Grade: 3.75 of 5 G Forces

 

Watch And/Or Listen to This: Run the Jewels ft. Zack de la Rocha’s “Close Your Eyes (And Count to F**k)”

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This video features a wrestling match between Shea Whigham, who you may know from Silver Linings Playbook or Take Shelter,  and Keith Stanfield, who you may know from Short Term 12 or Selma.

This Is A Movie Review: Non-Stop

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Non-Stop-Liam-Neeson
When Liam Neeson entered the action star portion of his acting career, my reaction was, “Yes, of course.”  Actually, I may not really have had any reaction at all because the one-man army role suited him so well that I hardly noticed any difference.  This is partly a way of getting at the fact that Neeson’s action stardom has been more successful than the actual movies have been.  He made Taken work as well as it did by sheer force of will, but I found that movie to be too distressing and overly tidy to be able to embrace it completely.  His subsequent lone hero actioners have for the most part been variations on Taken.  No doubt about it, Non-Stop is Taken on a Plane, but I preferred it to the kidnapping thriller because it was just so insane that I might have had to lose my mind, and I was happy to.

(GENERALLY SPOILER-ISH INFORMATION FROM HERE ON OUT, BECAUSE I FEEL THE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS MOVIE IN SPECIFIC TERMS.)  Non-Stop is filled with improbabilities right from the get-go.  Neeson plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal who has turned to the bottle to deal with his daughter’s death.  The fact that Marks still gets assigned jobs despite obviously being affected by his drinking and the cause of his alcoholism being overly pat strain credulity, but it is actually purposeful to the narrative that his competence is suspect and that information about his troubles could be public knowledge.  Anyway, though, Non-Stop gets away with most or all its implausibility by being upfront about it.  A movie that crosses a classic mad-villain extortion scheme with a cat-and-mouse game at 30,000 feet is not aiming for everyday verisimilitude.

In addition to reveling in its absurdity, Non-Stop excels in its suspense by establishing just about every character as a legitimate suspect.  Julianne Moore, as Marks’ seat neighbor, is overly talkative.  Scoot McNairy, who excels at playing slimy (check him out getting into deep shit in Killing Them Softly) plays a punk who is rather inquisitive about what plane Marks will be getting on.  Certain traps and killing maneuvers suggest action in areas of the plane that only the pilots and flight attendants would have access to.  A second marshal is the only other one who should be on the cellular network that Marks is receiving the threatening texts from.  Corey Stoll is an overly aggressive New York City cop who questions why Marks doesn’t give the Muslim passenger as thorough a shakedown as he gives everyone else.  This seems like a typical moment playing on post-9/11 paranoia, but it may actually be a matter of class or profession bias, as Marks may have overlooked him because he is a doctor.

(THINGS GET EVEN MORE SPOILERY IN THIS PARAGRAPH.)  The nature of the manhunt suddenly changes in the final act when it is revealed that the killings are not just going to be those happening one by one every 20 minutes due to the revelation of a bomb, which had earlier been disguised by cocaine.  This new crisis prompts Marks, who has been backed into a corner by passengers suspicious of him, to reveal everything about his previously secretive investigation.  This sequence sets quite a benchmark for excitement that the rest of the 2014 film slate will have a tough time matching.

If you are worried that too many twists and turns have been spoiled by the promotion of this movie, don’t be.  While the trailer does include a fair amount of footage from the final act – and, admittedly, does feature as its centerpiece the most memorable shot of a pivotal struggle – there is actually a fair amount of misdirection.  The first death in particular does not go down exactly as the previews would lead you to believe.

Non-Stop falters a little bit with its ending, as the motivation for the extortion is revealed – it tries to be straightforward, which is difficult amidst all the insanity.  I did not have a problem with the spirit of the motivation itself, or how it went about being explained, so much as the fact that it was a bit too simplistic.  Still, that does not take away from all the highly pressurized excitement that precedes it. A-