Monday, October 7, 2019

THERE IS NO PUNCHLINE: a review of "Joker"

Based upon the DC Comics characters created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane & Jerry Robinson
Screenplay Written by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
Directed by Todd Phillips
**** (four stars)

In the past week, there has been some controversy (albeit internet controversy--could it be the Russians?) regarding some comments made by Martin Scorsese in reference to the superhero movie genre, most specifically the gargantuan Marvel Comics films.

"I don't see them," he said. "I tried, you know. But, that's not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn't the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being."

Now, we of course can debate those sentiments for ages but as far as I am concerned, and despite some disagreements, I do believe that Scorsese is indeed correct. While I am not attempting to disparage the superhero/comic book film genre in its entirety, because as you well know, quite a number of them over these past 40 years have proven themselves to be wondrous works of art, I do believe the sheer prevalence of them at the expense of essentially every other kind of movie to be made is troubling.

The assembly line nature, the over-abundance, the feeling that even the most established actors are to find work these days, they need to don a cape and be adorned with super powers (I am honestly waiting for the likes of Meryl Streep to her official Marvel appearance), believe me, I do feel Scorsese's fatigue, which I have often expressed upon this site.  But also, this genre exists as myth making as all of these films are indeed variations of fables and mythology, all designed for their naturally epic canvases, not really for interpersonal intimacy.

All of that being said, I do wonder what Scorsese would think of Todd Phillips' "Joker," a masterful new origin story of the figure who would become Batman's arch-nemesis. Certainly, he would clearly recognize his own cinematic influence over the proceedings--more on that later--but beyond that visual aesthetic, and despite its connection to the DC Comics universe, we have a film that is decidedly and defiantly intimate in its grim adult psychology, intimate to the point of becoming enormously disturbing in its claustrophobic and upending qualities. In fact, I can easily say with this film, there is nothing on display to suggest anything resembling a theme park. But, with "Joker," we are given one hell of a funhouse mirror.

Todd Phillips' "Joker" stars a towering Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian struggling with mental illness and neurological disorders, who lives with his mentally and physically unstable Mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) in a garbage, rat infested, wholly impoverished area of Gotham City, where crime, unemployment, disenfranchisement and funding cuts to social service programs are rampant.

In the day to day tribulations of his miserable life, Arthur is employed as a party clown, suffers beatings from teenage hooligans, nurses an infatuation over Sophie (Zazie Beetz), his single Mother neighbor, constantly mulls over whether billionaire/philanthropist and now Mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is actually his Father and obsesses over local late night television talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).

Arthur's downfall (or is it an ascension) begins once he is beaten relentlessly by three young, drunken businessmen from Wayne Enterprises upon a subway...and the result of that confrontation opens the doorway to to an inner madness soon to be manifested outwardly into an increasingly chaotic society.

While elements and iconography of the Batman mythology do exist within the film, Todd Phillips' "Joker" is by no means presented as a comic book movie. There are no action set pieces or CGI special effects driven pyrotechnics. No sequences of popcorn munching excitement or escapism. And unquestionably, there is nothing remotely kid friendly upon display. What Phillips has created is a hard R rated adult psychological drama/thriller cemented by a luxuriously gritty visual aesthetic from Cinematographer Lawrence Sher, a mounting doom of a film score from Composer Hildur Guonnadottir and staggering, Oscar worthy leading performance by Joaquin Phoenix.

The spirit of Martin Scorsese looms large over "Joker," as Phillips' film has clearly been inspired by, and has learned from, Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (1976), "The King Of Comedy" (1982), and "Bringing Out The Dead" (1999), all films where deeply emotionally and mentally disturbed men-- Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin and Frank Pierce, respectively-- all attempt to survive the long days and nights in the unforgiving New York City landscape. 

To that end "Joker" also sits more than comfortably within the same dark cinematic universe as the likes of David Fincher's "Fight Club" (1999) and "Zodiac" (2007), Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" (1994) and of course, the mightiest, most controversial of them all, Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971). From the film's usage of the vintage Warner Brothers studio logo (I LOVED that), yet armed with a story and perspective that is as up to the minute as me writing this review (and therefore, you reading it), "Joker" firmly has its turbulent finger upon the pulse of this specific moment in time during 2019.

From the filth and funk of the Gotham City streets, complete with all manner of all night porno movie theaters and the juxtaposition of dilapidated communities compared with the opulence of high society as populated by the likes of Thomas Wayne, to the prevalent themes of mental illness and the resulting societal stigmas and indifference, and set within an indeterminate time period which looks and feels like the past and present have collided, "Joker" is brilliantly executed 1970's noir merged with real world 21st century fury, anxiety, rage, and fear all housed within a striking character study that displays how the chaos of the mind explodes into chaos in the streets.

Front and center is indeed Joaquin Phoenix whose magnetic, often, truly frightening and surprisingly empathetic performance is impossible to turn your eyes away from. While he is not going to ever make me forget what the late Heath Ledger conjured in his blistering, brilliant, posthumously Oscar winning performance as The Joker in Christopher Nolan's superlative "The Dark Knight" (2008), Phoenix's work is equally staggering, sometimes suggesting his work as a prequel to Ledger's, other times existing in its own universe entirely. 

Seemingly extending from his feral work in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" (2012), Joaquin Phoenix heads even deeper into uncompromising territory as the dismayed and disturbed Arthur Fleck. Never have I seen Phoenix's face so rubbery. His newly emaciated frame has somehow only gained in its flexibility, a form suggesting something almost boneless, despite the shocking sight of his spine looking as if it will break free of his skin. Phoenix projects a physicality of nightmarish elasticity, mirroring the searing knot twisting occurring within his mind.

And it is here, where Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix take a film of such unrepentant ugliness and find the beauty of empathy that is settled at the film's core. For all intents and purposes Arthur Fleck is not a bad man, by any means. Indeed he is a damaged man. But, evil, hardly..that is until he finds himself psychologically trapped in a corner where whatever empathy he hoped existed within the world has ultimately found itself non-existent and through no fault of his a degree, of course.

"Joker" is a work that serves as much as a societal check-in as it does as a warning. Through Arthur Fleck, Phillips, I believe, is imploring of us to remember that no one knows how much baggage another individual is shouldering and possibly, perhaps we should assume that everyone is shouldering tremendous private pain and suffering in silence, therefore making having empathy a moral imperative. For Arthur, his mental illness is such that it fully exacerbates his high sensitivities to interpersonal and societal situations, which are further compounded by a neurological condition that forces him to fall into maniacal laughter at inappropriate times, a quality that makes him misunderstood at best and the recipient of society's brutal punishments at worst.

"Joker" questions what has happened to our collective sense of compassion and why has it been over-taken by our basest instincts. From a social/economic/political standpoint, it is easy to reason the potential outcomes that may occur when a group is pushed too far into insignificance by those in power. That reality is depicted within the Gotham City landscape but also within Arthur Fleck's mind, as he feels increasingly powerless to the careless whims and impersonal machinations of society and its citizens, therefore making his actions (for a spell) feel dangerously recognizable.

Much like the character of Alex in "A Clockwork Orange," we are riding along inside of Arthur Fleck's consciousness and growing madness, making us co-conspirators, forcing all of us in the audience to acknowledge and reconcile ourselves with our worst impulses, our darkest fears and untapped anger. It feels as if Phillips is suggesting that if we are able to point our fingers towards Arthur Fleck, then we have to point those very same fingers towards ourselves. Once Arthur approaches his full transformation into the Joker, we are more than likely able to cleave a split between this character and behaviors we have experienced and even inflicted in our own pasts. But before that, "Joker" uncomfortably yet provocatively burrows its way under your skin, until the entire film has worked you over.   

A considerable amount of media coverage has already focused itself upon the film's level of violence and I do wish to address this quality of the film for you. Yes, "Joker" contains some scenes of vicious, shockingly graphic violence and based upon the story Phillips is trying to tell, the violence is supposed to shock you. For if it didn't, Phillips seems to be arguing, then we are no better off than Arthur Fleck himself. Unlike the escapist, almost cartoon carnage of something we could see in say, Chad Stahelski's "John Wick: Chapter 3-Parabellum," the violence of "Joker" is appropriately, uncompromisingly horrifying, and ultimately more real, especially as this film arrives during a period of our collective history where we  .

And that, I think, is the ingenious bait and switch of Todd Phillips' "Joker," a film that utilizes the comic book movie craze to get you into the theaters and then, nearly assaults you with a prescient warning of our potential societal downfall. It is a case of seemingly giving audiences what they need when they think they are going to get more of what they want. Yes, opening weekend was a box office bonanza but I am curious if audiences will continue, possibly grow or even retreat due to the film unrelenting darkness. Sometimes, we need to have some art instead of popcorn and the art in question doesn't have to make any of us feel comfortable. Sometimes, we need to have films that are about people and humanity and to that end, sometimes it is the disturbing film that is ultimately the most humane.

Todd Phillips' "Joker" is one of 2019's very best films.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019


Well, that's more like it!

It felt good, so very good to have had a productive month again on Savage Cinema as I produced more reviews than I typically have, especially in these most recent months. It felt good to write again, to get back down to business and while I do not wish to get ahead of myself or even jinx myself, I plan on keeping my movie going activities for month within reasonable means.
1. "JOKER"
You know me. You know how fatigued I am with all things comic book related regarding the movies and the fact that I feel that we do not need a "Batman" related anything for quite some time. And then, we now have this, Director Todd Philips and Martin Scorsese produced "Joker," an R rated origin story of Batman's arch-nemesis that is reportedly more akin to past Scorsese films than anything more comic book related. Admittedly, I was more than skeptical at first but those trailers were highly impressive to me and combined with its subsequent success at the Venice Film Festival, I am ready to take the plunge into this already controversial feature.
I am intrigued. Director Noah Hawley's debut feature film, the science fiction/psychological drama "Lucy In The Sky" concerning the downward spiral of an astronaut (Natalie Portman) after her return to Earth from a space mission, pulled me in with its impressive trailer. While early reviews have been more mixed, I am looking forward to this one.
Back in the Summer of 2001, I laughed myself absolutely sick with Writer/Director Kevin Smith's "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," the fifth film in his ViewAskewniverse saga. It was a film that was irreverent, relentlessly vulgar and utterly brilliant in the fact that Smith created a Hollywood satire that was ultimately critic proof as he weaved all of the bad reviews into the narrative itself. Whether he can achieve that same feat again, who knows? But, I am willing to try with his latest comedy, a satire of our television and cinematic reboot culture. As Smith is touring the film around the country, I wonder if it will receive a traditional theatrical release...

I think that is more than good for right now and so, with that, please do wish me well and I will see you when the house lights go down!!!!!!!!