REVIEW: Joker

I have been looking forward to Joker for several months. Joaquin Phoenix is one of my favourite actors and has been since he played Johnny Cash in ‘Walk the Line’. But after Romero, Nicholson, Hamill and Ledger (we’ll ignore Leto), could Phoenix bring something new to the character? Yes. Would this movie live up to expectations? An even bigger yes.

Poster 3Retro

Firstly, the film is set within a Gotham City of an unspecified period but somewhere in the 1980’s. This extends to a retro Warner Brothers logo which is a lovely detail. It is the period of ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘The King of Comedy’ and the seminal Batman graphic novel ‘The Killing Joke’, although in reality a period separated by more a decade. As with these key influences the setting is an amalgamation. The non-specific time frame also allows for commentary on our modern world.

Gotham is a city which is bubbling with social unrest. The elite, epitomised by Thomas Wayne, are safe within their bubble seemingly unaware of the hard times and suffering which the less fortunate people in Gotham are having to endure. News reports are inflaming the situation further with stories of giant rats feasting on the festering rubbish littering the streets due to a strike. Budget cuts are causing the removal of care services. Medications are no longer available for those who need them.

Poster 1Joaquin is Joker

Simply put Joaquin Phoenix is astonishing. He dominates the film and is in every single scene. His descent into the more maniacal Joker that we are already familiar is a shocking and at times deeply distressing journey. Phoenix’s appearance as Arthur Fleck is merely a reflection of how he has been mistreated and abused mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Malnourished. Bruised and beaten. He works as a clown but even that is not without perils. In the evening he returns home to take care of his mother and, much like his job, is also a negative experience. Fleck is not a character that you have sympathy for, instead you just pity him.

Whilst watching the movie it is difficult not to want to see that eventual metamorphosis into Joker. That’s why we bought the cinema ticket. But at the same time you don’t really want it to come because, when it does, you realise it isn’t going to be pretty. Boy, is it not pretty!

The explanation of Arthur’s laughter being an involuntary response, seemingly occurring at times of stress, anger and nervousness, was a smart way of accounting for that particular trait of Joker. Medicalising it as the result of a brain injury or impairment was, in my opinion, reaching a bit. But it also balanced with his inability to understanding comedy. Arthur has a desire to be a standup comedian but laughs at the setup rather than punchline. His sense of humour is not obscure or dark, it just isn’t funny.

Venice winnerDirected by Todd Philips

Perhaps the only genuine criticism that I can level at this film is the lack of subtlety. This should be no real surprise as it comes from the director of the Hangover trilogy. The points being made are unquestionably clear. ‘Look what happens when you don’t treat people with mental health problems appropriately’. ‘This is what happens when the wealthy defecate on the poor’. ‘A lack of gun control and the accessibility of weapons can have dangerous consequences’. ‘The media portray the wealthy in glowing terms no matter what they do’. These themes are not painted with the dexterity of a paintbrush on canvas, more like a wrecking ball smashing into a wall. But the messages are clear and that has proved to be effective.

Joker won the Best Film award at the Venice Film Festival plus others and is expected to perform well when awards season hits. That is a credit not just to Phoenix’s sensational performance but to director Todd Philips who have collectively created something truly unique. It isn’t a comic book movie in the conventional sense. The whole thing also looks incredible. A period setting, brilliantly shot and with terrific cinematography by Lawrence Sher. If you can get to an IMAX screening then I would highly recommend it.

Poster 2Violence

It is unquestionably a movie which has created controversy. Joker could quite easily be considered to be a dangerous film, capable of inciting violence in a way that ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was claimed to have influenced on its release. Much of the attention of the debate surrounds the violence which Joker instigates but that would be missing the point entirely. Fleck’s violent outbursts are as a result of the violence he himself has had to endure. Those moments are a reaction to something inflicted upon him but they become increasingly greater over-reactions. First, a physical assault. The second and third instances are based upon long-term abuse with the latter more implied and not entirely clear. Finally, a reaction to being made fun of. Instead of continuing to take the abuse Fleck lashes out in increasingly dramatic ways. Much like Gotham itself the bubbling anger and frustration boil over and the result is carnage and chaos.

That said the film could’ve been far more gratuitous in its violence. In the UK the film received only a 15 certificate so it could easily have gone further still and achieved an 18. The violence is shocking because it occurs unexpectedly. Yes the acts are inherently violent in themselves but in a lot of cases it will catch people off guard and that accentuates the shock. It is a movie full of tension but not a constant unease which elicits terror in the viewer. Uncomfortable to watch but not due to the content if taken in isolation.

SoundtrackOverall

Special mention has to be made to the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir which is a work of brilliance. Mournful sounds of cello strings accentuate the tension and contribute to an unforgettable experience. It is not for the faint of heart. Whilst I did not need to see yet another version of Thomas and Martha Wayne being murdered in front of a young Bruce, it felt like an appropriate ripple as Gotham caught fire. Joker becomes a hero. A symbol for a groundswell of social unrest. Let’s hope this particular element remains where it belongs, on screen and not in reality.

I would be surprised if Joaquin Phoenix does not get award nominations for this role. Whilst it is a difficult and at times harrowing film to watch Phoenix and Philips have delivered something truly exceptional.

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Review: Justice League

AE05378F-D18A-4676-962C-16E13A26ACABFollowing the tedious ‘Batman Vs Superman’ and the nightmarish ‘Suicide Squad’, The triumphant ‘Wonder Woman’ triggered optimism for the greatly anticipated ‘Justice League’. Unfortunately, the critical reception has been far less than stellar. It was therefore with great trepidation that I approached ‘Justice League’. Perhaps these low expectations helped me conclude that it’s actually not too bad.

Of course, the movie is stacked with flaws. From the predictable narrative to the generic CGI-filled fight sequences, there is plenty to find fault with. It is however difficult to appropriate blame following the loss of director Zack Snyder, a man once labelled ‘a visionary’, due to personal tragedy. In that context, the fact that the film remains vaguely coherent can be assessed to be an achievement. Unlike other recent offerings from DC on the big screen, there is a restraint and even an avoidance of the traditional grim and gritty visuals. Despite the death of Superman things seem a lot brighter visually than the murk of ‘Suicide Squad’. Things do venture back in that direction for the climax but the tones are much improved, clearly a decision based on the superior ‘Wonder Woman’ combination of dark moments within the bright instead of constant misery-inducing dullness.

6F1B0FC0-B77C-487C-A855-E5B5CD7AFF11Unfortunately, the plotting is entirely formulaic. There is little doubt from the outset that Superman would return, with death merely an inconvenience. This becomes increasingly inevitable given the presentation of the enhanced threat levels provided by the villain; Steppenwolf. Perhaps appropriately the logic behind the three cubes, one of which may or may not have been his mother, defies the understanding of mere human mortals. Steppenwolf is fairly convincing as an all-conquering destroyer so that Superman’s abilities would be required in addition to the other members of the team, the makeup of which is very deliberate.

justice

The Flash is the comic relief, although not a particularly funny one. Aquaman is the cool and aloof muscleman, Cyborg provides the technological wizardry and Wonder Woman is the unofficial leader. Batman in turn is less of a superhero and more of a facilitator, bringing together these gifted individuals. The Flash even draws attention to it by asking, “So what’s your superpower?” The response, “I’m rich”, although amusing reinforces that this Batman doesn’t really have a place within this team. When Superman is resurrected the gifted quartet fly to his aid. When Batman appears he may as well have been out of breath and bemoaning the buses. This hurts me as a person who has always preferred Batman to all other heroes. However, his place within this team seems largely unwarranted with Wonder Woman coming across as the real leader.

 

C18D0B6B-95B8-4A22-817A-17019D29C319Gal Gadot is the star of the piece with a sparkle and the twinkle in the eye required for a good Wonder Woman. Conversely Batfleck is just bland, lacking any edge which Keaton and Bale unquestionably brought to the role. Jason Momoa as Aquaman was flawless and badly under-utilised but I look forward to seeing the Aquaman movie in 2018. Similarly, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Cyborg’s struggles with his new form that went underdeveloped. But do I want to see a Ben Affleck led Batman movie? Absolutely not. Ezra Miller as The Flash is in the middle of the two, tolerable but not massively engaging. Henry Cavill’s Superman also manages to generate some emotional moments when reunited with the wonderful Amy Adams as Lois Lane and of course his Mum. Outside of that there is a procession of generic action sequences until finally we reach a conclusion.

‘Justice League’ is clumsily put together and that is no surprise given the circumstances around it’s production. Although predictable and pedestrian in it’s storytelling Justice League is not as bad as one may have expected. That is until the after credits sequence when all positivity was washed away by the appearance of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. His spectacularly irritating performance in ‘Batman Vs Superman’ was mercifully absent from the rest of ‘Justice League’. Whilst the sight of Deathstroke was a bit exciting, Eisenberg’s Luthor is something I never ever want to see onscreen again. The prospect of Luthor building his own team of villains would see me prefer to revisit the abysmal ‘Suicide Squad’ than sit through that potential abomination. If such a project does transpire then I predict that ‘Justice League’ will be deemed a masterpiece in comparison.

For now, I’m going to watch the far more polished Avengers movies from Marvel.

REVIEW: Power Rangers (2017)

The Power Rangers from Saban are back in a new movie. Specifically a film adaptation of the origin story for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers television series which became a global hit in the 1990’s. The series has since undergone multiple revisions including Samurai and Jungle Fury. Now given a big budget and the limitless scale of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) available does this modern reboot do the source material justice?

Firstly, some context. As a youth I was very much into the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. I had action figures. I vividly remember buying the Megazord and playing with the constituent Zords constantly. Similar memories are also held of the White Ranger’s sword, a toy which came complete with sound effects. When the original television series made its big screen debut I entered a drawing competition at the local supermarket, putting the White Ranger onto paper and actually won tickets to see the movie. These memories have resurfaced because of this film and that strikes upon the appeal of this new movie; nostalgia.

For those of us of a certain age Power Rangers strikes a chord with what we remember of the series that we became swept up with as youngsters. Additionally, actors Bryan Cranston, from Malcolm in the Middle and of course Breaking Bad, and Elizabeth Banks, who we’ve seen in Role Models, The Forty Year Old Virgin, The Hunger Games and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, draw us in even further. Banks in particular savours the freedom to go wild with the villainess Rita Repulsa. Cranston largely appears as the talking face on the wall called Zordon. However neither appears to have just shown up for the pay cheque and indeed take the process reasonably seriously. Perhaps they too were savouring the nostalgia of the project?

Power Rangers 3

This search to deliver nostalgia is indicative of the tone of the film. It is not a film for children with some particularly dark moments, the implication that Rita was pulling gold teeth out of a homeless man’s skull for instance. Unfortunately the screening I attended had two families with young children who were clearly scared in these moments. Although the 12A certificate is entirely appropriate for this film, it does not mean that it is suitable for 6 year olds even if they are accompanied by an adult. It is clearly intended for that older audience, now in adulthood, that darker tones appeal to but without straying too far away from the original. Those kids in my showing also failed to have their attention kept by the extended character development.

As with any origin story time is spent explaining the premise. However the majority of the running time is dedicated to exploring the five lead characters. My heart sank with the prospect of a Breakfast Club style setup. Happily however that was dispensed with quickly. With the change of environment, from weekend detention to a quarry, the unlikely friendship then begins to develop between the teenagers. Although a slightly generic motley crew of characters they do cover all bases. The star quarterback has dented his future with some youthful hi-jinx. A former cheerleader who didn’t quite fit the Mean Girls mould. Someone struggling with how her ‘perfect’ family would react to her sexuality. Similarly a young carer struggling to look after his sick mother. Plus the smart one on the autistic spectrum. All of these characters however are handled well. Sensitively in fact, with a subtlety often missing from most movie blockbusters.

Each of them have a point to prove. Seeking acceptance from the other outsiders they form a strong bond as a group. Those themes of friendship and acceptance add an additional layer to the generic superhero and sci-fi material that will hopefully speak to others at that impressionable age. On reflection, this process of teasing out the character back stories is too long, not that I was in a hurry to see the inevitable battle between the Zords and Goldar. However I was caught up enough in the characters that I was eager for them to get their suits which were particularly impressive given the movie level budget. Admittedly this movie is not likely to receive widespread critical acclaim. The plot and script are not likely to win any awards for instance. But some films deliver based upon what the viewer brings to it.

As a nostalgic 30-year-old I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting a story from my youth. A modern retelling with a good budget and featuring two actors who I have enjoyed in other things before. Excitingly an extra scene in the credits alludes to a further story involving the Green Ranger. Perhaps history will repeat itself and he will trigger a peak in popularity for the Power Rangers?