Movie Review ~ Joker

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A clown-for-hire by day, strives to be a stand-up comic at night…but finds that the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence teetering on the precipice of reality and madness, one bad decision brings about a chain reaction of escalating, ultimately deadly, events.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Marc Maron, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olsen

Director: Todd Phillips

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’ve almost been dreading the day I had to see Joker ever since I saw the first preview for it.  Though the internet lost their minds when they got a look at Joaquin Phoenix in costume and there were plenty exclamations of “Take My Money!” (What does that phrase mean, exactly? Anyway…), I didn’t understand what this movie was meant to do.  For audiences.  For the studio.  For the character.  The Joker has been played indelibly before by the likes of Caesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger…did Phoenix really want to walk a mile in those clown shoes and be compared to those titans?  Also, the movie just looked skeevy and drab, clearly aiming to distance itself far from any vision yet of Gotham City.

So it came to pass that the day the screening arrived nothing seemed to go right.  Waking up on the wrong side of the bed doesn’t even begin to describe it.  The day was gloomy, the night was rain-soaked.  The topper was a crazy security line to get into the preview that had the effect of setting a somber mood.  Being slowly wanded by a security guard made me feel like there was something to be wary about, the early buzz of the movie’s excessive violence bouncing around in my head.  Were critics worrying the movie might stir unrest not all that unfounded?  I was on edge from the beginning.

Perhaps all that build-up and early fretting helped me stave off some of the higher expectations others may have going into the movie this weekend.  While it’s certainly as violent as I’d heard and more deeply upsetting than I was imagining, I watched Joker with a transfixed gaze without being able to turn away.  I didn’t always like what I was seeing but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the screen.  It’s a film that starts with a bleak outlook and just goes downhill from there with little reprieve, hope, or kindness offered along the way.  Even so, there’s a certain beauty in all that ugliness.

A standalone story that doesn’t involve the caped crusader (no mention of the B-word at all), Joker basically gives the Clown Prince of Crime the Wicked treatment and makes the character we’ve come to know as the villain the protagonist of the story.  Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover Part III) co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver (The Finest Hours) and borrows liberally from Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Setting the action in 1981 NYC gives Phillips the opportunity to let production designer Mark Friedberg (Noah) and costume designer Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) pull out all the stops and the Big Apple is indeed recreated in all its seedy, smoky glory.  It’s almost worth the price of admission alone to see the way the filmmakers have crafted not only the look of the time but also the mood.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix, The Master) makes a meager living as clown hired out for odd jobs while dreaming of making it as a stand-up comic on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, Cape Fear) show.  Living with his mother (Frances Conroy, Falling in Love) in a one-room apartment, he suffers from brain trauma causing him to laugh uncontrollably when faced with stress.  Entertaining a new friendship with a neighbor (Zazie Beetz, Deadpool 2), Arthur becomes more infatuated with the thought of fame.  His weekly therapy sessions hint at a man with diagnosed mental health issues not getting the kind of significant treatment he needs and, eventually, not even having the benefit of meeting with his psychiatrist. Soon, he’s a man on the edge finally pushed to his breaking point.

While dressed as a clown, he’s assaulted on a subway and strikes back.  Though his identity goes unnoticed, his actions do not, inspiring the lesser thans in a city roiling in unrest to find a common bond and uniting in their shared anger.  Though he claims to not stand for anything, deep down Arthur shares in their feelings, wondering why the world is so messed up and people have become so rotten to one another.  Finding a newfound strength with his painted on persona and with his inner circle closing in around him, Arthur sets his sights on a broader audience and when his path crosses with his favorite television star, he seizes an opportunity to take the Joker global.

There’s a few ways you can look at what Phillips and Silver are going for with Joker.  You can view the movie from a perspective that a terrible society without feeling or order breeds people like Arthur Fleck.  He’s pushed aside and forgotten, left to fend for himself without any real chance to succeed.  How can we expect people to be better, do better, if they aren’t given some kind of opportunity or a means of support?  There’s another way to look at the film and I think it’s more dangerous.  Maybe it’s a thinly veiled battle cry against a humanity that has become self-absorbed and aims to restore some order by introducing a violent messiah messiah-figure to idolize.  I doubt the filmmakers knowingly were aiming for this but our culture isn’t that great at reading into the deeper meanings in metaphor so if some kind of statement on the dangers of societal violence was being made I think it was lost in the telling.  The fears some people have voiced that the movie may be pro mob-mentality aren’t that off the mark.

At the epicenter of it all is Joaquin Phoenix’s polarizing performance as Fleck/Joker which hits the bullseye at times but is wildly weird at others.  Backed by a surprisingly alert performance from De Niro and an eclectic mix of character actors, Phoenix is never off screen, which gets exhausting. Phoenix is known for immersing himself in roles to sometimes concerning levels and I spent most of the movie wondering how long it took for him to bounce back after filming had completed.  That’s a problem.  I was always aware it was a performance while watching his gaunt and greasy figure move from scene to scene.

Losing weight for the role gave him the wan visage intended but you can see him angling his body or sucking his stomach in to show each rib and bone – so it’s clearly all for show.  Strangely, it’s when Phoenix is in make-up as Joker (actually, anytime he’s in clown make-up throughout the movie) that he’s nothing short of electric.  Especially as the film ramps up to its troublesome final act, Phoenix positively comes alive and sheds the more pithy acting choices he’s made up until that point.  Now, there’s more than danger present in Arthur’s eyes, there’s glee in the dread he’s inflicting on Gotham City and happiness he’s being noticed for the first time in his unhappy life.

We’ve had so many interpretations of Batman over the years that maybe it wasn’t all that bad of an idea to have a different take on one of the players in his rogue gallery of villains.  I’m not sure Joker is exactly the movie we needed right now at this point when our nation is so overwhelmed with negativity and a general aimlessness, but it’s a well-made and in your face film that will surely open up conversations.  You can argue the intentions of the filmmakers but you can’t argue that the movie isn’t intriguing in its own weird way.

Movie Review ~ The Hangover Part III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: This time, there’s no wedding. No bachelor party. What could go wrong, right? But when the Wolfpack hits the road, all bets are off.

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong, Heather Graham, Jeffrey Tambor, Justin Bartha, John Goodman, Sasha Barrese, Gillian Vigman, Jamie Chung

Director: Todd Phillips

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  First things first…this final chapter in The Hangover trilogy is much better than the hypnotically awful second entry from 2011.  Still, the old adage that good things come in threes doesn’t apply here to a film that has a scant handful of laughs and goes out with a small guffaw.  When The Hangover was released in 2009, it was an overnight hit that built on strong word of mouth with each passing week.  I’ve revisited that film a few times over the years and while it doesn’t quite hold up as well with repeated viewings, it’s hard to deny that there were a lot of good ideas that landed above expectations thanks to smart writing and interesting performances.

As is widely agreed upon by audiences and critics alike, the sequel two years later was a total misfire…a basic remake of the first that confused disgusting gags for humor and tried in vain to capitalize on what made the original such a success.  That same confusion exists within the third entry as well but there seems to be a little more effort put into the rounding off of these characters as they sail off into the sunset.

The film opens with one of the worst gags I’ve seen in film recently…if you’ve seen the trailer you know what’s coming for you and I watched these opening moments with a sinking sense of dread.  They wouldn’t actually do that, I asked myself…right before they did.  The follow-up scene is another laughless exercise and I had to turn to my friend and ask “This IS supposed to be a comedy, right?”  Sadly, the laughs were rare as the film unspooled and though it does move fast over the course of its 100 minute run time, you really do notice that there’s little to enjoy as The Wolfpack get embroiled in another scheme involving kidnapping and stolen gold.

Make no doubt about it… this is Galifianakis’s show all the way and Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, Hit and Run, The Place Beyond the Pines) and Helms (The Lorax) are on hand to merely set-up his gags and not much else (poor Justin Bartha has even less to do as he’s once again sidelined early on).  What worked so well about the original film was the way these unlikely friends played off of each other and though all three have worked steadily in the four years since it’s obvious that director/writer Todd Phillips found Galifianakis (The Campaign) the easiest to write for.  That’s too bad because had Cooper and Helms been given more to do, they could have balanced a movie that’s weighed down by Galifianakis and his obtuse and only occasionally funny man-child antics.

The biggest mistake the film makes is moving peripheral character Mr. Chow front and center as part of the action which puts the biggest hole in this dingbat dinghy of a movie.  Played by the supernaturally annoying Ken Jeong, the character scored big in his small part of the original film and struck out astronomically in Part II.  Miraculously, in Part III he’s given even more to do which really ruins any chance the film had to succeed thanks to Jeong’s performance that seems to be culled from outtakes.

Though the film brings back some other characters from the previous installments and adds John Goodman (The Internship, Argo, Flight) to the mix, they are only there for show as Phillips fashions his film around gross-out humor and a disturbing amount of violence toward animals that’s meant to be humorous.  While I’ve always appreciated the film’s center core of friendship against all odds, the goodwill of franchise fans is put to the test here with a finished product that’s not very satisfying but thankfully signals the end of the road for these people.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hangover Part III

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Synopsis: This time, there’s no wedding. No bachelor party. What could go wrong, right? But when the Wolfpack hits the road, all bets are off.

Release Date:  May 24, 2013

Thoughts: When The Hangover was released a few summers back, it became a surprise hit for Warner Brothers with its old-school take on the buddy film, mixing in spot-on sight gags and revealing some hidden comedic talents from its game cast.  Its sheer popularity green lit a sequel that ended up being more repulsively vile than intelligently crude.  I’m hoping that Part III returns the series to its roots of being purposely funny…especially now that its stars are so well-known and, in Bradley Cooper’s case, Oscar nominated for Silver Linings Playbook.  I’m still mystified at the appeal of Ken Jeong, though.