Joker Review - The clown prince of crime puts on a happy face in this riveting, unsettling and award-worthy origin flick
It says a lot about cinema today that an opening montage featuring a man putting on a face-full of clown makeup before smiling forcefully at himself in a mirror, could very well be the most captivating silver screen moment of the year. There’s nothing flashy about the audience’s introduction to Joker (2019). There’s no explosions or gunfire. No well-timed comedic notes to hit. Just a painful, slow-burn look at humanity. One that’s perfect in its simplicity. Ironic really, given that one of the industry’s top directors, Martin Scorsese, used the same week as the DC origin flick’s release, to come out and trash films within the genre, claiming they aren’t “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences.” Ironic, because that’s exactly what Todd Phillips’ first foray into this world is – a gripping, complex and highly affecting look at how we are all just one bad day away from becoming someone we never thought we could be.
Designed as a standalone piece within the extended Warner Bros. superhero universe, Joker (2019) follows the story of Arthur Fleck, a rent-a-clown performer who spends his days dancing with signs outside rundown businesses or trying to bring laughter to sick children at the local hospital. It’s a dreary world he lives in, stuck in a city that’s crumbling around the lower classes, while the rich get richer on their false promises and giant rats roam the streets as literal incarnations of such hypocrisy. His social life isn’t much better either, seen as little more than a loner that still lives with his mother, and hindered by a condition that sees him burst out in uncontrollable laughter at the most inappropriate of times. Having always been told he was put on this earth to make others smile, Arthur is eager to try his hand at stand-up comedy, but after a series of unfortunate events sees him lose his job, his dignity and even his morality, seemingly small fractures begin to open up into giant chasms, and the devastating effects of society’s inability to care, make him into a symbol he never intended to become.
Captivating and uncomfortable, as it should be, Joker (2019) asks us to question not what it takes to become a madman, but how such characters can so easily slip through the cracks when society lets down its most vulnerable. See, there’s a fine line between making an audience feel sympathetic towards a character and calling them a hero, and you’re never uncertain with Joker (2019). Arthur is not someone to applaud or admire; his violent, bloody actions launch us back to reality just as we begin to feel sorry for him. One can understand and even feel regretful towards his situation, but never at the decisions he makes in response. There’s been a lot of critical opinions on whether a film centred on the actions of, what one could clearly argue is an incel, will insight others. But then again, any piece of art, news, or propaganda could do the same. And what Joker (2019) teaches us, more importantly, is that we must come at things from a personal level, not just an institutional one. Mental illness is prevalent in society and needs to be addressed better, but mental illness alone does not drive people to commit horrible acts. Stopping people from feeling shut-out, abandoned and ignored is just as crucial.
Phoenix’s performance here is perhaps the best of his career, which is no hard feat considering his turns in Walk The Line (2005), The Master (2012) and Her (2013). Nothing feels stale or re-used from other incarnations of the character, and while it would be unfair to compare his version with that of the late, great, Heath Ledger’s, there’s no denying the Aussie would have been proud. His laugh is at once both menacing and maniacal, as well as so very pained. And as Arthur begins to garner acknowledgement from those around him, stepping out from the shadows, there’s a glorious transformation in the energy and charisma Phoenix imbues. In saying that, he certainly has a stellar supporting cast to bring out his best, with Robert De Niro going toe-to-toe with him as smarmy, talk-show host Murray Franklin, and Frances Conroy shining as Penny Fleck in the small moments she shares with her son. At the end of the day though, it’s Phoenix’s movie, and like his namesake he rises from the ashes, from the first haunting scene, to the burning, soft glow of the last. If he doesn’t take home the Oscar, or at least a nomination, then Hollywood needs to have a long, hard look at itself.
Visually, the film is just as strong. With a relatively low budget (less than $55 million, including advertising), Phillips relies heavily on the physical, leaving the CGI to the superheroes. Warm, rich tones roll across the screen, lulling the audience into Arthur’s world. And don’t be fooled – it’s all about his vision of things – the colours popping more vibrantly as he comes to find his, albeit destructive, place in it. The costumes paint a similar picture too; the sharp, angular blue triangles around the anti-hero’s eyes setting the scene more than any clown before. There’s a style and flair to the character from his outfit, something the DC villain has always had. And it flows from the physical to the political aspects of film - this version so strikingly real that it’s easy to forget you’re watching fiction. Not a single decision has been taken lightly here, from tone to lighting, score to nuance, and it really shows. So rare is it that we are gifted a movie that is as beautiful as it is disturbing and gritty.
Leaving the theatre, it’s hard not to have more questions than answers when it comes to Joker (2019). But for once, that seems to be a good thing. Contrary to what we would like to believe, bad people aren’t born that way. Villains are made. And sometimes, that means their creation can also be prevented. I mean, how many times has society heard from people who have said they “haven’t been happy one minute of their entire fucking life”. Or arrogant assholes that claim: “those of us who have made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t and see nothing but clowns.” So where does the buck stop? When do we decide to listen and act, rather than ignore? Because just like the titular character’s derided joke, by the time the film gets to its punchline, nobody is laughing. Instead, a nervous tickle begins to rise at the back of our collective throats as we begin to realise, sometimes, we are all part of the problem.
Rating: 4.5 Joker Cards out of 5
Australian screen icon Mel Gibson is arguably at his best when embodying a protective and powerful father figure. We’ve seen it in his previous works The Patriot, Ransom and Braveheart and now we get the pleasure of a return to such roots in his latest comeback attempt Blood Father (2016). Having been caught up in a string of personal and public problems, the star’s atmospheric action-drama serves as redemptive piece for both character and actor, questioning just how far a man will go for forgiveness. Despite a number of flaws, including the monotony of treading the same beaten path as many before it, Blood Father is equal parts a hidden gem, full of charismatic central characters and amped up action.
An adaptation of Peter Craig’s novel of the same name, Blood Father is a stunning film stuck in the shell of a B-Grade movie, full of clever characterisation and dynamic dialogue. Its plot is simple enough, following the relationship between ex-con and recovering alcoholic John Link and his estranged daughter Lydia. Used to finding comfort at the bottom of a bottle, Link is struggling to stay sober and maintain a life on the straight and narrow, as a simple tattoo artist living in a beaten down trailer park alongside his sole friend and sponsor, Kirby. Just one year out of jail his world-weary life is upturned once again though, when he receives a call from his missing 17-year-old, who has got herself into a spot of trouble after shooting her drug-dealing boyfriend in the neck. When both cops and cartel come a-calling for her, Link must rely on his old friends and foes to find a way to protect her and prove that blood really is thicker than water.
The relationship between the two leads is clearly the standout of the film, as Gibson and Erin Moriarty share quips back and forth in a genuine and endearing interplay. Where there is blood, so too is there banter and heart-warming humour. A number of great supporting characters help fill-out the film too, from Diego Luna’s sleazy boyfriend Jonah, to Thomas Mann’s quirky motel clerk Jason. Out of the bunch the only gripe comes from the under-use of William H. Macy, whose character Kirby receives about as little growth as the weeds in the scenic desert setting. Gibson meanwhile is perfectly cast, with art imitating life for the man who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for the better part of this century. The film is not just his redemption, but is a look at what happens to the bruised and broken men Hollywood discards. Just as Link is a tortured soul, a man who has misplaced his own purpose as easily as he has lost his daughter, so too is Gibson wandering and waiting for the chance to payback on his penance.
The humour in Blood Father is as off-beat as the film itself, with Link musing over the destruction of his old beat-up Chevy Nova, not minutes after he was berating it for not starting. Even when the characters are in peril, they still hang hard to such heart, laughing over something as simple as the colour of one’s hair. Gibson has always made his money from his ability to shrug off any situation with a sarcastic swipe and there is certainly no shortage of that here. While most of the humour hits home, the film does fall flat on some accounts. At times the stark transition between the style and themes is more jarring than poetic, leaving you wondering just how much of a hand the studio had in post-production editing. This is never more obvious than when dealing with the supporting cast, with both Thomas Mann and William H. Macy’s scenes seemingly slimmed down to better encompass a shorter and more succinct story. While it certainly alleviates the boredom, we never feel like it quite hits the heights it should have.
Marking his first English language film since his 2001 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, director Jean-Francois Richet paints a glorious picture with his choice of cinematography though, from the sprawling sun-splashed deserts through to the stark and sterile lights of the cities. It’s strangely other-worldly, with more than a decent nod to the nostalgia of times past. Sure there may be tumbleweeds blowing down the street, but it’s the sort of place where we would never laugh at such a thing. As the bodies begin to pile up and the adrenaline-fuelled action sequences splatter across the screen, Blood Father leaves us with a sad, sinking feeling, rather than the quiet optimism of mainstream box office blockbusters. And despite the darkness that slowly spreads over the film, there’s nothing more magical than a film brave enough to show that not every story has a happy ending.
Shockingly violent and undeniably brutal, Blood Father catches you off guard when you least suspect, with more than enough double-crosses and dramatic deaths to keep viewers entertained. Despite its obvious flaws, in its simplistic story and been-there-done-that attitude, there is a lot to like and even a little to love in this latest crime caper. For those sitting there on their pedestals, hiding behind their blinkers and ready to let the film fall of their radar thanks to Gibson’s antics, it’s a damn shame. Despite bearing the scars both mentally and physically, he is as willingly as ever to give it his all, for whoever is still patient enough to be watching. It might be a grimy and meandering action-drama that punches above its weight, but just like what Link says about Lydia, Blood Father is every loser’s lucky day.
Rating: 3 Grizzled Gibson's out of 5
After watching Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, I’ve got to admit it, but I am well and truly dying for the day when Ethan Hunt finally gets asked the customary question; “This is your mission, should you choose to accept it…” only to decline the offer, and send audiences reeling. Hold up, hold up. Hear me out. This is not to say that I think the film is so bad that turning down the mission and causing it to end up a five-minute movie would be better, that is far from the truth. It’s a fantastic film that blends the best of the espionage and action genres, all without ever taking itself far too seriously. It’s just that out of five assorted instalments, five different directors, and five separate ‘impossible’ missions, there’s never once been a time that Hunt has turned around, stuck it to the powers that be, and been forced to participate anyway. That’s the kind of interesting and fresh plot that a series needs five or six features in. There is after all, only so many times an audiences will accept the stale scenario in which a bad guy (or corporation) appears, wreaks a little havoc, kills a few people, all before the IMF band together to save society whilst facing the threat of being disavowed. Bring in as many new ‘hanging off a plane’ action sequences as you like, but nothing speaks awesome quite like a storyline we haven’t seen before.
This time round is no different sadly, picking up where Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) left off, with Ethan hunting (no pun intended) down the enigmatic Syndicate, a mysterious conglomerate labelled the ‘anti-IMF’. CIA Chief Hunley (Alec Baldwin) all the while is working in the background to convince the Senate to disband the IMF for good, believing Hunt to be the perennial boy who cried wolf. Stranded after Hunley succeeds and events go sour in London, Hunt calls in the good old team of Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames), and Brandt (Jeremy Renner), to take down Soloman Lane (Sea Harris), the trench-coat wearing cliché of a British villain, who is fronting the group of renegade rogue agents that are unleashing their own brand of deadly attacks around the world.
Thrown in the mix for good measure (and let’s be honest - gender balancing) is Rebecca Ferguson’s mystery maiden Ilsa Faust, a femme fatale that is step-for-step Cruise’s equal, choking men with her thighs, and hiding her allegiances so well that I’m still not sure I know where she stands even after having finished the film. From Austria to Morocco to London (that sounds like the start of a very bad Pitbull song there…) the film plays out as a three-part action centric piece, with each new country signifying a fight is sure to be looming somewhere on the horizon. The concept works wonders though, bringing the series back to the heyday of classic ‘edge-of-your-seat blockbusters’, where a thriller is a thriller and you don’t really need to ponder every detail fastidiously. For all the annoyance at the overused plot, the one thing it does right above all is provide you exactly what you paid for. Action, thrills, and intrigue abound.
With a raft of spy films either due out or already released this year (Spy, Spectre and The Man from UNCLE to name a few), predictions on Rogue Nation being among the best of the bunch were low. And whilst it doesn’t quite come off as the high-piece of the series, it does bring the certain charm and ‘je ne sais quoi’ we fans have become accustomed too. The action sequences are slick and aesthetically pleasing, weaving as seamlessly between the car and motor-cycle chases, as the piece does between its humour and drama. Helping it on its way are Pegg and Renner, who continue to prove the smartest move the franchise has made since its introduction almost twenty years ago. The duo fire out one-liners with startling precision, never once letting any of them miss their mark. Perhaps one of the biggest disappointments though is the fact that there is no classic ‘jump and hang’ move from Cruise or co. with us having to accept a meagre rope drop in its place. Well, that and the fact that the plane sequence which opens the film doesn’t even come close to topping the building climb in part four. For most of those ten minutes they could just have used green-screen to the same effect. Ultimately, however, the dive sequence featuring amidst act two makes up for them both a-plenty, the crucial key to balancing the film out.
Amidst the conflict and conspiracy are timely nods to the distinguished British pieces considered the four-fathers of the spy-genre, both Bond and Sherlock Holmes. Many of the fights take place in London (cue phone-boxes and double decker buses), and between the product placement of all the BMW’s you even get a glimpse of a silver Aston Martin if you’re paying close enough attention. Best of all though is Rogue Nation’s nod to Daniel Craig’s Quantum of Solace Austrian Opera scene, this time round filled with less talking, more fighting, and a envisioned storyboarded so beautiful, even Hitchcock would be proud of it. The Holmes-ian ties in are just as good, but to recount them here would be to spoil all the fun.
Christopher McQuarrie, who has taken the reins from Brad Bird, proves he’s not just a one trick pony here, deserving more than the accolades he normally receives purely for his writing abilities. Sensible, structured, and with just enough fun to tide you over, his take on the Mission: Impossible series is a favourable one. The movie never lags, and the tension never drops, something hard to accomplish in cinema nowadays, and he even manages to give the franchise a fresh start by the end, lining us up for a sequel we actually wouldn’t mind seeing. Yes, even if Hunt once again accepts the ‘mission’. I’ll have to refute it if anyone asks though, because we all know “I can neither confirm nor deny any details about any operation without the permission of the secretary…”
Rating: 3.5 Polygraphs out of 5
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