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
When Marvel first set about building their budding universe with Robert Downey Jr’s spectacularly sarcastic and snarky Iron Man back in 2008, they left their fellow competitors DC in their dust. And while Christopher Nolan delivered a gritty gamble with his Batman trilogy, Zack Snyder’s subsequent Superman attempts and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016) proved no match for the mighty Disney megalith that is, quite frankly, taking over the filmic world. But it feels rather ironic now that DC’s big comeuppance to their foes is their first female-centric piece, directed by the talented Patty Jenkins. It’s funny, because while Marvel have huffed and puffed and blown every straw house down in their way, they themselves have still yet to deliver a standalone female-led film. And even more humorous, because their competitor’s instalment will be a damn hard one to beat.
Beginning on Themyscira - the home of the sword-wielding, horseback-riding Amazonian warrior woman - we are first introduced to Wonder Woman’s (2017) titular protagonist by way of Lilly Aspell’s eight-year-old version. Running away from school to spy upon the women training in combat, the intrepid young lady’s eagerness to fight and learn touchingly represents all the young girls who will gain more in life for having seen such a gender-defying film. And as Diana grows she battles hard, proving herself as Emily Carey’s pre-teen before transforming into Gal Gadot’s wide-eyed and glorious incarnation. But everything changes on the island when Chris Pine’s World War I pilot Steve Trevor crash lands, bringing the German enemy with him. With her head filled of stories of Greek Gods content on wreaking havoc, she defies her mother Hippolyta and seeks to leave with her new ‘above-average’ friend in search of Ares. All the while unbeknownst of her true status or power. Adjusting to life in England and on the Western Front, she then goes about proving – backed by a kickass score – that fighting injustice is more than simply slugging people in a super suit. It’s sacrifice and love, themes we women are all too familiar with. No wonder the film’s garnering critical acclaim.
A solid and scintillating dose of feminine power has, arguably, been a long time coming. From Halle Berry’s cringeworthy Catwoman (2004) to Jennifer Garner’s laughable Elektra (2005), girls have so far had little to look up to on the silver screen. Even Marvel’s Black Widow and Scarlet Witch have been relegated to side-acts. Thankfully Gadot’s Diana delivers, standing up to men not only by shoving her sword through them, but also declaring them cowards when they choose to sit safely at home and have others do their dirty work. Unafraid, unabashed and unassuming, she doesn’t hesitate to put men in their place, telling Trevor how the male sex is necessary for procreation, but not so much for pleasure. But perhaps the best moment of patriarchy-defiance, comes from a naked Chris Pine emerging from a steaming hot pool. Seemingly assured that the Amazonian fighter is looking at his unclothed frame, his is surprised to find she instead is far more interested in his wristwatch. For all you women out there - such subtle gender reversals are splendidly littered throughout.
As far as acting goes, Gal Gadot owns the role thanks to her beauty, poise and wildness. It says something for her that despite her obvious good looks and charming manner, she manages to deliver incredible emotion and humour, even when commenting on how ‘honourable’ an ice-cream can be. The mark of a true actor is to turn the smallest of scenes into a masterpiece, and Gadot does that with ease. She should be proud that little girls (and boys) will want to emulate her for years to come. As side-support goes, Pine provides his trademark affable comedy and gutso. And along with his rag-tag team of Said Taghmaoui’s Sameer, Ewen Bremner’s Charlie and Eugene Brave Rock’s the Chief, the boys help stand Diana in good company. The villains’ meanwhile lash on slopping’s of cliché, reminiscent of the Red Skull from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). And while the script is largely tepid and lacklustre, the special effects help take it to the next level. Awash with graceful kinetic movements and ALL. THE. SLOW. MOTION, it’s just as beautiful to watch as its main star.
But for all the sexist stereotypes the movie overcomes, there are still moments that are painfully overlooked. For starters Diana is seen complaining about why a corset would ‘keep your tummy tucked in,’ just minutes before she runs into battle in a strapless, form fitting metal combination. Breasts on show, hair in place, heavy eyeliner prominent. The ideals of beauty are hard to get around and even in the first, proper female standalone superhero flick they abound aplenty. Then there’s the continuity errors to deal with. Like, why if Diana can defeat the God of War during modern society’s first great conflict does she exist in a universe where World War II, The Korean, Vietnam and Iraq War’s, as well as the impending doom of Justice League probably occur? There’s gimmick too, tucked away in the script, which breeds cliché even within its most sentimental moments. For as great as the idea that love is of course the answer, it would have been a far greater third act climax to avoid the predictable and instead delve into man’s psyche as a broken and troubled race.
If there is one thing to be taken from the film though, it is the impact it will have on the wide-eyed children growing up in today’s fractious society. The one filled with terrorists and bloodshed. The one where men who choose not to believe the facts presented them. The one where everyone is still telling women they are not equal. Not really. Not when it comes to filmic representations, wage gaps and success in the workplace. The one that calls them to be stronger than they have ever been before therefore to make a difference. It’s wonder-ful that, finally, they have a role model to aspire to. Not because of her incredible fighting prowess. Not because of her good looks. But because she is a woman, who chooses not to ignore the pain and suffering in the world. A woman who makes the word ‘feminine,’ something to be proud of.
Rating: 4 X-Factors out of 5
Suicide Squad Review - A shamble of a script destroys one of the superhero genre's most promising blockbusters
When a film as promising as DC and Warner Bros’ latest venture Suicide Squad (2016) winds up as nothing more than a cacophonous burst of light and sound, it can be considered not just disappointing, but downright criminal. Bad pun aside, the fifth superhero offering of the year misses the mark big time with beyond poor pacing, cementing 2016 in the history books as the one for DC’s downfall. While it is easy to praise Marvel’s meticulous control over their films now that they are nearly thirteen pictures deep into their shared universe, what puts their cinematic comic-book adaptations a step above their DC competition is the fact they can hold their own as both standalone and interconnected action pieces. Unable to tread the fine line between pandering to fans and boldly stepping outside the box the studio wants to put you in, the Suicide Squad gang unfortunately wind up more a bland band than dream team.
It’s hard to describe the film’s storyline, as it is at once both painful and pointless. To emphasize this fact we need only look at the first few minutes, with disastrous director David Ayer not even able to figure out where the title should go, splashing it haphazardly across the screen smack bang in the middle of a scene. It only gets worse from there, with the whole first half of the film based around the exposition of our titular team, telling those who have never heard of DC’s ‘Worst. Heroes. Ever’ just how they came to be who they are. We’ve got Will Smith’s straight-shooting father Deadshot, Margot Robbie’s lovestruck fangirl Harley Quinn, Jay Hernandez’s hot-headed El Diablo, Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje scaly and surly Killer Croc and Jai Courtney’s beautifully bogan Captain Boomerang. Titled Task Force X, the team are assembled to takedown a nasty ‘terrorist’ in mid-town, who just happens to be an evil entity known as Enchantress (Cara Delevingne). Things only get stranger from there, but by then we’re almost three-quarters of the way through the film and are too busy wondering why we haven’t seen more of the action sequences we’ve been promised.
Sadly, not even a soundtrack that spans Eminem to Creedence Clearwater Revival can save this pieced-together picture. Although it looked bright and stylish in the lead up to its launch, with eighties music blaring in its trailers, ultimately Suicide Squad lacks the same smooth or slick style of its Marvel movie counterparts. Where they ooze charm and clearly have a dedicated group of writers pouring over every last detail, DC instead are rushing their creations right into the ground. So far, the studio has failed to deliver us even one decent film in their extended cinematic universe, trying too hard and focusing on dark and violent tones. Like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) comic timing goes right out the window in this film as well, as jokes hang half-finished in an awkward and agonising silence. Majority of the film’s failures though can be boiled down to David Ayer’s belief that he alone could deliver DC a shining star. Seriously, did no-one in the executive team think to question a script centred on a gang of villains calling themselves ‘family’ after just hours together? Nor ask about the inclusion of absurd story-splaining lines like ‘The Joker and Harley Quinn are gone’?
One thing Suicide Squad does deliver on however is its psychedelic tone. Bright colours pop on screen as the costumes and cars accentuate the comic book origins of the story. If only the film had remained focused on that element however, instead of pushing audiences to their limits with countless flashbacks and slow-motion moments. These are about as confusing as the film’s treatment of women, with the most prominent badass characters, Enchantress and Amanda Waller, both played by what was once the stereotypically ‘fairer’ gender. Despite that, the main marketing girl, Harley Quinn, gets punched and paraded around, part of an abusive relationship that evokes an ethically ambiguous tenor to the film. Even Katana (Karen Fukuhara) who is one of the most normal characters of the bunch is rarely heard speaking for herself, instead smothered into silence and a sidekick role by Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman).
Despite boasting one of the biggest and best ensemble cast’s in recent years, hardly any of the characters make it out of Suicide Squad as more than one-dimensional set pieces. One character is so neglected the filmmakers forget to introduce him, despite being a prominent part of the marketing campaign, imbuing him with the worst talent imaginable, before he is thoughtlessly killed off mere minutes into the second act. And no, I’m not even talking about Scott Eastwood nameless soldier, who suffers a somewhat similar fate. Notable exceptions to the trend include Robbie’s Harley Quinn, who is delightfully unhinged and loveable at the same time. Similarly, Jared Leto’s version of the Joker is neither terrible nor exceptional, but is instead criminally underused. Crazy and chaotic he has down pat, now all he needs is more development in the way of his clown-y comedy in future films. Best of all though is Jai Courtney’s quintessential Australian larrikin Captain Boomerang. Drinking beers in the middle of a fight, inappropriately asking girls out and brawling bad guys, this movie certainly marks his comeback from critically panned performances in A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) and Terminator Genisys (2015).
In the end, Suicide Squad leaves audiences with only a raft of unanswered questions. Like the who, what, where and why surrounding Delevingne’s Enchantress. And whatever happened to the cute pink unicorn Captain Boomerang carried around? Most importantly though, we are left wondering whether there is any way to get those two hours of our lives back. Perhaps Wonder Woman (2017) or Justice League (2017) can turn the tables back for DC, the potential is undoubtedly there to be tapped into. The only way that will be possible though, is if they stop trying to compete with the Marvel monster and realise there is enough space for two great superhero franchises in this world.
Rating: 1.5 Anti-Heroes out of 5
God versus man. Day versus night. All powerful versus all good. That’s the conundrum Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) has asked of its audience ever since its first trailer debuted last year. And as a superhero fanatic, I’ll readily admit it sucked me in straight away. Then, a few days ago, came the early wave of negative reviews, the memes of Marvel’s mighty CEO’s laughing at Warner Bros. over the dismal 30% ‘Fresh Rating’ the film received on Rotten Tomatoes, and the tragic but beautiful gifs of ‘Sad Affleck’, a video of the Oscar-winning actor staring into the abyss of what many are calling one of the most horrible iterations of DC’s beloved bat character to date. Undeterred, I ignored the critics reviews, cast my biases aside, and sat down to see for myself whether Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is worthy of a cinematic viewing. The red capes are a-coming…
Picking up eighteen months after the events of Man of Steel (2013), Zack Snyder’s sombre sequel follows the emotional, physical, and psychological trail of death and destruction left in the wake of Superman’s intergalactic fight with General Zod. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is hard at work at the Daily Planet but losing faith in what Superman stands for, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is seeking out stories in Africa and living up to the damsel in distress trope, and the people of Metropolis are so caught up in what their False God can do that they are failing to ask what he should do. Then in swoops the Bat-fleck, an older, grizzlier manifestation of Bruce Wayne’s legendary hero, well into his crime-fighting years. A boy who let his family die and a man who seems doomed to repeat the sins of his past. After witnessing the uncontrollable power and formidable strength Superman wields, the Dark Knight sets about devising a plan for the Son of Krypton’s down-fall, and finally, just over two-thirds of the way into the film, we finally reach the crux of the climatic fight-scene. Sadly, it’s a short-lived moment; as a bigger villain crashes onto the scene and DC’s Holy Trinity unite to fight for what’s left of truth, justice, and the American way.
Introducing the Justice League is no mean feat, especially considering it’s a tenacious task never before achieved in a live-action film, and for that Batman v Superman deserves credit. It’s overshadowed though by the sheer weight of the movies dark and despairing tone. People die, others go crazy, and there’s a huge price to be paid by the best among us. There’s also a jumbled mess of unnecessary dream sequences and strange musical choices lurking about (don’t believe me – just wait until you here Lex Luthor’s theme). But it’s the film’s two-and-a-half-hour run-time that delivers the final blow. By the time you reach the finale, you’re too exhausted to comprehend the gravitas of the situation, and the speed at which the lacklustre lot finally become a League.
Affleck’s Batman has been a big criticism, and it’s hard to argue that there aren’t at least a few moments where he serves as a let-down. Like, pretty much the whole first half of the film. But after you warm up to him, and suspend disbelief at how fast he can change costumes between his busted up bat armour and his black (or really, really, dark grey) suit, he proves to be a solid addition to the cast. He’s the first swearing, killing, and jaded incarnation, and it makes for a frighteningly refreshing change. Sure he’s no Christian Bale, but he was also never trying to be. People are quick to forget how much he invested in the film and how hard it is to revive a character that last graced the screen just four years ago. He’s good, if not great, and given time his standalone features and ensemble team-ups could prove a real winner for Warner Bros. After all, superheroes are made not just born.
The smaller roles bring the biggest and best surprises though, with Gal Gadot knocking her Wonder Woman out of the park. Smooth, seductive, and strong, DC can finally lay claim to beating Marvel in at least one realm, with a female lead that stands equal to the boys, showcases real powers, and is a revelation as an unapologetic role-model. Black Widow and Scarlet Witch stand no chance. Similarly, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is one for the books; as a miss-match of maniacal madness who proves that psychotic really is just a three syllable word for any thought too big for little minds. Even Jeremy Irons cynical, old-man Alfred is great, as a gentleman resigned to simply ‘trying’ to convince Batman not to kill himself in his endeavours. But if you came for the ‘Dawn of Justice’ part of the title you won’t be disappointed, with a number of well-timed and wonderfully utilised cameos, that would be done no justice at all, should I spoil them. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy as they spill onto the screen.
Expecting a superhero movie that can rival the Marvel megalith at this stage is a hard ask, and more importantly a downright cruel one. They’ve had twelve films to set up their cinematic universe. DC have had two. And it’s a problem that has left a major hole for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where the studio promised a second Superman outing and the introduction of DC’s A-League, but instead delivered a film that feels more like a Batman origin flick. The whole first act is practically devoted to setting the character up, with the Son of Krypton left to take centre stage only in the final, gut-wrenching moments. It’s not bad, but given time and space to breathe, it could have been so much more. If only they’d taken heed of their scriptwriters, when they wrote; ‘Be their hero, be their angel, be their monument. Be anything they need you to be… or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.’
Rating: 3.5 Annoyed Alfred's out of 5
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