Joker

Joker Poster

Director: Todd Phillips

Screenwriters: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, and Zazie Beetz

Todd Phillips’s dark origin story of the nefarious, titular Clown Prince of Crime is a moody film that feels much closer to the Christopher Nolan vision of Gotham City’s milieu than any of the most recent efforts in the DC universe. And by universe, I mean adaptations of material from Detective Comics because the makers of Joker have made it quite clear that this film is not part of what has been called the DC Extended Universe, which includes films like Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman

Joker is drawing comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 thriller, Taxi Driver as well as to his 1983 dark comedy, The King of Comedy. These comparisons are quite justified as all three films explore celebrity, sub-cultural unrest, and showcase the talents of Robert De Niro. These comparisons come ironically on the heels of Scorsese’s own recent public comments in Empire magazine that other comic book movies are “not cinema.” Whether or not Scorsese has seen Joker remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt the film is heavily stylized and inspired by his early works. But this film is much more than a Scorsese tribute; it is actually quite an astute commentary on some very difficult issues to discuss, making it one of the most necessary films produced this year.

At its core, Joker is a character-driven story about Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a meager, struggling performer hoping to someday be a stand-up comedian. Fleck also has a “condition” which manifests as uncontrollable laughter at inappropriate times. The film quickly establishes that this is a film about man vs. society where Fleck’s numerous mental illnesses result in a rejection from society regardless of his desire to be part of it. Fleck is literally beaten at one point by some kids simply because he stands out. This significant but minor violent experience results in a series of events that eventually see Fleck unemployed, unsupported, and friendless.

To make matters worse, Fleck, who lives at home with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) discovers that he may be the illegitimate son of billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) who ultimately abandons both Penny and Arthur. The film is quite ambiguous on this point, and so I leave it up to your interpretation on exactly what is going on here, but suffice it to say, just the idea of it would certainly contribute to Arthur’s coming unhinged. Phoenix is excellent in this film allowing Fleck’s struggles to feel very real and human. His decisions, as radical as they are, all come from a raw and authentic place within the character that Phoenix is able to capture and put on display in a very captivating way.

Phoenix as Joker
Joaquin Phoenix as ‘Joker.’

Joker as a film also does an excellent job of pitting this dynamic individual against a society that is crumbling into chaos and compartmentalizing into a vastly unsettling class struggle. There is no need to underscore the parallels director Todd Phillips is attempting to draw between Gotham and say New York City. The rich are getting richer, the poor are being underserved and beaten down. Fleck simply wants his chance at the American dream, but the more he looks around, the more he notices that the dream is not attained, it’s taken by whoever wants it most by whatever means – which in itself distorts the “American Dream” into something entirely different. You can be rich and famous in America if you’re lucky enough to have it already or if you’re bold enough to destroy others to get it. Jesus Christ – that’s a scary thought! Fleck’s one dream is to be a stand-up comedian and perform for his favorite late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). The film wisely frames the film’s climax on this notion, and what transpires is compelling and profoundly unsettling. Not because it is necessarily “shocking” but because of what it does to us as viewers who will no doubt be feeling a variety of conflicting emotions by the end – all worth examining.

The film does wind up in some familiar territory at the end that on its surface feels a bit unnecessary; however, when reflecting on the film as a whole, and depending on where you sit on certain interpretations of events, the significance of the film’s final scene is quite subjective. Joker is at its worst, a conversation piece, and at its best the most socially significant American film released this year.  A-

Joker is Rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 2 minutes.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

BirdmanDirector: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Writer: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifinakis

The “critic” is somewhat eviscerated in the new film Birdman. At the risk of seeming gauche, I will review it anyway!

Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be a household name, but the man has had some tremendous success with films like Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel which was nominated for 6 Oscars in 2007. All of those films feature separate events and storylines that entwine to bring multiple unlikely characters together. In his new film, Birdman, Iñárritu takes a sort of departure from that format to follow one central character in his personal search for glory.

Michael Keaton pays Riggan Tompson, a former Hollywood star, famous for playing Birdman in a successful trilogy of superhero films from the 1990s. Tompson’s career has dried up since then, but he hopes that by producing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play of his own adaptation, he will once again feel relevant.

The film follows Tompson seemingly through one uninterrupted shot as he handles the pressures, complications, and stresses of live theater as the production courses its way from rehearsals, to previews, and ultimately to opening night. Whether it’s the battle of egos between himself and co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) or the battle of emotions between Tompson and his assistant/recovering addict/daughter Sam (Emma Stone), Tompson clearly has his hands full. He also has everything riding on this production and Iñárritu communicates this with a frantic energy that results in a film as unpredictable and erratic as the jazzy score that accompanies it.

Fittingly, this film about actors acting happens to have some great acting. Keaton easily surpasses the initial, shallow Batman comparisons and makes Tompson’s struggle relatable. Emma Stone is biting and angsty as Tompson’s daughter, and Zach Galifinakis makes the most of his screentime by downplaying is normal persona. Also great are Edward Norton and Naomi Watts who act as foils to one another in terms of their perspectives on being career actors.

Birdman is a captivating film from start to finish. Stylistically, its long, choreographed shots sweep the viewer into Tompson’s world. Iñárritu expertly uses the medium of film to emphasize the often overlooked majesty and tension of theater, in essence earning the film’s subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” We are delighted to be reminded of the pitfalls and trappings of performance art, especially since audiences are often only privy to the final, polished product.

But Birdman is not just a film about ignorance, nor is it just a film about reclaiming glory. Birdman is mostly about perception. In one scene, an ego-maniacal Edward Norton says to Keaton, “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” This resonates with Keaton as his dilemma seems to be between those two very things – the popularity he experienced in his past and the prestige that comes with being viewed as relevant in the eyes of those he cares for. This quest for relevance is truly where the movie excels, and it is the key to unlocking the truth of the film’s final scene. Birdman is a triumph of the art form and is certainly one of the most ambitious movies of the year.  A

Birdman is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 59 minutes.

The Dark Knight Rises

Dark Knight RisesDirector: Christopher Nolan

Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman

The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to one of the strongest trilogies in cinema history. There is so much to appreciate in this film. The menacing tone that lies beneath the surface of Gotham City is felt for all of its 165 minutes. Rises is set eight years after The Dark Knight. Gotham has cleaned up its act due to the events surrounding the false-martyrdom of the fallen “white knight,” Harvey Dent. Nolan uses this perfect atmosphere to resurrect (from the Lazarus pit?) a brilliantly executed return of the League of Shadows helmed by the extremely effective new villain, Bane. The historically epic mission of Ra’s Al Ghul is not complete, and so the battle over mankind’s capacity for redemption wages on. While the plot is engaging, and in my opinion – the best of the three, there is little use discussing it here. Film goers should avoid knowing much else about the events of this movie; in fact a “clean slate” is quite desirable for both the characters on the screen and the viewers in front of it.

Nolan may be slightly criticized for following a bit of a formula for his ambitious and ultra anticipated conclusion to his Batman series, but what a formula! Nolan introduces multiple new characters and effortlessly crafts his story in a way that gives them all their own moments, leaving us wanting even more and perhaps even a tear in our eyes. Veterans Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman each shine bright and make way as Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, and Tom Hardy join the impressive cast along side our central hero portrayed once again with fervor by Christian Bale. I think, taken as a whole, what Christopher Nolan can by most proud of is that he has captured the attention of a massive audience and taught them that escapist entertainment can be thoughtful and precise. He may present some of this grandiose and complex content in a simplified and somewhat self-important/preachy way, but he achieves his grand design of getting us all thinking about our own morality, our limits, and our duties. This is miles beyond what any other so-called “comic book” movie has achieved or has even been capable of so far. I am excited to see where Nolan takes his journey from here and I hope he continues to deepen his material and his relationships with this core group of actors. A

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