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.

Shazam!

shazam!Director: David S. Sandberg

Screenwriters: Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke

Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou, and John Glover

A weird thing is happening with mainstream cinema right now. We are now fully saturated with superhero films. It is undeniable. Usually, when this level of inundation occurs in a pop culture medium, fatigue sets in, and another trend emerges. Oddly enough, seven superhero-related films had major releases in 2018, and at least ten more are slated to come out in the 2019 calendar year, demonstrating that fatigue is not setting in, and in fact with Avengers: Endgame predicted to break all box office records, we have not even reached the pinnacle of this superhero-film era.

Why might that be? Well, for starters, unlike many movie fads, the superhero genre has proven to be quite versatile. These films have broad reach and audience appeal from absurd to intense, to adult-themed, to even awards-caliber social commentary. But even more than that, the most successful of them have wit, charm, and charisma that carries them and allows them to massively engage in the original purpose of cinema: Escapist entertainment. Shazam!, the latest offering from the DC Extended Universe, is the latest of superhero fare and represents everything that works for the genre as well as the finest achievement so far in the DCEU.

Shazam! is like Big meets Home Alone, so allow that to sink in before you proceed. It also knows it is like Big meets Home Alone and lets you know it knows. That being said, it is not stale nor does it lean on preconception. The gist is that in an alternative dimension, a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) is tasked with restraining the seven deadly sins’ influence on Earth. With his powers growing weak, he must find a new champion who is pure of heart to replace him before his powers fade, and the sins are released from their captivity. His search spans many years, once nearly selecting a young boy named Thaddeus Sivana (Ethan Pugiotto), but finding his heart to not be worthy. This dismissal by the wizard sparks a maniacal 45-year pursuit. As an adult, Sivana (now played by Mark Strong) seeks to discover the wizard’s hidden realm and take the power for himself. The good news is that the wizard finds his new champion in a foster kid named Billy Batson (Asher Angel), charging him with the power to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) simply by calling the name Shazam and with the ultimate goal of protecting Earth from the seven sins. Unfortunately, the wizard is not able to fend off Sivana, and he is able to transform into the sins’ vessel and harness their power, which he plans to yield maliciously, of course.

Now the table is set for a battle of good and evil between Shazam! and Sivana, who wants Shazam’s power for himself. Nothing really to write home about. However, the conflict is not the magic of Shazam!. Few, if any, superhero films so far have succeeded in capturing the cultural identity that comic books represent to the generations who grew up with them. Shazam, however is an exception. The true accomplishment of Shazam is how effortlessly and flawlessly it showcases the majesty, hopefulness, and glee that this style of fantasy has on our imagination. Much of this is accomplished through the chemistry between Billy/Shazam and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Their scenes together make the movie, and fortunately, about 80% of the movie is focused on their exploits together, navigating the tricky world of becoming a superhero. Levi has been on my radar for years, having been a big fan of the NBC series Chuck, and even though he has been consistently working since that show went off the air, he still had not found that break-out role that showcased his talents. That is no longer the case. Zachary Levi has a tremendous amount of fun in this role, and his performance elevates the movie to being truly enjoyable whenever he’s on the screen.

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I mentioned that about 80% of the movie is focused on our heroes, but unfortunately, that means that the other 20% is focused on our villain. For some reason, the DCEU is still struggling with the whole villain thing. Mark Strong does his best with what he’s given to play Dr. Sivana. While menacing, evil and fixated on chaos, the old tropes of daddy-issues fueling an absurd quest for power for the sake of aimless revenge is tired and uninspired. Sivana sits somewhere between General Zod and Steppenwolf in the DCEU villain hierarchy.

Shazam! does manage to avoid one common pitfall of new superhero movies, and that’s delivering an origin story that is not dull, mediocre, and contrived. Writers Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke were able to access the source material in such a way that everything feels fresh about the journey to becoming Shazam. Shazam! shows us (as well as DC) that we all do in fact have a fun and inspired superhero inside of us. B+

Shazam! is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes. There are two post-film sequences; one mid-credits, and the other post-credits. The first is plot-based, but the second is just played for laughs.

Wonder Woman (2017)

wwDirector: Patty Jenkins

Screenwriter: Allen Heinberg

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, and David Thewlis

It was inevitable that some movie in the Detective Comics Extended Universe would eventually get it right. It wasn’t Man of Steel, it wasn’t Batman v. Superman, and it definitely wasn’t Suicide Squad. Did I think it would be Wonder Woman? No, but it was. Regardless, whatever it was, that particular film would be laden with praise far better than it deserves simply because it’s the film that stopped the DC bleeding. That’s the case with Wonder Woman. A fine film, but not to the degree that its being touted.

We open in modern day with an established Diana (Gal Gadot), working in her office at the Louvre, when she receives a curious brief case courtesy of Wayne Enterprises. Within is the original photo of the image Wayne (Ben Affleck) uncovered of Diana and a group of soldiers posing for a picture in war-torn Belgium mid World War II. With the photo, Wayne enclosed a note hoping to be able to sit down and hear the story that lead to this photo someday. Fortunately for us, that day is today, as the film flashes back to the War-era 1940s on a mysterious Mediterranean island populated with god-like Amazon women training as warriors.

The isolated island is hidden from all other people of Earth and is so protected that all inhabitants are unaware of the World War going on around them. Diana, now a child runs through the training areas, locking eyes with Antiope (Robin Wright), General to the warriors who seems to see some potential in young Diana that her sister, Diana’s mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) seems to be ignoring. While Hippolyta’s goal is to protect her daughter, the fact has not escaped Diana that she is the only child on the island and it is clear Hippolyta and Antiope know why, and it has something to do with the why their mysterious island remains hidden from the world of man. Diana, however sides with Hippolyta on the matter and eventually Antiope agrees to allow her sister to train Diana on the condition that she train her harder than any warier she’d ever trained previously.

The world of man does not stay hidden for long, however. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) American CIA agent working for British intelligence posing as a Nazi crashes his plane and Diana, now grown, witnesses it and rushes to his rescue. What she doesn’t know is that Trevor is being pursued by the Germans and by rescuing Trevor, she leads the Germans right to her home. The ensuing battle between her Amazon warrior race and the pursuing Nazis introduces her to the conflict in the outside world, and with Trevor, she decides to leave home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.

There’s actually quite a bit to this movie, not in terms of complication, but in terms of its reach; think Captain America meets Thor meets Elf. In the end, Wonder Woman is more successful at what it represents than of what it actually is. As I mentioned in my opening, the first DC movie to strike a chord with audiences and critics will receive enhanced accolades. Wonder Woman represents a change in course. It is funny, heartfelt, romantic, and exciting. None of these adjectives can be used to describe the previous DCEU films. Furthermore, this disconnectedness in tone is further illustrated  by the film’s execution. This is a stand-alone film in every way. There are no pandering cameos or obvious Easter egg plot points to lessen the film’s impact. Wonder Woman strikes out to sink or swim on its own, and for the most part it swims just fine.

That’s not to say the film is not without its faults. There is a fairly forced thread involving the origin of Wonder Woman and her immortal Olympian ancestry, which paves the way for at least one too many villains for me. Villainy should have started and stopped with Elena Anaya’s haunting performance as Dr. “Poison” Maru. Furthermore, I have a little qualm with the film’s supposed message in combination with the history it presents, or shall I say decides not to present. I won’t say more, but it’s hard to ignore a certain historic event that does not play out in this film, which would certainly complicate its overall theme.

And then there’s the costume reveal, which came off kind of hokey, in my opinion. I costumeknow it’s a big deal, and I know it needs to happen in a big way, but as Diana trekked across “no man’s land” in her Stars and Stripes Amazon armor in slow motion, I was lost in in an female objectified patriotic feminist paradox! Later I would read that director Patty Jenkins did not change or reshoot a single scene for this film…except for this one. Which makes me wonder, what was it like before reshooting?

Still, this is an almost entirely satisfying, fresh, and enjoyable summer blockbuster.  The two main stars, Pine and Gadot, are terrific together, and finding Gadot for this role is an absolute miracle. She embodies the nearly 80 year history of the character brilliantly and will serve the character greatly in her various appearances in other DC films. Wonder Woman, while flawed, is a good time at the movies, which is all anyone is really hoping for in her next film as the Amazing Amazon, this fall’s Justice League, slated for November 17th. B+

Wonder Woman is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.