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.

The Wolf of Wall Street

ImageIn 1986, a young People’s Critic was playing with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, reading Spiderman comics, and watching Knight Rider; meanwhile The Wolf of Wall Street suggests that there was an entirely different story of the 1980s to tell.  Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio collaborate for the fifth time and the result is their most polarizing effort by far, but also DiCaprio’s greatest performance of his career.

Last year at this exact time, I made quite a bit of noise about Leonardo DiCaprio’s sneaky but brilliant performance as Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  This year, I will make even more noise about his turn as Wall Street stockbroker, Jordan Belfort.  The film depicts the rise and inevitable fall of Belfort after he gets a taste of what the high life is like and never stops wanting more.

That “taste” comes in the form of an early scene in the film.  In it, Belfort the naïve intern meets the senior partner of his firm (Matthew McConaughey) for lunch.  Here Belfort is seemingly learning the ropes from a guy who’s been around for a while, but on second look Belfort is actually staring his future self right in the face.  McConaughey fiercely and skillfully poisons and corrupts Belfort but leaves him dazzled and impressed.  He sells Belfort just like another client, setting the wheels in motion for the “wolf” to rear its head.  When his brokerage closes after Black Monday in 1987, Belfort recruits a band of like-minded sleezeballs and opens his own brokerage firm called Stratton-Oakmont.  With consciences checked at the door and a script of Belfort’s own design, Stratton Oakmont prays on the rich and the poor, selling worthless “penny stocks” and reaping commissions hand over fist.  Belfort’s partner in crime, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), represents the “Greed is good” adage from Wall Street to precision.  Together the two cut a swath through the financial market and find themselves absurdly wealthy and yet impossibly insatiable. Balfort symbolically leaves stability behind when he leaves his  kind and caring wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti) for sexpot, Naomi (Margot Robbie).

While clearly a Scorsese film, the director’s presence from a technical standpoint is rather restrained.  He fills the frame with decadence, debauchery, and dishonesty, but never has he relied on his actors to make a film work as much as he does here.  Fortunately, they are up to the task, but this circumstance is why The Wolf of Wall Street is not the classic Scorsese film that it could have been.  Nonetheless, like all other Scorsese films, the plot is nothing but a mode at which to create a commentary on a deeper subtext.  Belfort’s story is used as a way for the filmmaker to tell a story about intoxication, greed, and the destruction of the American fabric.  He does all of this with a playful tone however, which is what gives the film such energy!  The irreverence of this film is impossible to capture into words and that’s exactly what Scorsese intended.  With a running time of three hours, it is clear that Scorsese did not want to shy away from the bacchanalian excess that plays such a large part in the film.  At the risk of hitting the audience over the head with this fact, the drug of choice for most characters is the “lude” (short for Quaalude), which tenaciously reflects the conduct of everyone in this film.  In one scene, high on ludes, DiCaprio has lost all sense of mobility and yet must crawl, writhe, and tumble his way to his Ferrari in the hopes to then drive home and stop Donnie from revealing money laundering evidence into a tapped phone.  This scene is one of only a few characteristically Scorsese scenes, and for DiCaprio it is particularly impressive.  Never has DiCaprio been more physical, comedic, energetic, and kinetically charged than he is in this film.  Jay Gatsby would literally implode after one second in Jordan Belfort’s shoes.

In a montage towards the end set to the Lemonheads cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” the line “Every way you look at it, you lose,” critically suggests that the intoxication of the previous 150 minutes is beginning to ware off.  We have a moment to finally catch our breaths after the yachts, the mansions, the sex, the money, and the helicopters are all out of sight and we are amazed at what we’ve witnessed.  
After an Academy member premier of the film, a screenwriter very publically shouted, “Shame on you!” at the legendary director.  Accordingly, I witnessed several people walk out of the screening that I was in. Certainly, the world DiCaprio and Scorsese explore this time around is fearlessly audacious.  Nonetheless, the film is based on Belfort’s own memoir, and the screenplay is co-written by the man who wrote and produced The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, Terence Winter.  Those shows and this film all have the united goal of exploring morally bankrupt people who fill that void with the greatest drug of all, money.  Our society is badly hooked on this drug and as good as we are at hiding the evidence of what greed has done to us, stories like The Wolf of Wall Street serve as reminders, reminders that make some filmgoers uncomfortable.  Still, as much of a fan as I am of this film, I submit that The Wolf of Wall Street is Goodfellas-Lite: Henry Hill enters stock market.  I think a 5 and ½ hour American nightmare double feature is in my future!  A-

The Wolf of Wall Street is rated R and has a running time of 3 hours.  Look out for many recognizable faces in supporting roles including the real life Jordan Belfort.  This film is packed to the brim – there is so much to discuss and mention, but this review is long enough! 
Also, prepare yourself for that ‘ludes’ Ferrari scene, it’s phenomenal!