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.

Man of Steel

Image“Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way…” But what lead to all of this? That’s the question director, Zack Snyder attempts to answer in the latest treatment of “the last son of Krypton,” Man of Steel.

It has been 75 years since Superman first appeared in 1938’s Action Comics’ premier issue. Since then, the character has starred in countless comics, TV shows, and movies. Yet, with Man of Steel, Superman’s sixth cinematic appearance, most of the buzz revolved around Christopher Nolan’s involvement with the project. Nolan, most known as the director of the remarkable Dark Knight trilogy, teamed up with his Dark Knight series co-writer, David S. Goyer to write the screenplay for Man of Steel. Nolan and Goyer successfully revitalized the Batman franchise by making it edgy, making it smart, and taking a fresh take on a familiar story. Thus, the hopes are that they were able to do the same to DC Comic’s most popular hero, Superman. Man of Steel, unfortunately, does not quite deliver the goods.

The film opens on Krypton as the doomed planet is self-destructing after its inhabitants have mined the nutrients of its core, causing a full on apocalypse. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Laura decide to place their newborn son, Kal-El in a capsule headed for Earth in the hopes that he will know a better life and continue a form of the Kryptonian line of people. Kal-El is, of course discovered and raised by Kansas farmers, The Kents where he is famously renamed “Clark.” Conflict arrives when Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives on Earth searching for Kal-El as part of his mission to obliterate man-kind in a genocidal plot to repopulate Earth with pure Kryptonians.

Man of Steel sets out to offer a different tone than is usually found in a Superman film. Henry Cavill’s performance as the title character is far more serious, insightful, and raw than any previous Superman. Additionally, this is the most violent Superman film to date, proliferated with tragedy and destruction. Director, Snyder does offer a fresh take on the well-known origin story with a non-linear timeline that bounces back and forth through Superman’s first 33 years on Earth. He also, gives audiences a lengthier glimpse at Krypton than found in previous films. The non-traditional timeline works very well, preventing the film from hitting snags as the character grows. Instead, audiences are able to see Superman earlier with a peppering of flashbacks to add context to his story. With all of this being said, the film lacks the edge and intelligence necessary to allow it to, well, soar. The opening sequence on Krypton is a welcomed change, but the planet is already experiencing so much unrest that it is hard to believe these alien people are anything but flawed and miserable. In fact, this scene introduces a sort of Brave New World motif where choice has been bred out of Krypton, and society chooses the fate of all inhabitants. The screenplay opts for simplicity over complexity, which forces the film into a brainless extended action scene for the final hour; a scene that puts the “never-ending” in the “never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Coupled with these extended action scenes is Snyder’s shooting technique. He uses a lot of shaky, hand-held camera shots, which do become strenuous at times.

Perhaps the most major missed opportunity is the weak exploration of young Kal-El’s/Clark Kent’s struggles as an alien in a strange world. While Snyder does explore this, he does so in a fashion that merely glosses over the surface. Scene’s involving Superman’s youth are far too underdeveloped and border on stereotypical. Furthermore, the fun and the romance that are expected from a Superman story are in short supply in Man of Steel. Instead, this reboot attempts to ground a movie about alien superpeople living and battling on Earth in some sort of reality, which is a bit preposterous.

The casting is certainly the film’s major strength. Cavill is, of course, an excellent choice for Superman. He looks the part and has great presence on the screen. Amy Adams gives a performance as Lois Lane that veers far from her just being a silly girl getting into trouble all of the time, and Michael Shannon gives another full-tilt-crazy performance as Zod. Other familiar minor characters are also well cast including Laurance Fishburne as Perry White and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Ma and Pa Kent.

All together, Man of Steel shows promise, but mostly for what is yet to come. Warner Brothers has already green-lit a sequel that will be fast-tracked to release before 2015’s Justice League. Man of Steel feels like a bloated set-up piece to what promises to be a far more superior sequel. B-

Man of Steel is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes. The film was post-converted to 3-D, however there are some exciting sequences that are enhanced by the conversion. Nonetheless, 2-D is recommended and there is no stinger after the credits, so feel free to go home if you’re not interested in who the 2nd assistant sound editor was.