JOKER (2019) – The Most Believable Joker Story Yet

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The best part about JOKER (2019) is it’s more than just a movie about a comic book character.

Much more.

With its origin story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the man who would go on to become Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker, JOKER is less interested in telling the official Joker origin tale than it is in making his story believable. And that really is the strength of this movie. It painstakingly paints a portrait of a man who by the time everything is said and done, is completely believable.  The audience understands and knows exactly where the character is coming from. It’s by far the most sympathetic portrayal of the Joker on the big screen yet.

The film also has some things to say about society as a whole.

Arthur Fleck lives in Gotham City in a crummy apartment with his mother Penny (Frances Conroy). But don’t expect a cartoonish comic book setting. No, Gotham here in the 1980s resembles the gritty cityscape of a Martin Scorsese movie. Fleck works as a clown, and he wants to be a comedian, and his only goal in life seems to be the desire to make people laugh. Trouble is, he’s not terribly good at it.

He also has mental health issues, sees a case worker regularly, and is on seven different medications. Eventually he learns that due to budget cuts these services will be eliminated. When he asks how he will get his meds, the only answer he receives is silence. Now, there have been grumblings, criticisms, about the sympathetic portrayal of the Joker in this movie, but it’s important to remember that the character as depicted here suffers from mental illness. He’s an unhinged individual who needs help, and without that help, he’s not really responsible for his actions. And the film makes clear that even with that help, the system was failing him. Arthur complains to his social worker that she never listens to him and that she doesn’t really know him or his problems, and this seems to be true.

He gets jumped and beat up on the job, and as he says, people and society seem to be getting uglier and uglier. Eventually, as you would imagine, he snaps, and no, he doesn’t suddenly become a criminal mastermind, but he does become violent, doesn’t feel regret or remorse, and because society around him is also feeling left out from the “haves,” the people with wealth, people like Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who of course is Bruce Wayne’s father, Arthur becomes the face of their movement to rebel against society. It’s not something he wants, but it happens.

When you finish watching JOKER, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll say, “Yup, that’s how a guy would become the Joker.” It’s the most realistic and sympathetic portrayal of a character who in the past has mostly been portrayed as an over-the-top comic book villain. JOKER is saying not so fast. This guy exists in the real world, in the here and now. And it completely makes its case.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a masterful Oscar-worthy performance as the title character. There no doubt will be comparisons to the other famous Joker portrayals, Jack Nicholson in BATMAN (1989) and Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). Before this movie my personal favorite was easily Ledger. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my pick for the best superhero movie ever made, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is the main reason why.

I still prefer Ledger as the Joker, but Joaquin Phoenix here in JOKER does something that no one before him has ever done. He makes you believe that such a person is real and not someone who only belongs in a comic book. That’s something pretty special to accomplish.

Phoenix has always been a special actor, playing a wide array of characters and generally being convincing in all of them. Here, he lost nearly fifty pounds for the role, and he looks eerily thin and frightening. And that’s the thing. As sympathetic as he is as Arthur Fleck, he’s no less scary and unnerving. I absolutely loved his performance.

And it’s a good thing, because he’s in nearly every scene in the movie. It sinks or swims with Phoenix. He easily carries this movie and dominates throughout.

The supporting cast is serviceable but barely noticeable because of Phoenix’s mesmerizing performance.  But they’re all very good. Only Robert De Niro seems a bit miscast as late night talk show host Murray Franklin, a character that Arthur is obsessed with. He dreams about appearing on Murray’s show, and later, when this becomes a reality, it’s not quite the way he imagined it.

De Niro’s casting is interesting here, since this subplot hearkens back to the Scorsese movie THE KING OF COMEDY (1982) in which De Niro played a deranged man named Rupert Pupkin obsessed with late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). But here in JOKER, as much as I like De Niro, he just didn’t seem like the late night talk show host type.

JOKER was directed by Todd Phillips, a director mostly known for his comedies, especially the three HANGOVER movies. There’s nothing funny about JOKER. Phillips does a phenomenal job.

He also co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver, a screenwriter with some solid credits under his belt. Silver co-wrote THE FIGHTER (2010), a superior drama starring Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Christian Bale, and he co-wrote THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated period piece rescue mission drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck.

Another fascinating aspect of JOKER is it puts its own stamp on the Batman origin story. Thomas Wayne is not a likable character here, and his death as shown in this movie looks very different from the way its been shown in previous movies, through the emotional eyes of a young Bruce Wayne. Furthermore, the connection between Arthur and the Wayne family adds further layers to what would later become the feud between the Joker and Batman.

Pretty much everything about JOKER works, from the acting, to the writing, to the music score, everything about this one screams authentic.

The world is an ugly place. There are the haves and the have nots, and the haves really don’t give a care about the have nots. And when the have nots have had enough, they rebel.

Arthur Fleck reaches the point where he’s had enough. And when he strikes back, he finds that he enjoys it, and better yet for him, he not only gets away with it, but becomes the face of a movement from fellow have-nots who are feeling the same way.

That’s not to say that the film is preaching rebellion. It’s not. It’s simply telling a story, a story that is perfectly framed by a quote which Arthur writes in his journal: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

Arthur Fleck has a mental illness. No one he interacts with acknowledges this. Society’s answer is a disinterested social worker and lots of pills, and eventually, even these are taken away because the haves no longer want to fund them. He’s been pushed around, beaten, fired from his job, suffered abuse as a child, and now he finds himself the face of an underground movement. For the first time in his life he’s being noticed. And it feels good.

It’s a story that could be told in the here and now, in 2019, as society faces the same dilemmas and offers the same useless solutions.

And we wonder why the Arthur Flecks of the world become Jokers.

That’s the true strength of this movie.

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HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) – Dark Action Tale Hearkens Back to Films of John Carpenter

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Dave Bautista and Jodie Foster in HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018).

The hardest thing for me to wrap my head around in HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018), the new futuristic action movie by writer/director Drew Pearce, is Jodie Foster playing “a little old lady.”

But other than this— and Foster nails the role by the way—I liked HOTEL ARTEMIS just fine.

It’s 2028 Los Angeles, and the people are rioting because an evil company has shut down the city’s water supply.  It seems that in 2028 if you’re poor you’re not getting access to water.  At the same time, a bank heist goes awry, and two brothers make their way to the Hotel Artemis, a secret hospital that treats criminals run by the Nurse (Jodie Foster) and her right hand man Everest (Dave Bautista). The two brothers, like everyone else inside, are given code names, generally the names of the rooms in which they are treated.  In this case it’s Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown) and his younger brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry).

It’s a volatile place, as the riots are exploding on the outside, and inside everyone is a dangerous criminal. To make matters more complicated, one of the patients Nice (Sofia Boutella) is an assassin and is there to take out a target, and the mob king of Los Angeles, the Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum) is also on his way there seeking treatment.

All of this sets the stage for an action-packed conclusion that, while hardly original, is generally satisfying.

HOTEL ARTEMIS is the type of futuristic action tale that John Carpenter would have directed in his heyday, and while not as creative as a John Carpenter movie, it’s still a heck of a lot of fun.  It reminded me a bit of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

Drew Pearce makes his directorial debut here with HOTEL ARTEMIS, and while it’s not a spectacular debut, it’s still an impressive one. I liked the pace, the dark look of the film, and the action scenes were decent enough. The story also builds to an exciting climax, and the characters, while not really all that developed, are lively enough to keep the audience interested.

Judging by the extremely small audience I saw this one with— there were perhaps six of us in the theater— I’m guessing it’s struggling at the box office, which is too bad, because I thought it was a lot of fun.  It seems to have been largely overshadowed by the well-received horror movie HEREDITARY (2018), but truth be told, I enjoyed HOTEL ARTEMIS more.

The story is pretty straightforward and rather simplistic, and the dialogue isn’t going to win any awards, but I thought it had its moments. Writer/director Drew Pearce previously wrote the screenplay for IRON MAN 3 (2013), a film I liked, and that screenplay was probably a tad better than this one.

The strongest thing HOTEL ARTEMIS has going for it is its cast. I loved Jodie Foster in her “little old lady role” as The Nurse. She gets the best lines in the film, and her performance is spot on.

I also liked the chemistry she shared with Dave Bautista’s Everest, and I thought their scenes together were the best in the movie.  I’ve enjoyed Bautista in nearly every movie I’ve seen him in, from his villainous Hinx in the James Bond flick SPECTRE (2015) to his brief bit in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) to of course his very memorable portrayal of Drax in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies. Bautista is definitely one of the highlights of HOTEL ARTEMIS. His soft-spoken style provides perfect balance to his sculptured behemoth physique.

But the best performance in the movie belongs to Sterling K. Brown who plays the main protagonist Waikiki, the brother with all the plans, whose life keeps being stalled by his careless younger brother, but since they’re brothers Waikiki refuses to leave him behind. We just saw Brown as part of the cast of BLACK PANTHER (2017), and he’s currently on the TV show THIS IS US (2016-2018). I especially remember Brown for his portrayal of Christopher Darden on AMERICAN CRIME STORY (2016).  Brown is excellent here.

Sofia Boutella dazzles as sexy assassin Nice, just as she had done in STAR TREK: BEYOND (2016), ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) and the dreadful THE MUMMY (2017). While her role as Jaylah in STAR TREK: BEYOND remains my personal favorite, she’s pretty darn good here and is right up there with Brown, Foster, and Bautista.

Speaking of STAR TREK, Zachary Quinto, who plays Mr. Spock in the rebooted movie series, is also in the cast, but it’s a thankless role as the Wolf King’s son Crosby Franklin. The character is pretty useless, and strangely it’s pretty much a waste of Quinto’s talent.

And I thought Jeff Goldblum was miscast at the Wolf King. He doesn’t appear until halfway through the movie, and after so much build up as to how powerful, cold-hearted, and villainous this guy was, I hardly expected to see him look like Jeff Goldblum. An intellectual Wolf King? I expected someone like Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, or even Jeffrey Dean Morgan. But Goldblum? Didn’t really work for me.

In a smaller role, Charlie Day enjoys some fine moments as a big-mouthed arms dealer with the code name Acapulco.

HOTEL ARTEMIS plays like a 1980s John Carpenter movie only without Carpenter’s flair for the cinematic. Still, writer/director Drew Pearce does a commendable job here and has made a film that in spite of its straightforward, simple, and even predictable storyline, is still a heck of a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy your action films dark.

It also has an effective music score by Cliff Martinez that adds to the atmosphere of riot-ravaged Los Angeles. And while his score is not as memorable as his work on THE NEON DEMON (2016) or DRIVE (2011), it’s still pretty darn good.

HOTEL ARTEMIS is also Jodie Foster’s first screen role since ELYSIUM (2013), and I enjoyed her performance in HOTEL ARTEMIS much more than in that 2013 Matt Damon sci-fi flick.

If you’re in the mood for a fun action-packed popcorn movie, and if you don’t mind your action dark and gloomy, check out HOTEL ARTEMIS.

You’ll definitely enjoy your stay.

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GONE GIRL (2014) – Exceptional Adult Thriller

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Gone-Girl-2014-film-posterMovie Review: GONE GIRL (2014)

By Michael Arruda

I had originally planned to review GONE GIRL solo for Cinema Knife Fight and post the review here on this blog as well, but then L.L. Soares decided he’d like to see the movie too, since he’s a big fan of director David Fincher, and so we reviewed the movie as a Cinema Knife Fight column, which will be posted this weekend.

However, I had penciled in today’s date as the time I would post the GONE GIRL review on this blog.  To honor that schedule, and to avoid spoiling our Cinema Knife Fight column, I’ve decided to post an abbreviated review of GONE GIRL.

Be sure to check out the more extensive review after midnight on Sunday October 12 at cinemaknifight.com.

GONE GIRL is director David Fincher’s latest movie, the story of a man whose wife disappears under suspicious circumstances, and as a result, he becomes the prime suspect in the crime.

The movie opens with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) visiting his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) at The Bar, a bar which the two of them own, and over a drink they commiserate over Nick’s wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), so right off the bat we get the sense that all is not well with Nick and his wife.

When Nick returns home, he finds that his wife is not there, and there’s a glass table that has been knocked over and shattered, and it’s just weird enough to raise a red flag. Nick calls the police, and responding to the call are Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit).  When they discover traces of blood at the scene, Boney calls in her crime unit, and when word gets out that Amy has disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and Nick seems to be overly relaxed in front of the media, the accusations begin to fly.

The question on everyone’s mind is: where is Amy Dunne, and did Nick kill her or didn’t he?  And that’s as far as I want to go in discussing the plot, because the less said about the plot of GONE GIRL the better.

Ben Affleck is very good here as Nick Dunne in an understated performance. Affleck portrays Nick as man who doesn’t always react in the way others think he should, and it’s difficult to gauge whether he’s being manipulative or simply boneheaded.  As a result, he’s always on the defensive, and the media eats him alive.

The best performance in the movie belongs to Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne. I’ve seen Pike in other movies, but this might be my favorite role of hers so far.  Pike makes Amy an even more complicated and intricate character than her husband.  They are one of the more intriguing movie couples I’ve seen in a while.

Nearly as good as Affleck and Dunne is Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister Margo. Margo is the one who seems to have a level head on her shoulders, and she is constantly trying to help her brother, but it’s a frustrating and losing battle as she’s out of her league when dealing with the likes of Amy and her brother.  Coon is terrific in the role.

Kim Dickens makes Detective Rhonda Boney a refreshingly smart character not bound by the clichés of the police detectives in the movies. She actually shows a lot of restraint when the media has already tried and convicted Nick, but she refuses to arrest him until she finds more evidence.

One of the best things about GONE GIRL is that three of the best characters in the movie, in terms of acting and writing, are women.  This doesn’t happen in the movies very often.

Tyler Perry makes his mark as hotshot defense attorney Tanner Bolt, and like Detective Boney, Attorney Bolt is not your typical cliché movie lawyer. He finds the whole story of Nick and Amy fascinating and seems entertained by the whole ordeal, and while he continually gives Nick solid and truthful counsel, you get the feeling he’d rather be booking his client on an episode of Dr. Phil.

Neil Patrick Harris plays Desi Collings, a man from Amy’s past, who she once accused of stalking her. He plays a key role in the story, and Harris does a nice job making him weird and sad at the same time.

GONE GIRL is an exceptionally well-made movie by director David Fincher.  He’s made a lot of movies, and GONE GIRL ranks near the top.

Fincher also serves as Executive Producer to the hit TV show HOUSE OF CARDS on Netflix, and I saw some similarities between the powerful political couple on HOUSE OF CARDS played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and Nick and Amy in this movie.  They’re obviously quite different characters in terms of personalities and social status, but they both share an almost pathological obsession with their mates which transcend the usual boundaries for husbands and wives in television and the movies.  Nick and Amy are like Francis and Claire Underwood without the political ambitions and with more time on their hands.

GONE GIRL is a very dark movie that will make you feel like you need a shower to wash off the grime once you leave the theater.  There is one very shocking brutal scene that is more disturbing than the majority of “shock” scenes usually found in the traditional Hollywood horror movie.

The film boasts an excellent screenplay by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel of the same name. The characters are fleshed out, and even better, the plot is refreshingly original and keeps you guessing all the way to the end.

 GONE GIRL is an intensely satisfying movie that works on nearly every level, and if you prefer dark movies, you’ll especially love this one.

—Remember to check out the full Cinema Knife Fight review at cinemanknifefight.com this weekend!—

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