Joker (dir. by Todd Phillips)


JokerPosterWhen I used to play games like Vampire: The Masquerade, they had this disclaimer that said: “You are not really a Vampire. If you can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, you need to put this book down.”

I think the same can be said of Todd Phillips Joker, and it may be the source of a lot of the fear associated with it.

I believe the big fear that everyone has with Joker is that it’s going to incite people to violence and/or mimicry. It’s the same kind of fear that probably happened with films like Death Wish and Taxi Driver. It’s also the kind of thing that did happen with 1993’s The Program, a film that contained a scene with kids laying down in the middle of a busy road. Someone actually tried it, and ended up dying. As a result, people get a little nervous when Hollywood produces something that could lead to someone mimicking what they see on screen. In that sense, any film has the potential to have an idiot try it out, despite all of the warnings.

If that makes you in any way uncomfortable, the movie will be out on VOD in 3 months time, not a long wait. Still, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is easily worth the price of admission.

Looking past all that, Joker is actually very good. The Crow, The Dark Knight and Conan the Barbarian are comic book films, but are so serious that you wouldn’t really associate them with a comic unless you knew it beforehand. Joker falls into the same category for me. This might be a little off putting for some who are expecting a more “comic action” like performance along the lines of say, Batman Forever. It’s the kind of film where if you stripped the credits from it and sat someone down to watch it, they might not figure it all out until 3 quarters of the way in. It feels like just another film, save that happens to be dropped in Gotham City.

Joker is the story of Arthur Fleck, a man with a variant of Tourettes that causes him to laugh at inappropriate moments, among other issues. Working as a clown and hoping to become aThrough a series of events, Arthur falls and is pushed until he reaches a breaking point. That is the quickest way to explain Joker without divulging too much. Let’s focus on the particulars.

Todd Phillips’ direction is good here. We move from scene to scene with ease, and as far as I could tell, there didn’t appear to be any editing issues (which is more than what I can say with The Dark Knight). Gotham is a dark, gritty city, reminiscent of NYC during the late 70’s. The film also manages to make connections to DC Lore in some great ways, My only complaint there is that while it’s a city that could use the Batman, it wasn’t exactly screaming for help. Personally, I thought it would be better if you saw that Gotham had more issues of corruption or crime. Nothing bad, just a nitpick.

From a casting standpoint, Phoenix is the heart and soul of Joker. Having dropped some weight for the role, Phoenix throws himself fully into the role of a man trying to keep it together while his world slowly crumbles. Come awards season, I would be shocked if he wasn’t at least in talks for nominations. Between the moments of laughter, there’s a lot of pain being expressed. Granted, this isn’t entirely new to Joaquin Phoenix, who had a similar role in The Master, but he definitely takes it to some new levels here.

 

Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2) is okay here as a woman living in the same apartment complex as Arthur, but isn’t given too much to do here. The same could be said of Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), who plays Arthur’s mother, who tries to keep him on the right path. Robert DeNiro also stars as a late night tv show host who Arthur admires, which will remind some viewers of Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy. Of particular note is the score of the film, handled by Hildur Gudnadottir (Sicario: Day of the Soldado), which ties in nicely to every scene with its haunting themes.

If I had any problems with Joker, it would be that the film makes it sound like being a loner automatically qualifies you for crime. There are tons of people who prefer solitude to companionship (or at least in short doses).  It showcases both Mental Illness and firearms in such a way that could scare some audiences, suggesting that if you are medicated and stop, you will eventually cause someone some harm. If you own a gun, someone will probably be harmed. Having grown up around cops, guns, and family members with Bipolar Disorder, I don’t agree with that. This didn’t make the film bad in any way for me. In the context of the film, however, Joker is bound to raise some concerns.

Again, it’s mainly nitpicks, but for a story that shows the rise of a villain, it does work.  There’s nothing mystical about Joker’s rise, and perhaps that’s scarier than finding out he was irradiated by gamma rays or some other superpower. I will say that watching Phoenix have these strange moments of slow tai chi like movements had me wondering what was up with him. That was strange, indeed.

Joker is also a film that doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of action. If you’re expecting a major third-act action sequence, it’s not exactly there. As a dramatic piece, Joker excels at moving the story forward, and as someone who was originally tired of the idea of yet another Batman related story (with all of the heroes /villains DC has at their disposal), this film was quite the surprise.

Overall, Joker is definitely worth the watch for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, though if you’re not ready for it at the theatre, you can always wait for it on Digital / VOD.

 

Sundance Film Review: The Tale (dir by Jennifer Fox)


With this year’s Sundance Film Festival getting underway in Colorado, I’m going to be spending the next two weeks looking at some films that caused a stir at previous Sundances.  Today, I’m taking a look at 2018’s The Tale.

The Tale is all about memory.

Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern) is, as her mother (Ellen Burstyn) often reminds her, nearly fifty years old and childless.  She’s been engaged to the sensitive Martin (Common) for three years but she’s in no hurry to get married.  As for children — well, she decided a long time ago that she didn’t want to have children.  Jennifer is a documentarian and a teacher.  She not only records real life but she also teaches others how to do the same thing.  She makes films that, in the decades to come, will be used by future students of history who want to know what it was like to live in the late 20th and early 21st Century.  And yet, it’s her own history that Jennifer has never come to terms with.

When her mother comes across a school essay that a 13 year-old Jennifer once wrote about her relationship with her riding instructor, Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki), and her running coach, Bill (Jason Ritter), Jennifer dismisses her concerns.  As Jennifer explains it to Martin, her mother is just upset because Jennifer once had a boyfriend who was “older.”  Of course, that older boyfriend was in his 40s.  What’s obvious to everyone but Jennifer is that her coach took advantage of and raped her.  Jennifer, however, refuses to accept that.  She refers to the coach as being her “lover” and, more than a few times, she attempts to dismiss the whole topic by shrugging and saying, “It was the 70s.”

It’s not that Jennifer doesn’t realize the truth about what actually happened.  Laura Dern gives a fiercely intelligent performance as Jennifer, one that slowly and deliberately peels away at the layers of defensive protection that Jennifer has spent the past 35 years developing.  Jennifer knows what happened but she’s allowed her memory to cloud the reality of it, largely because that’s the only way that she could deal with the aftereffects of Bill’s sexual abuse.  When Jennifer thinks back to the summer that she spent with Mrs. G and Bill, she first sees herself as she was when she was 15 years old, curious and headstrong.  It’s only when Jennifer looks at a photograph that was taken that summer that she sees starts to see herself as she really was, an introverted and vulnerable 13 year-old (played by Isabelle Nelisse) who was groomed and abused by two predators.

As Jennifer investigates her past and finally begins to understand what really happened over the course of that summer, her memories begin to change.  Hazily-remembered conversations take on new meaning and she begins to understand that terrible truth between the looks that were often exchanged between Bill and Mrs. G.  At times, the older Jennifer finds herself interrogating her memories of Bill, Mrs. G, and even her younger self.  She demands to know how they could have done what they did and their answers leave you wondering whether you’re hearing what they would really say or if your just hearing what Jennifer would hope they would say.  When Jennifer talks to others who were around that summer, she’s shocked to learn that she wasn’t the only one who Bill abused and her insistence that she was Bill’s lover (as opposed to his victim) sounds more and more hollow.  When Jennifer finally does track down some of her abusers, you wonder if their somewhat confused reactions are due to guilt or if it’s possible that there were so many victims that they don’t even remember what they did to Jenny Fox.  And if they do remember, they seem to be either horrifically ignorant or curelly unconcerned about the consequences of their actions.

It’s a brave and powerful film, one that is made all the more disturbing by the fact that director and screenwriter Jennifer Fox is telling her own story.   At least year’s Sundance Film Festival, it premiered to acclaim and controversy.  There was also some surprise when, instead of securing a theatrical release, the film was instead sold to HBO.  At the time, there was a lot of concern that the film’s power would somehow be diluted as a result of playing on television as opposed to a big screen.  However, in hindsight, the small screen — with its unavoidable vulnerability — was the perfect place for this uncompromising and emotionally raw film.

The Tale is not an easy film to watch but it is an important one.  It’s a film for anyone who has ever struggled to come to terms with the past.  It’s both a reminder that you’re not alone and a warning to not ignore or laugh off your suspicions.  It’s also a good example of the type of film that probably would never have been discovered if not for Sundance.  There’s a lot of legitimate criticism that one can direct towards the Sundance Film Festival but occasionally, it does do what it’s supposed to do.

Shattered Politics #74: The Aviator (dir by Martin Scorsese)


The_Aviator_Poster

“The way of the future.” — Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Aviator (2004)

As I recently rewatched the 2004 best picture nominee, The Aviator, I realized that, in the film’s scheme of things, Ava Gardner was far more important than Katharine Hepburn.  (Or, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Kate Beckinsale’s Ava Gardner was far more important than Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn.)

Over the course of the film, both Hepburn and Gardner are involved with billionaire-turned aviator-turned film director Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio).  Throughout the film, Katherine is portrayed as being flighty, pretentious, and overdramatic.  There’s a lot of dark humor to the scene where Katherine breaks up with Howard, largely because Katharine is incapable of not acting as if she’s making a film.  Her every word is so carefully rehearsed that you have to agree when Howard says that she’s incapable of not giving a performance.  Ava, on the other hand, is always direct.  She has a sense of humor.  She has no trouble telling Howard off.  Whereas Katharine put on airs of being an incurable romantic, Ava tells Howard flat out that she doesn’t love him and is only using him to forward her career.

But, while Katharine Hepburn gets more screen time, it’s Ava Gardner who actually saves Howard’s business.  Towards the end of the film, after Howard has had a nervous breakdown and has locked himself in a hotel room, it’s Ava who suddenly shows up, cleans him, and dresses him.  She’s the one who gives Howard the strength to leave his room and to face down the corrupt senator (Alan Alda) who is investigating his business.

Of course, Howard Hughes is best known for once being the world’s richest recluse.  In the 1960s, Howard locked himself away in a hotel room in Las Vegas and spent the next decade laying naked in bed and watching television.  The Aviator doesn’t deal with this period of Howard’s life but it’s full of scenes where we catch glimpses of Howard’s future.  Throughout the film, we watch as Howard obsessively washes his hands.  We watch as he gives precise instructions on how even the simplest of tasks are to be accomplished.  We watch as he grows increasingly paranoid about the germ-filled outside world.  The film suggests that Howard’s obsessive compulsive disorder both served to make him a great engineer and a great filmmaker while, at the same time, ultimately destroying him.

The Aviator was the second film that DiCaprio made with Scorsese.  And, as bad as DiCaprio may have been in Gangs of New York, he’s absolutely brilliant in The Aviator.  As a character, Howard Hughes has so many quirks and tics that it would have been easy for DiCaprio to go overboard.  Instead, he gives a surprisingly subtle performance.  And, even more importantly as far as I’m concerned, he actually sounds authentically Texan when he speaks.

In many ways, much of The Aviator reminds me of Gangs of New York.  Both films are gorgeously produced period epics that try to cover a lot of material.  Both films are absolute cat nip for history nerds like me.  But, whereas Gangs of New York leaves one feeling vaguely dissatisfied, The Aviator actually improves with subsequent viewings.  Whereas the action in Gangs had no center, The Aviator revolves around Howard and the actor playing him.

While the Aviator starts off with Howard making movies and romancing Katharine Hepburn, it’s at its best when Howard appears before a committee chaired by Sen. Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) and passionately defends both himself as an engineer and a businessman and the right of innovators everywhere to freely pursue their passion.  The film suggests that Brewster was bribed by Howard’s main business rival, Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin, in unapologetic villain mode), and it’s hard not to applaud when Howard stands up for himself.

Speaking of which, it’s odd, so soon after reviewing Alan Alda in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, to see Alda playing a far less ethical politician in The Aviator.  That said, Alda’s corrupt performance in The Aviator is a hundred times better than his cutesy work in Joe Tynan.  If anything, Alda gives a performance here that will remind everyone of why they don’t care much for their congressman.

The Aviator was nominated for best picture but it lost to the far more low-key Million Dollar Baby.  Scorsese would have to wait until the release of The Departed for one of his films to finally win best picture.

Back to School #48: Scent of a Woman (dir by Martin Brest)


scent_of_a_woman_1992_685x385

Along with my current series of 80 Back to School reviews (48 down, 32 to go!), another one of my long time goals has been to watch and review every single film to ever be nominated for the best picture.  So, imagine how happy I was to discover that by watching the 1992 film Scent of a Woman, I could make progress towards completing two goals at once!  Not only was Scent of A Woman nominated for best picture of the year (losing to Unforgiven) but it also features a major subplot about life and discipline at an exclusive New England prep school!  Even better, it’s been showing up on Showtime fairly regularly for the past month or so.

“Wow,” I thought as my boyfriend and I sat down to watch this movie, “could life get any easier?  Or better?”

And then we watched the film.

You know how occasionally you watch a film just because you’ve heard that it was nominated (or perhaps even won) an Oscar or because it has an oddly high rating over at the imdb or maybe because someone said, “Roger Ebert loved this film so, if you don’t watch and love it, that means that, by that standard of the current online film community, you really don’t love movies?”  And then you watch the movie and you’re just like, “What the Hell?”

Well, that was kind of my reaction to Scent of a Woman.

Look, the film’s not all bad.  It has a few good performances.  It looks great.  It’s certainly better than Gigli, the film that director Martin Brest is perhaps best remembered for.  It features a great scene where Al Pacino (playing a blind man) dances the tango with a woman that he’s just met.  (Then again, I have a notorious weakness for dance scenes…)  It’s not so much that the film is bad as much as it’s just that the movie itself is not particularly good.

Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) is a scholarship student at an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts.  Much like Brendan Fraser in School Ties, 1992’s other prep school melodrama, Charlie is a poor kid attending the school on a scholarship.  While his rich friends prepare to go home for the Thanksgiving weekend, Charlie knows that there’s no way that he can afford to fly back to Oregon.  In order to raise the money so that he can at least go back home for Christmas (how poor is this kid’s family!?), Charlie gets a temporary job for the weekend.  His job?  To look after Lt. Col. Frank Slade (Al Pacino), who is blind and yells a lot.

Anyway, as you can probably guess, Frank convinces Charlie to drive him to New York and they have all of the adventures that usually happen whenever a naive teenager spends the weekend with a suicidal blind man.  Frank bellows a lot and tells about how, through his sense of smell, he can always tell when there’s a beautiful woman nearby.  Frank also yells a lot.  Did I already mention that?  Because, seriously, he yells a lot.

Charlie has other problems than just Frank.  It seems that a rather mild prank was pulled on the headmaster (James Rebhorn) of Charlie’s school.  As a result, a bucket of paint was poured down on both the headmaster and his new car!  Now, the headmaster is looking for those responsible.  He just needs two witnesses.  He’s already gotten one student to confess.  And now, he’s blackmailing Charlie with a letter of recommendation to Harvard.  All Charlie has to do is name names and his future is set…

Will Charlie name names and sacrifice his honor just to get into a college that could assure him a great life?  Or will Frank convince Charlie that honor is the only thing that matters?  And finally, will the film end with a big hearing in front of the entire school in which the headmaster attempts to badger Charlie, just to be interrupted by a sudden appearance from bellowing Frank Slade?

Will it!?

You can probably already guess and, since we have a no spoiler policy here at the Lens, I’ll just assume that you guessed right.  (Or you could just look at the picture at the top of this review…)

The prep school subplot pretty much just adds to the film’s already excessive running time.  But it is interesting to watch because the other student — the one who names names — is played by a very young Philip Seymour Hoffman.  (Or as he’s credited here, Philip S. Hoffman.)  This was one of Hoffman’s first screen roles and he gives a memorable performance as an unlikable character.  If you were to have seen Scent of a Woman in 1992, you would not have guessed that Philip Seymour Hoffman would eventually be an Oscar winner but you would know that he was a very talented character actor.

Otherwise, Scent of a Woman is a fairly forgettable movie.  If I hadn’t known ahead of time that it was nominated for best picture, I never would have been able to guess.  I’m not enough of an expert to be able to name every good 1992 film that was not nominated to make room for Scent of a Woman but I imagine that when that year’s Oscar nominations were announced, there were quite a few people left scratching their heads.

Can you figure out which one grew up to be Philip Seymour Hoffman?

Can you figure out which one grew up to be Philip Seymour Hoffman?