FRED Watch Quickie Film Review: Joker (2019)

PHOENIX AND PHILLIPS HAVE THE LAST LAUGH…

Welcome to FRED Watch, where we review everything from the mainstream to the obscure. Today’s film made such an impact on us, that we reviewed it twice! It’s Todd Phillips’s Joker

DC Films / Village Roadshow Pictures / Bron Creative / Joint Effort / Warner Bros. Pictures

In 1981, clown and aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who lives with a neurological condition that causes him to laugh in times of intense stress, turns to crime and chaos as Gotham City begins to protest and rebel against the establishment.

Kendall Richardson reviewing:

People like to complain about ‘superhero fatigue’, that there are too many comic book movies and television shows on our screens. But if this so-called ‘fatigue’ helps to give birth to a film such as Joker, then I really don’t see what is worth complaining about. Joker isn’t really a comic book movie, and if you removed the DC Comics skin, very little would actually change. Like Logan (2017), and to a similar extent Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Joker uses the guise of a comic book film to really step into and explore genres and themes that set it aside from any other ‘superhero genre’ film. It is quite ironic the way things have turned out, considering many thought that upon this film’s announcement it was completely unnecessary. Just like when people scoffed at Heath Ledger’s casting of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant The Dark Knight (2008). Oh, how wrong and misunderstood we were.

Joker tells the story of troubled clown and wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck (a breathtaking Joaquin Phoenix), navigating the turbulent landscape of a depraved and crime rampant Gotham City. We learn that he suffers from an undiagnosed mental illness that he is seeking treatment for, and an uncontrollable Tourette’s Syndrome-like laugh. Despite these flaws, Arthur tries so hard to fit into society, and bring happiness and joy to those he entertains. The film does a wonderful job of focusing on his mental state without mocking it or making it the butt of any jokes. You understand quite quickly this is who Arthur Fleck is, and despite it making the audience sympathetic towards him, there is a clear division between this sympathy and a complete lack of it once he starts taking out his problems violently on others. That isn’t to say you don’t understand were he’s coming from on his journey to becoming Joker, in fact you might find yourself rooting for him. But there is no question that he revels in causing pain by the time the film ends and you stop feeling sorry for him.

Joaquin Phoenix gives probably the best performance of his entire career. Everything about Arthur/Joker that Phoenix brings to life is chaotic yet controlled, and elegant yet horrific. Phoenix is in virtually every scene of the film, and you never tire of seeing his disturbed image flashed across the screen. You crave more of him. Even though you know where the movie is headed thanks to its famous comic book inspiration, you desperately want the good parts of him to rise up, instead of getting snuffed out by the madness of his mind. From kindhearted to malevolent, Arthur Fleck is always unsettling, and that laugh of his that covers the movie, is so nuanced and striking. I have no doubt in my mind that we will be seeing Joaquin Phoenix everywhere this coming awards season and very deservedly so.

Director and co-writer Todd Phillips, mostly known for his comedic films such as The Hangover (2009) and Old School (2003), transitions seamlessly into this dark and decrepit world of crime. He crafts a Gotham we are definitely not strangers to, but one he certainly makes his own. The script is watertight and comes to life brilliantly with the aide of some exceptional cinematography and well-rounded performances from not just Phoenix, but the entire cast. This is definitely Phoenix’s film, but all the players that surround him support him well, adding method to the madness. Robert De Niro is particularly fascinating as late night talk show host Murray Franklin, a character idolised by Arthur throughout the whole film. If only there had been more scenes of Murray and Arthur together, but what we do get is completely thrilling. Joker remains with certainty, an incredible piece of cinema, and an unnerving yet compelling unraveling of a film’s protagonist like we have surely rarely seen. It is hands down one of the best films of the year. 5 / 5

Wayne Stellini reviewing:

In an era of extensive superhero blockbusters, Hollywood knows how to churn out (more often than not) entertaining, cartoonish spectacles. And because most follow the same formula, there is a comfort in sitting in a cinema with similar genre-loving folks as you munch on your popcorn in anticipation of the inevitable computer-generated action to unfold. But Todd Phillips’s Joker is the sort of film that makes you hold said moviegoing snack millimetres from your mouth in fear of choking on it.

As soon as the old Warner Bros. logo appears on screen, we know that this will not be your average contemporary comic book movie. Phillips’s stylistic choices not only take us back to the early 1980s but, more significantly, inform us that this is a world we are familiar with, if not actually live in ourselves. (It takes longer than you’d expect for the word ‘Gotham’ to be spoken.)

The colour pallet, captured and framed beautifully by Lawrence Sher, as well as Hildur Guðnadóttir’s evocative score and Jeff Groth’s perfect editing, make Joker a technically flawless film. This impeccable attention to detail continually enforces the cold and individualistic social attitudes that contribute to and shapes the creation of the titular character.

So, what of our anti-hero? Batman’s chief villain the Joker is arguably the most beloved baddie from the comics and their associated media adaptations. (Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal of the Clown Price of Crime in 2008’s The Dark Knight remains the only performance of a comic book character to have been awarded an Oscar to date.) And what makes him such an intriguing figure is not necessarily the wealth of published stories to draw from but rather that the criminal mastermind’s origin and backstory have never been set in stone since his debut in 1940. This is where Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver utilise their freedom to make Joker—both film and character, for that matter—whatever they want.

The story is straightforward and coherent, and, at its core, demonstrates how society maketh the monster. But as a character study, Joker is far more complex than that. This is where the outstanding Joaquin Phoenix truly shines. The actor has literally grown up before our eyes (his big screen debut was in 1986’s infamous box office bomb SpaceCamp) but didn’t truly make a mark until Gladiator (2000), in which he delivers the film’s stand-out scene (‘Busy little bee’), before solidifying himself as one of contemporary American cinema’s more interesting and diverse performers when he played Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005). So what does Phoenix do with a character whose previous film and television incarnations have been both embraced and contentious?

Most importantly, Phoenix makes the role his own. Here, the lonesome Arthur Fleck goes from being tragic to grotesque; the manner in which Phoenix contorts his body and laughs (involuntarily or otherwise) depicts a confronting depletion of Arthur’s mental health. Ultimately, when his transformation into Joker is complete, Phoenix does not disappoint, even overcoming some unnecessarily clunky dialogue when Joker confesses to crimes and calls out society’s flaws on a late night talk show, whose host is played by the unsurprisingly excellent Robert De Niro. It cannot be emphasised enough that Phoenix is so good that he makes an uncharismatic, unnerving character always accessible. And when Joker appears dancing down stone stairs, we are happy to be in his clutches.

Moments likes these (and there are plenty of them) make Joker a unique gem in a cluttered genre. And while Phillips owes much to the master filmmakers that came before him—most notably Martin Scorsese, whose anti-establishment titles such as Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983) remain important works of American cinema—he is his own storyteller, and there is no mistaking the depth he gives this particular narrative. A highlight for me was when Arthur meets a young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) for the first time. The scene is intense in its own right, but there are so many wonderful layers to their interaction: the two speak with bars between them, Arthur uses lighthearted magic tricks whilst Bruce remains stolid, and most significantly, the pair are dressed in a similar manner. This is gorgeous foreshadowing of the sort of relationship that these two will have, but what is wonderful about Joker is that it works without any pre-knowledge of the expansive creative universe these characters are a part of. And scenes such as Arthur being approached by a Wall Street worker on a train who is singing ‘Send in the Clowns’ are as eerie as they are an example of beautiful filmmaking.

I found myself captivated from the get-go when watching Joker, engrossed in the world and interested in the characters. I was challenged by the portrayal of Thomas Wayne (a solid Brett Cullen), who has always been depicted in a saintly manner, and was sometimes uncomfortable when Arthur’s condition resulted in uncontrollable laughter. Although it was by no means a full house, I cannot recall a moment when I have been in a cinema of people so attentive and silent, and nor can I remember the last time I caught myself breathless, or with my mouth slightly open at the unfolding drama on numerous occasions throughout a film’s gestation.

Joker may not be completely flawless, and I am not sure if it will be the sort of film that gets better with repeated viewings, but do not be mistaken in thinking you are merely watching a movie here. You are experiencing a cohesive team bringing together a masterful work of art. 5 / 5

 

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron, Leigh Gill, Josh Pais, Brian Tyree Henry, Bryan Callen, Hannah Gross, Carl Lundstedt, Michael Benz, Ben Warheit, Mandela Bellamy, Demetrius Dotson II, Justin Theroux [cameo].

Director: Todd Phillips | Producers: Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff | Writers: by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver (based on characters by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson appearing in DC Comics) | Music: Hildur Guðnadóttir | Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher | Editor: Jeff Groth

 

In cinemas now.

Let us know what you thought of this film in the comments!

 

You’ve just experienced FRED Watch.


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