film

Review: Joker

Written by Scott Silver and Todd Phillips, and directed by Phillips, “Joker” is a tragedy (comedy?) about how a lethal combination of society’s ills, neglect, and hatred toward’s one another can cause something truly evil to erupt. So, after months of national dialogue about how this film could be considered “dangerous” and “incendiary“, and now that the film has opened to a wide release, we can discuss the merits of those talking points and whether or not they hold any water. Joaquin Phoenix stars as the titular Joker, a character whose hidden beneath the peeled back layers of one Arthur Fleck. If you have any knowledge of one of the comic-book character’s more infamous storylines, “The Killing Joke” in which the Joker tries to prove to Batman that anyone is just “One Bad Day” away from becoming a violently unhinged and gleeful nihilist such as himself, then you’ll have a good idea of where the film ultimately winds up. The film is a challenging one at times, and it does inspire conversation- but something wholly different than what eighty-percent of the hubbub has been about.

First, however, we must take a moment or two to praise the work and care star Joaquin Phoenix put into this performance. Its a staggering amount of quiet subtleties paired with explosively grandiose swings that have been ground down into a portrayal that constantly evolves over the course of the two hour film. I’m not sure if it’s the “best” performance of an actor that I’ve seen in 2019, but it IS the most memorable for now. There’s a lot of legwork done to make the audience sympathize with the super-villain early on and it was effective in how that empathy was crafted. Arthur Fleck is a man that’s been battered by a world that is heartless and cold towards anyone that’s not wealthy or famous, and not a single person seems to understand him. Eventually, this empathy wanes and frays as Fleck crosses line after socially acceptable line until you can no longer feel good for once rooting for the character. Touched by hopelessness and tragedy, Arthur Fleck is Bruce Wayne and vice versa- what makes them different is how they each respond to such tragedies.

Before we get into a dialogue about the controversy surrounding the film, let’s take a moment to examine the craft put into the film aside from the performances. Gotham has never looked better in my opinion, this was truly a cinematic and believable depiction of the crime ridden and trash buried city that felt lifted directly off the comic’s pages. This Gotham is what I picture when I think of the fantastical city, Nolan’s Gotham never felt this realized to me. For all the successes of those Dark Knight films, this Gotham is my stylized preference for the look and tangibility of the infamous city. Speaking of the comic books, there are some direct nods and scenes dealing with the ever looming Wayne family, but they’re not too distracting from Arthur’s narrative. A couple of shots and moments feel a bit too connected to the Wayne family’s heir and future protector of Gotham, but this IS a film residing in Gotham City, so it is to be expected. The score was a perfect combination of overwhelming cellos and bellowing low notes all evocative of the sadness, dread, anger, and confidence relating to Arthur at any given scene. Though, there was a curious choice to use what can only be described as one of those “Jock Jams” stadium-anthems used at a particularly important moment for the character and its one of the most questionable score/song insert choices since “IT Chapter 2”- it just felt very out-of-place within the greater context of the film.

The scenes where Arthur is keenly aware of how he doesn’t fit in with crowds were particularly insightful to his world view. In the crowd of a comedy club he jots down notes while laughing at the wrong beats of a comedian’s stand-up set completely out of sync with the audience, or when he’s dancing in his living room to prep for going onstage, meticulously studying how people should behave in such scenarios; I appreciate these scenes within the context of this film and the superhero genre as a whole- but Art-house this is not. Which brings me to the crux of criticism for this film, it’s a deeper dive into the psychology of a character than what most films within this sub-genre of cinema will commit to, but this is more of a case of “Popcorn Psychology“, for lack of a better term, than an actual analysis of the character of Arthur Fleck or the Joker. The film asks you to indulge in how society’s abject apathy about people over profits can turn a broken man against said system, but it offers no answers, coyly rejecting any semblance of a political stance or a morality check on how we’ve failed the common man and what we could do to avoid such a fate. That being said, adapting a structured plot around a character such as the Joker, of Chaos incarnate, I understand that the difficulties of adapting such a character without Batman and Bruce Wayne to juxtapose against Arthur would be demanding to say the least.

Considering the hysteria surrounding the release of this film, after walking out of the theater, I have to say I was surprised that we were even having this discussion at all. I thought we were over blaming entertainment for violence, but apparently some issues never fully evaporate. The idea that this film would inspire another mass shooting in America (of which we have about 1 per day give or take a few data points) seems like an exaggeration by media outlets. Sure, this movie has some violent scenes, but the argument that this film in particular is dangerous enough to inspire people to acts of violence says more about our own society’s issues than the film’s issues. This film does not glorify violence, and anyone that would be inspired by this to take up arms probably wasn’t all that level-headed to begin with. Was there an outbreak of killings after the debut of “American Psycho”? How about “Drive”? What about “Breaking Bad”? These films and television shows focused on “loner” white males with questionable morality that take up arms, and none of these examples (among countless others) caused a violent uprising. “Joker” is just a movie, not a movement. It’s a thoughtful character study about how we forge tomorrow’s villains with the choices we make today. The moral that I took away from this film was “Be nicer to people”. When we look past our problems and ignore them, they fester into something capable of evil. This movie should make you consider your fellow man, any good film generates good conversation and this one certainly does that. So go see “Joker” for yourself and forge your own opinion, it’s a decently entertaining film and one that I highly recommend even if only for Joaquin Phoenix’s stellar performance.

Final Score: 1 Bad Day

film

Heroes: Roger Corman

This last summer while attending the Traverse City film festival in northern Michigan I had the opportunity to see famed genre director and producer Roger Corman, twice. The initial event was a showing of two of his films in which he gave an introduction of the films and a bit about them before the screenings that followed. That night we all sat back and enjoyed first Corman’s horror comedy ‘Bucket of Blood’, a fun and suprisingly modern feeling film depicting a waiter at a cafe that the beat poets frequented in the late 1950’s as he rises through fame and attention at the lounge by producing statues of a certain sinister nature. It’s a lovely little film and I highly suggest checking it out if you can find it. The second film shown was Corman’s oft mocked live action adaption of the Marvel Comics property “The Fantastic Four”. Oddly enough, I’m willing to bet that I enjoyed this iteration of Marvel’s first family more than Fox’s recent cox office disaster. At least this movie entertained, albeit because of its laughable performances and opaque cheesiness throughout.

The second encounter was at the end of the festival when friends and I approached our seats at a panel. Michael Moore entered and subsequently sat in an eloquent armchair set upon the stage with an equally eloquent, and empty, chair to the right of him. He then began to tell us about the legacy of the man we were about to meet. He told of Roger Corman’s litany of features under his belt, near 500 as either director or producer on all. Corman made a name for himself by churning out film after film by tapping into films that could entertain first and foremost, and the drive in film circuits continually ate those films up. Then, after a short clip show detailing the blood splattered, scream filled, explosion fraught and bullet ridden genre films of B movie’s past, Corman took the stage and said “As you can see, we specialized in subtlety.” The interview progressed as Moore, clearly a fanboy himself here, peeled back a few layers of the cult director in bringing him back to his beginnings in Detroit, Michigan. Not long after his humble start the Corman family moved to Los Angeles. Originally Corman followed in his father’s footsteps to become an engineer at Standford, but after graduating and spending four days on an engineering job he realized he wanted to be involved in film. From there he got a low level job at 20th century Fox and began to rise through his opportunities there until he was producing and directing hordes of low budget films.

Roger Corman made over 400 films including The Fast and The Furious, Little Shop of Horrors, It Stalked the Ocean Floor, Galaxy of Terror, Rock and Roll Highschool, Death Race 2000,  Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 2, Dinoshark, Sharktopus, and hundreds more. From the mid 1950’s until now Corman has had his finger on the pulse of pop culture. Through his production companies New World PicturesConcorde Pictures, and later New Horizons Corman not only had a part in this monster of motion pictures but he also harbored an eye for spotting new young talent as well. Roger Corman’s reach in Hollywood stretches farther then you might think for a director known for such films. He discovered not only Jack Nicholson and Francis Ford Coppola, but also Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Ron Howard, Robert De Niro, Peter Bogdanovich, Peter Fonda,  Dennis Hopper, Joe Dante, William Shatner, and Sandra Bullock too! Not only that but he also brought an acclaimed collection of foreign films from the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut and others to US through his distribution companies too!

Roger Corman’s footprint on cinema is a formidible one. I consider him to be one of the more underappreciated heavies of the low budget world of filmmaking. This type of filmmaking is close to my heart, these films may never have won Oscars, earned moderate profit margins, or even be viewed by large amount of the public, but yet they exist, as if in a bubble. I have a certain adoration for films of this caliber because they fill out the spectrum of the entire filmmaking experience, for every ‘Gone with The Wind’ there are ten ‘Tales of Terror!’. Roger Corman made indie, guerilla, filmmaking cool and credible. He made films that clearly were different from traditional studio fare and anyone wanting something wildly different were sated by the master maker of “Movies your parents don’t want you to see”. These films frequently centered on counterculture ideas and topics, such as the acid influenced ‘The Trip’ or the infamous biker gang flick, ‘Wild Angels’ which was inspired by real life counterpart, The Hell’s Angels. As someone that wants to create typically genre fair pieces I owe a lot to Roger Corman, for he paved the way almost seventy years ago now. Even Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ ‘Jaws’ and ‘Star Wars’ are clearly influenced by the king of the B movies.

To me, Roger Corman is important because his work is a reminder that film can be this glorious, important medium through which we express ourselves most deeply and intimately, but it can also be an unfiltered, pure, form of entertainment, and there is beauty in that. Any pieces that are unique and different, regardless of quality are welcome in my mind. I may not enjoy a certain film or scene for any number of reasons, but it doesn’t mean that isn’t somebody’s favorite movie or moment. If you haven’t heard of Roger Corman I suggest ‘A Bucket of Blood’ ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ ‘Death Race 2000’ or ‘Galaxy of terror’ be warned though, ‘Galaxy of Terror’ alone is a gore fest and not for the kids, James Cameron did do the set design work for the film though! Have fun, and go watch something new!