You could practically hear a collective sigh when the new Joker film was announced. I think it’s fair to say that The Onion said it the best:
When the original trailer was finally released, it gave me super-heavy Taxi Driver vibes: misunderstood loner in a morally corrupt city who just snaps. I wouldn’t say I was that too off, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
For the rest of society, everyone’s minds went straight to that asshole who shot up a theatre in face paint. Since The Dark Knight the Joker has unfortunately become a symbol for edgy incels and loner types, an issue that was amplified by Jared Leto’s juggalicious take on the Clown Prince – though mostly ironic, but it’s no secret that the Joker holds a special place in every shitposter’s catalogue.
Due to this negative energy (the shooting-part, not the meme-part…unless we’re talking about incels, but again getting ahead of myself), an exhausting amount of hype and fear made for excellent publicity. Personally, I wanted to see it regardless – I’m a sucker for mid-century modern aesthetic and Joaquin Phoenix. And Batman, generally. Plus I wanted to see if it was just like Taxi Driver.
I was pleasantly surprised.
We meet Arthur “Happy” Fleck (Phoenix), a mentally ill man who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) in the worst part of Gotham, a city plagued with corruption on all levels. Art is our tragic character, someone who is abandoned by any and all who can help him, until he inevitably snaps.
Despite my poor synopsis, this portrayal of Joker is incredibly well-defined: Art is an unreliable narrator, but not a liar. He has no political leanings during the riots – all of his qualms are personal. It’s the rest of Gotham that recognizes that there is power in his iconicism – after all, they started this movement before they knew Arthur existed.
The big question is: does this film demonize the mentally ill?
No. If anything it exposes the poor support systems for the mentally ill, or rather, the institutions funding the support systems when dealing with a corrupt society.
Additionally, Arthur’s illnesses appear to be a blend of nature and nurture, and every bit of the “nurture” part is made up of the worst circumstances possible – circumstances that could have been prevented.
So the bigger question is: does this excuse his actions?
Of course not, you silly person.
The first strike was self-defense, sure, but that’s it. The rest was self-empowerment.
Art turns violent because he finds release – he is getting back at the bullies while challenging the status quo. No one cares when he’s attacked, so why not fight back? He’s got nothing to lose. We can feel sympathy for Arthur the struggling clown, but that is far from empathizing with his behavior. His behavior spirals when he discovers there are no consequences for his actions.
And if you’re of the mindset that this film promotes violence, that’s admitting that you not only don’t understand right from wrong but also cause and effect.
Is this film “dangerous?”
What does that even mean?
People act like they’ve never seen an antihero before.
How does Joaquin Phoenix fare against the other Jokers?
I think Joaquin Phoenix is a fantastic actor: Arthur is sympathetic but unnerving, like an uncanny personality valley. This portrayal adds to that definition that I mentioned earlier, both original and timeless. To break it down, I present the following:
My Brief Joker Character Breakdown
Cesar Romero – a cartoon brought to life
Jack Nicholson – an unpredictable criminal/cartoonish gangster, style icon
Mark Hamill – a well-written literal cartoon, practically perfect in every way
Heath Ledger – unreliable narrator, liar, anarchist, modern, claims to be chaotic but seems to do a lot of planning, gritty/funny
Jared Leto – an attempt at quirky contemporary, ultimately gross, highly romanticized
Joaquin Phoenix – pitiful, mentally ill, theatrical/obsessed with comedy, embraces absurdity
This being established, how does Joker fit into the Batman mythos?
As much as I enjoy Batman films, I’m not the best aficionado on the subject, so it’s not so much if it does than if it can.
As of now, this film serves as a standalone character study that forces its way into the Batman mythos. Thomas Wayne is a classist candidate who wants to make Gotham great again, who becomes a martyr for a new Gotham. But even if you somehow didn’t know anything about the Waynes, the film still stands as a cautionary tale for a broken system, especially when Gotham is the perfect placeholder for any metropolis.
Bruce’s appearance in Joker serves as a reminder that he is also a victim of circumstance, only he does what’s in his power to help prevent tragedy rather than revel in insanity (though the latter is tempting). Because we presently don’t know anything about Bruce’s future, this is not perceptively in the Batman universe.
If there was to be a sequel where Bruce confronts Arthur as Batman, he would be confronting a figurehead, a man not directly responsible for any of the chaos done in his image. Additionally, this is a man who is a danger to himself and others who is not easily “fixed,” it would be more of a introspective on Bruce’s role as Batman as well as shaking his morals, which was already done in The Dark Knight.
Should Todd Phillip’s vision splinter into it’s own take on the Gothamverse, I’d rather have Bruce Wayne be an entrepreneur by day and private eye by night. Arthur would become his reminder to stay grounded. I’m also imagining that the Rogue’s Gallery is just as socially-relevant: Oswald Cobblepot is a deformed blue-blood from a rival family, Pamela Isely is a bio-terrorist, Selena Kyle is a kleptomaniac animal activist…. It’s a weird idea, but it’s doable. I also feel like each story would end the same way: bittersweet, sad, heavy, probably just as thought-provoking or controversial if done correctly.
I dug it. It was reminiscent of Taxi Driver and American Psycho with a bit of Falling Down and a dash of Network for taste, culminating in something surprisingly different.
When John Carpenter’s 1978 classic was unleashed to the masses, it revealed an underlying paranoia that evil lives and persists and can erupt at any moment, in any neighborhood. This evil is slow and calculating – more so, patient.
Halloween also succeeded in putting an expressionless face onto the boogeyman, which unfortunately also belongs to William Shatner. One aspect that we don’t often attribute to the original is this was the beginning of a horror staple: virgins live, sluts die.
Henceforth throughout horror history, the promiscuity of barely-legal women has been predictably met with horrific ends, but of course, not until at least a top is off. This sexist exploitation has plagued the horror genre for decades – but finally, the times they are a-changin’.
Forty years after the incident, we find Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) alone and well-armed: a paranoid agoraphobe who has been waiting for the day Michael Myers escapes his prison. The overt theme of this sequel is victimhood: A victim can live in fear or survive and conquer. What Halloween manages to do is make the story as much about Michael as it is about Laurie; so often do we focus on the monster, we forget to think about those who survive. Every survivor has a story.
This may be bold of me, but Halloween is the kind of sequel we need right now. We already know the monster, so this is the perfect opportunity to build on some broken characters.
We establish that Laurie’s behavior has wrecked her relationship with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), but now she has time to bond with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), who seems to be a mirror image of Laurie at her age. Laurie herself has become more or less a menace – even referential scenes swap Laurie in the place of Michael.
By retconning the series, the film has given wiggle-room for the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. For example, in removing the notion of familicide, Michael Myers is a much more realistically terrifying presence, stalking his old hunting grounds with wild abandon (well, as wild as a murderous, slow-moving giant can be). Again, not only are his victims not screaming down the street with their boobies a-floppin’, but we also get a better grasp of who they are, or rather, were. And surprisingly, the majority of the victims were men, one of whom (arguably) asked for it.
Though not necessary, I would recommend re-watching the first Halloween before seeing this one, just for the sake of appreciation. John Carpenter gave Halloween (2018) his blessing, and with good reason.
I’ll admit, I knew little to nothing about Whitey Bulger before seeing this film. Sadly, by the end of it, I really feel like I still don’t know much about him.
Brief synopsis: Black Mass is based on the true story of a criminal-turned-informant-turned-crimelord; what began as a joint effort to take down the Boston Italian mob lead to the creation of a power-mad monster – a man who couldn’t be stopped simply because blood is thicker than water.
I want to believe that this film is a portrait of a man who was simply looking out for himself and his community, but I can’t help but think that the heart of the piece is lost in the grit, as is motivation. Maybe that was the idea? Perhaps Scott Cooper wanted to portray a first-person look the rise and violent fall of an empire? Nah, I’m probably just looking too far into it.
Though origin tales are overdone, I really would have appreciated a small look into the turn to crime – just a small taste of what made this man so methodically vicious.
On the upside, the performances were great. Like really, really great – even Rolling Stone thinks that Johnny Depp’s take on Bulger might be the cusp of an oncoming Deppessaince. And as advertised, this puppy has a hell of an ensemble – though, it was weird seeing Benedict Cumberbatch pull off a Boston accent.
Despite my gripes about the storytelling, I honestly feel that Black Mass is a welcomed addition to American crime drama. The pacing and tone are perfectly matched by well-crafted cinematography (thank you, Masanobu Takayangi), and the score just adds to this dreary, tense agglomeration (dreary and tense in the best possible way, of course). Personally, I think if there was just a bit more, well, personality, or more definition, this might be one of the better dramas of the year. But that’s just me.
Final Grade: B
From my first glance at the trailer, I was skeptical.
Here we have an aggressive government entity, a gentle scientist, and a wacky gentile robot who is threatening national security – because robots can’t LEARN, they can’t be SENTIENT, what is this MADNESS!? IT’S TOO DIFFERENT – KILL IT, KILL IT DEAD. And then we learn everything we’ve heard before about nature vs. nurture and BOOM you’ve got yourself a remake of Short Circuit starring my favorite zef hoodlums, Die Antwoord, as well as Dev Patel trying to shake off The Last Airbender, and Hugh Jackman’s rage-inducing mullet.
Well gee, it’s a good thing that I don’t religiously follow trailers, or else I’d be incredibly disappointed pretty much all the time. And it turns out, I wasn’t totally right. Let’s first straighten out that synopsis:
Due to a correlating rise of crime and police mortality rate in Johannesburg, the South African government has decided to invest in a weapons corporation called Tetravaal, fronted by CEO Michelle Bradley (yay Sigourney Weaver!).
Tetravaal’s key contribution to the police force are semi-AI “scouts,” developed by Deon Wilson (Patel). Wilson has aspirations of greater uses for technology, in his spare time developing an AI that can learn and create – you know, no big deal.
After some gangland shenanigans, Chappie (impressively played by Sharlto Copely) is born. Chappie must be taught as a child would, and thanks to his gangster parents, Yolandi and Ninja, he learns quickly the good and evils of the world, while establishing his own consciousness and existence.
Meanwhile, Wilson’s über-machismo co-worker Vincent Moore (Jackman) is becoming increasingly obsessed with getting his war machine off the ground, vexed by Wilson’s success.
As mentioned, I was concerned that this was going to be another one of Blomkamp’s “big mean government” deals – and I wasn’t entirely wrong, but it didn’t rub me the wrong way like Elysium did – and even Neill Blomkamp admits he messed up with that one. Chappie is really more akin to District 9: It begins with a documentary style, it’s set in Johannesburg, has Sharlto Copley as a vulnerable creature, and even ends in a slum. It’s like if you took District 9, Short Circuit, and Die Antwoord and tossed everything into a blender.
Speaking of our duo, I think they did alright – I mean, it’s not the first time they’ve acted. And really, they were kind of what I expected, considering that Blomkamp made a point to use their personas as a springboard. Though I would have rather seen Yolandi a bit more of a badass: after Chappie arrives, she just seemed to either coddle or lay around, smoking and waiting. Huh. Maybe I should call my mom.
On the note of characterizations, I’m amazed that Moore wasn’t written as an American (or maybe he originally was?). Here we have a man who brandishes a handgun in an office while telling coworkers to join him at church, and builds a robot that is just dripping with excess – do you really need a claw that can tear a human body in half? Okay, maybe that doubles as a jaws of life – but the cluster bombs?
Maybe making him an American would seem too obvious – like if a Hispanic man would have been cast as the lead in Elysium. Okay, I’ll quit ragging on Elysium. On the other hand, I’m not that familiar with other countries’ conservative stereotypes, so maybe keeping Moore an Australian makes sense?
Even though Chappie felt a bit like a re-hashed District 9 at times, I think Sharlto Copley’s performance really brings some much-needed heart into this story. Granted, he was designed with curious eyes and ears to better recognize as some sort of relatable creature (Red Letter Media talks about this sort of thing in Plinkett’s fantastic Avatar review), but the physical and vocal performance really shines through.
UH OH SPOILERS
Though technobabble was kept to a minimum (though now I know anything can be accomplished with a suped-up Roomba and enough Redbull), I still find myself wanting to know more about the construct of consciousness as data. I mean, does it get saved like a save state in that moment, like all the memories? Like in Yolandi’s case, that was a while until she was booted up again. …How would her robot walk out of the Tetravaal plant anyway? Also, wasn’t that the plot to Transcendence? (I still haven’t seen it.)
And was it established as to whether or not Chappie feels pain? I figured he didn’t (because that would have to be learned somehow), but the sniveling theatre-goers aside me seemed to believe otherwise. And if consciousness is stored, is it like you’re dreaming? Can it get infected with malware? What happens if it gets deleted? How much memory does a person take up? Maybe that would make the better movie. Or maybe I should just watch Transcendence to make sure this wasn’t already answered, but I doubt it.
YOU CAN COME BACK NOW
On the whole, I really dug this movie. It was heavy when it needed to be, but still kept things playful. In retrospect, I think that Neill Blomkamp is better at writing characters (and general scenarios) than actual stories, because it did feel more pieced together and predictable than it should have, especially given the amount of material one could work with. A tad misguided, yes, but I think Copley’s gentle take on an overused trope is worth the watch.
Final Grade: B