Tag Archives: Joaquin Phoenix

Let’s talk about Joker

Sean and I both saw Joker at TIFF last month, at back to back screenings. We met up for lunch afterward (I believe we had a slight pause before seeing the Harriet Tubman movie) because boy did I have thoughts, comments, and questions, which I tried not to yell too loudly because: spoilers.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck in a totally new but not entirely unfamiliar way. He works as a professional clown (semi-professional, maybe? – he gets sent to hospitals or going out of business sales by a central booking agency that employs many other clowns besides) but dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. He’s not a great clown – he gets complaints a lot. Maybe it’s because he breaks clown rules with the way he does his makeup. Real clowns prefer to paint in large circles because pointy-ended makeup gives kids a subliminal fright. As you can see, Arthur paints both eyes and mouth with sharp ends, normally prohibited in the clown community. But there was another rule-breaker, historically. His name was John Wayne Gacy, and Joker’s makeup is likely a subtle nod toward this man, a serial killer who entertained kids on the side as Pogo the clown. He raped, tortured and murdered at least 33 teenage boys  during the 1970s.

Arthur has a complicated relationship with his mother (Frances Conroy), with whom he lives. She’s not well, and depends on his support, meager as it is. She may be somewhat delusional because she writes long-winded letters about her poor living conditions to one-time employer Thomas Wayne, hoping his outrage will be enough to improve their circumstances. Until such a time, mother and son alleviate their suffering by cuddling up every night to watch their favourite late night talk show, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro).

Arthur is dangerously thin, but people aren’t just uncomfortable about his physical self. There’s also the laughing. He laughs often, and inappropriately. It’s a neurological condition, and he hands out cards to strangers to ease their discomfort when his laughing goes on just a little too long. Still, it gets him into trouble. Joker’s laugh is iconic, and Phoenix taps into something so deranged, so haunting, it’ll nail your feet to the floor. The laugh alone justifies casting him. It is at distinctive, different, perfect. Unforgettable. Scary as hell. It sounds almost painful for Phoenix and it sent shivers down my spine.

Meanwhile, Gotham City is a total shit show. Garbage is piling up everywhere, home to super rats that terrorize the city. It’s never explicitly stated, but I’m guessing it’s 1981. The clothes are very late 70s/early 80s, you can still smoke indoors, and both Blow Out and Zorro The Gay Blade are playing at the movies. People are starting to agitate. The city’s becoming increasingly dangerous. There’s an undercurrent of discontent. It isn’t safe. Arthur gets robbed, jumped, beaten. There’s a certain electricity in the air. We all know Joker to be a villain, but the way things are going, these people may see him as more of a hero. Kill the rich – that’s their slogan. Not a great time to be the Wayne family. But is Joker the symbol this rebellion needs?

Arthur Fleck is nobody’s idea of a hero. He’s a mentally unstable man. He’s been in psych wards. He takes 7 different kinds of meds but still feels bad all the time. He keeps a joke diary filled with suicidal thoughts. “The worst part of having a mental illness,” he writes, “is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” I’ve lost count of how many Jokers we’ve seen on screen now (feel free to help me out in the comments section if you can), but it truly feels like Phoenix doesn’t fuck with any of them. Truly, he and writers Todd Phillips and Scott Silver have created Arthur/Joker from the ground up. He is an amalgam of childhood trauma, torment, debasement. You really get the sense that if anything had gone even just a fraction differently, you’d end up with a different guy. Arthur’s natural reaction to the world isn’t insanity or violence or evil. He genuinely seems to want to bring joy to the world. He wants to make the people laugh. He is searching for a way in. He is searching, I suppose, for identity. For something that makes him real, makes him feel like there’s a reason why he exists. But for one reason or another, this guy just keeps slipping through the cracks. There’s nobody to help him. If one person had reached out when he needed it, this would be a very different story. And I suppose that’s why this movie is so good. It doesn’t feel like a comic book movie, it feels more like Taxi Driver. It’s a character study. This man feels unpredictable, and yet we know his ending. There is a surprising amount of tension for a movie that can really only end one way. But director Todd Phillips creates this constant sense of swirling stress and anxiety, this emotional tautness by repeatedly having Arthur reach out. He doesn’t want to be a weirdo, or a loner. He wants that same connection that we all do. But society is keeping its distance. He’s isolated. He’s forgotten and ignored. We have countless opportunities to save the world from the Joker but we never do – we fail Arthur Fleck. Does the film show empathy toward him? I suppose it does, in many ways. Or at least to people who fall through the cracks, who get left behind. Personally, I had a hard time feeling empathy toward his first victims. Arthur is a complex man living in some complex times. There is no single reason that tips him over into villainy. There are just an awful lot of cracks in the pavement. A chasm is bound to open up, which is maybe the scariest way to look at it. There is no vat of acid. Joker’s descent into madness, or crime, or evil, or whatever you want to call it – it’s grounded in reality.

Comic books and super hero movies tend to deal in quite general archetypes of good and evil. This makes the characters instantly recognizable as hero or villain, but it also serves to put a distance between audience and character because there is little to relate to. Todd Phillips’ Joker is much more layered, which means at times you’ll root for him, and other times you’ll be disgusted by him. It’s a push-pull that few actors could pull off, and it’s why Joaquin Phoenix, already one of this generation’s biggest and truest talents, deserves an Oscar nomination, and as of right now, I’d say even the win.

Joker, however, is not just a great performance. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful film, a send up to gritty character studies of another era. Todd Phillips has said “The goal was never to introduce Joaquin Phoenix into the comic book movie universe. The goal was to introduce comic book movies into the Joaquin Phoenix universe.” Goddamn I love that quote. I think it shows great appreciation for Phoenix’s body of work. This isn’t just another origin story, this is a deep dive into a man’s psyche. Phoenix tends to gravitate toward the broken and tormented, but they’re not one-dimensional. They are faceted individuals. Different actors have interpreted Joker in many ways: a fiend, a terrorist, a thug, a psychopath. But Joaquin Phoenix goes with something else: human.

 Edit:

So I wrote all of that last month, after seeing Joker at TIFF. Since then, certain media outlets have tried to whip up a story about possible violence at Joker screenings and whether this movie sends a terrible message. I have wondered whether I should contribute to that noise at all but find that I do have something to say about it. Feel free to debate.

  1. Does the movie treat the Joker too sympathetically? In a word: no. This is not the Joker from Batman comics. That Joker doesn’t exist yet. Arthur Fleck is a sad man with mental health problems. When he kills, he has a reason. None that justify the violence of course, but it’s not senseless or diabolical or insane.
  2. Is Joker gratuitously violent? Actually, no. There is some violence, of course, but compared to other films, relatively little – in fact, probably relatively little even compared to other Batman movies. This is primarily a character study, so a lot of the interesting stuff is introspective, in his head, as his character transforms.
  3. Is the film inviting violence from incels? Of course not. An incel, if you haven’t heard, is a man who believes himself to be INvoluntarily CELibate – ie, no one will sleep with him, and he blames it on some big female conspiracy. Incels have found each other in chat rooms and encourage each other to be nasty and wrong and gross, and angry toward women generally, and perhaps even violent toward them. They somehow think they are owed sex and even more confusingly, plot revenge for all the sex they aren’t getting. And somehow no one stops to think: this is why. This is why no one wants to date me. I am a creep. Women get a creep vibe from me, and they stay away because they sense I am an angry, dangerous dude. Maybe I should try…being nice? But the situation in the Joker movie doesn’t apply. There’s a woman he fixates on but even a criminally insane Arthur Fleck doesn’t blame her for his failures. He’s not an incel and I don’t think they even tread into that territory, so people trying to associate that with the movie are just being deliberately inflammatory.
  4. Let’s remember that this movie is only the Joker’s birth. He’s a Joker fetus. He isn’t a criminal mastermind. There is no Batman yet; Bruce is still just a boy and Arthur is just a man finding his identity on the dark side. Where society has rejected him, the underbelly accepts him and raises him up. Of course it’s intoxicating. And of course it’s wrong. But if we’re talking body count, he’s responsible for only a fraction of Blade, or The Bride, or Rambo, or Walter White’s. And if we don’t protest every instance of violence, why are we targeting Joker? Especially when we could instead read it as a plea for early intervention, as a workbook for reaching out to the Arthur Flecks instead of merely condemning the Jokers.

TIFF19: Joker

As any comic book fan knows, Marvel Comics has more interesting heroes than DC, because Stan Lee’s storytelling focus was as much on the hero’s day-to-day life as on the showdown with that month’s villain.  DC’s heroes have never had the same issues, because they are either literal gods (Wonder Woman), aliens who are stronger than most gods (Superman), or humans with seemingly unlimited physical, mental and financial resources (Batman).  But because DC’s heroes are so powerful, DC’s villains have always had the edge on Marvel’s, and the Joker is at the very top of the list of DC’s best villains.

jokerDC’s latest movie, Joker, tells the origin story of the iconic villain.  Well, it tells an origin story for Joker, one that to my knowledge doesn’t line up with anything in the comics.  It is a fitting origin that has some nice touches, including a subplot that casts Gotham’s beloved Wayne family in a very interesting new light.

We’ve seen the Joker on screen before.  Jack Nicholson was suitably over-the-top and cartoonish, but still maintained a dark centre, in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).  Heath Ledger was a flat-out monster in The Dark Knight, delivering an all-time great performance that gave a new level of legitimacy to comic book films.  Jared Leto’s gangster Joker was almost an afterthought in Suicide Squad, and it probably would have been better for Joker not to have made an appearance in that film at all.

Now, in Joker, Joaquin Phoenix takes on the role, and he’s phenomenal.  Phoenix’s Joker feels different enough from Ledger’s to be original, but borrows smartly from Ledger’s mannerisms to give Joker the manic energy that makes him the clown prince of crime.  Seeing Joker emerge from the man formerly known as Arthur Fleck is a riveting process.  Director Todd Phillips rightly describes Joker as a slow burn and the pace of the movie creates significant tension.  We know Fleck is going to snap, and we can almost understand why, but we don’t know when or how.

Joker is worth watching for Phoenix’s performance, which, like Ledger before him, should get serious Oscar consideration (this time, for Best Actor, as Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for his Joker in 2009).  Joker might be up for other awards as well, and the awards buzz is well-deserved.  There is more than one way to make a comic book movie, caped crusaders are not always needed, and when the villain is this mesmerizing, it’s okay for the bad guy to win.

Mary Magdalene

In bible times, everyone named their girl babies Mary, which has led to a lot of confusion over the years. Mary Magdalene is often confused for the Mary who was a whore – you know, the “sinful” woman who washed Jesus’s feet. In fact, Mary Magdalene, which is to say the Mary who came from the fishing village Magdala, was not a prostitute; she left her village to follow Jesus. She was the 13th apostle, never so named because of course she was a woman, but the truth is, the bible mentions her by name more times than it does any of the actual apostles. So Mary Magdalene was important. She witnesses Jesus’s crucifixion, his burial, and his resurrection. The catholic church now owns her as a saint in her own right.

This movie is a feminist take on a story that has always been told from the male perspective. When Sean asked me how I liked it, I said something like “Well, it’s the role Joaquin Phoenix has been dying to play.” To which Sean thoughtfully responded “Mary Magdalene?!?!?!” and I had to say “No, dummy, Jesus” to which Sean should have gone quiet but instead admitted “Oh yeah, I forgot who else was in that story.” So yeah. This is Mary Magdalene’s story of her time spent with that weird dude named Jesus.

In the movie, Mary M. (Rooney Mara) is a more independent woman than most. She does MV5BMTBjNDI1MTQtNDFlOS00MGE0LWI3OGYtYTIzMjBiY2NmMDQyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTk2NDA3MTM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_not want to get married. So her father and brother obviously assume she is possessed by demons and try to drown them out of her, which mostly consists of drowning her. She barely survives their ‘help.’ Then they have the balls to act all shocked when she runs away from home to join the circus. I mean Jesus. She joins up with the Jesus train, which is not all that different from a circus when it rolls into town.

Jesus (Phoenix) is charismatic and he draws a big crowd. Mary M. isn’t the only one desperate to hear about this wonderful kingdom, free of oppression. But she realizes that women in particular might like to hear more about the end of tyranny, so she schools Jesus on how to talk and minister to them directly. Oh, the other apostles are shocked and appalled. Of course they are. Who is this woman who is automatically Jesus’s new teacher’s pet? Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is particularly jealous and mistrustful. Of course, if you know anything about the bible, you know they’re all in for more difficult times thant these. The official film synopsis calls it a “dramatic turn of events” which is hard to say about the most-repeated story for the past 2000 years. It’s not exactly an M. Night Shyamalan twist. Spoiler alert: Jesus dies! AND he is risen! Lord have mercy.

Director Garth Evans takes a winding and melancholy route to death and resurrection, but it’s beautiful, and the cast is really strong. Mostly I just loved hearing this overly familiar story from a female perspective for once. It broke down the world’s most pervasive myth and made you think about it from outside the box – not a lot, just a little. It pushed the boundaries. But just accepting that the boundaries are flexible to begin with is a huge deal, and I found myself looking at the thing from all kinds of new and interesting angles.

Opens April 12 just in time for Easter for a special one-week engagement at Toronto’s Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas and VIP, Mississauga’s Cineplex Odeon Winston Churchill Cinemas, Vancouver’s International Village, Calgary’s Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire Market Cinemas, Edmonton’ Cineplex Odeon South Edmonton Cinemas, and Montreal’s Cinéma Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin.

Don’t Worry. He Won’t Get Far On Foot

John Callahan was a dedicated alcoholic when he had a life-changing accident that left him paralyzed.

Post-accident, the path to sobriety isn’t exactly direct. Between the struggle to accept his new limitations, learning to live in a chair, caring for his broken body, and searching for the mother who gave him up at birth, there are a lot of reasons to drink. Of course, there’s always a reason to drink. Only when he truly embraces the value of AA, with the help of group leader Donny (Jonah Hill), does he start to imagine a future for himself. And he finds a healthy way to channel his anger and his energy and his wonderment: cartoons.

MV5BMjMyMTY2MzYxN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTEwNDgyNDM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_Callahan is injured enough that he cannot grasp a pen but he manages somehow to manipulate a felt-tip pen between two mangled hands and he finds inspiration in his life to create funny, and often controversial cartoons. His student paper sees fit to publish him and from there he develops a national following.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot is a line ripped from one of his own cartoons; the movie is adapted from Callaghan’s memoir. Director Gus Van Sant wants to say something about the healing power of art but the movie itself reads more like a tribute to support systems and the importance of forgiveness without dipping into the considerable well of inspirational cliches.

It’s a dark comedy, as you can imagine, but between Jack Black, Jonah Hill, and an orange-haired Joaquin Phoenix wielding his wheel chair like a bat on wheels, there’s some appreciated levity to all the drama. It’s an off-beat comedy about an off-beat guy. Phoenix is irrepressible.

Sean didn’t care for the movie – he felt not much had happened. I liked it well enough – I liked the unexpected performances from the likes of Beth Ditto, Carrie Brownstein, and Kim Gordon. I liked that Callaghan’s dark vein of humour is kept in tact throughout transformation, that he doesn’t become some sort of saint, merely the same caustic guy with a new lease on life. I liked that his past is never treated like an excuse – not that I’m not sympathetic to his victimhood but I like that he finds his salvation elsewhere, that he’s allowed to not solve the puzzle of his childhood before finding peace in his present. The 12 steps are not equally cinematic, but I felt Phoenix’s charismatic performance carried us through. Obviously Sean disagreed, so I guess I’d call this a mixed-bag review. It’s not for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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TIFF18: The Sisters Brothers

Murder and machismo, that’s what you’re in for when you sit down to watch The Sisters Brothers. Charlie and Eli Sisters are a couple of guns for hire. They care deeply about maintaining their bad reputations, which shouldn’t be a problem as long as they keep working for The Commodore, a fearsome and violent man.

Their next mission, should they choose to accept it: kill Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who’s got something The Commodore wants. A professional scout, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), is already tracking him, and once located, the Sisters Brothers ride in for the dirty work.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play the brothers – Phoenix the younger brother, Charlie, but natural leader of the two. He’s more violent and more gung-ho. Reilly, on theMV5BNWE3MDAwMDgtZGY0MS00OGM3LTk4MzEtYjIxODZkMDc0NGY2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1496,1000_AL_ other hand, gives Eli a slightly sweeter disposition. He dreams of retirement but remains in the game to keep watch over his brother, who’s a drunk always looking for trouble, and always, always finding it. Eli pines for a woman who was kind to him once. He laments the fate of his pitiable horse. He cuts his brother’s hair.

When the foursome finally meet up, Herman isn’t the villain everyone anticipated, and his commodity proves irresistible to anyone who hears about it. But if his body and potion aren’t offered up to The Commodore in a hurry, there’ll be hell to pay. With allegiances divided and a different ending standing tantalizingly before them, what will the Sisters Brothers choose, and how will the body count be affected? Because there WILL be a body count, make no mistake on that.

The Sisters Brothers is adapted from a book I absolutely adored and passed around to nearly everyone I know, by  Canadian author Patrick DeWitt. John C. Reilly also read it and loved it, and he optioned the book in 2011; he produces this film alongside his wife, Alison Dickey, an indie film producer he met on the set of Casualties of War when she was an assistant to Sean Penn – they’ve been married for over 25 years). They’ve tapped French director Jacques Audiard to helm this shoot-em-up western, and Audiard gives it a sensibility that’s weird and eccentric. Not your typical western, not your typical anything. It’s as funny as it is violent, and both characters and story break out of the genre frequently enough to surprise you.

The acting is great. Riz Ahmed especially gives Herman’s character a bit of a twist, colouring the movie with a slightly more optimistic or meditative vibe. But of course the film belongs to Reilly and he knows it. Though I wish we would have spent a little more time with Eli alone, away from his brother’s influence, deeper into his psyche (flashbacks, I suppose, would have been nice), there’s still something very special going on there, something half-sweet (Eli is still a bad man), half-innocent, half-introspective, half-other-worldly. These aren’t necessarily the kind of cowboys you’re used to but I enjoy the genre’s subversion, the clever hacks that elevate it to something unique and fun to watch. DeWitt’s novel is quite good and I urge you to read it. But unlike many adaptations, this film captures some of its surprising warmth. Despite the Sisters Brothers being contract killers, we find a fair bit of compassion for them as they unravel the traumas of their past and seek a path forward, perhaps not quite forged in enlightenment, but in understanding, and from a need to do and be better.

Charlie and Eli are a some of the most interesting characters to come out of the western genre. Charlie simmers with anger. Eli ooze regret. The brothers bicker like an old married couple but they have each other’s backs when needed – and if often is. But no matter how much sympathy we’re feeling for them, Audiard doesn’t shy away from the fact that the guns on their hips are used to commit murder, for money. Their morals are for sale to the highest bidder. It makes them complex, and eminently watchable.

 

You Were Never Really Here

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled war veteran and basically a hired gun, specializing in the finding and retrieving of missing and trafficked young girls. He lives with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), who is the only person left in his life. And once you start seeing what’s in his head, you’ll understand why. He’s haunted by flashbacks, riddled with PTSD. It’s rough stuff, and it’s hard to keep straight. It actually appears hard for him to keep straight, and as he grapples with thoughts of suicide and questions of sanity, it seems his past might be catching up with him.

But the present’s not much better. His next job is to rescue Nina, a 13 year old girl MV5BNDQwOGQyYTMtNTc2MS00Nzg3LTgyMjctOWFmM2YzZWE3YTBlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_being held in a brothel. Her father works for the government and doesn’t want to get police involved. And if Joe could, you know, fuck up the men who did this to her, he’d be pleased. But walking a mile in Joe’s boots is never straight forward. He’s plagued by violent images, by death, by his own abusive childhood.

Once the killing starts, it doesn’t end, and Joe is basically a zombie, barely evading death, and barely caring. Writer-director Lynne Ramsay keeps us off kilter with static-y flashbacks. We’re as unbalanced as Joe is, and we’re unable to really trust everything we see. It’s disorienting and clever, unhinged and a little scary since we never know what we’re walking into. It’s gory, or course, likely enough blood to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, but we start to feel anesthetized to it because Joe barely registers it. Joaquin Phoenix really sells it. He sells a man who stopped caring about himself a long time ago. Who doesn’t trust his own reality, and isn’t particularly bothered by it. He suffers from these violent memories but nothing really jolts him from his stupor. It’s a great performance. And Ramsay somehow manages to evoke sympathy for this wounded soldier. She makes this action movie something special, something worth watching, even if the finished product is rather like a nightmare.

Irrational Man

Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a burned out, impotent philosophy professor who’s looking for the will to live. A fellow teacher (Parker Posey) throws herself at him and a pretty and 45-Irrational-Man_1promising student (Emma Stone) engages him mentally, but he’s still, shall we say, unresponsive, until he starts plotting a hypothetical murder.

Joaquin and Emma have an easy rapport that’s eminently watchable, when the dialogue’s not getting in the way. The story is partially inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, about a university student who commits murder to prove that he is morally superior to other people. But both Dostoevsky’s student and Woody Allen’s professor are only pretending that murder would be to help others, or the world in general. In fact, it’s a pretty selfish pursuit, even when purely cerebral. Can thoughts of murder really be a “creative 635725682661364214-11-1600x900-c-defaultendeavour”, or is that just the typical justification of an unfulfilled philosophy professor?

Woody Allen struggles to sound authentic around some of the philosophical arguments, and Joaquin doesn’t do a much better job conveying them. And Allen’s dialogue surrounding the erection difficulty is as stilted and awkward  as only Woody Allen can be – which doesn’t quite sound right coming from Joaquin, even with his 30 pounds of pot belly. Allen’s more adept with the cynicism and the dark humour (not to mention age-inappropriate romance), and when the material’s good, he’s hired actors talented enough to handle it. So this movie is not without merit. It’s also just not very original (even among Allen’s oeuvre) or very necessary, and the unevenness almost drove me batty.

Verdict: quintessential mediocre Allen.