Tag Archives: Robert DeNiro

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.

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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.

New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is one of those movies that has half a hundred characters and fourteen dozen plot lines and they all “intersect”, the story like a patchwork quilt, but a really ugly quilt where the squares don’t match and some of them aren’t even square.

A random sampling:

Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) has just quit her job, and hires bike messenger Paul (Zac Efron) to help her check off as many of her old resolutions as possible before the clock strikes midnight.

Laura (Katherine Heigl) is catering a huge New Year’s Eve party and is under a lot of stress when her ex, a rock star named Jensen (Jon Bon Jovi), who disappeared on New Year’s last year, shows up wanting a commitment.

Claire (Hilary Swank) is producing the Times Square ball drop.

Randy (Ashton Kutcher) and Elise (Lea Michele) are trapped in an elevator together.

MV5BMTc3MzgyMzg3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTM1MzAxNw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1503,1000_AL_Hailey (Abigail Breslin) desperately wants to go downtown with a boy, but her mother Kim (Sarah Jessica Parker) insists that she stay home with her.

Tess (Jessica Biel) is really hoping to induce labour so she can give birth to the first new year’s baby and claim the 25K in prize money – but Grace (Sarah Paulson) is also in the running.

Stan (Robert De Niro) is dying, though he’d like to delay until midnight if possible, and his nurse  Aimee (Halle Berry) is prepared to stick it out with him.

Sam (Josh Duhamel) is trying desperately to get back into the city after pulling best man duty at a wedding. He’s hitching a ride with with a family in an RV, hoping to meet up with the mysterious women he met and fell for last year.

In a movie so overstuffed, of course some of the segments are undercooked. Nay, they’re all undercooked. Some of them are downright raw. But lots of them are not even interesting enough that I wished I knew more.

The best, and saddest part, is when Penny Marshall briefly plays herself. But 3 seconds out of 113 long minutes is an agonizing success rate. New Year’s Eve is overly sentimental and oh so shallow. If you don’t have any auld acquaintances to forget this New Year’s Eve, I know where you can make over 100 new acquaintances, and they’re all perfectly forgettable – guaranteed. Random acquaitances may include New Kids on the Block’s Joey McIntyre, voice of Lisa Simpson Yeardley Smith, Cary Elwes,  Common, Hector Elizando, Russell Peters, Sofia Vergara, Matthew Broderick, and more flash-in-the-pan stunt casting than you can shake shake one of those New Year’s Eve noisemakers that you blow in and the little ribbon inflates and unrolls at.

Having just returned from Mexico, Sean and I might be housebound (and by housebound I inevitably mean hot-tub-bound) tonight, and I’m not a bit sad about it. What are your plans? Do they include this movie and its exhausting cast of characters?

The Comedian

Jackie (Robert DeNiro) played a beloved sitcom character at the very beginning of his career, and it seems his fans only want to remember him for that one thing. He’s a stand-up comic now, desperate to rebrand himself, but audiences turn nasty the further he pulls away from his more iconic stuff. So in the style of hot-headed comedians, he allows a heckling fan to draw him into a fight, and of course it’s Jackie who winds up sentenced to community service (among other things).

At the soup kitchen, he meets fellow assaulter Harmony (Leslie Mann), an otherwise 2-h_2016docile woman who is pushed to do violence when she finds her man in bed with another woman. This unlikely pair bonds over their mutual sentence, and agree to do each other a solid: she’ll attend his niece’s wedding with him – he owes money to his brother (Danny DeVito) and his sister-in-law (Patti LuPone) never quits breaking his balls – and he’ll attend a birthday dinner for her disapproving father (Harvey Keitel).

After decades as an insult comic, Jackie is looking to reinvent himself, but the people in his life keep him from doing so. DeNiro trained with real-life comic Jessica Kirson, who also appears in the movie. DeNiro adopts one of her signature moves, in which she whispers to herself while turned away from the audience. Lots of other comedians lend an air of authenticity to Jackie’s world: Brett Butler, Billy Crystal, Jim Norton, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, and more. Unfortunately, the comedy is just about all this movie gets right. I’m not even sure what kind of movie it’s supposed to be: some sort of May-December rom-com? Aging comedian comes of age? Light social commentary?

It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t work on any level. It feels dated, immediately. Cringe-worthy at times. It’s bloated, meandering, and has some pretty bizarre and inexplicable subplots over which I’m still scratching my head. It’s misguided. It’s tired. It has its charming moments but then there’s also a song about poop so I’m just not in a forgiving mood. DeNiro’s choices lately are a betrayal to his talent. Remember him as he was, not as he appears in this stinker.

Last Vegas

I wish movies about seniors weren’t so goddamn awful and condescending. I know people over 65 who are robust, interesting, engaged. I know seniors with rich social lives and sharp minds, who may suffer from bladder issues but manage to keep from talking about for hours, even days at a time. Apparently screenwriter Dan Fogelman does not. Hollywood seems to think that the only thing worth noting about seniors is their doddering foolishness, and that’s too bad, because I think they’re finding that there’s a bigger and bigger senior audience, and someone’s got to start writing for them – perhaps even a senior citizen him or herself. Wouldn’t that be novel?

Last Vegas assembles a foursome of our favourite old guys – Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert DeNiro, and Kevin Kline. Michael Douglas faces down his own mortalityMV5BMjIzODA5ODA4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzQxMzE1MDE@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_ at a friend’s funeral by proposing to his very young girlfriend in the middle of the eulogy. His friends congregate in Las Vegas in order to throw him a bachelor party wild enough to pay tribute to a man who’d managed to stay one for over 70 years. Morgan Freeman has to escape from his strict and overly concerned son, DeNiro has to be coaxed out of apartment where he wallows in widowerhood, and Kevin Kline is all too eager to escape Florida, basically death’s waiting room.

But you know what? These old guys still have some life left in them. Director Jon Turtletaub waters the whole thing down though, like it’s the 38th sequel to The Hangover, and nobody thinks old people deserve or are capable of their own wild and crazy antics. Instead we’re treated to a litany of bad hip jokes. This quartet is quite charming, and even the cringe-worthy cliches they’re forced to deal in don’t completely negate that. But I know a 90 year old who danced with Elvis and did shots at my wedding. That’s not a script, that’s real life. Now well into her 90s, she still travels the world and paddles her own canoe. Not everyone is lucky to be in such good health but there’s a whole spectrum when it comes to aging, one that Hollywood seems loathe to explore. I think these venerated actors deserve better, and so do the people buying the tickets, whether or not they’re claiming a senior’s discount at the box office.

The Vegas Chronicles: Casino

The Assholes are in sunny Las Vegas this week, probably bleeding money across several casino floors right this very moment, unless you’re reading in the dead of night, in which case we’re slapping strippers’ asses. We’re also taking the opportunity to talk about some of our favourite movies set in Las Vegas, so of course we’d end up talking about Casino.

The Bellagio welcomed the cast and crew of Ocean’s 11 with open arms. Caesars Palace was just as accommodating with The Hangover. The Riviera, however, gave no such love to casino1Marty Scorsese. Those ungrateful buggers forced the crew to film only between the witching hours of 1 and 4 am, so as not to disturb the gamblers. They allowed not disruption to the business side of things but weren’t self-conscious about advertising with a large banner declaring “Robert DeNiro, Sharon Stone & Joe Pesci Filming the New Movie ‘Casino’ Inside!” I would call it shameless, except this is Vegas we’re talking about. I’m pretty sure you leave your shame at home.

The movie is said to be based on a true story, but it’s set inside a fictional casino called Tangiers. The nut’s not hard to crack, though. This is the history of the Stardust casino. It’s a story fairly well-documented, but Scorsese also drops some hints in the soundtrack. The exterior of the casino was filmed in front of the Landmark hotel, which was scheduled for implosion shortly thereafter, which further added to the mystique. Scorsese went out of his way to film exclusively in the Las Vegas valley, and even managed to shoot driving down historic Freemont Street, which is no longer open to automobile traffic.

The film was informed by tonnes of insiders, but also featured real Vegas characters in the cast. Vegas comedian Don Rickles played the Tangiers casino manager in a largely non-comedic role. The guy who played a jewelry store owner who just got robbed is a real Vegas jeweler. Oscar Goodman, the attorney, is a real-life lawyer who defended many Vegas mobsters. Goodman of course went on to be elected mayor of Las Vegas in 1999. And careful viewers will note that the blackjack dealer is the very same blackjack dealer from article-2611806-1D4E026400000578-395_634x794Rain Man, and can also be seen dealing cards to Chevy Chase in Vegas Vacation.

Matt’s a decent blackjack player, and Sean’s pretty good at keeping Matt’s head out of a vise, but when I’ve got money to blow, I’m not at a craps table, I’m at Hermes. Check in with us on Twitter (@assholemovies) so you can see what we’re up to, and if I’ve yet to find a 45-pound gold and white beaded gown a la Sharon Stone.

And that’s that.

 

 

Tribeca Film Festival

The Tribeca Film Festival was founded in 2002 by Jane Rosenthal, Craig Hatkoff, and Robert De Niro, apparently in response to 9/11 and the resulting loss of business and tdy_hoda_deniro_160328__660211.nbcnews-ux-1080-600vitality in their neighbourhood of lower Manhattan (Tribeca stands for the Triangle Below Canal St).

After just 120 days of planning (thank you 1300 volunteers!), the festival was launched in 2002 and featured premieres such as Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones, About a Boy, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. New York City was anxious to remind people what a boon to the film business it was, and Hollywood was more than happy to pay their respects. 150, 000 people turned up to that first year but today it’s more like 3 million, and it generates something like $600 million dollars for the city, so, hello! Even press-shy celebrities turntumblr_o446mlCvS11uoq4k6o1_400 up to these events, and lots are eager to lend a hand. Martin Scorsese has curated a Best of New York series in the past, and this year Whoopi Goldberg is helming the animation lineup.

But Tribeca doesn’t just show great movies, it has also premiered video games, virtual reality exhibits, lots of amazing talks, and a spotlight on TV. Tribeca had a huge outdoor screening for the finale of Friends in 2004, and it’s also premiered Inside Amy Schumer and Mr. Robot. This year Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda will be on hand to introduce the premiere of the second season of Grace and Frankie (which is awesome, by the way – look for it on Netflix), Oprah will be showcasing her new OWN show Greenleaf, Tom Hiddleston’s in town to show off his new AMC series, The Night Manager, Forest cq5dam.web.620.398Whitaker, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, and Anna Paquin are all pushing the History miniseries Roots, and TNT is launching a new drama based off the movie Animal Kingdom, starring Ellen Barkin. Tribeca will also be screening the finale of the show Six Feet Under, with Alan Ball there to provide commentary (this is THE MOST GUTTING television I’ve ever seen) and Julianna Margulies will be toasting The Good Wife’s finale. When the television’s that good, you know the movies are going to be incredible. And we’ll get to those.

But first: Tribeca Talks. They’re absolutely KILLING ME with how wonderful their DS-Abrams-Rockstorytellers series is. First night: Patti Smith being interviewed by Ethan Hawke. Next: JJ Abrams interviewed by Chris Rock. There are talks with Idina Menzel, Catherine Hardwicke, Tina Fey, Samantha Bee, Francis Ford Coppola, Jodie Foster & Julie Taymor, Alfonso Cuaron, Bahz Luhrmann, and more. It drives me crazy how good these are.

And then there are the movies: the zillions of super awesome movies. Premieres up the large_23-Taxi-Driver-1976-Martin-Scorsese-Robert-De-Nirowazoo, but also some throwbacks worth seeing again and again (this year they’re recognizing the 40th (!) anniversary of Taxi Driver, and Scorsese, De Niro, and Foster will all be in attendance). Tribeca Film Festival runs April 14-24th, and Sean and I will only be there for the second half of it, which means we’re seeing only a tiny sliver of all the goodness available. I’m a sad panda about missing Abrams & Rock, but we arrive in time to see John Oliver take on Tom Hanks, and I think I can live with that!

Stay tuned because we’re seeing some blindingly good stuff and are bound to rub elbows and\or knees with tonnes of celebrities, and you can read all about it right here – or, if you’re impatient, get up to the minute updates and some questionably appropriate pictures on our Twitter feed @AssholeMovies .