As Killer Elite begins, assassin Danny Brice (Jason Statham) decides to hang up his gun. But clearly, it’s not so easy for an assassin to retire, because before long Danny’s best friend Hunter (Robert DeNiro) has been kidnapped by a sheik, held hostage until Danny takes revenge for a murder committed by British secret agents. Danny doesn’t argue much and sets out to joylessly kill the four British agents on the revenge list. As the agents start dying, retired superagent Spike (Clive Owen) catches on to Danny’s mission and inserts himself in the middle of the action.
The main problem with Killer Elite is that it’s a showdown between anti-heroes who are either trying to kill or save other anti-heroes. I simply had no idea who to root for. It’s not Jason Statham, who so easily falls into this revenge plot imposed on him by the sheik, who brings no personality at all to this role, and whose dead eyes confirm regret in ever getting involved with this movie. It’s not Clive Owen, who somehow is even less charismatic than dead-eyed Statham. It’s not Robert DeNiro, who is totally forgotten during all but the opening and closing scenes. There’s a huge empty void at the centre of this movie that no one even attempts to fill.
The void is all the more glaring because the action scenes are almost as flat as the characters. They’re not terribly executed but since Killer Elite has nothing else to offer, the fights needed to be great to compensate for everything else that’s lacking. And they’re not. At best they’re a slight change of pace from a mundane story that you’ll be too bored to care about, and at worst they increase the viewer’s boredom by being as lifeless as Statham’s dead eyes.
Martin Scorsese has finally married the two sides of his personality: the one who delights in showing us the excess of sin (think: Wolf of Wall Street) and the one who is concerned about the state of our souls (think: Silence). It has taken him some 25 films and 77 years to get here, which is possibly why this film lacks the verve of his other gangster movies. The Irishman is mournful – perhaps even an elegy.
The films revolves around Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) in his position as hitman for the Bufalino crime family. There are three distinct timelines in the film: 1. old man Sheeran recounting his crimes at the end of his life; 2. middle aged Sheeran on a road trip with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives; 3. “young”ish Sheeran as he meets Russell, befriends Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), starts a family and makes a living putting bullets through people’s heads. Scorsese navigates between these timelines with relative ease (shout-out to editor extraordinaire Thelma Schoonmaker!), though it does take some time and attention to get used to. He keeps the camerawork clean and businesslike, almost as if the camera were just a fly on the wall, observing unobtrusively.
De Niro et al are given the “de-aging” CGI treatment so they can play the parts in all 3 timelines, which is not my preference. I’ve seen de-aging used well (meaning sparingly, like Carrie Fisher in Star Wars) but De Niro always looks a little off, and the trouble doubles when he’s got his shirt off. Plus it’s startling when De Niro is meant to be doing something more physical. When Frank is meant to be stomping on someone lying in the street, De Niro may have a young face but his kicks are that of an old man (the actor is 76). But his performance is quite good, and complex, and possibly the least showy of his career. Which is polar opposite to what Al Pacino does in the film, and I’m still not certain what to think of that. On the one hand, I do believe Hoffa was a bit of a ham himself. On the other hand, Pacino’s acting seems to have devolved into an over-the-top impression of himself. I’m not even sure it’s conscious. I’m not even sure he could stop. Although I confess I could watch him scrape the bottom of an ice cream sundae while screaming “cocksucker!” all day long, and at 3.5 hours, I pretty much feel like I did. His volume’s turned up to 11, and when it crashes into De Niro’s coiled repression, gosh, what a sight. What a symphony.
Scorsese seasons the story with all kinds of various wiseguys and goombas (Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemmons, Stephen Graham, Ray Romano, and not least of all, Harvey Keitel) and it makes a fair point about how Frank views the world: there are friends, and there are acquaintances. He can make peace with having to whack a mere acquaintance. But tighter ties would be a problem. He keeps people at a distance, or at least that’s the justification. The truth is, Frank is a sociopath and throughout the film we watched as his humanity is leeched from him. The money might be good, folks, but the job does take its toll. But Sheeran is such a stoic, melt into the background guy that we never see it. He is scary because we don’t ever know what makes him tick, what motivates him. If he has any inner life at all, we can only guess.
Meanwhile, mortality emerges as Scorsese’s other major theme, and it’s one we imagine hits quite close to home for him. Frank is looking back on his life, confessing his sins – but does he feel remorse? Can he feel anything at all? Frank has four daughters but at the end of his life, he’s fixated on Peggy (Anna Paquin), the one who won’t speak to him. Peggy is one of the few female characters in the film (sure there are “wives” but they’re about as important and present as background actors) and she says almost nothing. Her silence is judgment, revulsion. She has seen her father for who he is and she wants nothing to do with him. Even as a small child she has always felt the same about Russell Bufalino no matter how hard he bribe her with gifts; Peggy is in many ways the moral centre of the film, alarming since she’s on screen for about a total of 4 minutes out of the film’s 209. Speaking of Bufalino, Pesci does a startlingly good job of portraying a man who has completely blurred the boundaries between work and evil that he is absolutely, coldly, rotten to the core and doesn’t even seem to know it. This may be the stand-out performance of the film for me.
This all sounds like some pretty epic, pretty heavy stuff, and it is, but at times it’s also funny, surprisingly so. Most of the characters are introduced to us with one important statistic: the date and manner of their death. On their own it’s often quite comedic, but time after time, bullet after bullet, death clearly stalks them all. And when the bullets run out, time starts cutting them down, and old age is often more brutal than violence. It’s slower, and crueler. In the end it’s coming for Frank too, and he’s left to face it alone, everyone else either dead or just done with him. Does he regret his choices? Does he even believe they were choices? The story is based on a memoir that’s fairly contested in terms of facts, but Scorsese isn’t interested in the history, he’s interested in the allegory, and, at this stage of his career it must be said, the legacy. Whereas his earlier gangster movies left a more glamourous impression, The Irishman leaves no room for doubt: mob life is no life at all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
DC’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 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.
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?
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 docile 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.
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 mortality 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.