Joker (2019)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, Joker, which was released in cinemas last week, takes a look at how the popular DC comic character becomes the villain; an origin story of sorts that takes place in Gotham long before the rise of Batman. This isn’t the glorified (and poorly portrayed) madness of Jared Leto’s Joker, nor the insane and yet somehow charming Joker portrayed by Heath Ledger. This is Phoenix like we have never seen him, in a grim look at the true darkness of mental illness, and the effects of poverty and ignorance on the city’s most underprivileged residents .

I’m honestly still not sure how I feel about the film. I think part of this comes down to the direction. Joker was directed by Todd Phillips, who is responsible for movies such as Road Trip, The Hangover trilogy and Due Date. As such, I felt he was put of his depth here, with a film that is not only considerably darker than his previous films, but also a completely different genre. Despite the title, this is no comedy. Whilst there were admittedly some funny moments, it was a kind of bleak humour, and far removed from any of the director’s previous works. The film as a whole is more of a psychological thriller, and I feel like this film would have benefitted from someone more used to this dark, gritty style of direction. Perhaps Fincher, or even Christopher Nolan (who, as we all know, directed the Dark Knight franchise, with much success.)

Director aside, Joaquin Phoenix does the best he can with what he’s got to work with, and to his credit, gives quite a brilliant and impressive performance. His portrayal of Arthur Fleck is truly something to see, and makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing. He is a clown for hire with aspirations to become a comedian, who looks after his ailing mother (Played brilliantly by Frances Conroy), and he does the best he can despite the hand he’s been dealt. But this film is not your typical underdog story. It is a visceral and compelling look at the effects of ignorance and insensitivity, and paints a picture of a society that could quite conceivably drive a person over the edge. The main character is mentally unstable and in some ways quite childlike, and as the film progresses, the scales of feeling are evenly weighted between sympathy and revulsion. His slow descent further into madness, as he evolves into the villain he will inevitably become, is actually quite confronting to watch. In addition to this, Arthur’s penchant for bursting into uncontrollable, unsettling laughter – which happens consistently throughout the film – made me vaguely uneasy. His unkempt hair and sickly physique were in keeping with the overall grimy feel of the film, but it’s not until his emergence as the Joker, that he finally looks like he belongs. The costume and facepaint he wears as his Joker persona suddenly reflect the madness he’s had within him the whole time, and once he makes his new identity known, there’s no coming back from it.

There are no rose coloured gasses here. The world Arthur lives in is one of systemic oppression, and the significant gap between the rich and the poor. These are desperate people; underprivileged and angry at the system that is determined to keep them down. Whatever the spark that ignites the fire, revolution is inevitable. In some ways, Joker was a difficult movie to watch, because there was a heavy focus on how mental illness is perceived by society, and the tendency of people to make it into a joke, either out of cruelty, or simple lack of understanding. In the journal he carries with him – a physical manifestation of his innermost thoughts – Arthur writes “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t“. It is a painfully accurate statement, and one that brings with it a floodgate of emotions. And yet, despite revelations that come to light regarding the origins of his psychological issues, it is hard to feel full sympathy for Arthur. He is a character ruled by delusions and guided by his absolute certainty that he is somehow special. It is a difficult protagonist to empathise with.

It did have some really great moments, and was thought provoking in a lot of ways. Amongst others, the movie touches on things like mob mentality, influence of the media, and how easily things can turn from love to hate or vice versa. There was some unexpected violence, which was utilised to great effect and surprisingly not overdone. That being said, there was a lot about the movie that didn’t quite work. There is one relationship in particular that just feels wrong and even though it is later explained, it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Whilst Joker managed to tackle some pretty big themes and really captured the darkness of a city on the brink of chaos, for me, this movie felt like a long lead up to a not especially satisfactory conclusion.

Hellboy (2019)

I’ve been looking forward to the new Hellboy film for weeks. After watching several impressive trailers, I went to see it last night with high expectations. What I got was somewhat less than I was hoping for, but still an enjoyable cinema experience.

Neil Marshall’s take on everyone’s favourite big red demon has been met with mostly scathing reviews. Many people are holding it up against the Guillermo Del Toro versions, and saying that it falls short. Whilst I did thoroughly enjoy the 2004 adaptation and the sequel in 2008 (I mean, how cool was the Angel of Death, y’all?), I tend to find these kind of comparisons less than helpful. I feel that two different directors with two completely different visions, need to be critiqued on their own individual merit.

So I want to begin by saying that, despite its shortcomings – and there are quite a few, if we’re being honest – I actually quite liked this most recent take on Mike Mignola’s acclaimed comic. A general consensus amongst reviewers seems to be that David Harbour does an excellent job in the title role, and I agree. Plus, he looks absolutely fantastic. However, he can only do so much with the script he is given, and here I feel is one of the areas where this adaptation falls a little flat. Oftentimes throughout the film, the dialogue comes across somewhat clunky, where it should be free flowing. There are quite a few scenes that lack chemistry between the characters, and a lot of this has to do with what they’re saying – or not saying – to each other. And don’t even get me started on the less than stellar British accents! Despite this, there is a smattering of humour throughout, which helps to offset the moments where conversations sound stilted.

The film opens with a gravelly Ian McShane voice over for black and white scenes, interjected with startling red. The opening scenes tell of the Blood Queen Nimue (played by Milla Jovovich), and her defeat by none other than King Arthur, with the aid of Excalibur. But the rest of the movie proceeds to jump back and forth between what seems like too many subplots and flashbacks, and the effect is somewhat jarring. We’ve got vampires, giants, secret societies, Nazis, changelings, cat like beasts, and Baba Yaga herself. It’s the last character in particular that struck me as being unecessary. Whilst the scenes involving the grotesque, scuttling hag and her walking house are amongst the most effective visually, I found it to be a pointless addition to an already overloaded plot. The film suffers from an abundance of minor characters, with little to no real explanation for their presence.

The plot for Hellboy is drawn from the comics Darkness Calls, The Wild Hunt and The Storm and the Fury, but it feels rushed, with too much involved to be properly explored with any real depth. And it’s a shame, because with a little less unecessary subject matter and a little more substance, the plot could have worked a whole lot better, and flowed a whole lot smoother.

Effects wise, there was some absolutely fantastic gore throughout. I know a lot of people are complaining about it, but the video game playing, horror movie fan in me loved it. And in particular, the hell beasts in some of the final few scenes are the stuff of nightmares. Set against moody, apocalyptic skies and a gritty London backdrop, the gloomy colour palette works extraordinarily well against the splashes of blood and sheer unapologetic violence. Nimue’s vengeance presents in creative ways, and the CGI deaths of a few in particular were highly effective. Admittedly, there are moments during the film where the smaller budget (compared to other comic adaptations) shows, but overall it was a successful use of the R rating.

A couple of mid credits scenes hint at the possibility of expanding the universe with a sequel, but it all depends on how well or poorly this film does. Despite most of the reviews I’ve read, and though there are definitely things I would have liked to have seen done better, I really enjoyed the film for what it was. And I’d quite like to see it further explored, should the possibility of a sequel be a reality.

Logan (2017)

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While I was on holidays, I went to see Logan. I had the entire cinema to myself (woot!) and settled in for Hugh Jackman’s final performance as everyone’s favourite anti-hero, Wolverine. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Set some years into the (near) future, mutants are near extinct. Logan is driving a limo to earn money, and caring for an ageing Charles. But things take a turn with the unexpected arrival of Laura (played by Dafne Keen), a young girl with Wolverine’s same adamantium claws and healing abilities. Initially Logan wants nothing to do with her, but soon finds himself thrust into the unwanted role of her protector, whilst being hunted by mercenaries who want Laura for their own purposes. However, this isn’t just another hero film. Unlike the previous films set in the X-Men universe, Logan is less about hero vs villain (though there is that, of course), and more a kind of raw, serious insight into one of the series’ most popular characters. I think this is evident straight away in the title – and with the Wolverine moniker dropped almost entirely throughout the film. But right from the opening scene, in which an aged Logan takes on a gang of thugs in a violent and bloody showdown, it is clear to the viewer that this is going to be a completely different X-Men experience.

Honestly, with the absence of almost any of the other mutants we’ve become so familiar with, it’s difficult to really see Logan as part of the same franchise. And it is somewhat confusing as to when, and in which timeline this film falls. Any of you familiar with the comics, and previous films will know that this whole timeline issue is convoluted and complicated. But Hugh Jackman attempted to shed some light on this new, dystopian reality prior to the film’s release, being quoted as saying “Not only is [Logan] different in terms of timeline and tone, it’s a slightly different universe. It’s actually a different paradigm and that will become clear … It’s a stand alone movie in many ways. It’s not really beholden to timelines and storylines in the other movies.” In this regard, I think it’s almost easier to consider this film as a singular, one off movie, rather than a follow up to any of the previous films.

Aside from being a much more sombre affair than anything preceding it, this film tackles some serious themes too; perhaps most notably, the inevitability of time, and death. And not just superhero death, where someone comes to save the day and everything is alright. We’re talking the very real passing of time, and the effects it has. Both Charles and Logan have aged, and previous events hinted at throughout the film have left them both weary and, in many ways, broken. These are the characters we know, but they are different, changed in irreparable ways. There are underlying tones of regret throughout the film, as well as a kind of quiet sorrow, which both Jackman and Stewart convey effortlessly. And it was affecting, in ways I wasn’t expecting. This film is like watching a loved one slowly die, and knowing there is nothing you can do to stop or slow it.

But don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a tear jerker or sorrow fest – far from it. With its initial R rating, Logan uses, to great effect, some serious comic book violence. It is brutal, and in some cases filmed in slow motion (which is always awesome, let’s face it), and exactly the kind of thing fans have been waiting to see from Wolverine. Plus, there is curse words aplenty, and though a seemingly small thing, it gives a kind of realness to the film. Makes the whole thing a bit more gritty. Even Laura’s character adds to this; she is a child, yes, but there is a seriousness to her, a kind of fierceness that almost makes you forget that she isn’t another adult.

I think there could be no more fitting end to Hugh Jackman’s run as Wolverine than this movie. It was everything he had ever wanted to do with the character, and everything we had been hoping to see. Poignant, violent, visceral, and utterly brilliant. What are you still reading for? Go and see it for yourself.

Wytches Review

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Last night I read the first volume of Wytches, the ongoing graphic novel series from Scott Snyder. I bought it on a recommendation from my best friend who, if I’m honest, is pretty much responsible for all the cool shit I’m into. And, as ever, I wasn’t disappointed.

This captivating horror comic begins in the year 1919, with a woman seemingly trapped in a tree, and quite anxious to be out of it. Her young son appears before her, and asks where she is been. She replies that someone ‘pledged her to them’ and begs him to break her free. There is a sense of urgency here; something big and bad is coming, and it’s coming fast. Yet instead of helping his mother, the boy grabs a rock and unexpectedly uses it to bash her across the head. He looks at her and chillingly says ‘pledged is pledged.’ before something grabs her and drags her into the dark.

Now I don’t know about you, but right away I wanted to read more. Who, or what was our victim referring to when she said them? And how it is possible that a simple word like pledged could carry such menace?

Jump forward to the year 2014, and we are introduced to the Rooks family. Young Sailor is about to begin her first say at a new school, and she is understandably nervous, but not just for the usual reasons – though her anxiety does play a large role in this comic. The thirteen year old protagonist carries the weight of a dark past on her shoulders, and as the story continues, we learn more about her, and why her family made the move to a new town. But things in their new home are not going to be a smooth as they hope, and something is lurking in the nearby woods, something menacing and deeply evil. And that something wants Sailor.

The thing I liked about Wytches is that, aside from being a well written and awesomely illustrated horror comic, there were some great themes as well. Sailor fights a constant battle with her anxiety, and must face up to a particularly nasty bully. Her father, Charlie, struggles with guilt over incidents in the family’s past, and like any father, worries about his daughter, and his ability to be a good parent. The underlying themes in this comic add a cool spin to the plot, because it makes the story easy to relate to and adds a great contrast to the whole notion of evil and the perhaps more fantastic aspects of the series.

Snyder’s simultaneously creepy and engrossing story, coupled with the gritty illustrations by Jock, and Matt Hollingsworth’s dark, moody colours, make Wytches a thoroughly enjoyable read, and worth the time of any person who calls themselves a horror fiction fan. 4.5 stars for me, and the only reason it didn’t get a full five is because I felt the story in parts to be slightly rushed. But otherwise, an excellent beginning to what I hope will be a long running series.