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.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)

Chances are, you know of Quentin Tarantino. Bit of an oddball, painful to listen to, but he’s made some of the most iconic films…probably ever. Notable for his unique direction style, haphazard narratives and gratuitous violence, his films have made waves in the industry every time. His most recent film is no different. With a stellar cast, nearly three hours of screen time and a nostalgic look at Los Angeles in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood pays homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and one of the most profitable industries in the world.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, the former lead actor of a popular TV western, now resigned to taking supporting roles in TV pilots. He is the embodiment of a fading star, clinging desperately to some semblance of his former fame and trying to carve out a career in film before it’s “too late”. At his side through it all is Brad Pitt as Dalton’s stunt double and friend, Cliff Booth. Casually, contentedly in the background of the film industry – with a somewhat unsavoury reputation – Cliff is cool as a cucumber from start to finish, and the antidote to Rick’s somewhat tumultuous, and often alcohol fuelled moods. The chemistry between the two is palpable, and there is a true sense of brotherhood that flows through the film as we follow the lives of these two showbusiness veterans, tetering on the edge of irrelevance.

Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, young and idealistic, and just breaking into the film industry as Rick Dalton (who, in this version of events, happens to be her next door neighbour) seems to be on his inevitable way out of it. This raised a few eyebrows in the lead up to the film’s release, as people were quick to jump to conclusions about how Tarantino may have handled that particularly sensitive issue. Anyone familiar with the Manson Family will understand the controversy, but the truth is that Robbie’s Sharon Tate is almost like a background character, more or less there for the purpose of juxtaposition between the old and the new.

Tarantino tackles a lot of really excellent themes in this film, particularly the bonds of friendship, and the effects of change. But with a run time of 161 minutes, the film itself is a bit meandering. Whilst the main story is that of Dalton and Booth, the film gets caught up in the Manson Family subplot which, for the most part, feels a little…lacklustre and at times, even pointless. The scenes involving the infamous cult have a tendency to drag, and not even the increasing undercurrent of tension, as the film builds to it’s inevitable conclusion, is quite enough to propel the scenes forward. Certainly, the movie would have benefited from losing at least a half hour of screen time. It feels like we’re being taken on a slow amble through the film, until the third act kind of explodes onto the screen with a pace and energy that the rest of the movie doesn’t quite manage to achieve.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed being taken on the nostalgic, and occasionally self indulgent ride back to the late 60’s. The era has been recreated with minute detail, and the movie is both stylistically and visually pleasing. With some familiar cameos (heyyyy Zoe Bell) and a supporting cast including Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant and Emile Hirsch, it is the characters more so than the actual plot, who truly drive this film. Despite a few flaws with the film’s pace, it is worth watching for the explosive final act alone (if nothing else). In typical Tarantino style, is has some great dialogue, some funny moments interjected with the sincere, and truly unforgettable characters. The quirky director can be a little hit and miss for me, but in this case he scored a hit.

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.