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.

A Simple Favor (2018)

Directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and starring Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick, A Simple Favor is a difficult film to categorise. I’ve heard it called a thriller, a domestic comedy, and even ‘Cute Noir’ (yeah, I don’t know what that is either). I suppose it has elements of each, but to be honest I’m still not really sure where to put it.

Anna Kendrick is Stephanie, an eager to please young widow who spends her time raising a son, filming vlogs from her kitchen, and being well intentioned, if generally a little too over the top. Mocked by a trio of other parents, in something akin to an adult version of Mean Girls, Stephanie is a little bit of a loner – albeit a very chirpy one. Blake Lively is Emily, and the antithesis of Stephanie; elegant, aloof, enigmatic and completely unperturbed about the opinions of others. She swears carelessly, has a nude portrait of herself hanging in her home, and drinks martinis in the afternoon. Despite their obvious differences, the two women come together as a result of their sons’ friendship, and strike up a friendship of their own. Mere weeks after their first encounter, Emily suddenly, unexpectedly disappears. And here begins a series of twists and turns that drive the rest of the film.

Stephanie, a self proclaimed problem solver, decides to delve into the mystery of Emily’s disappearance, whilst smoothly integrating herself into the life of the family Emily leaves behind. Her husband Sean (Henry Golding) can shed little light on the enigma that is his wife, admitting that she is an intensely private person, even with him. Cliches abound as the movie drives towards the middle, and with them comes a cringeworthy predictability that you could put money on. Though to it’s credit, there are a few key scenes and revelations that help to alleviate an otherwise unsurprising tale. As the movie progresses and the aforementioned twists begin to come into play, it becomes clear that despite their shiny Stepford exteriors, neither woman is entirely who she appears to be.

There is enough intrigue in the beginning to propel the film forward, but at a certain point it begins to drag out to a contrived, almost laughable conclusion. The humour is at odds with the somewhat darker subject matter, which works in some places (watch for the scene where Emily makes a candid, off the cuff remark about her labia) yet falls flat in others.

A Simple Favor, much like it’s central characters, can’t be taken at face value. There is more to it than the trailer suggests, and it’s doesn’t cleanly fit into any genre. It had the potential to be a really great film. The premise was good, the two talented female leads have obvious chemistry and play their respective characters incredibly well, and some of the costumes were to die for. Let’s be real, if I looked as good as Blake Lively in a suit, I’d wear them all the time. Yet Feig’s attempt to combine his typical direction and stylistic humour, and play it off against the ‘femme fatale’ character that dominates more elegant thrillers like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, doesn’t blend especially well. Whilst the film itself wasn’t bad, there were definitely aspects that could have been more finely tuned to create a more satisfying cinema experience. Nevertheless, if ever there was such a thing as a light hearted thriller, A Simple Favor is it.

Lady Bird (2017)

Last week I took myself out on a date, and I went to see Lady Bird. I read a review a while ago by the guys over at MovieBabble and it piqued my interest, so I’ve been meaning to go see it for a while. I scored some free tickets for the cinema through work last year (the one good thing about my job) so I thought I’d take advantage of the midweek lull at the movie theatre, and the fact that it’s at the end of the showing cycle (both of these things contribute to less people to have to share a theatre with, y’all). 

The titular character is played by Saoirse Ronan, and I’ll be honest here guys; if you don’t love her then we can’t be friends. The 23 year old Irish-American (swoon) actress is incredibly talented, and Lady Bird is just one more film to be added to her ever growing list of fantastic performances. Set in 2002 in Sacramento, California; it tells the story of Christine McPherson (self-dubbed Lady Bird) as she completes her final year of high school, and prepares to go off to college. As a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood, Lady Bird is certain of what she wants, and determined to go onto better things; to break free from the monotony of her home town and go to live in a place that has ‘culture’. Of course, her desire to leave is at odds with her mother’s equally strong desire to keep her close to home, and just one of the many things the two butt heads over.

Under Greta Gerwig’s direction, this film has a sense of frank honesty, and she tackles the coming of age genre with a touch of humour, and attention to detail. If the goal here was to be as raw and real as possible, then Lady Bird comes through. I feel as though all the characters reminded me people I know, or have met. Everyone from Lady Bird’s upbeat and positive best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), to aloof, superior and somewhat condescending love interest, Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) was vaguely familiar to me. And each of the relationships in this film are essential to the driving forward of the plot. Though of course, the loving but turbulent relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf), is at the centre of it all, as both women try to assert themselves in the face of conflicting interests and ideals.

This film was beautifully shot, with some really strong performances and a story at the heart of it all that I think most, if not all of us can relate to. Which of us hasn’t wanted desperately to move from our home town and experience something new? Which of us hasn’t dealt with those pressures from teachers, and indeed adults as a whole, in our teenage years? And which of us hasn’t gone through those mini existential crises, whilst we try to figure out who we are? Though the plot is not the most original (we all know that “girl ditches her true friends for new friends who turn out to only like the version of herself she’s created to impress them” trope oh so well), the performances make up for it. There’s something sweetly poignant about it, and it can’t be said that the film has no heart. With her directorial debut hitting home so accurately, I’d definitely be interested to see more of Gerwig’s creations in the future.

IT (2017)

A fear of clowns is one if the most common phobias, but for Stephen King fans, the first word that comes to mind when they think of clowns is not coulrophobia. The word is IT. Written in 1986, the paving slab of a novel about Pennywise the Dancing Clown gave people a whole new reason to be afraid. Then in 1990, it was first adapted to screen, starring Tim Curry as the title character. I have neither read the book, or seen the first adaptation. But the other night, I saw the rehashed version of the film. The trailers looked sufficiently hair raising (even to those of us not afraid of clowns) and the reviews were good, so I braved the Friday night cinema to give it a look.

Unlike the original, which was set in 1960, the 2017 version, starring Bill Skarsgård as the malevolent clown, was brought forward to 1988. Set in Derry (Maine), IT tells the story of seven teenage friends over one summer as they are terrorized by different manifestations of their own worst fears. Led by Bill Denbrough, whose own younger brother Georgie disappears, the friends – collectively known as The Losers Club – band together to try and bring an end to the horror, and to the murderous clown responsible for causing it.

IT opens really well, and the scenes where young Georgie encounters Pennywise in the sewer are in fact some of the best (and more affecting) parts in the entire film. But from there, it kinds of drops off. The first portion of the film is largely just an introduction to The Losers Club, interspersed with individual scenes where Pennywise appears to the kids in the forms of their worst fears. It had the potential to flow nicely but these scenes are singular and feel disjointed, not really building on each other enough to really work properly. The latter half of the film is where it all starts to finally come together, and where the Losers face evil not just from the shape shifting fiend who wants to devour them, but from the bully who is at the very least, equally intent on causing suffering. 

In terms of graphics and the special effects, IT does quite well. It’s a bit of a step up from the fake teeth and face paint of the original (no offence, Tim) and I actually think it’s the kind of film that could benefit from a 3D viewing to make it really pop, so to speak. There’s a particular scene involving Pennywise emerging ferociously from a projector screen that I’m fairly certain made the entire cinema jump. One thing I did really appreciate was that the film wasn’t heavy on the gratuitous gore. The violent or bloody aspects of the film (keep an eye out for the bathroom scene) were almost tasteful in comparison to some modern ideals of horror, and I think in this case it definitely worked to the movie’s advantage. 

In terms of actual scares though, I rather felt IT to be somewhat lacking. There were a couple of mildly tense moments, and there was at least one scene that got a scream from one of the other people in the cinema. But rather than the clown, for me it was his other forms that were more unnerving. In particular, the painted woman that plagues Stanley had a kind of menacing presence that gave me the wiggins, and Eddie’s leper was especially gruesome. As for Pennywise himself, I found no true horror there. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the voice adopted by Skarsgård is a kind of raspy lisp, which I found more grating than spooky. 

Honestly, IT felt a lot more like a kind of coming of age drama than a real horror, with perhaps more focus on the themes of friendship and (loss of) innocence, and less actual scares. Whilst the film was still enjoyable despite its shortfalls, I think I was expecting something a little more…creepy. With a second instalment in the works, I hope that chapter two will not skimp on the heart (and the charm) of the Losers, but improve on the scares, and give the opportunity to make something genuinely terrifying. 

Baby Driver (2017)

I went to see Baby Driver the other night with a friend of mine, and yes, I’m lazy and that’s why I’m only writing about it now. Put your judgy eyes away and just read, will ya?

Written and directed by Edgar Wright (the chap who directed Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs the World), Baby Driver is a fast paced crime/action film with a killer score and an array of awesome characters. Rounded out with some quippy dialogue and a winning combination of originality and style, this film pretty much has it all. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the best getaway driver in the biz, timing everything to the beat of his own personal soundtrack. Kevin Spacey plays Doc; Baby’s suave, shady employer and the crime boss who runs the show. And Lily James plays Debora, the pretty young waitress that captures Baby’s eye.

Honestly, this film had me hooked from the very first scene. Opening to the sound of ‘Bellbottoms’ by John Spencer Blues Explosion, Wright pretty much throws us into the passenger seat of an expertly choreographed getaway after an in-and-out bank robbery. His direction is so smooth and clean, that the scenes flow effortlessly, without the jarring cuts often employed in this kind of film.

Of course, this is only aided by the aforementioned brilliant soundtrack. Each scene is set by the song that plays at the time, and it fits in so well with the dialogue and the action, that you gotta give Wright his credit; the man knows how to capture an audience. I gotta be honest here, I knew none of the songs in the entire film, but each and every one of them just…worked. And it’s a good thing too, because music is what literally drives this film. (geddit?)

But it’s not just the rad tunes that make this film so good. The characters; oh man, the characters. Baby’s moral compass is in stark contrast with the vaguely psychotic Bats (Jamie Foxx) and perpetually moody Griff (Jon Bernthal), who is in turn at odds with the cool, easygoing Buddy (Jon Hammer) and his sassy wife, Darlin’ (Eiza Gonzalez). The characters kind of offset each other, and each one adds something different to the film.

And beneath it all, the promise of young love and the only getaway Baby really wants; the one that will take him out of his life of crime, with Debora and “a car [they] can’t afford, with a plan [they] don’t have.”

Honestly, Baby Driver is one of the coolest films I’ve seen this year. If you like your car chases smooth, your soundtracks funky, and your characters cool, I recommend giving it a look.

God Help the Girl (2014)

Netflix scored another win the other night. Scrolling through aimlessly, as I do, and in the independent films section I found God Help the Girl. It is a British musical drama written and directed by none other than Stuart Murdoch, the man behind indie band, Belle and Sebastian. Starring the ever lovely Emily Browning, Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander, and Hannah Murray (Skins and Game of Thrones), it is a sweet film, both lighthearted and serious, and full of the chill indie tunes one can expect from Murdoch.

Emily Browning plays Eve, a young woman struggling with an eating disorder, who dreams of being a musician. Whilst in hospital, she starts writing music as a way to help her deal with her emotional and mental problems, eventually finishing a tape which she sends into a radio station. Following a breakout from the hospital one night to go see a band, she meets James (Alexander); a lifeguard and musician. The two develop a friendship and, along with James’ guitar student, Cassie (Murray), they start a band.

There is nothing particularly complex about the plot; just three young adults bonding over music and the simple thrills of being young. It’s about friendship, and ambition, and the role music plays in people’s lives. The cast is small, but the music itself acts almost like another character; nudging the plot forward and conveying everything Murdoch wants to say, in verse. Which makes sense, given what he does for a living!

It was well acted, each of the characters lovable in their own way, and each with their own set of problems they have to deal with. The movie made me long for the ability to play one (or all) of my various instruments. Vaguely reminiscent of films like Song One, Begin Again, and Rudderless (three music based films you need to go out and watch right now), it was just a nice, simple film with a great soundtrack. Plus, if you’re into that kind of thing (which I am) the costumes are to die for. If you like Belle and Sebastian, and bands of that ilk, – or even if you just like quirky independent films – I recommend giving God Help the Girl a look.