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TIFF 2019: Joaquin Phoenix Thrills in the Otherwise Empty ‘Joker’

Joaquin Phoenix is at the top of his game in the brutal origin story ‘Joker,’ but the film and its lazy screenplay aren’t up to his standards.

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Joaquin Phoenix gave the best performance of this decade in 2012 for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master; it’s worth getting out of the way the fact that he is one of our greatest living actors. Even when not working with the best directors, Phoenix can still give a memorable performance that eclipses the rest of a film. Unfortunately, that’s the case in Joker, a revisionist take on the iconic Batman villain. This is a comic book movie that fancies itself a trenchant social critique of our chaotic times, but it’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But back to that performance. Phoenix is introduced as a clown named Arthur Fleck, who is rented out by various businesses to debase himself and twirl signs out front. When we first see him he’s already cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, and his mental state only falls apart further from there. This an unfortunate choice, as it’s hard to understand what makes Arthur tick when he practically lives on another planet. Phoenix, sporting a terrible pageboy haircut and looking even gaunter than he did in The Master, oozes unbridled menace, even when he’s in the relatively calming domain of his social worker. Arthur sees her once a week, part of the aftermath of a past commitment to Arkham Asylum, though it’s unclear what precipitated the stay. He’s also supposedly on multiple psychiatric medicines, though it’s unclear if he’s even taking them by the time the film opens.

Arthur bemoans the state of Gotham, which is shuddering under the weight of rampant inequality and poverty. Amid the turmoil, gangs of teens go wilding out; one group beats him up and steals his sign, getting him into hot water at the clown agency. When he’s not writing homicidal/suicidal thoughts in his journal that masquerade as “jokes” for his “stand-up act,” he sets his attention on Sophie (Zazie Beetz, woefully underused), a woman living in his building with her young daughter. Outside of his rent-a-clown work, Arthur spends his days in his filthy apartment (so basically, a regular New York City flat) with his mother (a similarly underused Frances Conroy), where they regularly watch a late-night talk show starring Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, acting by numbers).

Joker

Martin Scorsese was originally slated to produce the film, but he backed out early in production due to the time requirements of The Irishman. Without Scorsese as a creative participant, director Todd Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver do the next best thing: they crib shamelessly from some of his best work, particularly Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983). But the re-purpose feels neutered and inessential. Arthur seethes with rage at the people who don’t like him because he’s a creep, but he doesn’t really have any thoughts on society the way Travis Bickle did. The King of Comedy’s Rupert ends up looking like a hard-working comic-in-the-making compared to Phoenix’s Arthur, whose first attempt at an open-mic night is marred when he can’t stop his wretched (and retching) laughs. Scorsese’s film was a disturbing commentary on the way we deify celebrities, but Joker doesn’t have any grand thoughts on celebrity or envy. Arthur just wants to tell jokes and have people like him.

Phillips and his cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, film Joker with a constantly moving handheld camera that’s a clear departure from nearly every comic book movie to date. Occasionally the camera work is thrilling, but it’s also often tedious, and there are moments where the camera starts to shake in an otherwise still scene, as if the operator was trying to remind the audience that the movie is edgy. Everything is shot with a sickly yellow sheen — a lazy signifier of a ‘serious movie’ and ‘something in 1970s-era New York (or Gotham, whatever).’ Viewers living in certain big cities will get the chance to see Joker’s nauseating color scheme in all its glory with special 70mm engagements.

Joker

Still, though he’s often over the top, it’s hard to look away from Phoenix’s performance. He can be insufferable in the first hour, but winds up a more compelling actor in the second hour when everything starts to fall apart. He’s closer to the Joker as we know him at that point — a chaotic force for evil, rather than a self-pitying weirdo with mommy issues. The maudlin sentimentality that occasionally interrupts Phoenix’s bursts of looniness is completely eradicated at that point, and despite the film’s cynical adoption of contemporary politics, it’s refreshing in stretches to see this material treated in such a diametrically opposite way from most comic book films. There’s no hint of Marvel’s Tradition of Quality, and even the sheen of other DC movies is absent; for better or worse, Joker has a look and feel all its own. It’s tempting to celebrate the film as the first of a recent spate of comic book movies that subverts the now-standard template, but Joker’s many failings outweigh an intriguing performance from Phoenix. He may be the best we have now, but even he can’t prop up this stinker.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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1 Comment

  1. Ricky Fernandes da Conceição

    September 10, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    Dude, you are breaking my heart. There is just no way this film can be as lazy as you say. There’s just no way.

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘Crazy World’ Brings Wakaliwood to the Masses

‘Crazy World’ is the latest Wakaliwood film from Uganda to be translated and brought to the world, containing crazy action on a low budget.

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Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema.

As children are being abducted by the Tiger Mafia — led by a pint-sized leader frequently mistaken as a child himself — parents begin formulating a plot to rescue the children and get revenge on the thugs who keep destroying their village. Unfortunately for the Mafia, they’ve made the mistake of kidnapping the Waka Stars — children with can outsmart and beat up anybody when they work together. Other characters include a parent who has gone insane six months after his child was abducted (and now lives within the village dump), and of course, characters named after Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan for good measure.

Crazy World

As silly as the premise sounds, Crazy World is even more absurd in employing a trademark of Ugandan tradition by incorporating narration from a VJ — or “video jockey” — who describes what’s happening, why it’s happening, why it’s bad that it’s happening, and who is about to get their heads kicked in. A side note about the midnight screening for TIFF: the narration was done live, and made the whole experience all the more delirious. But even without the live narration, what’s there is simply a staple of Wakaliwood films. The narration can have to do with the film itself, or even suggest the social and political anxieties that make the scenes all the more striking.

It’s also impossible to talk about Crazy World without mentioning the utter insanity of the action. For starters, every kick and every punch lands with the loudest thud imaginable. It sounds like a boxing match is happening, but it’s actually kids beating up grown men. The fights tend to be contained to a small set where green screen is quite obviously employed (to hilarious effect), and some of the worst special effects show buildings and vehicles being blown up. This isn’t a knock; in fact, these low-budget effects work exceptionally well because the film itself feels just as DIY and cobbled together. It’s infectious how fast Crazy World moves and how well it works, simply due to well-choreographed action.

Crazy World

Crazy World is my entry point to Wakaliwood, and there will be many who have never seen a film like this. However, those that do might find a new favourite style of action filmmaking — one that leverages its set pieces against the backdrop of regional concerns in Uganda. It’s a movie that transports you not because it’s put together well, but because it’s put together so lovingly. A hilarious romp, Crazy World is one-of-a-kind cinema that sets the bar for low-budget filmmaking.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ Examines a Criminal’s Upbringing

Justin Kurzel’s latest film boasts a great supporting cast, and applies a gritty aesthetic to one of Australia’s most renowned criminals.

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True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s latest film — a fictionalized version of the story of Ned Kelly — takes an Australian outlaw and attempts to humanize and emphasize the importance of taking your life in your own hands. Bolstered by an exceptional supporting cast, another great score by Jed Kurzel, a gritty attitude, and fantastic final act, True History of the Kelly Gang is a movie that will best be remembered for its moments — not the narrative in between. Focused heavily on the character work, Kurzel delivers a satisfying enough period drama that demands a lot from its actors in order to provide nuance in a fairly standard biopic structure that builds to a blistering climax and somber finale.

A tale of criminals being the heroes to the oppressed, True History of the Kelly Gang takes its time warming the audience to who Ned Kelly (George MacKay) ultimately becomes, and why he was revered by others in the community. Beginning with his childhood (and literally featuring diegetic intertitles that state “Boy” and “Man” when their respective segments begin), the film explores Kelly’s upbringing from his Irish immigrant family, led by matriarch Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis in a very potent, voracious performance), and her many decisions that lead to Ned’s ultimate notoriety. More aptly, Ellen finds herself juggling father figures, as well as who she wants her son to become, while attempting to drown out any of her husband’s proclivities and vices.

True History of the Kelly Gang

Ned logs his adventures throughout and starts telling his own story for the ones he loves to read when he eventually passes. “Every man should be the author of his own story” is a mantra Kelly holds onto, and it frames the film for Kurzel into something more singular, only occasionally looking at how others may portray Kelly’s story. That being said, True History of the Kelly Gang flows in a very linear-fashion, and often feels like it’s just going through the motions in order to get to the next big moment. Even with early appearances from Russell Crowe (in a role that is a lot of fun to watch him chew on) and Charlie Hunnam, the film often feels like it knows where it wants to go, but has a runtime to pad out before it feels right to get there. The script surrounds Ned with violence and tough decisions, which work in the moment, but getting to them is sometimes a chore.

Moments are what keep True History of the Kelly Gang interesting. While the main villain (played exceptionally by Nicholas Hoult) keeps the film strung together as he chases Ned throughout Australia, the journey never transcends the crafting of individual scenes. Whether it’s Hoult’s character’s sly trickery and deceit that unfold and enrapture, a tough decision that either leads to violence or trouble (but never a more virtuous outcome), or the final gunfight where the visuals, score, and sound design all cascade into each other to form one of the most memorable scenes of the year, these moments don’t work because of the characters that were built, but instead satisfy due to an understanding of film techniques. The screenplay itself is solid, but never amounts to a whole as strong as the individual parts.

True History of the Kelly Gang

This holds True History of the Kelly Gang back, turns it into a very well-made film that never really justifies the time it spends building upon Ned Kelly’s character. The story could have opened with Kelly as a man, and audiences would likely not feel much different about his plight. This often is the case with Kurzel’s films, however; they know where they want to go, but don’t rarely justify the time they take to get there. Instead, beautiful visuals and a score that moves between raucous and dissonant distract from an otherwise standard telling of a man brought into a violent life, and his fight to be himself.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Pleads for Love and Laughter Amidst Hatred

‘Jojo Rabbit’ brings Waititi’s signature humor to a coming-of-age movie about growing up as a youth in Nazi Germany.

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Jojo Rabbit

After directing Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi probably got carte blanche to do whatever he wanted in Hollywood. Already signed on to do Thor: Love and Thunder, the New Zealand director decided to do something almost no other director would probably consider: making a comedy about Hitler. That would be the reductive elevator pitch, which is how many will approach the film when it is officially released, but Jojo Rabbit is hardly that. Instead, Waititi satirizes hate itself, as well as all the ridiculously extreme convictions people have that hold the world back from being peaceful. It’s all done with that signature Waititi charm that makes the film a joyous mix of entertaining dialogue and lovable characters.

The hardest thing to get past in Jojo Rabbit is its initial premise. Set during World War II, just as Germany is on the cusp of defeat, the film follows ten-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) as he begins his training to be a part of Hitler’s army. After he is sent home from a Nazi bootcamp, he discovers a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his house, and is forced to help hide her or risk his mother (Scarlett Johansson) being murdered by the Gestapo. His blind fanaticism to Hitler and his ideals puts Jojo in a precarious situation that is only further made tense by the presence of his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler (played with Chaplin-esque exuberance by Waititi).

Jojo Rabbit

It would be easy to write off Jojo Rabbit as a farce if based on its initial set up. Easily reminiscent of the director’s first coming-of-age film, Boy, there’s a level of quirk that will likely aggravate audiences unwilling to give the premise the time of day. Hitler is not played off as menacing — he’s played off as a joke. The entire Nazi regiment is filled with cartoonishly evil devotees to Hitler, as well as naive children that join the army as last-ditch draftees. It’s easy to see these portrayals as mere jokes, but the screenplay doesn’t ever feel like it’s one hundred percent about showing Nazis as bad; instead, it goes even broader to show that hate itself is bad and worthless, by using Nazi Germany and Hitler as target practice.

Setting Jojo up as the main character, the film breaks down his staunch hatred of the Jewish race by forcing him to confront his beliefs and what they mean to the world around him. How his fanaticism affects his mother, or how it has suddenly forced him out of being a child, all contributes to Jojo as a character being torn down inch-by-inch by the love surrounding him. Jojo’s mother, Rosie, is worn out by the war and simply wants it to end, while Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf seems at odds with the ideals of the Hitler regime, and now acts as a high-ranking officer with a very lazy devotion to the fuhrer. 

Klezendorf and Rosie are characters that always exist within Waititi’s films. Klezendorf substitutes as a father-like figure to Jojo, as his own father continues to fight the war in Italy. He tries to provide guidance and love to the child while Rosie struggles to deal with Jojo’s blind devotion to Hitler — who also acts as a father-figure to the young boy. Jojo Rabbit explores how propaganda and hateful rhetoric can shape the youth into hateful people without the years spent open to the world around them. It’s an ambitious extension upon Waititi’s prior coming-of-age tales, which tend to show how negligence can affect a child’s upbringing.

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit is also one of the funniest movies of the year — not because it makes fun of Hitler and Nazi Germany (though those jokes are also gold), but because it takes aim at every form of hatred. Waititi only has sympathy for those who have the potential to love, and so he doesn’t just make everyone the subject of ridicule, but focuses on those characters who bring it on themselves. A dedicated SS officer will be ridiculed to the high heavens because he just wants to capture and kill traitors and the Jewish people; it’s the price paid for being a jerk, and Waititi simply has no time to defend every character’s actions.

Jojo Rabbit isn’t here to simply say that a time period and a certain person was bad. Waititi is making a claim that many have already made: there is too much hate in this world, so why not be a little nicer? Opening with a German version of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” there’s a constant nagging at the oppressors of the film to be a little nicer and maybe open up to another point of view. Easily the most audacious film in the director’s filmography, Jojo Rabbit successfully balances the quirky humor of Waititi’s his previous efforts with a dark subject matter. The result is a movie that not only will make audiences laugh, but will have them valuing the importance of laughter and niceties in a hate-fueled time.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is a Festival Standout

Noah Baumbach’s newest drama is a searing portrait of a marriage dissolving, and his best film to date.

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: Terrence Malick Puts Faith Front and Center in ‘A Hidden Life’

Terrence Malick makes a glorious return to scripted films with this searing portrait of faith at all costs.

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A Hidden Life

Terrence Malick is back! Or maybe he never went anywhere. Those propositions have divided critics who either see everything he directed after 2011’s The Tree of Life as failures, or who find his subsequent cinematic experiments to be vital additions to his oeuvre. I tend to fall into the latter category, having considerable affection for To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song, which seems like a transition of sorts back to the more tightly scripted narrative films he made up through The Tree of Life. Now, with A Hidden Life, Malick returns to his favorite subjects: religion, morality, family. It may not be a return to form per se, but it’s top-notch Malick, and already one of this year’s best films.

A Hidden Life is inspired by the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who was executed after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Jägerstätter is played by August Diehl, best known to American audiences as the lead Nazi in the bar shootout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. We first see him tending to his crops in the hilly town of St. Radegund, far above the clouds. (The film was originally titled Radegund before Malick settled on A Hidden Life, which is derived from a line in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.) He lives with his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), and their three young daughters. Malick and his new cinematographer, Jörg Widmer, film the Austrian landscape with some of the lushest greens ever depicted on film, and Franz’s whole family spends plenty of time frolicking in the beautiful surroundings (though he has significantly toned down the frolicking now that he’s working with a tighter script).

Franz first receives military training sometime after the rise of the Nazis but before the start of the Second World War. While there, he befriends a fellow soldier named Waldlan (Transit’s Franz Rogowski), whom he will fortuitously meet again years later. Through the luck of a deferment for farmers, he’s able to return home to his village, but his anti-war, anti-Nazi stances make him an enemy of the other villagers. Malick doesn’t go out of his way to construct contemporary parallels in A Hidden Life, but viewers might breathe a sigh of recognition at the way some of the villagers so whole-heartedly adopt cruel, ugly sentiments once they’re presented aloud by a compelling leader. By 1943, Franz’s deferment ends, at which point his unwillingness to serve sends him on a path to the guillotine.

A Hidden Life

Malick depicts Franz not as a saint looking to serve as an example for others, but merely a man concerned with good and evil. He’s told by multiple figures that no one knows of his principled stand, and that it won’t have any meaningful impact on the Nazi war effort. But he’s not looking to be a hero — just to do the right thing. Diehl’s expressive face is often contorted into anguished looks as he wrestles with his decision. His moral position opens his wife and children up to harassment and even assault from other villagers, and his death will leave them barely able to care for their crops and livestock. Though A Hidden Life is primarily Franz’s story, there are plenty of lovely scenes with Franziska at home, both with her children and with her sister, who lives with the family.

The contours of Franz’s story are understandably inspiring, and it’s not surprising that he was beatified in 2007. (Pope Benedict XVI made regular Sunday walks to St. Radegund as a child.) Malick’s films have always had elements of the religious and the divine, but this is his first film to expressly examine a character’s journey of faith. His camera has always been pointing toward the heavens, into the sun; and when he wasn’t looking up, Malick was looking for the holy closer to us, in the tiny, innocent creatures that populate our world. Now he’s kept his camera pointed straight ahead and found holiness in man himself.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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