Joaquin Phoenix

Joker

05/10/19

Joker arrives in the UK amidst a deluge of controversy. To some minds, it’s a work of genius. To others, it’s a dangerous and divisive polemic that invites troubled souls to indulge in their darkest, most dangerous fantasies. To my mind, the film belongs fully in the former slot, but it would be naïve to suggest that it’s not a searing indictment of American society, and that it doesn’t feel suspiciously like a call to arms. Though the names of a couple of films on a cinema marquee place the action in 1981, make no mistake: this is all about the America of today – and it’s not a pretty picture. The rich corporations rule this Gotham while the poor, the sick and the dispossessed are marginalised and brushed under the carpet.

Joaquin Phoenix puts in an extraordinary performance in the central role. He’s Arthur Fleck, a scrawny, malnourished loser, living with his ageing mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), in a dilapidated apartment in Gotham City. Arthur dreams of being a successful comedian, but lacks the ability to understand jokes or even deliver the routines he writes, since he suffers from a condition that makes him laugh involuntarily at random intervals. He earns a crust as a street-clown and children’s entertainer but, even in these roles, he’s beset by problems, picked on by street gangs and openly mocked by his fellow clowns. Meanwhile, he fantasises hopelessly about his neighbour, Sophie (Zazie Beets), and fills the empty hours watching his chat show idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), on TV. But the cruelty he experiences on an almost daily basis is building something uncontrollable deep within him… something that will eventually inspire others to follow him.

Director and co-writer Todd Philips, previously best known for lame buddy comedy The Hangover, has really struck a powerful chord here. His reimagining of the Joker’s origin story is bleak but compelling stuff and, despite Phoenix’s dazzling starburst at the film’s core, the supporting characters are all well drawn and the hellish cityscapes in which the story unfolds are strikingly shot. Throw in a brooding musical score by Hildur Guönadóttir and you have a movie that grips like a vice from start to finish. The influences are evident and clearly not accidental. Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are both openly referenced, and eagle-eyed film fans will also spot a brief homage to Sidney Lumet’s Network. It’s lovely also to see De Niro in a serious role for the first time in what seems like ages.

It’s ironic to note that this film goes straight to the top of my favourite DC movies, particularly as it doesn’t feature a superhero of any description – unless you count a glimpse of the infant Bruce Wayne, who will of course grow up to be Joker’s main adversary – and, doubly ironic, when you consider that my previous favourite was The Dark Knight, which also featured a memorable Joker in Heath Ledger. I guess the simple truth is that the Joker has overshadowed Batman in most of the films they’ve featured in together; he’s just a more interesting character.

Joker is a must-see: a brilliant evocation of an American city at flashpoint. The central message may trouble you – indeed, it really should trouble you – but this is giant steps ahead of most of the superhero stuff that’s currently out there.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

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The Sisters Brothers

15/04/19

The western movie has ridden some twisted trails over the years, but few of them are quite as strange as the one followed by The Sisters Brothers. The first feature in English by French director Jacques Audiard, it’s based on the acclaimed novel by Patrick De Witt. It’s a good deal more philosophical than your average oater and it takes it owns sweet time to relate a decidedly bizarre tale.

The titular brothers are hired guns, working for the mysterious Commodore (a thankless non-speaking role for Rutger Hauer). Eli (John C Reilly) is the shy, sensitive one, who’s clearly not cut out for this kind of work, but is nonetheless deadly with a revolver, whenever push comes to shove. He tends to play second fiddle to the more nihilistic Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a habitual drunkard, who somehow manages to turn everything he touches into absolute chaos.

For their latest mission, the brothers are despatched to rendezvous with another hired gun, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), in order to apprehend the charismatic Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a man with a spectacular (and, it would seem, almost magical) secret. But when Morris bumps into Warm, he soon falls under the man’s peculiar spell and the two of them quickly become business partners – a move which makes the brothers’ latest mission even more complicated than they expected.

This is a weirdly metaphorical film, where strange images loom out of mythic landscapes – a film where blazing horses career through the night and chunks of gold shimmer invitingly at the bottom of a creek – where opportunities pop up unexpectedly from the sagebrush only to metamorphose into death traps. As the brothers bicker and quarrel their way across the screen, we begin to learn that they are pioneers of their own misfortune, doomed to keep running from the seemingly endless adversaries that are pitched against them – and, even when they too find themselves partnering with their former target, it is only to unleash more dangers.

The Sisters Brothers certainly won’t be for everyone – and, with a running time of just over two hours, it will try the patience of those who want something more straightforward. But once settled into its peculiar rhythm, I find myself beguiled and occasionally startled by it. This is a Western the like of which I’ve never seen before and, trust me, I’ve seen many. I enjoy the ride.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

You Were Never Really Here

10/03/18

There’s plenty to admire in You Were Never Really Here. Lynne Ramsay’s edgy, coiled-spring of an action movie, based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, is deeply unsettling, even if I can’t help drawing comparisons with an even better film, Taxi Driver, with which it shares a central premise.

Ramsay’s take on the idea is a much more fragmentary affair than Martin Scorcese’s 1976 masterpiece, flickering eerily in and out of past trauma and often showing us images that turn out to be no more than sick fantasies in the head of the central character.

That character is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix),  a shambling, bearlike presence in this film, muttering in monosyllables and wandering morosely from scene to scene as he metes out grim retribution to those he believes are beyond saving. He’s a traumatised ex-soldier and former FBI agent, who now earns a crust  tracking down missing girls – and sadly there seems to be no shortage of them in the cities of America. In his down time, Joe cares for his aging mother (Judith Roberts), with whom he shares a touching, almost childlike bond.

Joe has a healthy paranoia about being seen by others (hence the title) and always does his level best to stay off the radar. His services are enlisted by Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), whose teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been kidnapped by a well-connected paedophile. She is being held hostage in a city hotel room, so Joe goes in to rescue her, armed with his favourite weapon, a ball-peen hammer. But he soon comes to fully appreciate just how powerful Nina’s kidnapper is – and it isn’t long before he has become a target for the man’s deadly enforcers.

This is an uncompromisingly brutal film, the many scenes of violence somehow made even more affecting by the fact that we glimpse them from a distance, or through the impassive monochrome gaze of a hotel’s security cameras. The action is liberally crosscut with harrowing memories of Joe’s troubled childhood, when he and his mother were regularly terrorised by Joe’s abusive father. It soon becomes apparent that what Joe is seeking more than anything else is some kind of redemption for his own suffering.

This is not an easy film to watch, but it’s nonetheless mesmerising. Phoenix is utterly convincing in the central role, there’s a bruising score by Johnny Greenwood, and Ramsay directs with a confident, almost hallucinatory style, never over-explaining the story, allowing her viewers to reach their own conclusions through the barrage of conflicting images she immerses them in.

It’s a powerful brew, not for the faint-hearted.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney