Joker (2019) lashes out against the ruling elite

Does Joaquin Pheonix’s Joker live up to expectations?

5 stars

JOKER – final trailer

Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) is the story of Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Pheonix), his mental decline, and his underdog rise as an anarchist-extremist.

No doubt fans of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Batman’s long-standing antagonist went into a screening of Joker prepared to compare the two portrayals. Even I, despite not being a massive fan of the character or even the franchise, bought into the idea that Pheonix’s Joker must somehow pale in comparison. I assumed that Phillips would take some cues from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) in creating his new version of The Joker, but he surprised me by how absolutely he managed to transform the character and my perception of him.

 

In outlining Joker’s past, his motivations, and his desires, Phillips succeeds in creating a realistic backstory that portrays Arthur as a vulnerable man who, as the rising action mounts, becomes more and more disillusioned by a society that has rejected him every step of the way.  In the beginning, it is hard not to see Arthur’s outbursts as him simply standing up for himself against the elitist bullies that dominate Gotham City and who see a disabled, unprotected man like Arthur as an easy target.

Having found his defence in the cold grip of a gun, Arthur’s newfound confidence creates previously unimaginable opportunities to extend his social reach and express his rage against the capitalist machine in Gotham

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Joker is the proletariat uprising that Marx always dreamed of. The archetypal bourgeoise/proletariat narrative is blindingly obvious within the film, which, I think, does not detract from the narrative at all. The characters that represent the bourgeoisie, such as Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen) are somewhat two-dimensional in that they do not stray far from their purpose of spurring Arthur’s evolution on; in one memorable scene, memorable because it was almost laughable in that the opposition could not have been any clearer, Arthur asks Thomas for ‘a bit of warmth’ and Thomas, brace yourself, punches him in the face.

Then again, Joker is told from Arthur’s unreliable perspective. Perhaps extremists, or those with extremist beginnings, are apt to only see the bad. Maybe it is a given that Arthur would turn the TV on just as Thomas who, at this time, declares his intention to run for Major, calls the working class people of Gotham City ‘clowns’.

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Arthur at work

Critical reception to Joker is split, with half of the reviewers labelling the film as a disappointing flop. I wonder whether this is because the film focusses much more on the underbelly of sensationalism, the step-by-step disenchantment Arthur experiences, rather than rash actions with no reason attached that TV News plasters across every platform.

I think that some people do not want to see Joker as just a man, or, more specifically, a man with a disability, and would instead prefer to believe that extremism grows from something us normal people cannot understand or counteract. Whilst Arthur’s triumph at the end of the film does not make me want to cheer for him, I do see the ending as the beginning of a revolution which, however needlessly violent and incendiary, is a reaction to poor living conditions and the desire for a more level playing field.

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Arthur Fleck, sans mask

 My heart ached for Arthur. Joker is so compelling because the audience is welcomed, for what feels like the first time in the history of mainstream box office action films, into the world of the mentally ill. Pheonix and Phillips take the vaudeville-esque mask away from the previous, more cartoonish depictions of The Joker, and align him more with the superhero; in movies like The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Iron Man (2008), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) the audience sees the loses, the betrayals, and the ultimate rise to power as the protagonists evolve and become more self-assured. This is all paralleled within Joker, and serves to show the fine-line balance between good and evil, especially when we see how mistreated Arthur is.

Much critical debate has surrounded what the film could cause. Could it cause extremism in young men? Could we see a rise in gun violence? Critical thought about Joker seems to forget that Arthur was lashing out against the system; cuts in mental health funding, long hours for low wages, abuse, to name just a few among a long list of other inequalities between the rich and the poor. Instead of rejecting art that clearly displays the ways in which these inequalities can create rebellious movements, perhaps critics should take a look at their own government and how it works to help the poor and vulnerable.

Mini White Chocolate Shortbread Bites

Portion out this recipe to make some bite sized short bread treats!

I absolutely love this recipe because these mini bites are so easy to make, and if you portion them out you can have a sweet kick without stuffing your face. I stole the recipe from the Dr. Oetker website, but instead of cookies I have opted for square shaped short breads with chunky chocolate instead of chocolate drops. And I substituted (most of) the name brand ingredients with cheaper alternatives.

This is a perfect recipe for using up all the rag tag bags of caster sugar and plain flour in your pantry- I only had to buy the chunky chocolate chips! I opted for white chocolate, but feel free to use milk or dark chocolate chunks.

Ingredients:

  • 115g unsalted butter
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 175g plain flour
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1/2 tsp Dr. Oetker Madagascan Vanilla Extract
  • 100g Dr. Oetker Chunky Chocolate Chips

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (160°C Fan, Gas Mark 4).
  2. Line a baking tray with baking parchment. I did not have any baking parchment, so I used tin foil which worked just as well.
  3. Beat the sugar and butter together until they are soft and creamy. Add the Vanilla Extract, salt, flour, and chunky white chocolate chips to the mixture. Stir everything together. I have never been able to make these ingredients form a dough without water, and I normally end up using about two tablespoons to smush it all together. Add one tablespoon of water in and mix well before adding the other, because you do not want your mixture to be too wet.
  4. Flour your kitchen surface and separate the dough into three or four portions. This makes rolling it out easier. Aim for a 1cm thickness, or at least make sure the individual portions are of equal height to avoid under-cooking some of the short breads.
  5. Choose how many short breads you want. This mixture can make 4 large short breads or, as I have opted for, 16 mini short breads.
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  8. After you have arranged your short breads on the baking tray, prick the tops with a fork and chill for 30 minutes.
  9. Bake for 15-18 minutes until the short bread are a light golden colour.
  10. Cool for 5 minutes then transfer to a wire rack.

 

 

 

 

Spoilers: Interactive Movie Bandersnatch Breaks the Fourth Wall

Interactive movie Bandersnatch boasts five different endings

 

Bandersnatch     def

/ˈbandəsnatʃ/

noun

a fierce mythical creature immune to bribery and capable of moving very fast

Meta isn’t the word for Charlie Brooker’s newest Black Mirror creation: Bandersnatch is the interactive story of Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead), a coder who attempts to adapt his favourite book (also Bandersnatch) into a game. Set in the 1980s, this nostalgia filled flick is a collision of flashbacks and turning points, all of which we see in quick succession when it is revealed we have picked the wrong option, and have to go back to point A, or B, or C.

Bandersnatch Book

Until Brooker releases a tell all interview about Bandersnatch, there is really no way of telling how many twists and turns there are. In the beginning Brooker lulls us into a false sense of security by asking us to choose between two cereals. The difficulty increases from there on out.

At first the nail-biting wait to see what effect my choices would have on Stefan’s life added some tension to Bandersnatch, but the resulting brutal violence wore away at the suspense. The audience can only watch Stefan beat his father (Craig Parkinson) to death so many times before a sense of deja vu sets in.

The consensus appears to be that there are five alternate endings, which range from prison for Stefan to tekkenesque fight scenes. The ending does not mean you are finished. When you have reached an ending or chosen the ‘wrong’ choice you can circle back and discover a new ending. Bandersnatch is about the illusion of freewill, both for Stefan and the viewer.

Bandersnatch Metal Head Easter Egg
Metal Head Easter Egg

Bandersnatch cannot be compared to any of Brooker’s other Black Mirror creations. Unlike the vibrant colours in the U. S. S. Callister, Bandersnatch paints a pallid picture. Far from the undeserved sympathy that the murderer Mia evokes in Crocodile, in Bandersnatch we see Stefan under a microscope, which means we cannot step back and see the bigger picture. Bandersnatch is a bit too much of everything at once. How can we sympathise with Stefan when we have seen it all played out before? And unlike the protagonist in Crocodile, whose motivations are laid bare, the Bandersnatch book that began Stefan’s decent into insanity is hovering somewhere off in our peripheral vision, a bit too blurry to make out.

The Bandersnatch book separates this movie from the Black Mirror theme: while Stefan’s deterioration is linked to the stress of creating his multi-choice game, Bandersnatch is much more widely linked to mental health, trauma, and obsession than it is tech. The latter is incidental to the overwhelming idea that free will is just that, an idea.

Bandersnatch

Blink and you might miss it, but Bandersnatch is also about legacy. After we have experienced each ending, we watch a game reviewer gives his verdict on Stefan’s creation. In one variation he gives it 0/5. For me, the reviewer only gave Bandersnatch 5/5 when Stefan murdered his father and chopped him into little pieces. In this timeline Stefan later told his therapist that his father was away visiting friends, and that with the house to himself he finally feels free to focus on coding. Like the murderers who want to make their mark, we go back in time and find the ending that makes Bandersnatch a critical success.

Bandersnatch breaks the fourth wall for me a bit too much. One option is to tell Stefan we are watching him on Netflix and admit that we are choosing his next move. Although this was no doubt a tongue in cheek choice meant to stir up conversation more than anything else, I still find it unnerving.

With Netflix being the perfect medium for your average couch potato, hopefully the interactive format will stay within the realm of subversive programmes like Black Mirror, and will not be rolled out across whole genres.While Bandersnatch is a masterpiece of planning and editing, I do not want to interact with the characters, and I am looking forward to the next season of Black Mirror, which I will have absolutely no input in.

 

The Graduate Book Review

Webb’s Mrs. Robinson doesn’t live up to her pop culture status.

Benjamin Braddock is having a quarter-life crisis. Having just returned home from his graduation out of an Ivy League school, he is horrified to find that his parents have thrown him a party and invited the entire neighborhood. The first few pages read as a whose who of Keeping up with the Joneses. The McQuires, the Calendars, and even the Terhunes descend onto the Braddock household.

So do the Robinsons.

But Mrs. Robinson isn’t interested in Benjamin’s graduation, his plans for the future, or his Frank Halpingham Education Award.

It took me more than a few pages to realise that Webb’s Mrs Robinson is the same Mrs. Robinson that has evolved into the pop culture reference for seductress. Far from exuding sensuality and living up to her status, Mrs. Robinson is rather the creepy older woman stripping naked in front of her neighbour’s younger son. This plot point provides a nice segway into Benjamin’s mental deterioration.

The Graduate Alternative Cover

I did enjoy reading The Graduate. Webb’s transitions between scenes is seamless, and he can hop from one day to the next without missing a beat. Every word of description earns its place in The Graduate, and I wish the same could be said for the dialogue.

Webb’s pared down prose and dialogue heavy story is usually reserved for authors who want to say something. But what is Webb saying with The Graduate?

The dialogue is so dense: it takes up pages and pages at a time, yet it’s so snappy. This combination made me flip through the pages at break neck speed, but not much happened. Reading Webb’s dialogue is like reading an ellipses… and waiting for the payoff that never comes.

Webb’s characterisation of Mrs. Robinson is so paper-thin that a gust of wind could have blown her over. Thank goodness there is no mention of Benjamin or her opening the window in their hotel room for some fresh air. There is no mention of much at all when the pair have moved from their position at the bar and finished their martinis: in the hotel room its all business. Again, where is my seductress? ‘Would it be easier for you in the dark?’ doesn’t quite have that 50 shades feel to it.

Along comes another plot point. As business like and efficient their liaisons at The Taft Hotel are, the two do manage to splutter out a few lines of meaningful dialogue. Mrs. Robinson will not be moved on one point: Benjamin is forbidden from taking her daughter Elaine out.

It is difficult to put into words how meaningless Benjamin and Elaine’s relationship is, but I will try. At the insistence of both of their fathers Benjamin takes Elaine out for the night. To a strip club. The dancer waves her nipples tassels in Elaine’s face and, as she begins to cry, Benjamin has a revelation. He apologises, takes her for a hamburger, and sees her once more before deciding to move to a flat near her dorm room at Berkeley university, and harass her into marrying him.

The problem with the female characters in The Graduate is that Webb created them in relation to Benjamin: his mother, Mrs. Robinson, and Elaine are not fully formed individuals in their own right. Elaine’s motivations are dubious: the last half of the novel enlightens us with drab conversations between her and Benjamin in which she admits she might marry him, but then again she might not. This is all after discovering Benjamin has had sex with her mother.

Webb’s flimsy characterisation of Elaine became even more baffling when I discovered that The Graduate is autobiographical, with Webb’s future wife Fred being the prototype for Elaine. An argument can be made that these secondary characters rightly fall into the backdrop of The Graduate, and the reader is then forced to focus on Benjamin. It was interesting to read about the evolution of a stalker from the stalkers perspective, but is this enough of a reason to allow all other characters to fall into the trap of being reflections of the main male character?

And now we’re at the end of this review I have to leave you with a nugget of truth: I don’t know why I like The Graduate so much. There are so many strands of this story to untangle, and the ending asks more questions than it answers. The Graduate is the perfect novel to read quickly and not delve too deeply into. After all, the fall of the American Dream subplot is not as interesting as the mental deterioration slant.

Carrot Loaf Cakes with Cream Cheese Icing

These mini carrot loaf cakes are an easy to make sweet treat.

I stumbled upon this recipe for carrot cake cupcakes when I was procrastinating writing my essay. To make the carrot cakes a bit more aesthetically pleasing I decided to use my mini loaf tins. The great thing about these are that they are easy to make, small(ish), and a perfect kick for anyone with a sweet tooth.

Ingredients:

  • 150 grams self raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 125 grams brown sugar
  • 125 grams softened butter
  • 75 grams grated carrot
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons of icing sugar
  • 100 grams cream cheese

1/4 cinnamon and 1/4 nutmeg were also suggested in the ingredients list, but I decided to leave these out.

Method:

  • Preheat your oven to 180.
  • Line your mini loaf tins with butter then baking parchment. If you want to opt for cupcakes instead, this recipe makes 12.
  • Sieve the flour and baking powder into a large bowl. I don’t have a sieve, so I used a potato masher to get all the big bits out. If you’ve decided to use nutmeg you can add that in with the flower and baking powder, and mash that too.
  • Add in the butter (I always find it’s easier to break this up into bits before you start mixing), brown sugar, carrot and eggs. I cheated and used a pack of pre-shredded carrots, which I probably should have cut a little bit finer before adding to the mix. I combine it all I used my stand mixer, but a wooden spoon will work just as well.
  • Pop the mixture into your mini loaf tins (or cupcake cases) and bake for 20-25 minutes. The amount of mixture worked out almost perfectly, there was only a bit left after I filled my tins.

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  • Make sure to put your loaf tins on a flat surface, which I forgot to do.

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  • I baked mine for 25 minutes and they looked slightly burned, but I covered the majority of that up with the cream cheese frosting. Leave the cakes to cool before you remove them from the casing- if you don’t they could crumble.
  • Mix the cream cheese with the icing sugar in a bowl. I would use 2 1/2 tablespoons of icing sugar instead of the two suggested, just so the taste of the Philadelphia is not so overwhelming.
  • Put the mini loafs in the fridge for around 30 minutes so the icing can set.

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Decorate your mini loafs with whatever you want! I chose pecans, and they added a nice crunch to this sweet treat.

Death of a Salesman: All Talk and No Action

All talk and no action, until the second half.

2 stars

Returning to The Royal Exchange after his success as aging patriarch King Lear in 2016, Don Warrington plays Willy Loman… another aging patriarch. Years spent as a travelling salesman all over America does nothing for Loman in his dotage, and Willy is confronted by the crippling reality of loneliness in his last few hours.

Yo-yoing between the crumbling present and the rose tinted past, we see that Willy was idolised by his sons Happy (Buom Tihngang) and Biff (Ashley Zhangazha). In turn they are adored by Willy, who believes that his sons (Biff especially) can snatch up all the opportunities America has to offer, if only they would reach out to grab them. Willy wants to live vicariously through his sons, and all the characters in this play are continuously disappointing when the veneer slips, and they see each other for who they are.

Death of a Salesman Biff
Left to right: Buom Tihngang as Happy and Ashley Zhangazha as Biff

The crippling pressure of expectation placed on Biff’s shoulders is palpable. The sons are eager to please. Too eager, in Buom’s case: his puppy dog acting leaves much to be desired, there is little else to his younger character than a caricature of a smile and, ‘I’ve gained weight dad, can you tell?’

His present day character leaves much to be desired, too.

I wonder if Death of a Salesman is so laden with subtext that the characters suffer. Are they relegated to surface level personalities in order to emulate Arthur Miller’s agenda? Happy’s character has ‘ruin[ed]’ women, he womanizes, lies, ditches his father to chase skirt. Willy’s stock phrase ‘isn’t that remarkable?’ start to grate a bit too, too often being touted around like it means something.

Buom wasn’t much better in The Royal Exchange’s production of Guys and Dolls, but Zhangazha impressed me then and impresses me now. He manages to zap some real tension into the production. Scenes between Biff and his mother Linda (Maureen Beattie) are especially fraught, but tinged with sadness and love.

Death of a Salesman 2
Don Warrington as Willy Loman

Willy is tired. He has put his 30+ years into the business, and where are his returns? Doesn’t The American Dream promise something in return for all those long hours and late nights? At the grand old age of 63 the rose tinted spectacles slip. Sleepless nights are spent wondering where it all went wrong, with a focus on Biff.

If only he had made something of himself.

The performance was around three hours long. For all of Arthur Miller’s rich subtext, there’s a bit too much that is said, instead of acted. Warrington does little more than shout his lines, stumbling around the stage, occasionally raising a shaking, decrepit hand. I imagine it would be hard to give nuance to a character who is perpetually outraged, shocked, and disillusioned for three hours. It’s all talk and no action, at least until the second half, where the performance thankfully picks up in pace, no longer confined to one singular setting.

It is hard, I think, to appreciate the characters as individuals because they are all so steadfastly part of Miller’s mechanism: subject A represents this about The American Dream, and so on and so forth. It becomes predictable. When Biff discovers his father has an affair while on the road it is not quite the revelation it is made out to be: The American Dream is corrupt.

Is nothing authentic in this play? The subtext is just that: the characters are living a lie but this too comes across as unoriginal and contrived. What could have been a gritty play  about a family at breaking point is reduced to an allegory.

Indulgent Chocolate Brownies

Gooey indulgent chunky chocolate chip brownies.

For my birthday a few years ago, my friend Ella made me a batch of indulgent chocolate brownies with a mint twist. They were so dense and gooey: they really exemplified what makes a good brownie. So I asked, and my friend delivered: below is the recipe for these yummy brownies.

The best thing about these brownies is that they don’t cost much to make as long as you’ve got the usual baking staples already in your cupboard. I only had to buy the eggs, butter, and the baking tin (the tin I bought was was only £3 from Wilkos!).

Ingredients:

350 grams chocolate

225 grams butter

3 large eggs

225 grams caster sugar

75 grams self raising flour

225 grams chocolate chips

Mint extract (add to taste)

Method:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 190C/ Fan 170/Gas 5. Grease a 30 x 23cm (12×9 in) tray then line the base with baking parchment. (The tray I bought was only 20×20, which worked out fine).
  2. Break up the chocolate (350 grams) into pieces and melt slowly with the butter (225 grams). The recipe suggested melting the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of hot water, but I decided to finely chop my chocolate and melt it in the microwave. Make sure to stir the mixture of butter and chocolate. When it’s finished melting it doesn’t look very attractive, but mine turned out fine! Leave to cool.
  3. In another bowl mix together the eggs (3 large) and caster sugar (225 grams). Gradually beat in the chocolate mixture. Fold in the self raising flour (75 grams) and chocolate chips (225 grams). If you want to add a mint twist to these brownies, add your mint extract to taste now. Scoop the mixture into the prepared tin.
  4. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 40-45 minutes or until the brownies have a crusty top and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.

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Leave the brownies to cool in the tin. The recipe advised me to cut the cake into 24 squares, but since my tin is smaller than the book suggests, I only managed to cut mine into 9 pieces.

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Make sure to store your brownies in an air-tight tin to keep them from going stale.